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.
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!
A month away from home, from work, from normal life — I will very much miss Europe and my friends there.
It’s not just being away from the tedium of home life or a long break from the grinding pace of work, but savoring a culture that more deeply values the things I care most about — not money or work or power, but food, beauty, intelligence, conversation, friends and family.
I need to flee the United States a few times a year; a native Canadian who moved to the U.S. in 1989, I’m burned out on its stalled and vicious partisan politics, growing income inequality and fervent attention to pop culture.
One of the reasons I’ve stayed freelance — which costs me income but allows me time — is to take as much time off as my budget allows. The world is too large and filled with adventures for me to sit still in one place for very long; some places I’m eager to get to in the next few years include Morocco, Turkey and Greece. (I’ve been to 39 countries so far.)
Why so long a break?
We were loaned a free Paris apartment for two weeks, which made it affordable given the cost of Christmas-boosted airfares. I stayed with friends in London for the next week, so the only housing cost was $1,200 for the rental of a large studio apartment for my final 8 nights; (hotels on the same street are charging about $190/night for a small single room, about $1,400/week.)
Plus meals, shopping, trainfare to/from London, transfers, taxis/subway.
I hadn’t crossed the Atlantic in five years on my last visit to Paris where, as we did here, we had rented an apartment, also on the Ile St. Louis, the small, quiet island in the middle of the Seine, and settled in for two weeks.
My definition of luxury is not owning a shiny new car or huge house, (and have never owned either one), but the time to really get to know another place for a while.
To sloooooooooow down and savor where I am.
I ate lunch in a favorite restaurant across the street from our 2009 apartment and bought a dress from a favorite shop in the Marais.
It’s a luxury to reconnect with the familiar in a foreign country.
In my final week in Paris, I dithered…should I rush around seeing museums, shop the sales and/or sleep late and lounge around my rental apartment, which is large and comfortable? (I did all of them.)
I also joined in the Unity March, the largest in France’s history, thrilled that I was here for it.
One very powerful memory I’m bringing home to New York?
How vivid and present, even today in 2015, war still is in Paris.
Every street, it seems, has a plaque — often with a bunch of flowers attached to it — honoring Resistance heroes of WWII, their bravery now many decades past. Many schools, heartbreakingly, have a large plaque by their front door numbering how many of their children were taken away by the Nazis.
And there are at least four concurrent exhibitions in Paris devoted to aspects of WWII and WWI, from the Liberation of Paris (an astounding show) to one exploring collaboration with the Nazis. Having watched a 31-minute film there, from 1944, of the liberation, I’ll never again see Paris the same way — its lovely streets then filled with dead bodies and burning tanks, barricaded with trees and sewer gratings, women being dragged into the street for public shaving of their heads for collaborating with the Nazis.
A few things I’ve realized in my time away:
— Social capital can replace financial capital
Jose and I do OK for New York, but so much of it disappears in taxes, retirement savings and life in a costly place. So we’re very fortunate to have generous friends around the world who lend us and/or welcome us into their homes. I spent a week with Cadence and Jeff in London in their flat, whose total square footage is about 300 sf, the size of our living room and dining room at home. I don’t know how we managed it, but we did! While I’ve been here, Jose welcomed our young friend from Chicago, Alex, for a week and introduced him to several important new mentors and our friend Molly, from Arizona, has spent many happy nights on our sofa.
What goes around comes around, even globally!
— Travel can be tiring
Exploring big, busy cities on a budget, (i.e. taxis are a rare treat), means hours of walking and many subway stairs. I get tired and dehydrated and needed a coffee or a glass of wine to just rest.
You also have to pay attention to danger, from subway pickpockets to forgetting your address or house entry code.
— I missed my husband!
My best friend. My confidant. My sweetie. He was here for a week. I’ve missed his company and laughter terribly and we Skyped a few times.
— Routines serve a useful purpose
At home in New York, I normally take a jazz dance class every Monday and Friday morning and go for an hour’s brisk walk in the woods with my friend Pam on Wednesday mornings. Every weekend I read three newspapers, in print. I enjoy my little routines; as a full-time freelancer with no regular schedule, they ground me.
— But it felt so good to get away from them
I usually watch the nightly news at 6:30, but also hate how U.S.-centric and sentimental it is. In my time away, my only news sources were Twitter and the occasional newspaper — I didn’t turn on the TV once, didn’t miss it a bit and read three non-fiction books instead.
I’ve also loved spending 90% of my time in the real world and not glued to social media on the computer. I really loved not driving a car for an entire month; we live in the suburbs and I spend my NY life behind the wheel, tracking the price of gas. Tedious! A city vacation meant lots of walking, buses, trains and cabs. Healthier and much more fun.
— Less is plenty
I wore the same few clothes for a month, doing laundry once a week and it was eye-opening to see how little I really need.
Same for food. I bought fresh fruit and vegetables, cheese, soup and yogurt; that plus a fresh baguette every two days supplied my cheap/delicious breakfasts and light suppers at home.
— Experiences beat stuff
— riding the Ferris wheel high above Les Tuileries on a warm and sunny Christmas Day in Paris
— staying in a 15th century country inn in England, eating short ribs by the fire
— meeting a snappy young British journo I follow on Twitter who took me to a secret members-only club above a Soho restaurant. The room was dim, had two small dogs snoozing in lined wooden boxes and fragrant hyacinths on every table. Heaven!
— a cup of tea at the Ritz in London and the (!) $30 cocktails Cadence, Jeff and I shared in its spectacular Art Deco bar. Worth it!
— spending a cold gray Sunday afternoon in a hammam, a Paris spa with a Middle Eastern flavor
— We are who we are, no matter where in the world our body is
At home, I need a lot of sleep, minimally 8 to 10 hours a night. Just because there are a gazillion things to do and see while visiting Europe, I didn’t force myself to do asmuchashumanlypossible. I now have a painful arthritic left knee, so by day’s end I really needed to rest.
My final week in Paris I took long, lazy mornings listening to music, reading, eating breakfast, then headed out around noon for a big French lunch, (cheaper than dinner), errands and explorations.
— Cosy beats grand/ambitious, at least some of the time
It was so nice to come “home” to our rented flats and settle in for the evening with a glass of wine and my new favorite radio station, TSFjazz; check it out online! Our Christmas dinner was roast chicken at home at the kitchen table and it was perfect. On a rainy, windy day in Paris, I was almost at the museum door, but was just exhausted. I said the hell with it, cabbed home and instead of being a dutiful/weary tourist took a nap and did laundry. Much happier choice!
— Solitude is relaxing
My life in New York requires chasing people down for work and/or payment, teaching two college classes, maintaining a happy marriage — and paying close attention to everyone’s emotional state. Whew! Raised as an only child, I savor quiet time alone, at home or out in the world exploring on my own. It recharges me.
My independence is a muscle. It needs exercise!
— But social media has been a godsend
So many blogging blind dates!
In Paris, Mallory, Catherine and Juliet — all followers of this blog, once virtual strangers now friends — invited me to meet; Catherine en francais. I also met Gillian and Ruth, fellow American writers my age. In London, I met Josh and in Paris my oldest friend from my Toronto childhood, also visiting. I had a busier social life while alone overseas than I ever do at home.
— I’m increasingly ready to leave the U.S. and its brutally industrial work culture
One of my hosts’s many books is “La Seduction”, by New York Times journalist Elaine Sciolino, who sums up my feelings well:
“The French are proud masters of le plaisir; [pleasure], for their own gratification and as a useful tool to seduce others. They have created and perfected pleasurable ways to pass the time: perfumes to sniff, gardens to wander in, wines to drink, objects of beauty to observe, conversations to carry on. They give themselves permission to fulfill a need for pleasure and and leisure that America’s hard-working, supercapitalist, abstinent culture often does not allow.”
I’ve come to loathe Americans’ fetish for “productivity” and self-denial. Pleasure and leisure are seen there with the same sort of suspicion as a felony offense. I hate that and always have.
Jose and I hope to retire to France, even part-time. Every visit back there confirms why…and I loved this recent post by Chelsea Fuss, a stylist from Portland, Oregon who sold all her things and has been on the road ever since, alone.
Does your trip have a point?It seems like you are aimlessly wandering around?
Seeing the world enlightens me. This trip was about facing the nagging wanderlust that had been bugging me for years and getting back to gardening, hence the farm stays. I have a blurry picture of what it is I want to do at the end of this and am figuring it out along the way. I’ve told myself it’s ok not to be overly ambitious right now. I keep busy with work, creative projects, and soaking up my environment but it’s definitely a slower pace than I lived at home and I think that’s ok for me right now. Slowly but surely this vision is getting clearer. I have days when I feel like I am going backwards and I should be climbing the career ladder, but that’s usually when I am comparing myself to other people. For me, this is right, right now.
If you enjoy shopping, this is your city! Especially between January 7 and February 15, during “les soldes” one of the two citywide annual sales. (The other is in June.)
There are few things not to buy here, and so many temptations, from stunning foulards (mufflers), worn by men and women of all ages, to exquisite teas and chocolates, mustards and other culinary lovelies. Perfume! Shoes! Jewelry!
Not to mention things you never realized you really needed until you see them….like this Babar hot water bottle cover.
I’ve been running around my favorite neighborhoods seeking a few treasures to bring home.
I went to Galeries Lafayette, despite the sniffy disapproval of a local who said, “It’s only for tourists.” Um, she was right. It was a madhouse and not nearly as much fun or appealing as I remembered from my last soldes there, (still wearing a gorgeous pair of sandals from seven years ago.)
There was a man guarding the small area devoted to Longchamp handbags and a pretty stunning selection but I found nothing that said “Buy me!”
I finally tried on a pair of great-looking soft red suede boots, ankle high, with a zipper up the back.
Then the zipper broke and I couldn’t get them off.
Four salespeople joked, “Oh, now you have to buy them!” and finally a strong man with a large pair of very sharp scissors cut me out of them. That was a first, and, I hope, a last. Merde! (No, I didn’t have to buy them and they were extremely kind about it.)
I have a few categories of things I’m always on the hunt for: textiles for our home; clothing; shoes; accessories; lovely things for entertaining (tableware, napkins.) When traveling, I don’t look at books (too heavy) or electronics or much artwork (difficult to get home and we already have plenty.)
If you love people-watching — and getting inspired by what you see — this is the place. Women here, whatever their age, (and women over 40 consistently seem to look the best), take great care with their appearance and it’s fantastic to see.
Unlike New York, there’s no slavish attachment to the same tedious and tired logos — Michael Kors, North Face, Coach — or the usual Big Name Designers people in New York use to flaunt their wealth, like Prada, Gucci, Goyard and Vuitton.
Here, instead, you’ll see some of the French classics, like Longchamps and Lancaster (handbags) but will also see a much wider range of colors, textures and styles.
Women, and men, are very definite in their own specific look, whether their hair is loose and gray, and they’re wearing Converse, (sneakers are called “les baskets”) or they’re blonde, sleek and soignee. Their self-confidence is lovely and you can quickly pick up style pointers just by observing them discreetly.
So far I’ve bought:
1) a chocolate brown dress from Irina Gregory, a fave shop in the Marais; 2) several scarves; 3) a small canvas handbag I sling bandolier-style across my body; 4) a thick black-and-white sweater/jacket; 5) a thin rust-colored mohair sweater and 6) matching color T-shirt to wear beneath it; 7) two bright chartreuse linen pillow cases; 8) a dark brown vintage fedora; 9) fab 80s’ earrings; 10) two presents for my husband and 11) a fountain pen and multiple cartridges 12) two small pouches for organizing; one for change and one for loose ends, like pills and fountain pen and lipstick. (The small one is velvet, a great choice as I can know it by feel when rummaging in a crowded carryall.) 13 A bottle of Hermes Voyage, a perfume of theirs I wasn’t familiar with.
I’ve already picked up on a classic French style trend — sticking to a palette of colors that are flattering and go well together. French women wear a veritable rainbow of colors, but many of them wear a delicious mix of camel, cream, navy, black and gray. They may add a burgundy or olive boot, or a pale blue scarf. Very few women, anywhere here, wear prints, unless it’s a fantastic oversize houndstooth coat or jacket.
I had another retail mishap (what the hell?) after walking down the Rue de Rennes.
As I settled into a cafe for lunch, a woman at the next table pointed, aghast, (and smiling sympathetically) at my new jacket, made of thickly woven fabric….in its folds I had snagged a camisole, still on its plastic hanger, and walked out of the store with it attached to me. No one noticed. So attractive!
Where to shop?
Les Grand Boulevards
This is where all the major department stores are: crowded as hell but with lots of selection and multiple places to sit down and eat a good meal to regain your stamina. You can also get your “detaxe”, VAT refund of 12% right there if you spend more than 175 euros in one day and are returning to a non-EU country. The biggies are Galeries Lafayette, BHV, Printemps and Au Bon Marche (in the 6th.) For a totally different world, try Franck & Fils, in the 16th., a quiet and elegant residential neighborhood.
Irresistible. The tiny, winding streets are charming and filled with boutiques, not the usual chain suspects. Everyone loves Agnes B (too plain for me). I discovered Miller et Bertaux, pricey but gorgeously simple women’s clothing. I like Irina Gregory, clearly. Just to weep gently and silently, visit L’Eclaireur; everything is exquisite, costly and edited. The space alone is worth seeing.
It’s an upscale residential neighborhood, so the pickings are slim, but very nice. Petit Bateau sells high-quality T-shirts (and great kids’ clothes) on Rue de Grenelle. I scored a lovely fountain pen and my discounted pillow cases on the same street.
The flea market
Meh. I never thought I’d say it, but…meh. Most people go to Porte de Clignancourt, as I did, which is huge and divided into many smaller markets. Unless you’re buying furniture, lighting or art, though, you’re going to Vernaison, which I found just really overpriced. (I did much better at Eponyme, a small but great vintage shop in the 11th.)
If you have the time and patience, Paris is loaded with vintage shops, some of them with crazy-low prices — like 10 euros for a shirt or sweater ($12-15.) Go to Eponyme, 7 rue Paul Bert in the 11th; the owner is a treasure and speaks English. Great prices.
Contrary to popular belief, you don’t have to buy Big French Names (like Hermes, Chanel) — unless, of course you have pots of money and they’re your style.
I get much more pleasure from some of my smaller, quirkier purchases I’ve made here over the years — a polka dot apron from BHV, a crinkled duster coat from Irina Gregory, a fab poster by the classic cartoonist Sempe and three burgundy striped votive holders.
You’ll notice I’ve skipped the legendary strips of the Champs Elysees and Faubourg St. Honore; the latter is lined with every possible designer and well worth it, if your budget allows.
They came — like Richard Smith, former editor of the British Medical Association Journal who I randomly met this morning at the cafe at St. Pancras Station as we were both about to board the 8:19 Eurostar to Paris — from other countries to show their solidarity. He decided, last-minute and spur of the moment, he had to cross the Channel to lend his support in person.
They came in six-inch stilettos and black leather trousers, teens to seniors, a river of humanity that started flooding across the city by 1pm heading to Place de la Republique.
I joined them today — although to say that I marched would be inaccurate. There were far too many people to do anything that energetic or forward-moving.
We shuffled. We stood still.
We sang the French national anthem, La Marseillaise.
I left the Ile St Louis at 2:00 pm with no clear idea where exactly to head — or if there would even be any room for me anywhere near the planned route. I got to the nearest Metro station, (all free for the day), but started to see a river of people streaming east through every narrow street and every wide boulevard.
It was very clear they were all heading for the march, and were heading there en masse.
It was extraordinary to see so many people literally flooding every street with such determination to join one another.
It’s said that 1.5 million people were out on the streets of Paris today.
I believe it! I am so lucky to have been one of them.
I ended up thronged on a boulevard with the Place de la Bastille maybe a mile south of us; we could just barely see its distinctive gold statue gleaming in the sunshine.
A group of people carrying an enormous fabric pencil, (sagging in the middle a bit), started walking nearby and we all wondered what to do.
“Follow the pencil!” someone shouted.
People shouted “Char-lie, Char-lie, Char-lie!”
People stood in their windows looking down on us in amazement, one group of guys unfurling a banner that read “Liberte”, which was greeted by cheers.
People wore French flags and European union flags and one man had painted the French flag on his left cheek.
Many many people wore badges or buttons saying “Je suis Charlie” and many store windows held signs saying “Nous sommes tous Charlie” — we are all Charlie.
Despite the unprecedented volume of people, the mood was calm, quiet, committed.
Even though I avoid all large crowds in the U.S., here, today I never felt scared — security helicopters buzzed low overhead all afternoon and the streets nearby were lined with police and police vans, both local and national.
There were dozens of journalists and photographers, as it was a historic event.
What struck me most was how relaxed and pleasant the crowd was, at least during the time I was in the very midst of it, from about 2:45 to 4:30 p.m. when I peeled off and headed home.
No one pushed and shoved. No one showed rage or fury or any sort of anti-Muslim fervor. We simply wanted to be there.
There seemed to be no organizing principle or bullhorns or leaders.
Just millions of people of every ethnicity and age and sexual preference who cared enough to come out on a cold, sunny January morning to show their solidarity with one another, with the French journalists shot dead this week by terrorists and to remind the world — as many posters said, in French and English:
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.
The last few visits here we’ve rented an apartment. Unless we suddenly (hah!) come into millions, I suspect we’ll keep making that same choice, for a few reasons.
We stayed in a hotel for one night seven years ago. It was gorgeous but minuscule — and our own bathroom at home is 5 x 7, so I know what small looks like!
I’m also a homebody, so I like being able to laze around for hours in the morning, or afternoon, without the need to get dressed to eat or wait for a maid to come clean the room. I like listening to music on my computer (check out TSF jazz, a local station here I discovered this trip.)
I really enjoy having a home to come home to after a fun/exhausting day bopping around Paris. I love the city but — between crazy shoving crowds, the endless stairs of the Metro and the general pace — it’s epuisant!
A few thoughts for those of you considering it:
You can choose a neighborhood and get to know it
We rented on the Ile St. Louis twice, a two-bedroom with a large and comfortable bathroom and super-deep bathtub. We literally overlooked Berthillon, the famed ice cream maker, and could hop across the street for a boule of mango or passion fruit. The ISL is a quiet and bourgeois neighborhood but it’s perfectly located in the Seine, with easy walking access to the Left Bank and Right Bank (the two halves of Paris.) There are plenty of restaurants.
This time we’ve been in the 7th., also quiet and bourgeois. I’ve loved every minute of it and will miss it. It’s not a spot I would have chosen, (we were offered it by friends), so it’s been a great discovery.
I fail to see the point, or pleasure, of traveling the world only to be surrounded, in a hotel or hostel, by fellow North Americans — I travel to flee my normal life and its references! By renting a flat, whether you’re alone or with your family, you’re choosing to plant yourself into the country, culture and neighborhood, not cling to the safe and familiar.
You’ll live like a Parisian for a while
Not a bad thing! You’ll shop every day or so for freshly-baked bread, produce, flowers, and the many delicious cheeses. You can stop at a traiteur offering an array of delicious prepared foods, from a roast chicken to a quiche to salads. You’ll line up at la boulangerie for your daily fresh baguette or croissant.
You can cook!
Maybe your dream is to fully escape the kitchen. But if you love great food, what better pleasure than waking up to a fresh croissant and some runny cheese in the comfort of your temporary home? Making a tisane from some tea you bought around the corner and settling into the sofa? Enjoying a yogurt or fromage blanc? Fresh figs, the fattest asparagus you’ve ever seen…
It’s cheaper and healthier to eat even some of your meals at home plus the added sensual joy of shopping for lovely food in the city’s many street markets…not just racing around an enormous, soulless American grocery store jammed with nasty, useless, fattening junk food. (Yes, I loathe them!)
I pigged out our first week and could barely get into my stockings as a result. The second week, alone, I ate more often at home, consumed less, and many fewer sweets and wine. Voila!
I was amazed by my friend Rebecca — one day after arriving from the U.S. this week, and using a one-burner stove, she made a fantastic meal: bruschetta, green salad, fish stew and a bakery-bought galette du roi. (See, you won’t find that classic dessert on a restaurant menu!)
If you speak French, allez-y! If you don’t, you’ll pick some up quickly
I speak French so I really enjoy chatting to people here, whether asking a law student at the landromat to help me figure out to open the washer door (!) to buying new shoelaces. The city gets so many tourists you’ll find many shopkeepers and retailers able to converse en anglais — but so much better if you quickly adopt the essential habit of saying, every single time, Bonjour monsieur/madame! and Au revoir, monsieur/dame! It’s comme il faut and just a more civilized way to behave.
If you have fantasies of living here more permanently, (as we do), you’ll quickly get a better feel for the place
The sun rises here in late December at 8:43 a.m. Seriously. This city is much further north than you might expect, so days are short and often very cloudy. If you take the bus and Metro as locals do, you’ll experience the utter insanity of rush hour and can enjoy getting lost within the bowels of Chatelet Les Halles mid-renovation — all joys you’d miss if you cab everywhere.
The apartments I’ve been staying in here are both on the ground floor. Easy for luggage and shopping — but they don’t get much daylight. I now realize how essential it would be to rent or own on a higher floor to access the maximum precious sunlight as winter days here also tend to be overcast.
You’ll feel the rhythms of the neighborhood and the city
Almost every building has a concierge or gardien, a man or woman, (like a superintendent), who keeps a careful eye on the building and its inhabitants. In the 7th, our gardien was Marie, a lovely African-American woman with a rocking collection of sneakers, (les baskets!), who also delivered the mail.
You’ll see when shops open and close, and get to know your local merchants a bit as you buy your food and drink. You’ll see dog-walkers and babies in their carriages and kids on their way to and from school.
Don’t expect to find a washer, dryer or dishwasher
Most Paris apartments are small, and appliances and furniture scaled accordingly. Many homes will have a small washing machine for clothes, but fewer will also accommodate a dryer and I would never expect to find a dishwasher. Bring enough clothes and/or be prepared to spend an hour at the laundromat or do some hand-washing.
Things will look different — like electrical outlets!
French appliances use a two-pronged plug whose prongs are rounded. Be sure to bring a set of electrical converters with you. I’d also inquire before you arrive about how much power you can safely use before blowing a fuse. (See below!)
Don’t forget — you’ll be thinking and shopping in metric!
So if you want a small portion of meat or cheese or loose tea, think 100 grams, (cent grams, s’il vous plait!); a kilo = 2.2 pounds.
Also, in euros!
So don’t forget that it’s not $10 you’re spending but $13 or $15 or whatever the rate is that week.
Is there an elevator?
I made the mistake on a prior visit of taking a friend’s advice to stay in a flat he had enjoyed. I didn’t even think to ask…and it was a sixth-floor walk-up. Make sure, if you dislike hoofing it with tons of luggage up a narrow staircase, there is un ascenseur.
Is the flat properly heated/cooled?
I’ve been wearing a lot more clothing than I expected to sleep in.
Beware of minuterie
This oh-so-French invention is lighting that only stays on for a few minutes, saving costs for the building. You have to find the hallway and/or stairs light button outside your apartment, (not easy), push it, and move fast! Best to carry with you a mini-flashlight or headlamp.
How good is the apartment’s lighting?
We had only one small bedside lamp. Bring a mini-flashlight — (how to unlock that unfamiliar door in a dark hallway?) — and a headlamp, available from any camping supply company.
Don’t lose the keys!
Don’t forget the door code!
Remember your address and memorize the nearest Metro stops; functioning while jet-lagged and disoriented and non-French-speaking, (let alone drugged or drunk), is not a great combo.
Bring a large, light, capacious bag for food-shopping. You’ll need it.
Carry a Metro map and Plan de Paris, (or whatever app suits you), so you can always orient yourself quickly. You do not want to be the hapless tourist whose bag is snatched, backpack plundered or pockets picked while you dick around on the Metro or street corner. It happens!
And don’t — as poor Jose did — bring a power strip and try to plug it in. Nope. Blew a fuse and that introduced us to the (very nice) people at our local electric supply shop…after photographing the fusebox, which we did not understand, and emailing the image to our friend whose apartment it is…
It’s difficult to walk down a block here — for me, anyway! — without snapping a photo, or several. Whether it’s a detail or a landscape or the low, slanting winter light, it’s all there…
More Paris images:
No table here is complete without a fresh baguette, chopped into pieces and served in a basket on the table. Butter is only offered at breakfast, often spread along a split baguette, called a tartine. Delicieux!
Even grocery shopping can be elegant! Everyone here wheels their grocery cart along the narrow sidewalks, even if they bought their food at a chain store. These carts come in every possible color and style. I loved the black patent one I saw on the Metro the other day. So much more fun than schlepping 12 bags of plastic by hand…
I never tire of the sense of design here and am irrationally folle de (crazy for) this look using broken tile. This is the bar area of 65 Ruisseau, a great place for (yes, really) a cheeseburger and a beer in Montmarte. And the frites. Sigh.
This is the street in the 7th arrondissement where we stayed the first two weeks, (moving to L’Isle St. Louis later this month.) These cream-colored curving buildings, with their elegant black ironwork, are typical of the more bourgeois neighborhoods. Each building has some lovely design element to delight the eye — a cherub, some inlaid mosaics, carved roses. There are 20 arrondissements, spiralling out from the center, in a snail shape, from the 1st. Like every city, each one has its own character, some with mini-neighborhoods within them as well. The 7th. is staid, elegant, very quiet, a mix of residential, monuments and government buildings. Few tourists, typically, head to the 13th, 14th or 15th, as they are almost exclusively residential and a bit of distance from most of the museums and other attractions.
King Francis 1, who reigned from 1515 to 1547, used the salamander as his personal symbol, perhaps why this golden salamander encircles a stanchion on the Seine…
Love these soft leather cafe chairs — small enough to be easy to move around but so comfortable and chic! Wish we could ship a few of them home.
There is a very large Ferris wheel standing at one side of the Place de la Concorde, 10 euros to ride. It’s a bit windy/freezing when you’re at the very top, (and a little scary!), but ohhhhhh the views. Here is the Garden of the Tuileries, and at the very far end, the Louvre. One one side is the Seine river, on the other, the rue de Rivoli. I took this on Christmas Day, one of the few days here with clear skies and lots of sunshine! You can’t see them, but the pond is circled by olive-green metal chairs in two styles, so you can sit and relax and watch the crowds.
If New York City mayor Bill de Blasio has his way, this sight will soon disappear from Manhattan — horse-drawn carriages. These colors — cream, beige, black and charcoal gray, are so typical of Paris, whether in exteriors, interiors or fashion.