Eurostar Station, Lille, France
I consider myself to be a savvy traveler, a conscious American, a practitioner of assimilation, etc. but there are times when one just cannot escape the feeling of being a bungling tourist – and France is a place where it is easy to feel that way. I have just returned from a day out in Lille which is only 1½ hours from Kings Cross, London by Eurostar high-speed rail. My ‘Have Son, Will Travel’ status temporarily stayed as Lucas spends a week with his father who lives here in the UK.
Lille has a long history as a prosperous trading and manufacturing center that has been in the midst of an ongoing ‘renaissance’ (guidebook lingo for facelift) brought about largely by the Eurorail link and an influx of EU funding. Vieux (or old) Lille reveals its unique French-Flemish character and is the place to explore with much lovely architecture. It was fun to sample some of the local cuisine in which beer figures heavily in sauces and stews and seafood is fresh as the port of Dunkerque is not far away.
For lunch I went for the traditional moules marinerie et frites. Apparently, mussels are compulsory everywhere once a year during the Grand Braderie and the restaurant with the biggest piles of mussel shells out on the street front wins a prize. By mid-afternoon, there were brightly colored pistachio, lemon and raspberry macaroons – little cushiony explosions of flavor – that needed sampling and dinner was comprised of a local cheese tart, salad and chicken cooked with a very strong cheese (‘Maroille’).
My day out in Lille necessitated dining alone, since I was determined not to let my solo traveler status prevent me from enjoying one of the main treats of being in France, which is of course, eating. When I am traveling alone I like to determine my destination, in this case my restaurant of choice, before I leave the hotel. No meandering aimlessly and stopping to read menus along the way, leisurely and romantic as that might seem. I prefer to pick the place that interests me the most and is in my budget, map the route, and enjoy the walk there and then the success in actually finding it. Once there, it seems, my robust confidence departs me.
My son is spending an extremely rare 10 days with his dad and suddenly, I find myself with time on my hands. It is a bit surreal, and just slightly disorienting. To be more precise, I feel like I've temporarily lost a limb, but I'm coping. I keep thinking if I were back on my home turf I would have no trouble filling this sudden void with work and friends and any number of things. And since London is a city I already know well, sightseeing is not really on my To Do list, although I did partake of a very unique theater/film installation called Curtain Call at the Roundhouse Theater by artist Ron Arad the other day. An in-the-round curtain of long silicone tubes form a 360 degree screen on which numerous artists' short film work is projected and supported by Dolby surround sound. It was pretty incredible and dream-like, and with a pay-as-you-can admission price, a great thing to catch between now and the end of the month if you happen to be in London.
While my days have mostly been filled with trying to not procrastinate too much and make headway with rewriting a script, then a bit of exercise, one has to eat, doesn’t one? Which leads me to the Portuguese Custard Tart (see above photo, bottom, accompanied by orange-coconut cakes). This indescribably lovely, little confection can be found, in its truest form, at the Portuguese Lisboa Patisserie on Golborne Road in North Kensington. My friends first introduced me to it the other night when they made their own version at home. It is a combination of flaky pastry crust which holds a not too sweet, yellow custard interior. It’s hard to imagine something so simple could be so good. Not only is the taste just amazing, but somehow it achieves the perfect balance of crunchy and smooth textures in your mouth which makes it truly, a little gastronomic epiphany. If you would like to try making your own, check out this Youtube video from British celebrity chef John Torode – very entertaining as well - or his recipe below.
Portuguese Custard Tarts
375g shop bought puff pastry (or make your own)
1 T. cornflour (cornstarch)
275ml double cream (whipping cream)
230g granulated sugar
6 egg yolks
1. Preheat the oven to 180C/350F. Using a 9cm pastry cutter, cut out circles from the pastry. Press the dough circles into a 6-hole non-stick muffin tin. Remove and trim any overhang with the back of a knife so that the pastry cups are flush with the top of the tins.
2. Line the pastry with greaseproof (wax) paper and fill each pastry cup with baking beans. Bake for 5 minutes and then carefully remove the beans and bake for a further 5 minutes, or until the pastry has puffed up slightly, but is not golden-brown yet. While the pastry is baking, make the custard.
3. For the custard: dissolve the cornflour with 50ml of the cream in a mixing bowl. Add the remaining cream and sugar, and stir until the mixture is smooth and the sugar has completely dissolved.
4. In a small bowl, lightly beat the yolks with a fork until smooth. Add the yolks to the cream mixture, stirring gently to combine. Ladle the egg mixture into the partially baked pastry cups, filling to two-thirds capacity.
5. Bake until the edges of the custard are puffed and the middle is still wobbly (it shouldn’t set completely) - this will take 20-25 minutes. Leave to cool slightly, before removing and placing on a wire rack to cool. Serve.
Portobello Road, Notting Hill, London
When you tell people you are going to take your child out of school, spend the next 6-12 months traveling around Europe, that you have transitioned your work online, have sold half your stuff, put the other half in storage, and boarded your cat with friends, you will get reactions ranging from admiration and envy to criticism and not so subtle hostility.
For many, the concept of extended or long-term travel is still the purview of the rich, idle or both. Far more so than the British or Europeans, for most Americans, travel abroad is still a relatively rare occurrence. Making long-term travel still a bit more out there. Granted, not everyone has jobs they can take a sabbatical or leave of absence from without serious impact on lifestyle and well-being. Whatever your circumstances are, for those of you determined enough to orchestrate the necessary work and family arrangements, either by taking unpaid leave, getting your employer to let you telecommute, or saving money then quitting (for more useful advice on quitting your job, check out www.i-resign.co.uk), deciding to homeschool, the following are some thoughts to keep in mind if you still find there other things holding you back:
Banana boat riding, by the way, is probably the closest thing 11-year-old boys with a thrill for adventure can achieve legally and wholesomely. It is a huge, inflated banana shaped ‘boat’ with handles that riders mount, which is then pulled by a speedboat going scarily fast and making razor sharps turns in order to toss the riders into the freezing cold waters, in this case, of the Camel Straits off of Cornwall. Said boys are of course wearing wet suits, life jackets, and special helmets, and giggling and shrieking maniacally the whole time. Said mothers are tucked into speedboat half praying for the whole thing to be over and for all of us to survive, and half thoroughly enjoying the show. (No pics of banana boating, sadly, I was too busy holding onto the boat!)
But as I find my blogging legs and make up for a few days of radio silence, I want to talk about experts. We live in the Age of Experts – everyone is at least a self-appointed expert in something, but I am not going to claim to be one of them (for more on how to become a self-appointed expert, Tim Ferriss has a great chapter on that in his seminal 4-Hour Work Week). But I’m not going to pretend, dear Reader, that I have figured it all out and I’m going to show you how to master your life and make all your dreams come true. Try surfing the web without stumbling over someone who promises to sort out your life for you, tell you how to leave the 9-5 behind, and write SEO from a Balinese beach. While I confess, I can be a junkie for it at times, it can get a bit tiresome. BUT, I will be telling you about how I have made this adventure happen for Lucas and I, and share my experiences, discoveries and mistakes along the way.
One subject I do know a thing or two about, is the ongoing balancing act, the struggle, of flying solo as a parent and trying to keep your dreams of a life of creative work alive, kicking and productive at the same time. Of course, parenting in and of itself is an act of continual creativity, but I’m referring to creating something outside of yourself, that you hope has validity, purpose and a ‘life’ of its own out in the world -- a novel, a script, a painting, a social movement project, a business, etc.
I have been sole parenting my son for the last six years. His father lives across the pond from America and while Skype is amazing, it’s not quite the same thing as an every day dad. So it’s pretty much me 24/7. There are no blocks of time, other than school, when I’m also working, that I can count on each week to be just my own, not belonging to work, parenting, laundry or cleaning the cat’s litter box. And now, for perhaps some insane reason, we are taking the leap without school! But more on that soon.
3 Things to Keep in Mind When Sole Parenting and Trying to Have a Life:
In my next post I’ll explore and explode 5 Fears of Long-term Travel!
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Our days with our friends in Cornwall have been filled with getting 3 boys to and from surfing lessons. Helping keep 2 teenagers busy in the afternoons (after being forced to awaken by noon) with outings or organized activities like ‘coasteering’ (a jumble of rock climbing, kayaking, and learning to jump off cliffs into the sea without dying), going to the beach, pub, or simply planning the next amazing meal.
Yesterday we went exploring for a hidden beach that required us driving a distance up a hill, through some fields, scattering some sheep off the road in the process, and parking (only room for 6 cars), then walking through more fields and finally picking up the south west coast path that winds throughout Cornwall. We passed ramblers and dogwalkers. Finally, we came to a quite narrow and overgrown path that looked like it headed down closer to the cliffs and the beach.
Richard forged ahead to see if it seemed not too precarious, leaving our party of 2 adults, 5 kids and 1 dog waiting behind. He soon emerged with an excited grin on his face. “This is it!” So off we set, practically bushwacking our way down to what was a rocky cove that may have revealed a beach at low tide, but at the moment, was a perch of a few large rocks for us to scramble down to, lifting Bernie, the large standard poodle, down to join us. The boy wanted to take a dip but the waves were quite big and there were no wet suits at hand. Richard however, braved the waters for a quick he-man dip, though it took him a few tries to find purchase on the rocks to get back up.
Scrambling underneath brambles and bushes to discover a private, little used cove was, forgive the word, but truly magical. Only the appearance of Mr. Tumnus, or the Hobbit himself, would have made the setting any more storybook.
And tomorrow there will be more surfing in store, more jogging along cliff paths trying to work off the inevitable wine from this evening, and a ‘banana boat’ adventure for the boys.
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The boy and I are visiting old friends at their summer house in Cornwall this week. And yes, I’m feeling very grateful that I even have friends who happen to have a house in this amazing corner of the world. I’m also allowing myself to feel like I’m on vacation for a few days, before we get back to the ‘business’ of our life on the road.
Cornwall is epic in its picture perfect coastline; windswept bluffs that plummet directly into the pale green, freezing cold sea, chilly temperatures, and unpredictable weather. The pastureland rolls right out to the edge of the sea and the sheep dotting the landscape look almost like Hollywood extras in an English costume drama. The roads are truly only wide enough for one car in some places and the art of ‘tucking in’ and ‘giving way’ is practiced by all drivers who wish to stay alive on the roads. You feel positively rustic as you hike, or trudge, up and down the hills. Where we are near Polzeath and Trebetherick, the beaches are chock o’block with surfers, windsurfers, paragliders, etc., all in full wet suits, taking advantage of the sizeable waves and constant winds.
The boy has been very fortunate to be invited to join in surf lessons this week with my friend’s kids. He is hooked already, and has achieved a sun-kissed and windswept hue to his complexion. I achieved similar with my one session of body surfing the other morning. I can see it will be difficult to leave this place.
The wind from the ocean sweeps directly into my room at night and I swear it is making me sleep like a baby. Healthy amounts of food and wine don’t hurt either, but we’ll go with the wind theory. More rustic. Traveling certainly requires that you sleep in many situations (not always beds) along the way. I do find that it is ironic that I love and thrive on travel when there is no place I sleep as well as the comfort of my very own bed. I mean, I seriously love my bed. The firm Queen mattress gussied up with the goose down cover for extra padding and well-worn silk sheets. My king-sized feather pillow, and others, to pull over my head when morning light seeps in too early.
The other day I got word that my friend with whom I left a bag of old clothes for a Good Will drop off, as we left town, had mistakenly taken that along with a last minute packed box of various items (favorite pillows, sheets and towels, polka-dot bikini, swim workout gear) bound for my storage unit, to Good Will instead. Gone, goodbye. Dispersed to the tentacles of Good Will shops dotting southwestern Ohio.
My reaction was, in all honesty, somewhat overly dramatic. Neither my son nor I cried when we said goodbye to our many friends and lovely little house and kitty in care of another friend. But give my sheets, pillow, polka-dot bikini and swim fins to Good Will and I was reduced to a puddle of tears. Yes, I know all about displacement, I am no stranger to therapy. But it is nevertheless interesting how some of the stuff of our lives holds a powerful ability to comfort in just knowing they are there and can be returned to, in tact, waiting and as expected.
I will have to practice sleeping in many beds and with varying degrees of sound and temperature obstacles on our upcoming journey. And I will have to deal with it not being as dark as I would like, or as quiet, or as purring, with my favorite fan running, regardless of the temperature. Maybe there is something in these nocturnal challenges that invigorate me in new ways? More likely, I’m just willing to put up with these discomforts for the thrill of being in a new environment, navigating a new city, being encircled in a foreign language and being forced to find my way through it.
And I have to remind myself, Ikea is unlikely to run out of my favorite pillow while I’m gone.
After what seemed like nearly two weeks of preparing to move, then actually moving and putting all our stuff into storage, we are finally on the road. First stop London, then Cornwall on England's south coast, but more on that soon.
I want to talk about choosing to travel and why for me it is so important, and why I continue to choose this over some other of life's creature comforts. A single parent traveling abroad indefinitely with her 10-year-old son – this is not exactly a conventional choice, I realize. Let’s get one thing straight: I’m not rich. I have no trust fund. I didn’t sell a business or launch an IPO recently.
I don’t own my own home and I drive a 14-year-old car. I am not completely debt-free but I am working on it. I just don’t choose to post-pone living my life until the illusive ‘just right’ moment arrives.
I have been inspired by many other’s writings (on the Internet and off) about making bold choices in trying to live life on your own terms and traveling (Chris Guillebeau, Tim Ferriss, Leo Babauta, Rolf Potts, Tripping Mom, to name a few). Of course, the dark scary voice inside me worries that I will fail to accomplish what I set out to do: to have my son and I learn languages as we travel (me to brush up on what I already know), to make enough money to support us as we go, to challenge ourselves, to make new friends, and to eventually put down stakes some place new.
But maybe it’s time to redefine failure and to think like Winston Churchill who’s definition of success was “the ability to go from one failure to the next with no loss of enthusiasm.” And to have faith that it is in the execution of the adventure, to whatever degree, that no doubt both challenges and awards will lie.
writer-director-actress, author, improviser, mother, traveler, digital nomad