my new wanderlust wish list

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Four years ago I made a list of the places near and far that I most wanted to visit. At the time, I was coming out of a long student debt-induced travel lull, so I didn’t expect to cross much off the list very quickly. But I did – I lived in Senegal and I traveled to Burkina Faso, Cuba, Mexico City, and Tanzania. 

That leaves a lot of places still on the list, hopefully for one day in the not-too-distant future. In the meantime, other places have captured my imagination and taken precedence. Here is an update: 

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It’s the most wonderful time of the year in Paris

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When I arrived in Paris in mid-April two years ago, I assumed I was in for a lovely spring in the City of Light, followed by a graceful transition into a pleasantly mild summer. I had left both my early winter and deep winter coats behind in New York and packed only a leather jacket, a light puffer jacket, and a wool sweater to keep me warm. I figured that would be enough. I was wrong.

I spent the first two weeks of my time in Paris waking myself up with my own shivering, running to the space heater to turn it on, diving back under the covers with my sweater on over my pajamas, and curling up in a fetal position until I summoned the courage to get out of bed a half hour later. Leaving the house wearing my sweater, puffer jacket, and leather jacket one on top of the other made me look like an Oompa Loompa and yet did not keep me warm enough, even in the sun, which rarely made an appearance.

Most days, the default Paris setting was gray skies, punctuated by maybe an hour or two of sunshine at some point in the morning or afternoon. I started thinking of the sun maliciously, like it was a stuck-up tease.

When summer came, not much changed apart from a slight increase in the temperature and a toning down of the sky’s tint from gray to milky beige. The sunny days lasted longer but they were still too few and far between. Everything just felt… bof.

I realized then that Paris has somehow avoided the reputation that London has for cold, rain, and gray, but it nevertheless follows the same general weather patterns. And I am not a fan of those weather patterns in the least.

Until the fall.

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Though the scientific data does not in the least back me up, I remain certain that there are far more clear blue skies from September to December than there are during the spring. And even when it is objectively cold and gray, Paris paradoxically wears its shitty weather so much better in fall and winter. It’s not a popularly held belief, but I truly believe that the off seasons are the best seasons. Continue reading

A moment of thanksgiving

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When I arrived at my childhood home on the Wednesday night before Thanksgiving, my mother had France24’s English-language news on. I joked that France24 should be boycotted in her house, since they turned her daughter down for a job. She was perplexed – I guess I hadn’t told her that a little over a year ago, I interviewed – in French! – for an entry-level job on the English language desk of France24’s news bureau. Remarkably, I passed that interview with flying colors. After we talked, the Human Resources manager thought I was such a shoo-in that she took me on an extra tour of the newsroom and introduced me to everyone there. Then she brought me back to her office, sat me in front of a computer, and told me that the next step was to take a timed news quiz, which my would-be boss would assess before inviting me back for a second interview.

I bombed that quiz in a way I haven’t bombed anything since getting a 43% on a chemistry test in tenth grade. In the first part, I had to identify eight political figures with two or three sentences each. I got Bashar al-Assad and Robert Mugabe correct but drew a blank on the one American and five European names. Apparently most were members of various EU government bodies. I can’t even keep track of what the various EU government bodies are called, let alone who their members are.

I don’t think I did as awfully on the rest of the quiz as I did on the first part, but who knows. I had to create a headline and write a script and translate a French article into English, and it all seemed a little too easy, so maybe I didn’t fully understand the assignment. In any case, I did badly enough that the head of the English-language desk did not even want to interview me – for an entry-level position editing footage from the field and archive into simple news packages.

On Wednesday night, I told my mother this story and concluded, “That was my last shot at a decent paying job in France and had I gotten it, I would probably still be living there.” And then my mind boggled. While at the time it felt like a tragedy to lose that job opportunity, not one thing about my life would have been better than it is now, had I stayed in France. Yes, I’d be speaking better French, but at what cost? I’d be working in news – which is clearly not my thing – rather than documentary, I’d be working in an entry-level poorly paid position, and who knows what kind of hovel I’d be living in. I’d have foregone the countless hours of time with dear family and friends that have sustained me since I’ve been back in the United States. And I’d have failed to reroute myself in a direction that makes any sense at all for my future or my mental health. It would have been fun in the short term but a dead end in the long term, prolonging my weird European stasis indefinitely.

The timing of this realization was perfect. It happened almost exactly one year after I heard back from France24 with the news that I wouldn’t be receiving a follow-up interview, and it happened right before a holiday that is all about gratitude.

So I began Thanksgiving counting my blessings. Thank goodness I failed that news quiz. It cleared the way for the rest of my life to begin.

[The photo is from the Hilma af Klint exhibit at the Guggenheim, one of the things I’m so glad I was back in New York to see.]

Portland! (Plus a quick trip to the Oregon coast)

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In September I flew to Oregon to visit my sister, brother-in-law, and three year-old niece. I stayed in their new house on the southern edge of Portland, in a town called Oregon City, which was the terminus of the Oregon Trail. Even though I miss them terribly, it seems apt that my sister ended up there since she played that game obsessively in grade school. 

I had already spent time exploring northeast Oregon and Washington five years ago, and my family would be at work/preschool during much of the week, so I decided to rent a car and take a few days for a side trip to a new place: Idaho. I ended up doing one giant loop, from Portland southeast to Crater Lake, east to Boise, northwest to Pendleton, and back to Portland, with some detours and stops along the way for good measure. It was a feast for the eyes the entire way around. 

I’m splitting up the pictures into three parts. First: Portland and vicinity.

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note to self

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Four years ago, after staying up all night wandering around Tokyo in a state of near constant euphoria, this occurred to me: when you’re curious about people and open to experiences, you bring the party with you. I used to think of it the other way around – that when I went out in search of good times, novelty, or adventure, I needed to find it rather than to create the optimal mental conditions to foster it. In Japan I realized that being in the right place at the right time is much less important than being in the right frame of mind to share the dormant party always living inside me with the people I meet, and to encourage them to share the party they bring along within them as well.

The most memorable example of this in Japan was when my colleague and I were having a pretty underwhelming time belting out pop songs at 2am in a karaoke room all by ourselves. As we were leaving, I ignored the voice in my head telling me that I might deeply embarrass myself, knocked on the door of a private room across the hall, and asked the handful of Japanese hipsters inside if we could join them for a song or two. They said yes and one of the most joyful ten minutes of my life followed.

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Orelsan in New York

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About a year ago, on the very angsty eve of my 38th birthday, a song I had never heard before, but which was apparently a new French chart-topping hit, lifted me out of my malaise. It was called “La Pluie,” and Spotify fatefully served it up to me at the exact time when I needed it most. Buoyed by the words and the music, I listened to it about a hundred subsequent times while walking around Paris, which more often than not was fittingly rainy. By that point, I was just coming out of what had felt like a bottomless well of depression and anxiety. I was in the middle of battling a health issue that would require a hospital procedure to resolve. And I was staring down my persistent French underemployment, my dwindling bank account, and my lack of any clear direction. I was finally beginning to accept the inevitability of returning to the United States to become financially solvent and figure out what to do next.

“La Pluie” wasn’t responsible for my unexpected pivot from dread to beatific acceptance, but it was while listening to the song that I realized the change had already happened, and I felt a kind of aching serenity wash over me – sadness and hopefulness at the same time. Also silliness, because for French rap to inspire such profound feelings is ridiculous.

I went to see Orelsan at Irving Plaza in New York a couple of weeks ago because I wanted to revisit that absurdly intense period of my life and the emotions that – even though often highly unpleasant – had made me feel so alive.

I suppose I set myself up for disappointment. I should know by now it’s impossible to recapture the past, especially when you’re trying. Orelsan played “La Pluie” in the first half of the show, and it somehow didn’t hit the right notes, so the trip down memory lane I had wanted to take instead turned into five seconds of full-fledged emotion followed by another minute or two of trying unsuccessfully to force it to stick around.

The rest of the show I just took it all in without trying to make it something it was not. Yes, the place was filled with more French people than I have ever seen gathered in one place outside of France. But they did not make me feel the way I did in Paris. There, I felt like an outsider but in an intrepid and exhilarating way. At the show, I felt like an insider rendered an outsider by other outsiders who lost their caché outside of France. I don’t know how to adequately express it except to say that when Orelsan led the crowd in a call and response complete with a lot of ’90’s era hand waving, “Quand je dit Irveeng, vous dites Plahzah. Irveeng? Plahzah! Irveeng? Plahzuah!” I both smiled and flinched at the awkwardness of it all.

So it wasn’t a transcendent night, but it was still a lot of fun.

Things that I forgot I love about New York

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Before returning to the city after two years away, I made a list of the things I was looking forward to. Several important items didn’t occur to me at the time, but now that I’ve been back for six months, I’ve rediscovered them with delight. In no particular order:

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Decades old diners

I feel like diners are to New York what bistros are to Paris. At first glance they all look the same, but each one’s character is uniquely shaped by its history, the people who work there, and the clientele who frequent it. Many years ago, two friends and I went on a historic diner tour of northern New Jersey. This spring, we revived the format and spent the day eating one meal after another at various Bronx and Manhattan diners that have stood the test of time and gentrification. In August, we did a Brooklyn-Queens tour and blurred the boundaries to include a 100 year-old soda fountain and not one but two decades-old roast beef joints.

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It’s a shame to see so many vestiges of New York’s neighborhood past disappear year by year, but I’m trying to live it up in the ones that are left.

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Without ever realizing it, I deeply missed the “green geometry of the playing field,” as former baseball commissioner A. Bartlett Giametti called it. Being back in the stands on a blazing hot, crystal clear day and cheering my team on to victory during an otherwise (highly) lackluster season was heavenly. I wore the Mets cap I received for my tenth birthday (and which still fits because, as an optician pointed out at my glasses fitting right before I left for the game, “You have a tiny head.”) I was surrounded by people with thick New York accents, whose love for the team is intergenerational. I felt a deep sense of New York City continuity that I hardly ever feel anymore. On that note…

New York accents, fast disappearing

I read a prediction once that they will die out within one or two generations, replaced by Michigan standard, I suppose. Not sure if it’s true, but it saddens me.

Chowards violet gum and violet mints

Most people think it tastes like soap; I do, too, but in a good way. I have a thing for flower flavors and Chowards is no exception. Plus the packaging is both beautiful and vintage. And it’s a New York City original, since 1934.

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Excellent art deco and mid century signage and buildings

Design from the period between 1890s-1960s is my favorite, and in my angst about disappearing New York, I forgot how much beautiful typography and architecture the city retains from those times.

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Pocket parks

I most often think of New York greenery as within the purview of massive parks like Central Park and Prospect Park, but there are also so many tiny, peaceful squares of green dotting this city. They are lovely places to stop and sit amongst a tree and a flower or two.

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Magic in the everyday

I’ve stopped short several times at the sight of something blatantly apparent yet heretofore unseen by me in my millions of walks around the city. For example, I never noticed the ghost signage and old lettering on two buildings by Astor Place even though I’ve walked down the block they are on countless times. I stopped dead in my tracks when I realized there’s been a circa 1700s house (above) planted right off 3rd Avenue in Murray Hill this whole time. And I discovered a hidden-in-plain-sight cemetery a few months ago while walking a very well-trodden path in the East Village. These new-to-me, old-to-the-city gems remind me that there will always be places for me to explore and delights for me to discover in this city. It’s the embodiment of one of my all-time favorite quotes, by Roald Dahl: “And above all, watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places. Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it.”

Looks like it takes approximately two years away to jumpstart my NYC wonder.

(get over the) hump day inspiration: Tennessee Williams edition

TennesseeWilliamsQuoteI haven’t posted an encouraging quote for awhile but I crossed paths with this one via Brain Pickings a couple of days ago and it seems eminently appropriate for the times we’re living in. To say the zeitgeist has been getting me down is an understatement. I keep coming back to the conviction that community, connection, and love is the only thing that can save me – us – from chaos and despair.

I have been saying it to myself in much less poetic and profound ways than Tennessee Williams does here, though. This is a beautifully wrapped reminder of what it means to be human.