Hanging out in the terminal

I’ve spent a lot of time this year in airports. By my reckoning I’ve already been to ten this year (with several visits to JFK and at least one to LGA) and will add two more by the end of the year. Airports can be hell, especially if you’re stuck in one. I had a year where every time I tried to fly out on a Friday, something went wrong, either an insanely long delay, or, once, a delay that turned into a cancellation. When you’re stuck watching the departure board, worried your flight will be delayed more, or you’re getting automated messages that tell you, don’t worry, you have plenty of time to use the bathroom, airports are pretty much the worst.

But having spent a lot of time in them this year, I have this to say: Under the right circumstances, they’re not so bad.
To be clear, the right circumstances involve short TSA lines, layovers that allow more than enough time to reach your gate, and no delays. But with those factors in place, airports are much more like purgatory than hell – they’re the in-between-place you’re stuck in against your will.
Time can feel a bit suspended when you’re traveling by air. As long as I’m not anxiously waiting in a security line or desperately delayed, I can sit in the airport or on a plane and feel like there’s no difference between one hour and three. It helps if I have a good book, or can close my eyes for a nap. It doesn’t hurt when the airport has good food, like the mac n’ cheese I had in Phoenix in June, or the mac n’ cheese I had at JFK last week.
The free warm chocolate chip cookie in Phoenix wasn’t half bad, either.
Look, I’m not saying I love airports. I hate that not all of them have free wifi (I’m looking at you, JFK), the chairs can be uncomfortable, and going through security is still more obnoxious than it probably needs to be. I’m just saying that I’ve had a fair number of okay hours in airports this year, and I’m going to stop complaining about them so much.

But I’m still taking the train at the holidays. I have my limits.

I didn’t take any photos in airports, but I did take some from planes! I think this is from before we landed in Phoenix…

Nine days on the road and the travel tips to prove it

Last week I was on vacation. Leading up to my trip, it had been a busy few weeks, at work and outside of work, so I’m pretty darned pleased that my trip went off without a hitch, unlike the Amtrak delay on my trip the weekend before.

From its start in Indiana at a family wedding to its finish in San Diego with my best friend (and some amazing times in Palo Alto and San Francisco in the middle), my vacation was a lot of fun. It was, I think, the longest trip (barring ones to see my family upstate) that I’ve taken since my UK travels in 2011. With two nights in each city and one night on a plane, I was never in one place for very long, which should have made the trip feel choppy and disjointed, right?
Instead, I felt like I spent enough time in each place to feel briefly settled, and I saw so many people (ten friends in California, around twenty relatives at the wedding) that the trip felt full, without feeling rushed. Once I’m settled and have gone through the hundreds of photos I took, I’ll definitely work up some posts about various parts of the trip. But since I’m tired, let me just give you a few tips about how to make a long trip like this one go smoothly.
1.       Go to the library. I knew I wanted to do some sightseeing in San Francisco, but since I was only going to be there for two days, buying a guidebook seemed silly. Instead I bought a laminated map, which was helpful and will be useful the next time I go, and I picked up a DK Eyewitness guidebook at the library. Looking at it before the trip, and on the train from Palo Alto to San Francisco, helped me decide to spend an afternoon in Golden Gate Park – especially once I realized that one of the places I wanted to visit was free on that day of the month.
2.       Loop your friends in about your travel plans. I crashed at four different friends’ apartments in California, which kept things inexpensive for me and gave me quality time with friends I don’t see nearly often enough. I was even able to take a shuttle from the airport to her apartment with one of them since she’d just flow in as well. I saw several other friends in California because I reached out to them, via email or Facebook or text, before the trip and during it, and we were able to schedule time for meals or drinks. I love sightseeing, but catching up with people is the best.
3.       Pack lightly, and pack wisely. All of my stuff fit inside my oversized backpack and a zippered large tote bag, including three pairs of shoes (in addition to the sneakers I wore for most of the trip) and dresses for the wedding weekend. Most important items for the California part of the trip? Sweater, zip-up hoodie, and light jacket, for those cool San Francisco days; socks, because I did a ton of walking; and, of course, lots of underwear. Item I skipped: an umbrella.
4.       Make plans, but be willing to change them. When I was plotting out my time in San Francisco I figured I’d spend a whole day wandering the city – until my friend suggested we drive up to see the redwoods. Best decision ever, or best decision ever?
5.       Build in time to relax. I knew when I arrived in San Francisco that I’d be a little burned out after seeing a bunch of people in Palo Alto, so I scheduled a solo trip to Golden Gate Park to take a break from gabbing and just enjoy being outside. Toward the end of my vacation, my best friend and I spent an afternoon watching movies and reading together – exactly what I needed after all the walking and talking I’d done at the beginning, especially since we spent four hours at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park the very next day.
6.       Unplug.I don’t have a smartphone, so I only had internet through Wi-Fi on my iPod and Nook tablet. I checked email and Facebook most days, but I didn’t have constant access to either, and I never went on my work email. It helped me be focused on where I was and who I was with, and it meant I was more likely to read in my downtime than to mess around on the internet.
7.       But… bring music. Headphones make long flights bearable, as screaming toddlers recede into the background, and music can sometimes worm its way into your trip and become the soundtrack of your travels.

Now that I’m back and staying put for a while, I’ll have more NYC adventures to post about, but in the meantime, any great trips in your recent past or near future? Do you have travel tips to share?

Amtrak and the dubious nature of travel karma

My love affair with Amtrak may be over. After telling everyone I know how much I love train travel and having mostly painless trips myself (while friends and family have had delays, including one due to “an armed robbery ahead on the track” – not exactly a confidence booster), the travel karma gods have finally caught up with me. I made a quick visit home for Memorial Day weekend and my return train trip was delayed by nearly four hours.

Delayed four hours, mind you, before we even got on the train. It’s Monday evening, I’m on the train, and I have no idea what the final hour count will be. More than four hours, that’s for sure, because we’ve been stopped on and off for the three and a half hours I’ve been on the train, and I’m not entirely sure we’ve hit the station we were meant to at the hour and a half mark.
It’s been a pleasant ride otherwise – lots of leg room on this train, they came around with snacks and water, the sun is shining, I have plenty of reading material (if no internet connection) – but I’m not too thrilled about the fact that it may be 10 or 11 p.m. by the time I make it to my apartment. I’m not letting myself consider that it could be later than that – I’ve got a long ride ahead of me and I need to enjoy at least some of it.
I got to spend a little extra time with my parents this morning – we took a ride and went to a park, walked around, got some Vitamin D – but if we’d known my train would board at 1:45 instead of 10 a.m., we might have gone out for a full breakfast instead of making a quick stop for bagels. My dad would’ve finished his coffee, I would’ve finished my orange juice. Hell, I might’ve slept in a little, called a friend I hadn’t managed to see, hung out at home with the puppy a bit longer.
But here’s the thing. The travel karma gods have caught up with me before. A few years ago, within a six-month period I had one Friday night flight canceled (on my birthday weekend, no less) and two others hideously delayed. I swore never to fly on a Friday night again (a promise I may have kept, I can’t remember), and since then have had mostly good travels, with only minor delays. So I was due for another round, and considering I have a vacation on the horizon with (count them) sevenflights in a ten day period, I’m really hoping this insanely delayed Amtrak train will pay my debt this time around.
If it does, Amtrak, you’ll be back in my good books. And let’s be honest – I’d rather spend a delay hanging out with my parents, or even on a train, than stuck in an airport any day. This seat is pretty darn comfortable and the trees outside my window are a beautiful green.
From my couch, the next day, I regret to say that the final delay was five and half hours. I got to Penn Station at midnight and hopped in a cab. Yesterday was a long day, today was a long day, but I have one nice thing to say for Amtrak: they fed us some stew at dinnertime. Considering I’d pretty much only eaten bagels, an apple, and brownies up until that point, that earned them a few points.
But I’m back now, after a really nice weekend. And while I was home I got to hang out with this adorable dog, so it’s still a win.

Have I mentioned that I love travel writing?

I’ve been thinking a lot about travel writing lately. Part of it is figuring out what kind of stuff to write about on this blog, part of it is that I have some travel coming up soon, and most of it is that I just love travel writing. My travel reading falls into four major categories: guide books for trips I’m going to take (mostly skimmed), books by Bill Bryson, books by Frances Mayes, and books about American women (usually in their twenties or thirties) moving to Paris.

NB: I’ve never even been to Paris, and I’d probably go back to London again before going there, and yet I’ve read four books that fit that category. Oops? (For the record, these are the four.)
Thinking about my love of Bill Bryson and my emerging fondness for Frances Mayes really clarified for me what I’m looking for in travel writing. I’ve read four Bill Bryson titles (Notes from a Small Island was my first, and is my favorite) and two Frances Mayes (I’m about to finally read Under the Tuscan Sun), and they are two distinctly different experiences.
 I’ve read Mayes’s A Year in the World twice, but I can only remember a handful of moments from it. Her writing is beautifully descriptive; last year at one point I was desperately craving a trip and had nothing planned, so I reread  A Year in the World and felt like I was there, for each adventure she described. I got lost in the details, totally immersed, and that’s exactly what I wanted. It’s like taking a trip, except cheaper and not really. But I’m looking forward to reading Under the Tuscan Sun and getting a glimpse of Tuscany.
I’ve just reread Bill Bryson’s Notes from a Small Island and am halfway through a reread of I’m a Stranger Here Myself, his book about living in the US after twenty years in the UK. If you haven’t read anything by him, go do it, but the main thing to know is that Bill Bryson is funny, and his stories are a mix of anecdotes given a comedic slant and strange and interesting facts about the places he describes. I might not always remember all the ins and outs of his travels, but usually a few stick in my mind. When I read Bill Bryson’s books, it’s like hearing a good story a second time from a friend: you remember most of the twists but that just makes it better. In these books, some of his references are dated now – and not always PC – but a lot of what he talks about holds up.
I’m a unfortunately little too wedded to factual (sometimes overly factual) reporting in my writing to imitate Bill Bryson. He has a way of telling you something that you’re pretty sure did not happen quite the way he tells it but instead is a perfect send up of how that situation might go down. In I’m a Stranger Here Myself, he talks about calling a government hotline to try to get his wife’s social security number and how the official on the other end wouldn’t give it to him, but did, when asked, tell him that baking soda would get that strawberry pop stain right out of his t-shirt. I’m reasonably sure this did not actually happen, but the way he describes it is hilarious. Then again, maybe it did happen and Bill Bryson has more interesting interactions with strangers than the rest of us do.
He’s also just funnier than I’ll ever be, and I can accept that.
I also may never be able to travel the world quite like Frances Mayes does, and I’m pretty sure I’ll never own a house in Tuscany, but I can sit somewhere  beautiful and describe the sights and sounds and smells. Her writing builds a scene for us to step into, and I can aspire to that. It’s easier to do when I’m writing in the moment, though; if I try to recreate it afterwards, the details have already faded, or I never noticed them to begin with. The only drawback to that kind of writing is that it tends to bring out my earnest side. It’s hard to be snarky about a beautiful day in the park, but I’ll try!
Here and there I’ve picked up travel story collections, from The Best American Travel Writing 2000 (edited by Bill Bryson) to Female Nomad and Friends (edited by Rita Golden Gelman), and I’m always looking for recommendations for writers to check out – especially if they fit one of the categories I’ve described, or if they’re totally different. I’d love to hear about books by American women in their twenties or thirties who go anywhere besides Paris, because I’ve only found a handful of those. What should I check out? And what do you look for in your travel writing?
PS My first piece for the Toast goes live on Wednesday, May 14. I’ll link to it in Thursday’s post, but in the meantime if any Toasties find their way here, welcome!

Out of the city and away to Charleston

This past weekend I escaped the cold and headed to Charleston, South Carolina. Sure, there were highs of 50 here in NYC, but in Charleston the temperature never dipped below 50, and most of the weekend it was in the 60s and even low 70s, so Charleston wins.

A house on King Street
I was there for the wedding of a lovely college friend, and I’d been looking forward to this weekend ever since she sent the save the date email last spring. She’d invited a number of college buddies so the weekend was basically a mini reunion, and I loved every minute, especially all the ones where we were able to spend time with the bride. It was a beautiful set of wedding events and a perfect vacation weekend.

On Friday afternoon I wandered the historic district and saw some of the gorgeous houses on King Street on my way down toward the Battery, where I stared out at 

 the water and wished there were benches to sit on. On my walk, I bought a chocolate truffle at a shop near the market, visited the Gibbs Museum of Art, said hello to a woman gardening along the beautiful and eerie Charleston Gateway Walk, and picked up a pair of flip flops on my way back up King Street, when my feet finally started to hurt.

Churchyard, part of the Gateway walk
The view from the Battery

I had dinner with friends at Two Boroughs Larder before we met up with the bridal party at Stars Rooftop Bar. It was a little chilly, but heat lamps helped! Saturday was packed with wonderful wedding festivities, ending with an after-party at Mynt (I was too tired to stay long!). Sunday wrapped up our time with the bride and groom with a brunch at Fuel, a gas station-turned-restaurant where waffles gave us delicious flashbacks to brunches in college.

Sunday continued with a visit to Cypress Gardens, a swamp garden where I wandered the paths with a few friends before checking out their birds, butterflies, and the animals in their “swamparium” or swamp aquarium.

Favorite moment: seeing the alligators in the pen near the swamparium stay as still as statues, except some eye movement, for several minutes and then slowly start to move their feet. Beautiful and terrifically creepy, all at once.

And then it was time for the short flight back to NYC and the long over-priced taxi ride that got me home just at the moment Once Upon a Time began. I fell asleep thirty minutes after it ended and went to bed similarly early the following night.

But it was all worth it to see my dear friend get married, to catch up with people I haven’t really seen since college, and to explore Charleston while soaking up some beautiful weather. You can pack a lot into a three day trip, and I hope to plan more short-but-sweet adventures soon! I took some pictures but need an adapter for my camera — hope to share those soon!

Thinking back on this mini trip, I realized that there were four key factors that it made it feel like a real vacation.

  1. Tourist time.I took Friday off from work and got an 8 a.m. flight. This meant I arrived in Charleston around 10:30 a.m. and had several hours to myself, since the first official wedding-related event I was attending wasn’t until after dinner. 
  1. Semi-swanky accommodations. I booked a room at the Cannonboro Inn. Many of my friends stayed at the Not So Hostel, which was a perfectly fine choice, but I realized I’d sleep better, not to mention feel less stressed about getting ready for the wedding, at a B&B. And while I didn’t get to take much advantage of their breakfast or their wine and tea at 4 p.m. (too busy!), I did have a delicious parfait before rushing out to brunch one morning. 
  1. Easy airport transportation. I splurged and took a car service to JFK and a taxi home. Next time I’ll take a car service each way – the cab fare was atrocious – but it was important to me not to have to stress about getting to the airport early in the morning on the subway, or about getting home on Sunday evening. I also bummed a LOT of car rides from friends all weekend. Thanks, guys – you are seriously the best! 
  1. Sleep. I slept as much as I could, given how busy the weekend was. I knew if I wanted to enjoy myself each day – not to mention function at work on Monday! – I needed to be well-rested.

It would have been easy to keep this trip to a lower budget – subway travel, only staying one night, a room at the hostel, etc. etc. But I think vacations are important, and while I’m all for saving money where you can, travel is one of the few things I’m willing to spend a little extra on. I’m tired after this trip, but I spent the weekend feeling relaxed and comfortable. While most of the credit is due to the fabulous celebrations I was invited to attend, allowing myself time and space to really enjoy them also helped.

Where have you gone on your own weekend vacations, and what did you love most about being away?

Reading about New York

Most of the nonfiction I read falls into the memoir category, with an emphasis on travel. But one of my favorites is Anne Fadiman’s Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader, a book for book lovers. If you haven’t read it, buy it now. It’s short and you’ll read it so quickly you’ll wish it were longer. I’ve read it a couple times and love all of the essays, but one of my favorites is called “My Odd Shelf”.

It’s about Fadiman’s obsession with polar exploration and the collection of books she has built centering on it. You can read a little of it in this review, but the concept is a simple one: many of us voracious readers have a niche topic which fascinates us, one that the general population wouldn’t understand. I have a few of them – favorite authors that I’ve read almost everything by, girls’ mysteries stories with a focus on Nancy Drew and books about Nancy Drew, and fairy tales. But I’m starting to build a small collection which could be called “Books about NYC that I haven’t finished reading yet.” Not quite like Fadiman’s collection. Oh well.

The only book in this collection that I did finish is called My First New York: Early Adventures in the Big City, and I gave it away. It’s a collection of essays from New York Magazine by notables from all fields about what New York was like when they first arrived, whenever it was. I saw it on the ubiquitous New York tables at bookstores and museums and finally gave in and bought it. It was, like Ex Libris, a quick read, but a good one.

Another “saw it everywhere” purchase was New York Diaries: 1609 to 2009, edited by Teresa Carpenter, which offers snapshots of the history of this city in diary entries from New York residents throughout the city’s existence. I’ve dipped into it, but have yet to read more than 40 or so pages. What I’ve read, though, was fascinating!
When I graduated college I was given The Neighborhoods of Brooklyn as a gift. It traces the history of each section of the borough I’ve lived in since moving to New York, and while I’ve read up on some of the neighborhoods I’ve lived in, I have yet to read all of it.

Not strictly about New York, but my friend gave me a copy of To Marry an English Lord, the book that inspired “Downton Abbey”, and while I’ve only read about three-quarters of it, I was struck by how many of the American heiresses in it were from New York society, and by the portrait of that society it painted.

A book that should be useful for this blog: the DK Eyewitness Travel Guide: New York City 2014, given to me by the fabulous Allie Singer. Once the weather’s a little nicer I’m going to use it to plan adventures in parts of the city I haven’t had the chance to explore yet.
On my to-be-purchased list: Museum: Behind the Scenes at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I’ve seen it in the Met bookstore (where else) and my fascination with museums means I will eventually get around to buying it.
What’s on your odd shelf? What books do you buy faster than you can read them? And what books about New York should I add to my read-eventually pile?

On the train home

It’s not quite 8 A.M. on a Saturday and I’m on a train headed north along the Hudson River. I’m on the wrong side of the train for the best view, but I can look out the window between the spaciously-set seats.

The trees have just barely begun to turn; scattered among the green are tiny shocks of red or dusty yellow. But mostly the leaves are green, enough that if I weren’t looking for fall foliage I might not notice the hints of color. They’re most noticeable where the sunlight hits. The sky is turning bright blue behind white cotton wisps of clouds in the east, but in the west over the river it’s a muted blue against gray clouds that stretch along the horizon.

It’s a long train ride home to visit my family in Western New York, but a beautiful one. I usually fall asleep as we pass through the Catskills but today I’m determined to stay awake. I hope as we progress west that I’ll get to watch the leaves change, and that when I arrive home it will be fall, which it isn’t quite yet in NYC this weekend. Sometimes in the morning or late evening the air smells, just a little bit, like the crispness of Halloween from my childhood, when we’d wear layers under and over our costumes because sometimes it was cold enough for snow. But mostly even on cool nights the air still smells like late summer, or trash, or nothing at all.

I like traveling by train better than any other form of travel. Cars and buses give me motion sickness most of the time, so I spend those trips sleeping. Planes are fine, once I’m on them, but getting to and from the airports in NYC is painful. On the train, I can read, write, or just look out the window, and get up whenever I want. Sometimes I even get a seat to myself. Train stations are easy to get to and navigate. Amtrak tickets are fully refundable if you have to cancel at the last minute, and pretty cheap if you buy in advance. The ride is long, but I tell myself to consider it part of the vacation, the time I have to myself to relax, and it’s usually lovely.

We’re pulling into Croton-Harmon station and my eyelids are drooping (a 5 A.M. alarm will do that) but for a moment there was water on both sides of the train. Half an hour in there’s a little more yellow and orange along the river, and the western sky is brighter blue. There’s a pond-like body of water alongside the tracks—or does it become a marsh when it’s full of cattail reeds? I can’t remember when I last picked a cattail, and these don’t have the heavy brown heads so maybe they’re something else entirely.

The sun is now high enough (and out from behind clouds) to get in my eyes as I look out the window. It lights the river and the hills, and the houses overlooking the river seem like toys from here. One is big, red and boxy with white trim and a white porch. We pass through a town and the river disappears for a few moments behind a high sheet of rock. When it emerges again there’s a pond again beside me, open and shimmering in the sunlight that floods the train.

We pass a subdivision, all the houses a uniform beige in the sunlight as we chug by, and while I think it’d be lovely to live out here, I don’t think I could do it like that, even if it meant being less isolated. It’d feel like cheating, to live near the river and not in one of the houses perched on a hill, looking like a good push could tip it off into the water.

We’re meant to get to Albany-Rensselear station soon, where the train usually sits for twenty minutes. They say you can get off for a break then, but in the seven years I’ve ridden on this route I think I’ve gotten out once. The idea of being left behind while my stuff goes on without me isn’t appealing, somehow.

Before Albany the ride gets shaky, making walking to the bathroom more difficult and rattling the tray tables. It’s unusual, but I also don’t usually end up on this kind of train, with its extra leg room, foot rests, and oversized tray tables. I think it’s because this train goes all the way to Toronto, whereas the one I usually take stops at Niagara Falls.

On my trip to the bathroom I notice a guy in the row behind mine who looks like someone I met a few times in college. During the longer-than-usual stop in Albany I catch his attention, confirm that it’s him, and say hello. We’re from the same city, something I remember discussing once in college. The world is pretty small. Oddly I’ve yet to run into someone from high school on the train, though I think there aren’t that many of us in the city.

When the train turns west I stop paying such close attention to the scenery and alternate between chatting with my college acquaintance and chatting with my seatmate. I’ve always been good at making friends on trains and talking does make the time pass more quickly.

When we get to the last hour of the ride, I turn back to writing. The trees are more colorful here, but they’re not bright yet, just golden greens. Maybe Thanksgiving will be a better time for leaves, if we don’t have too many storms, but they may all drop by then.

I started rereading one of my favorite books this week—Tam Lin by Pamela Dean—and today I realized that subconsciously I was probably drawn to how much fall and Halloween play a part in the novel. It starts in September and covers three years, ending with a climax on Halloween, and the first fall lasts over 200 pages out of a total of about 450. I’m traveling upstate to experience fall as it should be experienced, with apple picking and cider and pumpkins, so it’s no wonder I felt like reading a book set so firmly in the season.

It’s afternoon now, and I’m almost home. But with a little ways to go, it’s time to read more, and to look out the window at a New York that’s not NYC.