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Posts Tagged ‘Toronto’

Ten more travel tips — Key? Ignore the experts

In behavior, blogging, cities, culture, life, travel, urban life, world on July 1, 2015 at 7:08 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

I’ll post a final Irish piece later this week.

In the meantime, some more tips:

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.

It costs HOW much?!!!

It costs HOW much?!!!

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. IMG_0377 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.

My one-way ticket, 2 euros, 20. The fun bit? The voice telling riders to take their ticket and their change -- and announcing every tram stop in English and Irish -- is that of my Dublin friend, a career broadcaster

My one-way ticket, 2 euros, 20. The fun bit? The voice telling riders to take their ticket and their change — and announcing every tram stop in English and Irish — is that of my Dublin friend, a career broadcaster

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. nyt 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.)

Lincoln Center, NYC. Not likely to disappoint!

Lincoln Center, NYC. Not likely to disappoint!

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.

I treasure my little robot, bought in Paris

I treasure my little robot, bought in Paris

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!

Visiting Use-ta-ville

In aging, business, cities, culture, design, life, Style, travel, urban life on December 13, 2014 at 1:56 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

Use-ta-ville…The place you go back to that’s now gone.

“It used to be…”

We’ve all got them, the places where we once lived or attended school or loved visiting or eating in or shopping at. As life changes, sometimes at a dizzying pace, it can be comforting to re-visit these spots. Many are filled with memories — great dates, a proposal, a graduation, a terrific meal — and the physical place becomes a touchstone.

One of the most-loved indie bookstores in Manhattan, Posman Books, is closing its Grand Central location on New Year’s Eve — to make room for (what else?) some costly new building. So annoying!

It’s been such a lovely respite, while awaiting a train or a friend, to browse its well-edited selection of books and cards. I’ve made some great discoveries on its front tables over the years, and was thrilled when my own book, “Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail” briefly ended up in their front windows.

I grew up in Toronto, a sprawling city of 3 million people, and moved to New York a long time ago, but I still go back once or twice a year to see old friends and to enjoy places I’ve been visiting for decades.

Gone! One of my favorite antiques/vintage clothing shops in NYC

Gone! One of my favorite antiques/vintage clothing shops in NYC

Like Courage My Love, one of the city’s best vintage clothing shops and The Papery, a great little stationery store I once sold my home-made envelopes to when I was in high school, and — for many years — a beloved cafe called The Coffee Mill, which served strudel and espresso and schnitzel on its lovely outdoor terrace and cosy interior.

It closed in September 2014, after 50 years in business, back in the day when those kinds of foods were exotic to white-bread WASPy Toronto.

We also lost a favorite restaurant on Queen Street, Prague Deli, who had renovated it into an even more welcoming spot, a perfect refuge on a bitterly cold winter’s afternoon. Gone.

Toronto also recently lost the 65-year nightclub, the El Mocambo, where the Rolling Stones once played.

I often go back to my high school, Leaside High School, to talk to the students about what it’s like to make a living as a writer. It’s very odd, but also oddly comforting, to walk those terrazo-ed hallways once more. It looks exactly the same!

Every city, especially when there are millions or billions to be made flipping and developing commercial real estate, loses bits of its past, and we stand by helplessly mourning all those lost memories.

One of my favorite Manhattan cafes, Cafe Angelique on Grove Street in the West Village, disappeared overnight in the fall of 2014 when the landlord demanded $45,000/month in rent — for 1,000 square feet. My lasting memory of it now was a lunch I had there with a fellow journalist I’d long admired and listened to on American Public Media’s business show, Marketplace.

Now its gutted space is one more about-to-be-gentrified spot filled with a mega-brand.

Soul?

Fuhgeddaboudit!

One of the most poignant of these moments happened for me early in my courtship by Jose, my husband, who grew up in Sante Fe, New Mexico. His father was the pastor of a small Baptist church and they lived in church housing — all of which was torn down and replaced by the Georgia O’Keefe Museum.

So we stood admiring one of her legendary paintings as Jose said, wistfully, “This used to be my bedroom.”

All that’s left of his childhood home is a small courtyard with an apricot tree, whose fruit his mother used to make into jam.

Is there a place like this from your past you (still) miss?

Still there, since 1927, the Monte Vista Hotel in Flagstaff, Arizona

Still there, since 1927, the Monte Vista Hotel in Flagstaff, Arizona

Some of my favorite places in the world

In cities, culture, life, travel on September 28, 2014 at 12:15 am

By Caitlin Kelly

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I started traveling young — when my parents removed the back seat of our family car and drove from Vancouver, my birthplace, to Mexico, a country I’ve since visited many times. I was two.

So constant motion and long-distance travel just feel normal to me!

In the next few weeks, we’ll be in Pennsylvania, near New Hope; in D.C. and suburban Maryland and on the Delaware River, each time visiting with friends who live there. I love getting away, even for a few days.

In December, Jose and I fly to Paris for Christmas, where we’ve been loaned an apartment. I then have five days in London alone visiting another friend, then another week alone there to do….I have no idea!

Which is my definition of bliss.

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Berlin? Amsterdam? Antwerp? A quick flight to my new friend in Bahrain?

Nothing in the world makes me happier than a travel adventure.

20130729134103

Here, in no special order, are some of my favorite places around the world:

Porto Rico Coffee and Tea, Bleecker Street, NYC

Porto Rico Coffee and Tea, Bleecker Street, NYC

 

A battered railing on East 9th Street, NYC

A battered railing on East 9th Street, NYC

 

The West Village and East Village of Manhattan

Having lived in a suburb of New York City for more than 20 years, I never tire of wandering these two quieter and residential edges of the city: battered 19th-century doors and weathered stone steps, enormous 18th-cenury churches, cobblestoned, tree-lined streets and elegant brownstone houses with their ornate black metal railings and tall, narrow windowed doors. The area’s many cafes, restaurants and small shops include Porto Rico for coffee and tea, Bosie’s or Tea and Sympathy for a seated afternoon tea and Morandi for spaghetti carbonara. The best perfume shop in the city is on Christopher Street, Aedes de Venustas.

Yorkville, Toronto

I’ve been visiting this chic spot since my childhood in Toronto. The Papery sells lovely stationery; the Craft Ontario shop offers terrific and affordable pottery, jewelry and Eskimo art a new store, Ca Va de Soi, recently opened there, selling the loveliest women’s sweaters. (Queen Street West gets all the attention. I like it a lot, but Yorkville is easier to manage, cleaner and safer.)

San Francisco

Such an elegant city! Spectacular views, great sailing, that bridge, the beaches and Marin County, a landscape of staggering beauty. I ate here, at the Presidio Social Club, in 2012 and loved every minute of it — a former military barracks set in a park. Sacramento Street has dozens of small, gorgeous shops.

Machu Picchu, Peru

Watching the sun rise, filling every valley in the Andes as it came towards us, remains one of the highlights of my life.

One of the eeriest and most memorable sights of my life -- a lunar landscape I saw, alone in the rain, while traveling alone by mo-ped

Corsica

Corsica

I spent five amazing days here, alone, traveling the north of this island by mo-ped, with a top speed of about 45 mph. It was  July and the heated maquis, the scrubby fragrant underbrush, smelled like very good pipe tobacco. Craggy mountains, deep valleys, steep oceanside cliffs. Great food, welcoming people. I wept so hard when the plane took off for Nice the poor flight attendant thought I was injured or dying. Few places have touched me as deeply.

Kenya and Tanzania

I saw both, on safari, in my 20s. The Maasai Mara in Kenya and Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania are unforgettably beautiful, filled with wild animals. It’s expensive to get there, but worth every penny to see a landscape that reminds us we’re only one late-arriving species. (Once you see animals in the wild, zoos seem sad and pointless.)

Mae Hong Son, Ko Phi Phi, Bangkok, Thailand

I spent 21 days in Thailand in January 1994 and remember every detail. MHS is a tiny town in the far north; KPP is a sliver of an island two hours by boat from the southern town of Krabi and crowded, humid Bangkok feels like an out-take from Blade Runner. I loved everything about my time there: food, people, flowers, astounding landscapes. If only it wasn’t 19 hours’ flying time away!

Stockholm

Oddly, we went there in November, a time of year when the sun barely rises at 8:30 and is gone by 3:00 p.m. It was staggeringly expensive, but worth it. The colors! The light! I loved the Vasa Museum — a ship launched with great fanfare in 1628, and which promptly sank in the harbor. It’s amazing — you climb a scaffolding so you’re literally face to face with history. I loved everything about this city, especially its attention to design, detail and light. I’m eager to return, preferably in summer.

Lakeside at Manoir Hovey, Quebec

Lakeside at Manoir Hovey, Quebec

The Eastern Townships, Quebec

We return every two years to Manoir Hovey, a five-star inn on Lake Massawippi. The area itself is lovely in every season, dotted with small towns and a gently rolling landscape. There’s skiing, horseback riding, winding roads to cycle, a stunning monastery — and Montreal 90 minutes north. If you’re a fan of best-selling mystery writer Louise Penny, this region will feel familiar, as that’s where she lives, and sets her stories.

ALL IMAGES COPYRIGHT CAITLIN KELLY 2013.

The Grand Canyon

If you make one journey in your lifetime, make it here. Seriously. And don’t just drive to the edge, snap a few pics and drive away…You must walk deep into it (twice as long to come back up! take plenty of water!) to best experience a place that so powerfully reminds us what a mere eye-blink in time our lives represent. The light, the silence, the hawks and foxes and fossils…Few places so richly reward sitting still for an hour just to watch the light shifting and the landscape changing every minute as it does.

Ireland

I’ve been, (so far), four times; my father owned a house near Galway City for a few years. Hard to name anything I don’t love about this small, friendly, gorgeous country….not to mention my heritage! My great-grandfather was a schoolteacher in Rathmullan, Co. Donegal. Get out to the Aran Islands top see shaggy cows the exact color of Guinness, or wander the streets of Dublin. For a bit of craic, try the annual matchmakers festival in Lisdoonvarna, which I wrote about for the Washington Post. Lots of shy bachelor farmers!

The window of Nevis House, 1843, Irvington, NY

The window of Nevis House, 1835, Irvington, NY

The Hudson Valley, New York

Home! I moved here in 1989 and love its history, landscapes, the Palisades, the Hudson River. The river towns — Irvington, Tarrytown, Ossining — line the Hudson, with quiet parks and access to the water. Lots of great restaurants and  cafes…ancient churches and graveyards…winding roads, fantastic views. Visit Olana to see a spectacular example of 19th century architecture and West Point to visit an American icon.

The view from our balcony across the Hudson River

The view from our balcony across the Hudson River

(all images, Caitlin Kelly)

What are some of your favorite spots?

Actually, no, I don’t work “for exposure” (or lunch)

In art, beauty, behavior, blogging, books, business, culture, design, journalism, life, Media, Money, music, photography, Technology, US, work on October 27, 2013 at 5:57 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

If there is a current cri de coeur of the creative crowd, this is it.

Much as we might fervently wish for it, there’s no separate gas pump with a 35% discount just for painters or a 25% off aisle at the grocery store reserved for musicians or a 50% off sticker affixed to our phone, electricity or insurance bills.

English: Grocery store in Callicoon, NY, USA

English: Grocery store in Callicoon, NY, USA (Photo credit: Wikipedia) Free food for artists! NOT.

Our costs are the same as everyone else’s.

So this piece in The New York Times, although hardly a new thought, hit a nerve:

NOT long ago, I received, in a single week, three (3) invitations to write an original piece for publication or give a prepared speech in exchange for no ($0.00) money. As with stinkbugs, it’s not any one instance of this request but their sheer number and relentlessness that make them so tiresome. It also makes composing a polite response a heroic exercise in restraint.

People who would consider it a bizarre breach of conduct to expect anyone to give them a haircut or a can of soda at no cost will ask you, with a straight face and a clear conscience, whether you wouldn’t be willing to write an essay or draw an illustration for them for nothing.

They often start by telling you how much they admire your work, although not enough, evidently, to pay one cent for it. “Unfortunately we don’t have the budget to offer compensation to our contributors…” is how the pertinent line usually starts. But just as often, they simply omit any mention of payment.

I like to see how many comments Times pieces elicit; as I write this, so far, 493 people have weighed in. That might be a record.

This hit a chord with me, again, when yesterday a local attorney — who drives a lovely Mercedes — asked me to have lunch with her daughter so her daughter could ask my career advice.

Shell Petrol Pump

Shell Petrol Pump (Photo credit: dvanzuijlekom) Free gas for writers! Just kidding!

I met the attorney because I interviewed her, (a paid gig, of course). We have no social or other relationship, but it’s a very normal expectation I want to share my 30 years’ expertise and insight without payment because….?

I don’t want lunch.

I want to be paid.

I grew up in a family of freelancers. No one had a paycheck, pension or paid vacations. Our earnings relied on our talent, skills and ability to negotiate a payment that made sense to us. It did, providing us with nice clothes, decent used cars, international travel, a home with a mortgage, i.e. a middle-class to upper-middle-class life.

This fantasy that creative people are eager to slurp ramen into our 60s or beyond is just weird.

Like that Times op-ed writer, Tim Kreider, I’ve also turned down many “offers” to go and speak unpaid — from the Retail Council of Canada (!), with no offer to pay my travel costs from New York to Toronto — to a local alumni group of a prestigious university who recently “invited” me to spend four hours of my time on that event, so I could sell copies of my latest book — at a discount.

None of which earns me a dime.

People wouldn’t ask their physician, dentist, accountant or attorney to come hang out, without compensation, for the afternoon.

Don’t ask me either!

How often are you asked to work without pay?

How taking it to the streets can change your life

In beauty, behavior, business, children, cities, culture, life, parenting, urban life, work on August 1, 2013 at 12:18 am

By Caitlin Kelly

The young boys I just blogged about, Unlocking the Truth, are doing something odd and radical.

They’re taking it to the streets.

Down on the corner

Down on the corner (Photo credit: samgrover)

I did it too, at their age.

Clearly, this won’t work for many kids — their town or city is too dangerous, they lack the maturity to handle it or their talents are sufficiently-developed.

But the positive effect it had on me still resonates today.

I spent my childhood, ages eight to 16, between boarding school and summer camp, always sharing a room, always surrounded by other people. So I was used to being around a lot of people I didn’t know.

I was then making little bead necklaces, and took my box of beads and a needle everywhere with me, the way an Ipod or cellphone now accompanies and distracts many tweens.

I decided to sit on a ledge in Yorkville, Toronto’s intimate, safe, upscale shopping area, and try to sell my necklaces.

Where did the idea come from? Who knows. It never occurred to me that it might be dangerous or boring.

Pine trees growing in Toronto's Yorkville Park.

Pine trees growing in Toronto’s Yorkville Park. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

And some people bought them. They stopped to talk to me. No one laughed or found it weird. It was amazing.

I went back, at 15, to sell hand-made envelopes, and at 19 to sell my black and white photos, mounted on matt-board, for $25 apiece. One of the city’s top fashion photographers of the time, who I knew, walked by — and bought one.

I needed no permits or license, just the chutzpah to put it out there, my personality and my talent. Lucky for me, both seemed to be appealing.

Then a woman stopped to look through my additional selection of color slides, and ordered one, printed into a huge poster, for her wall at home. It cost — in 1976 — $125, an enormous sum. I delivered it and she wrote me a check.

It bounced.

I was lying in bed at home, sore and bleeding from the surgical removal of all four wisdom teeth, when the bank called.

I knew a lawyer, even then, and sicc’ed him on her. I had my money within a week.

But it taught me a powerful and unforgettable lesson in when, where and how much to trust. Her elegant appearance and charming manner were seductive — and misleading. That’s a good lesson to learn at 19.

To her, I likely appeared a wide-eyed street kid who knew little and trusted much. Not for long!

SJSA Grade Six -  The Year I Rebelled

SJSA Grade Six – The Year I Rebelled (Photo credit: Michael 1952)

In my freelance work today, I’m using much of what I learned out there alone at 12:

— Think you have talent? Go test the market, face to face when possible

— Some people will be wildly enthusiastic

— Some people will cheat you

— Some people will be indifferent

— Some will sneer or dismiss your work

– Knowing young that you have specific, saleable skills or talents is empowering. You won’t starve!

— Being able to charm and engage your customers/clients/audience is huge

— Asking for attention, and managing it, can be stressful. Many kinds of work will require it

Here’s a video of Creedence Clearwater Revival singing “Down on the Corner”.

Do you love Joni Mitchell as much as I do?

In art, beauty, culture, entertainment, music, women on June 22, 2013 at 12:29 am

By Caitlin Kelly

If you took away every other piece of contemporary music and allowed me only one artist to listen to, it might well be that of fellow Canadian Joni Mitchell.

Joni Mitchell, performing in 2004

Joni Mitchell, performing in 2004 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

She’s now 70, living in L.A. dividing her time between there and her property north of Vancouver in Sechelt, B.C.

Friends of mine in Toronto last week had the rare and fantastic opportunity, at the annual Luminato Festival, to hear her sing — when she had only agreed to read a poem. So jealous!

You may never have heard of her — while those of us who grew up singing along to her work keep playing and re-playing her work — after all, there are 28 albums listed on her official website.

She officially retired in 2002, although you’ve likely heard one of the 587 (!) versions of her song “Both Sides Now”, written when she was only 21. Singers including Taylor Swift and Madonna have cited her as a major influence on their work.

A winner of eight Grammy awards, her classic album “Blue” was named one of the 100 best albums ever made by Time magazine.

She started out as a visual artist but got pregnant, gave her daughter up for adoption, and only by accident fell into her long career as a singer/songwriter.

Here’s one of her paintings, from 1987, linked to her song “Night Ride Home”, one of my many favorites.

She started out living in a small Western Canadian town, where her mother “raised me on words.”

She’s even inspired 47 songs by others, as recently as 2011 — including the classic “Our House” By Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young and “Only Love Can Break Your Heart” by Neil Young, yet another Canadian.

Many other artists have recorded her work, some of them making her songs into hits. A favorite, “Michael from Mountains”, off the 1967 classic by Judy Collins, “Wildflowers” is a song written by Mitchell.

Cover of "Hejira"

Cover of Hejira

I have so many favorites among her work, but Hejira is an album I could play all day every day and never tire of. The word has several meanings, one of which is “a journey to escape something dangerous or undesireable.” It came out when I was a second-year university student, living alone in a crummy small apartment in Toronto, struggling to combine freelance photography with full-time studies at a large and demanding bureaucratic institution.

(If you’re lucky enough to be in Pacific Beach, CA on November 9, 2013, a band called Robin Adler and the Mutts will perform the entire album. Wish I could be there!)

Hejira expressed the aching, overwhelming multitude of feelings I felt so powerfully then — joy and excitement at leaving my family home for good; fear I would not do so successfully; dating a succession of men, many of them unlikely; trying to define who I was as a young woman in the larger world.

I love this lyric — talk about the wrong man!

No regrets, coyote

We just come from such different sets of circumstance

I’m up all night in the studio

And you’re up early on your ranch

This is a verse from “Amelia”, nominally about Amelia Earhart, but which resonates for me, still, as someone happiest in motion, in flight, traveling somewhere new:

The drone of flying engines

Is a song so wild and blue


It scrambles time and seasons if it gets thru to you


Then your life becomes a travelogue


Of picture post card charms


Amelia it was just a false alarm

Here’s a fantastic, recent hour-long exclusive interview with her by fellow Canadian Jian Ghomeshi on his CBC/PRI show, “Q”.

I love that it ends with an audible hug.

Are you a fan as well?

Have you ever heard her in concert?

How was your childhood?

In behavior, children, domestic life, family, parenting on April 19, 2013 at 4:04 am

By Caitlin Kelly

I loved this recent special issue of New York magazine focused on childhood in New York.

Barbara Walters’ dad ran nightclubs?

Chevy Chase got stabbed in the back by a mugger?

Matthew Broderick in Sweden to promote Ferris ...

Matthew Broderick in Sweden to promote Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Matthew Broderick was robbed constantly?

The black and white photos are fantastic, and the memories, of New York and childhood, lovely.

I was born in Vancouver, and lived in London ages two to five, before moving to Toronto where I lived to the age of 30.

My childhood was a mixture of material comfort and emotional chaos. We lived, until my parents split up, in a large, beautiful house in a nice neighborhood. We had a huge backyard, a maid named Ada and I walked to school. But my parents were miserable and I used to hide behind the living room curtains as they shouted at one another. It was a relief when they divorced and my mother and I moved into an apartment in a downtown area much less charming.

I was at boarding school at eight, and summer camp all summer every year ages eight to 15. So I didn’t see that much of my parents. I was then an only child, so grew used to amusing myself with books, toys, art, sports.

I spent my school year awakened by bells: 6:55 wake-up; 7:05 walk around the block, regardless of weather; 7:25 breakfast. And so on. We wore plaid kilts and ties, in the Hunting Stewart tartan, and black oxfords and dark green knee socks. In summer, our camp uniform was yellow and blue, white for Sunday chapel. I spent most of my childhood surrounded by strangers — room-mates, cabin-mates, teachers, housemothers and counselors.

In retrospect, it was a distinctly odd way to grow up.

But it’s what I knew. I got a terrific education, made some wonderful friends at camp and developed my athletic skills. Camp was my happiest time and forever shaped my love of nature and outdoor adventure. I learned how to canoe, water-ski, swim, sail, ride horses. I collected badges and awards and prizes, at school and camp, for my talents, whether athletic or intellectual.

Every summer I would act in a musical, Flower Drum Song or Sound of Music or Hello Dolly!. I usually won the the lead, so knew from an early age I could win and hold an audience. I wrote songs and played them on my guitar, singing before the whole camp, an audience of 300 or so, strangely fearless.

I felt loved and safe at camp, while by Grade Nine I was always in some sort of trouble at school — my bed was messy, I talked too much in class, I sassed teachers and got into radio wars with room-mates. When my neatness scores (!) fell too low, I’d be confined to campus on weekends and had to memorize Bible  verses to atone. (“For God so loved the world…” John 3: 16, kids.)

We were only allowed to watch an hour or so of television on Sunday evenings, although we were taken to the ballet and the Royal Winter Fair to watch horse-jumping. Every Wednesday night, after filling out a permission slip, we could go out for dinner with a friend or relative — the lonely kids left behind were fed a comforting meal of fried chicken with cranberry sauce and corn.

Privacy was an unimaginable luxury when you always shared a room with four or six others. There was nowhere to shut a door and just be alone in silence, to exult or cry. I was sent to my room at school, as punishment, for laughing too loudly. We were constantly told to be “ladylike.” In both places, we ate our meals communally, at large tables, consuming whatever food was served to us whenever it was offered.

Many decades later, I’m still seeing the many ways this has shaped me, for better and for worse.

How was your childhood?

The comfort of the familiar

In aging, beauty, behavior, cities, culture, design, domestic life, History, life, urban life on February 2, 2013 at 1:55 pm
English: Panorama of Toronto. Français : Image...

English: Panorama of Toronto. Français : Image panoramique de Toronto. Italiano: Un panorama di Toronto, al tramonto. Nella skyline si nota la CN Tower, la più alta torre per telecomunicazioni del mondo. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We stood on the sidewalk, gobsmacked.

We’d walked along Queen Street in the freezing cold, counting the minutes until we were seated once more at our favorite Toronto deli, Prague, a Toronto institution of schnitzel and strudel and Pilsener and potato salad.

“Closed” read the sign.

A guy stepped out.

“What happened?”

“Some new owners bought it. They changed it. It didn’t work.”

Sigh.

I peered into the windows, looking in vain for the charming renovation they’d done a few years earlier, for the display cases filled with ham and jam and biscuits. All gone. The only thing left was the ancient mirrored wooden icebox from the original store.

There is something deeply comforting — in a life filled with constant change — in the familiar. Since I was born in Vancouver, I’ve lived in Toronto, Montreal (twice), New Hampshire, New York, Cuernavaca, Mexico, London and Paris. Between 1982 and 1989 I changed cities four times and left my native Canada for the United States.

After a few decades, when so many friends and jobs and colleagues and husbands and wives and sweeties have come and gone, knowing you’ll always find something lovely still standing in its spot takes on new power. It might be a tree, your old school, a beloved park. It’s a marker, a milestone. a piece of your past you can return to.

When we drive north to leave Toronto we pass a white brick house on a corner, the one we lived in when I was in high school. The one with tall narrow windows my Dad punched into those walls. The one with the lilac tree outside the kitchen door. The one where I lay in bed for a month with mono. The one where I wrote my essays in my first year of university while I still lived at home.

It was the last home I shared with my Dad.

I moved to New York in June 1989, so I have plenty of memories and associations there, sights and sounds I treasure as well, from our reservoir walk to weathered, patina-ed metal scrollwork of a nearby estate.

But there is something deeper for me in returning to places I first visited as a very small child and have been enjoying since. I have plenty of history in New York but much of it has been stressful — four surgeries in a decade, a brief and miserable marriage, becoming a crime victim twice in five years. For all the fun and excitement of publishing two books and re-creating my writing career, I miss the sense of optimism and excitement I had — as most of us do — in my early 20s, before I launched myself off the rocket pad of Toronto, my hometown.

We had lunch this visit at The Coffee Mill, which opened in 1963. I love the fresh rye bread, pre-buttered, they bring to the table. Their goulash and strudel and dark black coffee, all impossibly exotic in the Toronto of the 1960s. The seats are always filled with stylish regulars; when we we there this week, a famous Canadian actor sat a few tables away.

We stopped in down the block at the jeweler my Granny used to frequent, splurging her inheritance on enormous rings whose stones weighed down her hands. Jose bought my wedding ring and earrings there, a choice he happily gave me when we were deciding where to purchase that symbolic link to my future. I still own rings I bought there in my 20s and one my mother bought for me.

English: Toronto Globe newspaper office (with ...

English: Toronto Globe newspaper office (with a globe on top) on King Street East, Toronto, Canada, early 1860s. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ll be having lunch in a few days with my first true love, a man who’s now on his second marriage, a very late-life Dad. We’ll eat at Le Select, another Toronto institution, which sits  — of course! — directly across the street from the place where, in 1984, my writing career started in earnest, the newsroom of The Globe and Mail. I used to walk up its steeply sloping driveway ramp every morning, pulling open the metal door, grabbing a fresh paper off the stack there and stepping into that day’s chaos. Every single morning, as I did so, my pulse rate soared as adrenaline kicked in and I wondered what they’d ask me to accomplish that day. An enormous satellite dish would beam my words to Saskatoon and Moose Jaw and Victoria and Halifax. Magic!

It will be odd to see P., but lovely. We were inseparable in my first year at University of Toronto. I was 18, he 23 and editor of the school newspaper where I, desperate to become a professional journalist, spent all my time when not in class. I was still living at home, he in a big old house shared with room-mates, one of whom was a ferociously serious member of the Marxist-Leninist party. We got fancy journalism jobs, married other people, got divorced, re-connected briefly in the mid-1990s, lost touch, found one another again.

University College, south side, University of ...

University College, south side, University of Toronto (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On this visit, as we always do, we had lunch with M., a friend I’ve known since my early 20s. It’s the sort of friendship where we pick up as if we’d stopped talking a week or so ago, not the three or six months that usually pass between our visits. Her love and enthusiasm and smarts are a touchstone for me. She, more than anyone except my husband, knows my intimate history — the sad dramas within my family and the ex-es who made me knees weak and possibly still could.

Do you take comfort in the familiar?

What are some of your touchstones?

Define “vacation”

In behavior, domestic life, life, travel, urban life on January 31, 2013 at 2:10 am

As we were preparing to leave New York for two weeks’ vacation — visiting my Dad in Ontario, doing a NYT story in Montreal with some leisure time there as well — everyone at Jose’s job was making fun of him.

“North, in winter? You’re heading north?”

Take a Vacation!

Take a Vacation! (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Well, yes. Packing hats, mitts, boots and lots of warm clothing is pretty normal for us. In our 13 years together, we have yet to take a beach vacation, mostly because Jose does not swim and money is usually too tight. (Although we did squeeze in two two-week trips to Paris in 2007 and 2008.)

Our last really big trip was three weeks in Mexico in May 2005, far too long ago. It was completely wonderful in every way: we visited Mexico City, Queretaro, Patzcuaro, Oaxaca and Cuernavaca, where I lived when I was 14. We even went back to my old apartment building there — totally unchanged.

Vacation, these days, is often a time to simply eat, sleep, read for pleasure, repeat.

Jose’s job, as a photo editor for  large daily newspaper, means six meetings every day and answering hundreds of emails. By the time we take some time off, he’s whipped. My workdays are a blur of email, calls, pitching ideas, following up with editors, reading and writing.

My perfect vacation means getting off the computer, out of the car and never touching a telephone. It’s also a blend of city excitement and, when possible, some spectacular natural landscapes.

Day One of this trip meant a lot of sleeping. I read an entire book, ‘Rules of Civility”, something I have no time and less attention for at home; it’s set in 1938 Manhattan and is a good read. We played Bananagrams with Dad and his partner, and Jose took a terrible photo of me gloating when I won.

Our plans include time in Toronto and Montreal, for shopping, some good meals, seeing friends and (yes) some business meetings for me as well. It’ll be a mix of the familiar — lunch on Queen Street, upscale at Nota Bene or low-key at Prague, where the schnitzel is plate-sized and amazing — and exploring some new-to-us spots.

Last time in Toronto, in June 2012, we tried, (and didn’t enjoy), the oh-so-trendy Thompson Hotel. This time we’ve voted for the Hotel Ocho. It’s…interesting. It’s hilarious to be in a place where every single person is about 12, O.K. maybe 26. Every time we step into the lobby, they all look at us in puzzlement: “Old people, why are you here?”

We’re also here facing two pieces of Canadian currency history — the new polymer $20 bill, (which is hideous and even has the wrong maple leaf on it), and the end of the penny next week as legal tender; it’s been costing the Mint 1.6 cents to produce each penny.

We’ll be in D.C. for a few days in early May when I go there to accept a writing award, and in Arizona and New Mexico in May/June. Our big trip this year will be two weeks in Newfoundland, and I’m eager to finally visit Gros Morne National Park, a UNESCO Heritage site since 1987.

I’m dying to visit many more spots, from Japan to Buenos Aires to Croatia, returning to Paris, London and Istanbul, to canoeing in the Arctic. I live to travel and would happily spend almost every spare penny on it. The endless challenge is making enough money to be able to go far away and really relax — when every single minute not working, freelance, means not earning income.

When you go on vacation, where do you like to go?

What do you enjoy doing?

What does it cost you to live these days?

In behavior, cities, culture, domestic life, life, Money, travel, urban life, US on January 29, 2013 at 3:09 am
Apartment buildings in the English Bay area of...

Apartment buildings in the English Bay area of Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. Beautiful but oh so spendy!!! (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A recent New York Times article made clear — again — why living in Manhattan is increasingly for the wealthy:

The average Manhattan apartment, at $3,973 a month, costs almost $2,800 more than the average rental nationwide. The average sale price of a home in Manhattan last year was $1.46 million, according to a recent Douglas Elliman report, while the average sale price for a new home in the United States was just under $230,000. The middle class makes up a smaller proportion of the population in New York than elsewhere in the nation. New Yorkers also live in a notably unequal place. Household incomes in Manhattan are about as evenly distributed as they are in Bolivia or Sierra Leone — the wealthiest fifth of Manhattanites make 40 times more than the lowest fifth, according to 2010 census data.

Ask people around the country, “Are you middle-class?” and the answer is likely to be yes. But ask the same question in Manhattan, and people often pause in confusion, unsure exactly what you mean.

What many people outside New York don’t know, necessarily, is that many “New Yorkers”, and I include myself in that bunch, have never lived in The City, as we call Manhattan. It’s too damn expensive!

They live on Staten Island or Queens or the Bronx or Brooklyn or (as we do) in Westchester or New Jersey or Long Island or Connecticut. We waste hours of our lives trading time for money, commuting an hour or more each way.

Since leaving my hometown, Toronto, in 1986 — where real estate is insanely expensive, (only Vancouver is worse), — I’ve lived in Montreal, a small town in New Hampshire and in suburban New York. I’ve seen huge differences of the cost of living firsthand.

In Toronto, rent/mortgage costs are high, almost no matter where you live. In Montreal I rented a stunning apartment — top floor of a 1930s building, with a working fireplace, elegant windows, two bedrooms, dining room, good-sized kitchen — for $600 a month. It was the 1980s, but my then boyfriend was paying $125 a month to share the entire top floor of an apartment building. I didn’t need a car, food and utilities were reasonable, but the taxes! Holy shit. I moved to Montreal with a $10,000 a year raise, and looked forward to extra income. I only kept $200 a month of that, the taxes were so bad. More to the point, I hated the lack of services I got in return — a high crime rate, pot-holed roads, lousy hospitals and libraries. I moved away within 18 months. (Not to mention a winter that lasted from October to May. Non, merci!)

Rural New Hampshire, with the U.S.’s lowest taxes, was cheap enough, but we needed two working vehicles, plus gas, insurance and maintenance, an expense I never needed in Toronto or Montreal.

Moving to suburban New York, where we bought a one-bedroom 1,000 square foot top-floor apartment, with a balcony, pool and tennis court, allowed us a decent monthly payment, thanks to a 30-year mortgage, all we could then afford on one salary, his, a medical resident.

I still live here, now with my second husband, paying $1,800 a month for mortgage and maintenance combined. That may sound like a fortune, but it’s pennies in this part of the world. We could easily spend that for a tiny studio in Manhattan. He pays $250 a month for his train pass to travel a 40-minute trip one-way into Manhattan.

The larger problem?  Our salaries are stagnant, if not falling. I earned more in 2000 freelance than any year since then.

Gas here in New York is just under $4/gallon — it was 89 cents a gallon in 1988 when I came to the U.S. Food is much more expensive than even two years ago, so we spend about $150+ every week for two people. We do eat meat and I work at home, so I often eat three meals a day out of that.

Our cellphone bill is absurdly high and something we need to lower. Electricity is about $75 a month as is the basic land-line bill. We also pay about $100 for a storage locker and $75 a month for our (unheated, unlit, no automatic door opener) garage.

The local YMCA wants $89 a month, (which I think really expensive) for a monthly single membership. One of the worst issues here? Tolls! It costs $4 each way to cross the cheapest bridge to get into the island of Manhattan, and another is $9 each way. Parking, if you choose a garage in the city, is routinely $25-50 for a few hours, while a parking ticket is more than $100.

These smack-in-the-face costs are only bearable, for me, because I’m self-employed as a writer, and can write most of them off as business expenses.

So why stay?

— My husband has a steady, union-protected job with a pension and a decent salary

— He likes his job

— I have ready access to the editors, agents and others in my industry I need to support my writing career. Online is not enough to build profitable relationships, at least for me

— I enjoy New York City a great deal. I love ready access to Broadway, Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, fun shops and restaurants and quiet cobble-stoned streets to wander on a fall afternoon

— Where would we go? I have learned (after two deeply disappointing moves to Montreal and New Hampshire) that being happy somewhere is often a complex mix of things: housing (and its cost and quality), access to culture, a liberal (or conservative) environment politically, neighbors who share some of your interests and passions, weather, climate, taxes, government, your job/career/industry.

As several fellow Canadians I know said, “I moved to New York, not the U.S.” I’ve seen a lot of the States, and can appreciate the appeal of many other places here. But almost nowhere has made me feel confident enough to up stakes and start all over again. I was up for a cool job in San Francisco once, but the dotcom collapse ended that. I like L.A. a lot, but Jose refuses. (Next stop? South of France, s’il vous plait!)

— I love the Hudson Valley’s beauty and history

— We have some good friends, finally.

Here’s a fascinating blog post by a Canadian then living in Sardinia, now in the Cayman Islands, about the cost of living there. Many of her followers weighed in, from Hawaii to China.

What are your costs of living these days?

Are you thinking of moving to lower them?

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