I have my new passport in hand now — and it’s good for ten years.
I hope I am!
Acquiring a new passport really is an exercise in optimism, as international travel, (all travel, really) always requires three key elements:
Jose and I are now at an age we read the obituaries and keep finding people our age, and younger, who have lost their lives prematurely, most often to cancer and heart attacks. We pray for continued good health, without which travel — let alone anything else — is out of the question.
This is such a privilege!
So many people work in jobs, sometimes multiple jobs, that allow them little to no paid time off, or are too scared to actually take their paid vacation or — worst — insist in answering work-related demands even while they are supposed to be resting and recharging.
Jose and I both work full-time freelance and are only paid when we work; i.e. no paid vacation days, ever. Every day we take off without pay means we have to make it up somehow, since our overhead costs are fixed.
Another mark of privilege.
Many people just can’t afford to go anywhere a passport is needed, i.e. to leave the United States (or their home country) — poorly paid or unemployed or beggared by debt service.
We don’t have children or dependent relatives, so we have more options in this regard.
Of course, travel and adventure can also be found and enjoyed close(r) to hand, exploring your own neighborhood, town/city/state/province. Both my native Canada and adopted U.S. are enormous, tremendously varied and filled with alluring places to visit.
The places in Canada I still want to see include Newfoundland, P.E.I. and some more of the Far North.
In the U.S., I hope to visit Colorado, Utah, Montana, Wyoming and several more national parks. I really want to do a driving trip the length of California. I’d like to visit Portland, Oregon, where we have several good friends.
It’s a very long list of places I’ve yet to see, including Japan, Laos, Cambodia, Mongolia, Tibet, Nepal, South Africa, Namibia, Argentina, Chile, Brazil, islands of the South Pacific, Antarctica, Lebanon, Greece, Croatia, Finland, Iceland and Morocco.
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!
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.
Berlin? Amsterdam? Antwerp? A quick flight to my new friend in Bahrain?
Nothing in the world makes me happier than a travel adventure.
Here, in no special order, are some of my favorite places around the world:
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.
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.)
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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 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 city resembles a small child, at best bursting with charm, all winning smiles and irresistible, 24/7 energy. At worst? Projectile vomit, much throwing of small, sharp objects and/or prolonged shrieking at high volume.
You never know which city you’ll get.
After 25+ years of living and working around New York City, here’s a random list of 20 things I’ve learned:
— After an exhausting day at a conference or trade show at the Javits Center, a hulking structure on the western edge of town, your poor feet are raw, since there’s almost nowhere there to sit down. Food is crazy expensive and not very good. When it’s time to go home, you head for the taxi rank, naively expecting, (hello, it’s a taxi rank), to find…you know, taxis! Lined up, lots of them, eager for business. Wrong! You will give up and trek long blocks in the pouring rain in search of one, praying you don’t miss your flight home.
— If you actually need a NYC taxi between 4 and 5:00 pm. — also known in most cities as rush hour — fuhgeddaboudit.There are 20 percent fewer cabs on the street then, as that’s the drivers’ shift change. But, if you beg, really nicely, sometimes a driver will in fact take you. Will you get a safe and experienced taxi driver? I once got into a cab, barked “Laguardia” and got a quizzical glance. (It’s one of NYC’s two major airports.) I directed him to the right tollbooth where the collector said “Take the BQE”, (Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, a major artery). That didn’t register either.
— NYC — huh? — has shockingly lousy radio. We have WNYC, and the fab Brian Lehrer, (talk, call-in, 10-12 each weekday morning), and Leonard Lopate, (talk, culture, noon to 2pm, weekdays), and Jonathan Schwartz (American songbook, Saturdays and Sundays.). We have WFUV and WKCR, Columbia University’s station, (love their eclectic schedule — from troubadours to 60s reggae and ska), and WQXR. Then…WBGO, a jazz station from Newark, NJ.
— Be very, very careful if you choose to cycle or even cross the street here; a shocking number of people, including children, are killed here every year by careless drivers. Don’t be stupid and focus on your device while trying to navigate the crosswalk, if there even is a crosswalk — that text you’re reading or sending could well be your last.
— Getting a traffic or parking ticket of any kind in New York City is really expensive; I recently got my first-ever ticket, for going through a stop sign — $138. (If I’d run a red light in Manhattan, it would have been $270.)
— But the cop who slapped me with my $138 fine also confided, since it was my first offense, how to get out of paying it. (I paid anyway.)
— Tourists. Gah! We hate freaking tourists, especially when they walk three or four abreast, slowly, entirely blocking the sidewalk for the rest of us. It’s totally awesome you have all bloody day to stroll, chat and stare. We don’t. Speedupalready!
— Yes, we can tell just by looking that you’re tourists. It’s not just your maps and foreign-language guidebooks. It’s your hair color/cut, choice of pastel clothing and/or white sneakers and/or lots of purple and pink and/or the volume of your conversations. Also, that glazed look.
— Please, do not whine about what things cost here. Yes, the prices are insane — $50 to park for four hours in a garage or $20 for a midtown cocktail, $8 to cross the George Washington Bridge, $10 for dessert or $15 for an appetizer. We know how expensive it is. We also pay a shitload of taxes to a state and city government forever sending its elected officials to court or prison for fraud, sexual harassment or corruption. I once simply drove my mother to the airport — $13 for tolls and 20 minutes parking. Puhleeze.
— Two places you can always find a bit of peace? The many pocket parks and plazas dotting the city and the pews of any church.
— You’ll see an entirely new city with each season, and softer or sharper, less or more angled sunlight it brings. I was walking south on Park Avenue the other day — at 2:30 on a sunny January afternoon — and passed a 1960s building I’ve seen hundreds of times. But I saw it wholly anew, as the light’s angle created pockets of shadow clearly intended by the architect, in metal indentations below each window. It was lovely.
You can even, for a week in late January every year, watch world-class champions playing squash in a glass-walled court inside Grand Central Station. Crazy!
— There is beauty in almost every single block, if you look carefully. It might be a hanging lamp, a brass marker inlaid in the concrete, a gargoyle, a church spire, leaded windows, exquisite ironwork, a tiny snowman with pretzel hair. Despite its insane rushrushrush, New York City is actually a place that rewards a slower pace, (off the busiest streets!)
— New Yorkers may look mean, tough, unfriendly. We’re really not. We are usually in a hurry, (knowing the taxi, if we can even find one, will take forever to get there or the subway will break down). We’re probably rushing somewhere to get more something: money, opportunities, friends, whatever. But so many of us have come here from somewhere else that we get what it feels like to be scared, overwhelmed, lonely — and thrilled to finally master this place, even for a while.
It’s fascinating, and sad, to me that so many people are reluctant, even fearful of leaving their home — whether their familiar surroundings of city/town/farm or the greater adventure of exploring their county/state/province, country or continent.
Why is the notion of “travel” so unappealing to some people?
I think because it really includes a raft of expectations, fears and assumptions, like:
Travel is dangerous
It can be. So can staying at home, never trying or experiencing anything new!
There are multiple forms of danger to consider, mitigate or avoid.
These include physical (is that boat safe?); emotional (what if someone shouts at me on the street?); political (is there an advisory against travel to that place right now?); criminal (if an object is that financially valuable, leave it at home or insure it.)
The worst crimes I’ve suffered — break-in and assault (Toronto); break-in and burglary (Montreal); fraud (New York) and auto theft (New York) all happened at home. Too ironic. (Well, we did lose everything from the trunk of our rental car at the Pont du Gard in France. That was nasty.)
Yet I’ve been alone, young and female in places like Istanbul and Bangkok, with no incident.
Travel is lonely
Only if you want it to be! The single best way to meet fun, cool fellow adventurers — even within your own state or province — is to take a tour (walking, bus, boat, bike, horseback) or stay at a hostel.
Travel is too difficult
That depends on you, really. If you have multiple, tiny, exhausted children and/or are ill or in pain, travel can really be a nightmare. But even the stupidest annoyances can sometimes be re-framed as an adventure when they happen to you in Sicily or Singapore.
Travel means speaking to strangers
Of course it does! What that really means is making an effort — to be kind, to look people in the eye and hold their gaze, (when culturally appropriate) and greet them. If you have ever visited France, you learn within days that every time you enter and leave a shop, you say “Bonjour, monsieur/dame!, Au revoir, Monsieur/dame!”
People are often delighted, if you try to speak their language and show pleasure in their world, to help. But you won’t know until you try.
Travel means trusting in the unfamiliar
That can be frightening if you’ve so far had little experience beyond your own culture.
American “news” of foreign countries is usually only that of political unrest, war, fires, floods, crashes, famines, tornadoes, hurricanes or lurid crimes involving Americans.
It’s crazy, inaccurate and bigoted. If all non-Americans ever heard about the U.S. was as grim and depressing, I doubt that millions would flock to New York or Miami or L.A. or the Grand Canyon, as they do every year.
If you’re hoping to visit a place totally unfamiliar to you, do some homework! Read the local press and/or listen to local radio (on the web.)
Visit a tourist bureau, consulate or embassy to find out more. Find some people who are from that place and ask them for their advice, insights and recommendations. Read travel blogs and magazines for insight.
Travel means relying on systems and organizations you don’t know to be safe or reliable
That depends on you, your taste, your family’s tastes and where you go. As anyone who’s been to Asia or India knows, you can live on $50 a day or less.
In New York or L.A. or Paris or Montreal, you can spend that on a few cocktails or lunch.
Travel means if I get sick I will not find a doctor or (safe, effective) treatment
I’ve been ill in France, Holland, Turkey and Canada, and had excellent care in all of those places. It’s pretty clear that any rural or isolated area is going to make this more difficult, although I was able to find a terrific, well-staffed clinic at the Grand Canyon for an exam and a tetanus shot.
If you’re heading into an area known for certain illnesses (malaria, cholera, plague), be sure to get the necessary inoculations and pack a small medical kit for emergencies.
Travel away from my work means I will never find another job
That depends on a range of factors. What sort of work do you do? How well-developed or in-demand are your skills? How strong is your network of contacts?
Travel means I will lose all my freelance clients
Not if you use social media, the Internet and are willing to do enough to keep your hand in.
My magic carpet!
Travel will alienate me from my friends, family, sweetie and pet(s)
This is actually a real fear and one that I’ve lived. People who choose to venture out, repeatedly and further each time, into the wider world — during college, for vacation, for months or years, doing NGO or non-profit or volunteer work — are a different breed from those whose pulse races at the latest TV line-up, not a fresh new passport or plane ticket.
Thanks to social media, you can stay in touch. Those who get it will really appreciate your decision.
I’ve been lucky enough, from infancy, to travel the world. My parents, then living in Vancouver, B.C. where I was born, removed a car’s back seat, put in my crib, and drove to Mexico. Raised as an only child, I was also lucky enough to be affordably portable in later years.
No wonder I’m at my happiest when traveling and/or in motion! One of my favorite smells is the distinct aroma of jet fuel. Takeoff!
I took my first solo airplane flight at seven, meeting my mother in Antigua.
Since then, I’ve visited 37 countries, some of them alone.
I’ve visited some with my mother, father, friends or boyfriends/husbands: England, France, Mexico, Sweden, Montserrat, Jamaica, Colombia, Peru, Fiji, Ireland, Thailand, Venezuela.
I’ve also traveled widely on assignment for magazine and newspaper stories and while researching my books. In those instances, I’m almost always alone, whether in a tiny hill town in Sicily, small Texas towns like Waco, San Angelo, Fredericksburg or Silver City (aka the middle of nowhere!) or navigating major cities from Bangkok to Rome to Istanbul.
I dearly love and miss Mexico, a place I lived for six months at 14, in Cuernavaca, with my mother. I love everything about the place and have been back many times, but not since May 2005, when we toured for three weeks to Mexico City, Queretaro, Patzcuaro, Oaxaca and Cuernavaca.
I cry with relief and excitement when I return each time to Paris, a city I lived in at 25 for eight months on life-changing journalism fellowship. I’ve seen a bit of the south — the Camargue, the Cote d-Azur — and Normandy. Corsica is one of the loveliest places on earth!
As some of you may know, a hurricane is due to hit the Eastern Seaboard of the U.S. sometime this morning. I’m giving a speech Tuesday evening at 7:00 pm in Minneapolis, Minnesota so Friday night, Jose suggested I jump on a train to make sure I actually got there in time, as all of New York’s public transit was being shut down, and flights were sure to be canceled. By Sunday evening — as I was almost at my destination on Amtrak — the wait time to speak to a customer service rep for Delta airlines was between seven and ten hours…
I bought a $227 one-way ticket (with nowhere to sleep but sitting up in my chair) and hoped for the best.
So, here I am, writing this from my Minneapolis hotel room, and here’s my story…
I left from Croton-Harmon, the Amtrak station about 15 minutes drive north of our home, to get to Albany, a two-hour journey, where I changed trains for the 15 hour trip to Chicago. I initially boarded the Ethan Allen Express, named for a Vermont hero.
The Hudson Valley, where I begin this trip, is one of the prettiest places in the United States, its trees now a blast of red, yellow, orange, brown and crimson — all likely to disappear after the hurricane blows through this week. The train tracks hug the eastern shore of the Hudson River, speeding (a relative word — crawling, compared to a TGV) past 18th. century towns and landmarks like West Point, the military academy. We passed Our Lady of Restoration Chapel, built in 1840 facing the river, where I was married (the first time) in May 1992.
The car is filled with students. A young girl is busy rolling cigarettes on her notebook, carefully adding filters. The girl behind her is knitting a gray scarf. Two young men behind me discuss their friends.
“She married a prince of some foreign country! That’s crazy. She’ll never have to work and someday she’ll be a queen.”
The train for Chicago, the Lake Shore Limited, leaves Albany at 7:05 p.m. and I settle into my aisle seat, a large woman in the window seat whose bum will press up against mine (and vice versa) for the next 15 hours, even though we don’t speak. The train is packed, and I can hear many people saying they, too, are fleeing Hurricane Sandy and whatever havoc it might wreak.
I sit in the lounge car, now that it’s dark, and watch a DVD on my laptop, Frozen River, an excellent 2008 feature film about two desperately poor women who smuggle illegal immigrants in their car trunk across the St. Lawrence between the U.S. and Canada. It’s an apt choice because at Syracuse, two hours north of Albany (and 1.5 hours south of the Canadian border) immigration officials climb aboard and check some people’s identification. I overhear them say they are removing someone with all their luggage.
In the lounge car, a bearded young Aussie in a black hoodie is yammering on to a pretty young Hispanic girl who, with great pride, tells him she passed an employer’s drug test by using her mother’s urine.
We all sleep in whatever position we can manage within our seats, but no one bothers to pull the dark blue curtains so the brilliant orange lights of the passing landscape keep flickering through the glass. My soft challis scarf makes a perfect eye-shade wrapped around my head and my wool cape is long enough to make a warm blanket and small pillow.
I fall asleep at 1:00 a.m. but am awake at 4:00 as we stop in Cleveland, Ohio. A man three rows ahead of me is reading his laptop, the screen blindingly bright in the darkness.
The train crosses northern New York, a narrow sliver of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana and into Illinois. A man got on in Albany struggling to carry a huge ice chest filled with food, as well as his rolling suitcase, black fabric covered with pink flamingos, so full he cannot zip it closed. He looks poor and scrawny and tired, like many of the passengers. This is the America that will vote in a week for their new President.
Who will they choose?
This is a whole other America, one I rare see in my affluent suburban bubble near Manhattan, where a devastating moment is your kid not getting into Harvard or Yale.
At sunrise, around 7:00 a.m., we straggle to the lounge car for coffee and tea. One woman’s hair (like mine) is squashed and crimped from behind — bedhead.
I sip my tea and eat my pain au chocolat that Jose packed for me, and watch the sun gilding the shorn cornfields of Indiana, a vegetative high and tight. It seeps across the pick-up trucks and barns and silos and quiet farmhouses. Cows and horses stand in their paddocks, waiting for the day to begin.
We barrel through this quiet landscape, timeless, lovely, calm.
I have a four hour layover, from 9:45 a.m. to 2:15 p.m. until my train leaves for Minneapolis, (its final destination is Seattle). I buy a locker (using a scanner that takes my fingerprint! for $12) and stuff my things into it. I buy my three usual weekend newspapers, The Wall Street Journal, New York Times and Financial Times, and head out into the sunshine.
Right outside the train station is the Chicago River, crossed by a number of bridges. This is the view from the Adams Street bridge.
I was in Chicago in November 2011 for the first time, so I know where I am and where to go, which I consider such a luxury — feeling at home in a place far away. I head toward Lake Michigan to find a spot for breakfast, to settle in and read my newspapers.
But first, I want to say hello to my history, and head a few blocks over to State Street, to this white tower, built in 1912, developed by my great grandfather Louis M. Stumer. The architects, Holabird and Roche, did many of the city’s grandest buildings. I love having a personal connection to this great city and a building that still stands at its heart.
I settle in for breakfast at the Corner Bakery, and pick up a sandwich for the rest of my journey, another 8.5 hours further west to Minneapolis.
I board the Empire Builder, a two-storey train I last took from here in August 2002, (heading to Vancouver, Canada to see my mother through brain surgery) that goes all the way west through another half-dozen enormous states, to Seattle, where its final miles of track are mere feet from the Pacific Ocean. (I was then in Dayton, Ohio researching my first book, about women and guns, when the surgeon told me to get there as fast as I could. Last-minute airfares are so costly, I went by bus and train.)
This time I’m seated beside a woman who is a retired archeologist, whose late husband was an astronomer whose experiments rode inside two space missions. She did work in Michoacan, a state in Mexico I’ve also visited and knows Santa Fe, NM well, where my husband was born, so we have lots to discuss.
But I soon withdraw into music on my laptop and an empty two-chair spot, to sleep as much as I can. I listen to Briton John Renbourn’s acoustic guitar and Canadian singer Sarah McLachlan, — gentle, meditative — both a perfect soundtrack as the sun sets over the fields of Wisconsin. We stand still — waiting, every time for a freight train ahead of us — as the fading light paints a stand of white birch trees to our right a soft pink.
The train rattles along, through towns like Red Wing, Minnesota and Lacrosse, Wisconsin. Here’s a photo of the station at Columbia, Wisconsin; a few minutes later a small parade of kids came by in their Hallowe’en costumes.
As I walk the car’s narrow aisle, I see a group of women knitting the most extraordinary things I’ve ever seen. “Are those…feathers?” I ask one. “Yup. It’s going to be a cowl,” she says, showing me creamy wool with gleaming feathers sticking out of it. “This ain’t your grandma’s knitting!”
I get to talking to two of the women — 38 of them belong to a passionate Minneapolis group that’s just gone to Chicago for a three-day knitting conference. Their fingers are all flying: an orange sweater, a pale pink sock, a black hat. One offers to make me a muffler, complete with feathers, if I pay for the materials. Yay!
One woman lived for years in Pakistan, and her friend has been to Afghanistan and Thailand and Pakistan. People are amazing. You never know who’s sitting beside you or behind you or in front of you — until you find out.
We stop for a brief break somewhere in the Wisconsin/Minnesota? darkness. People are eager for fresh air, a cigarette, a chance to walk around a bit.
This is a Santa Fe car parked on the tracks beside us as we took our micro-liberty.
We shuffle back in and climb the narrow stairs, as this train has two levels, including my favorite — the observation car — whose individual seats face outwards. When I did this trip in 2002, and came all the way from Seattle back to NY, it was one of the best experiences of my life.
You really can have no idea how beautiful the U.S. until it has flashed past you for days and nights on end, mile after mile after mile: farms and fields and rivers and cities and ducks on still ponds and flying geese and abandoned factories and slick college campuses and huge mansions atop hills…
I ask a conductor if Minneapolis is halfway across.
“Oh, no! That might be in Montana.”
We are late, hardly unusual for Amtrak. Americans don’t like the train much, (or, to be correct the wealthy and powerful lobbyists for the auto and airline industry do not), so the system and its cars is slow, outdated and inefficient.
We pull into Minneapolis at 11:00 p.m. Sunday night. I started my trip at 3:58 p.m. Saturday in New York.
A man with two enormous incisions, with fresh black thread sticking out of his stitches, his right hand swollen like a balloon, clutches his small, trembling reddish dog against his enormous stomach. “She doesn’t like stairs,” he tells us.
I stumble into a taxi and head for my hotel. I’ll have two full days to recover before I speak about my book, Malled, and retail, to 100+ students at the University of Minnesota.
I take the subway south to Christopher Street from Grand Central Station.
Across from me on the train is a lean, tall, attractive woman in her 40s, maybe 50s. Not an ounce of body fat. Her male companion is equally attractive, equally lean. She’s wearing white skinny jeans tucked into low red suede boots. His hair is salt and pepper, very well cut.
There are always clues — his messenger bag has an unfamiliar label. They are unusually quiet, speaking so low I can barely hear them, in what sounds like Dutch.
I get out of the subway and cross Seventh Avenue to my hairdresser, whose three-chair salon feels like home. I found him more than a decade ago through my husband, (now bald), who came to him when he had hair and Alex was over on Carmine Street. Now he’s on Grove, in the West Village, my favorite Manhattan neighborhood of all, with its low 19th and 18th century buildings, narrow and cobblestoned streets, sheltering trees, its cozy cafes and well-loved indie bookstores tucked into battered little spaces with pressed tin ceilings and worn wooden floors — a place whose intimacy is best experienced on foot, walking slowly, noticing things.
My hairdresser is a classic New Yorker, a gruff guy in his late 40s, maybe early 50s. No bullshit. Someone calls him and starts asking the prices of every possible service. “Are you starting your own salon and looking for pricing?” he asks.
And yet I’ve seen him bend over and offer a gentle, shy kiss to his clients, outer-borough women in their 70s and beyond, one of whom came in a wheelchair with her attendant. Everyone comes to Hairhoppers: trendy young bankers, lawyers, museum curators, a few Uptown blonds. We remember all his assistants, and ask after them, even years after they’ve left, like Brie, who moved to San Diego and got married, and Eddie, who now works uptown, and John.
This day, I’m sharing the space with a state attorney and a retired English teacher. We’re soon deep into passionate conversation about the economy, hard to avoid as we’re all barely feet from one another. There’s no brittle status anxiety here, but one of those rare and special places where strangers immediately feel comfortable, often trading phone numbers after a lively exchange. The teacher and I are talking so much I keep turning my head and Alex gives up cutting. He’s pissed. Chastened, I stare straight into the mirror, and talk to her reflection.
I cross Seventh and head to one of my favorite restaurants, Morandi, to eat outside, even though it’s gray and drizzly. A man with two sons sits nearby, someone famous in a baseball cap, but I can’t remember who.
A blond man in a T-shirt is pacing the sidewalk, on his cellphone, deeply disturbed. “But can he sing? I have to find an arranger, and book a studio and I don’t even know if he can sing. He can’t?”
A man in a black suit, carrying a garment bag, joins his companion behind me. Lawyers, one of whom seems to want to change jobs. “If Romney wins, my heart just won’t be in this work anymore.” They discuss the machinations of the Senate. Can’t tell if they mean state or federal. I love eavesdropping, and look as though I’m reading a book, which I also am.
Two Town Cars pull up, waiting, rain-beaded. A handsome stocky man exits the restaurant with his son, maybe 11, his blond wife with her $1,200 Stella McCartney handbag, and another woman. They jump into the Town Cars and drive away. I wonder how the world appears to a young boy for whom so luxurious a life — a $50 lunch, an idling limousine and driver — is routine, expected.
I stop into Greenwich Letterpress to sigh over the beauty of their work, and pick up a price list for their business cards. The samples offer many familiar names, of writers, designers, photographers. I finally feel a bit like a New Yorker, knowing who they are. They’ll charge $340 for 250 cards. Hmmm, is every contact I meet worth $1.36?
I suspect it would take me more than a year to distribute that many cards. In today’s melting-ice-floe economy, who knows which professional identity I’ll be using by then?
Running late for my 3:20 train, I cab it to Grand Central and am so late I have to buy my ticket on the train — paying double the price, punished for my tardiness. In the space of six hours, I’ve spent more than $250, grateful I can afford it right now.
Manhattan often feels like an expensive lover who, exquisitely and charmingly and with great certainty of purpose, shakes your pockets empty.
I dive into “Canada”, Richard Ford’s new novel, as the Hudson River flashes by on my left, the fall colors muted in the mist.
And yet, despite my loathing of turbulence, I live to travel.
This calendar year, so far, I’ve been to Victoria, Vancouver and Kamloops, B.C., Banff, Alberta, Toronto, D.C., Minneapolis, Peterborough (Ontario) and Chicago. In January I’ll be in Tucson and thereabouts for two weeks (while my husband teaches a photo workshop there), then go to New Orleans on the 25th to speak at a retailers’ conference.
Spoiled by years of international — i.e. off the North American continent — travel, I still have a huge jones to go somewhere, soon, they don’t speak English as a first language.
I’ve been, so far, to 37 countries, from Fiji to Turkey, Thailand to New Zealand. In 1982, I won an eight-month journalism fellowship that required (heaven!) funded solo travel on 10-day reporting trips all over Europe. I went to Denmark, England and Sicily and did an eight-day trip in a truck from Perpignan to Istanbul with a French trucker who spoke not a word of English.