I’m on an airplane today, for the first time in almost a year, the last time also headed back to the city where I grew up and lived for 25 years, Toronto, a 90-minute flight from New York.
Last June I flew up for only three days, (a splurge we couldn’t really afford), to attend the wedding reception of a dear old friend, marrying at 70. It was an elegant crowd, many of the guests sporting a tiny white enamel flower lapel pin — a signal to the cognoscenti that they had won the Order of Canada.
This time I’m heading north to renew my passport and to take a badly needed break from work, from the U.S. and from the daily stress of life under a President whose behavior leaves me, at this point, adjectivally challenged.
I don’t really miss Toronto as a city. Housing is very expensive and often not of great quality. Winters are long, cold and gray (or grey, as Canadians spell it.) Traffic is now monstrous.
But I do miss my dear friends, people I’ve known since summer camp and high school and university and my first newspaper job. I’ve stayed in close touch with them and can’t wait to see them again.
I’m also planning an extensive — six week — trip to Europe, beginning in early June to celebrate my birthday (again!) in Paris with my husband and some friends who live there and some friends who’ll come over from London to share our rented apartment. (I’ll be blowing through some savings. Gulp!)
I’ll have one week there with Jose, who then flies home to photo edit a major golf tournament in Wisconsin. We’ve been to Paris together several times, usually staying in a rented apartment on the Ile St. Louis, (this time in the Marais.)
I know the city well, having been many times and having lived there for eight months on a journalism fellowship.
Then I’ll head off solo to wander, something I’ve done many times before.
I know people in various parts of the world, so that even new-to-me places like Berlin contain people I’m eager to finally meet, like this blogger and two Twitter pals, one of them an archeologist.
From Berlin, I’ll head to Budapest to meet up with my best friend from university and one of her grown daughters.
I’m also looking forward to visiting and writing about Korda Studios, near Budapest, one of the largest sound stages in Europe — where The Martian was filmed.
One of the fun things about being a journalist is that I sometimes find great stories to write about while traveling, and can then deduct some of my travel costs while working there as legitimate business expenses.
After Budapest…not sure yet!
I’ll finish up that trip with a visit to my friend C in London, who writes the fab blog Small Dog Syndrome. We share passions for several things, including beauty products, great food and vintage clothes. We had a blast the last time roaming Bermondsey Market and a few flea markets.
Another friend has moved there, so I’ll have another playmate; it’s a real luxury to travel and to re-connect with pals abroad.
In 2016, I only left home for six days’ vacation; three in D.C. and three in Toronto, all in June — not enough for me, having so far been to 38 countries, 38 American states and most of Canada.
I love to savor the familiarity of beloved old haunts and the excitement of making new discoveries.
Are you heading out into the world on an adventure this year?
So far, I’ve made it to 38 countries, from Thailand to Turkey, New Zealand to Austria, Fiji to Tanzania.
Then the only child of a globe-trotting freelance Canadian family — i.e. plenty of time to travel and no measly American two weeks’ vacation a year for us! — I took my first solo flight at seven, from Toronto to Antigua.
I live to travel, whether a weekend road trip from our home on the Hudson River near New York City to friends in Rhode Island or Maryland or a longer journey across an ocean.
Deeply grateful to have been so many places, here are some of the ones I’m still eager to visit:
Morocco, Iceland, Finland, Croatia, Japan, South Africa, Argentina, Antarctica, the Inner Hebrides where this blogger lives and the Outer Hebrides where this one grew up, Laos, Mongolia, Nepal, Tibet, Brazil; within the U.S., to drive California and see the canyons of Utah and revisit the stunning vistas of Montana and the Dakotas; within my native Canada, to revisit the North.
We might finally make to to Newfoundland this summer, meeting friends there to camp and hike in spectacular Gros Morne National Park.
They chose Mexico City as their premier destination and I agree. It’s a fantastic place I’ve been to several times over the years, (although not in this list below.)
Here’s a tightly-edited list of 20 places I’ve been to I think well worth a visit:
Think of France and the last thing you’ll likely picture are cowboys and pink flamingos, let alone in the same region. But this flat marshy part of southern France is full of surprises and these are two of them. I spent my first honeymoon there, and interviewed a lady bullfighter for a story. Thanks to the TGV, the high-speed train network across the country, nowhere is hopelessly distant.
Like many others, I love this city’s architecture and scale, the colors — whether the pearly gray of buildings and rooftops or the deep rich tones of the glossy wooden doors leading to quiet, private courtyards — navy, emerald green, burgundy. Every alley has history and mystery. It’s a bustling city with room for visual intimacy.
I also come home every time with clothing and accessories that win compliments for years afterward. French women of every age dress with a style and confidence that’s inspiring to me.
My paternal grandfather emigrated from the small Donegal town of Rathmullan to Vancouver and I’ve been back to his birthplace twice. The northwesternmost county of Donegal is wild, windy and much less touristed than other parts of Ireland.
There are gorgeous islands nearby like Aranmor and tiny towns with welcoming spots like the Lobster Pot in Burtonport. (If you go, say hello to Annie and Tim, the owners.) We rented a cottage there for a week and fell in love with this part of the country.
I only saw the North Island, but found this distant nation stunningly beautiful, its people kind and welcoming and the 12-hour flight from Los Angeles worth it. The Coromandel Peninsula was breathtaking and I loved the exotic and unfamiliar (to me) vegetation like pohutukawa trees.
New York City
Few Western, let alone American, cities offer this combination of energy, elegance, style, history and architecture. From the canyons of Wall Street to Broadway to Harlem to Central Park, this is a must-see. The best bits are far from the noise and insanity of midtown, where throngs of tourists waste their days bumping into one another. (Check the archives here for several posts on quieter treasures here.)
And don’t come in summer! (It’s smelly and humid.)
That bridge! The fog! The harbor! San Francisco is an old-money town, with a quiet, low-key style all of its own. A terrific museum, the Presidio, old-school restaurants and a quieter pace. Take a day to drive the lush green hills and sleepy towns of Marin County.
The Hudson Valley
Just north of Manhattan lies a gorgeous region, where I’ve lived since 1989. Home to enormous Beaux Arts mansions like Lyndhurst, Kykuit and Hyde Park, its geography is stunning, especially as the Hudson River narrows near Cold Spring. The nation’s premier military academy, West Point, perches high above the river on the western edge — opposite a former Catholic monastery now home to a variety of Buddhist and other programs focused on spirituality.
Some of the steep and winding riverside drives are simply spectacular, especially in fall. Well worth an extra few days exploration if you’re coming to New York City.
The Toronto Islands
I grew up in Toronto, now a sprawling city of 2.6 million. It attracts many tourists to its shopping, (Queen Street West!), galleries and museums and many excellent restaurants. It sits on the northern edge of Lake Ontario, a fact easily missed because access to the waterfront has long been badly mangled by two expressways.
But one of the city’s treasures, in all seasons, are its islands, a quick, cheap ferry ride across the harbor. One of them is filled with colorful small homes, with fortunate residents who live there year-round, even though the region is technically public parkland. In summer, there are bikes for rent and a petting zoo and lovely beaches.
We were married on Centre Island in September 2011, and our guests arrived via water taxi. The church is tiny and intimate — and I could barely hear my processional music because of the cows mooing nearby in the petting zoo.
Watching the sun set from there over the city skyline is fantastic.
Many people visit France many times, but never think to visit this stunning island off its southern shore. I went there in 1995 for a week, traveling around the north by moped alone, and loved every second of it. It’s one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen, anywhere — timeless, rugged, ringed by the Mediterranean.
Similar to French tourism, where many visitors focus on a few well-known spots, those going to Spain usually choose Barcelona and Madrid over the lovely southern cities of Seville, Cordoba and Granada. I was there a very long time ago, but was mesmerized by the beauty, history and the mix of Spanish and Arab influences that affected food, architecture and language.
I was in Seville in spring, when the entire city burst into fragrant orange blossom. Unforgettable!
Mae Hong Son
The odds of getting there are slim, I know, as it’s a small town — pop. 6,000 — near the Burmese border, in northern Thailand. But if you’re going to Thailand, it’s worth it. I’ve never been to a town so small I could, and did, walk from the airport into town, with a Buddhist temple across the street. Centered around a small lake, its guesthouses are inexpensive and welcoming. We rode mopeds right to the Burmese border, one of the craziest adventures of my life — as the road was, literally, still being built, and we drove through clouds of silky red dust, using our feet as pontoons.
The Eastern Townships
A region of charming small towns a 90-minute drive south of Montreal, it’s got skiing, hiking, canoeing and gently rolling hills — where you can also dog-sled, go horseback riding or snowmobile. Here’s the website.
If you love the Louise Penny mysteries starring Armand Gamache, this is where she lives and where they’re set. We have stayed many times at Manoir Hovey on Lake Massawippi, a luxury resort worth every cent, and look forward to returning year after year.
I lived here as a little girl and have been back many times since. I find it more challenging, (expensive, slow to traverse by public transit), than Paris but a place everyone must visit and get to know, even a bit. From the enormity of Tate Modern to narrow cobble-stoned alleyways to the elegance of Primrose Hill, (with its terrific shopping and fantastic city views), London contains — like Paris and New York — many smaller and more intimate neighborhoods.
Some of my favorite things to do there include a visit to Liberty, (a store of enormous style and elegance. Not cheap!), tea somewhere lovely, (the Ritz last time!), visiting its flea markets and a few of the smaller museums, like Freud’s house, Sir John Soane’s house, the Wallace Collection or the Geffrye.
I lived for 18 months in New Hampshire and got to know NH and Vermont fairly well. I still prefer Maine, albeit coastal Maine, which is where most tourists will end up.
The coast is studded with small hotels and inns, has fantastic scenery and — if you want to drive that far — Acadia National Park. which is right on the ocean’s edge. We rented a house on Peak’s Island in Casco Bay, off of Portland, for a week and loved walking down to the dock to buy fresh lobster.
To watch the sun rising over the Andes, its light spilling into each successive valley, is one of life’s great pleasures. I was there decades ago and remember it as if it were yesterday.
Charleston and Savannah
Two of the most elegant and historic cities in the U.S., each with its own character. Charleston is more formal, Savannah funkier, but both offer moss-draped trees, charming streets and squares, fantastic Southern food.
Canadians who canoe know this northern Ontario park and love it deeply. You can see many images of it through the paintings of the Group of Seven, Canada’s version of the Impressionists.
Slabs of granite lapped by deep, dark waters. The haunting call of loons. Pine trees gnarled, bent and twisted by the winds.
I grew up canoeing its lakes and miss it still.
The Grand Canyon
The silence, below the rim, rings in your ears.
A fox leaped across the path I was walking. The light shifts minute by minute, creating new shapes and shadows. Few places on earth will make you feel as small, humble and grateful to have witnessed its staggering beauty. Of all the places I’ve ever visited, this one remains one of my favorites.
The interior of Ngorongoro crater is probably what Eden looked like — a vast plain filled with animals beneath the hot sun.
Ignore everyone’s advice, including the guidebook(s) Really? Maybe. We use Fodor’s and read stuff on-line and read some travel stories before/during our travels, but so often the things that have given us the greatest pleasure are not mentioned anywhere while everyone insists you must do atonofthingsthatdonotinterestyouintheslightest! For example, our very first night in Dublin on our own, Jose found a quiet, simple restaurant a block from our hotel. Great food, good prices, dead quiet, Mamma Mia.
Of course, we have tried other activities and restaurants mentioned by the guidebook, but one of the best days we’ve had here was a day-trip (15 minute ferry ride) to the island of Arranmore, with not a word about it in our guidebook. I am a Very Bad Tourist. I loathe crowds, standing in line, crowds, others tourists, heat. There are only so many statues/monuments/buildings/museums I can take (and it’s shockingly few.) That alone rules out a lot of official sights we are urged to get to. Maybe. Maybe not. It’s your vacation.
Do what makes you happiest, not ticking off a list to please other people! Posting your trip as you go on social media, if your friends are well-traveled, will elicit a shit-ton of advice.
Ignore it as needed.
Prepare for surprise budget-busters In Dublin, there are only two tram lines and, yes, plenty of city buses. But no (?!) printed bus map, a basic asset in New York City, for example, with which to plan your day. So we’ve been taking taxis everywhere. The good news? They are plentiful and cheap. But not a cost I had planned on.
In other cities, it might be the cost of loads of laundry or shoe repair or a doctor’s visit — or all of these. Allow for some surprise costs. Enjoy some local services
Jose got a great five-euro haircut in Dungloe. He did the same when we were in Cuernavaca. I’ve treated myself to massages and salon visits in Paris.
Use local transit — bus, trains, commuter trains and subway
We took the train north to Belfast (2.25 hours one way) and were thrilled with how clean, quiet and quick it was. You’ll get a much better feel for how life is lived locally if you’re sharing transport with natives, whether a matatu in Kenya, a tuktuk in Bangkok, a shared taxi in my hometown of Tarrytown, NY or atop one of London’s double deckers. Our many long bus rides across Mexico were a highlight of our vacation there.
Get out of town! Especially if you’re traveling in summer heat and humidity, cities anywhere can quickly feel exhausting, dirty, smelly and oppressive. Almost every city has a beach or some green hills nearby; from Manhattan, a 40-minute train ride straight up the edge of the Hudson River is cheap and gorgeous and drops you off in our town. Within a half-hour of Dublin are gorgeous beaches and waterfront in one direction, the Wicklow hills in another. In Toronto, take the ferry across the harbor to the Islands and spend a glorious day biking through the parks. Sit on a patch of green or sand and just…breathe.Read the local papers, in print
If you’ve got language skills, use them! If you’re in an English-speaking country, there’s no better way to really get a feel for what people around you care about right now than reading the letters to the editor, op-eds, editorials and — oh, yeah — the news and feature stories. Don’t stick to CNN. The whole point of fleeing your native culture is to immerse yourself in another.
Bring (and collect) business cards
Yes, really. We’ve handed them out to all sorts of people along the way, some social, some for business. You may want to re-connect with people and they with you. Yes, social media are great. But a well-designed business card carries a professional formality some will really appreciate. (Like Japan.)
You will, occasionally at best, be disappointed. It’s no big deal!
It happens: the food was too spicy (or not spicy enough) or the service was bad or the bed was too small or the room too noisy. Change whatever you can, (without being an Ugly Tourist!), and go with the flow as much as possible. A vacation in a foreign place means adapting to all sorts of things, some of which you’ll enjoy more (or less) than others. Moderate your expectations and do your homework.
Make local friends
Thanks to my blog and to Jose’s use of social media, we’ve made some terrific new friends by being a little brave and open to the idea. In Paris in December and January, I loved meeting up with four of my blog readers, Juliet, Mallory, Gillian and Catherine — all of whom were only virtual friends until we all made the effort to get together. It might have been terrible! But it wasn’t. In Dublin, Jose and I met up with a local photographer and his wife that he had met through Facebook. We had a great time.
Shop for souvenirs in the least-likely places
Yes, you can easily buy a snow globe or a linen tea towel or an Eiffel tower. But why not head off the beaten path and check out local pharmacies, hardware and grocery stores, sporting goods stores and other less-predictable venues for interesting and offbeat souvenirs and gifts?
We still use a polka-dotted apron we bought in Paris at BHV, a major department store and a bright-green enamel corkscrew from a local wine shop there. I use a white enamel pen I bought down the street from our Paris flat.
I treasure the Corsican polyphonic music a man there gave me as a gift, and listen to I Muvrini often. You might find a fantastic skin care line or a great bag of spices or a fantastic cheese knife. In Ireland you could bring home a hurling ball — a sliotar. Ah, go on!
Getting in and out of these three cities, and around them while staying there, can feel overwhelming. It’s not. Download whatever apps work best for you (I am not an apps person!) or, as I do, grab a few really good maps, including separate maps of the bus and subway systems. Study them in bright light at your leisure — i.e. not in the dark/wind/rain when you look like a gormless tourist inviting thieves to snatch your purse, backback, phone or suitcase.
In London and Paris, the lines have names; in Paris for the final destination, and in Paris they also have numbers. In NYC, they have numbers or letters — the L, the Q, the 4. The problem with NYC? Sometimes they go express and you’ll have to get out before the stop you had planned.
I was heartened in Paris and London to see sliding glass panels at some station platforms that open in concert with the train’s doors — which prevent the horror of suicide or homicide. In NYC, which has nothing so civilized, be careful.I can’t say this too strongly; people have been shoved onto the tracks and killed by mentally-ill people standing near them. Stand as far back as possible from the platform edge and be aware of who is near you.
Cabs cost a fortune in London, less so in Paris and are not terrible in New York. In NYC, you’ll see bright green cabs — they won’t stop for you if you’re in Manhattan as they are designated for the outer boroughs. You’ll also go crazy around 4:30 p.m. trying to hail a cab as that’s the time of shift change and many are racing to the garage.
Take the bus whenever possible. You’ll see so much more of the city and start to understand its geography. Buy a weekly transit pass in each city to save money and speed you up; in New York, you slide your Metrocard to enter the subway, dip it when entering a bus.
Remember that others work there and are weary/late/in a hurry. Don’t hog seats/space with your bags and packpack!
When walking do not, ever, walk slooooooooowly and in a large pack of bodies that spans the width of the sidewalk. It’s rude, dangerous and obstructive. Nor should you abruptly stop dead in the middle of the sidewalk or stairs or the entrance to the subway. We’re in a hurry, dammit!
It’s too easy to assume your default setting of hotel/Air BnB/couchsurfing. How about house or apartment-sitting? A home exchange?
As I blogged here earlier, I spent my three Paris weeks in two people’s homes, both of them professional photographers and photo editors, (hence, great taste!) It was so much more relaxing for me to lounge away my mornings at the kitchen table or dining table, reading the paper or a book. I was able to spread my stuff out, do laundry, cook my own meals — and listen to music as loudly as seemed prudent.
In short, I felt truly at home in a foreign city. I loved food shopping, coming home with my baguette and gooey hunk of Reblochon (cheese) and some fresh figs for breakfast. I bought several sorts of loose tea and enjoyed it as well.
Unless I can afford a really lovely hotel, I’d rather rent a place.
A whole set of blog posts on its own!
If you love antiques as much as I do, you’ll quickly suss out the best vintage stores and flea markets in these three cities; in Paris, I scored a gorgeous fedora and 80s earrings at Eponyme in the 11th and was deeply disappointed by the sky-high prices at the flea market at Clignancourt. In Manhattan, check out the East Village — East 7th and East 9th — for lots of vintage and some great indie shops; I just discovered Haberdashery on East 9th. Heaven! It has one of the best-edited collections of serious vintage I’ve ever seen.
All three cities offer boatloads of style from smart, savvy retailers, whether the fabric department in London at Liberty (swoon) or the jewelry in Manhattan at Barney’s (bring a Brinks truck full of money.) Pick a cool/chic neighborhood and spend a leisurely afternoon exploring it, whether Williamsburg in Brooklyn, Marylebone High Street in London or the 6th or Marais in Paris.
Don’t forget — you can, (as I did twice on that trip) — box and ship home your new things from the local post office or a bunch of your less-needed clothes/shoes to make room/reduce weight in your suitcase; mine weighed just one pound below the limit when I returned!
These are three of the world’s most stylish cities. Sure you can schlub around in baggy pants and white sneakers and bright pink nylon, but you might as well wave a flag shouting “Tourist!”
Many of their residents take serious pride and pleasure in how they present themselves, whether the hipsters of Willamsburg or the Sloanies of London. In NYC, assume that wearing black makes for good native camouflage; women favor a good, fresh manicure (easily acquired in many affordable nail salons), and haircut, with polish in cool dark non-frosted shades or pale.
Parisian women, and men, are justifiably known for their style and it’s easy enough to fit in if that’s fun for you. Women rarely wear prints or leggings and many sport truly eye-catching accessories — an unusual hat, a terrific muffler, interesting shoes. I rarely saw anyone wearing high heels; cobblestone streets chew them up. Many men, of all ages, also wear mufflers or scarves to add a dash of color and texture. Look for unusual color combinations and flashes of wit — a lavender sock, a tangerine pair of gloves.
London men, especially, dress with care: narrow-toe, highly-polished leather shoes, narrow trousers, a great briefcase. Women dress more eccentrically and playfully there than in Paris or New York — all black in London and Paris just feels sad and lacks imagination, while the pom-pom-studded skirt I saw on the Tube in London would raise dubious eyebrows in much of New York.
Bring an umbrella to all three cities! In a month, (late December to late January), I faced a frigid low of 33 F to a high of almost 50. London was more humid. A small umbrella, (with a sealable Ziploc bag for when it’s soaked and you need to tuck it into your bag or backpack), is a must.
To stay warm, I’m a big fan of cashmere, even socks, mitts, scarf and/or hat. Light and silky, it’s super-warm but not bulky. Add a thin layer of polypro or silk beneath your clothes on the bitterest of days. Woolen tights aren’t easy to find in the U.S. but also make a big difference.
Eating and drinking
London will bankrupt you! I have little great advice other than…expect it and bring money. I save hard for my vacations and refuse to make myself miserable, so I mix up splurges, (a cup of tea at the Ritz in London [not the full tea!] for about $10) and a cocktail in their gob-smacking gorgeous bar for $30), with a quick cheap sandwich for lunch.
Keep in mind that museums and art galleries often have excellent dining facilities; I loved my lunch at Tate Modern,
Paris restaurants typically offer a plat du jour, always less costly than dinner. For about $15 to $20, you can enjoy a hot meal of two or even three courses. Wine can be a little as five euros a glass — about $7. Enjoy!
New York City has a terrifically wide array of options, from the hautest of elegant bars and restaurants to the usual national chains like Olive Garden, Friday’s, etc. The city excels at diners, old-school, all-service restaurants whose enormous laminated menus go on for pages. Few things make me as happy as settling in at the battered Formica counter, (look for a shelf or a hook beneath it to hang your purse or pack so no one can grab it and run), and eating there. Try Neil’s, at 70th and Lexington, or Veselka, on the Lower East Side, in business since 1954.
Whatever you do, flee midtown: boring, crowded, filled with tourists.
When you’re a visitor with limited time, it’s tempting to rush around all day and forget how tired, hungry and thirsty you’ll end up. Allow for a two-hour lunch or a glass of wine or an espresso sitting outdoors in a Paris cafe — which has heaters for the winter. Slow down.
And do not keeping staring into your bloody phone. Just….be there.
Read about your city!
These might be histories, or fiction or guidebooks. I always take my London A-Z, (a highly detailed set of maps), and my Plan de Paris, (ditto), both of which are small and slide into a pocket or purse easily.
There are, of course, dozens of great blogs written by savvy, stylish people living in each of these cities whose posts will be timely and give you all sorts of fun ideas; I like Small Dog Syndrome for London and Juliet in Paris (whose August 2014 posts about London were super-helpful and detailed.)
Pick up the local newspapers; in New York, compare the New York Times, New York Post and New York Daily News to get a real picture of this city’s diversity; in London, the Guardian, Times and Daily Mail; in Paris (if you read French), Le Monde, and Liberation. The letters to the editor, alone, offer some serious insights into what people all around you are thinking and care most about.
Yes, you can read online but don’t. Go old-school and savor it.
Gives you something to tuck under your arm, and look like you belong!
Today is my last day in London, after eight days. I head back to Paris for a final week of vacation — having reported three stories here in England in three tiring days — then return home to New York on January 19.
I am also relieved that the terror standoff in Paris has ended, although not at all sure there won’t be more mayhem there to come.
I’ve enjoyed my visit here in many ways.
Did I see all the famous sights? I did not…
My visit, typical of how I prefer to travel, combined some work and much socializing. I walked everywhere and ate some great meals. Did some shopping, buying everything from an Edwardian hatpin to a 1920s fragment of handwoven Ghanaian silk. (Yup, ecletic ‘r us.)
I saw one great and moving show, on til March 15, of photos showing the aftermath of war, at Tate Modern. I walked there the long way from the Underground, along Queen’s Walk beside the river, so I also discovered the gallery for the Royal Watercolor Society and caught a lovely show there of small works.
Enjoyed the market at Portobello and the one at Spitalfields. Had a terrific chicken Caesar at Fortnum & Mason and ogled their legendary food hampers and mountains of truffles.
I’ve gotten to know Cadence, author of the blog Small Dog Syndrome, and her husband Jeff, who so kindly welcomed me into their tiny flat. We had never met.It takes three cool people to share a small space graciously, and with a 30 year age difference between us.
I also finally met — five years after first reading her blog, Sunshine in London, about being a South African transplant to London — Ruth Bradnum Martin, who treated me to G & T’s at The Swan, a gorgeous restaurant next door to Shakespeare’s Globe theater. We sat with a stunning view, directly across the Thames, of St. Paul’s Cathedral.
Fortnum & Mason, on Piccadilly Circus, is a London legend. Typical of how I roll, I arrived at their door by accident — famished after racing around town to do interviews for a story — and grouchy as hell. “Toilets, food,” I growled at a lovely clerk with a pale aqua name badge. Shona literally took me by the hand, into their tiny elevator, and delivered me personally to their ice-cream parlor (which also sells salad.) Salad, a bottle of water, a pot of mint tea and a raspberry macaron came to 26 pounds — about $40. Pricey, yes. Elegant, soothing and memorable, also.
Thanks to the helpful London blog posts from fellow blogger Juliet in Paris, I strolled Marylebone High Street and loved it. One of the tricky bits in following others’ advice when traveling is…do they share your taste? The minute she and I met (spending New Year’s Eve together in Paris, another blogger blind date!), I knew I could trust her travel judgment.
I visited Burlington Arcade for a story. My dears! My dears! It is guarded at either end by a be-cloaked watchman and is an array of costly elegance — all fine leather goods and jewelers and N. Peal cashmere and, my favorite, Penhaligon, whose fragrances are to die for. (Try my standby, Blenheim Bouquet, a man’s scent from 1903.)
Portobello Market. Crazy. Overwhelming. Goes on for miles. But if you like antiques, a must-do. I coveted a gorgeous set of emerald-green Georgian wine glasses and learned a lot about them from their dealer.
Borough Market.Go! This was by far one of my favorite experiences of the week. It is — yes, really — 1,000 years old and is a bustling madhouse of extraordinary food and drink. We bought chai tea, homemade Turkish delight, fruit and veg and cheese. There are more than 100 stalls and, yes, you can sit down and eat as well!
Spitalfields Market. This one sells new merchandise, a wide array of soaps, clothing, shoes, jewelry. It’s covered and surrounded by plenty of great restaurants; we ate at Giraffe.
St. Marylebone Church. One of the challenges of this trip is my left knee, which is severely arthritic and can get really painful and tired after a day of walking and stairs. Just in time for a needed rest, I found this gorgeous church and settled into its pews for some quiet contemplation. The organist was practicing. I read a book of names of those who lost relatives in WWI — one family lost 33 men. A plaque on one wall said simply “He did his duty.”
Liberty. I never fail to stop into this store, mostly to admire its quirky/elegant/bohemian choices of fabric, clothing, shoes and accessories.
The city is so huge and there are so many things to see and do. I’ve been here many times, so have seen some of its best already — Sir John Soane’s House, Freud’s house, the Imperial War Museum, The National Portrait Gallery.
Next time: The Wallace Collection, the V & A, The British Museum and possibly the Tate.
I’m not one for “tourist attractions” ; my favorite things to do are: walk, eat, shop, take photos, visit with friends. Slip down a narrow, crooked side street and discover something new and unexpected.
Even just sitting down with a pot of tea for a half hour or more offers a lovely, needed break from this crazy, overcrowded city.
I’m writing this post from London, where I’m visiting for nine days, staying with Cadence, a fellow blogger who writes Small Dog Syndrome. She and her husband moved here a year ago and are settling into a city that — according to yesterday’s newspaper front page — is bursting at the seams.
I believe it!
I just spent two weeks in Paris, another major city, but London feels really jammed to me. If one more person bumps into me with their body, backpack or suitcase, I may scream!
Cadence loves it here and hopes to stay here permanently.
She also spent much of her younger life — still in her late 20s — living all over the world in a military family: Belgium, England, Guam, Virginia, Germany.
It may well be that early exposure to the world through residence shapes us permanently for it; I was born in Vancouver, Canada; moved to London at two; to Toronto at five, to Montreal twice, to Mexico at 14, to Paris at 25, to New Hampshire at 30 and — finally! — to New York at 32.
I like having lived in five countries and speaking two foreign languages, French and Spanish. It makes me realize that every place has some kindness and welcome, but some are far better fits for me than others. I loathed rural New Hampshire, (no diversity, stuffy, no work available), and, much as I adore visiting Montreal, as a resident I hated its punishing taxes, long winter and high crime rate.
I like London, and have visited many times and lived here ages two to five. But I find its scale overwhelming and too often exhausting. I’m limiting my activities to one or two a day because of it…knowing I could do twice as much even in New York, where cabs are cheaper or Paris where Metro stops are a hell of a lot closer to one another — 548 metres apart on average.
I prefer Paris.
Which makes me wonder — what is it about a place, whether it’s a cabin in the woods, or a penthouse city apartment or a shared flat in a foreign country — that makes it feel (most) like home to us?
Maybe because I’m a journalist and my husband is a photographer and photo editor — or because we have fairly adventurous friends — we know many people, non-native, now living happily very far from where they were born or raised, in rural Austria, Shanghai, Eindhoven, Rome, South Africa, New Zealand, Paris, Plymouth, Cairo, Manhattan, Toronto, Rhode Island, Australia…
For me, Paris is the city I was welcomed at 25 into a prestigious, challenging and generous journalism fellowship that lasted eight months. So my memories of it are forever somewhat colored by nostalgia and gratitude for a life-changing experience and the warmth and love I felt during that time.
On my many visits back since then, though, I still feel the same way…more so than in New York (I moved to a NYC suburb in 1989).
More than Montreal, where I have lived twice, in my late 20s and when I was 12.
More than Toronto, where I lived ages 5 to 30.
The place I feel at home is a combination of things: climate, the light, the way people speak and dress and behave, its political and economic and cultural values. It’s what things cost and how much of them I can actually afford.
It’s how quickly and easily I can navigate my way around by public transit, on foot, by car, by taxi, by bicycle.
It’s how much sunlight there is on a cold afternoon in February. How much humidity there is. How much it rains or snows — or doesn’t.
Basically, regardless of other circumstances, how happy are you when you wake up there every morning?
Even newly divorced, unemployed, lonely, I was glad to be living in New York.
But also how much silence and natural beauty it also offers — parks and old trees and a river and lakes. (London beats Paris hollow on that score!)
History, and hopefully plenty of it, at least a few centuries’ worth, with buildings and streets filled with stories.
And yet…it needs to be open socially and professionally as well, which can be a tricky-to-crazy-frustrating combination if you arrive as an adult who didn’t attend the same schools, ages five through graduate school, as all your would-be new friends, colleagues and neighbors.
I moved to a suburb of New York City in June 1989, just in time for the first of three recessions in the ensuing 20 years. Not fun! I had to re-invent in every respect.
But choosing to live in Tarrytown, which I love, has been a great decision; the town is 25 miles north of Manhattan, which I can reach within 40 minutes by train or car. We have a terrific quality of life for a decent price.
— My mother was born there, so I had some curiosity about it
— It’s the center of American journalism and publishing, my field
— It’s New York!
— Culture, history, energy, art, architecture…all the urban stuff I enjoy
Having said that, and all due respect to the many other places in the U.S. that people love, I wouldn’t move within the U.S. It’s too hard to establish yourself in New York and the only other city that appeals to me is L.A. which my husband vetoed.
If we move when we retire, which we’re discussing, we’re trying to choose between my native Canada, France, his home state of New Mexico…or, if at all possible, some combination of these.
Jose misses his mountains and a sense of Hispanic community.
But I miss speaking French and I miss my Canadian friends.
Or this meteorite, that streaked through the skies above Russia, and was lifted from the bottom of a lake. It’s said to be 4.5 billion years old, the same age as our solar system.
This week on PBS, I also watched — and loved — the latest instalment, 56 Up, of Michael Apted’s amazing series of documentaries, which began in 1964 with Seven Up, in which he interviewed and filmed 14 London children of varying social and economic backgrounds.
Every seven years, he has re-visited them and filmed them again, to see how they were doing — at 14, 21, 28, 35, 42, 49 and now, at 56.
It’s a compelling examination of how people change, (or don’t), over time.
Today, “reality” television is so normal as to be cliche, an alternate universe in which people seem to think nothing of confiding to millions of strangers while staring straight into a camera lens. It was once quite a radical notion to broadcast people’s everyday lives, and their most intimate feelings.
Who were you at 7, 14, 21, 28, 35, 42, 49 or 56?
I know many readers of this blog are still in their early 20s, so all those decades have yet to arrive.
I have few photos of myself as a younger person, most of them taken between the ages of six and 14. After that, it’s as though I vanished; my parents divorced and I spent most of my time divided between boarding school and summer camp.
I don’t remember anyone taking my picture between the ages of about 14 and 26, although I have one from my college graduation, which neither parent attended. In it is one of my then best friends, Nancy, whose last name I can’t even remember now.
Which is sad, as my life was a wild adventure in my early 20s — starting my writing career, traveling alone through Europe at 22 for four months, and then winning a life-changing fellowship in Paris at the age of 25. I do have, somewhere, some great photos of my visit to an Arctic village on assignment, being interviewed in a particle-board shack by a man speaking Inuktitut — the local radio station for the community of 500.
By 28 I had achieved my goal of being hired as a writer for The Globe & Mail, Canada’s best newspaper and, restless, would soon jump to Montreal where I met the man I married at 35. By 42, I’d been divorced for five years.
A new international study released today has come up with a global
number, and it’s a big one: around the world, 30 per cent of women are
victims of physical and sexual abuse by their partners. The paper,
published in the major scientific journal Science, is based on a
meta-analysis of 141 studies from 81 countries conducted by a team of
European and North American researchers – the lead author is Canadian
Karen Devries, a social epidemiologist at the London School of Hygiene
and Tropical Medicine.
The research, done in collaboration with
the World Health Organization, found wide variations between regions of
the world, with the highest rates in Central sub-Saharan Africa, where
the rate of sexual and physical violence from a partner is 66 per cent.
In South Asia, the rate was 41 per cent. But, even in Western Europe and
North America, countries that celebrate the advancement of women in
society, the rate was disturbingly high. About one in five women in
those regions experience physical and sexual abuse from a husband or
For those of you who missed the story, which was recent front page news in Britain, cookbook author and television star Nigella Lawson was photographed in a restaurant — with her husband’s hand on her throat.
To which I say, with the greatest respect, fuck off.
Here’s a description of the event, from the Daily Mail:
The couple, who are thought to be
worth £128million, had just finished eating outdoors at their favourite
seafood restaurant Scott’s last Sunday when Mr Saatchi is reported to
have started a heated and angry exchange with his wife.
Miss Lawson, 53, looked tearful as he
grabbed her neck four times, first with his left hand and then both. As
he held her neck, they clutched hands across the table before Mr Saatchi
tweaked her nose and used both wrists to push her face.
Afterwards, Miss Lawson dabbed her tearful eyes in a napkin as he tapped his cigarettes impatiently upon the table.
She then gulped a whole glass of wine
before appearing to attempt to pacify him with a trembling voice. During
the attempted reconciliation, she leaned over the table and kissed his
Kissing your abuser?
Sounds about right, sadly.
And when a woman with the insane, gob-smacking wealth and social capital of a Nigella Lawson puts up with this bullshit, imagine all the women — broke, pregnant, breastfeeding, financially dependent on their husbands or partners — who can’t just move into Claridge’s while they find a terrific divorce attorney.
When I interviewed 104 men, women and teens for my 2004 book about American women and gun use, several told me how they had been beaten, threatened and stalked by their husbands or boyfriends, their children and pets threatened with harm. One woman told how her husband kept a loaded shotgun beneath his side of the bed, nor would her father allow her to return to her family home to recover and figure out what to do next.
One woman, so terrified of her husband she moved into a friend’s home and hid her car in her garage, was so fed up she went with her father to confront the SOB who was terrorizing her. Her father brought a handgun, which slipped from his pocket. She stepped on it as her husband lunged for her.
She shot and killed him, point-blank.
Domestic violence is no joke. It is common, widespread, destroying thousands of lives.
Three women die every day at the hands of someone who coos “I love you” when they aren’t beating the shit out of them.
The day began with gusty wind and torrents of rain — and a fresh hairdo thanks to Ilda, who arrived at her salon at 7:40 a.m. to help me prepare for my BBC television interview.
The BBC studio, a very small room with lots of lights and a camera mounted on a tripod in the corner, is part of their New York City office, which shares a wall (!) with Al Jazeera next door. Both of them, like some sort of journalistic Russian matryoshka doll, are inside the offices of the Associated Press, in a huge building at 450 West 33rd — the same building where I worked in 2005-2006 as a reporter for the New York Daily News.
During the live hour-long show, which was heard worldwide, I perched on a stool with an earpiece in my ear, producers’ tinny voices from London competing with the five other guests, from Arkansas to London to Connecticut. Afterward, I went to the lobby and sat in Starbucks and drank tea and read magazines for an hour just to calm down. It’s thrilling to be part of an international broadcast, but also a little terrifying.
I went to the Post Office to buy five stamps. I stood in line for almost 25 minutes, in a line full of people bitterly grumbling at the only clerk.
I took the subway uptown and northeast and decided to wander the West 50s. (For non New Yorkers, the West side begins at Fifth Avenue.)
The narrow gloomy depths of St. Thomas Episcopal Church offered respite, its white stone altar a mass of carvings, saint upon saint. Enormous Christmas wreaths of pine hang on the bare stone walls. The church is still and calm, an oasis of stillness amid the crowds and noise and light and frenzied spending of money all around it.
Lunch is a lucky find, Tina’s, on 56th, which sells Cuban food. The place is packed with nearby office workers gossiping. For $14, I have pernil (roast pork), spicy black beans, potato salad and a passion fruit batido (milkshake)– across Fifth Avenue at the St. Regis Hotel, a single cocktail would cost more.
I love it: powerful, simple drawings of an almost impossible economy of line. Some of them are raw and graphic, of women with their knees drawn to their chest, legs splayed, naked. They were done 100 years ago, between 1911 and 1918. Schiele and his wife, then six months pregnant, died three days apart in the Spanish flu epidemic that killed an impossible 20 million people.
He was 28, and his final drawing was of his dying wife, Edith. I find everything about his life somewhat heartbreaking. Dead at 28?!
Two small ancient white terriers, one named Muffin, kept bursting out of the gallery office, barking madly.
I loved the pencil drawing of his mother — “Meine Mutter” written on one side, drawn on deep tan paper — with her rimless glasses and dour expression, her hands half-hidden beneath her dress.
His women almost burst from the weathered pages, one woman’s right leg, literally, stepping off the edge of the paper as she lunges towards us. They often wear no make-up or jewelry or furs. Some were said to be prostitutes, his association with them scandalous in bourgeois Vienna.
In our jaded, virtual era of all-pixels-all-the-time, I revel in the physicality of these works on paper, their edges thick and smudged, their cotton fibres crinkled and wrinkled. You can imagine his hands holding them a century ago, his young fingers so confident in their vision, so soon to be stilled.
Some of the works are for sale, for $45,000 to $1 million+; only one has sold, but the young woman at the front desk won’t tell me for how much. Oh, how I long to win the lottery! A Schiele has long been on my most-wanted list.
In the cold, gray dusk, I walked the 15 blocks south to Grand Central Station, down Fifth Avenue, crammed with contradictions. For the fanny-packed and white-sneaker-shod from the heartland, agape and moving waayyyyyyy too slowly for the impatient natives actually trying to get somewhere quickly, there’s Gap and Juicy Couture and Friday’s, all comforting reminders of home.
For the oligarchs, jetting in privately, there’s Harry Winston, a legendary jeweler, whose precious gemstones are the size of my thumbnail. This is not a place to browse. I wonder when, on this list of their outposts, the latter four were added. How times change!
Throngs of tourists are lined up — to get into Hollister, a national clothing chain they can see at home in Iowa or Florida.
At Godiva chocolates, a woman is dipping strawberries.
A huge, glittering snake made of lights encircles (en-squares?) the edges of the corner building holding the luxury jeweler Bulgari.
For a hit of hot carbs, carts sell pretzels and roast chestnuts.
Outside the enormous private University Club, people of power and privilege sitting in its tall windows, a black man sits in a wheelchair holding a plastic cup in which to collect donations. I give him a dollar and, to my surprise, he hands me something in return — a glossy postcard, a close-up of his artificial legs.
“What happened to your legs?” I ask.
“Poor circulation,” he replies. (Diabetes, surely.)
Amid the temples of Mammon — Bulgari, Fendi, Ferragamo, Henri Bendel, Saks, the Gap, Barnes & Noble, Prada
— there are three churches, St. Thomas, Fifth Avenue Presbyterian and St. Patrick’s Cathedral.
One might stop to pray.
One might pray to stop.
On Madison in the mid-40s, I pass Paul Stuart, with the necessities of male elegance, like these…
The two bastions of classic male style, Paul Stuart and Brooks Brothers, entered my consciousness when I was 22, on one of my first visits to New York — because the offices of magazine publisher Conde Nast (named for the man who founded it), sat right between them at 350 Madison Avenue. It’s now for rent.
Can you imagine my excitement when I stopped by Glamour and Mademoiselle, in the days when I carried a large artists’ portfolio with clips of my published articles, to meet the editors? As a young, insatiably ambitious journalist from Toronto, this was the epicenter of writing success, an address I’d memorized in my early teens.
Glamour liked one of my stories — typed on paper — tucked in the back and not even yet published by the Canadian magazine that had commissioned it. So it ran three months later in Glamour as a resale. Swoon!
Back to Grand Central Station to meet Jose at the entrance to the 5:38, the express train speeding us home, non-stop, in 38 minutes.
When I moved to New York, and was eager for a new athletic challenge, I trained with a two-time Olympian, saber fencer Steve Mormando, and was nationally ranked in the mid 1990s in that sport for four years.
Competing in sports, especially when you’re aiming for the top, teaches many powerful lessons, some of them of special value to women, in whom unshakable confidence and physical aggression can be seen as ugly, “unfeminine” or worse.
Some of the lessons saber fencing competition taught me:
— Saber (one of three weapons used in the sport), requires aggression and a sort of boldness that’s totally unfamiliar to many girls and women in real life. If you hesitate or pause, you can easily lose to the opponent prepared to start the attack. Go!
— In saber, you “pull distance” and create space between you and your opponent by withdrawing backwards down the strip and extending your blade. This buys you time, and safe space, in which to make a smarter or more strategic move. I’ve often slowed down in life when it looked like I should speed up or jump in quick. Fencing taught me the value of doing the opposite.
— Anger is wasted energy. I hate losing! But stressing out when I did lose, which is inevitable in sports, as in life, only messed with my focus and concentration. Move on.
— Pain will happen. Keep going. I was once hit, hard, early in a day-long regional competition and my elbow really hurt. But I had many more opponents to face and didn’t want to just drop out. Life often throws us sudden and unexpected pain — financial, emotional, physical. Having the ability to power through it will separate you from the weaker pack.
When I fenced at nationals, the first group of American women to do so, there was no option to compete in saber at the Olympic level, let alone world competition. It was frustrating indeed to work and train so hard, traveling often and far, competing regionally and locally, but never have the chance to go for the ultimate challenge, trying for an Olympic team position.
The sport was dominated by European men, and its organizing body, The Federation International d’Escrime, decreed that saber was (of course) too dangerous for women.
Now the U.S. has Zagunis, a young woman of 27, who dominates the sport.
As we watch and cheer and cry and shout over the next few weeks, remember all the women along the way, their efforts often initially dismissed or derided, whose hard work and tenacity break down these barriers.