It seems to be a rite of passage among travel bloggers – the yearly roundup, the laying out of ups and downs, the brickbats and bouquets. I chimed in two years ago with my 2012 and 2013 wrap-ups and I’ve come to enjoy this end-of-year ritual.
It gives me a chance to fill in the blanks, to mention a few adventures I haven’t had time to write about or whose notes have been eaten by the dog. It also gives me the opportunity to say thank you for your friendship. Some of you have been readers since the launch of this blog’s sister website back on the cusp of 2006 and 2007. Others are new and I welcome you all equally.
This roundup also allows me to check in with my own goals, a sort of informal benchmarking that hints at whether I’m living the way I think I should be. The answer to that is often an unfortunate no – but I love a good challenge.
I started 2014 with a plan to finally write about my life as a foreign correspondent in Africa, to lose weight (yep, still on the list) and to get ready for my dreaded panic-inducing retirement from the UN five months from now.
So – how well have I done?
Not bad. Could be better, but not bad.
I did write the first draft of my Africa book but that’s the easy bit, with hair-pulling revisions beginning right about now. If you have a first draft in your future and need a swift kick and it happens to be November, I highly recommend jumping aboard NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month. You make a public commitment, you write, and if you reach 50,000 words your profile picture magically grows a halo – and you make a lot of new writing friends along the way. I got my halo.
As for my other resolutions… let’s just say I needed something left over for 2015.
Here’s what I learned in 2014.
I learned about writing differently. I wanted to focus on putting words together less as a journalist and more as a person, with greater sensation and emotion. My friend Amy Gigi Alexander, an extraordinary writer of people and places, pushed me to attend what became a transformational Deep Travel workshop in Morocco. At the hands of the compassionate and talented Erin Byrne and Christina Ammon, I learned to weave some of my words into strands rather than throw them higgledy-piggledy onto the screen.
Most of these discoveries unfurled in the mysterious medina of the city of Fez but also in the remote reaches of Moulay Idriss, a city many regard as holy and which, despite the nearby Roman ruins of Volubilis, has so far escaped being overrun by tour groups.
Precious to my memories of Morocco are nights spent under the stars of the Sahara (a long-standing dream), making unexpected friends – Mohammed, my Sahraoui guide in the desert, or the inimitable Mike Richardson, whose Café Clock is now an institution in both Fez and Marrakesh. Marrakesh fascinates and repulses me in equal measure and I’ve tried to tease out that duality by looking at the city’s core, the irrepressible Djemaa el Fna.
In Morocco I learned that slow travel suits me best and that I need down time to gather my thoughts – I cannot be perpetually on the go. It also reminded me that some countries work hard at coming to terms with their contradictions, all the more exciting when the country is Morocco, deeply conservative and dizzyingly modern, depending on the moment.
I learned I didn’t have to go far to discover the world. Sometimes it’s right outside, in my own back yard. Down the road I visited the venerable Art Deco spa town of Aix-les-Bains, made famous by Queen Victoria and her cohort of 19th-century European crowned heads. I ate my way through the auberge of Georges Blanc, my province’s most renowned chef. I finally made it to Les Halles in Lyon, the premier indoor market in a city known as France’s gastronomic capital. And my appetite is now whetted at the mere thought of inhaling a few fresh sea urchins or garlicky escargots.
Pushing out further but still in France I visited Nantes in the northwest, a city I had expected to dismiss but that captured me with its art. I ventured more widely into Brittany, where I discovered the history of Guérande salt. Yes, I use it at home and yes, it does taste better than other salts.
While in Nantes I learned I enjoyed giving presentations to colleagues when I spoke at a blogging conference for the first time on the topic of ezines and newsletters – like this one.
I learned there was no getting away from food. Ever. (I may have known this already.) In addition to my excursion to Lyon this foodiness was indulged by attending a cooking class in Tuscany – and I snuck in a day in Florence.
Of course no year would be complete without a visit to Madrid, city of my youth. I sampled (but have yet to write about) fusion tapas at the Mercado de San Antón, a rival of San Miguel market, to which I remain loyal. I walked the streets of Tetuán, a working-class neighborhood tourists rarely see, an immigrant part of town painted with socialist slogans and whose bars still believe tapas are traditional bites meant to be served free of charge whenever you order a drink. I learned I still loved my city, the one in which I grew up, the one I still call home.
The most exciting trip I took this year was to, of all places, California. I wandered wide-eyed around San Francisco with my friend Ben, who insisted Oakland was absolutely worth a visit (it was). I drove down the Pacific Coast Highway to Los Angeles (home of the amazing Last Bookstore) and back up again.
I learned that spending time with faraway family is essential to my existence. I traveled with my partner and my 15-year-old niece, who saw things differently and helped open my world through her teenage eyes. How quickly they grow up… and how I miss the times they lived over the mountain from me and we saw each other every weekend.
I learned I am not Superwoman. I had to cancel my annual New York visit because my back gave out. Instead I wound up in London for a week of intensive physiotherapy – reconnecting with dear friends and a lot of walking to exercise. Next North American visit: planned for September 2015.
Speaking of 2015, I retire from my UN job after nearly two decades. I’m happy to be free of the constraints of a full-time job but less happy to be free of its full-time salary. Much writing around the clock will have to take place to make up the difference. No matter. I freelanced for a living once and I’ll do it again, but I learned that fear and insecurities tend to bubble to the surface when scary situations arise.
I also learned I’m far more political than I let myself be. Long years of working at the UN have wedged me into a mold of political correctness I plan to break. This realization has been lurking but it hit me as I reached through my memories of Cuba, of a visit I made in 1999, 40 years after the Revolution. Burying myself in the island’s history and politics was one of the most satisfying things I’ve done all year.
A major lesson I learned in 2014 was facing up to the past. My mother – a force of nature whose laughter and optimism energized everyone who came near – died seven years ago. Finally, on the last weekend of the year, I had the courage to open the boxes I’d shipped back after her death. In those boxes I found bits of myself. I found drawings I’d made as a child, mementoes of vacations, collectibles of every size and shape, large rocks and solid sculptures, books and clippings and recipes, and photographs documenting every moment of my life, as only a deeply loving mother would. Somewhere out there, she was unpacking with me.
I burned the last empty bit of packaging with a mixture of sadness and relief, and finally spoke to my mother in my heart. I thanked her, because everything I am today I owe to her. Mom, I miss you every single day.
So I end 2014 much as I end most years, awash with lessons and some tears for those I can’t be near, making plans and resolutions so that life next year continues giving me what it always has: joy, love, travel and a deep sense of gratitude.
And maybe in 2015 the diet will finally stick.