I’ve felt kind of radio silent this summer, and there’s a good reason for it. I’m in the middle of three months in Europe, with my headquarters in Germany. To the casual observer, it might seem like this trip came together quite quickly (I first mentioned it to friends in the beginning of April and had arranged it by the end of the month), but it’s actually been in the works for 17 years.
When I was 16, I received a Congress-Bundestag Youth Exchange scholarship to spend my 11th grade year abroad. The family I was paired with was wonderful, and my time there opened my eyes to a lot of things and gave me an incredible education. I returned to my small town in Ohio with a new understanding of the world and its possibilities, along with near-perfect German and a well-overdue IDGAF attitude in regards to my final year of high school. (After my first year of college, went back to Germany for a year, but that’s another story for another time.)
This summer, I’m back in Gelsenkirchen with my former host mother, Ursula, even sleeping in the same room I occupied for a year as a teenager. Everything is simultaneously the same and different. The house is just as it was, but her two younger children are now grown and out of the house, and her husband, Hans-Josef, died a few years ago. I immediately remembered the walkways from the main street through the Siedlung to the house, but the streets seem much smaller than I remember. My concept of a big city has evolved quite a bit since I was 16, when in comparison with my hometown of 5,000 people, Gelsenkirchen (about the size of Dayton) seemed very large to me.
How do you afford three months in Europe, you might ask? Well, for one, it isn’t a vacation. I’m working as normal, just from a different time zone. I sublet my apartment in Cincinnati so my rent is covered and my cat has people to hang out with. The money I’m saving on rent more than covered my flight out here, and my housing in Germany is free. I’m sharing the costs of groceries (which are already very cheap here) with Ursula, and trying to pair up my excursions with assignments so I can write off the travel and keep getting paid. I’m basically saving money by living in Europe.
From this vantage point in northwestern Germany, I’m actually finding more stories to pitch — Quartz, which I regularly write for, is focused on international business, so being outside the US is advantageous. The rest of my freelance work is running as usual; I just had to ensure direct deposit was set up for payments for all my accounts or that clients were willing to mail checks to Germany (and I can then deposit them with my credit union’s app).
Where am I going this summer? Where aren’t I going? So far I’ve been to Berlin for a week, which was just as rad as everyone says, and then I flew back to the states for five days for YxYY in Palm Springs, which was totally worth the jet lag. The area I’m living in is close to Essen and Düsseldorf, which are also cities worth seeing, and I’m planning trips to Reykjavik, London and probably Berlin again before the end of the summer.
This past weekend I took the train to Munich, where I was writing a travel story for Cincinnati Magazine. From there I took the train to Friedrichshafen, where I wrote about the largest amateur radio meet in Europe. And then, just for kicks, I took a ferry across the Bodensee (Lake Constance) to spend a day in Zürich before flying back to Düsseldorf last night. The two stories I wrote just about paid for the entire excursion, so basically free trip!
Before I booked my flight, I was scared. I reached out to a Facebook group of women freelance writers I’m a part of for encouragement. Their general reaction was: “This sounds perfect, you’d regret not going, and if you don’t want to go, we’ll go.” Point taken. The stars aligned perfectly for this to happen, and it would be a smack in the face of the universe if I didn’t go.
From quitting my job to go freelance three years ago, I realized that I’m not afraid to shake things up in my life sometimes. I actually get antsy if things stay the same way for too long. “Great things happen outside our comfort zone,” one of my fellow ladywriters told me. And it’s so true.
I gotta give it up: 2014 has been an amazing year of travel for me. Being able to work from wherever I wanted was one of the major reasons I became self-employed to begin with. Two years into my freelance life, I’m racking up plenty of frequent flyer miles.
I started out 2014 with a trip to SXSW Interactive to write for Roll Call about the many members of Congress who were making appearances there. Then I headed to Greece to speak at the World of Crafters conference, a wonderful one-day event in Athens. Three other foreigners came from the U.S., Australia and Germany to speak, and we bonded over local wines and so many cheeses. I turned 32 while I was in Athens, and I was surprised by the ladies of Ftiaxto.gr with a profiterole cake at the speakers’ dinner. On my way back to Cincinnati, I stopped off in Paris and spent a few days there with an old friend I hadn’t seen in nearly a decade in a sunny studio apartment in the 3rd arrondissement. Many more cheeses and much more wine. In June I went to New York and D.C. for 10 days, crashing on friends’ couches and writing a story about the design unit of the United Nations and finally meeting my Roll Call colleagues in person. I hate hot weather, but July found me at YxYY, an unconference at the Ace Hotel in Palm Springs, where I spent three days making friends, making buttons and making the saltwater pool my home.
And now I’ve just spent two weeks in San Francisco. Initially I intended to spend a long weekend there to attend my good friend Jason‘s wedding, but then I found out about a longform nonfiction journalism conference happening at Berkeley and extended my stay, opening up the possibilities to see even more amazing authors and artists while I was in the Bay Area. Here’s what went down:
I’ve been reading William Gibson’s work for almost 20 years — I bought a chunky copy of “Idoru” when it came out in 1996, probably after reading about it somewhere like Sassy Magazine, and I’ve read it many times since, along with his many other novels.
He just so happened to be making appearances in the Bay Area the night I arrived and the day after, so I took a commuter bus up to Marin County to attend his signing at Book Passage. Gibson read from his new book “Peripheral,” cracking himself up at times, and then entertained many questions from the audience. I asked him how he builds a new world — considering how visually rich they are, I was imagining that he perhaps uses a sketchbook to collect imagery, or constructs a wiki or something. But he said he actually doesn’t take any notes at all. He just keeps thinking about everything, and if he forgets something, it probably wasn’t all that interesting anyway.
Chris Ware and Marjane Satrapi.
Both Jimmy Corrigan and Persepolis are books that I have and will continue to read annually. Seeing either one of them would have been reason enough to take the CalTrain down to Palo Alto, but seeing both of them at the same time? I would’ve gone anywhere. The event hosted by the Stanford Storytelling Project began with canned questions, but as the writers/artists got comfortable on stage, they started interacting with each other more and telling great stories.
I was able to ask the final question, based on something they’d both talked about earlier: how oppression and depression can be a catalyst for creation. I asked, “How do you work through your depression?” Marjane was quick to reply: “I didn’t work through my depression, the depression worked through me.” She then explained how when she is depressed she has spells of not being able to breathe. During one of these attacks, she called an ambulance, and then changed her mind about going anywhere once they arrived, trying to tell the medics that it was a mental problem, not a physical problem. But they strapped her to a gurney to take her down the stairs from her apartment anyways. The stairs made a tight turn, and as they tried to tilt her to get around it, they dropped her down the stairs and she ended up busting her head open, requiring stitches. And then she wrote “Persepolis.”
Chris Ware said: “I imagine that you’re asking this question because you’re a writer or other kind of creative person who is dealing with depression.” I nodded from my fourth-row seat. He said that being depressed often causes you to see things more clearly than you would like, and the only option is to work with it. And to get used to it, because it’s probably not going away.
Hearing these thoughtful answers from people whose work I admire so much makes me feel less alone with my own depression. I don’t like to talk about it much, because when I’m in the pit of it, I don’t think that anyone wants to listen to me anyway, and when I finally get out of it, talking about it seems self-indulgent. I assume people will ask what I have to be so sad about. And the answer isn’t anything in particular — that’s the whole deal and why it’s so terrible. A common uncomforting response from people who don’t deal with depression is “Well, at least you aren’t [other horrible thing or situation].” And that’s not really the point. Marjane actually said when talking about living through war — the every day realities are so stressful that you deal with it through humor. People can be dealing with depression in any situation. It has nothing to do with your place in the world and has everything to do with how your brain is processing information.
On a lighter note, earlier Marjane talked about how her parents gave her Russian comics about dialectical materialism when she was 10. Then Chris said that he thought her writing was quite like Tolstoy, which made her laugh. And Chris said he had given his daughter a copy of Persepolis when she was 9; his daughter read it and told him that she thought it was really inappropriate for a child.
Chris said there’s a parabola in every artist’s life — where you start wanting to make stuff but you aren’t making a living from it, but then when you become successful you sometimes wish you didn’t make a living from it. He wondered what it would be like to have a job he hated, to just go into work for eight hours and then go home and be done and not think about it anymore.
A student asked what their weirdest fan encounters were — Chris said it was a man in Holland when he was signing books with Dan Clowes. They spotted a large, sweaty man in line, who, when he got to the front of the line, he put down a piece of paper that had 16 pictures of otters on it, but two were cut out. He said, “I would like you to draw me an otter.” And so they did. (At the end of the night when they were about to sign books, the director of the Stanford Storytelling program said that the artists would not be able to do any drawings because of time restraints, but Chris said they would make an exception for otters.)
Marjane told a story about how she was in a Midwestern airport, and a lady sitting next to her told her basically her entire life’s story within 20 minutes. She asked where Marjane was from, and, not wanting to go into the whole story of her exodus from Iran, she said that she’d just come from France. “I have a question,” the lady replied. Marjane waited for an uncomfortable or overly personal one. She asked: “Can you see the moon from France?” Not wanting to have to explain a lifetime of science education to this 52-year-old Midwesterner, Marjane replied: “No.” “See?” the lady said. “That’s why America’s the greatest country on earth.”
And finally, a quote for the ages without context: “The Iranian government, they don’t like the book. That’s OK, I don’t like them either.” — Marjane Satrapi.
Narrative at Cal.
Along with getting to travel more, I’ve been able to be more picky about the writing assignments I take on. What I really want to write are the kinds of stories that take up residency in your brain for months or years. And then when you finally finish reporting them and writing them, they get to inhabit the brains of the people who read them. This conference at Berkeley was full of people who do just that. It was an intimate gathering — just about 85 people who maintained rapt attention for Jake Silverstein and Sewell Chan of the New York Times, Adam Gopnik and Daniel Zalewski of the New Yorker, Pulitzer Prize-winner Jacqui Banaszynski and many other incredibly accomplished journalists. Like so many conferences, the socializing in between sessions was just as good as the sessions themselves. Narrative at Cal inspired me to continue my research on a couple of back-burner stories I’ve been working on, and it made me a few great new friends. (Above is what happens when you invite Jacqui B. to get dinner with you.)
And art stuff.
Some friends and I took the Alcatraz ferry to see the Ai Weiwei exhibit on the island. The biggest thing I took away from seeing the installations is that I am a coward. You’ve got to see it for yourself. It will be up through April 2015.
The artist Lisa Congdon just created a bunch of new things for 826 Valencia, and I was able to stop by a party she had there. I am proud to call Lisa a friend, and she’s an amazing example of what happens when you focus on doing good work, not on achieving success. Her many interesting projects — borne of love and curiosity — have gotten the attention they deserve and let her make a living from her art.
I also was able to check out Renegade San Francisco with some crafty friends before I left town. Renegade is really the only indie craft show that’s managed to sustain itself in multiple cities (and countries, even, with the addition of its London show). The thing that surprised me most about Renegade was how homogenous craft trends have become across the country. I saw much of the same styles in San Francisco as I do in Cincinnati — but that’s a discussion for another post.
It’s hard to distill three weeks of traveling into one blog post. This road trip was a great entry into freelance life, but it’s crazy how fast it went. Living out of one suitcase became totally normal; staying in motion became instinctive. Every city had friends for me to see, things to do and places to go. I went into nearly every Barnes & Noble along my route to sign copies of my book.
Highlights of my trip include: Weathering a big storm during the Summit of Awesome in DC; seeing my great-aunt in Maryland; going to my good friend’s baby shower in NJ-suburban Philadelphia; hanging out with Mikey and Melissa in Philly; seeing PSY in Soho on the street; crashing with Karin and Ben in Bushwick; meeting up with Amy for drinks at Lavender Lake; stopping in Providence for an afternoon; lots of home cooking with Summer in Somerville, MA; doing research at the Corning Museum of Glass; going to the zine fair in Pittsburgh; getting Wendy’s for my grandma in Cleveland; seeing my buddy JT and his band Paper Route in Canton; and hanging out with my family back home. PHEW.
Big ups to Jessica and Michael for suggesting that I get an EZpass before going on the road — it saved me so much time on that East Coast corridor between DC and Boston. And I have to say that New York City driving was less terrible than I expected. I think driving in Pittsburgh prepared me for it pretty well.
These are the awesome handmade/craft shops I visited:
- by brooklyn in carroll gardens
- craftland in providence, RI
- magpie in somerville, MA
- wildcard in pittsburgh
- salty not sweet in cleveland
I keep meaning to post a full recap of my road trip, but it’s so hard to distill three weeks of living down to one blog post! I’m going to keep working on that, but in the meantime I thought I’d share what I learned about packing light for a long road trip.
Before the trip I googled stuff like “how to pack for a long trip” with little luck. The little good advice I found was for business travelers and always written for men. (Thanks for the suggestion of just taking one suit that I can wear during the day and out on the town, Internet.)
I started by making a list of all the things I thought I should bring on my three-week trip. I was travelling by car, but I was going to be in some big cities where I wouldn’t want to leave anything in it overnight. So restricting my stuff to one big suitcase was ideal. Then I edited down the list, on the advice of Mr. Glass, who knows a thing or two about travelling. And then I edited it down again as I was packing and running out of room.
One thing I didn’t account for in my packing was how much the temperature would change from early September in DC and New York (muggy and warm!) to upstate New York and Cleveland in mid- to late September (hella cold!). Whoops. But for a summertime trip I would’ve been good.
Here’s my final, annotated road trip packing list:
- one pair of jeans [cut from two]
- three skirts
- four dresses [two of which I wore over and over again — could’ve cut two]
- four short-sleeved tops and four tank tops [I needed more sleeved shirts, in retrospect]
- a cardigan
- a sweatshirt-like jacket [and then I had to buy a fleece jacket on the road when the cold crept up on me in upstate New York. So if I had to do this again, I’d add a real jacket to this list]
- 12 undies and 3 bras
- four pairs of socks
- two pairs of tights [but I only wore and rewore the super-opaque American Apparel tights — highly recommended]
- a pashmina scarf
- workout clothes [never used these]
- bathing suit [ditto]
- sleeping clothes
- flip flops, green flats, sneakers and black heels [never wore the heels]
- TECH ITEMS
- laptop and charger
- smartphone and charger
- iPod and car adapter [hardly used this]
- a clear makeup bag of toiletries and meds
- Sally Hansen nail strips [lasts so much longer than nail polish, though it’s a bitch to remove]
- 20 copies of my book
- a couple dozen of my cards and stickers to sell
- gifts for my hosts [9 cans of Cincinnati chili and sauce, basically. Luckily these went to the first people I visited on the trip]
- a cloth laundry bag and extra cloth totebags
- small craft kit [hardly used it, but it was small]
books to read[initially on my list, but I scratched it when I realized every person I was staying with would have plenty of things for me to read]
- a few NYT Magazines [lightweight and easy to roll up]
- an umbrella [bought at the MOMA store]
- NPR mug [best pledge drive investment ever — works for hot and cold drinks]
- tea, emergenC, instant coffee packs, bottle of water
- granola bars, almonds, mints, oatmeal packets, microwave popcorn
All that stuff fit into one big suitcase (a cheapo Target suitcase that is on its last legs), a messenger bag (for the computer), my handbag, and a totebag for the snacks and drinks. Half of my books I put into the bottom of my suitcase; the other half I mailed to myself at my roadtrip’s halfway point in Boston. Best idea ever.
Another thing I did and highly recommend was get a clear plastic storage cube to use as a divider in my suitcase. All my small items (socks, bras, toiletry bag, toothpaste, etc.) I put in there in the top, which kept them from getting lost in the bottom of my suitcase. And, of course, crashing with friends almost everywhere along the way meant I had the chance to do laundry.
I was seriously skeptical about my ability to live out of a suitcase for three weeks, but I got used to it really quickly. Makes me wonder what I’m doing with a closet full of stuff…
So, as you know, I recently gave notice at my day job. And my new craft business book just came out! One of the things I’m most excited about as I enter the wild world of full-time freelancing is a DIY book tour/road trip I’m doing in September!
Basically, I’m packing up the old Prius and going on the road, talking about craft biz, hanging out with friends and seeing much of the eastern half of the country. I’ve got a lot of gigs lined up, but I’d love to add more! Specifically, I don’t have anything lined up yet for New York City/Brooklyn, upstate New York or Boston yet. (And I’d also love to go to Chicago, Toronto, Detroit, the Southeast, the Northwest — basically everywhere.) Want me to speak at your craft store or event? Email me!
Here’s my in-progress schedule of craft workshops and appearances:
- Saturday, Sept. 8 — Washington, DC — Summit of Awesome
I’ll be doing a bookbinding workshop and talking about getting published at this one-day craft business conference!
- Wednesday, Sept. 12 — Brooklyn, NY — t.b.d. Brooklyn
I’m putting together a totally informal Creative Business Drinkup! Anyone who’s into creative entrepreneurship is welcome.
- Saturday, Sept. 15 — Providence, RI — Craftland
Never been to the smallest state before, so I’m stoked to do my getting published workshop at Craftland. 3 to 4 p.m.
- Sunday, Sept. 23 — Pittsburgh, PA — WildCard
Meet-the-author crafty brunch! 12 to 2 p.m.
- Tuesday, Sept. 25 — Cleveland, OH — Salty Not Sweet
Tentative topic: Everything you need to know about craft shows. Details are still being finalized!
- Saturday, Sept. 29 — Indianapolis, IN — Homespun
This is going to be a two-hour mega-workshop about using social media and how to get published. 2:30 to 4:30 p.m.
- Saturday, Oct. 6 — Columbus, OH — Wholly Craft
Details are still being finalized!
During a recent whirlwind trip to Chicago, one place I didn’t make it to was the Boring Store (certainly not a secret agent store). As someone who’s been mopped at the Pirate Store at 826 Valencia, I’m surprised I forgot it was in Chicago. And at one point I was even less than a mile away at Quimby’s. (But I was only in town for 24 hours, and there were a lot of pizzas to see.)
Anyway, as I was looking at the Boring Store’s location on Google Maps, I noticed something curious:
That woman in the sunglasses looks awfully suspicious. Think about it—if you were a secret agent, wouldn’t you carry around a yoga bag as a decoy prop while hanging out nonchalantly in front of your favorite spy store?