all good things

Australian journalist Sarah Turnbull’s ‘All good things: from Paris to Tahiti, life and longing‘ chronicles her journey from the City of Light to an island synonymous with paradise. The move is the result of a job transfer, but was eagerly embraced following a period of creative and professional stagnancy.

Perhaps because of her relatability, Sarah Turnbull’s previous memoir ‘Almost French‘ stood out from other “Anglophone moves to Paris and discovers great food, bewildering cultural differences, inner joie de vivre, and the secret of French style” tomes that were pretty popular a few years back. But ‘All good things’ is a different sort of book than ‘Almost French’. While it explores cultural differences from an astute and honest perspective, there’s less lightness and humor and, perhaps, deeper reflection. I admit that the sections detailing scuba diving and the natural wonders of the island had my eyes glazing over bit, but I was wholly captivated by the sections that dealt with longing: for inspiration, understanding, and new life.

I was moved by Sarah’s descriptions of the complexity of feelings that arise when facing what seem to be (and sometimes are) insurmountable barriers between herself and motherhood. She is also adept at capturing the isolation and claustrophobia that can be just as potent to life on an island as the dreamy sunsets and glorious flora. The Polynesians Sarah befriends are also vividly rendered; kind, generous, and open, they represent the beauty of Tahiti as much as warm breezes off a glimmering, turquoise sea.

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I figured I’d be one of those women who are pretty laid back about pregnancy and for the most part I was–especially as I had the good fortune of being healthy and relatively comfortable throughout. Yet living in both the Internet age and constant, sensationalized news, it’s tough to maintain a laid back approach when danger appears to lurk around every corner and in every bit of unpasteurized cheese. So as much as I longed to squeeze in one last overseas trip before our duo become a family of three, I was uncharacteristically hesitant. With all the things to worry about, could I manage to put an entire ocean between myself and my doctors? Could I let go of my paranoia of eating the wrong food? Would I have the energy to really enjoy our trip?

To set my mind at ease about all of these things, I considered destinations where I’d be far less prone to worry, and then researched issues such as emergency health care. As it turned out, far more important than fretting over health issues was managing my expectations.

Getting there…

Aside from choosing a stable, safe place to visit, taking care of yourself in-flight is probably the most important part of traveling while preggers. A few tips:

  1. Wear support hose for the prevention of blood clots, to which pregnant women are more susceptible. Perhaps not the most comfortable thing to wear (anyone else feel like they are actually cutting off their circulation rather than promoting it?!), support hose can have the benefit of keeping you a little warmer on a normally chilly flight. And yes, you can find a cute pair.
  1. Drink lots of water.
  2. Get up and move around every hour…or at least, every couple of hours. I had the excuse of frequently needing to use the ladies room (especially as I was dutifully following point #2). And, my own personal addition…
  3. Think happy thoughts. For some reason, nearly every in-flight film on the way to London last June was disturbing: War and terrorism? Check. Dark domestic thriller with sudden, graphic violence? Check. Classic alien movie containing a certain scene no pregnant woman should watch? Check. I ended up watching parts of ‘Mary Poppins’ and ‘What not to wear’ to escape all the morbidity.

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What to expect when you’re (traveling while) expecting…

England was a great choice of destination because it’s different enough from home to feel exotic, but familiar enough to be completely comfortable. We based ourselves in London, in an area adjoining Hyde Park. This was a must for me, as the vast green space provides a much needed respite from the tourist crowds. From our tiny weekly rental in Chelsea, we had several museums and countless shops to explore. Our first day, we warded off jet lag by strolling through Kensington Gardens, stopping for a snack at the gift shop / cafe. This early diversion taught me the value of slowing down and taking a moment to rest, which served me well throughout the rest of the trip. After this, if a church or museum or other site had a cafe and WC, I took advantage. I didn’t have the stamina of earlier trips, like our last major vacation, to Italy, and once I made peace with that I enjoyed the benefits of these little moments of rest and reflection.

Another unusual vacation activity for me? Shopping. With a bambina on the way it was impossible to pass shop windows along Brompton Road and not be tempted by the adorable offerings on display, and so in we went.

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A few other considerations…

Food: Deli meat? No way! Soft, unpasteurized cheese? Interdit! Sausage with nitrates? Verboten! Pre-pregnancy, I had assumed alcohol, sushi, and caffeine were the only real dietary restrictions I’d need to be aware of, but I quickly discovered there were loads of things I needed to avoid. Thankfully, pregnant women in England fret about food restrictions as well, so I took to the Internet to research whether Pret a Manager’s sandwiches came hot (some do, and they’re called, charmingly, ‘toasties’), and what local pizza places used pasteurized cheese. Sometimes I just had to let go a little and hope for the best, but this was one issue that made England such an easy destination.

Flexibility: I realized, during this trip, how inflexible I can be when traveling. I like to pre-book train travel, for example, which can lock you into a specific train at a specific time. So it was a challenge to let go of that and decide to wing it, buying train tickets an hour, rather than weeks, ahead of departure. Same went for entertainment. We bought tickets for ‘The 39 steps’ the day before the show because by then I’d conquered jet-lag. This made me realize just how much more control I was gaining in the act of giving it up.

Babymoon in London

January 3, 2014

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So it’s been a while since my last post. But I have very good reasons for that–or rather, one very good reason, the existence of which can probably be ascertained by the title of this post. My little bundle of joy arrived this past fall and has been keeping me occupied ever since.

Last spring, knowing our days of traveling as a duo were, happily, limited, Matt and I decided to take a pre-baby trip to England. Why there? We wanted someplace relatively easy to navigate, where English is readily spoken and (just in case), the health care is top notch. Plus, with all the English drama and mysteries we watch, not to mention English premier league football, we were itching to return to one of our favorite places. Given the short amount of time we were taking (a week), we would base ourselves in London and take day trips as desired. We chose early June, as it was smack in the middle of my second trimester, which was the most comfortable and ‘portable’ I felt.

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Planning a trip while pregnant isn’t that unlike planning one not pregnant, but there are definite considerations to make. I checked with my health insurance company and got a list of hospitals they preferred to work with in London, should the need arise. I investigated buying a travel insurance plan that would include a free transfer by plane from London to my preferred hospital in the US, but discovered that this option wasn’t valid to women in their second trimester of pregnancy. I made peace with the fact that I would probably be less energetic and more frequently in need of the ladies room (ahem), and thus wouldn’t hit up everything I wanted to see. Thankfully Matt was, as usual, a gracious and understanding travel partner and the trip turned out to be one of our favorites.

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In just a week, we visited Parliament and sat in on sessions of the House of Lords (where we spotted an MP snoozing) and the House of Commons (where we spotted David Cameron mingling with the rest of the commoners), toured the Sherlock Holmes museum, strolled Hyde Park, visited the British Museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Old Spitalfields Market, Kensington Gardens, and took day trips to York and Liverpool. I needed to eat and drink frequently, so we took our time and took lots of little breaks. The tourists were out in force, and London was as busy and fast-paced as ever and there were times, I admit, when I wondered whether we should have rented a cottage in the Cotswolds or something more along those lines. In the end we were happy with our choice; it’s given us lots to remember over these past few months when the furthest we usually venture is out for work or groceries.

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In any case, I hope to post more about the trip (including our side-trips to Liverpool and York) soon.

London view

View from “our” flat in Chelsea

Vacation apartment rentals in Europe can be a great choice economically as well as practically: most units come equipped with kitchens and washer/dryer combos, so you can potentially save money on food by eating some meals in, and save space in your bags for souvenirs by packing less. But my favorite aspect of short-term vacation rentals is the local experience factor; whenever I’m in a cool city or town I like to play the ‘what-if-I-lived-here’ game, and renting a place makes that game come alive.

When I began looking for apartment rentals for our trip to London in June, I didn’t have much time. The trip was rather last minute (due to factors I’ll divulge in a later post), and while we wanted to see a few places in England, it would center around London, a notoriously expensive city. If I could find a deal on lodging, we’d have more freedom to indulge in other areas.

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Details that make a vacation rental a temporary home.

Short-term apartment rentals or private room rentals can be found via independent owners (airbnb, for example, lists over 5,000 places to stay throughout London), but I decided to start with an agency. There are loads and loads of good, well-reviewed short-term apartment rental agencies for London, and it was tough narrowing my focus down to just a few. It helped that I had an idea of where I wanted to stay (near Hyde Park or in or near Bloomsbury), so if an agency didn’t offer anything I liked in either of those areas, I would move on to the next one. Once I found apartments that I was interested in, I contacted the agencies with my dates and waited for a quote.

South Ken tube stop

Shops and restaurants abound around the South Kensington tube stop

All of the agencies listed below responded quickly and if they didn’t have anything for my specific dates, offered an alternative.

Rental agencies in London: 

Coach house rentals – They don’t have the flashiest web site out there, but they offer some really nice looking apartments in good locations throughout London, and the reps were great in getting back to me and in following up. Here’s a list of highlighted properties, and here’s the flat I was dreaming about.

London Perfect - I’d heard of Paris Perfect before, but didn’t realize until I started trip planning for London that they had a London branch as well. This agency seems to specialize in, well, special places for those with a generous budget. Still, I found a couple of nice looking studios that wouldn’t have broken the bank, and the staff were helpful and prompt in my communications with them.

The London Agent – Another agency with properties all over the city. When none of the properties in Bloomsbury I was interested in were available, the rep suggested a nearby flat at a reasonable rate as an alternative. They also followed up with me closer to my trip to see if I was still looking, and to offer a couple of other alternatives.

A Place Like Home - None of the properties I was interested in were available (I wasn’t booking completely last minute, but definitely not as far out as I normally would), but like The London Agent the Place Like Home rep sent a few flats a comparable price.

In the end, I didn’t rent through an agency but rather went with a private owner I found on Homeaway. Renting with Homeaway and VRBO can be riskier than using an agency, but you’ll also pay a little (or sometimes a lot) less. Our temporary home in London was a tiny, well-appointed and well-equipped studio in Chelsea, near the South Kensington tube stop. I had contacted the owner of this flat in the same building, but as it was booked, she offered another studio a floor or so higher up with a similar layout. The owner was attentive and readily available during our stay, and the price was just unbeatable, especially for the location.  I would easily recommend the flat to a single person or a couple that doesn’t mind being in close contact.

Mont-St-Michel

Mont-St-Michel is an occasional island in Normandy, France that is so stunning it’s worth battling the hordes inching their way up the Grand Rue to reach La Merveille (“the miracle”). The three tiers of thirteenth century buildings surrounding an abbey topped with a golden statue of Saint Michael, his posture combative, are indeed a marvel and a vision of strength and simplicity.

crowded Grand Rue

In summer, the Mont is crowded with tourists arriving by bus or car before making their way across the ramparts to clog the streets on their slow journey up to the abbey, whose spire dramatically crowns the Mont.

Hotel Croix Blanche

A cacophony of voices in innumerable languages mingle their way up and up. “Doucement, doucement,” French mothers advise small children and they climb the old stone steps: softly, softly.

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The Abbey moves closer into view.

from the abbey at Mont-St-MichelAlong the way are glimpses are calm, stark beauty.

abbey at Mont-St-MichelFinally, the abbey. The Eglise Abbatiale doesn’t impress with ornate stained glass or artwork. In fact, it is surprisingly sparse and simple and quiet and, like a sudden silence after constant, unrelenting noise it calls the pilgrim to attention and contemplation.

cloisters at Mont-St-Michel

The cloisters provide another opportunity for contemplation, and a welcome bit of green: lush life among all the stone and sand.

from the abbey on Mont-St-Michel Pilgrims, having earned a rest, gaze out at the bay and the ocean beyond.

evening at Mont-St-MichelAs darkness falls the Grand Rue slowly empties, the tourists retreating. Those who remain are treated to the magic of a medieval monument, a wonder, a miracle.

We stayed on the Mont, at the Hotel Croix Blanche, in August. The Mont was heavily, heavily touristed at that point, and our stay was only bearable because we had the Mont nearly to ourselves after dark. In the early morning, we again climbed up to the abbey, this time by ourselves, lingering at the bay views and admiring the tiny, winding streets.

Le Quattro Volte

March 27, 2013

As Easter approaches, I’m thinking about the themes of life, death, and resurrection (of a kind) in the 2010 Italian film ‘Le Quattro Volte’. In its press release, the director paraphrases Pythagoras, who lived in the 6th century, BC in what is now Calabria, Italy: “Each of us has four lives inside us which fit into one another. Man is mineral because his skeleton is made of salt; man is also vegetable because his blood flows like sap; he is animal in as much he is endowed with motility and knowledge of the outside world. Finally, man is human because he has the gifts of will and reason. Thus, we must know ourselves four times.”

Regardless of whether Pythagoras philosophy resonates, the film moved me as a meditation on life and death and time and beauty in a village up in the hills of Calabria. It’s tempting to say that the village is “isolated” and “remote” and “forgotten by time”, but these platitudes are not only cliché but untrue. Read the rest of this entry »

Surprising Salzburg

March 24, 2013

It’s been a cold, gloomy spring so far here in Chicago, perfect weather for looking back on summer trips to brighter, warmer places. We visited Salzburg, Austria in late summer and the gardens were still lush and the city full of little surprises.

Read the rest of this entry »

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