I’m 14 days into my six-week six-nation European journey, much of it solo.
A few notes, in transit:
The kindness of strangers
It’s an interesting experience, as a generally competent and independent adult, to be vulnerable, to need other people to pay attention to me when I need it — like when I got on the wrong train in Frankfurt and, re-directed by a kindly stranger, quickly de-trained.
When transport and restaurant and shop and hotel staff are helpful, even friendly, it matters so much more than when you’re at home, surrounded by the love of friends and family. I enjoy travel, and am happy to do it alone, but rudeness and indifference can sting without the emotional supports of the familiar.
I was enjoying a leisurely breakfast in a crowded corner cafe of Berlin’s Ku’damm, a major street, and a spot surely full of tourists like me — when I noticed a police motorbike speeding down the sidewalk opposite.
It was nothing serious, but it could have been.
This trip, I’m spending more time than ever before paying attention to my surroundings and how the people around me are behaving. Without my protective, savvy husband — (a former White House Press corps photographer who spent eight years watching the Secret Service protect the President and his family) — it’s all up to me.
Situational awareness matters now.
The humility of needing translation
I speak French, so Paris was easy. I don’t speak a word of German, (or Hungarian or Croatian or Italian.) Nor do I use apps or carry a pocket dictionary. It is humbling to rely on others’ knowledge, and their willingness to use it to help me.
I was at a gym here in Berlin trying to explain something, when a young man, clearly on his way to the office, stepped in: “Do you need help translating?”
I did. And was so grateful!
People may share tables here, and expect to do so. North Americans are more accustomed to lot of physical room, in public and in private.
I love this crazy painting in my Berlin hotel, lobby, Hotel Savoy
Your memory isn’t my memory
Everyone has their favorite (or not!) memories of the places they’ve been and I’m constantly told to Do this! See that! by well-meaning friends.
But your memory of each place is shaped, as mine are, by many variables: who you were with, how old you were, your budget and tastes, the time of day and year, the weather, even the strength of your currency, in that moment.
We also may enjoy wholly different things!
I like to wander. I’m just not a box-ticking type of tourist, rushing to every must-see or trying every must-do.
One of my loveliest afternoons happened by walking a side street, slowly, and discovering one of Germany’s major auction houses, housed in a gorgeous architect-designed building from the late 1800s. I had a great chat with the woman at their front desk, a former Lufthansa flight attendant who got married — in all places — on Staten Island, New York.
That’s not an experience I could have planned, nor offered by any blog or guidebook.
Sitting still is key
Travel is, for all its many pleasures, tiring. Your feet get sore and tired from walking. Your arms and shoulders get weary from dragging a backpack or suitcase. You get hungry and thirsty.
You need to think, to make notes, to just stare into the sky for a while.
You have chosen to stop working — and also just need to rest.
Most of my favorite memories are of sitting still for a while, even an hour at a time (!), watching the light shift and the people walking by, possibly sipping a pot of tea or a prosecco.
There’s never enough champagne!
Taking photos is my greatest joy
I started my career as a photographer, so I love finding images to treasure and frame for our home. My husband gave me a gorgeous little Leica for my birthday and I’m making very good use of it!
Everything is visually interesting to me: light, shadows, foliage, the patterns on a bike or a dress.
I’m fascinated by how different my hotel’s street in Berlin — Fasanenstrasse — looks at all hours — the sky is light at 3:45 a.m. (!) and at 7:10 a.m. I suddenly noticed sharp sunlight briefly illuminating a fantastic stone carving in a doorway.
Routine still matters
I found a gym in Berlin, took a spin class, lifted weights — and sweated happily. At home in New York, I’m at the gym two to three times every week and I miss it. I need to stay in shape.
Routine — although deadening when never broken — is also a little soothing when everything else around you is new.
That little white bear in the very back? He’s along for the ride!
So does comfort
Yes, I travel with a very old, very small, very beloved stuffed bear.
And I’m fine with that.
Acquisition versus disposal
I rarely shop for anything at home beyond gas and groceries, and find much of what I really crave too expensive — and that which I can easily afford unappealing.
So I love to shop when I travel.
But I offload as I go; every post office sells stiff cardboard boxes and plastic packing. I spent 38 euros ($42) this week in Berlin to mail three packages home, things I do want later but don’t need to want to drag around at the moment.
It’s 2.5 years since I was last here, in the depths of winter.
My husband Jose and I came for my birthday, and three friends joined us that evening, one from her home in London, her partner from visiting his parents in Sweden and a journalism colleague stationed here. Some had never met one another, and I had never met two of them, but it was a terrific evening.
We ate at this gorgeous restaurants in the Marais, Les Chouettes (The Owls.)
I lived in Paris for a year when I was 25, on a journalism fellowship, so the city feels like home to me. I speak French and have been back many times since then, four times in the past decade.
The city is a feast in every way: great food, beautiful colors everywhere — flowers, doors, women’s clothing — millennia of history, gorgeous architecture, reams of culture, tremendous racial and ethnic diversity.
Most visitors spend their time in the 1st through 11th arrondissements — with possible visits to the quieter, chi-chi, residential 16th. (Balzac’s home is there) and the grittier 18th, 19th and 20th. The buses and subways are clean and efficient and many taxi drivers now speak English.
Some photos of our week:
Jose planned a terrific Sunday jazz brunch at La Bellevilloise, a 100+ year-old building that’s been re-purposed into a cultural center in the funky 20th arrondissement (neighborhood), with great views of the city. The buffet style food was delicious, the music Django-esque, and the crowd a mix of all ages, tourists and Parisians.
I recommend it highly; you must make reservations!
The flat we’ve rented, from a journalism colleague of Jose’s, is in a trendy nabe, the Marais, (literally, as it once was, the swamp), an area filled with indie boutiques, bars and restaurants lining its narrow streets, with fantastic names like “the street of bad boys” and “the street of the white coats.”
The view from our flat’s living room
Our rented flat is on the first floor at the end of a tree-filled cul-de-sac, so it’s blessedly silent at night.
My Paris isn’t typical.
I don’t feel compelled to fight the crowds and see all the official sights: Notre Dame, the Louvre, the Musée d’Orsay, the Tuilieries, the Eiffel Tower.
I treat it instead like an old, familiar friend, as one more big city I enjoy.
Some tourists stagger along with pontoons of shopping bags from Chanel and Vuitton and Hermes. Instead, I’ve bought everything here from eyeglasses to bathmats; the colors on offer are so distinctive and these things bring us daily pleasure at home for years afterward.
We have a few favorite restaurants, like this one, Les Fous de L’Ile, on the Ile St, Louis, (where we rented a flat for two previous visits) and love to try new ones.
We tasted two whites and two reds, with matching types of cheese and baguette and water to help us not get too drunk and learned a lot.
Paris has changed, of course, since I’ve been coming here, and five new things I notice this time:
— people jogging in the streets in Spandex and Fitbits, (once unheard of)
— far fewer smokers, more vapers
— so many people speaking excellent English, happily, from cabbies to store clerks and restaurant staff.
— Everyone’s wearing “les baskets” — sneakers — and a good thing, too! This is a city that demands and rewards hours of walking, but ohhhh, your feet will get tired if you don’t wear comfortable and supportive shoes.
— This visit, too, I’m much more aware, all the time, of our surroundings and every possible egress; with terrorism attacks in various European cities, including the massacre here at the club Bataclan, you can’t be stupid and tune out. A policemen was attacked with a hammer outside Notre Dame on Tuesday.
We live in weird and frightening times. I came out of a department store to find a large crowd and a lot of security guards and thought…ohhhhh, shit.But it was only (!?) people waiting for some American actor/celebrity to show up; apparently Tom Cruise has been here filming the latest Mission Impossible.
On a more sober note, one thing you’ll notice here, if you pay attention and look at the doorways of residential buildings, is the number of signs and monuments to the men, women and children who died during the Resistance and in WWII.
I saw this glass monument in the park next to Le Bon Marché, an elegant, high-end department store — steps away from a brightly-lit carousel filled with happy children
It honors two little girls who perished in Nazi death camps and I found it deeply moving,
Arrested by the police of the Vichy (occupation) government, complicit with the Nazi occupiers, more than 11,000 children were deported from France between 1942 and 1944, and assassinated at Auschwitz because they were born Jewish. Several of them lived in Paris, in the 7th arrondissement and among those two “very little ones” who hadn’t even started attending school.
As you pass by, read their name because your memory is their only resting place.
A great joy of summer here is the huge amount of sunlight. Paris is much further north than you might expect — 48.8 degrees north, (the Canadian border with the U.S.) — and the sun isn’t setting right now until 9:45 or later, so there’s a long, lovely dusk.
I’m leaving, starting in Paris with Jose for my birthday, for six weeks in Europe, most of it spent alone and my longest break in 30 years — Paris-Berlin-Budapest-Zagreb-Istria-Venice-London.
A few reasons to travel:
Meeting “the other”
Who’s “foreign” and why? What does it even mean to be a foreigner? What’s janteloven and how does it affect Scandinavian behavior? What’s a “bank holiday” and why do people look forward to it? Why do the Dutch keep their windows open and their interiors visible? What part of a Thai person’s body should you never touch?
We each live within a cultural and historical matrix affecting our choices, whether we realize it or not. Shedding that protective shell, even briefly, can be eye-opening — even life-changing.
The Brooklyn Bridge, NYC
Becoming “the other”
Suddenly you’re the fish out of water, whose assumptions and beliefs can seem weird, even rude, where you’re the visitor.
To slooooooow down and pay close attention to where you are
Turn off your phone! Put down that damn selfie-stick!
Instead, bring binoculars, a sketch book, a book to read. Sit on a rocky hilltop or by a waterfall or in an outdoor cafe. Sit still for an hour and be truly present.
Memories are the best souvenir and paying attention creates them.
Learning/testing your resilience and resourcefulness
It’s up to you to: read the map/menu/train station directions/find the hotel or hostel or apartment. It’s up to you to catch the right bus or subway, (a challenge if the language is Arabic or Chinese or Japanese or Cyrillic or Greek!) But the self-confidence it brings transfers nicely once you’re back on familiar soil.
Using/learning another language
Read the local paper or listen to radio and TV. Learn the phrases for “please” and “thank you” and “I need help.” Using the local language, if at all possible, is a basic show of respect, even if you blunder.
Realizing the value of other ways of thinking: political, economic, social, urban planning, healthcare
Americans, especially, have shockingly little knowledge of the world; with a huge Pacific Ocean to the West, the Atlantic to the east, simply getting out of the U.S. can mean a long, expensive flight. Nor are Americans taught much, if anything, about other countries and American exceptionalism can add a layer of potential arrogance and tone-deafness.
Making new friends
Social media and the Internet offers us unprecedented opportunities to make new friends, literally worldwide. Thanks to blogging, my journalism work and Twitterchats, I’ll be meeting up with new and old friends this summer in London, Paris and Berlin, and hope to make a few more along the way.
Americans call it Canadian bacon; we call it peameal!
Exploring new cultures
Through food, music, museums, galleries, architecture, parks and natural wonders. It’s easy to forget how essential other cultures have also been to the foundation of so much Western thought — French, Asian, Greek, Arabic, just to name a few.
Find out what a muffaletta and a pan bagnat have in common!
Gaining a deeper appreciation of history
I once stood in front of the magnificent marble facade of an Italian church with a Chinese friend who asked if we had such things in my country, Canada. No, I said — we didn’t even become a country separate from Great Britain until 1867.
Stand inside the ringing silence of the Grand Canyon or the African savannah or Australia’s Outback….and remember we’re mere blinks within millennia.
The Koch Theater, Lincoln Center, New York
Savoring nature’s silent beauty
So much travel is focused, as it should, on the great cities of the world. But there are so many stunning natural sites, from White Sands Monument in New Mexico, (actually silica), to the vast red deserts of Namibia and Morocco, the jungles of Central and South America and Africa, the rugged islands off the coasts of Ireland and Scotland and the U.S. and Canada…
Trying new activities
No bungee-jumping for me! But I’ve tried street food in Bangkok, chocolate-filled churros in Mexico City, sea-kayaking on Ko Phi Phi, horseback riding through the desert in Arizona. Even if it’s an activity you know, doing it in a wholly different environment is worth trying; I loved playing golf on Cruit Island in strong winds at the ocean’s edge — leaving my cheeks salty with sea-spray.
Looking for travel ideas or inspiration?
There are hundreds of travel blogs; one, written by a young Scottish friend — who met her American husband (of course!) while teaching English in China — is Stories My Suitcase Could Tell.
I also enjoy the sophisticated tips offered by a Canadian living in Paris, here.
It’s a fantastic time to visit Canada, where I was born (Vancouver) and raised (Toronto, Montreal.) The Canadian dollar is about 73 cents U.S. and it’s a gorgeous place, with much to see, from Gros Morne National Park in Newfoundland (forever on my to-do list) to the spectacular Pacific Rim National Park Reserve, on the northern tip of Vancouver Island — at the opposite end of my enormous country.
I join weekly travel-focused Twitterchats, like #TRLT, #travelskills and #culturetrav. If you love travel, it’s a terrific way to learn a lot about the world and meet equally passionate fellow travelers.
I’ve been, so far, to all of my native Canada except Nunavut, PEI, Yukon and the Northwest Territories, to 38 of the 50 United States and 38 (soon to be 40) countries.
Here’s an alphabet of some favorites:
Andalusia is an absolute must-see, even though most people choose (rightly!) Madrid or Barcelona when first visiting Spain. I began my trip through Spain, (alone), in Huelva, arriving by train from Portugal, visiting Seville, Cordoba, Granada and Ronda. The region, which spans the entire south of Spain, is heavily influenced by Moorish design and architecture, from the Mezquita of Cordoba with its red and white stone arches to the white beauty of the Alhambra. Ronda is simply spectacular — a town set high upon a cliff.
I loved Auckland: great food, lovely setting, friendly people, easy access to countryside. New Zealand, a costly/long air journey to reach, is worth every penny. One of my happiest trips anywhere, ever.
Picture “Blade Runner”, with a river and amazing food. I spent much time on the narrow boats traveling up and down the Chao Phraya River, enjoying the breeze and watching people. The late Jim Thompson, whose textile company is still in business, has a house there, open to tourists. The city can feel crazy, but I loved it.
I spent 10 days in Copenhagen and could easily have stayed longer: compact, beautiful, set on the water. Not to mention Tivoli, its famous amusement park.
Corsica, of every place I’ve ever seen, remains one of the most breathtaking in its rugged, mountainous beauty. I traveled around the north by mo-ped, alone, inhaling the scent of sun-warmed maquis, its scrubby herbal underbrush. I loved everything about this French island, lesser known to North Americans than Europeans.
My great-grandfather was the schoolteacher in Rathmullan, in this northwestern-most county of Ireland. The attendance records from his one-room schoolhouse include his record of bad behavior — with my grandfather scolded for “persistent talking.”
We rented a cottage in Dungloe and did day-trips around the county. It’s Ireland at its wildest, wind whipping in from the Atlantic, sheep grazing at the very edges of steep cliffs. I’ve been to Ireland five times, and this bit quickly became a favorite.
Just south of Montreal, a 90-minute drive, lie the gently rolling hills and small towns of L’Estrie or the Eastern Townships. We’ve been many times since 2001, staying every time (splurge!) at Manoir Hovey, a family-owned resort on Lake Massawippi. Intimate and elegant but not stuffy, perfect for a romantic or restful weekend.
I ended up in Fiji thanks to my peripatetic mother, who spent years traveling the world alone. Blue starfish! Cricket matches! Lush green landscapes!
I’ve been to this small funky college town in northern Arizona a few times, en route to the Grand Canyon. I stayed last time at the Monte Vista, built in 1927, and ate breakfast at the bar, watching a local cabbie have his first Bloody Mary at 8:00 a.m.
Gros Morne National Park/Grand Canyon/Grand Central Terminal
We still haven’t made it to Gros Morne, a UNESCO world heritage site, and one that looks like Norway — in Newfoundland — but it’s high on our list.
The Grand Canyon is everything you want or hope it will be: majestic, awe-inspiring, stunning. The best way to experience it is to hike deep into the canyon, (starting very early in the morning to avoid summer heat and carrying a lot of water), to truly appreciate its flora, fauna and silence.
GCT, (my station!), is truly a cathedral of commutation. Filled with great restaurants and shops, it’s a jewel of New York City with its star-studded turquoise arched ceiling.
My home of several decades. Visitors to New York City should set aside even one day to take the train, (Metro-North, a commuter railroad), north along the eastern edge of the Hudson River. It’s so beautiful! The western shore are steep rocky cliffs called the Palisades, the eastern edge a mix of New York’s second-largest city, Yonkers, and the “river towns”, small, historic villages set like beads on a string at the water’s edge, including mine, Tarrytown. Most have great restaurants and shops, and you can see Manhattan to the south, glittering like Oz. One of the most spectacular towns is quaint Cold Spring, where the river narrows dramatically and you can rent kayaks.
I spent only three days in Istanbul, while working, but it’s unlike any other city I’ve seen. Where else can you ferry between Europe and Asia? Its minarets and muezzins alone create a skyline/soundscape distinctive from anything Western. I spent an entire day in the Grand Bazaar sipping mint tea and looking at rugs.
I’ll be in Istria this summer, for the first time, really excited to explore a new-to-me part of the world; 89 percent of it lies in northern Croatia, where I’ll be visiting the towns of Rovinj and Bale. From there, it’s a quick trip northwest to Venice.
I couldn’t think of anywhere I’ve been yet that starts with J! But living in New York, this is one of our two major international airports, so it’s key to international air travel.
Key West/Ko Phi Phi
Key West, Florida, the southernmost point in the United States, is funky, offbeat and a great spot for a long weekend. No sandy beaches, but lots of fun bars and restaurants. Best of all — rent a bike or walk everywhere.
It’s been a long time since I landed on Ko Phi Phi, but it remains in my top five most indelible travel experiences. A two-hour boat ride from Krabi, in southern Thailand, Phi Phi was tiny and gorgeous — I hope it still is.
It can feel enormous and overwhelming, so take it slowly, neighborhood by neighborhood. Stroll the Thames. Have tea! Stop for a pint at a pub. Visit Primrose Hill for a great city view, and enjoy the shops and restaurants along Regent’s Park Road; PH is a lovely residential area with pastel-colored villas. Visit Hamley’s toy store and Liberty, possibly the prettiest retail store in the world. Visit Freud’s house and marvel at his odd office chair!
It’s everything you think — timeless, breathtaking, mysterious. Watching the sun rise over the Andes, light spilling into valley after valley after valley…
I love Maine and have been back many times. The coastline is rugged and beautiful, its small towns varied and interesting, Acadia National Park worth a visit. Blueberries, antiques, ocean and lobster — what’s not to like?
What Eden must have looked like. You reach it after descending for an hour of hairpin turns, and see animals spread out for miles. This stunning landscape lies in northern Tanzania; damned expensive to get to from almost anywhere, but worth every single penny.
Mexico, one of my favorite places; both the city and the state.
Regular readers here know how much I love Paris, where I lived at 25 in a student dorm in the 15th, and have returned to many times, usually renting a flat on the Ile St. Louis or in the Marais. In any season, (but especially fall), it’s a city that always rewards the flaneur/euse — the meandering explorer with no set agenda.
Especially (brrrrr!) mid-winter. Set high on a cliff above the St. Lawrence River, Quebec City is a taste of Europe without crossing an ocean. Narrow, winding cobble-stoned streets, (treacherous when icy). Delicious French food. Some shopping. Have a drink at the bar of the elegant, classic Chateau Frontenac hotel.
I know, you expected Rome! I’m headed to this town in Istria/Northern Croatia, eager to explore its narrow, lovely cobble-stoned streets and deep sense of history. I’ve never been to Croatia and am so looking forward to it.
Savannah, Georgia is a perfect weekend getaway — charming, elegant, historic. Great food and shopping. The city is a series of small squares; earthier and less manicured than Charleston.
San Francisco…swoon. Small enough to feel manageable but large enough to offer a variety of museums, restaurants, great shopping and architecture. Sacramento Street, for sure. The Presidio. Drive out into Marin County, filled with perfect small towns and lush green hills.
Sintra is a resort town in Portugal, a day trip from Lisbon, that feels like a children’s book illustration — steep wooded hillsides and castles filled with glorious Portuguese tile, azulejos. Simply astounding.
New Mexico, (where my husband was born and raised) is one of the most beautiful states of the U.S. — the light, the landscapes, the mountains. Taos is a small town but feels like, and is, a place people actually live; (Santa Fe is gorgeous but expensive and touristy.)
I went to Tucson for work, and loved it. A small city with some great restaurants, an 18th century mission and (geek alert!) The Pima Air & Space Museum. I love aircraft — and what less likely place to see a MiG?
My hometown. Not the prettiest city, but great food, several very good museums and, my favorite, the Islands, reached by ferry within about 15 minutes, year-round. Set in the harbor, they offer a great view of the skyline at sunset, several cafes and bike rentals — and beaches. Check out Kensington Market (funky/vintage/ethnic foods) and St. Lawrence Market (huge, amazing.)
Maybe the best part of travel — heading into new places for new adventures.
Few cities have so spectacular a setting as Vancouver, my birthplace — with mountains to the east one side and the Pacific Ocean to the west. The local art gallery is small but has a great cafe. Take a day to enjoy Granville Island, with shops, artists, food markets and restaurants. Stanley Park is fantastic; rent a bike and do the circuit, allowing time for the most YVR of experiences, watching seaplanes landing and taking off.
All that you think — mysterious, crumbling, narrow alleyways, the enormous piazza of St. Mark’s Cathedral. One of my favorite spots is the studio of Spanish textile designer and inventor, Mariano Fortuny. I spent my 21st birthday here, alone, staying at the legendary Gritti Palace.
It’s easy to spend days here just visiting every one of its many museums and art galleries. But it’s also a city that rewards walking, to appreciate its low-slung, elegant layout, created by a Frenchman, Pierre L’Enfant, in 1791. Enjoy its smaller neighborhoods as well, and take the Metro — you’ll see the city’s unique mix of uniformed military, eager young interns with their badges and lanyards, students and government workers.
On my to-do list, on the Mexican Caribbean coast. I’ve been to Mexico many times, and love it, but not yet to that part of the country.
I’m going to cheat here and go with YUL — the airport code for Montreal. One of my favorites, a city I’ve lived in twice, as a child and as an adult. Summer offers the Jazz Festival and a comedy festival and winter is really cold and windy. But ohhhhh, the restaurants! The shopping! The city never disappoints. Small enough to scoot around by cab or public transit.
I’ve never been, but will be there this summer as part of my six-week journey through some of Europe.
My former employer, The Globe and Mail, an espresso and a yogurt — a typical breakfast!
I love trying new things, and am often easily bored by routine.
It’s why I generally do better being self-employed, as any truly tedious gig is easily-enough ditched, soon to be replaced with something more interesting and challenging.
But, like everyone, I also find real comfort in the familiar, the tried and true, the reliable and known.
It’s one reason, I confess, I return on vacation to places I already know — my hometown, Toronto; Montreal, Mexico, Paris and London (all of which I’ve lived in), D.C. (to visit friends) and New Mexico (where Jose was born and raised.)
My recent week in Toronto offered both; I deliberately chose to stay in a downtown rented flat, the location and the apartment a novel choice for me. Loved it!
I tried a few new-to-me restaurants and cafes, and also enjoyed a cafe I’ve been eating at since I left the city for good in 1986, The Queen Mother Cafe. I love its booths, its oddly Asian menu and ohhhh, the cakes!
One afternoon I headed out, looking forward to trying a new-to-me restaurant — only to find it empty and closed. So much for novelty! That’s the challenge of a city with rapidly-accelerating property values and rents. Your beloved whatever may well be gone the next time you visit a favorite city or town.
In daily life, it’s a challenge to keep mixing it up, balancing a thirst for the new with the stability of reliably knowing that some things won’t change, at least for a while.
Between birth and age 30 I changed cities four times, countries four times. I’d attended five schools. I’d lived in 13 different homes, from apartments in Cuernavaca and Montreal to a student dorm in Paris to a stone cottage in Scotland; (this doesn’t include five years in a Toronto boarding school and nine summers spent at four Ontario summer camps.)
I’ve now stayed in the same one bedroom apartment since moving to the U.S. in 1989.
The thought of packing/sorting/moving/adapting again? Brrrrrr!
I was burned out from moving too often too quickly; between 1982 and 1989 I’d moved Toronto-Paris-Toronto-Montreal-NH-NY. I was fried. I wanted roots. I wanted to find and nurture new professional and personal relationships, which I have.
I’m still using the same doctors, hair salon, library since I arrived and am 17 years into my (happier!) second marriage.
But these days, finally, I’m feeling a bit restless and so I’m actively seeking out some novel experiences.
A favorite Toronto store. I always visit and always find something fun to buy
This week, (however small it may seem), I’m reading a collection, a best-of 2015’s science fiction and fantasy. Loving it! As someone whose normal media diet is news and non-fiction, reading in this genre is a stretch for me but one that’s really proven pleasurable.
I’m now absorbing less news, unusual for me.
I may (gulp) sign up for a decorative arts course in London this summer, as I’ll be there anyway. It’s not cheap, but it’s focused on two of my passions, combined — antique textiles and Asian art.
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.
First question — why would anyone do such a thing?
Today’s temperature? 18 F, -8 Celsius.
Bloody cold, kids!
It was a week that fit my work schedule and I needed to renew my passport. I could have mailed away my old one (no thanks!) and paid $260. Instead I spent a lot more to stay in a rented flat for a week off, to see old friends and family.
I was out of the downtown Toronto airport — located on an island in the harbor — by 10:30 a.m., got my photos taken and had my application in, ($210, all in, including $50 for the rush job) by 12:30. Sweet!
Isn’t this a hoot? The Museum subway stop, which has been renovated and designed to a fantastic level (the Royal Ontario Museum sits just above)
Here are some of the things I’m enjoying this week, despite the bitter winds and blowing snow:
Seeing dear old friends
Catching up with people I knew at summer camp 40 years ago and from my college years at University of Toronto. My friend K was pregnant with her first child when she danced at my first wedding — her daughter is now a successful actress here. Whew!
Thinking in metric and Celsius
I bought 100 grams of salami, and have to keep looking up the temperature in F.
No pennies. Loonies and toonies. (Those are $1 and $2 coins.) The Canadian dollar is 74 cents U.S., giving me an automatic discount on everything I spend here.
A modern, downtown rented flat
It came up on a search on Trivago, $109 U.S. per night for a 700 square foot condo on the 30th floor of a residential building downtown. It’s super-bright, quiet, and has a brand-new kitchen, bathroom and comfortable queen bed. I come and go with all the other residents, meeting their kids and dogs in the elevator. I like it.
OK, no big deal, but I love these biscuits, not easy to find in New York — here, for sale in a subway newsstand
Went to the legendary, enormous St. Lawrence Market, (took the streetcar for $3.25), to buy food for breakfasts at home and, of course (always!) fresh flowers to make the flat feel more like home. Brought home an olive baguette, a muffin, some cheese and pate and salami, butter, jam, fruit and a fistful of glorious, fragrant purple hyacinth.
Restaurants, bars, cafes
Had a very good lunch at Milagro, a 10-year-old Mexican restaurant, the one on Mercer. Anything that survives that long in a foodie city must be good, and my meal was.
Loved Balzac’s, a cafe chain across Ontario. I stopped in at the one next to the Market for a cappuccino and a scone.
A must-do on most of my visits is the roof bar on the 14th floor of the Hyatt Hotel, at the corner of Bloor and Avenue Road. Small, intimate, quiet, elegant, it has terrific views of the city. I’ve been drinking there since college — Victoria College at University of Toronto is only two blocks south — so it’s full of memories. On one visit, the Prime Minister and his entourage sat in a corner.
My friend J introduced me to the Museum Tavern, a terrific five-year-old bistro directly across the street from the Royal Ontario Museum. Great atmosphere and food — and lots of memories, with some of the original decor from a long-closed TO restaurant I once enjoyed, Bemelman’s.
I left Toronto decades ago and the downtown core has totally transformed, thanks to a forest of condo skyscrapers, which means there is every possible amenity within a few blocks.
I took a spin class at 7:45 at night, then walked a few blocks, slowly, back to the flat, staring up into the night sky at the CN Tower, with its lights beaming in rainbow colors. (I once interviewed the man who designed it — then later got a marriage proposal from him — and recently ran into him in a town near our NY home. Small world!)
Yes, Toronto has racial tensions and even crime, just like other major cities. But it’s overwhelmingly a city of immigrants, with every nation you can imagine represented. I miss that; New York City is, arguably, diverse, but it’s very segregated economically.
A cardboard Mountie stands guard at St. Lawrence Market. A must-see!
I’m on an airplane today, for the first time in almost a year, the last time also headed back to the city where I grew up and lived for 25 years, Toronto, a 90-minute flight from New York.
Last June I flew up for only three days, (a splurge we couldn’t really afford), to attend the wedding reception of a dear old friend, marrying at 70. It was an elegant crowd, many of the guests sporting a tiny white enamel flower lapel pin — a signal to the cognoscenti that they had won the Order of Canada.
This time I’m heading north to renew my passport and to take a badly needed break from work, from the U.S. and from the daily stress of life under a President whose behavior leaves me, at this point, adjectivally challenged.
I don’t really miss Toronto as a city. Housing is very expensive and often not of great quality. Winters are long, cold and gray (or grey, as Canadians spell it.) Traffic is now monstrous.
But I do miss my dear friends, people I’ve known since summer camp and high school and university and my first newspaper job. I’ve stayed in close touch with them and can’t wait to see them again.
I’m also planning an extensive — six week — trip to Europe, beginning in early June to celebrate my birthday (again!) in Paris with my husband and some friends who live there and some friends who’ll come over from London to share our rented apartment. (I’ll be blowing through some savings. Gulp!)
I’ll have one week there with Jose, who then flies home to photo edit a major golf tournament in Wisconsin. We’ve been to Paris together several times, usually staying in a rented apartment on the Ile St. Louis, (this time in the Marais.)
I know the city well, having been many times and having lived there for eight months on a journalism fellowship.
Then I’ll head off solo to wander, something I’ve done many times before.
I know people in various parts of the world, so that even new-to-me places like Berlin contain people I’m eager to finally meet, like this blogger and two Twitter pals, one of them an archeologist.
From Berlin, I’ll head to Budapest to meet up with my best friend from university and one of her grown daughters.
I’m also looking forward to visiting and writing about Korda Studios, near Budapest, one of the largest sound stages in Europe — where The Martian was filmed.
One of the fun things about being a journalist is that I sometimes find great stories to write about while traveling, and can then deduct some of my travel costs while working there as legitimate business expenses.
After Budapest…not sure yet!
I’ll finish up that trip with a visit to my friend C in London, who writes the fab blog Small Dog Syndrome. We share passions for several things, including beauty products, great food and vintage clothes. We had a blast the last time roaming Bermondsey Market and a few flea markets.
Another friend has moved there, so I’ll have another playmate; it’s a real luxury to travel and to re-connect with pals abroad.
In 2016, I only left home for six days’ vacation; three in D.C. and three in Toronto, all in June — not enough for me, having so far been to 38 countries, 38 American states and most of Canada.
I love to savor the familiarity of beloved old haunts and the excitement of making new discoveries.
Are you heading out into the world on an adventure this year?
Grand Central Terminal; the view from Cipriani. What’s not to love?
Sitting at the bar is where I’ve had some of my best conversations — in Corsica, in Atlanta, in San Francisco and last Friday evening in New York City.
It was about 6:30.
Commuters were rushing to their trains north, to Connecticut and to Westchester, tourists, as always, posing on the steps and slowing rushed New Yorkers down as they raced for the 6:47 or whichever train was next.
Never get in the way of a New Yorker in a hurry!
I settled in at Cipriani , an elegant Italian restaurant in a balcony overlooking the station. I had a magazine and a Mr. C, a citrus-based cocktail. The bartender kindly plugged in my cellphone to charge it.
A handsome young man in a navy suit and white shirt, no tie, slid onto the stool to my left; a slightly older man with a head of wild black hair and oversized sunglasses sat to my right.
“How’s your week been?” I asked the man to my left.
He told me he’d just gotten a new job, and we toasted, clinking our cocktail glasses.
He seemed surprised I was happy to toast a stranger’s success. Why not? Who would be too churlish to deny him that pleasure?
It’s a big deal to flee a job that’s a poor fit for one you hope will be a much better one. Been there, done that.
That’s the beauty, I suppose, of being near the tail end of a long career. For someone only a decade in, every decision can still feel problematic because you’ve yet to make that many of them.
An investment banker, he admitted he didn’t much like the field, but — probably like many people, especially those unhappy at work — he had pretty much fallen into it. If you know anything about I-banking, the income is certainly seductive, but golden handcuffs are still handcuffs.
I urged him to start creating an exit strategy. Life is far too short to stay in a field or industry you really don’t enjoy, I said.
He looked surprised by my vehemence, and my insistence one could actually enjoy one’s work life.
We ended up talking for about an hour, sharing stories of family and work, of dating woes and East Coast snobberies, and the classic diss we’d both experienced: “Where’d you go to school?”, a tedious sorting mechanism. (The only correct answer being the coy, “In New Haven” (Yale) or “Providence” (Brown University) or another of the Ivy League.)
“I’m strapping, right?” he asked me, at one point. He was, actually.
It was a bit awkward to be asked, even though the answer was affirmative.
He was a little drunk.
It made me a little sad.
He was single, and just under half my age, a fact he finally realized but managed to handle with grace.
We had a good conversation with lots of laughter, a few of of life’s more painful challenges and a few high fives.
I like how the right bar and a drink or two can connect two strangers companionably for a while.
It’s not very far from one city to the other — about 1.5 hours by train.
The Philadelphia Museum of Art, its broad steps familiar to anyone who’s seen the film Rocky, is a lovely place with interesting shows, so I took the bold and costly step of traveling from our home in New York to see a show there, paintings from Mexico 1910 to 1950.
It meant taking a train into New York from our suburban home, changing train stations, then another train to Philadelphia, then a brief cab ride to the museum.
But the train ride there proved, as it often does, to be the highlight of the day.
Three African American women got on at one of the New Jersey stops and one sat beside me, swathed in a leopard print cape, and wearing leopard print gloves. She wore a simple black wool hat and beneath it a sheer black scarf printed with images of Jesus.
I’m not sure how we started talking, but we were soon trading stories and recipes for all our favorite foods. She was raised on a North Carolina farm. She bore nine children; her first-born, a daughter, and her mother, were burned to death in a house fire.
One of her grown daughters, a pastor, sat behind us, wearing a large necklace in rhinestones that spelled out the word Queen.
This, to me, is one of the joys of travel — to break my daily bubble and speak with people I’d never meet any other way.
We’re not wealthy, so we don’t fly first class or take costly cruises or stay in luxury hotels, certain to only meet people at a similar income level. That means, de facto, meeting a broad cross-section range of fellow travelers.
My seat-mate was 89, and the best company I’d had in weeks. When I got up to leave, we hugged goodbye.
The museum show was impressive, and exhaustive.
It took me 2.5 hours to see it all, although I’m an outlier now at museums because I actually look at things. It’s become normal — how depressing! — to quickly snap a cellphone photo of the art and/or its wall text and simply move on — without looking at the art itself.
I lived in Cuernavaca when I was 14, and have been to Mexico many times, a country I love and miss. It’s also the birthplace of my husband’s grandfather. So I was very interested to see the art, which included some famous and familiar images by Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, including many lesser-known works.
I enjoyed lunch in the museum restaurant, now closed for 15 months for reservations.
On Friday nights, the museum offers live music and serves food and wine on its enormous central staircase. It creates a great welcoming atmosphere, and the stairs filled up quickly with people of all ages.
I needed to call Jose, (of course I’d left my phone back in New York), and a woman lent me hers and we fell into a long conversation; she was a Phd student from Belgrade.
I sat for a while in the Philadelphia train station before heading back to New York. It’s a classic — very high ceilings, tall white glass Deco-style hanging lamps, long polished wooden benches.
A statue at one end, an angel holding a male body with torn trousers, is a WWII memorial, one of the most powerful and moving I’ve ever seen.
I finally arrived home around midnight, having traveled further in one day than I had in six long months — my head and heart newly filled with ideas and memories, refreshed and recharged.