About that famous New York Times job…

Back in October, The New York Times announced it was looking for someone to spend one year visiting each of the 52 Places on their 2018 52 Places to Go list. Some considered it a dream job; others thought it sounded like a nightmare; and a few more joked about it. I was somewhere in the middle. But when, in a matter of 48 hours, 22 people, on three forms of social media reached out and insisted I apply, I thought, “Gee, thanks!” and “OK, yea, why not?” So, along with about 13,000 other people I submitted an application.

Yes, I even documented my submission.

As you may now know, I didn’t “win”—an odd way to describe it, but the call for submissions and the surrounding hoo-ha that ensued felt more like a reality show competition than it did a professional job opportunity, which makes their choice even more surprising. In the end, they hired someone with actual journalistic chops from their own backyard(ish) as opposed to an influencer with a gazillion (likely paid-for) followers and more selfies than landscapes on their Instagram account. (Hers, by the way, increased organically from 1K to 10K followers overnight.)  

While I don’t know Jada Yuan personally, I recall attending many of the same events as her during my days covering entertainment for the New York Post. I read her Party Lines column in New York Mag weekly and then the larger profiles she did for them as the years went on; becoming acutely aware and impressed when her byline started to appear on the cover. According to her video submission, which top-tier applicants were asked to submit, she always felt there was “a part of her soul that wasn’t being filled up except when she travels.” Don’t I know it.

I’m not bitter that it’s her and not me, though. (I say this as if I were actually in the running, which I was not. But I digress.) Sure, it stings a little that it went to someone with a fairly similar professional and personal profile (she’s also turning 40 this year) as opposed to a complete Wild Card. But I‘m quite happy about their decision to a) choose a woman and b) one with legit credentials who feels a calling to go beyond her own personal—and professional—borders, and those of the world we live in. I’ve always enjoyed her writing and will be championing her journey. 

In the end, I’m proud of the application I submitted despite overthinking it every step of the way. (Seriously, “The most interesting place I’ve ever been”??? Just one? And could the word “interesting” be any more vague? I contemplated throwing it back to the Australian outback in my 20s and then Lake Atitlan in my early 30s. But what about Cinque Terre, Ubud and Marrakech? Do I go straight and narrow, I wondered, or a little off-center?)

I was humbled by how many of you felt I was worthy of the role, so I thought I’d post what I came up with here. In addition to the highlighted questions below, we were also asked to submit three pieces of published work and TWO photos, which I only realized after I narrowed it down to 15 following a good five hours of scrolling through images spanning 12 years (and at least as many countries). I’ve included them below, too.

Some may find my answers surprising. Others may think they’re apropos. But either way, they’re uniquely me and they’ll probably give you some insight as to where my head is out re: traveling these days. There’s also a clue to a potential new project in the works.

Thanks, as always, for supporting my journey and believing in me along the way. Everything happens for a reason, oui? Je pense que oui, aussi. I think so, too. And while I may not have been The Chosen One, I’m still going places.

What was your most recent trip?
My most recent trip was to Montenegro. I’d been to Slovenia and Croatia some years back and while traveling the Balkan States heard mumblings about this neighboring country the size of Connecticut. I had plans to meet my mother in Tel Aviv at the time—not a bad problem to have, sure—so it prevented me from hopping across the border on a whim. When my parents announced they’d be passing through the town of Kotor on a Dalmatian Coast cruise this past September, I decided to meet them from Paris, where I live, and plan a weeklong trip around it.

Unfortunately, I didn’t find as many Montenegrin delights as I’d hoped. The food was lackluster and the beaches not nearly as dreamy as Croatia’s rocky shores. I learned the country is best explored by car and someone unafraid of single-lane curvy roads, which, sadly, is not me. My two best days involved receiving, quite possibly, the best manicure of my life followed by a hike to cliffside ruins at sunset, and then touring the ancient cities of Kotor and Perast with my parents followed by a horribly garish buffet meal aboard their Windstar ship that was only tolerable because it was with Mom and Dad who I don’t see often now that live in France.

Where is the most interesting place you’ve been?
If I’m really being honest, the most interesting place I’ve been…is the place I haven’t been yet because I’m excited by the unknown. I love the challenge of navigating out of a new airport to my intended destination without being sure if I’m on the right bus or how long it’ll take. Sure, it also creates crazy anxiety, but the satisfaction of figuring it out while learning something is immensely rewarding. That’s not to say I don’t plan ahead; I’m a true Virgo and a bit Type A. But to me, places are “interesting” when there’s a purpose for exploring them and a wide margin for discovering something new, which often means previously untapped territories with a high potential for, say, being amazed by a giant salt lake in the middle of the Australian outback or inspired by an Israeli fashion designer in Marrakesh or surprised that cockles aren’t actually served in cones on England’s seashore as I’d been told.

Let’s go with that one, shall we?

My interest in finding these delicacies stemmed from a curiosity to learn more about, and possibly contribute to, the family business—a four-generation seafood distribution company, which my great-grandfather Norman started in 1947. Today, Norman’s imports everything from Greek branzino to Dutch sole to the U.S., but my father’s claim-to-fame are the New Zealand-based bivalves known as cockles.

When a Kiwi friend of mine found out that we gave him the nickname “The Cockle King,” she asked if I’d ever eaten cockles from a paper cone, as they are commonly served near the English seaside.

The wandering foodie in me was intrigued. What kind of cone? Were they sauced or served plain? Shelled or naked? I became convinced that “cockles-in-a-cone” could be just the ticket to bringing Norman’s into the 21st century—and this old-worldly English tradition stateside. I could be at the helm of a legion of food trucks sporting a menu of punny artisanal options—French-style “cockles-au-vin,” for instance, or curry-flavored “Bangcockles.”

While living in England for a few months in 2013, I learned that cockles are a specialty of Leigh-on-Sea, a small fishing village in Essex about 90-minutes by train from London. When my brother, the fourth generation of the family business, came to visit we decided to join hordes of locals waiting in the streets for their fill of the delicacy. 

Immediately, I was charmed by the anchored boats resting on muddy land caused by the afternoon’s low-tide—a scene I was familiar with having grown up in Oceanside on Long Island’s south shore.

To my surprise, Osborne Bros., which opened in 1880 and is one of the oldest cockle merchants in Essex, didn’t serve them in cones, but rather in styrofoam cups or on plates with jellied eels, crab claw meat and prawns. Eaten cold with a spork and a dash of vinegar, they were a bit sandy and fishy for my taste, but they fit well with the kelp-y, moody breeze coming off Leigh-on-Sea, a place whose familiarity ironically contributed to its exoticism.

Like Yankee fans who devour hot dogs at a ballgame, the shellfish-eating tradition here is just as ordinary—at least to the locals. But to the foreigner who delights in remote small pleasures, this seaside spot offered more than just slimy suckers served however they’re served, but an otherworldly sense of belonging, which is more than any traveler can hope for when far from home.

What are some travel themes you’d explore?
As a 39-year-old single woman who’s been traveling on her own since her parents signed her up (without knowing a soul) for a European teen tour circa 1994, I’d aim to explore the theme of independent explorations: What works, what doesn’t and where? For example, whenever I say, “Table for one, please” at a restaurant, the reactions vary: Some hosts whisk me away to the worst table in the house and remove the other table setting immediately (L’Endroit in Honfleur, France), while others make a point to light the mood candle in front of me and suggest off-menu dishes (Mama’s in Sagres, Portugal). How can I, as a traveler and journalist, help proprietors comfort such brave travelers as they seek out delicious meals alone? And, of course, how can I ensure likeminded foodies enjoy such experiences without feeling isolated and judged? Furthermore, how do we use such seemingly mortifying situations to our advantage? To wit, I standby the belief that traveling alone is actually the best way to meet other people—especially when dining. If I were with a partner or a friend or a sibling, I might not be as willing to strike up a conversation with the couple next to me to learn such tips as start your Cinque Terre hike in Riomaggiore for a slow burn, and save the Vernazza-to-Monterosso portion for another day; or the only way to keep the mosquitos at bay in Ubud, Bali are the incense coils for sale at the local grocery.

This brings me to another theme I’d like to address: the importance of meeting locals and ingraining oneself among them before, during and after travels. With social media platforms, this has become so much more attainable and, as an independent traveler, even more beneficial. From Facebook groups and MeetUp to Airbnb Experiences and EatWith, there’s an increasing amount of options to help travelers cultivate genuine experiences in foreign places and I’d like to explore these further.

After all, to discover the real heart of a city, one must go beyond the monuments and four-star restaurants. They must go into people’s homes for a meal or to their yoga studios for a vinyasa class. People are hungry for experiential moments; experiences that expose more authenticity than the Louvre or the Great Wall or Big Ben. Of course, skipping the tourist attractions for something more ordinary is not for everyone, but aside from the Instagram photo one gets by visiting a city’s No. 1 Tourist Trap, the most “likable” snapshot one is likely to get is the one shared in the moment, amongst oneself and a community of locals—not a newsfeed.

That said, the importance of social media can’t be denied, but exposing what’s behind the frame of a photo is imperative, too, which is why transparency and truth in travel is another theme I’d focus on. While our job as travel journalists is to share the beauty we find in the world, it’s also important to humanize the experience by being forthright about bumps and hiccups along the way. After all, these are often the most memorable and entertaining stories because they’re relatable, honest and filterless. 

click images to enlarge

2 thoughts on “About that famous New York Times job…

  1. I think it was a great submission! And to tell you the truth I found the NYTs choices for 2018 a bit lackluster… I look forward to reading / seeing your articles in a variety of outlets. It’s always fun to see your articles pop up here and there, but I was most thrilled to see an article of yours in the WSJ as I boarded a flight from Buenos Aires to Frankfurt! It was then that I realized what an impact (a positive one!) you have via your writing on people (friends or those unknown) around the world! Here’s to a great 2018 and bon voyage on your next journey!

  2. Ditto Dave! and not just because I’m her mother! Keep traveling AND writing about it Sara! xoxo

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