Some of the places I’ve visited have a special spot in my heart, whether its because of their exoticness, their beauty, or the people I met there.  And some places are just magical.  Paris comes to mind, as do Fez and Marrakesh.  Vienna’s up there too, along with Amsterdam (and no, not because of certain legal substances). 

Thanks to some tentative plans to go visit my brother who will be studying in Europe next year, I’ve recently been wondering what it will be like if/when I re-visit some of my favorite cities.  For some reason, I’ve been wondering that if these places will have the same effect on me when I go back (and I’m sure I will eventually).  After all, happy memories cast a rose-colored glow on everything.

I can’t quite imagine the medinas of Morocco or the medieval streets of Seville losing their magic.  Even if my second impression doesn’t have the same luster as the first, all it would take is an hour or two to get back into the rhythm of the city.  These are the kind of places that retain their allure forever, like a classic novel or an intricately woven silk carpet.  Age and experience only makes them more interesting.

Paris is only city that I’ve really re-visited.  My first trip to the city of light was in March, during the spring break of my junior year of college (some girls “go wild”, I go to the D’Orsay), and my next was in June after I’d graduated.  When I first arrived in the city for second time, I honestly wondered why I’d loved the place so much.  Where was the dreamlike, misty city I’d seen a year ago?

It was the humid high season, the height of rush hour, and our tiny, difficult to locate hotel on the Place de la Republique had lost our reservation.  Not a combination that makes for a positive attitude.  I was pissed off at the crowds of tourists and the general air of unpleasantness that seemed to prevail.

But several hours later, the owners had cleared some rooms (well, one actually belonged to some temporary roommates – two adorable Russian Blue cats – but that’s a story for another day), the air had cooled, and we were watching the sun set from a small cafe on the banks of the Seine.  It was then I realized that it was the tiny details and a kind of intangible atmospheric quality that made Paris so special.

Sometimes you have to let a place show itself to you again, remind why you fell in love with it.  And nothing ever stays exactly the same, especially not in the age of globalization and the “flattening world”.  However, the magic of exotic (and not-so-exotic) lands remains if you’re willing to look for it.

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Fair warning: There’s a bit of a rant ahead.

 

If I had a nickel for everyone* who asked I would possibly want to travel to Morocco, or seemed amazed that I survived a trip there (without a personal bodyguard), I could….well, I wouldn’t be rich, but I could treat myself to a pair of designer shoes.  Yes, it is a Muslim nation.  No, I didn’t have to cover my hair.  Many Moroccan women don’t.  Sadly, the recent bombings in Casablanca have brought the issue of tourism in Morocco to the surface yet again – namely, is it safe?

I don’t think that I need to remind anyone that, for the average American, the possibility of dying in a terrorist attack is much, much less likely than say, in a car accident or from a heart attack.  Of course these are all normal, logical things to worry about.  But do we let these prevent us from driving a car** or eating deep fried food? 

So why worry?  6.4 billion people visited Morocco in 2006, so the statistics are firmly in favor of your survival.  Attacks in places where tourists almost never go shouldn’t prevent you from traveling to Morocco or most of the places that the U.S. Department of State has on their warning list.  Take Indonesia as another example – would you skip Bali because of the problems in the Aceh province?  And remember that only ten years ago that Croatia was a war zone, and now Ryannair carts in tourists by the plane-load.

As my (very wise) aunt once told me, “stop borrowing trouble”.  Don’t let your life become governed by possibilities that you can’t control, and realize that you can’t plan for every contingency.  This phrase applies to more than just travel.  If you read too many statistics or buy into the Fox News culture of fear, you’ll eventually be afraid to leave your house.  You’ll have to settle for life on the sidelines while others do everything you’ve dreamed about. 

*These are, for the most part, well-educated people.  Besides, I live in a blue city in a blue state – Barack Obama’s state, for heaven’s sake. 

**Driving or riding in a car is a hard thing to avoid, but you could always become a shut-in who orders everything via the internet if you were really determined.

 

I would be willing to bet a substantial amount of money that the average freelancer works more hours than most people.  Due to the fact that we essentially work for ourselves – and work from home – tends to keep us at it long after our salaried counterparts have left for the day. 

This is not a complaint.  I could probably take a day off once a week or so without any significant detriment to my work, but I choose not to for several reasons.  The main one is that I honestly enjoy it (otherwise I wouldn’t be writing this blog), followed closely by the fear of missing out on a good lead.  There are tons of other talented writers out there so the competition is fierce. 

Discipline is not only absolutely necessary, it’s what separates the men from the boys, so to speak.  Lots of people say “I’ve always loved to write, I wish I had your job” or “it must be nice to set your own hours like that.”  Guess what – if you’ve got a little talent and willing to work on your craft, you can.  Start writing some sample pieces, maybe create a blog (that’s how I got started), pick up one of the many books on freelance writing (I like Media Bistro’s) and go from there.  Don’t quit your day job right away, however.  No one dreams of becoming of a writer for the money.

The title of this post comes from my former creative writing professor.  A published author many times over, he taught us that the success in our chosen profession was dependent on so much more than sheer talent.  The discipline to get up in the morning and sit down at your desk without a boss breathing down your neck, the discipline to meet deadlines at the expense of sleep, and the discipline to simply keep at it through hurdles like writer’s block, obstinate editors, and the piles of unanswered queries/proposals.  And it’s the discipline to spend long hours in front of your computer (generating brilliant prose, of course) for little pay and only your cat for company (can you tell I added that last sentence?).

But I remember what my ultimate goals are – “what I want” – and I fire up the laptop and and the espresso machine for what is hopefully another evening of creative genius. 

Fashion for a Good Cause

April 21, 2007

Most of my freelance gigs involve writing about fashion in some way, shape, or form.  I’ve recently realized that I unconsciously place a higher value on labels and brands that somehow give back to the community, whether it’s through donating a percentage of their proceeds or through other philanthropic work.  If left to my own devices, I gravitate towards companies like Five Accessories and Malia Designs, both of which aid developing nations and focus on sustainable production (in Indonesia and Cambodia, respectively)

I realized this while interviewing Chicago-based jewelry designer Tracey Mayer.  Her dramatic, handcarved creations are currently produced in Indonesia, although she originally based her production in India, a country that’s still very close to her heart.  In fact, it was while traveling through India and seeing the work of local silversmiths that sparked the inspiration behind her eventual label.

Which brings it all back to travel – without that original experience, these companies and others like them wouldn’t exist.  Besides the obvious philanthropic benefits of investing in developing countries, designers like Tracey help keep family artisans in business.  Most of these craftsmen and women have skills that have been passed down for centuries, but without a market for their work, these techniques will be lost forever. 

There’s something to be said for beautiful, handmade pieces – especially those with a story behind them.  I know that I treasure the leather belts, sandals, and silver jewelry I bought in Morocco much more than something I picked up at H&M.  And it goes without saying that the pieces are of a much higher quality. 

However, thanks to the labels I’ve mentioned and many more, you don’t have to travel to exotic destinations.  So next time you’re in the mood for something new (and if you’re like most women, that’s everyday) skip the chain stores and make an effort to seek out companies that give back much more than they take.

De Poezenboot

April 20, 2007

“A houseboat inhabited solely by cats?  Something like that exists?  I have to go there!”  I was first made aware of the existence of De Poezenboot (it translates to Cat Boat) by the Lonely Planet guide to Amsterdam.  It described the boat as a unique kind of shelter that allows its denizens to roam freely and even offers low cost medical care to catowners.  Best of all, De Poezenboot has visiting hours.

I’m enough of a bleeding heart liberal to love all animals, and I’m a confirmed cat person, so I was very excited at the prospect of visiting a shelter in a foreign country.  De Poezenboot more than lived up to my expectations.  The main area was bright, sunny space with plenty of toys, huge window ledges, and plush places to nap.  And yes, there were probably around 30 cats and none of them were in cages (it is a decent-sized boat). 

 

I was completely amazed by how well all of the cats got along with each other and with humans.  Of course, these felines do receive a good number of visitors, so that definitely helped with their socialization.  Or maybe it’s just the gentle rocking of the boat on the Amstel river that lulls them into a permanent relaxation mode.  I spent two hours petting these cats – and wishing I could take them all home – and talking to some of the staff.  It’s wonderful how just one common interest can turn strangers into friends. 

If you ever find yourself in Amsterdam, go visit the cats in the boat.  They’ll be happy to see you. 

Don’t be a Lemming

April 16, 2007

 

“Do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life.” 

We’ve all heard that quote at least once, usually uttered by some artistic type or someone who has been extraordinarily successful in their chosen field.  Most of us disregard it as mindless Chicken Soup for the Soul drivel that just doesn’t apply to us.  After all, everyone has a hobby or something they love to do outside of their job – but those things don’t make them money.

Much of the time, schools drive the idea that we have to follow the rules – get good grades and you’ll get into a good college so you can get a good job with a good company.  Creativity and alternative paths have been largely ignored in an effort to satisfy the PC police and make sure no one’s self-esteem is wounded.  You can be anything you want to be – within reason. 

“Very, very few people ever succeed as a writer.  Why don’t you go to law school?  That’s a nice stable career.”  You could replace the words “writer” and “law” with a host of others, including “artist” or “musician” and “medical” or “engineering”.  Beyond cheesy motivational books, there’s not a whole lot out there encouraging people to follow their dreams. 

Think about it – why would you want to spend 40 plus hours a week doing something boring, or worse, something you hate?  It’s a simple fact that, as an adult, you will spend the majority of your waking hours at your job.  It only goes to follow that you’ll be a happier person if it’s something you’re passionate about.

Of course there will always be naysayers who insist that the key to happiness is a stable but mentally unrewarding career.  And for some people, they could be right.  But it’s also possible they are just trying to justify their own failures.  After all, it’s easier to rationalize your disappointments than to realize your dreams. 

It’s obvious that this is all just my roundabout justification for eschewing the 9-5 lifestyle and the cash that comes with it.  I was a voracious reader and writer as a kid (the imaginary worlds I dreamt up could rival Narnia with their intricacy) but then I drank society’s Kool-Aid. 

I certainly didn’t think so at the time, but I was fortunate that my liberal arts degree made me fairly unemployable right out of school.  Because I was forced to think outside the box, and I had loads of time in which to do it, I re-discovered my talent for writing and eventually established myself as a freelancer.  I still have a lot to learn, but at least I love doing it.

Thoreau said that most men lead lives of quiet desperation, but I refuse to be one of them.

Why Wait?

April 16, 2007

A couple years ago, the Book of Questions was brand new and fairly popular.  It was a small book filled with conservation starters like “Would you be willing to have horrible nightmares every night for a year if you would be rewarded with extraordinary wealth?” and “Would you be willing to eat a bowl of live crickets for $40,000?”  Plenty of the questions are a little silly, but some are quite thought-provoking.

One such question is “Is there something you’ve dreamed of doing for a long time?  Why haven’t you done it?”  Everyone has begun sentences with “I wish…” and “Someday I’ll…”, but all too often we conclude with “when I get enough money” or “maybe next year”. 

I’m not talking about impossible dreams here, but attainable goals like taking a trip around the world, skiiing the Rockies, or even volunteering for a cause you really believe in.  Why do we keep putting things off?  Because there’s always tomorrow.

But that’s not one hundred percent true.  The Virginia Tech shootings today are just one (currently outstanding) example.  Thirty-two people unexpectedly and tragically lost their shot at tomorrow.  By all reports, they were young and healthy with everything in the world to look forward too.  It’s a depressing thought, but unexpected tragedies occur every day in every part of the world.

My point is that we should all stop putting things off or waiting for others to approve of our plans.  Go sky-diving if that’s what you’ve always wanted to do.  Volunteer at the Humane Society if you’re an animal lover.  Make the effort and find the money to do whatever it is you’re passionate about.  Hell, quit your corporate job and become an artist or join the Peace Corps if that’s what you’ve always dreamed about.  Spend more time with the people you love and less time worrying about the small stuff. 

Time is the single most valuable thing you have.

So It Goes

April 12, 2007

Rest in peace, Mr. Vonnegut. 

Some favorite quotes:

“There is no reason why good cannot triumph as often as evil.  The triumph of anything is a matter of organization.  If there are such things as angels, I hope they are organized along the lines of the Mafia.”

“Son – they say there isn’t any royalty in this country, but do you want me to tell you how to be King of the United States of America?  Just fall through a hole in the privy and come out smelling like a rose.”

“The big problem with dumb bastards is that they are too dumb to believe there is such a thing as being smart.”

“There are plenty of good reasons for fighting,” I said, ‘but no good reason ever to hate without reservation, to imagine that God Almighty Himself hates with you, too. Where’s evil? It’s that large part of every man that wants to hate without limit, that wants to hate with God on its side.'”

“You hate America, don’t you?” she said.
“That would be as silly as loving it,” I said. “It’s impossible for me to get emotional about it, because real estate doesn’t interest me. It’s no doubt a great flaw in my personality, but I can’t think in terms of boundaries. Those imaginary lines are as unreal to me as elves and pixies. I can’t believe that they mark the end or the beginning of anything of real concern to the human soul. Virtues and vices, pleasures and pains cross boundaries at will.”

“Of all the words of mice and men, the saddest are ‘it might have been.'”

“Peculiar travel suggestions are dancing lessons from God.”

“I will come to a time in my backwards trip when November eleventh, accidentally my birthday, was a sacred day called Armistice Day. When I was a boy, and when Dwayne Hoover was a boy, all the people of all the nations which had fought in the First World War were silent during the eleventh minute of the eleventh hour of Armistice Day, which was the eleventh day of the eleventh month.
It was during that minute in nineteen hundred and eighteen, that millions upon millions of human beings stopped butchering one another. I have talked to old men who were on battlefields during that minute. They have told me in one way or another that the sudden silence was the Voice of God. So we still have among us some men who can remember when God spoke clearly to mankind.
Armistice Day has become Veterans’ Day. Armistice Day was sacred. Veterans’ Day is not.
So I will throw Veterans’ Day over my shoulder. Armistice Day I will keep. I don’t want to throw away any sacred things.
What else is sacred? Oh, Romeo and Juliet, for instance.
And all music is.”

“The arts put man at the center of the universe, whether he belongs there or not. Military science, on the other hand, treats man as garbage— and his children, and his cities, too. Military science is probably right about the contemptibility of man in the vastness of the universe. Still— I deny that contemptibility, and I beg you to deny it, through the creation of appreciation of art. ”

“If you really want to hurt your parents, and you don’t have the nerve to be a homosexual, the least you can is go into the arts.”

“Slaughterhouse Five has been turned into an opera by a young German, and will have its premiere in Munich this June.I’m not going there either. Not interested. I am fond of Occam’s razor, or the law of parsimony, which suggests that the simplest explanation of a phenomenon is usually the most trustworthy.”

“What does “A.D.” signify? That commemorates an inmate of this lunatic asylum we call Earth who was nailed to a wooden cross by a bunch of other inmates. With him still conscious, they hammered spikes through his wrists and insteps, and into the wood. Then they set the cross upright, so he dangled up there where even the shortest person in the crowd could see him writhing this way and that. Can you imagine people doing such a thing to a person?”

“Here’s what I think the truth is: We are all addicts of fossil fuels in a state of denial, about to face cold turkey. And like so many addicts about to face cold turkey, our leaders are now committing violent crimes to get what little is left of what we’re hooked on.”

“One of the few good things about modern times: If you die horribly on television, you will not have died in vain. You will have entertained us.”

Vonnegut on writing:

“1. Find a subject you care about.
2. Do not ramble, though.
3. Keep it simple.
4. Have the guts to cut.
5. Sound like yourself.
6. Say what you mean to say.
7. Pity the readers.”

“Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.”

“Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.”

“Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.”

“Every sentence must do one of two things — reveal character or advance the action.”

“Start as close to the end as possible.”

“Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them — in order that the reader may see what they are made of.”

“Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.”

“Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.”