Category Archives: Travel

the best time i ever went to france with my sister

My sister and I do not have the greatest travel record. Until recently, all of our trips together involved someone getting hit (her), bitten (also her), or fantastically, world-meltingly angry (me).

Decked out and ready to go...

Decked out and ready to go…

...and more recently

…and more recently

But she just graduated from college, and I’ve survived two years in the wild as a Young Adult Millennial, and that plus a spontaneous Kayak search for plane tickets to Paris last November were enough to convince me that We Could Travel Together. I booked us cheapo round-trip tix from JFK and then six months later we took a train to a subway to an AirTrain to a very, very compact jumbo jet and then there we were: Paris, France, city of dreams.

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The rental car seemed like a much better idea from the safety of my American laptop. It was a very vroomy diesel-powered Mercedes—automatic, thank God—but the instant we rolled out of the Gare du Nord I started hyperventilating. We—meaning I—were going to drive this thing?! In Paris?! And then into the wilds of French farming country?!? What if it blew up, or got a flat, or needed more gas and we didn’t have a credit card with the little puce on it and the gas-station attendant murdered us? And—putain—what about the roundabouts?

Well, we made it. Turns out, Alice possess all the hallmarks of an excellent travel companion: laid-back attitude, unusually stable blood sugar, calming reading voice. In Paris, when it took us two hours to roll our bloated American suitcases (and bloated American selves) to our rented flat (apparently June 6th is some kind of holiday? Joking, joking; we will never forget except when jetlag makes us cotton-brained), she was preternaturally composed even when I was about to burst into tears. When the dashboard of our rental Mérco lit up with a terrifying red ! she told me not to worry, even though I was convinced the car was about to blow up real good (turns out, it was an alarm to tell us that there was another car in front of us, because apparently French drivers don’t just look out the windshield?) She did not complain that most of our meals were a variation on a ham and cheese sandwich (all the rosé helped) and I don’t think she even snored.


She is also adorable. She wondered why Holland was involved in so many French political situations (that’s M. le Président Hollande, for the record) and freaked out when we saw a bunch of tiny ponies in the Jardins de Luxembourg.

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We had what can only be called a grand old time. We saw Notre Dame, Père LaChaise, the Musée Cluny, Chartres, the squat, crumbling castle of William the Conqueror, a random battlefield I made us swing by where young Guillaume broadsworded his rebellious cousin into submission, Mont-st-Michel, the Bayeux tapestry, the Louvre. We saw the graves of Abelard and Heloise, gigantic Rubens paintings and a more modest-sized Caravaggio, and three movies in theaters that were resoundingly French and definitely funny. I made a really good French joke (ask me about it, I’ll totally explain the pun to you in person), and she laughed. We went to the spectacular ruins of Jumièges Abbey and ate bullet-shaped strawberries and supermarket vanilla pudding. She drew pictures and I lay in the grass and woolgathered. We made friends with a French girl named Juju and saw an entire line of French boyscouts in berets and gloves and ponchoes marching through a thunderstorm with banners of saints held on high.

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Still, I have never spent a vacation so nervous (and I’ve had panic attacks in Reykjavik, Verona, and every airport I’ve ever been in). Alice and I have never traveled abroad without our parents (or if not our parents, someone else in loco parentis who could, you know, rent the car and make sure we had a place to sleep). The hour-and-a-half journey from the Periphérique to the rental return place on the spiderwebbing, unmarked streets of Paris remains the most charged with adrenaline I’ve ever been (though I did manage to let slip a few lusty Mais merde, connard, va t’en! through the window).But if I have our dad’s temper, Alice has our mom’s patience. We are becoming adult humans, and we can take care of not just ourselves but each other.

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“I don’t want to be one of those people who says, I just love Paris, you know? Because those people are awful,” I told her. Alice rolled her eyes. Why can’t you just like what you like? she said. Who cares what other people are doing?

She had a point. What a smart human that child grew up to be. I’ll never bite her again.

frequently asked quebecstions

Where have you been?!

Montreal, QC, Canada, in a sublet studio apartment on the smallest street in all of downtown. Here is the balcony:

Are you there forever?

No. I’ll finish up my 22nd year and then go back to my natal country.

Why’d you go to Montreal?

 Take your pick: because I couldn’t get a job, because I had nothing better to do, because I’m madly in love with my long-distance boyfriend, because I’m madly in love with the city, because Paris was too expensive and too far, because my antidepressants are cheaper here, because I don’t want either candidate to win the election so I left pre-emptively, because I’ve wanted live here since March 2009 and so I decided it was worth it.

What are you doing there?

Reading Kindle books, eating scrambled eggs on toast, podcasting, and writing. Maybe not blogging as much because I Need To Focus.

I gather that means you do not actually have a job. How are you paying for this?

Remember the last two years of college, when I only got a single beer when we went out and didn’t go to the movies as much as I wanted and didn’t buy any new clothes? That’s how. Also, a graduation present. Also, technically, with Paypal.

There’s a quote from The Enchanted April that I like about situations like this:

Mrs. Wilkins, on the contrary, had no doubts. She was quite certain that it was a most proper thing to have a holiday, and altogether right and beautiful to spend one’s hard-earned savings on being happy.

Aren’t you bored? What do you actually do all day?

No! I write. Plot. Eat apples. Go on runs through Westmount, pine for the houses there, smell other people cooking dinner. Hate my story a little. Get over it. Write more.


I want this to be my job so I’m acting like it’s my job. I’m trying to get 2,800 words a day and finish a novel by the end of this week. It’s sort of hard, but it’s the job I want. I’m my own boss! I have a notebook full of post-it plot points and everything! So I’m working hard right back at it. Fake it up to and including when you make it.

What kind of novels?

YA novels! For and about smart teenagers. It’s what I want to do for real.

Can I read them?!

No! I mean, not yet; unless your name is Alice McKillip My Little Sister Thornburgh, you don’t get first dibs either.

Are you Finding Yourself?

Yeah! If you want to call it that.

Do you speak French?


No, I mean, do you speak it in when you’re in the city?

Yes! And mostly people don’t even switch to English with me! The things that trip me up are numbers above 60, the names of cuts of meat, and the metric system. So I end up buying whole kilograms of sausages and skirting these issues entirely.

How’s the exchange rate.


Is it scary striking out to live on your own in a foreign country?

No. Well, yes. It’s weird how the wrong things become scary to me. I had a panic attack because the tiny electric oven that has no markings on the dials somehow heated up to 500 degrees and some crud burnt to the bottom flared up and the smoke detector went off, and I knewjust knew, that either the Royal Canadian Mounted Fire Department was going to show up and deport me or I was going to crawl into bed and die in my sleep and no one would ever know because I don’t officially live anywhere right now, leaving my body to be discovered half-eaten by wild dogs à la Bridget Jones’s nightmare.

That’s not going to happen.

Thanks, Imaginary Interlocutor!

Did you send in your absentee ballot request?

Yes, Dad.

Does your apartment include a loft bed with a giant poster of Canadian Pop Idol Justin Bieber? 

Why do you like Montreal so much?

I don’t know. It’s neat. The things I like about it are the qualities I want to cultivate personally, to become sophisticated, offbeat, volatile, bilingual, forbiddingly frigid most of the time but downright lovely the rest, neologism-friendly, powered on rotisserie chicken with piripiri sauce and with a big green mountain right in the heart of me.

Have you ever been?

No. Can I come visit?

Only if you can sleep under Justin Bieber’s watchful eye (see above). But yes, please, do. I’m not here for long and there are things I want to show you.

what’s in your purse, neophyte political reporter blair thornburgh?

1. Flip flops, for when Professional Shoes disintegrate in rain

2. Free tampon from the DNC Arena. A tangible counterstrike in the war against the War on Women!

3. Credentials, hayy

4. Notebook and backup notebook

5. Pieces of flair

6. Yelp mints

7. Business cards of people I will forget to email

8. Recorder and spare batteries, always

9. Epi-Pen and 12 doses of children’s Benadryl. The perennial threat of anaphylaxis is made worse by the bags of peanuts being sold in the arena to  delegates who are not tidy with their shells

10. Map of downtown Charlotte, incomprehensible

11. Johnson & Johnson swag bag, inexplicable

12. Rain poncho (unused)

13. Ceramic gnome, which I swiped from my best friend’s apartment (Hey Eli!) before we moved out and wanted to use it for hilarious photo-ops with politicians.  So far I have been too shy

14. Red, white, and blue nail polish to touch up Obamanicure nail art

15. Bliss’s Mint Romney and O(range)bama moisturizers, swag taken from HuffPo Oasis where I have also been known to drink two coconut waters in a sitting

16. Wallet, shitty, from high school

17. Burt’s Bees

18. Kindle (dead weight) and laptop (less so)

19. Patriotic photo booth pic

20. iPhone charger

we need to talk about new york

Most of my life, I had this problem where I did not like New York City. What I can remember from visits as a kid is that it was 1. full of buildings that are tall enough to blot out the sun 2. usually raining and 3. very dangerous (even though I’d never personally felt threatened, I’d figured out that statistically, everyone in New York has to be victim to a crime in order to supply Law & Order with an adequate stream of plot lines). My experience was limited to the inside of Penn Station, Waldorf=Astoria*, and a single Broadway Show**.

The part that always bothered me was that there were zillions of neighborhoods and subway lines and literally everyone seemed to know which was which. Things like Upper West and Lower East side made geographical sense, if I thought about it, but then there were places like Hell’s Kitchen and SoHo and Greenwich Village*** that just had these connotations and everyone seemed to know them and love or hate them. I’d read enough Woody Allen and absorbed enough Sex and the City by miasma to know that this was not just a city, this was the city. It was supposed to be utopia for writers and neurotics, and yet, as an 11-year-old on track to become both, I declared myself too hopelessly unsophisticated for New York and resigned never to live there. To paraphrase Boromir, one did not simply move to New York City.

And then, last summer, I simply…moved to New York City. The exact reason lies somewhere between “to be with my boyfriend” and “to have an internship in publishing” but in point of fact I’m still not quite sure how I got there. My best friend had just spent six months there and survived, which planted the idea that hey, maybe you could just go there and live, like it’s any other city. And hadn’t I just confirmed in my brush with Paris that these mythical cities with streets of gold were actually just as strewn with trash as any other? I convinced myself that working at a literary agency would train me to be a better romance novelist, packed up a suitcase, and went.

I found a bedroom in a tiny, tiny walkup in the East Village. I slept on a bare mattress, wore wobbly heels down to the L every morning, and worked at a job where I was terrified of failing or spilling my water bottle on the conference table. I survived on hard-boiled farmers’ market eggs, microwave oatmeal, and mac and cheese. My boyfriend was very busy, and I didn’t know anyone else, and I was alone, a lot.

But I was determined, after my semi-failure in Paris, to make good use of my time in the city, to channel Fran Leibowitz more than Sylvia Plath. I went out every night, because you can do that in New York, to shows and bars and cafés and parks and movies and restaurants, taking myself on dates to eat vegan cupcakes or hear Ira Glass tell stories in Brooklyn or see some banjo music. Or else I’d go to free yoga classes, pick up some fruit-flavored beer, and sit on the roof of my building and watch the sun set behind the silhouette of the Chrysler Building. I realized why my uncle had once said that you can get the best or worst of anything, 24 hours a day, in New York, and it was great.

I figured out the neighborhoods, mostly, at least far enough to know which ones I liked. I explored. I did okay at my job. I never got mugged, though I did see an episode of SVU being filmed. And then I got it, just in time to leave, and just enough to make me want to go back.

*Yes, they use an equals sign instead of a hyphen. The extra line is for luxury.
**The Music Man. I still have the CD
***Pronounce the w. That’s what real New Yorkers do

road trips for young punks

Everybody needs to make at least one great road trip in their life. I don’t mean the kind that are a means to an end, like a trek to see relatives across the state or an attempt to cram five college visits into three days. A real, true-blue, hit-the-road-Jack road trip cuts right to the heart of travel and draws out the process just for the pleasure of the experience. As a veteran of both the practical (returning to college), the frivolous (three-day scavenger hunt for giant fiberglass landmarks while in costume), I believe young adulthood–any time between getting your license and getting your PhD–is the perfect time to strike out on one. It’s more than just a chance to go to cool places or see weird things–it’s kind of a rite of passage.

When I had finally showed my parents that, yes, I could be trusted with the station wagon for trips longer than to school and back, I remember feeling a kind of magical transfer of power. The keys were, literally and symbolically, in my hands, and suddenly, I was itching to get out there and drive. Gone are the days of sing-along tapes and coloring books in the backseat: it’s your turn to explore.

Get a destination. Even though the driving part is the point, you still have to be going somewhere. So pick something! And don’t feel limited to just the Grand Canyons and Mt. Rushmores of the world: I’ve made voyages to see abandoned mining towns, drive-in movie theaters, minor league baseball parks, and the Creation Museum. Be creative!

How about the biggest ball of twine made by one man?

Go with friends. This is obvious! Spending time with your personal merry band of thieves is the best part, and it’s always a good idea to swap out shifts driving. But keep in mind that you’ll be spending long hours in an enclosed space with these people. I guarantee that even if you love and respect your best friend like a sister, you might be tempted to throttle her when she snaps her gum for the millionth time.

Bonus points if they are willing to scale giant fiberglass otters

Get a car. If you (or your friends) have your own, lucky! You’re all set. If you need to borrow your parents’, assure them that you will be responsible and take good care of it–and then do that, duh. Also, it’s not a bad idea to let everyone who will be driving take a test spin in the car to get a feel for it before you hit the road. If you’re used to a Honda sedan, a Volkswagon campervan will feel like driving a school bus (I speak from experience).

Drive your deLorean, if you have one

Plan your time. Multi-day odysseys across several states are awesome, but even a day trip out to somebody’s cabin in the woods can be great. If you’re overnighting it, figure out when and where you’re going to sleep: cramming five people into a Motel room? Putting up a tent in a state park every night? Crashing in a cousin’s rec room?

Gear up. Besides the usual duffels of stuff, also make sure everyone’s got their licenses, insurance info, and contact numbers all in a line. Car chargers for cell phones are handy. Snacks are always a good idea. It’s also not a bad time to figure out the gas money situation (my usual solution is to keep a kitty of cash that everyone contributes to, twenty bucks at a time) and what you’ll do in case of a breakdown (AAA? Parents? OnStar?)

Pick tunes. Load up someone’s iPod with a massive playlist of driving music, plug it in on shuffle, and hit the gas. Or, alternatively, have everyone craft a their own mix CD and take turns, with explanatory commentary optional. No stereo? Do what we once did on a voyage through Wisconsin: sing Taylor Swift’s Mean a cappella as many times as everyone can stand it (see second point). Do yourself a favor and avoid the earworm that is the theme song from National Lampoon’s Vacation, even though it seems thematically appropriate. It’s maddening.


Be spontaneous. When it comes to weirdo attractions and extended scenic routes, I’m a firm believer that you should let your ADD run rampant. Spot a roadside fruit stand or a historical marker for some battle you’ve never heard of? Take a break, get a snack, stretch your legs. Think about all the groovy things you’d be missing if you just took a train or plane everywhere.

Fiberglass graveyards are always nice

Be flexible and keep your cool. Things are going to go awry. You might end up driving your boyfriend’s 12-seater van down a winding mountain road in the middle of a downpour. You might get to the International Clown Hall of Fame and find out it’s closed for the day. You might be treated with undue suspicion by the Border Control agents on your way back from Montreal. Relax. Breathe. You’re taking the road for its bumps, remember? Everything can make a good story later.

Be safe. Not to sound like your mom, but please, please, please, don’t drive if it’s late and you’re tired or you’ve had something to drink. Treat strangers with respect, but a healthy dose of caution. Don’t trespass anywhere you don’t belong (except mayyyybe the ghost town of Centralia, PA), and pay attention to the speed limit. And no more people than seatbelts, ever.


Make memories. No, seriously. You’re going to want to remember this. Bring your camera, diary, sketchbook, whatever, and record things. Not just the big photo-ops by the World’s Largest Six Pack, but also the attempts at reading the ancient road atlas, the cramped and drooly naps in the backseat, the elaborate games of MASH you play to pass the time. Pretend you’ve traveled in time from 10 years later in your life, and notice all the little things you love about these days. You may not always know where you’re going, but you’ll always want to know where you’ve been.

spring break: diptychs & triptychs

(Apologies to my artist mother if these aren’t really triptychs. I guess I could be safe and call them collages, but I’ve never been one for a penny word when a 20-drachma one will do.)

I spent 24 hours (total) on the train up and down New York State (bottom left and right) on the way to Montreal (upper left). I’ve pretty much perfected the art of sleeping in a ball, plowing through a season of Fresh Meat on my laptop, and lying to customs about the amount of clementines in my backpack. Fruit smugglers forever!

I did a fair amount of classy-type eating à la carte: a pain de campagne from La Pâtisserie Belge in MTL, where I went pretty much daily for bread (and then stopped at Pikolo for an americano so as to get my heart beating again).

I threw together a rando salad at home of microgreens, oranges, bleu cheese, onions, hard boiled eggs, and lemon-thyme vinaigrette, which felt incredibly lefty and snooty but also delicious, so whatever. And today, I had a croissant date with my mom (with bonus souvenir coffee beans!) at Chestnut Hill Coffee, post-pheblotomy appointment (I may have fainted, alas).

Abroad, I had heartstopping amounts of pork at the Dépanneur Le Pick Up Cabane à Sucre Pork Club , which was five courses of wonderful. We started with a sweet-and-fatty lardo spread, with chunks of apple and onion, spread over pumpernickel, then pea soup that was pleasantly earthy and I didn’t hate (??). The salad was chicarrón (pork rinds!) in a spicy arugula (so it’s healthy!) and then, at last, came meat: a house-made sausage, maple-smoked pork, and pork belly confit, each of which was a different and incredible kind of savory-sweet. The baked beans (fèves au four?) were molassesy and thick, and I got to eat twice as much since my dining companion did not particular care for them (again, ??). Two shots, as well: vodka with the lardo (na zdrowie!) and white chocolate with bacon for dessert. So fun, so tasty, and I got to chat with Chef Szef Bartek, a very cool guy who gave me some tips on making the confit (apparently not that hard? ça s’peut…)

Also: Portguesey rotisserie chicken that was buried in peppery fries, from a corner joint that reminded me very much of Calvin Trillin (long line, no plates). And watched (but did not help) Shannon eat a biscotti (biscotto?) roughly the size of her head.

Drinks: Victory Lager, Blood Orange Gin Sparkler, Bulleit Rye (which tastes good and doesn’t burn, so, win!).

On the porch! On my parents’ dime! With New Yorkers to read! I might die from all the luxury!!

And! Two pairs of homemade socks, from my lovely Aunt E., that I wore almost without pause while home. I don’t care if I got weird stares from a gaggle of middle schoolers at the Hunger Games* when I wore them in a pair of Crocs-clogs and shorts. It’s a look.

Back to Chicago, butt-early o’clock tomorrow. On the plus side: Green City Day and Joy the Baker, so sleep up, kids!

*Which, OMG. Katniss!


who gets a postcard & how to send them

1. Your Mom

Because she’s worried about you. Because she drove you to the train station or will pick you up from the airport. Because you know she will thumb-tack it to the giant corkboard that covers half of her art studio. Because she needs reassurance that you’re eating enough*. Because she’ll actually read it.

2. Your Little Sister

Because you guys never see each other any more and that’s weird. Because you feel bad for accidentally kidnapping her blue-velour-stretch dress from H&M for an entire semester. Because you’re trying to guilt her into visiting you sometime soon. Because if you include a message in dog-speak for your canine brothers**, she will read it aloud to them.

3. Your grandparents/aunts/uncles/cousins

Because you don’t talk to them enough. Because they remember your birthday when you can’t remember theirs. Because they actually read their mail instead of assuming it’s all Discover card offers and J. Crew catalogs addressed to the previous tenant. Because they want to know where you are.

4. Friends with whom you have decent amounts of inside jokes

Because remember that time you got a little drunk at the free dinner your study abroad program was hosting on a weekend excursion to rural France and instead of going out on the town to drink in bars you stayed in the hotel watching French MTV while rolling on the bed and laughing about those girls from high school that were obsessed with horses***?

5. Your place of employ

Because even if it’s a lowly student job, it’s the cool kind where they let you print out a picture of Clint Eastwood petting a kitten to stick on your office door and don’t mind if you put out a collection plate to raise money for the Romantic Times 2012 convention. Also because it’s a good way to show them you’re a responsible type who’s not all SPRING BREAK

6. A high school friend or two

Because they weren’t horsegirls. Because you miss them, actually, and want to ask what’s up in a way that’s not weird, and a postcard can do that.

7. Yourself

Because how else will you know how long it takes them to get there?

& how to send them

Handwritten are the best if you want perfect glossy pictures of the Biodome paired with your chickenscratch that aspires to the legibility of a 13-year-old boy’s. Dirty hipster that I am, I really like Postagram, because you can 1. include yourself in the picture of the Biodome 2. have your message typed and thus readable 3. not have to remember how to pronounce the French word for “stamp”**** and 4. the picture pops out of the card for your scrapbook or hope chest.

*Seriously Mom DO NOT WORRY about this
**Woof woof, bark bark, yip. Good boys.
***If you cannot name a horsegirl from your high school, you are the horsegirl
****Tahm-bruh or tim-bruh?! The world may never recall