Travelling Changes your Personal Aesthetic

Courtesy of Jezebel:


When I quit my job in New York to go backpacking in South America, I agonized over what to pack. I couldn’t, for instance, not bring my Ferragamo flats, even if it meant ruining their soles on dirt paths and crumbling cobblestones. I certainly couldn’t leave behind my beloved red lipstick—I wanted it for nights out salsa dancing, or when I needed to feel myself. It was a reliable pick-me-up, an armor against insecurity. But I left behind everything else: my makeup bag full of OPI and Essie nail polishes in shades of red and gray and green, expensive top-coats with specks of gold glitter, black eyeliner and mascara and dozens of tubes of lipstick—neutral to crimson to pretty in pink. I’d left my satin gloves and pearl necklaces and flapper dresses.

Consciously, I’d decided to leave behind the New York fantasy I had built for myself, a fantasy built in no small part on clothes. Still, I refused to buy a pair of hiking shoes. I couldn’t stand the way they looked: clumsy, heavy, ugly mud brown.

I wore a v-neck t-shirt, jeans, and an old cardigan at the airport. I did not feel myself. I sat across a perfectly coiffed Colombian woman with a Hermès Birkin in her lap. I frantically texted my friend: I feel so underdressed. My hiking backpack, with its countless, messy straps, didn’t lend me an air of sophistication.

I love clothes. I always have. In the earliest days when fashion blogs were just beginning to sprout, I posted daily outfits to a Flickr group. Fashion was novel and exciting, and it was a way to distinguish myself. I loved losing myself in editorials, in beauty and glamour. I loved the transformative power of clothes, how changing your outfit meant changing your persona.

On the road, my aesthetic changed. It was a slow, subtle process. It became looser and easier the longer I was away. In New York I loved silk shirts and tailored blazers and pencil skirts. In South America, I bought feather earrings and macramé necklaces made from natural stones. My single pair of jeans became worn out with holes. I never put on my red lipstick. And I learned the depth of my mistake about the hiking shoes: I went hiking for the first time in the rocky, jagged mountains of Colombia wearing gym shoes that had tractionless white soles. It was completely miserable.

So I stopped worrying about it, and I got hiking shoes. There was so much more to do. There were hikes to go on and waterfalls to swim in and cities to explore. If anything, I wanted to play down my Western clothes. It was easier to explore Latin America as a young woman alone if I was less conspicuous, and so it was jeans and t-shirts and a local bag. On the nights I did go out with fellow travelers, everyone else was rumpled too. At least I had my Ferragamos. That was the only thing that tied me to the past, my fancy New York persona. Once, someone recognized the brand and laughed. They became worn down, too, holes on the toes, the heels. I took them to a cobbler in a small Peruvian city, and afterwards, the shoes looked industrial. I could have cried. I desperately missed my favorite cobbler in Williamsburg, who worked miracles restoring the shoes once every couple of months.

Still, there was a certain joy in abandoning myself to the world around me, which meant becoming a hippie. The travelers who dressed very well—the girls with heels in their backpack—were a different kind of traveler: prone to dancing and drinking in hostels full of Westerners, and not so much exploring dusty, neglected towns and mountains with unmarked trails alone.

After seven months of backpacking in South America, I came back to New York for a visit.

I felt shocked by the style all around me. I kept staring at clothes of strangers. I admired the gold buckles of boots and the sharp silhouettes of coats. I looked at stylish haircuts and dangling earrings. I’d been lost for so long in a world of Keen sandals and alpaca sweaters.

“You look exhausted,” a friend told me at dinner. We were at a West Village restaurant that served complicated classics: tiny corn dog appetizers paired with curated sauces. I felt the sting even as I smiled and said, oh, I’m not.

I was happy, actually, overwhelmed by the sudden return to the city, the Western world, but blissed-out from my travels. But then again: I wasn’t wearing makeup. My t-shirt had holes in the neckline. My woven bag from Colombia was tattered and pilled.

It shouldn’t have mattered. But so much of my identity as a New Yorker had been built around a certain attitude, a certain look. It alarmed me that, so quickly, I’d become a stranger.

So I left again. Traveling in Asia, I became fully unrecognizable in comparison to old selfies: me with lush bangs, cat eyeliner. On the road, sometimes I’d dig up the photos and show them to the people I met. What happened, a man in China exclaimed. He was not enthusiastic about my short hair, my makeup-free face. In big cities in China, it set me apart as an outsider, where most young women looked like dolls in pastel-hued dresses. Sometimes, I got the hippie approval. A rock climber in Yangshuo told me it suited me better. Mostly, I agreed.

Nearly two years after I first left, I moved back to New York. I didn’t think I’d stay—I only intended to visit before heading off on another trip. But then I fell back in love with the city, and I couldn’t go.

This time, I had only my backpacking clothes (all of it fit inside one tote bag). For the winter, I bought just one new thing: a black wool coat that I wore every day. Remarkably, my backpacker clothes served just as well in NYC.

This time, I found the balance between two worlds that once felt contradictory. Now, I wear clothes until they are absolutely undone. Half of my wardrobe comes from my travels: oversized cotton shirts and long linen skirts, pashmina scarves and wool shawls from China, Peru, Nepal. I’m still fond of clothes that let you walk long hours and sleep on couches, clothes for grass and sand and mountains, clothes that are quickly washable and not so delicate. And I’ve also grown fond, again, of my city shoes and fancy jewelry: leather oxfords and loafers with intricate beading, a ring of diamonds and rose gold.

The only thing I’ve left behind for good is the performance of beauty. When my friends tell me about new hair treatments or shopping trips to Sephora, I listen blankly. But then, still, some days, I curl my lashes, sweep on blush, and put on tinted lip balm. But I don’t spend too much time before the mirror. Instead, I go for long walks in neighborhoods I don’t know, and turn my face up to the sun.

Laura Yan is a writer, wanderer, and sketcher of strangers. She does not know where she is going next. She tweets @noirony.

Photos via Laura Yan.


My Kijiji problem

I have a Kijiji problem, a very serious one. Most people browse in stores; I browse on Kijiji. Most people who visit Kijiji are looking for something specific. I peruse the furniture section quite often, just in case there is a good deal to be had that I don’t want to miss out on. FOMO at its finest.

This is all rooted in my less-than-average decorating skills. It’s also related to my small decorating budget. I might find a furniture piece that isn’t the perfect colour or size, but it’s close enough and is free or at least very cheap. My search then continues for the correct item, but meanwhile my family has a much-needed piece of furniture. I may have mentioned the dresser, wardrobe, and nightstand we got for a total of $30, simply because the seller was desperate. These pieces are circa 1960s, coloured green with mirrors on the drawer fronts. Soooo very cool and when I get tired of them I can put them out in front of our house for someone else to take, without feeling the least bit wasteful.

I sometimes find items on residential sidewalks. I’ve also left my own discarded items on the sidewalk in front of our house at times for others to pick up. Last week I left a non-functioning dryer (we had tried to repair it and failed) and an under-performing washer out on the front sidewalk. Someone picked them up and I hope were able to use them.

Husband I frequent Restore (Habitat for Humanity) often as well, even if we don’t need anything in particular. I marvel at the old wooden doors there, and full kitchen cabinet sets. There are appliances there too but we’ve never taken the risk of buying them.

Craigslist used to be my go-to, and I still look there occasionally. For some reason, there aren’t as many nice items on that site as there used to be. Most of the items wouldn’t be welcome at a rummage or garage sale; they are full of cat scratches/pee/fur, or very dirty upholstery, or missing important parts, or are already out at the curb. The curb posts are the most unreliable, because probably that item has already been taken and if it hasn’t that’s because it has been rained or snowed on, and so I don’t want it anyway.

Last night Husband and I went to look at a sleeper couch for sale that I thought would be great in the basement apartment.  We often get inquiries for renting the place from 2 adults plus a child, or 2 adults who are not in a romantic relationship and so would prefer not to share a queen-sized bed. The mechanics of getting the couch out of the seller’s apartment, and then into the elevator, and then across the large courtyard out to the street and into our car were so complicated that I said No Thanks. Onward and upward, the search continues…


Handwashing: You’re Doing it Wrong

This, according to a Yummy Mummy post I just received in my Inbox. Of course I am doing it wrong. OF COURSE. We are also destroying our environment, don’t worry I haven’t forgotten that my children and grandchildren will live in a barren wasteland by the time they are my age.

I’m in the office a lot these days (as opposed to working from home, which I had been doing, because of the project I was working on previously), and so I do a lot more browsing in the stores around here. This activity is sort of fun for me, no guilt, just browsing. Today I cruised around Bed Bath and Beyond, and enumerated all the ways in which my home could function better, be cleaner, and be better decorated. I do have a good supply of Febreeze at my house and I use a lot of it. Otherwise, my home would be taken over by teenage boy smell and dog smell. I had to actually tell boy midget that now that he is 13, he must shower every day, and that shower must include shampoo and soap. If I am not specific about using cleaning products, he simply gets himself wet, then jumps out and considers the matter of showering settled.

It seems that either I’m being convinced I need to buy something through browsing, or through TV commercials. That is, if I choose to be influenced this way.

I have a kijiji problem. And a craigslist problem. These problems feed into my furniture-moving-and-exchanging hobby, although I haven’t moved anything in a while. Mostly I’m focussed on purging. I think that’s a typical January impulse, once I put away all of the holiday decor (and why hasn’t anyone mass-marketed Hannukah stuff yet?) and all of the new items we have been blessed to receive need to find a new place in our home.

I am very interested in tiny house living, and regularly watch Tiny House Nation. I love miniature stuff, so this concept really appeals to me, but also because living in such a small space would cause me to prioritize my belongings and simplify my lifestyle quite a bit. Today I came across an article that explains the downsides of tiny house living, in terms I can well understand and makes me wonder why I thought it would ever be a good idea for me to live in a tiny house in the first place.

I also read a lot of articles on Apartment Therapy, on which there are a lot of articles on how to live in a tiny space, and an annual Small Cool contest on the best laid-out apartments. So, one could drive oneself crazy with only the minimum of effort. Or one could arrive home after working all day, throw a frozen meal into the oven for the family, and plop face-down on one’s soft warm bed and lay there for 45 minutes.