Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The pleasures of traveling

You can read all the guidebooks and make painstaking plans, but for me, the best moments usually happen slightly unexpectedly and off the beaten path. Like last night. After a slightly draggy day and a nice but perfectly ordinary dinner, I realized that my friend and I were very close to a cute pub I'd noticed a few days earlier, called the Queen's Larder, from the 1700s. We bellied up to the bar and promptly met two Germans and a Dutch businessman, the latter of whom promptly bought us several rounds of drinks. We talked Obama (most Europeans love him), the economy, sports and literature, then closed the place down (not hard to do when last call is at 11:30), and went on for more drinks at our hotel. Reminded me of what I love about traveling, as if I needed reminding, but it's the window into other people's way of life and bumping up against people you'd never talk with at home. Here are a few pics of our merry little crew, along with some snaps of the pub. (Do they say "British Pub" or what?)

Alexander (the Dutchman), Sandra and Bernt (pronounced Burnt!), our new buds

Millie and me, after a lager, a scotch, some port and brandy (not necessarily in that order)

Cozying up to Alexander

On the left, a dead ringer for Winston Churchill
Today, I continued to get my fill of art, while (mostly) avoiding London's mega museums (The British Museum/The Victoria and Albert/The National Gallery). Other than the Tate, where I reacquainted myself with this much loved Matisse entitled The Snail (I had a poster of it in my college dorm),

I decided to stick with mostly smaller museums on this trip, so I didn't end up spending my entire time traipsing through big rooms looking at art. Not that I don't love that, but I've found that if that activity dominates my trip, I don't end up getting as much of a sense of the country. So this morning, after a breakfast of toast and porridge (When in London...) I did a teeny bit of shopping in some bookstores and shops on an incredibly quaint street near Bloomsbury (there's something about London that makes me want to buy actual paper books. Maybe it's because they still have wonderful independent book shops everywhere. I went into a shop called Persephone Books, and they had something by a writer named Amy Levy, who they called the Jewish Jane Austen--she lived at the same time as Jane, committed suicide at 27, and wrote about family and town--but from a Jewish/British perspective. Apparently, she is coming into vogue now. Bought her novel and a book of poetry by Judith Viorst about marriage, called It's Hard to Be Hip After 30. Don't I know it. Then I struck up a nice conversation with an art gallery owner, chatted with an adorable shop clerk while picking out a little present for my hubby, then went on to the ultra-quirky Sir John Soane museum, a townhouse crammed full of paintings and Greek and Roman sculpture collected by the eponymous architect, who designed the Bank of England and the House of Lords, among other things (aka he was extremely rich). Next, I wandered over to the Strand to the Courtauld Gallery, possibly my favorite small museum ever, with an especially extensive collection from the late 19th, early 20th century (Matisse, Malevitch) in a beautiful old English mansion.

Last excursion of the day was a pilgrammage to see my old stomping grounds circa 1983, 16 Westbourne St., where I lived during my junior year abroad in London.

My old dorm has become a guest house, but looks much the same--only spiffier.

Then I stopped at the pub around the corner where I spent many nights soaking up the culture (literally). Thirty years later, it is now a Michelin starred French restaurant. No more lagers for 50p!

Tonight, we're seeing the West End musical Matilda, based on the Roald Dahl children's book. (Gotta see theater in London!) The plan for tomorrow: An outdoor market, more art, more wandering and getting my head around returning to a half submerged New York. So odd (and lucky!) to have missed Hurricane Sandy, and so thankful that all the family and friends I've spoken and emailed with seem dry and intact, and many are even back at work today. As for me, more adventures await.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

High tea is all it's cracked up to be...

Scones with butter and jam. Tiny little sandwiches with the crusts cut off. Trifle. (Now I know what that is.) And delicious dajarleeng tea at the Goring Hotel. Followed by a martini at the posh bar. I'm liking London, yes I am.
The very civilized fare at the Goring Hotel near Grosvener Square. 

Millie, not quite sated.

The parlor at the Goring Hotel
Sugar high...
Martini high...?

But the day wasn't all debauchery. They turned the clocks back here in London, so we were up early and headed to the nice hotel gym for a workout. Then we took the Tube to Kew Gardens, the botanical gardens here, and wandered through greenhouses and serpentine paths, which were dotted with these cool sculptures by an artist named David Nash--(click on his name to see a video about the exhibit). He fashions gorgeous hunks of wood that really give you a sense of what the original tree looked like.

Charred wood transformed into art 
Taking time to smell the roses  
Of course, both my friend Millicent (I'm slumming in her hotel room while she attends to business) and l fell victim to jet lag at various points (we managed to miss the same subway three times before we boarded correctly), but we also got a second and third wind--enough so that we made our way to Trafalgar Square for an Indian festival known as the Devali (which celebrates the triumph of some good spirit killing off an evil spirit). We arrived just in time for a full-on Bollywood number, before we wended our way back to the hotel, stopping on a picturesque bridge along the way. But maybe the best thing of all is having a respite from my post-layoff angst, a few days where I feel normal and happy and relaxed. Granted, I'm not doing the shopping I usually do on these trips (the fact that the pound is so much stronger than the dollar is good motivation), but that doesn't mean I won't indulge in a 15 quid martini when the occasion demands. No one can say I don't have my priorities straight! (Plus, it came with awesome--free!--bar snacks.) Totally worth it.


Saturday, October 27, 2012

A brighter, shinier, fancier London

Well, I guess compared to 1983, New York City is brighter and shinier too. The last time I was here, people sported outrageous mohawks, neon streaked hair, giant doc martens and a super cynical attitude. Thirty years later and we may be in the middle of a global recession, but I'm not seeing a lot of people hanging around on the dole. Had a lovely first half day after my amazing flight: I had an entire middle row to myself, so I could lay completely flat. After popping two Tylenol PMs, I had the best night's sleep I had in a while. I was so awake, in fact, that I easily managed to take the tube from the airport into town with my bags (wouldn't it be nice if there was an easy, direct way to do that in NYC?) and locate my hotel, just two blocks away from the tube stop. The weather is slightly gray and rainy--I guess you could call it stereotypical London weather, but it was cool and nice for walking--I strolled to Covent Garden (too touristy!), then back tracked to Bloomsbury and Russell Square--Bloomsbury was the neighborhood I used to hang out in back in my University of London Days, and when I stopped into a pub for some dinner, I ended up sharing a table with three 24 year olds. One was getting her masters in global health policy, her boyfriend was a designer and their friend was studying something called "horology," which is the study of clocks. Except when they explained it to me I thought they were saying the study of "cocks," which I assumed meant...cock fighting. After a few minutes of nodding and smiling and trying to decipher the accents, I asked, what do you do after you study cocks, and the woman said, Well, work in a museum. It was only then that I realized they were talking about time pieces, not roosters or a part of the male anatomy. I guess there's a language barrier here after all. One of the nicest things about today is that I realized I had gone at least five hours without remembering that I'd been laid off. I guess that means I'm happy and relaxed. I must be on vacation!

The tube from Heathrow. So clean. So civilized.
A good place for a guiness. If only I liked beer!   

Bertram Russell slept here. If only I knew what he wrote!

Friday, October 26, 2012

On vacation vs. unemployed

I am on my way to the airport as I type, for a week long trip to London. I did my junior semester abroad there, back in 1983 (yes, the Boy George era) and I had one of the best times of my life. It was a formative experience in a way these kind of iconic college experiences should be but rarely are: A die-hard, relatively unsophisticated suburban Long-Guyland girl, I discovered my love for cities. My love for art (until that point, I gamely let myself be dragged around to museums by my parents, but didn't feel passionate about it). My fascination with the class system that led me to write my senior year history and literature thesis on D.H. Lawrence. I met a cute British boy and improbably found myself with a boyfriend -something I had yet to do back at college. Just as important, I became friends with all of his friends. Suddenly, I was the cool girl I'd always wanted to be, the american surrounded by wry, cynical British men (love that British humor and of course, what American woman doesn't love the accent?) I discovered that it takes twice as long to realize that a guy is a jerk because of the accent. (Not with my guy, but in general.) Plus, I traveled all over Europe, my first time out of the States, including Italy. Even back then, I preferred Rome to Florence and Venice.

In fact, I had such a wonderful time that I told myself I didn't want to sully my view of London by going back as a mere tourist. So I have resisted for nearly thirty years, watching from afar as the only thing I didn't like about London (the food) caught up with the rest of Europe and the gritty east end where I went to college became impossibly hip. Now I get to see these changes for myself and revisit the places I loved at 20 (the Tate, Bloomsbury, Hyde Park and covent garden) through my 49-year old eyes. I can't wait to see what has changed more: London or me. (I know I should say "London or I" but that just sounds wrong to me. Allow for some grammatical informality on this blog. Hey, it's the Internet.)

Stay tuned. I feel like a new beginning is finally in store, especially after the lovely SELF hello/goodbye party we had at my pad last night. Jobs come and go. Not so, friends.

The amazing clean up crew!

Art department togetherness

The cool photo department!

Three former SELFers and future who knows what? 

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Spates of calm amidst the angst

It's funny, life. You wish for something--like more freedom, time to be creative, a reprieve from sitting in a windowless office every weekday, all day. Then you get those things and you feel...very unsettled. My husband keeps saying: Be happy! Embrace this opportunity. But he's used to ups and downs--he's a small business owner, one of those people they keep bringing up in this election. And now, I guess, so am I. And maybe I am embracing to the best of my ability (I'm off to london for six days tomorrow night.) But mostly I realize I don't like uncertainty. I need to get better at handling it, at trusting that the work will keep coming, as it has so far, that the money will come, the bills will get paid, and that I will feel happier and freer and more creative and blessed. How long will it take? It reminds me of a bad breakup, when you just want to skip over the painful part. I wish I could give this current state a miss. I just have to hope that this is all part of my usual pattern: Resist change initially, kicking and screaming, then wake up one day and say: Wow. This is fine. Actually, it's better than fine. I'm happy.

Friday, October 19, 2012

My best unemployed day so far...

Maybe it's because I was gainfully employed the entire time.
1) First, a breakfast with a wonderful writer I've worked with at SELF for the last few years. She gave me a pep talk and inspired me to write for the publications of my dreams.
2) Then off to to assign stories for this cool website about women and money.
3) Lunch at an old fashioned (circa 1972) lunch counter called Johnny's Luncheonette with my friend. Grilled cheese = comfort food.
4) Home to do two interviews for a little story I'm doing on marriage for ivillage. I like talking to shrinks about marriage, newlywed that I am.
5) Unpacked a box from my office. (Okay, so that was a low point.)
6) Off to hang with my friend and her new baby!

All smiles.

And now it's the weekend. I'm going to try to stay away from my computer and feel free. Hubby is coming into town along with his friends from San Francisco, and we're seeing Al Pacino on Broadway. (Tickets purchased before the layoff. All the more reason to enjoy it.)

I feel pretty good, which I hope means that I will sleep through the night! Ciao!

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Musings from a freshly laid off person

Being unemployed (er, I mean, freelance) feels...weird! The last time I didn't have a job, I was 22 or 23 years old, and I'd been booted from the New Yorker Magazine. I was working for a blind writer from India, named Ved Mehta, who won the MacArthur genius award and was on volume six of his autobiography. I helped him write it, in those pre-Internet days, by scribbling  everything he said longhand, as he urged me along, then we'd edit by my cutting and pasting sentences hither and yon with a big scissor.  Suffice it to say that I was not cut out for that type of cutting, or the other activities involved,  like bringing Ved tea and regularly changing the cardboard blotter on his desk (I'll bet most 20-somethings these days don't even know what a blotter is!). After I was unceremoniously dismissed the week before Thanksgiving, I lived on unemployment for six weeks before I got a job at the now-defunct  Mademoiselle magazine. And I could actually live on that monthly check, because my rent was $350. For that, I got a very small bedroom with a door in a decrepit apartment in a landmark building on the upper west side. But I had a room with a door!)

I've worked steadily since then, other than 2 months of sabbatical in Rome to edit a book, so I'm not used to having unstructured time that isn't paid vacation. I keep telling myself to enjoy it, to use the time (and severance) to reflect on what I want my life and work to be like now. But it's hard to overcome my natural anxiousness (as a very good friend said to me tonight, she and I were raised by slightly neurotic Jewish parents who basically taught us that one has to constantly prepare for the  apocalypse). In other words, relying on severance to explore my options doesn't come naturally to me.

Of course, there have been some nice moments this first week of my new phase. I've had fun work--a combination of private editing, teaching and a really cool gig at a website, the latter basically sitting in a sunny room with a nice breeze blowing  and brainstorming lots of ideas with a friend I adore, who was lovely enough to hire me the very night I got axed. It has also been so wonderful to get such supportive emails from others friends and colleagues, and get offers of work, and to see that work is indeed flowing my way. I also like that I've had more time for exercise--yoga this morning followed by breakfast and cafe con leche in my favorite neighborhood Spanish restaurant, Malecon. Then some work and laundry and errand-running followed by a late afternoon run. Not exactly a stress-filled day on the face of it.

Yet my thoughts are racing. It's tough to sleep. I keep doing calculations in my head. (If I earn this and this and this, then I can pay my mortgage, and if I earn  THAT, I can cover my maintenance.) Mind you, I'm fine financially (at least for the moment), plus I have a husband who loves me, is solvent and would not let me be homeless. So tonight, I decided to counteract that worry by treating myself to dinner at the bar of my favorite neighborhood restaurant, Gennaro, where I get wonderful treatment from Maurizio, the beautiful Sicilian bartender/manager/nephew of the owner. (My oldest friend, who is a life and career coach, calls this "coming from a place of abundance" rather than deprivation.) And things felt abundant at Gennaro, as per usual. For one thing, when Maurizio heard my saga, he poured me two glasses of complimentary prosecco and observed: "Bella--you have severance?! Go away with your husband to Italy for six months and write another book!" Hmmmmmm........

Travels to Capri on the horizon? Why not?

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

The first 48 hours of unemployment

Well, to be honest, it's a roller coaster of emotions. What I like: Sleeping (much) later. Never was a morning person. And being able to go out for a midday run. What I don't like: The worry about structuring my own schedule, balancing the work, figuring out what to say yes to and what to say no to, and being able to keep my eye on the big picture--which is doing work that feels meaningful, that interests me, that gets me trying new things and stretching myself instead of the same old same old. What I also don't like: Not having a tech department at my beck and call.

I'm having a tug of war with myself right now: Is it okay to take a few days, even weeks off? Or do I need to strike while the iron is hot, say yes to everything, fill my dance card. What do you guys say? Reactive? Reflective? The nice thing is that the phone is ringing. Now I just have to make the right choices.

Our zen view. Here's hoping I can find my own form of zen in this new phase.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

An unexpected twist in the 49th year

I am now, officially, a victim of the U.S. economy. (For some reason, I like repeating that phrase. It makes me feel like a part of the culture of the country, something I don't always feel.) But let me back up: On Wednesday, as part of a company wide restructuring at Conde Nast and at SELF, I was laid off along with 8 of my colleagues (and apparently around 60 others at the company.

I always pride myself on my intuitive skills, but while I knew budget cuts were coming, I must admit my radar failed me in this case. I was shocked, and there is nothing fun about being part of a small group packing up offices while the rest of the shell-shocked staff tip-toes by, making sympathetic looks.
It's empty!

But. The truth is, after more than a decade at SELF and more than two decades in magazine publishing, I am (to put it mildly) ready for a change. For the past year, I've been talking, planning and reflecting on what my next phase of life will be: a job in digital, hopefully working on something I love (books? longform journalism?) A combo platter of editing, writing, teaching, consulting and flexible living situation shared between NYC and CT and, hopefully, more far flung places. (A few months in Rome? A distinct possibility.)

Not that I haven't shed a few tears. It's hard to say goodbye to colleagues of eleven years, and no one wants to be told to clear out. But those eleven years have also bought me a nice cushion of severance, a wonderful luxury. I am grateful for that. And the more hours pass since walking out of the 4 Times Square, the happier and lighter I feel. I'm excited to run every day and sit less at my computer. I am excited to write in our new gazebo.

An indoor/outdoor space with a view--and no wireless. Perfect for writing.

And when I look at the week ahead, I feel pretty excited: A few private editing projects for tomorrow. A consulting gig for Wednesday. A new writing group on Thursday night. A mediabistro teaching gig that starts next week. A spontaneous trip to London the following week--on frequent flier  miles (I'm tagging along with a friend who is going on a business trip, so no hotel costs, either).

I never thought I'd be excited to freelance, but after 25 years or so of (corporate) office life, I find I'm looking forward to finding my own rhythm, seeing what comes my way, variety, more flexible hours (I am not a 9 to 5 person by nature) and seeing if I can make a go of it combining a little bit of office work and a lot of remote work from wherever I happen to be. My goal for the first six months: To do work that feels fun, challenging and meaningful, to earn enough to pay my bills, and to be able to put a little bit away in savings. I am open for business! Woo-hoo! Stay tuned for more on how this new situation will affect my dual domicile marriage. Your guess is as good as mine! All I know is: Right now, I am definitely not feeling Monday Morning Dread. Partly because this will be my view tomorrow morning.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

A room with a view

I'm hoping that I get to spend many days writing in this space, looking at the water (NOT going online--no wireless!), day dreaming, thinking and actually following through with ideas. Because ideas for writing are no good to anyone unless you write them down. Now that I have the most inspiring place to write, I need the will and the stamina and the stubbornness--all the traits that allowed my husband to take this gazebo from a dream to reality. This weekend, we will celebrate.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Weekends with friends

It's very rare, as a couple, to find other couples that you  totally click with--emotionally and life-stage-wise. It's the same kind of serendipity that happens when you find a life partner--it's just about the chemistry, values, similarity and enough difference to add some spice and exoticism. One wonderful thing about having the lake house is suddenly being in possession of a "friend lure." Everyone wants to come visit and hang on the deck, skim over the water in a kayak or just drink coffee on the deck til noon. Computers are mostly off. Phones are mostly down. These weekends with friends restore my energy and nurture my soul. They bring me back to my best self as opposed to my tightly wound, sometimes cranky self.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Is it possible to be married to someone and not catch their moods?

The easy answer is yes. But I've always been on the extreme end of empathic, picking up others' emotional ups and downs, reflecting them, absorbing them and projecting moods of my own. My husband has his moody moments, too, though if I had to quantify it, I'd say I out-moody him, on a week-to-week basis. Take the other morning, a Sunday, when I woke up in our beautiful bed with a tickle in my throat, an ache in my bones and (pardon the crassness) a stick up my you-know-where. My honey, on the other hand, opened his eyes and practically started whistling. Our plan was to spend a good part of the daylight hours doing chores on the gazebo project--we are getting close to our inaugural weekend, we have friends coming up, a gazebo party coming up, and it's time to get serious and finish this thing. That means cleaning up the work site and doing countless other physical chores. Usually, I stick to indoor chores, my s.o. focuses on the outdoors, but I figured, Hey, nothing wrong with working together and getting some exercise to boot. Except I woke up feeling like a thunder cloud (and like I was getting a flu), and after a few snipe-y comments from me, I watched the smile fade from my honey's face. And I felt terrible about that. Bam! I robbed him of his good mood. Except I didn't feel terrible enough to start radiating sweetness and light. Instead, we both got out of bed pretty quickly (bad moods don't make for lingering between the sheets) and continued with the gazebo plan, with me sweeping debris off giant tarps and bringing things back and forth between barn, basement and gazebo--screw drivers, brooms, buckets. I kept looking out at the lake, at the shimmering foliage, hoping that being surrounded by nature at its showiest would tip my emotions in a more positive direction. Nope. So after an hour and a half of mostly silent laboring (silent on the outside, that is. On the inside, I had an angry dialogue with myself going on, fanning the flames), I went into the house, texted my honey that I was taking a break and got into bed with a book, followed by a nap.

There is nothing like slipping between soft, cool sheets in the middle of the day, especially when you're feeling under the weather. And my two hour sleep did help a bit. I woke up feeling tired and a bit dazed, but at least I was no longer feeling like a bee-yatch on wheels. (Do these things happen because of hormones? Your guess is as good as mine.) In any case, after more sweeping and fetching and carrying, my hubby declared that it was time for a snack--in the gazebo! This was to be our first real use of the structure that has dominated a good deal of our lives this past summer--we were going to light a fire in the amazing fireplace, drink wine and watch the sun go down to the sound of crackling wood and the gurgling stream below. And we did just that, pulling two chairs right up to the hearth. There's nothing like the snap of a fire and the rushing of water, combined with the comforting body heat of the person you love to finally--FINALLY--banish a bad mood. And as the negativity left my body, I leaned my head against my husband's shoulder and fell asleep. And so did he. (And I am not the type of person who falls asleep on couches.) It felt wonderful. The experience was a glimpse of how nice it will be to have this extra space in nature to enjoy--a structure that is as beautiful as the water and greenery around it--and confirmation that my husband's focus on this project has been worth it. Suddenly, we have another living room, right by the water. And suddenly, my very bad day had turned good. It's nice to know that can happen, whatever my hormones happen to be doing.

Below, a few glimpses of the gazebo, right before our very first fire.