One of the many challenges of working freelance, as my husband I both do, is having basically no structure at all to many of our days. When he works at The New York Times and United States Golf Association (his two anchor clients), we know what hours and days are committed.
But without setting up planned pleasures for ourselves, we often just end up working too much and even on official holidays.
So for the end of 2019 and heading into 2020 I’m going full steam ahead and making plans for fun, for culture, for travel.
Yes, it’s expensive — but without joyful things to look forward to, it’s just toil and sleep.
Especially after a breast cancer diagnosis, time is more precious to me than ever.
On the 6th, I’m headed to a service of candlelight and carols with a friend, at Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, maybe with dinner beforehand at La Bonne Soupe, a terrific French bistro in business since 1977.
On the 13th, at home in Tarrytown, The Hot Sardines are playing — and I’ve been following them since the very beginning, having met their Canadian-French singer at a dinner party years ago when she was still a journalist. They tour globally and have had huge success.
On the 17th., we’re off to hear the New York Philharmonic play my favorite music — Bach’s six Brandenburg Concertos — the greatest hits of 1721!
In January, a friend and I have tickets to Porgy and Bess at the Met Opera.
A new colleague at the Times is a balletomane as well, so we’re planning to see some ballet with him in 2020.
I keep looking at sites for cottage rentals and just need to commit; I have been dying to spend time in Cornwall after the end of my favorite BBC series, Poldark, set there at the end of the 18th. century. I want to spend two weeks there, a week in London and maybe even another week elsewhere in the English countryside and October 2020 is the only time we can do it.
Thanks to my breast cancer diagnosis and treatment, the last six months of 2018 really disappeared into a fog of anxiety, tests, surgery, radiation and fatigue.
In 2020, I’m still tethered to doctor appointments and follow-ups in March and also have to renew my green card (which allows me legal residency in the U.S.), which we are told can take six months, so that also limits any international options until the new one is in my hands.
But the more art and culture I enjoy — whether paintings, drawings, concerts, ballet, opera — the happier I am. It’s why I wanted to live here, close to New York City. Not savoring its cultural riches seems silly to me.
It’s a rare day I don’t have my trusty little black transistor radio on beside me. I listen to BBC World News when I have time, (it’s an hour), and many NPR shows, from All Things Considered, Fresh Air and The Takeaway, (now hosted by old friend Tanzina Vega, who worked with Jose at The New York Times) to fun weekend shows like The Moth, This American Life and even silly ones like Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me.
I’ve been working alone at home since 1996 so the radio is a steady companion. We’ve even sent a gift to Jeff Spurgeon, host of the morning show on WQXR, New York’s classical music station — a tiny plastic T. Rex — an in-joke he appreciated after he once joked about dinosaurs in the Hudson River; (probably historically accurate!)
Our new car has Sirius XM so I love listening to CBC as well.
Reading the Weekend Financial Times
The FT is a very specific read, as one wit dubbed it: “the hometown paper of the global cosmopolitan elite.”
Its real estate pages — larded with country estates in every corner of the world and enormous penthouses in Paris and New York — can leave you somehow concluding that five million euros/pounds/dollars is actually a bargain, considering. Its glossy magazine, with classic fuck-you British snottiness, is called How to Spend It, and typically features a watch at $300,000 or a $20,000 gown.
But the paper itself, and its arts section, is a delight. Its columnists include a few thoughtful sparky women (albeit an Oxbridge-y crowd) and so many book reviews of books you’ll never seen mentioned in the American press. I appreciate a non-American perspective on business, politics, art, design…everything.
Trying out a new recipe
I have a whole shelf of cookbooks and endless binders filled with recipes I’ve clipped on paper from magazines and newspapers over the years. Few things are as fun as leafing through them and searching out an old favorite, (leek-tomato quiche from the Vegetarian Epicure Part Two), or trying something new. I always mark down the date I first tried a recipe and whether we liked it.
Entertaining gives us a chance to try even more!
Introducing people who’d be a good fit
This is the best. I recently connected two of my favorite younger friends — one in London and one in St. Louis, as one grappled with an issue I thought the other might have some wisdom on. They have other things in common as well; my connections aren’t random!
Another friend was visiting Shanghai and one of my freelance colleagues was teaching there, so I made the introduction from my home in suburban New York — even though, normally, they both live in New York City. Done!
Seeking treasure at flea markets, consignment shops, thrift shops and antique stores
Discovered this fab 1940s diner on Long Island on a road trip
I’ve done many over the years — across Canada with my Dad at 15 and with him driving all around Ireland; from Montreal to Charleston, S.C. with my first husband and, most recently, from our home 25 miles north of New York City to north of Bancroft, Ontario — solo. I did it in four four-hour legs, which helped! I’ve done solo road trips through Arizona, and through some of Texas while researching my first book.
This combines multiple sources of happiness: travel, new sights, seeing old friends, listening to the radio, getting out of town. And, when we have a nice new car as we do right now, the sheer pleasure of a quiet, well-designed automobile.
I’ll do it: tomorrow, next week, next month, next year.
But not right now.
I’m too: busy, tired, broke, otherwise committed, ambivalent, not sure it’s going to work out perfectly.
It might be trying for a dream job.
It might be repairing a broken relationship — or starting a tender new one, romantic or platonic.
It might committing to a course of study.
It might mean selling everything you own and/or disappearing for a while (not abandoning your loved ones.)
Whatever it is, I urge you to get on with it.
It’s the worst cliche, but a cancer diagnosis — even one as incredibly hopeful as mine is — will instantly alter how you perceive time and its brevity and its value.
I’ve cut off useless drama. I’ve turned down invitations. I’m avoiding situations I know will stress me further.
But I’m also making and planting gorgeous new wooden planters for our balcony and accepting assignments for later this summer and planning a trip, possibly to Cornwall, in the late fall.
Two dear friends — one in London, one in California — were widowed in the same week. Both were, sadly, expected but still.
Now another friend’s husband is newly diagnosed.
This time last year I was carefree, solo, sunning myself in a tiny, beautiful Croatian town on the Adriatic, Rovinj. I stayed in, and loved, a boutique hotel made up of two buildings from the 18th and 17th century, walking down smooth cobble-stoned streets.
If this had happened last year, I would have lost a ton of money on prepaid flights, tickets and hotels and had to cancel a trip that was absolute heaven.
This year I’m walking down hospital corridors and consulting with six physicians, submitting to seven presurgical tests and procedures — slightly less amusing!
I am so glad I was able, financially and physically, to make that journey as a birthday gift to myself.
To take it for myself.
To give it to myself without reservation or guilt or remorse for that “wasted” time or mis-spent savings.
Whatever brings you joy, get out there and claim it.
One new friend, a Zagreb travel agent, says: “A perfect vacation is one without expectations..”
She might be right.
When I plan a vacation I focus on what I, (and/or my husband), really want to do, (not what we see on social media or what’s “hot” this year) — informed by my participation in multiple weekly travel Twitterchats, and reading travel websites, blog posts and articles that offer specific ideas and inspiration.
Having been to 40 countries, I’m torn between visiting the familiar, like Ireland, (five visits), and France (many more), and seeking out new experiences.
Things to consider when planning your holiday:
For how long? (Will it be enough or will you get bored?)
Using what transportation?
With whom, (or alone?)
How much activity, and how much downtime?
How many (tiring) travel days and transfers?
What will you give up to stay on budget, (e.g. luxury hotels, taxis everywhere)?
Washington, D.C. June 2016
“Perfect” for me includes:
— Easy/safe/quick/affordable, (hello, $$$$$ London!), public transit in and around the city/town, ideally without cars or taxis. My favorite vacations involve no driving, unless it’s a road trip or touring.
— Making emotional connections. I travel out of curiosity, and having long conversations with a country’s residents is a great joy for me. I got to know two sisters in Croatia whose powerful memories of Zagreb being bombed are much more powerful to me than any lovely vista.
— Kind and welcoming locals. I liked Berlin, but didn’t enjoy “Berliner schnauze”, a biting, sarcastic edge that’s quite common. Travel is disorienting enough and you can feel vulnerable, especially if you’re alone. Croatians have been terrific.
— Healthy food at decent prices. Easy access to farmer’s markets, (in cities like Toronto, Paris, London, Zagreb, New York), can make a real difference to your budget and ability to eat well.
— A climate with some variation. If it’s a sweltering 80 to 90+ degrees during the day, a drop of even 10 degrees and a breeze is a blessing. I can’t handle humidity; cold, for this Canadian, is not a problem.
— Ready access to nature: lake, river, ocean, forest, parks, gardens. Too much concrete makes me feel ill, even on a city-focused trip.
— Great shopping. I love finding items, styles and colors I just can’t get in New York (yes, really.). I treasure wearing and using them for years to come.
— Culture/design whether music, museums or just well-designed lighting, streetscapes and buildings.
— Personal safety. Especially in an era of terror attacks, I avoid crowds whenever possible and am extremely aware of my surroundings in large cities..
— Fleeing American violence and toxic politics. I’ve lived in the U.S. since 1989, but am so sickened and embarrassed by its current politics and President I want to be as far away from of it as I can afford, and for as long as I can afford.
Nor do I want, on vacation, to be surrounded by Americans, so I choose places, and hotels, with a more international clientele.
While trying to relax, the last thing I want to think or talk about is American politics.
— History. The town I’m writing this in, Rovinj, Croatia, has buildings from the 16th century — and my hotel dates from the 18th and 17th, two buildings later combined. I’m happiest in places with a rich, accessible history.
Eastern Europe also offers something I’d never seen before — in Berlin, Budapest and Zagreb, museums of torture, places where its citizens suffered unspeakable crimes. History is filled with darkness, too.
— Grace notes
Everything from the starched, spotless linen napkins and tablecloths in my Rovinj hotel to the oleander blossoms that fall onto my breakfast plate from the terrace’s overhanging trees. For me, touches of beauty and elegance make a place deeply memorable.
It’s so tempting to gogogogogogogo. I finally lay in bed one afternoon and napped and listened, on the Internet, to my favorite weekend radio shows from NPR.
— A mix of solo and accompanied time
So many women are afraid to strike out alone, to eat alone, to walk alone.
I’ve done it in Istanbul, Spain, Mexico…
Dig through the archives here and you’ll find several posts detailing how to do it safely and enjoyably.
Ideally, I like a mix of vacation time both solo and accompanied; alone here, I’ve had terrific conversations with bus and train mates, at cafes and in shops and restaurants. These included two U of Texas accounting students; a Croatian art history major; a Romanian professor of environmental anthropology; an epee fencer, and an electrical engineer, both from Zagreb and an IBM exec — who I met smoking a hookah! — who’d worked for NGOs in Africa.
Even when I travel with my beloved husband, taking some daily time apart is essential.
Some of our best vacations have included:
• Our rented cottage in Dungloe, Donegal, in June 2015, (through this website), and the flat we rented twice on the Ile St. Louis in Paris (friends.)
• A five-week bus journey throughout Mexico in May 2005, including Mexico City, Queretaro, Patzcuaro, Oaxaca and Cuernavaca, where I lived as a teenager.
• Since our first visit in the fall of 2001, exhausted by covering the events of 9/11, we’ve returned six (!) times, so far, to Manoir Hovey, a resort on Lake Massawippi in the Eastern Townships of Quebec, a 7-hour drive from our home in New York; elegant but not stuffy, welcoming, great food and lovely in every season.
This European trip has offered virtually no disappointments, not bad for a month on the road through four countries so far. I chose a mix of larger and smaller cities, with a seaside break in Istria, Croatia.
I also chose three long train journeys — Paris-Berlin (7 hours), Berlin-Budapest (13 hours), Budapest-Zagreb (6 hours) — in order to rest and see the countryside. I dislike flying, so this also reduced my stress.
This trip’s two greatest surprise expenses?
Hotel laundry, (sweaty from walking all day in 80+ degree heat; one hotel even forbade hand washing!), and taxis, when my arthritic right knee gave out. I could have used laundromats, (as I have in Paris), but right now, free time is more precious to me.