where life's not empty, it's restless.

Archive for the tag “travel”


IMG-2575The day I left Vietnam, I laughed and laughed.

I had not expected to. I woke up feeling sad about having to leave after only two weeks: far too short a time for my first visit to this captivating country. But my travel-mates—Anne and Lindsay, close friends I have known since freshman year of college—and I had hatched a plan for our final morning: we would get up at 5:30, throw on clothes, and walk over to Hoan Kiem Lake, a short stroll from our hotel in Hanoi. Anne had done this the day before.

“Trust me,” she said. “You won’t believe it.”

As we neared the lakeshore, the streets filled with people, many in athletic outfits, walking, jogging, bicycling. They, and we, were reveling in the relative cool of the dawn  air: by 9 am, we all knew the temperature would be in the 90s and indescribably humid.

When we got to the lake, we saw exercise groups of every possible type, all of them already in full swing: Tai Chi, yoga, Zumba, old-school aerobics, hip-hop dancing, ballroom dancing.

IMG-2668Across the street, a few dozen people had gathered with the apparent purpose of laughing their heads off.

The laughing people motioned to us to join them. Why not?

“Ha, ha, HEE,” we all shouted in unison, as we stretched and moved in gentle yoga-like ways, following the leader as best we could; breaking into more free-form laughter as we formed into a shoulder-massaging congo line; and then making different laughing noises as we clustered in circles, crossing hands, vine-stepping our feet, and just generally trying to keep up. Which we did, for about forty minutes.  IMG-1651

I can’t think of a better way to prepare for a long day of air travel.

I can’t think of a better sendoff from this small country that we had so quickly grown to love.

I’m surprised I waited a whole month to write this post. I’ve been thinking about Vietnam every single day since I got home. Maybe I just needed time to ponder the emotions Vietnam stirred in me.

IMG-2663It’s easy to talk about Vietnam’s natural beauty and friendly people. It’s easy to talk about its renowned food.

Or even about the many museums and memorials commemorating the American War.

But the experience of visiting Vietnam is much more than that. The Portuguese concept of saudade comes to mind: that mixed-up feeling of longing, love and melancholy.

When you land in Vietnam, you are IMG-2605

suddenly in a place that you’ve heard about all your life. And what you heard, and when you heard it, and how old you were when you heard it, shaped your young view of the world in ways that do not at all match what you are now, in 2019, seeing and experiencing. And that paradox stays with you, every step of your trip.

For a contrasting example, take Paris. When I was a child, Paris was where Madeline lived, one of twelve little girls in two straight lines, in that old house covered with vines. When I went to Paris for the first time, it looked and felt something like I had always imagined it would.

IMG-2581But Vietnam is different.

When I was a child, Vietnam was the place where the worst photos I’d ever seen came from, the ones in my parents’ and grandparents’ TIME and LIFE magazines. Vietnam was a word that meant moral confusion and horror and sorrow.

But then, as I grew into adulthood, we all began to hear of a different Vietnam. Beginning in the 1980s and picking up steam in the 1990s and the 2000s, we began to hear phrases like, “It’s such a beautiful country,” and “The people are so friendly.” And so my thinking about Vietnam began to shift, and though that left me even more perplexed and saddened by the legacy of the war, it also made me feel like maybe I was old enough, finally, to withstand the emotional currents inherent in visiting a place that is both forever symbolic of American hubris at its worst and vibrantly alive with the astounding ability of human beings to forgive, to repair, to choose love over vengeance.

That’s what Vietnam was about on this first visit. It was about feeling this saudade, this sense of love and tragedy and beauty all wrapped up together and ever present while we were enjoying all the above-mentioned joys: the beauty, the food, and the exuberant hospitality, on our final morning, of the laughing yoga people.


Where we went: Ho Chi Min City, Whale Island, Quy Nhon, Hoi An, Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park, and Hanoi. We stopped briefly in Hue, Marble Mountain and Son My (My Lai). There are many more places I look forward to visiting on my next trip.

Recommended reading: When Heaven and Earth Changed Places, by Le Ly Haislip, The Sorrow of War, by Bao Ninh, and The Sympathizer, by Viet Than Nguyen. I also recommend watching Ken Burns’ PBS series on the Vietnam War.

            For those of you who read my last post: I hit send on my first book pitch last week! I’ll be sending several more, soon. I’ll keep you posted. It could be a long haul.




In Real Time

IMG_0188 - Version 2Home. I’m home. The #TravelBinge2017 Tourist has Halted. However: she lives on inside me, and she has given my brain a much-needed adjustment.

I don’t much like the word “tourist.” “Traveler” is the word I’ve always preferred, with its hints of Martha Gellhorn and Graham Greene. But in the eyes of the Chinese, Korean, French, English and Icelandic people who tolerated me tromping through their countries this past month, I was not fancy or special. I was a tourist. And that’s OK. No one would mistake me for a native in any of these nations, except perhaps Iceland. And being a tourist is not what it used to be. Or it doesn’t have to be what it used to be. You can break free of the pack, even in China, even without speaking Chinese. IMG_0372People are ridiculously busy in China these days, but if you flag them down, they’ll help you buy train tickets, or get off at the right stop, or order dumplings.

And sometimes, if they want to practice their English, they’ll flag you down.

IMG_0352      Outside Guangzhou–a city of 12 million in southern China that appears to be adding a skyscraper a day–my friend Lindsay and I were hiking up Baiyun Mountain when two young law students, Carry and Pelly (their “English names”) asked if they could walk and talk with us. It was a national holiday: Tomb Sweeping Day, when Chinese families gather to clean and decorate the graves of their ancestors. Carry and Pelly, both 21, came from a town three hours away and couldn’t afford to go home to their families, so they had joined the throngs hiking Baiyun. We ended up spending much of the day together, including a trip to their favorite tea and dumpling restaurant, which we never would have found without them.  IMG_0245

Their questions for us ranged far and wide: “Do you like ice cream?” (They told us that many Chinese people believe that chilled foods, like ice cream, are bad for young women, especially if they’re pregnant.) “Do you practice a religion?” (They don’t, but assumed that we, being American, might.) And, inevitably, “What is Donald Trump like?”

You can’t travel the world right now without talking politics in general, and Trump in particular. But here’s the larger truth: people outside the United States have a lot on their minds besides Donald Trump.

For example, when I asked Carry whether she worried about global warming, her cheerful face turned somber. She told me about China’s terrible rains and sandstorms in 2009. “It was the alarm of nature,” she said, “that tells us to protect the planet.”

IMG_0185         Where had I gotten the idea that Chinese people were too busy building their economy to care about protecting the planet? The earth’s troubled health is literally in their face, every day: donning a mask is something they’re already used to doing. Climate change is not far off in the future; it is happening in real time.

This morning, that phrase–“in real time”–popped up three times in thirty minutes of reading. Is it suddenly so popular because we experience so much of our lives virtually? Vicariously? Abstractly?

IMG_0137            I know this much: travel happens in real time. And though I’m happy to be home, reflecting back on my trip in nostalgic, not-real time, I already miss that bracing immediacy. I miss talking climate change in China, elections in France, Brexit in Britain. I miss seeing, right in front of me, the speed and scale of China’s urban growth, political posters all over Paris, and the global pageant that is London, where Brexit was rejected as resoundingly as it was embraced elsewhere in England.

IMG_0530            To be a tourist is to be constantly humbled, in real time, as your preconceptions are smashed and the limits of your knowledge become painfully obvious. To love being a tourist, you have to love that tourist learning curve. And on this quirky trip—which started with Lindsay asking me to visit China with her and grew to include an invitation to a small film festival in Paris, visits with friends in Korea and England, and that final, somehow irresistible “free” stopover in Iceland—there were learning moments aplenty.

IMG_0087            In a recent column, Condé Nast Traveler editor-in-chief Pilar Guzmán said this: “Travel confidence—and cultural fluency—come by way of humility.” Yes. And having to talk about Trump is this year’s blue-plate special serving of humble pie.

I don’t want to minimize the damage I believe Trump is capable of doing to the planet and to our fragile relationships with its nearly 7.4 billion inhabitants. But perspective helps. In China, in France, in the United Kingdom, he is but one of many looming challenges. I understand that better now, after my month of being a humble tourist, traveling the world in real time.

Falling off the map

DSC00865Once upon a time, it was easy to fall off the map. You saved your money. You bought a ticket. You told your parents you’d be checking in, gave them a hug, and off you went. A few weeks later, you scribbled a postcard if you remembered. If you were feeling verbose, you bought a tissue-thin aerogram and wrote a letter in your tiniest handwriting. If weeks turned into months, you went to an underlit, Dickensian place full of grimy booths called a telephone center and sat down for a brief, expensive, shouted phone call to the folks back home. But at no point did you feel compelled or obliged to let anyone know where you were all the time, or even most of the time.

I started writing this piece on a cross-country flight a few weeks ago. We are still generally unreachable when in mid-air, although 1) this may change and/or is already changing and 2) your nearest and dearest tend to know where you are when you’re on that plane, even if you can’t text, email or actually call one another.

I wrote a bit more when I was on a Megabus trip from New York City to Syracuse. The wi-fi worked pretty well, with the occasional slow patch as we skirted the Catskills. Most of the other passengers appeared to be college students, heading back upstate after a weekend in the city. Most of them wore ear buds connected to smartphones; tethered even as they slept to music, to friends, to news. That’s not all bad. I get it. I’m happy to knock off some emails and read a few headlines on a five hour bus trip. If I’d remembered my ear buds, I would have listened to music too.

But I think we parents have to own up to the fact that we are the ones who, by encouraging (or even ordering) our kids to check in all the time, are not allowing them to do what we got to do at their age, which was fall off the map. We want to know where they are because we believe that knowing where they are is the same thing as knowing they are safe, which it is not. At all. Sometimes, one could argue, it’s more distressing to know than not to know.

But really this is about more than just the old “ooh-baby it’s a wired world” refrain. Really, it’s about actually encouraging our over-programmed and super-plugged-in young adults to take a break from knowing where they themselves are. It’s about encouraging them to take a leap off the map.

After a whole lifetime of being so thickly scheduled you can’t help but fall into an exhausted doze on the Megabus, it can be frightening to look at the calendar and see blank pages. To not know where you’ll be tomorrow or the next day, week or month. Whether you just graduated from college or you just quit or got laid off from your first job; whether you’ve been saving money to travel and now it’s time to do it, or whether you haven’t saved money and you’re panicking about what the next job might be—these are the moments when fear can become fuel for a leap off the map.

And who knows where such a leap might lead you? What it might feel like to be somewhere in the world you’ve never been, or doing a job you never thought you’d do? You might make some colossal mistakes. But isn’t making new mistakes so much more educational than making the same old ones? Parents, remember this: if you let your grown-up children leap, chances are they will tell you all—OK, not all but some, the best bits—about it. Later.

Calendar Note: On March 16 at 3pm, in celebration of the publication of  Into the Storm: Journeys with Alzheimer’s (edited by Collin Tong), I’ll be reading along with some of the other authors, including poet and memoirist Esther Altshul Helfgott, at Elliott Bay Bookstore.

Writers: Now’s the time to sign up for the non-credit, no stress Memoir Writer’s Workshop at Seattle Central Community College. This is a new class for writers who feel ready to write 5-7 pages a week. Six Monday nights, starting April 7.

Radio lovers: you can hear the Restless Nest commentaries every Tuesday at 7:45 a.m. on KBCS, streaming online at and on the air at 91.3 in the Seattle area. Podcasts available.

Here’s nest artist Kim Groff-Harrington’s website.





IMG_0745 “I’m doing this for Mom,” I thought, half-dreaming, as our bus climbed up and up through the scarves of fog that swirled around Machu Picchu.

Doing this for Mom. Why would I think that? It’s not like her heart’s desire was to visit Peru and see the Inca citadels. But the thought persisted, until my eyes were welling. It’s the altitude, I thought. It’s the 4:00 a.m. bolt out of bed. I need more coffee. I need—

I need to share this with my mom. And I can’t.

And yet, as the day progressed, I felt like I did.

I have a necklace my Great-uncle Carl bought for my mother in Peru. It’s a simple string of alternating wooden and silver beads. I remember how perfect it looked against her tanned skin and dark hair. I imagine that Carl, or perhaps his elegant wife Ruth, enjoyed buying it, fifty or so years ago, at some lovely shop in Lima. They were nearing the end, then, of two decades here; decades in which they helped launch Peru’s thriving fishmeal industry, raised four children and became leaders in the ex-pat community. To me, as a little girl, their lives sounded unimaginably exotic. I remember Carl instructing us to say YA-ma, not LA-ma; I remember the strange words—Machu Picchu, Cuzco, Inca—rolling off his tongue.

When Carl gave my mom that necklace, she had never been east of her home state, Montana, south of San Francisco, north of Vancouver, west of Westport. But she loved to daydream about the trips she would make, someday: someday when we were grown up. And she did make many trips: to the east coast, to England, Europe, Turkey. I was lucky enough to make a few of them with her.

If Alzheimer’s disease hadn’t cut short her travel years, would she have made it to Peru? Who knows? But I do know this: part of what made her, and me, yearn for adventure were Uncle Carl’s stories. He had a way of making travel sound like the most exciting scavenger hunt ever. He never spoke about the hardship of it. And yet how difficult it must have been, back in his day, to travel around Peru.

How dramatically his adopted country has changed.

Rus and I climbed the trails of Machu Picchu with visitors from every corner of the planet and of every age: dainty French women, hearty American seniors, stylish Chileans and Brazilians, sunscreened Scandinavians, hat-and-glove-wearing Japanese, all of us decked out in the latest practical travel wear. (I have pictures of my Uncle Carl and his brother, my grandfather, wearing jackets and ties at Machu Picchu.)

Mom would have fit right in: another healthy senior, gamely trudging the steep Inca steps. She didn’t get to do that. She had the pleasure of knowing Uncle Carl, of hearing his stories, but she didn’t get to do what I’m doing: finally visiting the places whose strange names he introduced us to a half-century ago.

This week, I’ll be visiting another place in Peru, one Carl never saw, even though it bears his name. The Policlinico Carlos Hedreen is a ten-year-old health center serving the thousands of people who live in Manchay, one of Lima’s fastest growing “asentamientos humanos,” young settlements full of families who moved in and began building new homes by hand in the 1980s, when the fighting between the Shining Path guerillas and the government made life in their Andean villages untenable.

The clinic was named in Carl’s honor by the donors who built it, who included his widow, his children and many of their friends who grew up in Lima and knew him. I’m looking forward to telling this part of Uncle Carl’s story.

I know Mom would have been fascinated.



DSC00865Word fashions come and go: what is “awesome” was once “marvelous,” what is “great” was once merely “good.”  What we value changes too: what we deem awesome today—a tiny car that gets high mileage; a good bottle of Washington wine—would have deeply puzzled our great-grandparents.

There’s one word I bet our great-grandparents used more often than we do that I’d like to bring back. Curiosity. It’s not gone for good, it’s just fallen into disuse. You could call it a value, and you might mean that in a good or a bad way, depending on your “values” with a capital V. Or you could call it a character trait.  But doesn’t it roll off the tongue? Curiosity.

We readers are likely to link it in our minds to books, beginning of course with Curious George, the monkey whose endless curiosity got him into endless scrapes. (“Scrapes:” there’s another rich old word, connoting a scrape along the outer edge of good behavior or the law or life itself.) But with George there was always an underlying moral along the lines of: Better not to be too curious. It was a moral well-suited to George’s heyday in the middle of the last century, when our elders worried that curiosity might lead us to flirt with communism or beat poetry or other interests that would cause us to stray from the proper paths of college, marriage, corporate employment and home ownership.

Poor George: whisked from the jungle to a wondrous new planet called Manhattan and then chastised every time he wanted to rappel off the fire escape for a little curiosity-fueled tour. What child sentenced to spend their days fidgeting at a school desk could not relate to his pain: the torture of a curious soul, caged and clamped down?

How thrilling then, the glimmers of hope for the curious offered by the good books that came after George–Harriet the Spy, A Wrinkle in Time, Swiss Family Robinson—and by the occasional good teacher. Mine was Mrs. LaCrosse, second grade, who preached not only reading but writing as the key to a rich and curious life. Writers could ask questions, think thoughts, take imaginary trips any time they wanted. What an anarchist’s vision, what a revolutionary dream!

It was 1964 and conformity abounded. A solid majority of my little-girl brain wanted what Sleeping Beauty wanted: to be carried off by a handsome prince, dressed lavishly and taken care of, like a Chinese princess with bound feet, forever. But Mrs. LaCrosse had wedged open the door to a back brain closet. Inside, the rogue. The beast: curiosity. Thank God.

I do thank God, because I believe my curiosity saved me. I was not princess material, at least not in my world, which was a northeast Seattle neighborhood where if you didn’t wear bright new Bonnie Doon kneesocks, you were shunned. Add blue cat-eye glasses to your rubber-banded, hand-me-down socks, and you were doomed. For a brief and happy while, aka elementary school, I didn’t understand just how doomed; that came later with the cruelty of junior high school.

What got me thinking about the saving powers of curiosity was a book I plucked from the bargain table at Elliott Bay Bookstore: Martha Gellhorn’s memoir, Travels with Myself and Another. You may remember her as one of Hemingway’s wives. But that was but a brief episode in her long and curiosity-fueled career as a globe-trotting, conflict-seeking journalist. In her memoir, she reflects on what she calls her “horror journeys,” her worst travel nightmares, and how they never seemed to stop her from wanting more: more adventures, more challenges, more danger. (She is a hilarious practitioner of the wry understatement, as in this comment on travel in China in 1941: “Time resumed its frightful habit of standing still but finally we were gasping through the last night.”) Of a brief wartime break from her travels, she writes, “I was going into a decline from hearing about the war on the radio instead of being where I wanted to be, with the people whose lives were paying for it.”

Gellhorn was a great believer, as a journalist and as a human being, of the importance of seeing it for herself. How could she write about China without going there? If she were alive today, I suspect she would find our insta-access to information a marvelous convenience, but no substitute for first-hand experience. A good thing, but not a great or awesome thing. Curious people like to look stuff up and then go where their curiosity leads them. That’s when good becomes great, and marvelous, and awesome.

Our films, The Church on Dauphine Street, 30 Frames a Second: The WTO in Seattle and Quick Brown Fox: an Alzheimer’s Story are now available on Hulu, Amazon and other digital sites.

Radio lovers: you can hear the Restless Nest commentaries every Tuesday at 7:50 a.m., Thursdays at 4:54 p.m. and Fridays at 4:55 p.m. on KBCS, streaming online at and on the air at 91.3 in the Seattle area.  Podcasts available.

Here’s nest artist Kim Groff-Harrington’s website.


First Class

            Ah, the clink of the forks in First Class. From where I’m sitting on this plane, just three rows away, the sound is like wind chimes heard through a closed window, reminding us: we are here and not there where those pretty breezes are blowing.

I’m in Economy Plus, where apparently there’s a little more legroom. I did not pay for or upgrade to this section; I think it’s a bone the airline threw me after my earlier flight was cancelled.

Going through security at Washington D.C.’s Dulles Airport, I noticed an express lane and signs urging me to sign up for a card that would give me the privilege of using this special lane, presumably after traveling thousands of miles or paying extra, or both.

None of this is particularly new. But it feels just a little more—in your face than it used to. Pay for this card and cut in line! Pay for an Economy Plus seat so you can cross your legs! Pay Lord knows how much and eat real food with real forks!

Here in Economy Plus, I’m sitting next to a blonde, sleepy teen in a hoodie whose suntanned and bejeweled mother, seated in First Class, just brought her back a chocolate sundae in a glass dish.

After eating her ice cream, teen daughter popped her ear buds in and went back to sleep, leaving me to wonder about her mother, as I always do about people in First Class: what is it like to have so much money you can spend a thousand plus dollars to fly across the country?

A few times in history, I’ve landed up there, due to some crazy act of God that never involves my money, and I have to admit it is very pleasant to have a huge seat, constant doting service, real food and free liquor. But it’s hard to imagine paying for it.

But I digress. I’ve just spent four days in Virginia and Washington, D.C., where the income gap might be more alive and well than in many other cities—or not. Maybe it just looks that way to my Seattle eyes, unaccustomed as they are to seeing men wearing expensive suits in any weather, let alone in the middle of a D.C. heat wave.

The men in suits and the women in summer dresses make for good people watching. But an even better and equally free activity, especially when it’s 101 and swamp-humid, are the museums.  Free, as in no cost! Just to put this in perspective, admission to the Museum of Modern Art in New York is 25 dollars. Seattle Art Museum: 17 dollars.

On this visit, I discovered the Smithsonian American Art Museum and National Portrait Gallery, two collections housed together in what poet Walt Whitman called, quote,  “the noblest of buildings.”

I saw Harlem portraits by Gordon Parks, Bill Clinton’s portrait by Chuck Close, Richard Nixon by Norman Rockwell, Civil War generals photographed by Matthew Brady. Amelia Earhart. Ethel Waters. Dolly Madison. Faces of Americans, famous and not, filling room after room.

Outside, the heat wave broke into thunder, lightning and pouring rain. The museum was, suddenly and literally, a port in a storm, a port full of Americans, rich, poor, and in-between; some of us living and walking; others alive only on the walls.

I felt connected across decades and centuries; I felt that cornball emotion Whitman captured so well in his poem, “I Hear America Singing:” quote, “singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs.”

I felt, for an hour, like the whole country had been upgraded to First Class.

I’ve got an article this month, “Laughter and Forgetting,” in Seattle Met Magazine.

Our film, Quick Brown Fox: an Alzheimer’s Story is now available on Hulu, Amazon and other digital sites.

Radio lovers: you can hear the Restless Nest commentaries every Tuesday at 7:50 a.m., Thursdays at 4:54 p.m. and Fridays at 4:55 p.m. on KBCS, streaming online at and on the air at 91.3 in the Seattle area.  Podcasts available.

Here’s nest artist Kim Groff-Harrington’s website.


Time outside Time

“Wherever you’re going, we can get you there and there and there!” exulted the United Airlines on-hold record-a-voice.  Well, unfortunately, no, not on this midsummer Saturday. One packed flight from Seattle to Washington D.C. cancelled; 200-plus people, including me, suddenly stuck in airport purgatory.

For half an hour, I thought a few of us were lucky: we were rebooked on a US Air flight, via Phoenix, arriving in D.C. a mere five hours after we were originally supposed to. I sprinted from one end of Sea-Tac to the other, fingers crossed. But the US Air flight was delayed four hours.  The gate clerk ordered all of us United castoffs to go back and start over.

Back we went, now with no chance at all of getting a reasonable re-booking. Long story not so short—long time on hold on my cellphone; long time in line—I left SeaTac, now scheduled to leave the next afternoon.

And so I had a strange, sort of secret day. No plans. No responsibilities. No one, besides my immediate family and my disappointed friend in D.C., knew I was in Seattle.

I could have pulled weeds or caught up on some work. Or caught up on sleep, after a night spent tossing and worrying about waking up in time for the flight that never happened.

Instead, I left a note and got on my bike. On a whim, I rode straight to a Columbia City nail shop, where the staff is friendly, the massage chairs are the tacky best and offbeat nail colors are the rule.

From the nail shop, my bike and I carried on. I felt like I was 15 again, pedaling aimlessly along the lake on a summer Saturday, the breeze tickling my Friendly Skies-turquoise-blue toes.

I got just warm enough biking to go swimming. Now I felt more five than 15, splashing into the cold water, emerging baptized.  Now time truly felt like it did at five, especially in summer: slow, bedazzled, each minute like a jewel on a bracelet.  I basked. I read. I ate a snack. Time, this unexpected chunk of slow, summery time, wrapped around me like a blanket.

I’m so sorry I didn’t get to be in D.C. that night with one of my oldest and best friends. But I hope she got some secret time too; some time outside time. Lord knows she needs it: she and her husband manage and co-own two restaurants, the second of which just opened.  She rarely gets any time alone at all.

After dinner, I sat down at my desk and opened the window wide and watched my son and husband throw a Frisbee in the park across the street.  A few younger boys joined in.

There’s something about the leisurely pace of a Frisbee in the twilight. You think for a moment it might stop altogether, right there in mid-air. But of course it doesn’t. It curves, slow but not too slow, high but not too high, and gets to where it needs to go. Then everyone says Thanks and Good night and See you next time.

See you next time we step outside time for a few minutes and sail this disk through the sky.

Our film, Quick Brown Fox: an Alzheimer’s Story is now available on Hulu, Amazon and other digital sites.

Radio lovers: you can hear the Restless Nest commentaries every Tuesday at 7:50 a.m., Thursdays at 4:54 p.m. and Fridays at 4:55 p.m. on KBCS, streaming online at and on the air at 91.3 in the Seattle area.  Podcasts available.

Here’s nest artist Kim Groff-Harrington’s website.




I’m having an imperfect moment. My coffee’s lukewarm. It’s a cloudy day. My go-to classical station is playing a composer I’ve never heard of.

But wait: this tune is hauntingly beautiful. Balakirev, whoever you are, your Spanish Melody in D Flat is soothing me into seeing this morning differently. I now see that this gray sky is hiding some brightness; look at the way the fifty different greens of the trees are popping against it!

Imperfection: It’s a great way to go.

I just came home from a gloriously imperfect trip to France and Finland. Our budget was middle-brow: a dollhouse-size room in Paris; 3 to a room in Finland. But I love traveling this way. I love knowing that imperfection is going to abound, because it removes all pressure to achieve that nonexistent, vacation-ruining goal of Perfection with a capital P.

We Americans don’t take enough time off. Expedia’s annual survey rates us as one of the most vacation-deprived nations in the developed world. That puts enormous pressure on the time we do take. We want every moment of our trip to be perfect. If we don’t get perfection, we feel let down. If we’ve sprung for a big plane ticket to another continent, the pressure on our precious vacation moments is especially intense.

Nearly 25 years ago, my husband and I started our marriage by quitting our good jobs at a Seattle TV station, pooling our modest stash of cash and buying round-the-world plane tickets. We traveled for ten months and came home flat broke. There were people who thought we’d lost our minds and others who thought we were simply foolish and irresponsible. But it was a deliberate decision. We wanted to seize this brief window before we had children, before we set ourselves to the 20-year task of trying to achieve work-life balance, and instead learn a very different, but no less important, skill: how to partake of the banquet of the world. How to savor the imperfect moment: the picnic on a stalled Spanish train, the cold papaya on a sweltering Bangkok street.

Paris is particularly challenging for perfection-seekers. It offers some of the world’s most stunning cultural treasures, most delightful strolling and people-watching, most renowned food and romantic vistas. But unless you’re in the top oh-one percent, you will likely stay in a room that redefines the word “small.” Unless you’re a celebrity, you will stand in line to see the treasures of the Musee d’Orsay and the Louvre. And unless you speak fluent menu-French, you will not always get what you want at the charming bistro or café you were so sure would be perfect.

All of which makes Paris the perfect place to embrace imperfection.

It rained while we were there. Quelle dommage! So we crowded into the nearest café, which happened to be the plastic-tented patio of the historic Florence Kahn Bakery in the Marais district. We sipped our tiny coffees and ate pastries we never would have tried—Parisian versions of samosas and rugelah—had it not rained.

In fact, it rained several times on our trip. And each time, we wound up somewhere we might not have on a sunny day: an arthouse cinema showing old Marlene Dietrich films; a massive museum exhibition devoted to Bob Dylan.

This summer, I’ll be staying closer to home. But I’ll be seeking and reveling in the imperfect moments. Because here’s the good news: they are always right here in front of us, rain or shine, in Paris or Seattle.

Radio lovers: you can hear the Restless Nest commentaries every Tuesday at 7:45 a.m., Thursdays at 4:54 p.m. and Fridays at 4:55 p.m. on KBCS, streaming online at and on the air at 91.3 in the Seattle area.  Podcasts available.

Here’s nest artist Kim Groff-Harrington’s website.

May Day in Helsinki

“Demand less!” shouted a tall, stylish blond into a megaphone, right above my ear. “Love is free!” I spent this May Day in Finland, where there was no vandalism, no mayhem; just several thousand marchers strolling in the sunshine, waving signs and shouting the occasional non-threatening slogan. Occupy your mind. Demand life, not capitalism. Spring comes to everyone!

Spring is a big deal in a country that straddles the Arctic Circle. May Day is as much about celebrating snowmelt and sun as it is about politics. In Helsinki, May Day begins the night before, with a giant celebration of education in this country with one of the most acclaimed public school systems in the world. High school graduates—of all ages, not just this year’s grads—don their traditional white, nautical-style school caps and throng the center of the city. A cap is thrown on the head of everyone’s favorite mermaid statue, champagne bottles start popping, and spring, graduation and May Day are all officially welcomed.  The next morning, the party continues with the all-city May Day march, after which everyone adjourns to lavish picnics in the central Kaivopuisto Park.

I marched and picnicked with my sister, my niece and my Finnish friend Kirsi.  Kirsi and I met 25 years ago, when she was an exchange student in Seattle and an intern at the TV station where I worked. Now, she’s a producer of documentaries and TV programs in Helsinki. She credits that long-ago intern opportunity with launching her career. I credit her with giving me an experience of Finland I never could have had if I’d stumbled into Helsinki on May Day as just another unsuspecting tourist.  (I would also like to thank the inventors of the Internet for helping us keep in touch over the many years in which we both raised children and were busy building careers.)

Before we started marching, Kirsi took us to the tent headquarters of Helsinki’s Occupy movement, where we warmed our hands over a wood stove and talked for a few minutes with two young men who had been living there, off and on, for months.  We stopped into the nearby symphony hall to use the restroom (yes, it was open to marchers!) and ran into a TV director friend of Kirsi’s, who invited us up to his booth for a bird’s eye view of the stunning, brand-new venue, where the symphony would be playing a free Welcome Spring concert that afternoon.

It was all so congenial, so easy-going.  Not all of the protesters agreed with each other and there were bystanders and concert-goers who had no interest in marching at all. But everyone respected each other’s right to have an opinion and to express it out loud.

And yet there are Americans who think “European” is a bad word, as if it connotes—what, exactly?  A place where people spend too much time picnicking and protesting and not enough time working? A place where people are spoiled and pampered by big-government perks like basic health care and high-quality education?

This was my first trip to Europe in ten years. My first ever, to Finland. I am coming home inspired in ways that surprise me. There’s a love of community that I want to bring home to my neighborhood. There’s something to be said for sinking roots in a place about which you care deeply, as opposed to moving on when you get restless, an impulse far more common in newer countries like ours. And something to be said for folding new ideas like free speech into ancient rites like welcoming spring; celebrating in age-old ways, but with new faces in the crowd: immigrants and visitors from far-away places. And new slogans: “Demand Less!”

What an idea: we could make the world better by demanding less. Living in smaller spaces. Driving smaller cars.; walking, biking and using public transportation. Taking pleasure in simple things, like a picnic in the park.

I think there’s a place where that’s happening. It’s called Europe.

Radio lovers: you can hear the Restless Nest commentaries every Tuesday at 7:50 a.m., Thursdays at 4:54 p.m. and Fridays at 4:55 p.m. on KBCS, streaming online at and on the air at 91.3 in the Seattle area. Podcasts available.

Here’s nest artist Kim Groff-Harrington’s website.

Immigrant Nations

By the time you hear this, I’ll be in one of the world’s great immigrant nations: France. One in five people in France were either born in another country, or their parents were.

In the United States, we count differently: “foreign-born” does not include children born here to immigrant parents, who are granted US citizenship at birth.

So it’s hard to make a direct comparison. But the US Census says 12.7% of us are foreign-born, as of 2010, which is close to where we were 100 years ago, when immigration was at its peak.

And yet former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice had this to say in a recent speech: “I don’t know when immigrants became the enemy.”  She said one of the greatest disappointments of her career was the Bush administration’s failure to achieve comprehensive immigration reform.

I know there’s a lot of anti-immigrant backlash in France, too, and I’m sure I’ll hear more about it on my trip. But it makes me sad to think that our country’s self-image of open arms and opportunity, of the Statue of Liberty lighting the way for newcomers to our shores, has slipped so far that effective immigration reform now seems further away than ever.

Condi Rice went on to say our immigrant culture is, quote, “at the core of our strength.” She’s right.  And we forget, at our peril, that nearly all of us have immigrant roots.

After France, I’m headed for the first time in my life to the country my own ancestors came from: Finland.

I’ll be retracing the steps of my great-grandmother, who traveled from Finland to Wyoming in 1899. Her name and destination were pinned to her coat because she didn’t speak a word of English.

When I stumbled across Iceland Air’s unbeatable deal, my first impulse was to close that window, fast. But Finland haunts me.  My great-grandmother haunts  me.

By the time she and her husband staked a homestead claim in Montana in 1910, they were both 40. But they’d bought into the optimism of the West. They were a new generation of settlers, wholly unlike the early Oregon trailers. They were Americans now, though they spoke Finnish at home and taught it to their six children.

I don’t know what I expect to find in Finland, so poor when my ancestors left; now one of the most affluent, progressive countries in the world.  Remember that 2010 Gallup Happiness poll? Finland came in second, after Denmark.  For the record, the US was 14th and France was 44th, but maybe that’s because the French just don’t like to admit to anything as bland as satisfaction.

In Finland, I’ll do what Americans do: hunt up distant relatives; find the towns whose names I’ve heard all my life: Kaustinen, Raavi, Oolu. Call it a pilgrimage; call it a search for the prequel to a story I’m still writing: my own.  Call it a shout out to immigration.  I don’t always find myself agreeing with Condi Rice. But  I’m with her on this one.

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