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Recently, I attended an interview with the Welsh writer, Jan Morris. It was conducted on the stage at the Times Center in New York by author and editor Don George, who has his own stellar travel writing resume. The event, hosted by Geoex, was a benefit for the American Himalayan Foundation, its hook being the 60th anniversary of the conquest of Mount Everest. Morris, who at the time was James Morris and a reporter for the Times of London, is the last survivor of that expedition and it was she who, using a series of codes and couriers, broke the story to the world when Sherpa Tenzing and Sir Hillary reached the summit. Her scoop reached London just in time to share headlines with Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation, making that June day in 1953 a triumphant one for the British Empire, whose history Morris documented in her three-part magnum opus, Pax Brittanica.

Morris’ mane of white hair gives her a multi-tiered aspect – aristocratic (think Barbara Bush tending roses on the lawn at Kennebunkport) but also grandmotherly as well as academic. And, she seems utterly approachable, even as she spun her anecdotes into gold, so naturally at ease with her extraordinary life and achievements that the rest of us may as well be, too. Morris is an icon among writers, especially among the diverse and disparate community (of which I am, as often as possible, a member) of “travel writers”. The fact that there is such a thing is due in great part to her, and Morris’ dispatches published in Rolling Stone remain some of the most elegant and penetrating essays ever written about place. I remember one she wrote about Manhattan, which I recently found in a collection of hers called Destinations. I read this piece when I was a freshman in college and her words stuck with me: the city’s “glowering ecstasy”, it’s “reluctant and secretive beauty”, it’s citizens who “like the bear, are heightened, in one way or another, by their confinement.” The sting of ambition, the horror of failure: no one has gotten New York better than this European writer, and I kept this issue of Rolling Stone for years because I knew: I need to live there.

This might be the best a writer can do: leave an imprint, splash an image on the brain, plant a seed of desire to transport or be transported. Morris is a master at extracting the essence of a place, including the people who dwell within it. When Don George asked her about her methodology, her secret to doing what she does so well, her honest answer still managed to be a lesson in humility, which many writers either lack or toss off as self-deprecation – usually suspect. “Forgive me,” she said. “It really is a gift from God. I really didn’t know how to do anything else.”

Sitting in the audience, listening to Morris talk about Everest ’53 with as much casual wit as the anecdote about yesterday’s al fresco lunch at a New York City café, it was difficult not to entertain thoughts of, “Why bother?” This is something all travel writers must ponder, at some point. It’s no longer possible to write the seminal work on Venice as Morris did, with its magnificent opening sentence, which Don referenced in passing: “So, the Venetians became islanders, and islanders they remain, still a people apart, still tinged with the sadness of refugees.” Probably a trek through Oman with the Sultan and a team of slaves, an adventure Morris documented in 1957, isn’t going to happen either. That followed 1956’s Coast to Coast, her chronicle of a year spent driving across Eisenhower’s America, a year which Morris claims was the most marvelous of her life and one that, incredibly and in her words, “changed me more than Everest did.” She traversed the same highways towards many of the same places – San Francisco, Nevada, Salt Lake City, Chicago – as Jack Kerouac had done a few years before, but at the time there was no On the Road – that wasn’t published until 1957.

Rather than discourage me, however, my audience with Morris left me emboldened. No, I don’t think I or any of us can find an original way to commune with the ghosts on yonder Mayan ruin or imagine a fresh take on Paris’ Hidden Treasures. But what we can do, when we immerse ourselves in the strangeness of dislocation and remain aware enough to notice and write about it, is offer perspective. By virtue of time’s (and life’s) relentlessness, perspective constantly shifts, adapts, astonishes – this is where the stories come from. Getting stranded alone without a passport in Dubrovnik bears no similarity to dreaming away your honeymoon there ten years later. As long as the travel writer’s hunger to venture forth collides with the desire to drift along the fringe and observe, there is no limit to the tales that can be told. I agree with my friend and editor Lavinia Spalding, who says that all travel stories should ultimately be about the meaning of life (wisdom she, in turn, attributes to Don George). It’s a challenge we accept because of the significance of random events – how discovery comes when you least expect it. Think of the mango fresh from the tree an hour from Port-au-Prince whose juices dripped down your wrists as you peeled it without a blade. Remember the Dire Straits tune blasting through a bar in Samarkand when you were dry and thirsty from travel. Remember the young, off-duty soldier who helped dig your car out from under a fallen tree one icy Vermont morning.

These days, inspiration is most effective when it contains a revelation, and here’s what I thought as I listened to 87 year-old Morris, her narrative bouncing away with stories as fresh as tomorrow: Why not? Because if all else fails, there was something else she said that night, something elemental and yet spectacular: “I write for my own pleasure.” If she can do it, so can I, even if my Everest is just a simple hill, somewhere I’ve never been before.

When I’m home alone, I’m lonely. When I travel alone, I’m free.


My husband and I once had a friend we referred to as Obvious Man. We knew him when we lived in Europe and he liked to practice his English with declarations that sometimes were, well, obvious. Things like: “You like hamburgers because they are one of the most popular foods in America!” or, “Al Pacino is very good at playing gangsters because he is of Italian origin and the Mafia comes from Italy!” I was thinking of Obvious Man this morning when I began to hike up a trail in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, a town in the Berkshire Mountains. The world seemed super-loaded, Ben & Jerry’s Extra Chunky full of symbols and talismans, as one by one they bombarded me with signs that were cheap, but kind of beautiful.

My favorite flavor.

Nothing shatters cynicism about whispers from the universe quite like four weeks of isolation. Even spending time with friends – walking our dogs, drinking great wine – doesn’t always bust the loneliness of being a writer in a rural town. The tail end of winter is bleak. Branches are strewn about the still-brown yard, a length of fence unfettered itself and wrapped around a tree during one of this season’s forty-seven snowstorms. Last October, after growing season, I didn’t even remove the dead tomato plants from the raised beds. The withered spindles that remain remind me of my apathy come fall, when I just need the yard work to end already.

It’s been a time of pacing around, waiting: for the phone to ring, for a response, for answers, a scintilla of an idea that might take form in my head and emerge on a page. For one of my stories, sitting in various stages of the assembly line, to be accepted or edited or published or done. I get lots of e-mails, of course. Goody, the hair accessory manufacturer, keeps in very close touch with me, as does National Car Rental’s Emerald Club, and of course Jetsetter certainly has lots of good deals on plush Caribbean resorts. And then there’s Facebook! Unlike me, my friends seem to be prolific, not all taking a break from the human race.

In most ways, the empty nest is a thing of beauty. My duties, if anything, are larger and more profound with my now-older children: we have talks about dating and drugs and the future and the responsibilities they’re taking on as young adults. But the day-in, day-out is over. My husband and I live alone now and more simply, and we have the space to concentrate on our work, which, however, often takes us both away from home and never at the same time. But sometimes I rattle around the house with an addled brain, wishing for the scaffolding we had even recently, when work had its place around other priorities. Today, my actions have to be intentional and deliberate, and that can be tough with acres of time before me. Now, I can worry all day about my next meeting with the accountant, and the world my kids inhabit. And of course, I can also fritter away time weighing my options on which direction to head: essays, fiction, whether to pause the exhaustive pitching of stories to overworked editors and make way for the big idea. I ponder my many missteps and the moves I am scared to take. I grow confused. I wait. I write.

Good company

Better the second time.

So lately, I’ve had too much time alone (and with my dog Gus, who is very entertaining). Novels, hikes, Hardball with Chris Matthews and even two seasons of Scandal are good distractions. But after a while, they are not enough. This is why, when I find a reason, the time and the money to wander – even for one night – I breathe oxygen again.

So today, the 100th day of the year, I busted out. I packed a bag and my computer to make a few edits on my piece for Best Women’s Travel Writing Volume 9 (and obviously, to check my e-mails to see what Home Depot has to tell me today).

I packed the tea I carted home from Nyungwe, Rwanda in January. I brought the excellent lip balm I snapped up in Stockholm in February. And I wore the surf jacket my friend “lent” me in Hermosa Beach a month ago. I got in the car and drove an hour north to the Berkshires, and I checked into a delicious, chic little motel called The Briarcliff.

Back to our old pal from Paris with whom we’ve lost touch, not because he was Obvious Man but because we moved away 21 years ago and losing touch can still happen, even in the Facebook age, especially with people over 40. When I pulled into the motel, I was welcomed by an image of a noble-looking bear. Yes, that’s right – the animal that hibernates during winter and eventually emerges all disheveled, in order to regain her strength or his purpose.

I asked the owner if there was somewhere nearby I could take a walk alone and not look like an escaped prison convict. The motel is located on Highway 7, after all, with fast cars doing north or south and no sidewalks. He pointed just across the street, about 100 yards down, to Monument Mountain. I jogged over the highway and found the trail entrance.

I am a travel writer but I can’t claim one adventurous bone in my body. I travel to hide in plain sight, to immerse myself in elsewhere but emphatically not to push myself into danger. Yet, even in the Berkshires, on this tiny mountain, I knew it was unwise to hike alone. The leaves were slippery and there’s always the outside chance of a rabid coyote on the loose, right? So I looked for a club and found one that fit the bill. It spoke to me – a slingshot, an upside down peace sign, V for Victory – this was no ordinary walking stick.

I was wearing the wrong shoes – it’s the story of my life – Rag & Bone leather sneakers from the Barney’s Warehouse sale in 2009 which look new because I usually don’t wear them hiking. I followed the powder blue dots up the trail and the first roadblock came – a fallen tree. So I doubled back and took another path. Soon there was a second fallen tree – this time a graceful birch, which I veered around widely. Then a third fallen tree, which I had to amble over. First, I lay down my weapon and then, like a saddle blanket, my jacket. I sat for a minute. Change course, negotiate, and tackle: me versus the obstacles. Tree trunks. Decisions. Forward movement. It all demands action.

Roadblock #1

#2

#3

At last, I saw the final blue dot indicating the summit and I decided to try a different path down. I came to a grand stone staircase, like the one in the ballroom of the Titanic, and I was truly confused: which set should I climb? I opted for neither and changed course again. Some things, I just don’t want to deal with. Along the way, I came across a waterfall that was gushing like springtime, crashing onto well-worn granite boulders that shone in parts with the winter’s last snow. There were tiny icicles deep in the crevasses. They would melt in no time.

Safe place

At the bottom of the mountain, I placed my stick in a safe place. I wanted to do the walk, shoes and all, again in the morning before I headed back home. I placed it in a bed of leaves to the side of the path and walked back to the Briarcliff, opened the door, and threw the key and myself onto the perfect orange-headboarded bed. And here was Obvious Man again, telling me what I might have known but needed to hear.

Thank you, JRR Tolkein

It wasn’t the last time I though of O.M., though. In the morning, as I crossed the highway after a dish of sublime homemade granola and scones and a killer cup coffee, I wondered what had become of him. He was just one of those people my husband and I have known in our long life together so far. I looked around for my handy rabid-coyote repelling tool and there it was, now upright against a tree, placed there by someone. I don’t know if even my former, disappeared friend would know what the universe was signaling to me this morning. But I’m ready to go home and figure it out.

Older, Better, Whatever

I wrote this essay for a series called ‘My Happy Age’ in the British magazine Easy Living, and since there’s no link, I wanted to post it.

On an evening last May, my friend and I sat in one of the plushest bars in Manhattan sipping white orchid Martinis, a prohibitively expensive drink we indulge in when there is something to celebrate. This time, it was her forty-seventh birthday, and while I set out to toast her endeavors and good health, the occasion turned a little soggy.

“I’m almost fifty,” my still-gorgeous and very accomplished friend said despondently.

She spit out the last word as if a hornet had just landed in her mouth. Her panic of living beneath the Damoclean sword of the mid-century mark was palpable. And I felt for her. My forty-seventh birthday was also the pits. I was tossing about on a sea of erratic hormones and midlife regret, convinced that the impending milestone meant the beginning of the slide into decrepitude (and death). But my consolation to her lay in a prediction from my own experience: her fear would, ironically, end at her fiftieth birthday. In fact, now that it’s behind me, I can say that the only bad thing about turning fifty is, well, turning fifty. When the sun comes up the morning after and shines on your sixth decade, the horizon is utterly brighter and full of promise. And here I am, at 51, certain that this is the best year yet. Sixty is still too far off to dread.

When I finished high school, I had no idea who I was or would become and it seemed that each day, another cataclysmic decision loomed. It is terrifying to realize that your life has yet to be lived, and to know that the choices you make could reverberate forever. My twenties were spent falling in and out of love, and toiling eighty hours a week in the newsroom. I was married at 31, and seven days before I turned 34 my first child was born. I remember almost nothing of the rest of my thirties because I was obliterated by fatigue and second-guessing my own wing-it style of parenting. These years arrived and passed in a blur because whatever identity I had was given over – both willingly and unconsciously – to raising my children.

My forties were the worst. I saw my youth begin to fade in aging’s slo-mo tragedy. A few gray hairs sullied my glossy mane, and I noticed folds on my face that I swore weren’t there the day before. I neglected my marriage and my friendships, my community and my ambition. Fortunately, my health was fine, but there were new strains in my hips and knees, and I could no longer hold more than a single gin and tonic or prance around in four-inch heels all day. At 47, I had an epic midlife crisis. I became obsessed with my disappointments – financial, emotional and otherwise – and what I believed I was losing, as if the future held nothing but blackness. My 50th birthday felt like an oncoming bullet train. I decided not to celebrate with great fanfare, as others had done. Instead, after an intimate dinner with a few close friends, I jetted off to Russia solo, to relive a voyage I had made frequently in my twenties. All I could do was wallow in memory.

But on my birthday, almost instantly, the great weight lifted.

I’m not sure if the years have offered me wisdom, but like every adult, I’ve been through the ringer. That’s just what happens in a life spent raising children, working for a living, being broke and flush, facing every kind of responsibility, experiencing elation, despair and mostly, everything in between. “Happiness” as a state of being is not something I strive for or even believe in, but if you contend, as I do, that life is full of happy moments, then 51 is the age where you can finally see and appreciate them.

I welcome the onset of courage. Now it’s easier to say “no” when the impossible is asked of me, and I no longer care if someone gets mad about it, or if they like me, hate me, love my writing or think I’m a hack. I know my good qualities, and understand my faults even better. When I experience personal or professional rejection, I brush off my boots and soldier on. There is no time for whining, only the urgency of maximizing these still-fruitful years. These are conclusions I have made with my own free will, earned day in and day out over 51 years of life, always gaining knowledge.

I’m fortunate that I finally have a strong marriage (though that was hard-won), and my kids have grown into fascinating, accomplished people. Yes, the facial lines are getting harder to camouflage and I have to exercise twice as much as when I was 25 to get the same results. I defiantly refuse to cross any dreams off my list but I have a realistic assessment of what I can demand of myself and others, and with whom I’d like to spend my precious time. Lately, I’ve seen too often how quickly a robust person can become a severely ill one. But for now, I’m healthy and I have the presence of mind to appreciate that fact, as well as my good luck to be born in a place and time where living to 51 is even possible. I have much to look forward to, and I wouldn’t go back for anything – except, maybe, a second slice of cake.

Recently my friend Michael Maren directed a scene in Brooklyn for his movie, A Short History of Decay, that fast became part of New York literary folklore. In this shot, Nathan (played by Bryan Greenberg who looks quite a bit like Channing Tatum) is a flailing writer, who is certain he’s a failing writer. His girlfriend (also a writer, but a successful one) is tapped out from his lack of confidence and has just shown him the door, so he escapes to Kos Kaffe, a coffee bar in Park Slope. With one excruciating gaze, Nathan sees the place stacked end to end with writers, real ones, famous ones, people with book deals and editors who care about them and bylines in the New Yorker. Is it real or is it fantasy? In either case, he senses he’s an interloper to a club where he has no business belonging. Cruel reality then deals him another blow: he sees that there is not a single seat left in the coffee shop. There is no room – there or seemingly anywhere else on earth, even a corner to weep into a lousy cappuccino – for the likes of him. It’s an achingly universal moment and when Michael let me read his lovely screenplay over a year ago, it touched me as a personal one.

It was great fun and the air was electric, aided by the coffee on tap the staff tirelessly churned out. But I wouldn’t be honest if I didn’t admit, as I sat with Jennifer Egan, Michael Cunningham, Roxana Robinson, Elissa Schappell, Philip Gourevitch, my dear friends Abigail Pogrebin and Dani Shapiro (who is married to the director), Kurt Anderson, Hannah Tinti, Jane Green and a passel of other writers, that I was infected with a large dose of Nathan-esque doubt. Mostly I asked myself: had I had I earned a place in their company? Yes, I’ve been writing all my life, but it’s been less than three years since my first real published piece – in Vogue, an essay about marriage – offered me a launching pad at last. I already had piles of rejection before then and since, I’m constantly finding new ways to define ‘disappointment’. Some days I do have to wonder: what’s the point? Who’s even listening? Seriously, folks. Does the world really need another writer?

What’s remarkable, though, is how quickly and reliably the buoyancy and rush can return. It takes a simple piece of good news in the Inbox – an editor who likes your idea or your voice or the essay you sent, cold, having mustered up all the courage in the world, crafting an e-mail with the perfect mix of self-deprecation and scorched-earth intrepidity. And sometimes I just peck out something for myself that no one may ever see and I revel in the sheer, magic elasticity of words. It can actually take the dark out of the nighttime, as Dylan said about a woman (but it can go for work, too).

I’m not sure if I’m a writer because I have something to say or I simply want to be heard, or if I just want to try to make gorgeous sentences because it’s so ridiculously satisfying. I do know that though every morsel of bad news ushers in a fresh episode of disappointment, these defeats are integral to productivity. This is the truth: they get me in my chair every day. My husband is a sculptor who has lots of wisdom and even some useful bromides. My favorite is: you’ve only failed when you stop trying.

I would guess that most every writer in the café has, at one time, seen failure, experienced bad reviews, or been set back by a crisis of confidence. I wouldn’t be surprised if someone among them, from whatever rung on the success ladder, might have thought him or herself lesser, in comparison, than someone else across the room. I’m still eager, sometimes anxious, for one of my books to be published. Where does that put me on the spectrum? And really, does it matter? I suspect that there is a little Nathan in everyone (or most everyone) in the coffee shop that morning. It was, after all, just a room full of men and women, working hard, moving forward with the next big idea, unwilling or unable to rest on laurels if they’re lucky or talented enough to have earned them. Poor Nathan was having a bad day in that scene – the kind we all endure. I wonder if any of the authors on the movie set that morning might ever have their own dark, irrational moments, where even they might question if they belong at the table.

September 13, 2012

Today, I’m honored to have won three Lowell Thomas Awards, which is thrilling in the field of travel journalism. They are 1) The Grand Prize Silver Award for Travel Journalist of the Year; 2) Silver Award in Personal Comment for ‘Masha’; and 3) Bronze Award in the foreign travel article category for “Green Pastures and the Ghosts of Rwanda”. I got the news in an e-mail as I poked around a gas station convenience store while my tank filled up, after taking my dog Gus to the vet. The awards were announced at a conference in Indianapolis. Along with the other winners I (and my work) appeared in a short film that was shown at the luncheon. I won for stories written in Russia, Haiti, Rwanda and France. There were many strong characters in these essays, and I couldn’t have written anything without them. Masha, a beautiful savior. Val, a PhD who is trying to increase the food supply in his native Haiti. The desk clerk in Kigali who schooled me in guilt. Guy Martin, a chef in Paris.

I had submitted these pieces several months ago to The SATW (Society of American Travel Writers) Foundation, urged on by my editor and friend, Lavinia Spalding. It’s a constant challenge to keep track of the pieces I send out with regularity to overworked and oversolicited editors, accompanied by cheerful little notes. But I have to believe in my work, always fearlessly and fully. I submit essays and fiction to literary journals, and I am rejected daily. I don’t take any of it personally. I soldier on. Sometimes things work out, and today, it did. Here’s what the judges from the UNC School of Journalism said about the Grand Prize award:

Sometimes a writer can get into your head describing scenery and people as if you were seeing it yourself. Marcia DeSanctis does just that in “A Grand Return,” about a 20th-anniversary trip to a legendary Paris restaurant, and again in “One Day, Three Dead Men,” sharing her return visit to Moscow after 28 years. But the brightest jewel in a crown of remarkable stories is “Green Pastures and the Ghosts of Rwanda,” where again DeSanctis is one with her readers. Of airports she writes: “They are my hello and goodnight, the place I cross with an exhausted shuffle when I arrive and impatiently want to ditch when I leave.” After arriving in the country and retiring to a guesthouse, DeSanctis begins to tell the story of Rwanda’s ghosts and mass killing that took place there. “I repaired to my too-quiet room and fell back on the bed. … Sensing something more akin to mortal sickness rather than terror, I imagined the thousands of people who were killed in the neighborhood I slept in, and pictured their souls swirling around in the windy night.” It is reflective writing at its best. During a conversation with a night clerk she inquires about his heritage.

Oh,” I said. “Are your parents…I mean your family…”
“No, they are all dead,” he said. “I never knew them, really.”
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“It’s not your fault,” he said.

We are treated to a harrowing encounter when DeSanctis is side kicked by a charging 500-pound gorilla during a jungle trek. Afterwards, in conversation with a soldier, the following exchange occurs:
“I think the gorilla liked you.”
“I’m not actually sure that’s a compliment,” I said.
“It doesn’t matter,” he said. “But you will surely remember him.”

Later that day and no worse for the experience she drinks a tonic water and lime on a beach. The narrative of what Marcia DeSanctis experiences vacillates from current-day scenes to past Rwandan horrors whose memories she cannot shake. For a tour de force in writing excellence she earns the silver in the Grand Award category.

Thank you judges, whoever you are, for understanding what I was trying to say and why.

Here is the link in Overnight Buses for my Rwanda piece (which you can download for free), and what the judges said about this one:

“Green Pastures and the Ghosts of Rwanda,” by Marcia DeSanctis, takes travelers through the hellos and goodbyes that are part of transiting airports. She describes them as “miserable, inhuman places, churning people in and out like an automatic dishwasher, offering lattes to the unthirsty and warm water in the restroom, if you can figure out that country’s faucet mechanics.” By the second paragraph she has prepared readers for a deeper story, one wrapped in the harsh realities of the genocide that took place in Rwanda. While in the country to do pro bono consulting for a small NGO, DeSanctis navigated the streets, spent days in remote villages and trekked up muddy hillsides. Through most of her visit, it was difficult to see “Rwanda’s beauty, hope and promise.” She writes, “Everyone seemed to bear a mark of the country’s recent terror. Each man was a perpetrator, each woman was a survivor, each teenager was a victim, and everyone was a witness.” It is only when she visits the Akagera Game Preserve that she finds comic relief with a team of baboons. Later she travels to Virunga Park, near the border of Uganda and the DRC, to hike and take a 60-minute gorilla tour. Suddenly, after 30 minutes of visiting and snapping pictures of gorilla families, a 500-pound male gorilla heads straight toward DeSanctis, strikes her, spins her around. After recovering, she conversed with the guide: “‘I think he wanted to show me who was boss,’ I said, trying not to look as weak and scared as I felt.” By the time she returns to the airport to depart, she understands that while she wasted time thinking too much of Rwanda’s tragedy, everyday Rwandans were moving on. Marcia DeSanctis passionately and deftly writes her way to the bronze.

Here is a link to Masha on Geoex (and it also ran in Best Women’s Travel Writing 2011). And what the judges said:

Some people we never forget, even when they were with us for a relatively short time. In another wonderfully written, rich tale of human interaction, Marcia DeSanctis tells of a kind young woman who cared for her while she was ill in Moscow many years ago and, maybe telling us more about herself than about the woman, how she has never forgotten that act of kindness. It’s the type of story that makes us feel good about people.

Here is a link to a piece about a voyage around Haiti with two NGOs.

Congratulations to all the talented writers and editors who were honored today! Here is the list of all the winners.

It’s a big wide beautiful world.


It rained like hell the last two weeks in Paris. It’s hit or miss weather-wise in April, but always beautiful and charm spills all over the boulevards. As it happened, I was staying with a dear friend in her apartment very near the first place I lived in Paris. I moved there in the summer of 1989 and arrived early on a Sunday morning. I dumped my bags in the new digs and walked around exploring the neighborhood, looking for coffee, or the market that was to become my go-to grocery. I ended up on Avenue George Mandel and I remember the chestnut trees and the stately beauty and the melancholy of arriving in a new country, poised to begin a new life. These are the trees today, exactly as they were 23 years ago early on an August Sunday. But it’s spring and like the great song “April in Paris” says (I find Ella Fitzgerald’s version particularly haunting), the chestnuts were in blossom. You can just barely make out the white funnel-shaped flowers in the photo.

I was working on a magazine story, and found myself seeking cover (no umbrella, no raincoat, just sheer focus on getting the article researched and written) in between meetings in some of Paris’ covered arcades, or galeries. These are some of my favorite spots in Paris, especially the Passage Jouffroy, where there are a slew of elegant toy stores. I remember once asking for Babar figurines for my son who was little at the time, and the store clerk shooed me out. You get the idea, no plastic to be found. Anyway, in the Galerie Vivienne, I found this book, which I snapped up for untold Euros – I had to, under the circumstances.

I thought it would be a memoir of midlife, like the one I have been writing, and a saucy one at that, given the author’s beguiling name, Marquise de la Tour du Pin. Palace intrigue! Seduction on a grand scale! Infidelity, French style. Instead, I discovered it’s a quite well-known autobiography by an aristocratic woman of her experiences from the French Revolution through Napoleon’s return from exile. At some point, she and her family spent some time sequestered at a farm near Albany, New York. It’s rather slow going – can’t do Google translate for a whole book, but it’s quite a comprehensive and fascinating historical document.

As another diversion and escape from the torrents, I decided to visit as many perfume stores as possible. They seem to be concentrated in two neighborhoods for the most part – in the Marais, and in the 1st near the Ritz, off the rue Castiglione. I think it’s fair to say that I’m obsessed with perfume again, even though I actually like so few of them, especially the deep, spicy fragrances. What I love is anything that smells like rose or orange flowers. But the shops, some of them very small, have some of the most original concept and design in Paris. This picture is taken from outside one of the Parfums Nikolai boutiques. The aroma as you walk in, as the French would say, is sublime.

At the end of each day – before drinks and dinner and late night chats with my friend – the metro dropped me off at the Place du Trocadero and I’d duck into La Carette, where I usually had to wait for a seat. It didn’t matter – I was soaked to the skin and it was good to be inside, awaiting a hot drink. This tea salon is packed from the moment it opens to late at night. All day long, I craved the macaroons which (everyone talks about Laduree, but not me) I think are the best in Paris. My favorite is the salted caramel flavored one, with just the perfect combination of cream, crunch and chew. Another revelation was the cassis-voilet combination. Fruity and floral, as you might imagine. The stuff of dreams.

After that, I strolled back to the apartment under the chestnuts that I remembered so well from my four years in Paris, another lifetime ago. Usually, I detoured to walk past my old building, the first place in France that I called home. I’m not sure how, but my feet just took me there.

Twelve or so years ago, I went to a friend’s anniversary party in downtown Manhattan and found myself seated next to the late, great Frank McCourt. He was delightful and captivating in every way – and very modest. He was also a neighbor of sorts up in Connecticut where he lived with his wife, and where I was about to relocate to, full time. It was the first I had met him, though I would do so on a couple more occasions up here before he died in 2009.

He may have asked me what I did for work, as most people do by way of icebreaking at a New York social gathering. That was an easy question before I became a full-time writer, when I was TV news producer – a job that was concrete and verifiable, the kind with a weekly paycheck. Although I have thousands of pages of unfinished stories aging in cardboard boxes, and now I try to write all day every day, it’s still hard to say, “I’m a writer,” as if I have yet to earn the right.

But of course, I didn’t need to ask Mr. McCourt what he did. Angela’s Ashes had won the author a Pulitzer Prize, and became – and maybe still is – the gold standard for memoir, which then, I think, we called autobiography. I had been staggered by the grace of this book – the hilarious and shattering depiction of his childhood. I asked him, “Do people ever say, “Now I know everything about you?” He smiled, hesitated and then said, quite seriously, “Nobody knows a single thing about me.”

I copied this exchange on an orange post-it, one of three that are stuck on the back of my desk printer. Now that I’m writing a memoir, I think often about his words. This – my – book can’t possibly be a window into me because honestly, who cares about that? What I hope it will reveal, though, is something that will read like a story, with or without my presence in the pages. Even on days when I’ve exposed more than seems right and proper, I am reminded – constantly – of my dinner chat with Frank McCourt. He couldn’t possibly have known that he was giving a future writer the best advice of her career.

For those of us who inhabit the planet of half empty, New Year’s Eve is usually a time for strong sentiment and more than a little regret. I could have worked harder, loved stronger, seen certain people more and thought of some other people less. I should have been more patient, productive, appreciative, understanding and true. I should have gossiped less and given more. I should have woken up earlier, and should not have watched four whole seasons of Breaking Bad in basically one sitting. I wish I hadn’t wasted time on things that didn’t deserve it, and that I’d spent more time on the causes and people who did. So that’s what this night is about, the wind-down, the gearing-up, the atonement to the imperfect self and the promises to those you love. It is about reflection and making the most of what’s ahead. After forty (okay, fifty), there simply is no other option.

When we’re young, New Year’s is a noisy, boisterous affair, an adventure that punctuates the year – both the one that’s over and the one that’s beginning. As if a dramatic entry and closure makes the life you are leading somehow more worth living. I’ve spent New Year’s Eve stumbling drunk, in love and out, nursing babies, fulfilled by work, depressed by bad luck, entangled in drama, soaring in love, surrounded by friends, bereft by loss, some years flush and others broke. I’ve stood frozen on Central Park West at 4 am, wearing a big shouldered, black velvet dress, sheer stockings, and a thin wrap, searching in vain for a cab while the champagne drained from my system. I’ve kissed too many strangers, my husband, my kids and my soul mates in Paris, twice in Marrakesh, Salzburg in 1988 and for years, New York. I’m lucky, so far, to have been alone only once on December 31, following a bad break up. But I was in the city, so I wrapped myself up in a parka and walked and walked, absorbing other people’s celebrations.

For the last fifteen years, I’ve been right here at home, in small-town New England. Three years ago, I was so undone by the bump I caused in my marriage that I went to bed sobbing, and greeted my family and 2009 with a red, swollen face and a silent assurance that I would begin to try to make things (myself) right again. Maybe it’s a coincidence, but since then, I haven’t hosted houseguests or New Year’s dinner at my home. I always loved the excitement and preparation, the meal, the company. Above is a photo of my table that night after all the guests had gone, because I also loved the dissipated lighting, the wrinkled linen, the empty bottles, the candles still burning. But that year, the morning after lasted for months.

Tonight, we’re going out, where we’ll eat well and drink even better. I’m almost ready to go. I’m wearing a top a dear friend gave me, loose and off the shoulder, more fancy than anything I’d buy for myself. I painted on some serious eyeliner and have put on a bit of jewelry – gold bangles, a friendship bracelet woven by my daughter, and a beaded one my son bought me in Mexico. All I need is my shoes, and Mark and I will leave the house for the last time in 2011. I recall the bustle in my house on New Years past, but for now, I like it calm like this. Here’s to 2012 – and hoping we read more, listen more too, but speak less and try not to deceive at all. May we make good on our promises and forgive ourselves if we don’t. Especially if it involves season 5 of Breaking Bad.

During a classroom visit at Parent’s Weekend at my daughter’s school, I was stunned and delighted to see the kids in freshman English reading Chinua Achebe’s masterpiece, Things Fall Apart. They were dissecting passages, underlining the various authorial devices, executing a critical read of this story about village life and British colonial rule in Nigeria. They looked upon the book as literature and language, as fourteen year-olds should do. But it’s the history contained in the narrative – the actual context – that made me want to read it again, after many years.

The day before Parent’s day, I had returned from two weeks in Rwanda. so Africa was very much on the jetlagged brain. It wasn’t my first trip there, but I went deep this time, and splurged on a driver (but not really hotels) to ferry me to all corners of the tiny country, while doing some consulting for a small and brave NGO. To prepare for my trip I re-read Adam Hochschild’s mindblowing book about the Belgian conquest/rape of the Congo, King Leopold’s Ghost.  It reads like a novel, but every word of it is true.

While in the town of Gisenyi, I walked the short distance to the Congo border, with the country’s brutal and sometimes incomprehensible history (so recently brought to life for me by Hochschild)  in mind. I wanted to cross over to Goma for the afternoon, but the charge for a visa recently went up to $300. Cash. The volcano, Nyiragongo, hovers menacingly over the city it destroyed in 2002. At night, it’s even more beautiful and terrifying, as it glows red, spewing fire into the sky.

The walk to the border provides lots of quaint architectural reminders of the region’s German, then Belgian-dominated past – rambling stucco or wood houses, all in European style. I don’t know who lives there now – Europeans, wealthy Rwandans, but they are quite beautiful, and well-preserved. It’s a country where 92 per cent of the population is Catholic or Protestant, and where most people in Kigali speak French. Colonial history lingers everywhere; it’s inescapable.

Days later, back home, while flipping through my daughter’s book in her classroom, I came across this passage, written in 1958 about characters in 1890’s Nigeria:

“We have heard stories about white men who made the powerful guns and the strong drinks and took slaves away across the seas, but no one thought the stories were true.”

It’s still impossible to wrap the head around. – the mingling of such disparate cultures, the wholesale replacement of  local sovereignty, the forced introduction of the Christian god. But it’s important to be reminded – in fiction and in non-fiction – of a history that, unless you’re in Africa, is often overlooked.

 

 

 

 

How can I travel when there’s so much going on at home? People frequently ask me that question, how do I make it work – just pick up and go? Doesn’t my home life suffer? Yes, for a while, and no. But if I didn’t move once in a while, everything would really fall apart, especially now that my children are out of the house – still in school – but nevertheless launched. It helps that I’m a writer and an assignment can get me out of town for a while. But any solo voyage is good for the head.

We didn’t travel too exotically with the kids when they were young, but still, we hit the road when we could afford to. When my son was a year and a half, my husband was working on a giant outdoor sculpture in the south of France, and the patron, I guess you’d call him, invited us to stay in his wild, gated James Bond house. We took the baby along, with the port-a-crib, and the bottles and all that other paraphernalia that constituted our traveling circus. We have a lot of lovely photos of him (my son…) running through fields of lavender, or on the beach at St. Tropez in a sun hat, images that will surely be brandished to his great embarrassment at some future celebration. I was jealous of the easy going mothers (not usually Americans, I have to say) who – topless – could juggle diaper bags with a glass of rosé and four passports and not drag themselves to bed weeping with fatigue. The mothers who didn’t care that juice spilled all over them or that their kids’ bottoms were getting toasted by the sun.

I tended to feel, after the exhaustion of every day, that these travels were possibly more of a vanity project for me. That the photographs are beautiful, blown up on the wall, but that the memories were only mine (and my husband’s) to keep. I was always delighted to get home, and found plenty of worthy photo opportunities there, too.

Still, I didn’t learn much, or quickly, so every time we could travel, we did. We took them to Paris to see our old haunts (where my daughter nearly died from septicemia), and for a long drive out west (where, in my fruitless search for authentic diners,  we subsisted on an artery-destroying diet of Taco Bell, Carl’s Junior, and close to Monument Valley, all variations of Frito pie.)

We loved the time together, without the schedule bearing down on us.  And that’s the part I remember – my tiny daughter and I scrunched together in a bed at the Holiday Inn Express in Barstow, California, the boys in the other one, and how we woke up that morning and drove across the desert, ending up at a comfy hotel in Santa Monica.

But again, I was glad to head home.

My kids are bigger and older, and though we travel together when we can, once a year or so, it’s different now. We talk and read and enjoy long meals together. We don’t force a transfer of our life to some inconvenient place, because we’re a nimble unit now. But I’m even more agile alone and I like to travel that way. I like soup and a cold beer for dinner, if that’s all I want. I enjoy travelling light. I suppose I always have.

I’m not at all adventurous and I’m pretty chicken sh– about risk taking, too. I’m not a great white hunter type, I don’t camp out in the desert or take boat rides across blackened lakes just for the thrill of it.  But I do like solitude and anonymity. I enjoy carrying a small bag with the essentials (plus one dressy outfit, just in case).  When I compartmentalize my belongings, it serves to compartmentalize me, as well.  All of me is boiled down to its elements – one woman, two feet, one thinking brain, my one tiny existence to leave for a while and reflect upon. Okay, maybe four pair of shoes, but still.

So, in answer to people’s questions, travel is easy. Press “Purchase Ticket Now,” put it on the credit card. That’s all it takes. Home is alluring from a distance, and life is here when I get back and it’s always better than when I left. So, maybe what I like about travel is the moment I realize (and I do every time) that while I’ve been gone, nothing – and everything – has changed.

In the September issue of Town & Country, I wrote a piece for the Social Graces column about sex scandals, American and French – mostly the difference in their aftermaths – and how they play out in the public. I think (and have written) a lot about fidelity and infidelity, and remain fascinated by how different cultures view every aspect of the institution of marriage.  I was therefore not at all stunned by the extremely unapologetic tone DSK took in yesterday’s interview on French television (with the anchorwoman Claire Chazal, a friend of his wife Anne Sinclair’s).  Yes, he called his transgression a “moral failing”, but he didn’t express any empathy for Ms. Diallo, his once-alleged victim (as an American counterpart would likely do, even while defending himself). These were rape charges, not a mere affair, and he faces more assault charges at home. He expected his wife to assert his innocence, and she did. Perhaps it’s easy to support your man if the crime he’s accused of is not just a moral one.

Several hours later, I watched the fictional take on  CBS’s The Good Wife  – which I saw shortly after Julianna Marguiles won an Emmy for her portrayal of the wronged political wife – bitter, betrayed, critically wounded by the lacerations her husband’s infidelity caused her.

Her husband, incarcerated Chicago State’s Attorney Peter Florrick, is portrayed with glorious hubris by Chris Noth. “I’ve looked in the mirror, and what I’ve seen, I didn’t like,” he says in an early episode, the gleam of ambition still clouding his vision while his reputation manager looks on approvingly. As in real life, his family’s humiliation is palpable, and public.

In his 1879 biography of Nathaniel Hawthorne, the writer Henry James praised The Scarlet Letter as the finest piece of literary writing yet to issue from the United States. “It belongs to the soil, the air, it came out of the very heart of New England,” wrote James about the novel, the tale of Hester Prynne’s adulterous hook-up with Dimmesdale, the powerful Puritan minister, and the fall-out they both endured. “The thing was absolutely American.”

You can say that again. Over one hundred fifty years later, Hawthorne’s masterpiece still defines our tropes towards judging those forbidden acts of extra-marital passion – we who are surprised it still happens. Not only does the sanctimonious crowd scorn Hester, who is forced to bear the infamy all by herself by wearing an embroidered A morning, noon and night for seven years. But when Dimmesdale addresses the crowd to declare the truth about his illicit act of carnal desire, he curses it along with himself, despite the life of virtue the puritanical code had cut out for him. There was nothing left for him to do, but perish on the spot.

Sound familiar?  Superimpose Representative Weiner above the village square, or Arnold Schwarzenegger before the local clergymen, or Tiger Woods prostrate before the townspeople for Dimmesdale when he launches America’s first press conference confession. “People of New England!” he says, before revealing the stigma that burns his chest, his dirty little secret. The sex scandal remains the same, as does the sin, the anguish and, although Dimmesdale died before he could rehab in the Utah desert, so does the repentance. And sometimes – both here and in Europe – arrogance.

I’m not sure what to make of this, but I’m writing this, my first blog post, in the dark. Okay, I do have a snazzy flashlight that has a built-in hook that I’ve attached to the lamp over my bed. I live in a remote area, and though we were spared any tragic impacts of the Hurricane Irene, we are going on two full days without power. We played board games and read books and the paper, ate up the food in the fridge and enjoyed a kind of 19th century day. The wind was crazy – the birch trees looked like they were going to fly away, and my dog Gus did a runner. Now, I’m working on a 53% charge on my computer, and since these entries are best served by the spoonful rather than ladleful, I hope that will be plenty to complete a thought, brevity not really my strong suit. My literary heroes, including some modern-day ones, wrote with a pen and paper and sometimes, a candle, unfettered by power grids and their surprising fragility.  Every short story I ever wrote was done in longhand. I don’t know how I didn’t change and edit and do last-minute word substitutions and actually end up with anything that made sense. For the indecisive like me, the computer can be a curse, and I’m sure I’ve lost a lot of raw, visceral stuff from the doubts that my Mac allows me, and the ceaseless deleting, polishing, adding, erasing. See, I’ve been rethinking so much, I’m down to 27%.  23. 14. 7….