Open Your Mind
Put Words To A Page
Read Old Literature
Create > Consume
Read Before Bed
Give Yourself Prompts
Embrace Writer’s Block
Keep A Daily Ritual
Never Leave Home Without A Pen
…Or Especially A Journal
Observe Shapes in The Sky
Fall in Love
Have Your Heart Broken
Make A Conscious Effort To See The World
Take Long Walks Alone
Spend Days At Your Favorite Coffee Shop
Never Give up
Never Underestimate Yourself
…Or Maybe Drink More
Don’t Limit Yourself
Let Curiosity Guide You
Listen To Your Intuition
Nurture Your Spirit; It Is The Core To Your Creative Being
Don’t Listen To Music on the Subway
Don’t Cry When Edits Feel Too Overwhelming
Always Remember There Will Be Light
Buy Lots of Magazines
Subscribe to The New Yorker
Read The New York Times
Don’t Take Yourself So Seriously
Turn Off Your Fucking Phone
Go on First Dates
Notice The Shape of People’s Hands
And Their Eyes
And Their Breath When They’re Laying Next To You in Bed
Do Thing That Are Foreign
Eat A Flavor You Didn’t Grow up Around And Try To Describe It
Paint Something, Even If You Hate Painting
Draw Something, Even If You Hate Drawing
Question Your Intention
Get On A Plane
Sit In The Window Seat
Stare Out The Window
Question Your Existance
Have A Morning Routine
Protect Your Alone Time
Remind Yourself That Everything Will Be O.K.
Make Education A Priority
Don’t Work Anywhere That Doesn’t Respect The Written Word
Try To Get To 100
Host Dinners With Strangers
Listen To The Wind
Notice The Feeling of Silence
Have A Strong Sense of Self
Pick Up A Pen When You Don’t Want To
Never Quit Your Bookclub
Draw Circles And Connect Them With Ideas
Draw A Map
Ask Strangers in Foreign Countries For Directions
Try To Feel Textures
Inspire The Future
Believe In Potential
Hang Out With Poets And Scientists
Try To Ignore When Someone Makes You Feel Like You’re Not Enough
Go To The Park And Feel The Grass On Your Feet
Buy Lots Of Magazines And Read Them In Bed
Listen To Jazz
Edit Your Writer Friends’ Work If They Ask You To, Even When You’re Busy
Turn Off The TV
Be A Persistent Observer
Ask A lot of Questions : Of Others & Of Yourself
Ride A Bike And Clear Your Head
Laugh When You Feel Like Giving Up
Connect Often With Nature
Write More Often
Call Your Sister & Ask Her To Tell You A Story
Follow Your Uncle In His Youth And Isolate Yourself In Nature For A Couple of Months
Look Up At The Stars
Move Somewhere You Can See A Lot of Stars
Live By Your Values
Nurture The Part of Your Life That Make You Feel Most Whole
Remember That Writing Is A Part of You
Family road trips are a favorite pastime of growing up in California. All four windows rolled down while 97.7 KFOG radio station hummed over the speakers. My parents in the front seats and my sister and I in the back. We’d drive from Los Gatos to Big Sur or to Big Basin or as far as Crater Lake during school holidays.
The tradition was always the same. Dad carried our packed bags to the car while we piled in behind him. Mom made sure we went to the bathroom and had enough snacks to get us to our first stop. Then we started playing games: A My Name is Alice, Slug Bug (where you get to punch a sibling every time a VW bug is spotted), or tallying up the number of strangers who waved back when we flared our arms at them. My parents told us about the books they read as children, quizzed us on history, and repeated the story about the first night they met at the movie theater like we had never heard it before. With nowhere to go, we got to know each other in that time. We had no distractions except the mountains and the sky out of the window. Nothing to take us away.
Technology changed how we coexist.
Today, I often power down my devices an hour before bed and turn them back on upon arriving to the office around 9:30AM. I don’t really think I am missing out on information that can’t wait until then. That is to say I am considerably mindful of technology. But every time I travel home to California, to the backseat of our family Lexus, I pull out my iPhone and pop in my earbuds. The car ride for me is now just a vehicle to the destination; I am not required to be ‘present’. At least that’s what I tell myself when I want nothing more than to sink into my music and my thoughts. When we arrive to San Francisco or the restaurant for dinner or wherever we are traveling, I am back to the moment. But the time for conversation, for playful games and for boredom that leads to creativity is already lost. My device won. That hour will never return to me or live on in my memories.
I am sorry, Mom. I am sorry, Dad.
When I was 10 I had a pen pal in Minnesota. My mom found her online in a forum that connected cross-country students via snail mail. Every month, I’d spring from the couch when mom said something arrived in the mailbox addressed to me. She’d use a knife to slice the envelope open and pull out a short story from another 10-year-old girl. I don’t remember her name, the content, or how long we stayed in touch, but I remember the sentiment of our relationship that would long be lost in the immediacy of social media. Today, I would have found this girl on Snap and followed her stories and maybe her friends’ stories and comment like I knew her. There would be no curiosity, no updates. What could she have written me that I didn’t already know?
I miss the road trip days.
I heard there are middle and high school kids who refuse to repeat an outfit once it has been posted of them online. This must pain working—and working class—parents. In grade school, I wouldn’t leave my house without my father’s approval of what I was wearing because I trusted his opinion over anyone else’s. (In the few photos that surfaced, I regret this horribly). I later learned he liked whatever I liked, even if that meant a mustard yellow top, corduroy brown skirt, purple leg warmers and a sea blue headband, all at the same time. But I cycled these accessories through seasons and never worried that my outfit would be commemorated by visits to my Instagram page.
I am glad I had a childhood before social media.
I’ve been friends with the the same group of girlfriends for two decades. We went to different colleges, moved to different cities, entered different industries, and started our adult lives as successful business women, wives, lovers, cooks, creatives. We have also stayed in touch. It’s easy to find each other in the same places at the same time, like in our hometown over the holidays or at a wedding. But when I see them today after three months away, there is inherently less to catch up on. From Instagram and Facebook, I know where they traveled, if they were promoted at their job, if they are engaged. The Internet has shrunk time and space. Nothing is a secret for long. I lament the days when I could call my best friend 3,000 miles away and ask her: what’s new; what has changed; how do you feel; are you happy; are you sad; are you in love? These are the things I want to know: what we keep in our hearts that we don’t curate for the rest of the world. For our “friends.”
I am nostalgic for a time when friendship ≠ 1,000 followers.
Maybe that’s one of the reasons I don’t follow the man I’ve dated for a year on social media (and vice versa). I have no idea—nor interest, truthfully—in what he does online or what he “likes.” What I “like” is going out on a date or to dinner or to his house and not knowing what his feed says. Not leaving space for misinterpretation. What I “like” is showing up at his doorstop and asking what’s up, what did you do today and being genuinely curious to hear the answer. Unfortunately he doesn’t like letters, but maybe one day we’ll take a road trip together.
But you’ll have to follow me to find out.
She sits down at a table set for four.
She is alone.
The host removes the remaining place settings to make it feel less lonely, but she feels perfectly in her place. Comfortable without an other.
The tables in the restaurant are close. She’s just half a foot from a man and woman drinking red wine. Whispering together in French. Their thoughts intertwined.
Without a partner, her thoughts are her own. She can look anywhere. She can stare out at the world.
She thinks about: her day with her friend, Alexandre, in the sun on the country roads of France; a companion from back home whom she has barely missed; the Peace and Quiet of late-night in the 10th arrondissement, where she had intentionally walked to reach this colorful establishment.
She looks down.
The menu is sunflower yellow and filled with pizzas, the first of its kind in a city of crepes.
She orders in English after first attempting in French, time and again forgetting how to say what is your favorite?
The truffle with mushrooms, replies the waitress, who sports cat-eye glasses and a Margarita Babes t-shirt. A shirt that says she belongs to the coolest Italian gang in Paris.
The girl takes herself out often, but not often enough. She retires her phone, her books, any form of familiarity or anything that takes her elsewhere. For all she wants is This Moment.
In this moment, she relaxes into the pink plush booth and looks upwards to catch a glimpse of herself in a mirror overhead. She looks cheerful, the dark under her eyes which she conceals back in New York nowhere to be found. Her face has healed from the accident. The bruises on her shoulder are gone. She is coming back to herself. She drinks her wine slowly while the couple keeps whispering.
No one notices her. She couldn’t be happier.
Her pizza arrives. Mushrooms layered on cheese shaved with truffle. A single basil leaf melts into it. She can’t remember the last time she had a wood-fired pizza in front of her, some days so obsessed with ‘being healthy’ she can barely stand it. Today she is at ease.
She cusps her hands around the ceramic plate and says a prayer for health, for solitude, for moments like this.
She brings the dough to her lips and closes her eyes.
Yes, for moments just like this.
@Big Love, Paris, France
I always linger in bookstores. Not necessarily even reading, just fingering through spines of history's beloved authors and walking out with seven new books for my home library. This started in youth, and continued on through middle school, college years and as a young traveler. Then I spent all of my free hours devouring and marking them up, underlining sentences that I would later dream about and return to.
Each reading was always a process of both pleasure and learning, retracing my way back to paragraphs and passages as I continued onto the next chapters. The underlined areas were not necessarily the famous ones nor the one's recommended be closely examined by a professor, but they always spoke to me with great certainty and rhythm.
There are authors who have changed my world views, invoking a new way of thinking and moving through time and space. For them, I hold the highest admiration. Certainly, Oscar Wilde (Go forth into the world and charm it with your Youth!), Joan Didion (Buy a notebook and write down every detail you observe, even the woman in the fur coat in Vegas you think you'll never see again), and Haruki Murakami (There is chaos and beauty in worlds beyond reality). When I am lonely or uninspired, I simply return to them — their characters — and find peace. From this, I have learned that language has a powerful way of orienting us as readers. We can find clarity, release from our grief, deeper understanding of our family through their storytelling.
Of course, the emotional connection to literature also comes by the way in which it was acquired and read. The Outsiders at 15 years old has different significance than any age past that. A novel by way of recommendation or exchanged during travel, when we are more open and embracing of new ideas, can stay with the reader long after the journey, not so much in the way if we picked it up spontaneously at our neighborhood bookshop.
There was once, for instance, a man in San Marcos around Lake Atitlan in Guatamala who gifted me a book called "Don't Just Do Something. Sit There," which explains mindfulness as pure and relaxed awareness of our present experiences. With the book in my pocket, I climbed alone to the highest mountain top I could find, starred out at an infinite blue sky and lake, one of the most majestic sights I've ever found, read its contents like a private journal, and experienced the most profound silence I've ever known. It was as if the words unlocked something more nurturing than The Self or nature could do on their own. I never met the traveler again, but I still have his book three years later. It sits on my bedside table.
At home, I often dedicate entire weekend days to sifting through old newspapers and literary journals, allowing myself to be filled with stories of other: Other lands, other people, other words, other relationships. I find myself reading articles from 10, 15 years past from the archive of The Times, amazed by how life in New York has changed so much since then, yet besides the city-planning and gentrification, not really at all. The jazz musicians still play their spots; the deli in the LES has not lost its charm; the subway problems persist. In these moments, I catch an intimate glimpse into the city before it was was My City. I share them with my parents, my uncle, my friends — because the author's story is also, amazingly, our story. Our grief. Our tumultuous relationship. Our neighborhood deli.
For me, the process of writing is one of mountain climbing as a beach walker. Many days include a journal where I decorate pages and pages with ideas that will never be seen. This is the ultimate freedom: to document the black man who sits at my neighborhood coffee shop, always in his colorful tunic, hiding behind his computer with everything but those olive eyes which follow me from the register to my seat near the window. Or Ricardo, in Mexico, whose strong hands found their way under my dress, into my hotel room, where we stayed together while his girlfriend waited unknowingly for him at home. Yes, these are the intimate moments that do not have meaning or significance to anyone but me — and sometimes not even to me. Like what it means when my journal simply states: "It felt like monsters were going to come out of the trees," or "food systems in public schools, or "the buildings were black with decades." It begs me to wonder: what tress, what about the systems, what buildings? But still, I keep writing. Don't stop, I tell myself. Keep climbing. Many days alone with only my pen and my thoughts is a slow ascend, but when I reach the top, the view is always glorious. When I get there, I stick my flag into the ground and lay claim to land I've never ventured before. Territory that is mine and mine alone, thought paved for me by multitudes of journalists and authors and novelists.
My best work occurs when I read a lot and meditate on my ideas — without technology, off of social media, in my mind and no one else's. I'll read an essay, take a long, slow walk through my neighborhood, and watch as characters and entire paragraphs float to the surface, like they were patiently waiting to assert themselves. It is as if they are being narrated to me as a gift. Like an old friend who was there all along, waiting until I was ready to meet them again. It is both magic and fear, feeling the most like myself while knowing that this moment of creativity will retreat unless I am relentless in its pursuit.
But as a story comes alive, though each draft, each editor's critical eye, I become more in love with the poetry that is language. A symphony for my soul that I hope to hear forever.
People travel to New York for the bookstores. Or rather, readers and writers travel to New York for the bookstores. There is The Strand, of course, at 14th and Broadway — 18 miles of books where the likes of Lou Reed, David Sedaris and Patti Smith have ventured for readings and for pleasure. There is bookbook, the West Village emblem of independent booksellers successful mainly for its location on Bleecker Street, which is a narrow home for both the classics and The New York Times' best sellers list. There was once St. Mark’s bookstore, on the corner of East 3rd and Avenue A, where the East Village folk and NYU kids gathered after hours until the rising rent prices led to its demise (RIP). But if you really want to read the city like a New Yorker and feel its literary charm, your destination lies at 52 Prince Street, the home of McNally Jackson.
McNally Jackson is downtown’s bookstore, the place people use as a reference point to meet their partners, or where they linger in anticipation of an 8PM dinner reservation with friends. My uncle, for example, always stops in to buy a new book prior to our weeknight catch-ups at Balthazar or Café Select.
McNally Jackson is a place where the shopkeeper relax into themselves and a visitor can find anything they need within the contemporary lit world. Sandwiched between the Mac and Cheese shop and shoe store, McNally passersby are seduced by something as small and familiar as a store window of colorful book covers. And while it might not be the largest shop nor promise the most diverse book collection, it has long been a city staple for thousands of people who enter through its doors every month. It was Bowie’s local. It has housed Zadie Smith for readings. It is quintessential—a landmark—brimming with new and old authors. Magazines and cookbooks. Whispers and conversations. Secrets and inspiration.
Walking in its front door off of the chaotic streets of Soho, one is greeted immediately by the calm meditation that a bookstore induces. The short walkway between the front door and the bookstore itself houses the neighborhood flyers, a corkboard filled with local newspapers, meditation and yoga classes, and book readings. An aura of ease permeates. The front two tables are decorated in the season’s best sellers for any type of reader. There are collections of essays, fiction and non-fiction, short stories, long stories, poems, novels. The bookstore for all.
Upstairs, one can wander through shelves of travel literature, cookbooks, classics. Downstairs lends itself to the genres of self-help, children’s literature and business planning. My favorite spot is the long, communal table to sit and digest pages before making a decision to purchase or not to purchase. It’s where multiple times a week the bookstore provides newly published authors with an intimate audience of 30 book lovers.
The staff never hesitate to help you find the perfect read, wading from behind the front counter to locate their favorite book off of the shelf when asked for a recommendation. Or listen patiently as a customer describes their reading mood (non-fiction, with a strong plot and memorable characters, something I can’t put down, you know), and prescribe a book to the customer’s exact feeling. But they also encourage an exploration on one’s own: search the shelves, explore the offerings, and perhaps you will discover something all the more satisfying.
Like most bookstores, it is a place that gives me hope that one day I could be a writer. It is hope that being surrounded by shelves of the Greats — Gabriel, Virginia, Haruki — might somehow seep under my skin and fill me with a new knowledge of words and ideas. That is the profoundness of a good bookstore: that simply by existing, a writer in its presence can grow into a better writer herself.
I worked in Nolita for two years, and nearly everyday I would take my lunch break at McNally Jackson. I rarely sat down to eat in the café, but instead spent time flipping through the pages to collect ideas from some of the teachers I admire most—authors who have dedicated their careers to their imagination. To me, an author is one of the great professions that withstands time and cultures. What a glorious life, I would think, to write all the stories you want to read and share them with others. To be the source of relaxation, or comfort, or therapy for a reader who stumbles upon your words.
Many bookworms have dreamed of working in a bookstore — a place built out of ideas and filled with the world’s greatest sentences. A place that is renowned for being quiet and congenial. A shop filled with rows of books you are meant to read in your lifetime, tempting you to pick them up and finger through the pages. To rearrange the spines so that they look more ‘readable’, if there were a thing. McNally Jackson is one of those lovely places where I could work, where sometimes I consider quitting my corporate job with my generous salary and fancy title for something more soul-satisfying. Where I could look back five years past and think to myself: this has been meaningful work.
But for now, I’ll keep doing my best to get the word out about that bookstore in New York City you just can’t miss on your visit. That bold line on my “Recommendations when visiting the city” email, to which I'll write you and say: The restaurants are world-class, the West Village is full of charm and character, but there's nothing quite like arriving to the city and bunkering down in McNally's cafe with a stack full of magazines, and feeling instantly, delightfully at home.
We're standing at the bar top - Pepe, Luca and me - drinking rum with ice to cool us down. The humidity of this South American evening wraps itself around me. I'm in a sultry dress looking older than usual, older than 25. My companions are pushing 40, with faces worn by age and children. As we drink, we don't say much for a long time; the music has taken us away, transported us to a world where only the beat - and nothing else - exists. We're at 1940, it's old Cuba here in New Colombia. I can feel eyes turn toward me as my hips move faster, so I move behind the crowd to feel the music in ecstasy and in peace. Next to me, an older couple dancing like they've had thirty years together to find their rhythm. It's beautiful. It's exotic. It's intoxicating the way they flow. He can't take his eyes off her, even after all these years. The music gets faster, the air, hotter; cigar smokes mixes with sweat. It's so sexy here in Cartagena. There are no problems here in Colombia, at least not tonight. Pepe, another drink!
An arbitrary list of things I enjoy, in no particular order:
- A strong and foreign fragrance
- An extra-clean house, cleaned by someone else
- Other peoples' framed family photographs
- Women in flow-y skirts with geometric patterns
- Not having a headache
- Waking up with ideas
- Waking up calm
- Writing a story in my head while walking in Manhattan
- The French accent
- Dutch people
- Hard fruits that aren't supposed to be hard: pears, nectarines, peaches
- The rare pleasure of my parents sitting across me at my coffee shop, before work, in Brooklyn
- Red-like-blood colored lipstick
- Crawling into bed when my Bon Appetit magazine arrives in the mail
- Recognizing other customers at my local hang-outs
- Using a new word in a sentence
- Making friends with a bartender
- Buying sunflowers on a Saturday
- Breeze that feels like the beach
As a traveler, I write in many places. In coffee shops. On subways. In parks and museums. Always on buses and trains and airplanes. In fact, I never leave home without a journal. But my writer's desk is more intimate than any of these places that pass through my life briefly.
My writer's desk is my home. It is a part of me, or at least an extension of me. It is where my world comes to life through words. It is where I come on Monday evenings, exhausted in anticipation of the week ahead, to find energy. It is a healthy place for my mind and for my soul.
My desk looks like any ordinary wooden desk, but it tells many stories: of my relationship angst, of my most inspired New York moments, of my deepest and most heartfelt fears. It is simple and lightly sanded. It is large enough to hold my colorful momentos collected from countries around the world and small enough to tuck perfectly into my nook, a cozy, attic-like room in Williamsburg that sits at the corner of Bedford and North 5. Above it, colorful images from around the world and dried-out sunflowers that remind me of my Father. On it, an hourglass timer to keep me accountable, stacks of half-read New Yorkers, and a photograph of my sister and I in Paris. These considered decorations give meaning to my work.
Unlike desks of my past, this one faces a wall rather than a window. At first, I imagined this to be deeply suffocating, but after nearly two and a half years of showing up here, there's a comfort in knowing I have nowhere to focus my attention except down, where my pen touches paper. Rarely do I use a computer here, but there are many journals whose leather-bound backs have rested gently for days on end, waiting patiently to be filled with ideas.
Some days, my desk is my greatest companion; it is in these moments that the words come pouring out, like there is nothing more affirming than the fact I am a writer. On others, it is my deepest enemy. These are the days when I write for an editor who is not myself, for people who challenge me to the core for the sake of improvement and I must step away from my desk many times over because it does not reveal itself as a place of solace or pleasure.
Minimalists have told me that objects don't add value to our lives, or at least we as a species give objects too much weight. I might say my desk is an exception: this object is sacred. It is my treasure; it cost me nothing but it is priceless. It's simple presence as a place to give myself to my thoughts is the ultimate luxury.
My writer's desk is my home, and in moments of darkness, it brings me great light. It is a place where I can be the truest version of myself. It is where my imagination takes shape when I invite it to. My desk is a part of me; it is life, joy and freedom.
It was a Saturday night, the 16th day of the year. I rode the L train to Metropolitan to transfer to the G train toward Church Street. I was dressed up, wearing a hip-hugging black skirt and a delicate, black collared top, with tights and party shoes. I carried a wine bottle in my purse (it was sticking out, slightly) and flowers in my hands. I stood with my back against the wall, starring out and across. You, a man, opposite of the train station, also starred out and across: at me. You wore an army-green jacket and khaki pants, and I'm not sure what kind of shoes. Your legs were knotted over each other in the way readers cross their legs when they're deep in thought.
We locked eyes once. Then again, and again. It was loud at the subway station, but suddenly, I didn't hear anything but my own thoughts. I continued to lock eyes with you, a stranger. I considered to myself - twice - not getting on my train when it arrived, but I was running late. I pictured the G train passing by, and me still standing there. And you, still looking at me. And then, what next? I didn't get that far; something in me resisted. My train arrived before yours and the doors slid open and I slid on. And that was that. Just a couple of inconsequential minutes shared between a couple of strangers in New York City.
If I didn't write this story down, I would have forgotten all about you by the time I reached my stop, Carroll Street. I don't know about you, but I play this game with men (women, maybe, for you) throughout my day often: walking down the street, at my neighborhood coffee shop, in line at the grocery store. Many times, something will happen. They will stop me and ask for my number and we will go out, and then I will decide that I'd rather spend time alone with my thoughts and my books, and that will be that.
But you fascinated me more than the others. So now I'm here, writing to you, because surely, you must be looking for me, too: the girl from the G train at Metropolitan Avenue in the red and blue peacoat over your party dress. You were standing there looking at me, with flowers in your hand. We locked eyes and I wish you didn't get on your train. I was hoping you'd still be there waiting after the doors closed and the subway cars whizzed past. If you're reading this, I'd love to meet you. Please write me.
Duration: 14 days
Most memorable moment? Dancing to salsa in Medellin; taking a solo bike ride from the town of Filandia to Quimbaya
While I researched destinations, this trip was all about color: the color of architecture, the color of food, the color of art and of life. When Cartagena came up in a Google search, it was immediately decided that I would go there. It's cobblestone streets and vibrant colonial buildings called to me. What I quickly learned, with each different place I went to and struggled to leave, is that the country as a whole has everything a traveler could desire. The city life is rich with energy, bustling with people and filled with the arts, while the countryside is green and peaceful, a respite from tourism for the outdoor adventurer. In July, I traveled alone, though nowhere in Colombia ever felt lonely. In fact, I found the people - locals who spoke English, locals who spoke none, and other travelers - lively and dynamic.
Early on a Monday, I landed in Medellin, which most travelers will tell you is the best place to visit in the entire country. Since I only speak a little Spanish, I quickly befriended a man from Uruguay who helped guide me through the heat and through the city's various sprawling districts before climbing to the tallest peak of the city to watch the sun fade behind the mountains. I drank the best coffee at Pergamino, the local hang-out where freelancers hang and develop their businesses by day, and spent the evenings wandering through the ultra-hip neighborhood of El Poblano that is ever-present with Spanish speakers and salsa music on every corner. I found the city to be the heart of Colombia, particularly on the Saturday night I serendipitously sat down at a table with young Colombians who were impressively eager to show me their taste of local life. The following day, a Sunday, the city shut down: Sundays are for freedom and for relaxing with friends. I visited one of the few open spaces, the Museum of Modern Art, and its neighboring park, where hundreds of young people played music and danced with one another and gathered in groups and smoked pot. It was one of the highlights of my trip when a trio of college students eyed me sitting alone and felt compelled to find out why a young, smiling woman would spend four hours by herself. We shared laughter when I told them I was fascinated simply observing how other young people around the world live, how different and carefree it felt in comparison to young people in America.
I carried on South to the sleepier country town of Salento. Here, you're as likely to sit at the bar next to an older Colombian man in jeans and a turned-up hat as you are a traveler passing through. That's one of the beauties of the country — tradition and tourism blend together so naturally. Salento is home to Valle de Cocora, a protected area of mountain foothills where you hike for five hours through sweeping valleys filled with tall and slender wax palm trees. In nature and in the town, I found comfort in eating at the same hole-in-the-wall, colorful breakfast spot, riding a bicycle from one country-town to the next, and drinking rum at the local saloon. Because four days was not enough, I ventured back to Medellin for one more night that turned into morning, spinning in circles to the beat of the music with a duo of Portuguese filmmakers who gravitated to me, and me to them.
Minca followed Medellin, a backpackers' hub a plane, taxi, local bus and motorbike ride away, in the Northern part of the country. The reason people - or young people, rather - like Minca is because there isn't much to do. You can hike (through a path in the jungle for upwards of eight hours), visit a small waterfall, or eat at one of the few cafes on the one street in town. I stayed on a property a ten minute climb from city center, where every guest gathers to tell stories at sunset before a communal dinner. But oddly enough, even with my attraction to silence, I yearned for more action, more commotion. A day trip away, Tayrona National Park is one of the country's national gems, without having the feeling like it's infiltrated by visitors. In fact, for how incredibly well-known and majestic it is - with its sprawling golden beaches and mountain trekking - it's surprisingly peaceful. To reach the popular El Cabo San Juan requires two and a half hours of hiking through the park, which is rewarded with golden sand, palm trees, hammocks-as-beds, fire orange sunsets and near empty beaches. In the evening, the only thing to do is eat whole grilled fish, play card games and listen to the waves break.
The trip ended where I had anticipated: on the cobblestone streets of Cartagena. I stayed in the artist's neighborhood of Getsemani, but ventured daily into the historic old city center. Cartagena streets are grid-like, meaning the best way to discover anything and everything is to simply walk without any one destination. At first, it seems simple to get lost, but after the second time down the same one-way street, store fronts and door entrances begin to look familiar. I sat in city squares to people watch, as well as in bookstores and on the patio of sidewalk cafes. I ate dinner alone at midnight, because in Colombia, the night is just then beginning. Young people gather in the plazas, passing around cold beers and soccer balls. I filled my last day with food and eating - lots of it - from street vendors and speciality markets. My most memorable meal? Warm arepa sandwiched with a thick layer of melted cheese. If nothing else, I flew home full and satisfied and ever-more curious for South America.
Just your ordinary Monday at The Bean, with Fleetwood and a hangover. Foreigners on vacation exploring too-cool Williamsburg, eating cheesecake with strawberry. Unstressed freelancers on their computers. Soft rays of December sunlight pouring in these expansive windows. An old woman outside at the bus stop wrapped in her winter down coat and gloves. Men walking their dogs toward McCarren Park. Friends sharing stories across tables, but not gossiping. Me, with my head down on the table and a pen between my fingers, feeling the most like myself writing these words. Not reading anything about media but reading a lot about creative writing classes around the city. Finding out where all the non-fiction writers gather, yearning to be inspired anew by people who don't sit at computers during the day. Who write poetry in their spare time. Who dream in foreign languages. Who live in New York but hang out at places like the Bean on a Monday. I'll sit here til my 4:00pm movie at the nearby cinema on the corner of Berry and Metropolitan. A daytime film! To watch alone. Alone but not lonely.
On this particular Monday, I feel the red wine from last night. The extra glass I drank on purpose, knowing I wouldn't have to ride the subway to work today like I have the past two years. I think of last night, of all my friends around the table, or at least nine really special ones, talking about farming and the most challenging part of my year at 25 and briefly - as with most dinner parties these days - politics. Friends who walked in the front door and didn't know each other, but then quickly did. Friends who arrived with all of my favorite things: ingredients and wine and a new cookbook for my kitchen, a clean journal for my new beginnings, colorful flowers and hand-written cards. Friends who hug me so warmly at the end of the night that I feel more rich and ready for the week. I think of last night, when rather than fall quietly into bed, I leave with my guests and walk five blocks East and five blocks North to my favorite neighborhood bar for jazz where I love to go and close my eyes and sway my hips from side to side. Where instead of thinking that it's already midnight, already Monday, I simply let the music sweep through my body. Jazz has a glorious way about transporting me away from myself. Usually it takes me all the way home, to my bedroom in California, on any weekend afternoon when the sound of my Dad's horns sweep under my closed door while I read old travel magazines. Jazz takes me away to my favorite memories, to the places I feel most peaceful.
Waking up on Monday was rather enjoyable. At 10:00AM. To the sound of my housemate's footsteps on wood. The running faucet for a cup of water. The melodic hum of the coffee maker. The opening and closing of the bathroom door. Me in my nook, eyes still closed. Heavy head but feeling weightless. Stacks of notes piled high on the rug at the side of my bed that slipped from my fingers as I fell asleep. "Happy birthday my love, my perfectly imperfect friend, my daughter, my sweet niece, my inspiration...": words that give me life and make me feel whole. I am waking up just freshly 26 years old, in bed with a book and without emails. Thinking about anything I want and about nothing particularly important. Thinking that today is Monday, and I don't have a job but a kind-of plan, and that suddenly I feel a lot more sure of myself than I have in a long time.
I sit here, near to the front door, waiting for the postman to present me with an ink-smudged letter from you. It might be flawed, ever so slightly, from your left-handed penmanship, but I've always found the imperfections are what give it character. When it eventually arrives, I slice the envelope open into jagged, torn edges, like when you try to tear out a magazine page and end up cutting off a quarter-inch of the typeface. I carry your intimate thoughts with me as I stretch over the corner of the couch where the last rays of today fall in through the window, and travel with you into a world of words.
I close my eyes in Fort Greene park, flanked by the far-away whisper of a Tuesday night block party, tree shadows, and a resting bicycle. Summer life moves slowly past while I float outside of myself, inviting the weight of the day to sink out of me and the tension behind my eyes to release. I try not to think about anything, searching for silence in my mind, but the image of a man and his pistachio-colored eyes, and the memory of his fingers pressed softly over mine keep creeping into my thoughts. It's not the first time he's walked in on my meditation—when I surrender to moments of pure relaxation and comfort. The park is a good place to feel this ease: a neighborhood place, a tranquil place, a lets-not-leave-quite-yet type of place, a place to forget about your day job or your anger. The park is that distinctive place that smells of a friendly BBQ in the early evenings, where joggers move up hills and across cobblestone, where my sister reads her book on Saturday afternoons. It's where I ride when the sweetness of the late summer night speaks to me and tells me to sit and be still.
Ever having moved from Chappaqua, New York to his new apartment in Manhattan, Grandpa always put the word out he was looking for company. Wanted a reason to escape his own thoughts. One afternoon, having exhausted my time sitting in the park, I phoned him on his landline to inquire about a wine or conversation about jazz. "Who is it? he asked twice, having not heard clearly the first time. "Simone, Grandpa," I said again."Oh yes, yes dear. How are you?"
I tell him I'm near, I think, on the corner of 5th Avenue and 69th Street. "Oh yes, yes dear. I'm just finishing dinner. Please come over."
I walk toward 72nd street, taking in his neighborhood on the Upper West Side, to his building flanked by basic necessities: a sushi restaurant, a bar, the 1, 2, 3 line. Charging into the lobby, I am eager to wrap my arms around his generous belly and feel the comfort of a hug that reminds me deeply of my Father's. "Miss, I'm sure that's not the apartment number you're looking for," the doorman tells me. "There's a much older man who lives there." His unsolicited remark is met with a smile. "Why yes, that's exactly who I'm looking for."
11 stories up, Grandpa waits with his heavy laughter, dressed in a hoodless blue sweatshirt with the words BROOKLYN in bold, white text. He welcomes me in, past a decades-old cd collection stacked five feet tall. With the New York public news station playing on the TV, I try to remember the last time I watched cable television. Grandpa gives me the special family tour of his entire [modest number] square foot apartment, un-phased by the uncleanliness -- an empty frozen dinner plate sits out on the kitchen counter and work papers grow without order next to an old computer screen. He keeps a picture of my sister and I, ages 4 and a half and 9, respectively, on the wall, next to the wedding photos of his four children and that famous one of Dad and his brother taken in their childhood backyard in Iowa. Together we admire the stationary bicycle next to his bed, the one for daily 7 A.M. rides.
Grandpa and I sink into the couch and into conversation. He tells me about his journey to reach London in the 50s, coming and going via the Atlantic because boat rides were cheaper than flights and the girls were plentiful, about the jazz publication he writes for although the editor stopped paying him many years ago, about the late afternoon phone calls exchanged with an innocent old fling from the West Coast to help ease the memory of his late wife. He asks a few questions, but mostly he talks. I like that: he makes me rich with his favorite memories so I can carry and nurture them into the future. I start to get the impression this is what growing older looks like: moving somewhere small and anticipating people will come to visit and listen to your stories.
I leave when Grandpa grows tired, and we agree to meet more regularly than once in a blue moon. He bends over and kisses me on the forehead. "Be well, dear. Please come back soon." "I will, Grandpa, I promise."
Where do you live - Brooklyn, NY
Favorite local restaurant - Talde (from Chef Dale Talde) is my absolute favorite. Get the guacamole, whole grilled branzino and crab fried rice for one of the best meals in New York. Cocktails are great, too. In the city, it’s a little spot called Lovely Day. It’s unpretentious Thai food in a very cool setting. If you go, make sure you sit downstairs. (It’s hidden). I also love to eat anything prepared in my own kitchen.
Did you travel when you were young - Always. My parents are huge advocates for family vacations. We camped a lot, traveled to Costa Rica, Montreal, Europe, New York (by way of California). We all used to love Hawaii - I think we went six or seven different times when I was younger. When business was really good for my Dad, he would surprise us by having a limo pick us up and take us to the airport. As girls, we used to love that. Now that both my sister and I are grown up, we travel more modestly, or at least differently from vacations that are solely for relaxing. We’re very lucky because all four of us enjoy the same things: a hotel room with character, hiking, museums, a nice meal and bottle of wine, and blues music. This past year, we went to a Blues Festival in Portland, Oregon, danced all night in New Orleans and went to multiple shows in San Francisco. We love to have fun together: I feel very fortunate.
Favorite airport - Can’t say I have one. I like the ease and familiarity of San Jose airport. Once I get my bags from the carousel, I know I’ll be home in less than 15 minutes, where my Mom will have already decorated my bedside table with a bouquet of flowers and left scattered newspaper clippings for me to read. Nothing really beats that.
Least favorite airport - JFK over the holidays can be a headache, but I’m not great with airports in general. I remember one time, flying home from living abroad in Paris, I got stuck for half a day at Charles de Gaulle. It was December 19th, the day after my 20th birthday. I had stayed out at a club until 6am, then came home to collect my suitcases and left straight to the airport. I might have been a bit drunk going through security. A massive snowstorm hit and delayed the flight by six hours. I don’t know how, but I managed to make my connecting flight in Chicago by only a handful of minutes. I don’t think I’ve ever been so happy to hug my parents.
Gadgets - Nothing much, really. As long as I have a book, a journal, a magazine and music, I’m perfectly content. It’s good, because technology adds a lot of weight to your bag. Though, I suppose books do too.
Favorite apps — Again, I don’t use many apps. I wholeheartedly believe in disconnecting when I travel. At home, I’ll browse Twitter to get my news and prefer email to keep in touch. I post photos to Instagram after my trips, once I’ve had time to process and re-live and appreciate the places for myself. I don’t understand the current fascination with Snapchat. It feels like it gives us an excuse to stay less in touch, because we already know what people have been doing. Who knows...I still write and send letters, so maybe I’m just old school in that sense.
Travel routine — I don’t have one! That’s the beauty of travel for me. I think the best way to get to know a city is to walk it, and walk it alone if you have the opportunity. Being on foot, by yourself, requires you to be hyper-aware of your surroundings, from the street names to the smells to the colors of the trees. I also always ask the people working at the front desk for their favorite local spot to eat with friends. I do love the research process before a trip - talking to people, reading independent guidebooks - because it gets me excited by possibilities. It always allows me to have a more holistic understanding of the culture so as not to arrive ignorant.
Travelers you admire — Anyone who takes the risk to travel alone. Obviously, traveling with a partner is deeply rewarding in its own ways, but traveling alone takes bravery and tenacity, and shows a certain level of open-mindedness. People who travel with a purpose to volunteer, or to learn a new language or work abroad: vacationing is easy and it takes experiences for one to learn that travel has a lot more to do than the seeing of sights. I admire everyone who has an understanding, or an interest in understanding, that it is necessary to immerse ourselves into a culture in order to develop a deeper connection to the people and the land, and have an experience that is greater than ourselves.
Where are you dreaming of now — So many places! Cape Town, Canada, all of South America. I’ve been a pescatarian for almost five years now, and I’m looking forward to going to a country famous for its meat to taste it again for the first time (e.g. devouring a steak in Buenos Aires).
Country you would most like to return to — it’s a difficult question for someone who is always wandering toward a new place, toward the unknown. With so many places left to explore, I love the idea of continuing to seek out somewhere completely foreign. Though, there is something romantic about returning. While the destination is the same, the way we remember a city might be different. We as an individual, as well as the circumstances will be different, and so we can create entirely unfamiliar memories. When I went back to Paris for three weeks after living there as a student, I suddenly had my own budget to savor the luxuries I bypassed years before. Plus, my sister was traveling there at the same time, so I was once again captured by the delights of Paris but with fresh eyes. Going back to the original question, I recently returned from Guatemala and feel it could lure me back for years to come.
Where to, next — I spent last year planting my feet in New York, creating a home and developing my professional life. But travel is really more of a mindset in how we engage with the world, rather than a checklist of places. So my mentality this year is ambitiously imagining a trifeca of balancing home, career and travel. This year, I’m planning to take a lot of adventures in the US, to get to know the great cities of the country and find out what makes them so “great.” Hopefully somewhere in South America, like a trek through Colombia. Also, I’ll be traveling with my family to Indonesia and Southeast Asia.
Home is — someplace warm, with artifacts that inspire you. Los Gatos, California. A fire in our fireplace during wintertime with my family around the coffee table. The sound of my Dad playing piano in the living room. Newspapers and lots of books.
Travel is — both difficult and incredibly rewarding.
Your alarm went off 40 minutes early this morning, but only because you anticipated sitting with your thoughts longer than usual. You lit a candle and let it flicker next to your mat while the rest of the house stayed sleeping. It was a silent practice, just as you like it — just as you craved it above the clouds in Guatemala. This December 18th in New York is much like any other December day in New York, but you don’t mind that it doesn’t feel out-of-the-ordinary. In fact, it feels quite nice to appreciate the sameness.
You paint your lips a deep red and pack your body in layers. It’s one of those brisk winter mornings that the peaking sunlight is deceiving and the air chill wakes you up in all the best ways. The streets outside are reasonably quiet, save for the first Brooklyn commuters leaving their apartments. ‘Just get me through today,’ their faces say.
You walk one block West to the same coffee shop you go every other day that you wake up early, though you don’t particularly love the coffee. In fact, as of recent, you’ve stopped drinking coffee altogether. But when you write — and you love to write — you need a reassuring sense of predictability: you awaken your imagination through familiar smells and background sounds. Today, you use a credit card to buy a black coffee with no room, to-go, please. The words come out and the card slides and you can’t stop from ordering something you know you won’t drink. But changing up the routine will be good for you today. Today you are twenty-five.
At 25, as much as you love to write, you also love the process of figuring out the story itself. When your mind needs a break from words and screens and thoughts, you find riding your bicycle deeply gratifying. Never underestimate the power of the wind, the cold, the heat or the humidity to wake you up.
At 25, you are still experimenting in learning to cook. At 23, you hated it; it caused you angst and anxiety. Today, few things would give you as much pleasure as discovering a new recipe, and thoughtfully, meticulously preparing it with, and for, friends. You always hope friends would like to contribute a piece of themselves as well, since sharing a home-cooked meal is one window into another’s soul. Chewing to taste is something you aspire for, though of course, it’s not always an easy thing to do.
At 25, you strive to be kind and inclusive, above all. You value humility, selflessness, fairness, spiritual and material balance, compassion, integrity. You welcome people into your life who share the same values.
You feel inspired by the women in your life, for they are empowered, thoughtful and highly remarkable individuals. These women have drive like you’ve rarely known from friends, with passions and talents to back it up. Cherish these relationships. Honor them, too.
At 25, you have aspirations, but you’re not afraid of taking your time to achieve them. You are young and can pursue the deep passions of your life as they continue to present themselves. For most certain, your greatest passions will shift and evolve as you continue to look inside and discover what gives you intrinsic satisfaction, and fills you with excitement to wake up in the morning. Tikkun Olam is one of those things; always keep that desire to give a part of you.
Not only are you young, but you still feel young, too. You feel reliant (emotionally) on your parents. I think that’s okay no matter what age you are. That’s what family love is for. Your mother once told you that “family love is all-encompassing and essential to your well-being.” You feel excited to offer your parents the same nurturing and all-encompassing love, and for further growth in the future.
At 25, you are a ‘creative professional,’ loosely defined. You value, admire and respect your work peers. You call them peers because that is what they are, though they are also professional, intelligent, articulate, creative individuals. Even if you really love your job, you should always question what it is offers you in return. While you question, celebrate the things that you do enjoy about it. Appreciate your continual desire to be challenged; what a treat in life to love to be challenged! To want to learn everyday!
More importantly, at 25, remember that work is only a modest part of the journey even though it will define a large part of you for a very long time. Make sure it gives you more than just contentedness: it is vital for work to provide you with enough reward to be happy, to feel stimulated, to experience self-growth and education. When you think about who you are, you are not your work. You can think about some of these things instead:
“I am 25.”
“I am kind.”
“I always have more to offer than what I am currently doing for the world.”
“I am a woman with a voice and strength and ideas that I want to turn into stories that are read, by myself or by others.”
“I am a traveller because it makes me feel more alive than anything. I am a traveller because it builds me up, it knocks me down, it makes me fearful, curious, hungry, satisfied and whole.”
“I am mindful, and mindfulness should be coveted.”
“I am sensitive to the criticism of others.”
“I am indecisive.”
“I am always learning, from myself and from those around me.”
“I am true to myself; I am unsure of my intentions for the next five years; I am confident that everything will be okay then, too.”
On your birthday, remember this: 25 is not a peak, nor a conclusion, but simply a steady transition into another unknown phase of opportunity. Recognize that you are on a new trajectory from any year before, and remember to check-in often to make sure you’re still following the right path. (And that sometimes the wrong path is the actually the right path, and vice versa). If at any time you feel lost: turn around, or go in another direction entirely. Don’t be afraid to see where the new route leads you, for you will certainly discover something, or someone, ever more fulfilling in the process. Think of it as one great adventure, and darling, you love adventures.
. . . On saying goodbye to the little things
The paper cup was barely the size of my palm, but large enough that my fingers could grip around it comfortably. The espresso inside was a dark roast, both strong and potent in its aroma and taste. I knew drinking it at 4pm, even on a lazy Sunday as it was, would keep me wide awake with thoughts of California. Seated on the one of two benches available in the coffee shop, I took the first sip. I added a pinch of brown sugar cane powder from the wooden condiments shelf: it tasted more pure than white sugar and somehow felt healthier, too.
The shop was also small and comfortable, with bare brick walls illuminated by filament bulbs. Three circular top hats hung behind the man in a plaid top and denim apron who took my order. At that time in my life, I should have been conscious with my habitual spendings, but still I forked over 4.5 dollar coins for the drink. All of it — the simplicity of light, the smells that make you happy to spend, the artisanal everything that are not considered artisanal, but rather normal — is typical of Melbourne. Of which there are many, these qualities are just a number of the things that I loved.
I didn’t plan to sit there for an hour, carelessly lost watching as customers walked in and out. Most of the people who came and went carried colorful, heavy bags filled with produce purchased just outside at the Queen Victoria Market. I remember this vividly because I, too, carried colorful, heavy bags that I would later bring home to prepare for our weekly Sunday family dinner.
It was never my favorite coffee shop in Melbourne, nor was it one that I frequented, but on this day I enjoyed it all the same. On this lazy Sunday in particular I realized how special it was: I sat and savored my espresso slowly, thoughtfully, knowing that in just a few days I would be on an airplane home.
Enjoy life instead of clinging to it or pushing it away. If you can live like that, each moment will change you. If you are willing to experience the gift of life instead of fighting with it, you will be moved to the depth of your being. When you reach this state, you will begin to see the secrets of the heart. The heart is the place through which energy flows to sustain you. This energy inspires you and raises you. It is the strength that carries you through life. It is the beautiful experience of love that pours through your whole being. This is meant to be going on inside you at all times. The highest state you have ever experienced is simply the result of how open you were. If you don't close, it can like that all the time. Don't sell yourself short. This can go on all the time - unending inspiration, unending love, and unending openness. - Michael Singer, The Untethered Soul
Most recently back from London and New Orleans, among other heat-filled locations, one destination still sits at the core of me, bursting for attention. To reach it one has many options, such as to fly direct to the town’s single terminal that services both domestic and international flights, or to spend twelve hours in a haze of discomfort on an overnight sleeper bus. For land travel, guide books warn the faint-hearted to take precautions before attempting the rutted and sleepless journey engrained within the transport system. There are ‘VIP’ bus offerings that are not in fact ‘VIP’ but rather the foreign business man's attempt to squeeze an extra $20 out of the easily-connived traveller. Alternatively, you can arrive by way of boat — a wooden, less-seats-than-passengers, ramshackle boat— that passes through the natural mountainous regions of the north of Southeast Asia. I opted for the latter of the three choices to reach Luang Prabang in Laos, convinced by travelers’ preferred route of a multiple-day, whiskey-fueled expedition down the Mekong River.
Imminently upon boarding, boat passengers replaced their young Thai coconuts with the nighttime poison of Lao-Lao and began to share longwinded stories about the people they were back home. Joey the frustratingly confident middle school film teacher; Michael the artist and party supplier; Carrie the recent divorcee, with blue eyes like diamonds, trying to make sense of a broken relationship. On the first leg of the ride, I sat next to Steve, an overly apprehensive American traveler who, despite his apprehension, offered a form of comfort in the familiar. Steve and I listened, and we told our own stories. He, the 28-year-old banking consultant who one day woke up fearing life would pass him by; me, the writer naive to many things besides kind strangers and the comforts of my affluent upbringing.
There were no windows or rafters on the boat. All of the backpackers in too-loose fitted pants swung their arms and legs over it's wooden edges and murky mist splashed on their shoulders. When the sun exhausted, we reached our half-way destination. Anticipating our arrival, every local family from the single-road town waited at the dock. The $1.50 guest room fee to stay at one of their guest houses fueled their entire economy -- the clothing and technology weighing down my backpack had never felt so trifling.
We eventually reached colorful Luang Prabang. Those vibrant colors drew me more than almost anything, along with the Laotion attention to flavor and artisan tapestries. My quest East, guided less by inner transformation than I hope to admit, was fueled and fulfilled by a desire for new sensory experiences. At the night market, come 5pm, every night of the year, the city’s main street of attraction came alive against its dirt backdrop. Women line the road with exotic red and orange stalls, all of them selling the same paintings as the vendor two stalls down from them. The goods for purchase are unchanging but are regularly frequented, likely because it is one of a small handful of evening attractions. The vegetarian all-you-can-eat buffet — tucked down a loud, potent alleyway — being among the others. Halfway through the market, if looking closely enough, you can find a hidden entrance to a long hike of stairs that leads to Wat Poissy. The top of the temple, it seems, overlooks the entire country. Everything in the town moved slowly, but I felt neither lost nor restless — two attributes history has long associated with reason for movement — for being lost or being restless are deep curiosities that propel us outside of life's regular routine.
On one Saturday in November, the low-hanging clouds splashed gray in all directions. The sun had not yet risen and I basked in the extraordinariness of the fog and the eery silence. An older woman with tired, kind eyes whom I purchased bananas and rice and a bamboo-crusted mat told me to kneel opposite of the embankment and wait patiently in anticipation for the early-to-rise monks. The cuff of my jeans were stained dark from kneeling on the asphalt. Three minutes became fifteen until a dozen monks, in their unlaundered orange robes, reached my peripheral. Here I was in Laos, this ordinary young woman, alone on the edge of the embankment, watching these beautifully aged and slender bodies grow closer and closer. When their feet eventually reached me, I passed my offerings dutifully — and as quickly as they appeared, they disappeared into the early morning.
These are all just feelings that I have, not defined memories. Remembering the sheer mysticism and the remarkable details of this place and this past life, I feel compelled towards the simple act of movement itself. I have always been impressed anew by the range of movement that life can offer; we can move and be moved physically, emotively, geographically, gravely, quickly, in fleeting moments, in passing. Almost three years have gone by since I stepped foot in Asia, and in that time the fast-paced, almost anxious movement that was once my defining feature has subdued and subsided. Now, more than ever, I prefer to hear the sound of my feet on the pavement when I walk as slowly as ever, wandering back across the ocean to these places in my mind.
If you have 48 hours in any major city, the following rules will apply:
1. Pack just enough.
2. Familiarize with native language/slang/transport system.
3. Ask locals to recommend their favorite spots, and then seek them out.
4. Walk across a famous bridge.
5. Rent a bicycle as preferred mode of transportation when possible.
6. Research the best bookstore and allow time to get lost inside.
7. Trust the chef.
8. Trust the bartender.
9. Sleep for only as many hours as your body needs to function; You will be back home soon enough.
10. Let serendipity be your guide.
My parents always believed that travel was a necessary part of my upbringing. From family trips to Montreal just when the tree leaves turned from green to pastel to a cruise ship tour across Europe to island hopping in Costa Rica, we seemed to do it all. There was the time (and time again) we swung through the treetops of Maui. Or when we rented an open-air jeep to ride the windy roads of Corfu. And the miles of hiking through Australia's Blue Mountains with only the sound of mist and our own laughter. My sister and I, we took it all in and we loved it. We loved it all.
I even remember the trips I wasn’t old enough to remember. “We used to always take you girls camping. You don’t know it, but we did,” my mother would tell us over dinner table conversation. She’d somehow think she needed to convince us of a once loved past time, although we already knew it to be true. These places and moments came to define how I perceived the world around me, with an eager and ever-present curiosity.
Because travel is in my blood, I find falling in love with a city an easy thing to do. Maybe that’s why I move frequently — from San Francisco to Paris to Melbourne to now, New York. But a true Explorer knows that to be 'well-traveled' does not come from number of destinations lived nor number of cities/villages/towns visited. What makes one worldly is in actuality the ability to compare cultures from one another, and use that knowledge to create more meaningful exchanges. This is the reason I dream of visiting London.
Among these great monuments - the Eiffel Tower, the Empire State, the Golden Gate and the Great Ocean Road - are the ones I've never seen - London Bridge, Big Ben, Hyde Park. I had picked up on what London might look like for a traveler: a fast-paced ecosystem of old, Victorian architecture, high fashion retail, groomed men with striking accents, covert cocktail bars, interactive theatre and gastronomic experiences that leave one satisfied three times over.
My flight leaves JFK headed to Heathrow at 11:30am. I allow myself just 48 hours to get lost — hopelessly lost and potentially, intoxicatingly in love. The whole thing is amusing novelty.
I go in style, packing my essentials from practical to posh: an activity tracker to visualize my cosmopolitan adventure using data, an unused journal to ask strangers for hand-drawn maps and sandals because I’m desperately hopeful for sunshine. The clothing in my bag is versatile and functional, neutral colors with bold patterns, a wardrobe for all occasions.
At arrivals, I hail for a Hotel Hoppa, this brilliant little system that transports you directly to your accommodation for just 4.50 pounds. My driver is an older man with burly, white hair and a hearty laugh; his age translates into historical wisdom of the city. The tour starts before I even drop my bags as we exchange conversation about well-known architecture and royal parks. I offer him an extra few dollars for his shared knowledge and he bids me adieu at the entrance of The Artist Residence, 52 Cambridge Street in Pimlico, just 5 minutes from Victoria Station. The bespoke hotel is more chic than I pictured, a modern vibe mixed with rustic aesthetics. There are 10 bedrooms across three floors, each individually decorated. I am assigned to door number 7, an intimate room flanked by brick walls and vintage leather seats. ‘Eclectic luxury’ offers a more personalized, familiar stay: the concierge service more like an uber-chic in-the-know British aunt who raves about all the places simply not to be missed.
But, I’ve also done my research. I know that Borough Market offers a sensory overload of delicious sweets & treats in London Bridge; Electric Coffee Company is an outstanding place to get caffinated; St. Paul’s dome is worth the hundreds of odd-steps for a view on a sunny day. I also know that cocktails here often come with art because everything is a conversion of sorts, like the museum that hosts late-night experimental shows.
I consult my Wanderlist, a catalog of hidden gems curated from well-esteemed London experts: friends who once lived abroad, the most respected New York Times travel journalists, and Londoners themselves. According to the experts, if I eat, drink and play according to their recommendations, I’ve by-passed the most hyped-up venues and discovered the most memorable and authentic highlights, where one can people watch and enjoy the most delectable Sunday roast.
As any traveler venturing to new land, I pool information from these collective networks to gather ‘locals-only’ insight.“Doing what the local people do when I’m on the road comes naturally. To do anything else would seem silly,” Alfredo Gangotena told AFAR Magazine in 2014. I always keep back issues of travel magazines stacked along my bedside because even as travel becomes increasingly ‘digitized’, the fundamentals always stay the same. Gangeotena's words resonate as I re-read the old content, flipping through pages of ideas that remain relevant however far they are from the past. Just one instance of the power within travel is that perspective remains critical no matter how we age and change with each new country discovered.
But enough of all that. It’s morning now, and I want to see the city proper in the very early morning, the day and the night. Into the streets we go.
I orient with a map at Monmouth Coffee Company, any ardent coffee-drinker’s mecca in Convet Gardens; The potent, strong roast floods me with memories of sitting alone at my favorite coffee shop in Melbourne and immediately I am filled with a sense of nostalgia. I allow myself to be fully consumed by sights and flavor.
Most eloquently, London’s ex-mayor once told the New York Times that “um, visitors should hire a bike and ride through the park.” And most naturally, I’m inclined to. I rent a bicycle and ride through Hyde Park; later I walk slowly through Kensington Gardens for comparison. And then, I continue walking — across the Millennium Footbridge, through Trafalgar Square and its four surrounding plinths, and everywhere that tourists are sprawling but not imposing. I take the mandatory writer’s pilgrimage to the city’s oldest bookstore, Hatchards, where I am completely absorbed by books I can read anywhere yet set amidst an environment that inspires me. I purchase keepsakes for my home; I hope to preserve this foreign memory for years to come.
London has an old legacy of art and architecture. The museum buildings are impressive structures in their own right. The Victoria and Albert Museum is a place that culminates both crafts, the world’s largest museum of decorate arts and design filled with fashion, photography, multimedia and objects. But even more, I am mesmerized by the content of the British Library: drawing inspiration from Leonardo Da Vinci’s sketches, Alice’s Adventures Underground and a Gutenberg Bible. Digital images can’t ever give you the physical sensation of what it feels like to stand in front of this type of history. Like synagogues for prayer and museums for viewing, libraries elevate the experience of reading, which is possibly why we feel uplifted in the presence of old books and ancient artifacts.
By night fall, everything is just divine. I take this time to rate the city’s culinary and drinking scene to that of other major cities. My controls are a number of characterful new and legendary destinations discovered on a self-led grub-crawl. Polpo, a stylish Italian tapas restaurant group occupying three unique spaces around the city, all of which received the Michelin Guide’s Bib Gourmand for five consecutive years; the Blind Pig, an sultry speakeasy serving cocktails in a wood and leather flanked setting; Cahoots, a 40's swing bar nearly disguised from the street; The French House, a classic always-packed, always serving pub in Soho; and Duck & Waffle, for 24-hour cuisine on the top of a skyscraper. I can certainly get used to pre-theatre/post-theatre thrill of excitement — the buzz in the streets and the smell of bourbon long after dark. The energy of the city is unshakeable and slightly seductive, or so it seems this late at night.
Breakfast is equally rich with options, such as Wolseley, a name among the critics for old school english service and tea. Then there’s the full english breakfast destinations, The Delaunay or Electric Diner, but since everywhere serves the classics, I choose the Riding House Cafe to manage the morning after like the locals. The modern all-day brasserie offers greater context while seated among fellow diners at the communal table. I fancy a conversation with a charming English man, and this place seems to afford the most fortuitous encounters.
The gent seated next to me wears a dark blazer with dapper leather shoes. His two front teeth have a slight gap. As with almost everyone I’ve met here, he’s congenial, rather entertaining, slightly charming and eager to please. I tell him we can meet later, and he can be my tour guide (rule 3, 10), because I am deeply curious about East London, and left with just twelve hours before I spin the globe once again.