My name is Kate McCulley and I travel the world for a living. Her mission to show you that yes, it is possible for women to travel on their own and independently while staying safe and having the time of their lives.This is the ultimate guide to solo female travel and inspirational adventures around the world.
I thought I would come back from Antarctica in triumph, my fists raised in exultation.Hey, I can say I’ve been to seven continents now! And you know the Polar Plunge? I did it WAY south of the Antarctic Circle! Also, here are dozens of adorable photos of me surrounded by penguins!
Instead, I’m returning from Antarctica in tears. No destination has ever made me feel more grateful, nor more insignificant. Everyone who has asked me about my trip as received the same response: “It’s the best place I’ve ever been.”
I had no idea Antarctica would be the most beautiful place I’ve ever visited. Nor did I expect this trip to be the most spiritual experience of my travels. Antarctica turned me inside out, changed my priorities, and turned me into a more thoughtful traveler and human being.
But first, here’s how it began.
Why do people want to travel to Antarctica, anyway?
I spent several days asking this question of my shipmates on Quark Expeditions’ Ocean Diamond. Most of my fellow passengers came from Australia or North America; they ranged in age from teenagers to seniors, a great many of them over 55.
“Why are you here?” I asked. “Why did you take this trip? What made you choose to come to Antarctica?”
And strangely, everyone struggled a bit when answering, hemming and hawing before admitting the real reason.
“Because it’s my seventh continent,” was far and away the most popular answer. Just behind it? “Because I can. Because it’s there.” And the ever-popular, “Why not?”
It’s far from an unusual ethos — early 20th century French explorer Jean-Baptise Charcot named one of his ships the Pourquoi-Pas. He later gave an island the same name.
When I pressed my companions for more, I occasionally got a more detailed response — “Because I love penguins.” “Because climate change means it might not always be like this.” “Because I’m getting older and I want to do these adventure trips while I’m able.” But the vast majority of responses were rooted in Antarctica being their seventh continent, the ultimate achievement to check-off.
Everyone had a bit of ego in their response. People were traveling here because they wanted to feel more important, more experienced, more special. They didn’t just want to visit somewhere remarkable, they wanted to become more remarkable as a result of having visited.
I find that interesting.
Ask strangers why they’re visiting Italy and they’ll say, “Because I love Italian food.” Or “Because the Italian countryside is beautiful.” Or “Because my family comes from Italy and I want to explore my roots.” Or even “Because I grew up dreaming about taking a gondola ride through Venice and I want to have that experience.” The answers are far more concrete and specific than what I got about Antarctica.
For me, I came to Antarctica because I wanted to be impressed. One of the realities about travel is that the more you experience, the more difficult it gets to be impressed. Remember how excited you were to see cobblestone streets in Europe? Decades later, do you even notice cobblestones anymore? Or cathedrals? Or palm trees?
But everyone I know who has been to Antarctica told me that THIS would be the place to TRULY enchant me and leave me in wonder. It’s the kind of destination that is so big, so remote, so untouched, that nothing I had seen before would be able to compare.
So yes. I was here primarily to be blown away — but I have to admit that there’s ego behind my own answer as well. I did want to say that I’ve been to seven continents. For myself, but also for my career. I’ve always felt that in order to be taken seriously as a global travel expert, I need to have travel experience on all seven continents. I hate the phrase “on six continents,” even as it decorates my site and all my bios — it’s like an asterisk saying SHE’S GOOD, BUT NOT GOOD ENOUGH!
And so I went to Antarctica for several reasons: to become a more experienced traveler and for the boost it would give to my career, but also for the landscape photography opportunities (particularly mountains and ice formations), the wildlife (and especially penguins), and the opportunity to work with Quark Expeditions (which I’ve wanted to do for years, as they’re the best in the polar expedition business), who invited me to join them on this trip as their hosted guest. All that, and to be blown away.
I could not have predicted just how powerful of a destination Antarctica is. It would change me, and it would change all of US.
Antarctica caused the death of my ego.
I thought I’d come back bragging that I jumped into the Southern Ocean beneath the Antarctic Circle, and instead, I’m becoming teary trying to describe the stillness of Paradise Harbour in a late afternoon.
I thought I’d return with so many beautiful photos of myself playing with penguins, and instead I have one good shot but mostly crappy selfies of myself with my face covered up to stay warm.
I thought Antarctica would be just another destination. It wasn’t. It was THE destination I’ve been waiting for my whole life. And as I write these words while crossing the Drake Passage, I’m bereft at the thought of Antarctica slipping away from me with every rise and fall of the swells.
Antarctica wasn’t there to serve me, and it won’t serve you, either. It’s not a national park with a friendly ranger stationed nearby. It’s not an Instagram backdrop just waiting for you to pop in for perfect selfies. It’s wild, unpredictable, and can change at a moment’s notice. It’s dangerous. It smells. Even the journey there pushes your body to its physical limits.
If you forget your sunscreen in Antarctica, you’ll be red and peeling the next day. If you dare to walk too close to a fur seal, it will charge you head-on. If you make yourself up and do your hair for perfect portraits, you’ll be wet and mascara-stained in minutes. If you don’t have your wide-angle lens on, of COURSE a fleeting double rainbow will suddenly appear and you’ll have to make do with your inferior lens or — god forbid — your smartphone.
Why visit Antarctica, then?
Reason #1: Because Antarctica is the most impressive, moving, devastating, beautiful, striking, and gratifying place I’ve ever visited.
I have no words to describe how much Antarctica shakes me to my core. I can make an attempt with photos, but even my best shots won’t remotely convey the beauty, the scale, the power of the seventh continent.
Every day, something happened that made me gasp. An immense glacier shaped like the bow of the Titanic. A seal catching a penguin in its mouth. A perfectly smooth bay filled with snapping, crackling ice forms. Whales surrounding us in every direction, their calls echoing in stereo.
Antarctica made me feel like I was traveling for the first time ever. It redefined what it was to explore.
Reason #2:Because Antarctica’s scale is times a million.
Have you been to Perito Moreno Glacier in Argentina? I haven’t yet, but my friends have (check out Dave’s post on it here) and it’s famous for its size, beauty, and blue color. Most people visiting Patagonia make hiking Perito Moreno a priority.
Now, what if I told you that Antarctica has glaciers that look just like Perito Moreno — only they’re much bigger and LITERALLY IN EVERY DIRECTION YOU LOOK? Tens, hundreds, thousands of miles, all full of incredible and far better glaciers! There is no comparison to Antarctica!
Years ago, I hiked Sólheimajökull Glacier in Iceland. No offense to Iceland or the glacier…but comparing it to Antarctica’s glaciers is like comparing a child’s tricycle to a sports car. They’re not remotely in the same league.
Reason #3:Because Antarctica is the most isolated and pristine place I’ve ever been.
Antarctica has no indigenous human population, leaving it as a beacon of nature. (Side benefit: only in Antarctica do you get to enjoy the history of exploration without colonialism or exploitation of locals.)
Antarctica belongs to no country and the Antarctic Treaty is in place to protect it as a destination of peace, devoted to scientific exploration. Because of that, you don’t see any pollution. No trash. Expedition ships don’t even dump human waste in the ocean here — they bring it back to Ushuaia or wherever they came from.
(Chile did make an effort to strengthen its claim on Antarctica, though. How? They sent Chileans to get married there. Argentina upped the ante — they sent several pregnant women there to give birth! The first Antarctica baby was born in 1978.)
There are so few places on the planet where you can go and experience life at it was lived for thousands of years. Antarctica is one of them.
Reason #4:Because Antarctica’s wildlife is insane.
It’s not as abundant as it once was — the whaling industry did quite a number on the whale population, which has had an effect on other species as well — but going out wildlife-viewing in Antarctica will leave you spellbound.
Imagine hundreds of penguins jumping in and out of the water, landing about two meters from your kayak before hovering underwater and “Nope-Nope-Nope-ing” as they jump away from you. Yes, that happened to me, and that was one of the best moments of my trip.
Or being out in a bay so resplendent with whales that it seems like every zodiac is watching a different pod. And then suddenly a giant humpback rises out of the water just meters in front of your kayak, rising and rising and looking like it’s going to flip over onto you. Yes, that happened to me as well, and I’m pretty sure you can pinpoint the moment when all the kayakers’ drysuits went from dry to not-so-dry.
Or coming around a corner of an iceberg on a zodiac and finding two seals popping up from a hidden corner. Both tossing their heads in such a human-like way that you feel like you’ve sneaked up on a couple that definitely shouldn’t have been doing what they had just been doing. That playful moment was something I personally experienced as well.
Those wildlife sightings are not exceptional for Antarctica. You know why? Because I saw all three of them in a single day, in Danco Island and Wilhelmina Bay. That’s pretty much a typical day — or, well, the closest thing you can get to a typical day in a place as wild as Antarctica.
Reason #5:Because Antarctica is the most beautiful place I’ve ever been.
I think about the most beautiful natural environments I’ve been lucky enough to visit. The Faroe Islands, raised up on cliffs on top of the sea. Wadi Rum in Jordan, its bright red-orange sands changing color by the minute. The riverfront villages in Laos, bright blue mountains rising in the background. Silfra in Iceland, the underwater rift exploding in shades of indigo, turquoise and everything in between. The land-before-time feel in Karijini National Park in Western Australia.
Antarctica is EVEN MORE BEAUTIFUL than those places. That’s high praise, but I mean every word of it. The Antarctic peninsula isn’t the slab of snow you may picture; instead, it’s nonstop mountains — jagged gray mountains springing up from the sea. There are fjords. There are the aforementioned glaciers, gargantuan and stacked like frosting, rivulets of azure running through the ice. Each land form peeks in and out of misty clouds, offering you tantalizing glimpses of the peaks.
And as we cruised through Lemaire Channel, the only ship to make the passage in early 2018, I gasped as I saw something I never could have imagined — a waterfall made from gently falling snow, dry and sparkling.
Also, we were under a flat gray sky for nearly the entire trip, and STILL it was that beautiful. Tropical islands don’t look good in gray; Antarctica looks stunning under all circumstances.
Reason #6:Because Antarctica humbles you beyond measure.
Antarctica laughed in the face of my insignificance.
Once on a zodiac cruise, we actually saw gentoo and chinstrap penguins hanging out together — a very unusual occurrence — and we were taking photos like crazy. Just then, a big wave sent us asunder, pushing us into the shoreline. Our guide quickly gunned the engine and reversed the zodiac. In a worse moment, that could have been fatal.
When we made our first landing near a penguin colony, at Port Charcot, my supposedly waterproof gloves had failed and my fingers were cold, wet, and on their way to freezing. Had I not had a warm ship (with a well-stocked gear shop, thank God) nearby, I would have lost my fingers within a day.
And there was a moment when a leopard seal began stalking the kayaks and we had to form a raft to scare it off. It easily could have attacked a solo kayaker, a drysuit no match for those teeth, sharp like a crocodile’s.
Moments like these were reminders of our fragility in this severe environment, as well as the professionalism of the Quark staff who kept these encounters from becoming deadly.
Antarctica Changed Us
My shipmates may have had ego-driven reasons to visit Antarctica, but after a full week on the continent, that went out the window. Almost nobody mentions the seventh continent anymore. Now, all anyone can talk about are the incredible whale sightings, the beauty of the glaciers and icebergs, and the feeling of being one with this unspoiled environment. And how they can’t wait to return. They MUST return.
Antarctica killed our egos. I didn’t even think that was possible. Over the course of a week here, we were taught the most valuable lessons — that we are insignificant, that we are at the mercy of Mother Nature, and that life will go on long after we’re dead.
Gone are my own worst impulses. For the first time, I kept my documentation obsession in check. I spent a good half hour sitting on a rock watching young penguins play in the water — because I enjoyed watching them. This was the definition of photographer’s gold, and I didn’t take a single shot. I had penguin shots already; I didn’t need more. I am grateful that I spent my time in Antarctica enjoying these moments, rather than chasing down the elusive perfect photo that was unlikely to materialize anyway.
As for dynamite selfies? HA. I have exactly one shot of me that I really like, the one at the top of this post, the one that looks like I’m lecturing a crowd of penguins. It’s quirky and unplanned and I think it represents my personality. Two or three other shots of me are decent, not great. The rest are terrible. AND THAT IS OKAY.
The travel blogging industry may have shifted in the direction of pretty-girls-posing-in-ballgowns-in-increasingly-exotic-places, and I do feel pressure to create content like that. But one reason why that’s never quite worked for me is because I sell reality — not fantasy. I always have. “You’re so honest” is the #1 comment I get from readers. That doesn’t exactly jive with unrealistic photo shoots.
Had I wasted my limited time trying to set up and pose for perfect shots of myself that would get lots of likes, I would have missed the best impromptu moments of life in Antarctica. I lived actual, real life in Antarctica, not an Instagram photoshoot with a little free time tacked on at the end. And for that reason, I couldn’t care less that I didn’t get those photos of myself with penguins.
I like the new version of me that Antarctica made. A quieter version of myself. A more inquisitive version of myself. More of an athlete, more of a scientist, less solipsistic, far less self-conscious. A traveler who let go of her expectations, only took what she was freely given, and was profoundly changed as a result.
I feel like nothing else will ever measure up to Antarctica. Have I ruined myself by experiencing the best place in the world at the tender age of 33? I sure hope not, but if I did, it was absolutely worth it.
The strangest thing? I keep catching glimpses in the mirror and not recognizing myself. Maybe it’s the Antarctic air, the lack of fluorescent lighting on this boat, or the fact that I took a dip in the near-frozen Southern Ocean, but I look so much younger. I’m Benjamin Buttoning before my own eyes.
Antarctica Will Change You, Too
If you enjoy travel in any small amount, you MUST visit Antarctica within your lifetime. You will get so much out of it. It IS an expensive trip — Quark’s Antarctica trips start at $6,695, though keep your eyes peeled for sales — but you receive SO much value in return. I recommend saving Antarctica for a milestone birthday or occasion. Book ahead, especially if you want to kayak — those slots go quickly. If you do decide to visit, I have some valuable advice for you.
Don’t try to control the trip. Antarctica is in charge, and Antarctica will be controlling YOU. Don’t fight what it gives you, whether it’s foggy weather, rough Drake seas, or if there are no adorable penguin chicks — accept it and work with it.
Dress for protection, not style. The climate will NOT be kind to you here. A beanie worn on top of a buff pulled over your mouth may be ugly as hell, but nothing keeps your head warmer. Don’t bring cute clothes; dressing improperly can put you and others at risk and there’s no..
If you told me six months ago that I’d be spending much of February in Japan, I wouldn’t have believed you! But it turned out to be a total delight. And a good reminder that even when you’re driven to visit new places, it’s good to go back and revisit countries you love!
New York, NY
Sapporo, Noboribetsu Onsen, Otaru, Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka, Japan
Tokyo! So much sophistication, such great food, and it all works seamlessly together.
Flying business class with ANA. I almost never fly business class long-haul…so this was an absolute treat. ANA is fantastic in business class. I loved the privacy and the food! And I’m still flabbergasted that I went door-to-door from the Park Hyatt Tokyo to my Manhattan apartment in less than 17 hours…
Enjoying the best of winter in Japan in Hokkaido. I already wrote about it this month, so I won’t repeat myself, but Hokkaido is SUCH a cool winter destination! I highly recommend it, especially if you want to get off the beaten path.
Staying at the Park Hyatt Tokyo. Lost in Translation is one of my all-time favorite movies, and this has long been my #1 bucket list hotel. It lived up to every expectation I had and I happily would have remained ensconced for much longer. That pic above is the view from my room!
Falling in love with Tokyo. On my first trip to Japan back in 2013, I fell in love with the country but no city stood out as a favorite. This time around, Tokyo really got under my skin! It’s Japan, but fancy Japan, sophisticated Japan, high-tech Japan. I’m fluent in the language of megacities and I find that Tokyo speaks to me that way. I think it now belongs on my favorite cities in the world list along with Paris, Bangkok, Edinburgh, Melbourne, Berlin and New York…
Spending time with friends in Japan. Seriously, the best thing about this job is getting to spend time with friends around the world. I met up with Jessica and Hai of Notes of Nomads, and they took me on an adventure around the Ikebukuro neighborhood. That evening, I met my friend Annette from Boston at the bar at the Park Hyatt Tokyo.
Eating so much good food in Japan. On my first trip to Japan, I was on a limited budget and didn’t spend much on food. Even so, I still felt like I ate extremely well, as even Japanese fast food is immaculately prepared. This time, though, I had money to PLAY. From high-end tempura to Michelin-starred yakitori and the best tonkatsu in Japan, I ate SO SO SO WELL. I’m still dreaming of those strawberry-stuffed custard mochis…
I got a desk! So I’ve been working from home for 2+ years now without a desk. Which is kind of insane. I’ve just been using my dining table…and, um, the couch. But I went into West Elm the other day to use their bathroom (don’t hate, we all have our favorite public bathrooms!) and I saw they had a floor model of the Audrey Mini Desk I liked on super-clearance. It was a bit banged up, but not horribly, and it was small enough to take home via Uber, so I got it! It looks terrific and matches my bedroom’s textured-white-gold-gray color scheme perfectly.
Lots of good times in New York. It was a fairly low-key month, but when I’m recovering from big trips, I like to keep it simple. Spending time with friends. Trying out new restaurants. Zumba classes. RuPaul’s Drag Race viewing parties at At the Wallace with dinosaur chicken nuggets. Some unseasonably warm days going for walks along Riverside Park and in Brooklyn.
My debit card got digitally stolen this month. On my first day in Japan I checked my bank statement and saw that someone was making several $100 withdrawals at a Wawa in New Jersey. (Really? How dare you sully Wawa’s good name!)
The good news is that I’ve had this happen before and know what to do. I always travel with two debit cards — one from Schwab (my preferred card to use while traveling) and one from CapitalOne. My second debit card sustained me, especially since so many vendors in Japan are cash-only. Always carry two debit cards when you travel!!!
Kyoto was a bust. I really enjoyed Kyoto on my first trip to Japan, but I just wasn’t feeling it this time around. I think part of it was the gloomy weather. I just didn’t feel like exploring temples this time around and I found myself quickly annoyed by the tourist crowds. My favorite thing was…the train station.
Osaka could have been better. Honestly, it felt like I spent most of the day lost on the subway. Seeing Dotonbori the second time was a bit of a letdown since my first visit was such a shock, but I’m glad I made time to eat some fugu.
And my apartment’s water has been out multiple times this month. Nothing like getting a head’s up the night before that the water will be down for a few hours the next morning, then after a few hours a sign in the elevator reads no agua todo el día…oh, and my buzzer isn’t working, so that’s fun…
It often surprises me what does well on Instagram. After all the crazy Japan photos taken with my real camera, the winner of this month was a simple iPhone sunset shot from Riverside Park, right near my apartment. For more updates from my travels, follow me on Instagram at @adventurouskate.
Queer Eye | Official Trailer [HD] | Netflix - YouTube
What I Watched This Month
Queer Eye! I loved this show back when I was in college, though admittedly I view it with a more critical lens today. It was a breakthrough for the early 2000s but relied heavily on stereotypes and de-sexualized the guys. I was skeptical about whether it needed to come back. Well, this new version is so lovely. It’s a kinder, less snarky version of the show, and all five of the guys seem so sweet and portrayed in a far more nuanced way.
Some of it was well-intended but didn’t hit the mark (the Black Lives Matter subplot with Karamo, who is black, getting pulled over and his subsequent conversation with a white Georgia cop). But watching them give AJ the confidence to finally come out to his stepmother and introduce her to his boyfriend…if you didn’t cry at that, you’re made of stone.
Also, I LOVE the fact that Jonathan referenced the #1 thing that I remember from the first round of Queer Eye — the best way to apply a fragrance is to spray, delay, and walk away. Thank you, Kyan — I still think about that every time I put on perfume!
I can’t believe they only made eight episodes. At least give us a full season!!
What I Read This Month
I’m continuing to work toward my goal of reading books by authors from around the world and this month I added three countries whose authors I’ve never read before: Pakistan (Hamid), Democratic Republic of the Congo (Uwiringiyimana), and Chile (Allende).
An American Marriage by Tayari Jones (2018) — This is the best book I’ve read so far in 2018. Celestial and Roy are a young Atlanta couple 18 months into their marriage. While they fight occasionally, they’re overall very happy and ready to start trying for a family. Then Roy is convicted of a crime he didn’t commit and sentenced to 12 years in prison. Celestial and Roy try to work through this sentencing, but over time their relationship becomes strained and Celestial becomes close to her childhood best friend, Andre. Then all of a sudden Roy’s conviction is overturned and they have to figure out what comes next.
This book is fantastic. Every now and then you need a book to nearly break you, and this one came so close to destroying me. I fell in love with each of the characters and ached for their choices. It’s not just about relationships, it’s about the prison industrial conference and the dangers of existing while black in America.
A less talented author would have filled it with cliches — the husband gets out and wow, he’s so surprised, his wife loves someone else! But Jones handled it with so much nuance. This wasn’t a shock — Roy knew things weren’t good with Celestial when he was released. I love that the story was not about “What happens when he finds out?” but instead, “How do we work through this?” Also, Oprah recently chose this for her book club pick and it’s available through Book of the Month as well.
Exit West by Mohsin Hamid (2017) — Another phenomenal book, and one of Obama’s favorites of 2017. In an unnamed city that becomes increasingly unstable — it could easily be somewhere in Syria, Somalia, Yemen — Saeed and Nadia are two young lovers who endure the violence until it becomes too dangerous to stay. Soon rumors swirl of “doors” that will whisk emigrants to new countries. Saeed and Nadia take the chance on a door and it sends them on a journey around the world where safety isn’t as easy to find as they hoped.
Normally I’m hit or miss on magical realism, but I think it works so well in this book. I feel like it’s the heir to The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead (my favorite novel of 2016). It’s a supernatural journey to new, safer destinations, only each of them have different dangers waiting beneath the surface.
Most stunningly, I think that both liberals and conservatives could use this book to make points about immigration policy. For liberals, the story illustrates the hells that refugees are facing in Syria and the need to help them. For conservatives, the story is a cautionary tale of how open borders can lead to immigrant takeovers. How amazing is it that a single book can do both of those things?
How Dare the Sun Rise: Memoirs of a War Child by Sandra Uwiringiyimana with Abigail Pesta (2017) — This memoir tells the story of how Sandra Uwiringiyimana and her family survived war, persecution, and a massacre in their native Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda. Her younger sister Deborah was killed in the attack; miraculously, the rest of them survived, including her older brother who was kidnapped to be a child soldier. Her family, as refugees, were moved to Rochester, New York. The book covers their tragedies in Africa, their difficult journey to fit in as Africans in America, and how Sandra ultimately became an activist for refugees.
This book will rip your heart out. I think it’s absolutely essential to understand the refugee’s experience in America today, and also an examination of what can happen when people who have been through trauma don’t get mental healthcare. I had never heard of this massacre before, and it really illustrated the kinds of things that go on and don’t get headlines. I always say that literature can teach compassion, and this book is a fantastic example.
Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami (2000) — I was determined to read a book by a Japanese author while on my Japan trip, and after enjoying Murakami’s trippy 1Q84 last year, I decided to check out this much loved novel. Norwegian Wood tells the story about a young college-aged men and some of his early loves from that period, including his dead best friend’s former girlfriend Naoko and the quirky and lovable Midori.
Now…Murakami. My thoughts on him are conflicted. I roll my eyes at how all the female characters he writes tend to be manic pixie dream girls with an insanely promiscuous streak who are interested in mediocre men for some reason. It’s like he’s writing his fantasies. That said…his words are like water. Like a gentle stream floating through my mind. That’s what captivates me, and that’s what will keep me returning to his work. This book is more of a “here is what happened” than a tightly structured novel, but I enjoyed the journey, and reading it while in Japan made it even better.
The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende (1982) — This was my book club’s pick for the month (sadly, I’ll be away during the next meeting) and one thing most of us have in common is that we struggled to get through it. The House of the Spirits tells the story of multiple generations in a Chilean family, including a woman with clairvoyant abilities, and it ends with the revolution that installed Pinochet (though there are no names — they keep it ambiguous).
My big impression from this book is that it’s “Toxic Masculinity: The Novel!” The family patriarch is horrific. He’s a rapist. He physically and verbally abuses the women in his family. He attempts to murder men who get between him and “his” women. And the parts written in his voice are SO delusional — he thinks everyone is in love with him, but they can’t stand him. God. Overall, I found this book to be decent but not fantastic, as well as a good introduction to Chilean literature, and I’m relieved that it picked up significantly toward the end.
All the Ugly and Wonderful Things by Bryn Greenwood (2016) — Well, we have an early contender for the WORST book I read in 2018! I was shocked. This book was voted the best book of 2016 by Book of the Month readers. Not only that, roughly 80% of Amazon and Goodreads reviews are incredibly positive. I expected something so much better.
Wavy is the daughter of two meth manufacturers and dealers in rural Oklahoma. She largely raises herself, but she soon develops a friendship with Kellen, her father’s mechanic, when she’s eight and he’s 22. At first Kellen takes care of Wavy, brings her groceries, and makes sure she goes to school. Then their relationship turns romantic. Then it turns sexual. She gives him a hand job when she’s 13. Oh, but it’s okay because she initiated it and Kellen was too horny to think straight!
STOP. SEXUALIZING. CHILDREN. It doesn’t matter if she’s “quirky” or “intelligent” or “wise beyond her years” or if she’s the kind of girl who grows up to set up her unlucky-in-love college roommate with the perfect guy for her. Every time Kellen talked about holding Wavy’s “little tit” I wanted to throw up.
And you know what? The whole book romanticizes a relationship between an adult and a young child. The message at the end was, “Yes, it’s unorthodox, but it’s true love! We should accept it and celebrate it.” Jesus fucking Christ…
But the worst thing was that THE WRITING WAS NOWHERE NEAR GOOD ENOUGH TO SUSTAIN THAT DANGEROUS PREMISE. Lolita was successful for a reason — Nabokov made you fall for Humbert Humbert’s wit and charm even as you despised his actions. Bryn Greenwood is no Nabokov. Oh, and also, if you’re going to write from different points of view, YOU CAN’T GIVE EVERY CHARACTER THE SAME EXACT VOICE. Honestly, as a lover of literature, that offends me more than the..
Ever thought of traveling to Japan in the winter? I suggest you consider the wild island of Hokkaido. I recently had the opportunity to return to Japan and explore the best of the Japanese winter. Did I enjoy it? I absolutely loved it!
How This Trip Began
ANA — All Nippon Airways — contacted me to work on a campaign promoting the airline. To experience the product, I would take a flight either to Japan or somewhere else they fly in Asia.
I have to admit, I was tempted to visit a new Asian country. Had I chosen a new country, it probably would have been Taiwan, and it would have been my 75th country. (What a lovely warm winter escape that would have been!)
But the more I thought about it, the more I yearned to return to Japan. I often cite Croatia, Italy, Thailand, Japan and South Africa as my favorite countries, and I’ve been to Italy and Thailand a million times, South Africa three times, Croatia twice — but only once to Japan.
Yes. I would choose Japan.
Where to go in Japan in winter?
I knew that for my second trip to Japan I wanted to get a bit off the beaten path, go beyond the typical Tokyo-Kyoto-Osaka-Hiroshima itinerary that so many first-time tourists plan. This would hopefully help me evade the hordes of tourists, get to see a side of the country more popular with Japanese tourists than foreign visitors, and create some original content for you lovely readers.
I was down to two choices: Hokkaido, the northernmost island, and basing in Sapporo, or Kyushu, the westernmost island, basing in Fukuoka. Both islands are filled with great cities, natural wonders, their own signature ramen styles, and onsen towns.
But what I wanted was winter. Real winter. Snowy winter. Going to Fukuoka in winter would be like going to Atlanta in winter — all of the gloom, none of the pretty snow.
Hokkaido was clearly the winner. (And after talking to three of my Japan-based friends, Kyushu will definitely be my next Japan trip!)
Hokkaido in Winter
Hokkaido is Japan’s northernmost island. It’s home to lots of unique floral and fauna and has much more in common ecologically with the Russian island of Sakhalin than other parts of Japan. And most famously, Hokkaido is home to the city of Sapporo and its world-famous eponymous beer.
If you want to experience a real Japanese winter, Hokkaido is the place. It’s got mountains and national parks, onsen towns bubbling with sulfuric activity, world-famous ski resorts, giant fresh crab pulled from the sea, steaming bowls of ramen served with butter, and Sapporo’s very own snow festival.
In fact, it was the Sapporo Snow Festival that drew me in the first place.
If you’re a longtime reader, you know I can’t resist a lesser-known festival, whether it’s the Air Guitar World Championships in Oulu, Finland; Hemingway Days (and the Hemingway lookalike contest) in Key West; or dancing all night long with Vikings at Up Helly Aa in Shetland. I had to add this snow festival to my repertoire!
Visiting the Sapporo Snow Festival became the focus of my trip and ANA and I worked to arrange dates that coincided with the festival in early February.
Sapporo, with a population of nearly 2 million, is the largest city in Hokkaido. It’s youthful and unsophisticated, but easy to get around and welcoming. As soon as you leave the downtown core, it feels a lot more like the suburbs. And with its transportation connections, this is probably the best place to base when visiting Hokkaido.
The Sapporo Snow Festival, or Yuki Matsuri, takes place for a week every February. You’ll see everything from snow sculptures to ice carving, athletic competitions to music concerts, and tons of delicious food.
The TV Tower, in the background, is the best place to get a panoramic view of Sapporo!
I wasn’t there for the judging of the snow sculpture contest, which takes place at the end of the festival, but I got to see this magnificent dragon sculpture!
Japanese people LOVE all things French. In Tokyo you’ll see women toting Ladurée and Pierre Hermé macarons. And this very French hot chocolate stand offered just the right treat to warm my hands on a cold night.
I don’t know how famous this performer was, but she made the crowd go wild.
Eventually, I left the events of Odori Park for the Susukino neighborhood, famous for its dining and nightlife. Ice sculptures greeted me along the way — including a somewhat macabre sculpture with fish frozen in place!
Sapporo is one of Hokkaido’s three ramen cities! Sapporo specializes in miso ramen, but with a twist — they add butter and sweet corn. The butter is due to Hokkaido’s dairy production; the corn has post-WWII roots. Trust me, it’s delicious. The butter makes it smooth and rich, not greasy.
And the best place to get ramen is Ramen Alley, a tiny pathway in the Susukino neighborhood lined with ramen shops on both sides. Drop in wherever has an open seat! Coming into a tiny ramen shop from the cold, the steam from the soup fogging up the windows, and the employees welcoming you with a nod and a menu like any other local — that’s fabulous.
Pair it with a Sapporo Classic — this type of beer is only sold in Hokkaido, and it’s delicious!
I’m always on the lookout for good local coffeeshops, which can be a bit of a challenge in Japan as so many of them allow smoking. However, I was recommended a tiny smoke-free place called Baristart Coffee that I absolutely loved.
You get to choose from three kinds of local Hokkaido milk for your latte. The barista told me a bit about them and had me select the one that was best for me. And it was INSANELY delicious.
That latte was so good, I bought a travel coffee mug with their logo on it as a souvenir.
As one of the most popular beers in Japan, the Sapporo Beer Museum and Biergarten is a destination in its own right. It’s a 20-minute walk from the city center; you can also get there by a subway an 8-minute walk away.
I didn’t feel the need to visit the museum, but I did hit up the Biergarten right next door. The main reason? GENGHIS KHAN was on the menu!
Genghis Khan is a selection of lamb and vegetables that you cook on a grill in front of you. While there are lots of different dishes from which to choose, most people go for the all-you-can-eat Genghis Khan and Sapporo Beer spectacular.
I got a single portion of the Genghis Khan, but truth be told…I could have definitely eaten more. Especially if I didn’t have a flight to Tokyo to catch in a few hours.
Word to the wise — they give you plastic bags for your coats. USE THEM. The whole room smells like smoky lamb and your coat will smell like it for weeks if you don’t wrap it up!
You can’t go to Hokkaido and only stay in cities! The landscape is what makes this region special. But if you enjoy the creature comforts (and warmth) or urban areas, I suggest exploring the wilderness in the form of a day trip. Noboribetsu Onsen, just an hour and 40 minutes from Sapporo, is a perfect choice.
Noboribetsu is the name of the town, easily located on the train line; from there, you take a 10-minute bus ride to Noboribetsu Onsen, the steaming, sulfuric onsen town. Japanese people come here for two things: to hike Jigokudani, or “Hell Valley,” and to soak their cares away in an onsen.
With jet lag waking me up at 3:30 AM, I got an early train to Noboribetsu (note that the bus from Noboribetsu to Noboribetsu Onsen doesn’t start running until 9:00 AM and you’ll have to pay for a cab — I paid 1700 yen, or $16).
My cab driver dropped me off at the Jigokudani so I could hike right away. It turns out that there are two other, more famous “Jigokudanis” in Japan. One is in Nagano, the other is in Beppu; both are home to snow monkeys that bathe in the hot springs. In Noboribetsu Onsen, though, you get to enjoy an incredible landscape.
Imagine that you’re finally on the long-awaited trip of your dreams. You planned everything perfectly — the carefully spaced itinerary, the comfortable and ideally located accommodation, the highly recommended restaurants, the Instagram shots that will make your friends jealous.
You go on the trip, and it’s wonderful. Then somewhere around the third or fourth day, things change.
You suddenly lose the desire to explore.
You’re tired, irritable, and cranky.
You find yourself annoyed and frustrated by local peculiarities that you once found charming.
You’re struck by an urge to stay in your room all day.
You spend more time browsing your phone in Starbucks than exploring your destination.
That, my friends, is travel burnout. It happens to me all the time — most recently, in Kyoto.
The narrow non-sidewalks annoyed me. The tourist crowds annoyed me. I found myself standing in front of the gate to Yasaka Shrine, one of my favorite temples from my 2013 trip to Japan, and I couldn’t even muster the energy to walk inside.
Plus, it was a gloomy winter afternoon and I knew I wouldn’t get photos as good as the ones I got in 2013. How amazing is that light?!
Myths About Travel Burnout
There is a lot of misinformation out there about travel burnout. Let’s start by evaluating the myths.
1. You can’t get travel burnout on a short trip.
Think burnout only happens to backpackers on months-long trips? Nope, not at all. Even if you’re only traveling for a few days, you can easily get burned out if you pack too much into your time frame or you have a bad mindset or
2. You can’t get burnout in an “easy” destination or somewhere that’s within your culture.
Not true at all. Even traveling across the country — to Seattle if you’re from Boston, or to Bristol if you’re from Leeds — can be overwhelming. It doesn’t matter where you go; it can happen anywhere.
3. Travel experts don’t burn out.
Hi. Raises hand. It happens to me and pretty much every professional travel blogger I know. Google around and it won’t take you long to find posts with bloggers complaining about working too much, being tired, and needed to make a change because their travels aren’t fun anymore.
4. Burning out is the sign of being a bad traveler.
Absolutely, completely false. Be kind to yourself. Having a cheat meal doesn’t make you bad at fitness, losing your temper doesn’t make you a bad parent, and getting burned out doesn’t make you a bad traveler.
5. With careful planning, you can avoid travel burnout.
Sure, carefully planning your travel is a way to ensure the best trip possible. And while you might be able to reduce the chance of burnout, unfortunately there’s no way to guarantee it won’t hit anyway.
When I was in high school I had to take a life skills class that covered topics like alcohol abuse. I can still remember all the factors that affect how intoxicated a person can get: How much they drink. How fast they drink. Their past drinking experience. How much they’re eating. Their moods and feelings. Whether or not they’re taking other drugs or medications.
Well, let’s translate that over to the travel world. What affects how burned out a traveler can get? How long they’re traveling. How fast they’re traveling. The ease of travel in this destination. The financial stress of this destination. Whether they’re working while traveling. Whether any disasters happen during their trip. What they’re missing at home.
And while you can attempt to plan, there are too many factors in the air. What if you get to Colombia and realize that you vastly underestimated the language barrier? What if a relative at home gets some bad news while you’re away and you wish you were there? What if you take every precaution but get pickpocketed on the subway anyway? You can’t plan for everything.
How to Deal with Travel Burnout
If you start feeling burned out, the chief way to survive is to reduce stress
Let go of the idea of perfection. You’re never going to do everything that you want to do. Make peace with that.
Spend a day at home. Spend a morning or even a full day in your hotel room. Order room service. Have a Bruno Mars dance party. Sing “One Sweet Day” at the top of your lungs in the shower. Or, you know, watch some Netflix like you would at home.
Go dwell in a familiar space. My go-to? Starbucks. Nope, it isn’t an indie cafe with artisanal pour-overs, but you know what? It’s familiar. It’s easy. They have wifi.
Create a routine. If you have a few more days in your destination, become a “regular” at a place, whether it’s a restaurant or coffee shop. Have your own order.
Work out. If you’ve got a gym or pool at your disposal, get yourself a workout. If not, try a 7-minute workout or do some yoga or a boot camp over YouTube. If you’d rather care for your mind, do some guided meditation using an app or YouTube.
Connect with loved ones. Just talking to someone you really enjoy could lift your spirits. It might be a good time for a chat or Skype call with those you hold dearest.
Spend time in nature. Even if it’s just a long walk on a beach or sitting in a public park for a few hours, being in nature could do a lot to rejuvenate your spirits.
Slow down your travels. Can you rebook anything? See if you can pare your trip down to the essentials, whether it’s axing day trips or cutting back on the sightseeing. Give yourself more time to explore without an agenda.
Jodi, Brenna and Kate in Chiang Mai in 2015 — via ThisBatteredSuitcase.com
Finally — Know When It’s Something Worse.
I had a breakdown in fall 2015 in Chiang Mai, Thailand, and it was one of the lowest points of my travels. It couldn’t have been more ironically timed — I was in one of the most Western-friendly cities in Asia, I was surrounded by friends, I was making excellent money, and I had just finished what I now consider one of the happiest, more carefree periods of my life.
Yet I woke up one morning and suddenly felt paralyzed. Forget going out and exploring — the idea of walking to an unfamiliar coffee shop or restaurant suddenly filled me with fear. It felt like the world was pressing in on me.
Was there anything to fear? No. Nothing. But fears are seldom rational.
Everywhere I went, I felt like people were staring at me, laughing at me. I couldn’t muster the nerve to do anything remotely touristic and I stayed ensconced in the Nimmanhaeman neighborhood, not wanting to step beyond the limits of digital nomad land.
One of those nights my friends and I went to get Thai barbecue at an enormous gymnasium-like complex. I looked at the endless rows of buckets filled with vegetables and protein, of tables filled with do-it-yourself grills, and the enormity of the task made me want to sob.
So what did I do? I ate breakfast at The Larder every day, occasionally hung out with my friends, and spend a lot more time holed up in my room. I booked an expensive flight home early via Bangkok, Hong Kong, and Tokyo. I turned my focus toward moving to New York.
I needed to go home then — it was the best thing for me, and it helped me regroup and focus on my new goal. Just going home alone brought my nerves from a 9 out of 10 to a 4 out of 10, and in time it continued to decrease.
To this day, I don’t know why that anxiety erupted at that time. It happened because it happened.
If you need to go home, go home.
Most of the time, you won’t need to go home. Having the travel blues is something that you can bounce out of within a few days, and if you cancel your trip before making an effort, you could end up regretting your decision.
But if you’ve tried the above suggestions, your mental health is still suffering, and you can’t stop thinking about going home, canceling a trip might be the right thing to do. There are some things more important than a trip. You’ve only got one life.
What’s your favorite way to deal with travel burnout?
This month was all about moving. In fact, I didn’t leave New York once within the month. This is the third time in two years that I’ve gone a full month without leaving the city, and I’ve made my peace with it, but I’m looking forward to getting back to international travel next month and beyond.
Honestly, I stayed put this month because I moved into a new apartment. Moving is a pain in the ass to begin with, especially so in New York, and especially especially so when you’re in New York and self-employed, so I was happy to dedicate this month to pulling off a move with minimal difficulties.
Let’s talk about the move. I didn’t want to move in the first place, but my landlady was selling the brownstone — I had no choice. I knew that I wanted to stay in the neighborhood, so I set my sights on apartments within a three-block radius (seriously, I truly love where I am).
When I narrowed down the options, I was deciding between two apartments: one that cost $300 more than what I was currently paying, and one that cost $50 more than I was currently paying. And honestly, the $300+ one was SO much nicer — it was another brownstone, literally across the street from my current place, had a washer and dryer, a dishwasher, a separate office that could double as a guest room, and incredible Harlem architectural details like multiple fireplaces and cutout wooden dividers.
But I told myself that I needed to be smart. Last time I chose an apartment, I spent more than I intended; I wanted to be more conservative this time around. So I chose the $50+ place, just one block away.
You guys have always had honesty from me, so I’ll continue to be honest. I really like my new apartment — it’s an upgrade in many ways. There’s a lot more space, especially in the bedroom. I can walk on both sides of the bed now. I can fit a desk, or multiple desks. I have a walk-in closet in the bedroom and three bonus closets. I can still fit a full-size dining table and multiple bookcases with ease. The kitchen is its own room: a separate, eat-in kitchen. There is more storage than I could ever possibly need. Everything is gut-renovated. And the fact that this blog pays for an apartment of my own in New York makes me feel grateful every day.
But there are downsides. It’s noisier — the people next door blast music all the time. There’s a way-too-frequent scent of marijuana that wafts into my apartment. The building isn’t nearly as well cared for as my previous building. My buzzer isn’t working. And the floors are SO slanted, it throws off the whole apartment!
The apartment: clean, organized, no art on the walls yet. Spot the quokka!
All in all, this is a lateral move. I appreciate the extra amenities, but I don’t explode with happiness every time I walk into my apartment the way I did with my last place. While I originally envisioned myself living here for two years or so, I’m not sure that I’ll be staying here beyond the year. Which means I may not decorate it as much as I originally intended. We’ll see how it goes.
One last thing: if you’re moving in New York (or any other city that they serve), I highly recommend Bin-It. They are a service that rents out plastic bins, a fantastic alternative to putting together a million cardboard boxes. They dropped the bins off at my old place on a Saturday and picked them up at my new place two weeks later. I spent about $200 (including a $30 walk-up charge for the brownstone), which included bubble wrap and cardboard plate and glass dividers, and it was worth every penny.
New York…and that was it.
Finally seeing Miss Saigon on Broadway. Miss Saigon has been my favorite-show-I’ve-never-seen for 20 years now. Of course I procrastinated and waited until its last week before closing — but what a magnificent show. It was well worth the wait and I would have seen it multiple times had I gone earlier.
Seeing it is SO different from just listening to it. For example, I had no idea that JOHN of all characters was the moral center of the show! John, the wild soldier who insisted on buying his buddy a prostitute against his will! He was the only one who tried to do the right thing after the war! I left with a lot less respect for Chris especially. TELL YOUR WIFE YOU HAVE ANOTHER WIFE, DUDE!
When Miss Saigon premiered nearly 30 years ago, there was a yellowface uproar — the Engineer, a Vietnamese character, was originated by the white actor Jonathan Pryce. As magnificent as Pryce was in that role, Miss Saigon is one of literally two shows in the traditional Broadway canon with roles for Asian actors. The other is The King and I. There were a lot of protests on Broadway.
Since then, though, the show has only had Asian actors play the Engineer. And I was lucky to see Filipino star Jon Jon Briones play the role. He was actually in the original ensemble as a 22-year-old! Today the Engineer is the top billed star. It’s interesting, because while the other characters have similar looks and voices to the originals, Briones is SUCH a different Engineer in looks, demeanor, and sound! A huge personality in a tiny package, conniving and able to shift in a moment, a man who can convince you in a fraction of a second that he’s seen awful things and can use that to his advantage.
To my surprise, a lot of the lyrics were different from the original. This is actually the version currently on Spotify if you want to listen. For example, “The Movie In My Mind” is changed from “The movie plays and plays / a screen before me fills / he takes me to New York / he gives me dollar bills” to “The movie plays and plays / I find my true romance / he takes me to a place / where I don’t have to dance.”
I did appreciate the Engineer’s line “Uncle Ho…ho ho ho…I’ll have to call you from New York!” being changed to “Uncle Ho…holy shit!”
I also got to see the Michelangelo exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. If you’re in town, it’s well worth a visit! It’s mostly drawings that were eventually turned into paintings, and they have a nice Sistine Chapel replica.
Speaking at the New York Times Travel Show. This was my third year speaking at the show and it went very well. I spoke at industry day about the relationship between brands and bloggers/influencers, and on Saturday I spoke on behalf of Quark Expeditions about my upcoming trip to Antarctica in March. And as always it was nice to have my friend Amanda visit and be my first houseguest in my new apartment!
Marching in the 2018 Women’s March. I was proud to go back, hold up my “Not Today, Satan” sign and continue to fight for the rights of women, people of color, LGBTQIA people, the environment, and more. I didn’t expect much this year, but it was just as crowded and crazy as the previous year!
Honestly, the Aziz Ansari story. Because it forced me to do a lot of personal accounting within my own relationships and made me realize that I am far more conditioned to please others at my own expense than I thought.
This has probably been one of the more controversial stories of the past few months — and I say controversial not to mean shocking, but that people have so many wide-ranging opinions about it. The piece I read that most closely reflected my personal thoughts is this column by Jill Filipovic in The Guardian. I encourage you to give it a read.
This post from the 2018 Women’s March was far and away the most popular Instagram photo I’ve ever done. Because I used that as an opportunity to discuss why I talk about politics frequently, both on this site and on social media.
One excerpt: “Every time I talk about political issues, I lose a few conservative readers. And that’s fine! International travelers skew heavily liberal to begin with, but even if they didn’t, I’ve been doing this as my full-time job for seven years. I can lose readers and be okay income-wise. But not every blogger is in my position. So I speak up. Again and again, I speak up, and not only when it’s comfortable to do so. Since I was a child, my political views have always been that the fortunate should give more to help the vulnerable. I try to live that in my words and actions.”
I actually forgot to do a fitness update last month! December was a far-more-indulgent-than-expected time, particular in terms of diet, but January got me back into gear, eating better and working out harder. I’ve been working out regularly for more than a year now and I love having real muscles on my body!
At one point my trainer Gayle pulled out a list she had found online: Things Every Lifter Should Be Able To Do. “Bench your body weight; deadlift double your body weight; hold a two-minute plank; sleep with only one pillow; sit on the floor without using your hands, knees, or shins; hang for thirty seconds and pull up. Which of these things do you think you can do?” she asked me.
“Um, sleep with only one pillow?”
We had a good laugh over that.
3rd rock from the sun - YouTube
What I Watched This Month
This month I got back into Third Rock From the Sun, which streams on Amazon Prime. My family loved this show when I was growing up and it was so nice to watch it over again. It’s really a hilarious and genuine show — particularly its first season. If you need something light and funny to watch, look no further.
I watched a lot of Third Rock while bubble-wrapping my possessions this month.
What I Listened To This Month
My favorite music genre in the world is probably 90s R&B — and I listen to a LOT of 90s R&B playlists. But this month I found perhaps my favorite 90s R&B playlist of all. It’s called SOUL 4 REAL (I found it because I was in the mood to listen to “Candy Rain”) and it includes so many of my favorite 90s R&B hits. Bobby Brown’s “Every Step I Take.” Aaliyah’s “At Your Best (You Are Love).” LL Cool J’s “Hey Lover.” Next’s “Too Close.” Mark Morrison’s “Return of the Mack.” (If you don’t love this song YOU ARE A LIAR.) Listen and enjoy, my friends.
What I Read This Month
Earlier this year, I announced that my 12-book challenge would be reading authors from countries whose authors I had never read before.
Well. That was the plan. Then because I’m me, I decided 12 wasn’t enough. 25 would be a better goal. Or perhaps 30. So working my way through books by a variety of nationalities is my big goal for this year. So far I have read two: Cameroon and Albania.
Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue (2016) — This is a wonderful novel about what it’s like to be an immigrant claiming asylum in New York City today. Jende, a Cameroonian man, emigrates to New York with his wife Neni and their young son. Jende gets the job opportunity of a lifetime driving for a wealthy Wall Street executive. But after Lehman Brothers collapses, his family’s ability to stay in the United States becomes tenuous at best.
This is a beautiful novel about the contemporary immigrant experience in New York, and I wish more people read novels like these instead of books about New York’s most privileged classes. It goes in directions you don’t imagine with kindness and dignity. What I most appreciate is that all the characters are nuanced — nothing about this world is black and white. This novel will make you grateful for all that you have and introduce you to a different side of Harlem. I have a lot of African immigrants in my neighborhood and I feel like this helped me understand their experience a bit better.
Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House by Michael Wolff (2018) — You’ve got to hand it to Trump — he’s full of surprises. Who would have thought that he could start a national book club? This book has been written about in depth, and I’m sure you’ve heard at least a bit about it. Michael Wolff was granted access to the disorganized White House and as a result, nobody questioned his presence. He saw a lot of crazy shit and wrote about it in depth.
The main criticisms of the book are that there are inaccuracies and Wolff doesn’t have a great reputation for being a journalist — only a gossipy hack at best. Still, though, he had a lot of bombshells in this book and it confirms virtually every story that has leaked out of the porous White House so far. It was tough to read — the information was very dense and absorbing it was akin to taking a sip from a fire hose. Still, though, it’s worth the read to just have an idea of the chaos that is going on in our government. Let’s hope this has an impact on the 2018 midterms.
A Land More Kind Than Home by Wiley Cash (2013) — Finally, I got around to my “blind date with a book” that I purchased from Malaprops in Asheville, North Carolina, back in June. The book was covered in paper with the words “Clear-sighted, graceful, illuminating, tender, mesmerizing, chilling, LOCAL!” You buy the book without knowing what it is until you unwrap it. This novel is “To Kill a Mockingbird as told by Cormac McCarthy” — a child growing up in the hills of North Carolina in the 1980s with a mute (likely autistic) older brother witnesses something he shouldn’t see — and his family falls apart as a result.
To be truthful, I never would have chosen this book on my own — I’ve never been a huge To Kill a Mockingbird fan and I’m still scarred from reading McCarthy’s The Road. And I didn’t love it. It wasn’t my thing. I found it moved too slowly, revealed too little, and missed a lot of opportunities to flesh out the characters, especially the fascinating antagonist. But it has lots of rave reviews, so I think it’s just not my kind of book. Definitely give it a read if it sounds like your thing.
Sworn Virgin by Elvira Dones (2014) — I have always been fascinated by the sworn virgins of Albania. In the rural northern mountains of the country, there is a practice where women are able to become men and assume all the rights and customs of men. They dress like men, go about their day as men. They are required to remain virgins for the rest of their life. When I found out there was a novel about a sworn virgin who emigrates to the US and reclaims her former life as a woman, written by an Albanian author, I knew I had to read it!
Sadly, I was disappointed. Like so many books I’ve read lately (including my least favorite read of 2017, Gabriel Tallent’s My Absolute Darling), the protagonist Hana is held at arm’s length and you never learn what she’s actually thinking. The process of becoming a man, then choosing to emigrate, then choosing to become a woman again could lead to so much introspection — but the book glosses over those parts. It’s more of a “This happened, then this happened, then this happened” novel without going into any character development or reasoning behind their actions. Though the relationship between Hana and her cousin did remind me of my..
The following branded content post is brought to you by The Vespa Trip, an easy and fun way to tour Italy while riding a Vespa. As soon as I heard about this trip, it sounded awesome and I had the feeling you guys would love hearing about it!
One of my favorite travel movie scenes of all time is in The Talented Mr. Ripley when Matt Damon and Jude Law tear around a corner on a Vespa, surrounded by the gorgeous countryside, laughing and enjoying a moment of pure happiness.
I wonder how many trips to Italy were booked because of that film. (Also, Jude Law is more handsome in The Talented Mr. Ripley than any other human has been, ever.)
A lot of people have watched that Vespa scene — or, more recently, Dev and Arnold riding through Tuscany in the latest season of Master of None — and dreamed of doing the same thing themselves. “Someday I’ll go to Italy and explore on a Vespa of my own.”
The good news? You can totally travel Italy by Vespa, and it’s a lot easier than you think.
Introducing The Vespa Trip
The Vespa Trip is a chance to live out your Vespa dream without worrying about the logistics. These group tours of Italy allow you to enjoy zipping around on the hills on a Vespa with the security and camaraderie of a group, your hotels already booked, your luggage transferred for you each day.
This is truly off the beaten path in Italy. Rather than struggling through sweaty crowds in the most popular cities, you’ll be out on the open road, riding past olive groves and ancient hill towns.
When I first heard of this tour company, I thought it was an awesome idea. Italy is one of the countries that I know best, but I’ve never even ridden a Vespa in the country! I would love to do a trip like this.
How The Vespa Trip Works
On this group tour, your guide leads you along an established route from town to town. There is a maximum of 20 Vespas on the tour, up to 40 people if nobody rides solo. You spend the day riding with your tour mates — or alone if you wish — and you stay in a hotel in a different town each night. You have free time in the evenings to explore as you please, and your guide will recommend the best restaurants and things to see and do.
You don’t have to worry about luggage — it’s transferred in a minivan.
People are assigned two people to a Vespa. You can pay a supplement of 120 EUR ($144) to have your own Vespa for the week. You must have a driver’s license for this trip; a motorcycle license is not necessary. Each person is given a Roadbook, a guide to the region with things to do along the route.
So far, people from 20 different nationalities have taken part in The Vespa Trip, and the tours are conducted in English.
Best of all — you can peel off and ride independently if you’d like.
Would you rather get some alone time, leaving the group and go for a ride on your own, catching up later? Go ahead! One nice thing is that the Vespas come with GPS devices, so you can always find your way to where you’re going.
I can tell you now that I would take this option — not only as an introvert but as a photographer, too. On past group trips (I’m looking at you, Kakadu National Park) I was frustrated at being rushed along and not having time to take proper photos — so it’s nice to know that you don’t have to stay with the group every minute on the Vespa trip. You can even do the whole Vespa trip on your own if you’d like, just spending time with the group in the evenings.
Where The Vespa Trip Tours Go
The Vespa Trip takes place in three destinations: Tuscany, the Amalfi Coast, and Sicily.
In Tuscany, you will ride through landscapes that look so mysteriously familiar. Those rolling green hills, those stone farmhouses, those tall cypress trees — where have you seen them before? And then it hits you. You’ve seen them in Renaissance paintings.
The Tuscany trip begins and ends in Pisa and has stops in San Gimigniano, Siena, Chianti, Florence, Lucca (one of my favorite Tuscan towns!), Vinci, where there is wine tasting, and Montefegatesi, where you can enjoy a secret swimming spot.
On the Amalfi Coast, you will be riding through the epic cliffside villages seen in The Talented Mr. Ripley. These are some of the most spellbinding landscapes in all of Italy, and you’ll see the coast from many different viewpoints.
The Vespa Trip’s itinerary begins and ends in Naples with stops at Pompeii, Sorrento, Amalfi, Salerno, Monte Picentini, Avellino, and Mount Vesuvius.
In Sicily, you’ll be in the wildest part of Italy — the region that breaks all the rules with aplomb. The landscapes are dramatic, the people are full of passion, and the food tastes like sunshine. If you’ve already been to Italy and you’re looking for something different, Sicily is a great choice.
The Vespa Trip’s Sicily trip concentrates on the west coast. The trip begins and ends in Trapani and stops in Sciacca, Corleone (with wine tasting), Cefalu (with pizza making), Castellamare del Golfo, Scopello, and Zingaro National Park.
How much does it cost?
Tuscany: 490-590 EUR ($586-706) per person depending on the week.
Amalfi Coast: 590 EUR ($706) per person.
Sicily: 590 EUR ($706) per person.
Extras: 120 EUR ($144) to ride your Vespa solo; 50 EUR ($60) for a Vespa riding lesson on your first day; 150 EUR ($180) for a private hotel room.
The trips include six nights’ accommodation in three-or four-star hotels; breakfast daily; a seven-day Vespa rental (shared with one other person) and helmet rental, your guide, and your Roadbook.
Speaking personally, I think this is a great price for what you get. And because the trips are one week long, you could just come to Italy for the Vespa Trip or spend a little extra time on your own.
What are you waiting for?
This could be the off the beaten path Italian adventure you’ve been waiting for. And one other thing…if you do this, your Instagram is going to make a lot of people jealous.
New York is a dream destination for so many travelers. And there are so many things to do in the city, it’s overwhelming. Perhaps that’s why so many tourists end up staying firmly on the beaten path, afraid to venture out of their comfort zone in the slightest. And they end up making the same mistakes over and over.
As a New York resident, I’ve made it my mission to show travelers what NOT to do in New York. With a bit of careful planning, you can avoid the pitfalls to which so many tourists fall victim.
Here are the biggest mistakes that tourists make in New York City — and how not to make them.
Planning an extremely touristy, midtown-centric itinerary.
This is probably the most common mistake I see people make. Many tourists plan trips to New York with an itinerary like this: “Go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art and the Museum of Natural History. Walk around Central Park. Go to Times Square. See a Broadway show or two. See the New York Public Library. See Rockefeller Center. Eat at Katz’s Delicatessen. Visit the 9/11 Memorial. Go to the Statue of Liberty. Go to the top of the Empire State Building. Shop on Fifth Avenue. Walk the Brooklyn Bridge.”
“What’s wrong with that?” you might wonder. “Aren’t those all good things?”
They are. They’re great things. But they’re also activities where you will be surrounded by tourists and the vendors who want their money. This is the kind of itinerary where you leave New York saying, “I had fun, but I don’t know how anyone can live there.”
Well, we don’t live there. Those are areas that we only pass through briefly, filling out time with other destinations.
Truth? I used to think I didn’t like New York. Then I realized I was spending all my time in midtown. Once I got out of midtown, I fell in love with the city.
What to do instead: Add less touristy activities into your itinerary. Plan an afternoon without any sightseeing: instead, choose a neighborhood and walk around with no plans. Duck into shops when you feel like it; sit down in a cafe when you’re craving a coffee. There’s no right or wrong way to do this.
Take a walk along Riverside Park, finishing with a stroll along Battery Park City and a sunset trip on the Staten Island Ferry. Ride the East River Ferry, enjoying the scenery of three boroughs. Take the subway to a random stop, get off, and open Foursquare and see where it tells you to go. Join Meetup.com and join a meetup group that shares an interest of yours. Buy tickets to a cheap music or comedy performance that night.
Visiting in the winter when you’re not used to our winters.
If you’re from Minnesota and you want to come to New York in the winter, that’s fabulous — you know what you’re getting into! But I’ve known visitors from California, Texas, even Britain, who are gobsmacked at just how cold it is and end up having a much worse time than they planned.
New York winters are brutal and intense. They’re far colder than anywhere I’ve been in Europe, including the upper reaches of Scotland, and it can be very windy too.
If you end up in New York and aren’t prepared for the weather, go to Old Navy or H&M and load up on hats, gloves, thick socks, and scarves. If you need a better coat, Uniqlo has some good ones for decent prices. If it snows, you’ll need snow boots, and every curb seems to be concealing a three-inch-deep sludge puddle. If you’re up for that, great. If not, winter is not your time to visit.
What to do instead: Either time your visit from April to October or bundle up and plan to spend lots of time indoors.
Assuming New Yorkers are rude, and being rude in return.
Some people think that New Yorkers are rude. That reputation is overblown. New Yorkers are kind, friendly, and welcoming people, but we also value efficiency — so to us, being polite means being brief and unobtrusive.
If you’re from the midwest or the south, it might seem natural to you to go up to a stranger and say, “Excuse me, sir, but my family and I are visiting from Georgia, it’s our first time in the city, and we were looking to visit Washington Square Park. We heard there are a lot of interesting street performers down there! Anyway, we seem to be a bit lost. Could you please point us in the right direction?”
To a New Yorker, that’s actually rude. The most polite thing you could do is to not waste our limited free time. Time is currency in New York; preserving it is a method of survival. If we have time to spare, however, we open up and are glad to chat. Once you understand that, you’ll have better interactions with New Yorkers.
What to do instead: If you’re lost or need help, don’t ask someone who is busy or distracted or wearing headphones. Be brief and to the point: “Excuse me, do you know where Washington Square Park is?” If you order a bagel and there is a line behind you, don’t have a conversation with the cashier — pay and get out of the way.
And for the love of God, don’t stop in the middle of the sidewalk. You’ll disrupt the whole flow of the street and annoy everyone around you. If you need to stop, move to the side of the sidewalk first.
Don’t wait until you’re in front of the subway turnstile to start searching for your Metrocard. Let people off the subway or bus before you get on. If it rains, be careful not to hit people with your umbrella. Basically, follow the locals’ lead, just as you would when visiting another country.
Using Airbnb illegally.
Did you know that using Airbnb is illegal in most circumstances in New York City? You probably don’t, because Airbnb refuses to enforce the law. They show all listings, including the illegal ones.
In New York City, it’s illegal to rent a whole living space for less than 30 days; however, you can rent a room in someone’s shared living space for as long as you’d like. If you decide to take a chance and book an illegal rental anyway, the police could shut it down before or during your visit.
Why is this a law? Airbnb contributes to the housing crisis in New York, as it does in cities around the globe. Homeowners can make more money renting out whole apartments to short-term guests, but doing so means there are fewer affordable apartments available for New Yorkers to live in. New York’s lawmakers created this law to protect New York residents, even if it’s difficult to enforce.
What to do instead: If you don’t want to get a shared place on Airbnb, or stay for more than 30 days, book a hotel instead.
Not getting out of your culinary comfort zone.
Pizza, bagels. Bagels, pizza. And ice cream. Yes, we do those very well here! But that shouldn’t be the extent of your culinary adventures in New York. So many tourists consider a quickie trip to Chinatown for dumplings to be their only foray into “ethnic” food.
What to do instead: Plan to try at least one or two new kinds of food on your visit. Foods that you would never ordinarily try.
I know it can be intimidating to go to an ethnic restaurant, feeling like you’re going to make a fool of yourself. My recommendation? Do a food tour! I had a great time on Jeffrey Tastes’s Queens Food Tours in the crazy-diverse neighborhoods of Jackson Heights and Corona, which can include anything from Ecuadorian to Bangladeshi to Filipino food. And because it’s just tastes, if you don’t like something, it’s no big deal!
If you want to expand your horizons in a restaurant setting, head to Koreatown for barbecue cooked at your table, or the East Village for Georgian food (so good), or Astoria in Queens for Cypriot food (similar to Greek, but with a Middle Eastern spin).
If you’re already an adventurous eater, try something you’ve never had before. Go to Washington Heights for Dominican food, 116th Street in Harlem for Senegalese food, or Brighton Beach in Brooklyn for Uzbek-Korean food (yes, it’s a thing)!
Assuming you can score a Hamilton ticket.
Hamilton is the hottest ticket in town, and face value tickets are very tough to find. It’s not something you can just pick up. Unless you’re willing to pay through the nose for a ticket on the secondary market (and it will cost you a pretty penny), or you beat the odds with the lottery, it’s unlikely to happen.
When I saw Hamilton in 2016, there was a tourist holding up a sign to the line saying that she’d pay $200 for a ticket. What she didn’t know was that tickets for that performance were going for minimum of four times that amount on StubHub.
What to do instead: Enter the Hamilton digital lottery every morning, but don’t get your hopes up. Instead, plan to see another show. I personally recommend Waitress, Kinky Boots, and Avenue Q. For the lowest prices, use the TodayTix app (get $10 off your first order with the code AELAA). Otherwise, Playbill has a great guide on how to get Hamilton tickets.
Not getting an unlimited Metrocard.
Using the subway is the best way to get around New York City — it’s cheaper and faster than many car routes. Taxis may be iconic, but there’s no need to ever hail one; if you’re traveling somewhere with lots of heavy bags, get an Uber or Lyft. Otherwise, stick with the subway all the time.
To ride the subway, you get a Metrocard and put money on it. A single ride costs $2.75, but you can also buy unlimited 7-day passes for $32 and unlimited 30-day passes for $121. You also pay an additional $1 for a new MetroCard.
So, essentially, if you’re taking 12 or more subway rides within a week, get an unlimited 7-day pass; if you’re taking 45 or more subway rides within a month, get an unlimited 30-day pass.
Why do I say this? Because it can save you money, but also because it can also affect you psychologically! When I don’t have an unlimited and I want to go somewhere, I think to myself, “Do I really want to spend the extra money?” Even though it’s only $2.75 and I’d spend more than that for a coffee in a heartbeat! But when I have an unlimited, I feel free. I never second-guess my decision to jump on the subway — I just go. And I do more cool things because of it.
What to do instead: Add up however many rides you think you’ll take on your trip, and if it’s close to 12 within a week, get an unlimited pass.
Getting museumed out.
New York is home to some of the best museums in the world. You should try to see at least one or two on your visit. However, many tourists overdo it. They see that the Metropolitan Museum of Art is on one side of Central Park and the Museum of Natural History is on the other, so why not do one in the morning and one in the afternoon?
The truth? Museum fatigue is a thing. Museums are rich and stimulating, and they can also be crowded and exhausting, especially if you visit during a busy time of year like the Christmas season. And the Met in particular is enormous — you could spend several days there without seeing everything. If you overdo it on museums, you might end up making yourself miserable when you should be enjoying it.
What to do instead: Plan no more than one major museum outing per day, and balance your museum time with outdoor activities. Also, add some smaller, quicker-to-visit niche museums into your itinerary, like the Transit Museum, the Museum of the City of New York, and the Museum of the Moving Image.
Never leaving Manhattan.
Manhattan is only one small part of a pulsating, thriving city. So it’s a shame that so many tourists don’t even leave the island.
The other boroughs are filled with fun things to do, but they are far less tourist-driven than Manhattan. Here’s a chance to see another side of the city while also getting to experience what it’s like to live here. And a bonus: most parts of the other boroughs tend to be cheaper than Manhattan.
What to do instead: Make an effort to visit at least two of the outer boroughs — or maybe even all five! Here are some of my recommendations:
For the Bronx: Head to Arthur Ave., center of the Bronx’s Little Italy, for Italian food (the bocconcini mozzarella balls at Casa della Mozzarella are insane); stroll through the New York Botanical Garden; catch a game at Yankee Stadium; if you’re there in the warmer months, check out the beach community at City Island.
For Queens: Explore the craft breweries in Long Island City and enjoy the Manhattan views from Gantry Plaza State Park; venture out to Flushing, home to the largest Chinatown in New York City; take an eclectic food tour of Jackson Heights with Jeff Tastes; visit the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria.
For Brooklyn: Enjoy the views of the city from Brooklyn Bridge Park and the nearby Brooklyn Heights Promenade; head to the Brooklyn Flea market or the Smorgasburg food fair on the weekends; take a walk or bike ride through Prospect Park; go on a street food and culture tour of wacky Bushwick.
For Staten Island: Enjoy the free ferry ride over and back (I happen to enjoy it most with a beer — it’s legal and they sell beer and wine in the terminals!); visit the cozy Flagship Brewery; try one of many Sri Lankan restaurants; enjoy a fun-filled minor league baseball at a Staten Island Yankees game.
Thinking that New York is dangerous.
New York is one of the safest big cities in the world. It’s practically a theme park. For the most part, if you use common sense, stay aware of what’s around you, and keep an eye on your belongings, you won’t have any issues. And you won’t accidentally wander into a gang fight — the most dangerous places in New York are places where no tourists would ever end up anyway.
The city used to be much worse off in the 70s, 80s, even the 90s, but that isn’t the case today. Times Square used to be known for drugs and ninja stars; today it’s where families go to take selfies with Elmo and Iron Man.
And one other thing — that goes for New York’s communities of color as well.
I live in Harlem. When people from outside New York learn that, they usually say, “Is that safe?”
YES. It is EXTREMELY SAFE. I hang out on my stoop and chat with my neighbors. We have a little community garden that puts on concerts and performances. Thousands of costumed kids run up and down Broadway on Halloween. My neighborhood is equal parts bachata and R&B, street tamales and braised oxtails. And my neighbors care so much about keeping our neighborhood a wonderful place to live.
Please don’t conflate communities of color with dangerous no-go zones. Every time you say, “But is it safe?” you are insulting the good people who live there.
If you think Harlem sounds scary, do the locals a favor and stay away.
BUT. If you are genuinely curious to visit Harlem, and are coming with an open mind, and won’t hold onto your purse the whole time, I bet you’ll have a great time.
Get your feet wet with a food and culture tour with Taste Harlem. See a show at the Apollo Theater. Dine in style at Red Rooster or dive into soul food at Melba’s. Gawk at the architecture on Astor Row or the Hamilton Heights Historic District. Listen to live West African jazz at Shrine, then dance all night long. Browse African wares at the Malcolm Shabazz Harlem Market or support neighborhood designers at the Sugar Hill Market. Sip strong ginger tea at the Serengeti Teas and Spices. Visit the Hamilton Grange, Alexander Hamilton’s uptown home. Get haute disco cocktails at the Honeywell or slam back $3 beers at At the Wallace.
Essential Info: I recommend staying in a hotel in New York City, as Airbnb is illegal in some circumstances and it worsens the housing crisis for all New Yorkers. Check out New York hotels here. My favorite hotel where I’ve stayed in New York is the Ace Hotel — SUCH a cool place with wine on tap and an awesome lobby, in a great Flatiron location!
This was a year for rebuilding. I wrote in last December’s post that 2016 was a difficult year in many ways. I had such high hopes for 2016 that I ignored how bad things were going, but by the time the election rolled around, I felt deflated — and admitted that the year had been rough in more ways than I thought possible.
2017 was about picking up the pieces and building them into something better. Business was better this year. My relationships were better this year. My health got so much better this year. My work-life balance (and especially travel/home balance) was a hell of a lot better this year. And while I’m not quite where I want to be, I am on much stronger footing today than I was at the end of 2016.
My health is good; my family is good. There’s a lot to be thankful for this year.
Las Vegas, Nevada
New York, New York
Reading and Lynn, Massachusetts
A fabulous girls’ trip to Las Vegas. I wrote a little bit about it in last month’s recap because the trip began on November 30, but the bulk of the trip happened in December.
Some of the best highlights? Hanging out with Ray Romano and David Spade in the green room after their fabulous show! (And successfully not quoting Tommy Boy when talking to David…I quote that movie so often without thinking about it, I was afraid of doing so accidentally and him thinking I did it on purpose!)
We saw a great Cirque du Soleil show — Michael Jackson One at Mandalay Bay — and ate a lot of great food. Brunch at Bouchon, salads at Chica at the Venetian, and the tiny lemon meringue tarts at the Bellagio buffet were highlights. We dipped our toes into nightlife — the Foundation Room at Mandalay Bay, with an awesome view of the Strip, was really cool — and we just walked around, checked out the Christmas decorations, and enjoyed each others’ presence.
It was very different from our past trips to Vegas in our early twenties. And in some ways, it was a bit of a last hurrah. A few of us are going through some transitions, so this may be the last girls trip we have that is quite like this.
Getting honored at the Irish America Business 100. This year I was named to Irish America’s list of top 100 Irish-American business leaders. What a surprise that was! All those CEOs and me! And an invitation to a dinner at the Metropolitan Club!
We were asked to provide quotes about what our Irish ancestry meant to us. Here’s what I wrote:
“At one point the Irish were among the most reviled in America. Today we are seeing history repeat itself as similar scorn is heaped upon Latin American immigrants. As Irish Americans, I believe it is our duty to speak up for the immigrants of today. We must protect the people who came here to create a better life for their families, just as millions of Irish did before them.”
The publisher actually read my quote out loud at the dinner. That made me happy.
A great Christmas at home. It was chilled out and relaxed with lots of family time and good food. And far too many Hallmark Christmas movies, though I think my sister and I added a lot to them with our comedic commentary! Also, it’s rare to have a white Christmas in the Boston area, but we had the snowiest Christmas of my life! It was like a fairy tale.
Another visit from Cailin. We always have a great time whenever she visits, and this time we added in a pizza and cheesecake tour through Brooklyn (timed with my lease signing), a visit to an anti-holiday pop-up bar called Jingle Hells, and a visit to Gulliver’s Gate, an amazing collection of miniature models of places all over the world.
Some other New York highlights from the month: going to The Hip-Hop Nutcracker in Washington Heights, helping throw a friend’s birthday party in a suite at the Benjamin Hotel, a Christmas party at my friend Jessie‘s, some great barbecue at Blue Smoke, a great book club session in TriBeCa, and lots of time with my loved ones.
A crazy New York moment. Cailin and I were walking through SoHo at midnight on a Sunday and all of a sudden who runs across our path but our friend Dani! “Hi! I’m sorry, I’m late, I’ll see you later!” And she took off like the white rabbit. What are the odds?
Apartment stress. As I wrote in other posts, finding an apartment is difficult enough as is in New York; it’s even more difficult when you’re self-employed. Many landlords are nervous about renting to self-employed people because their incomes can be irregular.
Back when I looked for apartments in Boston, the landlord called my place of work and checked my credit score and that was it. But in New York, I’ve had to provide proof upon proof upon proof of my income. Every bank statement, ever, with the income highlighted. Every tax return from the past few years. Receipts from my top income generators from the past year.
I didn’t eat or sleep for a week. I was that nervous.
Thankfully, my financial diligence paid off and I was offered the place. Bonus: because the previous tenants broke their lease, I didn’t have to pay a broker fee, which is pretty rare in New York!
The awesomely bad lunch that was just bad. As soon as they announced that Guy Fieri’s much maligned Times Square restaurant was closing permanently in a few days, my friends and I vowed to finally eat there. One big lunch (with sides of donkey sauce) later, we realized that we had been had. The food wasn’t outrageously bad; it was aggressively mediocre, which was even worse. If you haven’t read the New York Times review, YOU MUST. (Also, that picture above was taken in Vegas long before we heard the restaurant was closing, so that tells you how deep my Fieri fandom goes.)
COLD COLD COLD COLD COLD. A cold spell hit the Northeast US at the end of December, with Boston and New York temps from 5 to 15 degrees F (-15 to -9 C). Hitting those temperatures isn’t that unheard of during the winter, but having them for a week or longer is highly unusual.
THE CROWN Season 1 TRAILER (2016) New Netflix Series - YouTube
What I Watched This Month
The Crown. I started watching this Netflix series this month and I’m hooked. The series covers the reign of Elizabeth II over the course of six seasons, recasting every two seasons; the second season was released this month. I love it because it’s a beautiful historic drama (THOSE COSTUMES!) and because there are a lot of soapy scandals in the Royal Family. Also, I love reading it alongside Wikipedia and checking the facts.
But what I love most is when it focuses on Elizabeth and her view of what the crown should be. What is the monarchy’s role in a modernizing nation? And most importantly, how does she carve out a private identity while being a public servant and the world’s most famous woman? It’s fascinating.
Also, John Lithgow as Winston Churchill! Talk about inspired casting! Who ever would have thought that could work?! He is marvelous and deserves all the acclaim he’s received.
My one complaint? Not enough corgis.
What I Listened To This Month
The Baby-Sitters Club Club. I was obsessed with the Baby-Sitters Club books as a kid, so this podcast is an absolute gift. Two thirty-something guys read a different Baby-Sitters Club book each week. One read them as a child; the other is reading them for the first time. And they discuss.
What makes this podcast so great is that they keep trying to find symbolism and deep intellectual meaning in these books. Sometimes, it’s outlandish — trying to find the religious subtext in every Dawn book is a bit of a stretch, as is the recurring motif of elephants signifying chaos — but sometimes it makes a lot of sense.
I always thought it was weird that Stacey’s New York friends ostracized her when she was diagnosed with diabetes. They refused to touch her, they said she was diseased, and they cut her out of their lives. It seemed extreme to me, even when I was eight. But the guys pointed out that this book was published in 1986, at the peak of the AIDS crisis. Author Ann M. Martin lived in New York City at the time, and she revealed in a 2016 Vulture interview that she once had a female partner, effectively coming out as not straight.
A queer children’s book author who was living in New York as people in her community were dying, yet she was forced to stay in the closet for the sake of her career? Writing about Stacey’s diabetes in the way people with AIDS were treated was probably as close as she could get.
What I Read This Month
I finished 2017 reading 72 books in total. That has to be a record! Be sure to check out my favorite reads of 2017 if you haven’t yet. (The first two books I review here have their reviews pulled directly from that list.)
The Power by Naomi Alderman (2017) — In this dystopian novel, young women around the world suddenly realize they have the power to send electrical charges from their fingers, inflicting pain. This results in an upheaval of gender dynamics around the globe. The story follows the world from several points of view, a foster child turned spiritual guru, an American mayor turned Senator, a Nigerian student turned journalist, and a daughter of a British crime gang.
This is one of the best dystopian novel concepts I’ve read in a long time. It really makes you think critically about gender dynamics. If women had this power, would we really say things like, “Of course women are naturally more violent than men, they had to protect their babies”? On top of that, it’s an entertaining novel. I especially liked that it focused on several different points of view, similarly to World War Z.
The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid (2017) — In the hands of a lesser author, this would have been a forgettable read about a faux movie star’s exploits; in the hands of Taylor Jenkins Reid, this novel is a starling examination of humanity behind the celebrity. In the book, Evelyn Hugo, legendary movie star of the 1960s, tells an unknown magazine writer that she’s chosen her to write her authorized biography after her death; throughout the book, she chronicles the secrets surrounding her seven husbands and answers the question: who was the love of her life?
I actually read this book in a single day — I could not put it down. I’m not going to give anything away, but this book goes in a very different direction than what you’d expect, especially for a character with many parallels to Elizabeth Taylor. Each husband was unique and had a specific purpose. I finished the book feeling grateful for the world we live in today.
Troublemaker: Surviving Hollywood and Scientology by Leah Remini (2015) — This was my book club’s pick for the month. Leah Remini was brought into Scientology as a child; she remained a faithful Scientologist as her acting career began. Eventually, she realized the damage that Scientology was causing in her and her family’s lives and she left the church, as they call it, with a scorched trail behind her. She talks about the mind games Scientologists play to convince you that you’ll only be whole if you follow L. Ron Hubbard’s teachings, the slavery-like conditions of Sea Org, and how Scientology bleeds you dry for cash.
This book was juicy — especially the batshit crazy stuff about Tom Cruise and how he is treated like a God by Scientologists. It’s also a quick read. Honestly, most of the really juicy parts, like how Tom and Katie’s baby Suri was left on the floor at the wedding, crying uncontrollably, as the Scientologists tried to reason with her like an adult (they treat kids and adults as equals), were revealed in the interviews Remini did to promote the book. I’m glad I read it, though, she she has such a distinctive voice. It was nice to step into her head for a few hours.
Trail of Broken Wings by Sejal Badani (2015) — I have some Kindle reads that I only read a little bit of at the time — I turn to them when I’m on the subway, or getting my nails done. This was one of those books. This novel tells the story of three sisters in an Indian-American family. As their father lies in a coma, the sisters and their mother come to terms with his lifelong abuse and the reverberating effects on their extended family.
I have mixed feelings about this book. On one hand, I appreciated how it documented the myriad was abuse can affect the rest of people’s lives. On the other, I couldn’t stand these characters and their bizarre motivations that made their lives as difficult as humanly possible. It was like a sitcom plot line of “Don’t tell this person this thing” stretched out into the length of a novel.
No Impact Man by Colin Beavan (2009) — This may be one of the most thought-provoking books I’ve read recently. Colin Beavan was always an environmentalist, but realized that he wasn’t putting his money where his mouth was. He decided to spend a year reducing his environmental impact while living in New York City with his wife and baby daughter, from creating zero trash to eating locally to traveling only by self-powered transportation to even living without electricity. And it changed his family’s lives in ways they never imagined.
If you’re a fan of A.J. Jacobs’s crazy books, you’ll love this one. It has really made me think about everything that I could be doing better but am not. This year I plan to majorly reduce my waste, starting with no buying bottled drinks ever, using a travel coffee mug at cafes, and using reusable produce and grocery bags. At the same time, I appreciated that Beavan and his wife weren’t all-or-nothing — they agreed to relax the local food rule when spending time with friends, his wife took the elevator to her 43rd floor office, and after his daughter threw up twice in a single night he threw the sheets in the washer because every person has his breaking point. You don’t have to be militant to make major impact.
Coming Up in January 2018
This month is all about MOVING. Moving day is January 15, so my month is going to be consumed by it — the packing, the trashing, the caulking, the giving away of stuff I don’t need, the hiring of movers for the heavy stuff, the recruitment of friends for the lighter stuff, the actual process of moving, the unpacking, and the settling, shopping, organizing, and decorating.
I’m looking forward to getting into my new place, but at the same time, I feel like I can’t relax until the move is complete. I’m ready to get it over with.
I might try to squeeze a weekend out somewhere…no, let’s not kid ourselves, that’s not happening this month. There’s also International Media Marketplace and the New York Times Travel Show at the end of the month, and my friend Amanda will be coming to visit just like she did for the show last January. (“Are you sure? My new place is going to be in shambles,” I warned her. She assured me she didn’t mind at all!)
It’s been a quiet few months, but don’t worry — I’ve got lots more travel posts to publish here, and I’ll be on the road again in February!
Every other year, I take on an ambitious 52-book reading challenge. This year, I want to do something easier with less pressure — and I’d like you to join me. How about we all do a simple reading challenge together?
The Challenge: 12 Books in 2018
One per month. I don’t expect everyone to read upward of 50 books in a year; I think 12 books is fairly achievable for most busy people.
Now, here’s the twist: they all need to be themed. Because reading twelve books is great, but reading twelve books with the same theme is fun and gives you continuity for 2018!
Choose whatever theme you’d like, but I have some suggestions:
My Challenge: 12 Books From Countries Whose Authors I’ve Never Read Before
I chose this topic because I always enjoy broadening my horizons while reading. I will read 12 books by authors from entirely new countries to me. This seems like a great way to learn more about the world!
Now, which countries does this eliminate? Off the top of my head, English language books from the US, Canada, Britain, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa. Books in translation from Italy, Germany, Switzerland, Sweden, Russia, Greece, Denmark. I’ve read several books in French by French authors.
I’ve also read books by authors from Nigeria (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie), Ghana (Yaa Gyasi), Colombia (Gabriel García Márquez), Egypt (Ahdaf Soueif), Finland (Jyrki Vainonen), Antigua and Barbuda (Jamaica Kincaid) and Japan (Haruki Murakami).
I’m wondering whether I should count works by authors who were born in another country but immigrated as a young child (Junot Díaz, from the Dominican Republic to the US; Min Jin Lee, from South Korea to the US; Reza Aslan, from Iran to the US; Rupi Kaur, from India to Canada). What do you think? Díaz’s work is DRENCHED with Dominican-ness, but Aslan’s work that I’ve read wasn’t about Iran at all…
I have no doubt I’m forgetting some countries, but I’ll do my best. Any other country is a go.
How I’ll Find Books
Of course I’ll take recommendations from you, my lovely readers! In addition to that, I found a few good resources online: in 2012, Ann Morgan spent a year reading a book from every country in the world (she puts me to shame!!); here is her list of recommendations. Additionally, this is a list of required high school reading in 28 countries around the world.
Unsurprisingly, many lists of world literature are biased in favor of men and especially white men, so I’m setting a few extra rules:
12 books, one per month of the year.
Each one must be written by an author from a country from which I’ve never read an author before.
At least six must be written by women.
At least six must be written by people of color.
At least two must be written by indigenous authors.
At least eight must take place primarily in the author’s home country.
My First Book: Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue
For my first book, I chose Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue, who is from Cameroon. I’ve never read anything by a Cameroonian author before. This novel tells the story of a Cameroonian family trying to make it in New York City, when the 2008 financial crisis hits and their jobs and lives are thrown into turmoil.
It’s an all-around solid first pick, written by a woman of color and in a country that doesn’t get a lot of international press. My only hesitancy is that it takes place outside the author’s home country, but I know I’ll be reading plenty others this year that do take place in their home country.
(Update: started AND finished it on January 1. Woohoo!)
How to Read More Often
People often ask me how I’m able to read so much (72 books in 2017 alone!). Honestly, much of that comes down to my privilege. I’m self-employed, make my own hours, travel a ton, don’t have kids, and live in Manhattan so I get around on public transit. But there are ways to add more reading into your life, even if you don’t have a lot of time or money to spare.
Join your library and get a library card. All the books you want to read, all for free. Also, did you know you can borrow digital books nowadays? When I lived in suburban Massachusetts, I was able to borrow digitally from my hometown library, libraries in surrounding towns, and the Boston Public Library. That’s a lot of options!
Get a Kindle and bring it everywhere. This is the biggest factor in why I read so much. Break out your Kindle whenever you’re in line at the supermarket, having a coffee at a cafe, or riding public transportation. I always read my Kindle while getting my nails done because it only requires a quick tap to turn the page.
Replace phone time with reading time. You’re probably spending more time than necessary on Facebook or Instagram — when you get the urge to scroll through social media, crack open a book instead.
Have a ritual before you go to bed. Reading for thirty minutes is a great way to get your body relaxed before sleeping.
Set a good example for your kids. If you’re a parent, instilling a love of reading is one of the best things you can do for your children. Read to them every day. Go on library trips together. But it’s also important to let them see you reading for pleasure.
What category are you going to do for this challenge?
Travel isn’t only about the good times. Don’t be fooled by the perfect photos and smiling selfies — behind all the awesome times on social media are the times when you’re racing for a flight and terrified you’re about to miss it. The times when you’re sick as a dog and can barely drag yourself out of bed. The times when you’re lonely, missing good times at home. And the times when you’re frustrated at trying to order food that you end up at McDonald’s.
In 2012, I got my credit cards hacked while in Portugal and Spain.
In 2013, I developed giant hives in Busan, South Korea, and it was nine months before they stopped popping up on a daily basis.
In 2014, I got head lice in New Orleans. Because clearly I am a small child.
In 2015, I got locked in a vestibule with a cockroach in Avola, Sicily, and had to call my Airbnb host to set me and my mom free.
And in 2016, I fell backwards and slammed my head on the bedpost in Passau, Germany, giving me my first concussion ever and necessitating a hospital visit in Munich.
2017 wasn’t one of my worst years, but plenty of shenanigans ensued along the way. Here are some of my bad times that I took with the good.
When a Piece of my Car Fell Off in Key Largo
For my second trip to the Keys this year, I was to fly into Miami and drive down to Key West before flying back. I picked up my rental car with no issues and drove through Miami for the umpteenth time that year.
Until the next day when I got to the drive-through Starbucks in Key Largo. Then I suddenly noticed a scraping noise everywhere I went.
As I pulled into a parking lot, looking for a good photography spot, a lady called out to me and pointed out that a piece of my car was dragging beneath the bumper. At that point I was about a mile from my guesthouse, so I decided to pop the plastic back into place as best I could and drive back.
It held, but soon enough it popped out again. I called the rental company. Their response? “We can get you a new car, but we’ll need to take you up to Miami and do it there.”
“I can’t come up to Miami,” I told them. “That’s three hours round-trip. I’m working. Why can’t you bring me a car?”
Turns out that was literally the only option.
After thinking about it carefully, I decided to tempt fate and borrow the guesthouse’s roll of duct tape. One of the guests insisted on helping me tape it up.
And wouldn’t you know — it held in place for two more hours, all the way to Key West.
I was terrified the whole drive, though. Never again!
The Chaotic Arrival in Russia
I’m glad I did the St. Peter Line Ferry to Russia, but I’m never doing it again. The main reason? It was completely disorganized and I had no idea what was going on. That didn’t compare to the arrival in Russia, though — it was utterly CHAOTIC upon arrival.
There were supposed to be lines at the arrival booth but everyone just swelled into a pile of lumps, pushing each other out of the way. Parents let their late arriving adult children cut ahead of others. I thought a fight would break out at one point.
And of course I ended up getting questioned for 20 minutes about my heavily worn passport filled with stamps. They were shocked that I planned to stay in Russia overnight. I had to point out that the ferry wa staying for two full days! At one point I didn’t think they were going to let me in at all.
And then I got in, and St. Petersburg was absolutely lovely…but I’m never coming by ferry again.
I will also say that my worst sleep of the year was on the St. Peter Line Ferry. Nothing like trying to sleep in what feels like an undersized twin bed as springs dig into your back and “Y.M.C.A.” blares from the nightclub right above your room…
Killing My Computer in Vail
After five years with one computer, I knew it was time to upgrade soon. Even so, I wasn’t ready for the decision to be made for me against my will.
While at my hotel in Vail, I lifted up the lid to the water bottle, forgetting that it had water in it, and it leapt out and splashed across my keyboard.
I freaked out. I turned it off, dried it out, let it evaporate. But 24 hours later, the top row of keys on the keyboard refused to work at all. And I couldn’t even get on my computer because it wouldn’t let me type my password.
The good news is that I was prepared for this and had the money saved up — even if I got it fixed, it was time for a new computer anyway. After consulting my friends in the Travel Blog Success group over which computer to get, I found a 13″ refurbished MacBook Pro and had it shipped to the Upper West Side store right away.
You know what else I bought? A silicone keyboard protector. Now that lives on my keyboard 24/7 just in case another spill is in my future.
Almost Being Late Back to the Cruise in St. Maarten
(Yes, I’m using this photo for the third time in two weeks. I can’t write about St. Maarten without sharing this photo!)
I like to be early. I like to leave extra time. For me, one of the worst feelings in the world is feeling like I’m going to be late for a flight.
So when the bus dropped me in Maho Beach and I asked about return buses, an the locals said, “It comes when it comes,” I thought I would have to leave extra early to get back on time, just in case.
But then I decided to loosen up. See more of those amazing take-offs and landings before being forced to return to the ship.
Which seemed okay…until I got a cab and the roads were filled with bumper-to-bumper traffic.
St. Maarten, at least on the Dutch side, is basically one main road. If that road is stuck, everything is stuck. And when the ride that took 20 minutes on the way there took closer to an hour on the way back, as time clicked closer and closer to the time that THE CRUISE WAS SCHEDULED TO LEAVE, I began to full-out panic.
My passport was on board. What would I do?! How long would they hold the boat for me, just in case?! When the hell would I get my stuff back? Where would they even send it?! My blood pressure was through the roof.
It was just after the time when I got back on board. God, I was relieved to make it back on time. I practically kissed the crew.
I later found out there had been a regatta that day, hence the traffic. And everybody had been caught up in the same gridlock as us, though the tour groups to Maho Beach had left much earlier as a precaution.
Never again, NEVER AGAIN, am I cutting it that close.
When I Got Attacked by Russians Online
Definitely the worst tech headache this summer was when my site got attacked by Russian networks. And I wasn’t the only one — some of my blogging colleagues were hit as well. Just like the DNC!
Basically, they were sending tons of shitty traffic to my site, trying to overload it. This also temporarily halted my display income as the traffic was so low quality.
Basically, it took a LONG ASS TIME for it to be fixed. But I will give credit where it’s due — it was the team at Sucuri who finally figured out how to block the traffic. If you’re a blogger, I highly recommend their services. It just costs $9.99 per month.
Additionally, today my site is hosted with Performance Foundry. While I’ve used different hosting companies for different reasons over the years, I’m now glad to be with PF because They Can Handle The Bad Shit and I get to worry a lot less.
Not Knowing How to Start My Car in Oulu
I haven’t had a car since 2008, when I moved from Somerville to downtown Boston. Since then, the only times I drive are when I’m home visiting my parents or when I rent a car for a trip, so it always surprises me when I see new high-tech features in cars.
Some of them are great (I love the lumbar support button in my dad’s new car!). And some are bewildering. Like trying to turn it on in the first place when there isn’t even a slot for the key. How does that work?!
It was the morning after my all-night party at the World Air Guitar Championships in Oulu, Finland, and I had to pick up my rental car and drive five hours across the country to Kuopio and then Porosalmi.
It was hard enough finding the right place — the rental office wasn’t open that day, so I had to be driven to a different location. The rental car employee dropped me off at the car with the keys and left.
I loaded up the car. I adjusted the seat and mirrors. And for the life of me, I couldn’t figure out how to turn on the car. HOW?! There was a button, and it definitely turned things on, but it was quiet and didn’t seem to be working — isn’t this how hybrid cars were now?
After fifteen minutes, I was nearly in tears. Nothing was turning the car on.
Finally, an older woman came out of a nearby apartment building and I begged her to help me. She pointed out the obvious — I was supposed to step on the break while simultaneously pushing the ignition button. The engine roared to life.
“Kiitos. Thank you so much,” I told her. “You’ve saved me.”
“You’re from America?” she asked.
“Yes,” I said. “New York.”
“My daughter lives in Houston.”
And just for the record, that’s the Finnish equivalent of a deep, intimate conversation. I love that introverted country.
Every Minute I Wasted on the Landmark Forum
Have you heard of the Landmark Forum? Google it and you’ll find people calling it a cult.
I haven’t written about the Landmark Forum in depth, and I’m still wrestling with whether I should write about it in detail. Maybe someday I will.
It’s a personal development seminar. I ended up there because a friend who had done the Forum invited me to do it. It had changed her life and she thought it could change mine, too.
As the days passed (it was a four-day event), soon it became clear that this wasn’t working for me. I wasn’t having the breakthroughs that other people seemed to be having. The “big revelation” was a phrase you’d expect an emo kid to scrawl on his biology book when he was trying to be edgy.
But that wasn’t all.
What brought me over the edge was when the instructor told a story about how they welcomed a child molester to the Forum with open arms. And apparently when a young woman brought in the relative who sexually assaulted her repeatedly as a child, everyone was cheering because he had made this decision to change his life.
I immediately went up to the microphone and let loose. How could you let a child molester into a room full of sexual abuse survivors? Did they call the police? How could this possibly be framed as a good thing? Did they want his money so much that it didn’t matter that he was a child molester, sitting amongst them?
For the first time in three days, the instructor was caught off guard.
After I spoke, the Landmark Forum offered me a full refund of $695.
I think that says it all.
For the record, I don’t think the Landmark Forum is a cult. However, I do think that they use many techniques that cults use. They instill a belief that everyone who hasn’t gone through the Forum will never be as good or evolved as people who have gone through the Forum. Every minute is controlled with almost no downtime; you have assignments to do on your breaks and you work from 9 AM to 10 PM or later. All doubts that attendees express are swiftly countered and shut down by the instructor. They encourage you to recruit everyone you know to join the Forum. There are several other courses afterward that they encourage you to keep taking, all of which cost additional money.
And while they make it seem like everyone loves it, the people above in the photo attended my Forum and didn’t get anything out of it, either. The defining mood was, “What the hell did I just spend $695 on?” It felt amazing to confess to each other that we were creeped out by the whole thing.
So yeah. Besides the friend who recruited me, I have several other friends who have done the Forum in various cities and countries and it did work for them. And they’re all great people, smart people, educated people. But the more I think about it, the more I realize those people share a number of personality traits that I personally do not have.
So would I recommend it? No, I would not. But who knows? Maybe it would work for you. I wouldn’t recommend you spend $695 on as big a gamble as that, though. And if you go, for God’s sake, don’t welcome a pedophile with open arms.
The Weird Ass Table Next To Ours in the Hamptons
On a day trip to the Hamptons with my friends Beth and Colleen, we decided to get dinner at Almond in Bridgehampton. The food was fantastic (their lobster pasta was one of the best dishes I’ve had all year) but the experience was ruined by this odd experience with the table next to ours.
They were a bunch of gay guys our age, several drinks into their night. One of them turned to Beth and said something like, “Sorry our friends are drunk,” and Beth said something back like, “Oh, that’s fine with us.”
They MUST have misheard her, because there’s no other explanation for what happened next.
The men suddenly started glaring at us, saying rude things about us to each other. Then one leaned over and said, “You’re in town for the weekend? Oh, that’s CUUUUUTE. I live here.”
What the fuck?!
Here’s the thing: I felt afraid, and I think my friends may have felt the same way. We were frozen, looking at each other with giant faux smiles on our faces, afraid of what they would say if we said anything. And you might think that there was no reason to be afraid, that we were in the middle of a restaurant, that these guys were gay anyway and it couldn’t possibly lead to sexual assault. It wasn’t about sex — it was about power, just as all sexual harassment and assault is. These men thought we didn’t belong in their space and they wanted us to be afraid of them.
Every time we talked or laughed, the guys would swivel their heads in our direction, angry expressions on their faces. One guy even slammed his head on our table and pretended it was an accident.
The men left the restaurant when our entrees came and as soon as they were gone, we exploded. What was their problem? Why would you treat strangers like that? What did they think Beth had said? I still have no idea what happened all these months later.
A Day of Delay Hell in Charlotte
On the way back from Asheville, I had a layover in Charlotte. That two-hour layover turned into ten hours and counting. And it wasn’t an ordinary layover — there were thunderstorms in New York, so they kept delaying it by an hour, another hour, yet another hour, every hour, then canceling the flight, then delaying the rebooked flight. If I had known, I would have gone out into Charlotte to explore! Hell, I would have taken a later flight from Asheville!
Charlotte is not the greatest airport in which to be stranded. Less healthy food, far less bookstores, yet a lot more fast food. If you end up stranded there…yeah, good luck with that.
I was supposed to be home by 4:00 PM but I didn’t get home until 1:30 AM. Worst transit day of the year.
Finding Out I Had to Move
On the last day of November, hours before I was to fly to Vegas, my landlady told me that she was selling the building and I had to move.
This was the last thing I wanted to hear. I adore my apartment and wanted to continue living there for at least another year or two. Plus, not only is moving in New York annoying and expensive, but it’s even tougher for self-employed people. New York tenants have a lot of rights, so to counter that, they make it difficult for people to rent in the first place. For example, you need to prove income of 40 times the monthly rent in a year. And even if you make that much, a lot of landlords are skittish about renting to self-employed people.
I was so nervous, I didn’t eat or sleep for a week. I got stress headaches. I had no appetite. I couldn’t do anything at the gym.
That said, I was able to remedy the situation quickly. I set up apartment viewing appointments within an hour of the news. I applied for the second apartment I saw. And thankfully, after a lot of..
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