Writing From the Right Side of the Stall

Mucking stalls. Freelance writing. How do they differ? I discuss.

Champagne Taste, Kool-Aid Budget

Reconnecting with travel writing has brought home to me just what a nasty, mean, cheap little life I’ve been leading.

Not that I have high expectations.  I’m a barn rat, after all — wind, rain, exceptionally unglamourous (and oft-times unflattering) clothing, all manners of filth, and wheelbarrows full of shit and shavings have all been a life choice for me.

I had a solid middle-class upbringing.  Wasn’t deprived of very much (although my parents didn’t exactly encourage my riding career and forbade me to get a horse of my own until I was 16 and could drive myself to the barn — I thought it was severe deprivation at the time but you’ll be ecstatic to know, Mom and Dad, that I Get It now).  I was encouraged to work to pay for my passions, if only by digging dandelions or flinging the Globe and Mail onto people’s lawns at some ungodly hour of the morning … and we had vacations, generally of the Holiday Inn rather than Hilton variety.

The truth has been whacking us all upside the head for decades now, and still neither my generation nor my parents’ can quite wrap our gray matter around the fact that I (and my generational compatriots, for the most part) are never going to achieve the financial or social status our parents found relatively easily, by getting degrees, landing jobs, doing those jobs for three to four decades and then retiring to a modest, but adequate pension and a great, wallowing RV that gets 50 yards to the gallon.  That dog no longer hunts.

And yeah, I didn’t exactly help myself by continually bucking trends.  Everyone else got an MBA.  I had to pursue microbiology, of all things (and that was a second choice when it turned out that astrophysics and I weren’t as compatible as I’d hoped).

Hey, at least I had the foresight not to go after that BFA Music Theatre degree.  Couldn’t see that feeding the horses for any length of time …

But I did end up in journalism, and seriously, that’s just about as practical.  Way to go, girl.

I can’t say it’s inevitable that you develop a bit of a disconnect between your income and your appreciation for the finer things, when you’re raised by academics, because my brother had essentially the same upbringing and (unless this has recently changed and he has failed to disclose it) he has absolutely no interest in going to museums or the theatre, much less the ballet.  Culture just didn’t stick with him, or if it did, it was totally outranked and ground into the dirt by football and hockey.

Maybe that’s not so much upbringing as testosterone, come to think of it.

Me?  Love me a good museum.  Practically grew up in an art gallery.  Would spend my last dime on a ticket to a musical.  (Have, on occasion.)  Yearn hopelessly after a nice ballet, tickets for which have ascended into an unreachable (for me) stratosphere.  And I don’t really see the point of having a totally mediocre and uninspiring restaurant meal at, say, Swiss Chalet, when for a dollar or two more (if you’re clever) you can find a little hole-in-the-wall bistro which serves up the most astonishing phyllo pastry fennel arugula seabream confit confection, with foam (or is foam declasse now?), that you’ve ever had dancing on your tongue.

Life, as they say, is too short to drink cheap wine.

The gulf between my hankerings and my budget, these days, is ever-widening, I fear.  A global warming thing, perhaps?  (I have this vision of being one of those hapless polar bears, floating on a little patch of ice in an endless, melting arctic sea.)  More likely, an economic downturn thing, with me circling the drain perhaps just a wee bit closer to the hole than most people.

Gradually, I have been forced to pare away all the little joys of life.  Eating out.  Movies.  Vacations.  Satellite TV (I get by with an antenna these days).  The National Ballet keeps calling, the merciless bastards, asking in the sweetest British dulcet tones whether I would like orchestra seats for Giselle.  Or better yet, a season subscription, which is such a great deal and allows you to exchange your tickets for a different evening should your schedule change, all to accommodate the modern ballet patron.  Arrrrgghh.

Yes, I would like orchestra seats for Giselle please.  My birthday’s coming up … just tuck a couple into an envelope for me, won’t you darling?

No?  Then at least do me a solid and stop tormenting me by calling?

Though a host of horoscopes keep promising me that things are going to get Ever So Much Better Really Really Soon (I’m sure the astrological forecast on the day of my death will be particularly rosy, and I am tempted to leave instructions to etch it on my tombstone), the financial angst that comes with freelancing seems to have taken up permanent residency in my squishy bits.  It knots my intestines all my waking hours and keeps me up at night.  (Don’t ask what time of the morning I am writing this damn thing.)

This past week, I was briefly able to leave it behind, or at least loosen the knots just a smidge, thanks to the exceptionally kind folks at Charlevoix Tourism, who invited me on one of their midwinter press junkets to experience that region of Quebec.  I’m not going to get into the specifics of the trip because that’s for the paying customers, i.e. the magazines and websites who I hope will be fascinated by my adventures, and gobsmacked by the sheer street cred I earned by peeling off a staggering number of layers to squat and pee bare-assed in a blizzard (behind a spruce, my feeble attempt at privacy).  This was an act of desperation, I assure you, and has nothing to do with this whole Champagne Taste, Kool-Aid Budget theme … but I mean, what editor could resist a story like that?  Seriously.

I promise I’ll post links (um, not to the peeing specifically, because I rather hope that was not caught on film).  Update:  you have a link! — ed.

As I’ve mentioned previously (and I know you read all of my blog posts religiously), I am not one of the big players in travel writing, so to get this invite was a very pleasant surprise.  Do NOT get me wrong, because these FAM trips are so, so, so not a vacation when you’re taking notes and shooting JPG+RAW and hoping the damn light will cooperate and that your camera sensor won’t freeze in the blizzard, and setting up shots and asking questions of the proprietors and collecting press kits and such … but they still are such a wonderful change from regular life at the home office.

There were very nice hotels.  With turn-down service and little treats on the pillows, and actual big fluffy towels that actually dry you.  Given that my standard hotel these days, when I am forced to use one, is more of the Super Eight variety or worse, a king-sized bed with a goose-down duvet almost borders on the ridiculous, but by gawd, I’m gonna sleep in it anyway.  And given that I usually tote my own towel to these Super Eights because the ones they provide are several lightyears beyond parsimonious and useless, it was the height of luxury not to have to put a nasty, damp towel back in my suitcase.

And there was food.  OMG there was food.  Again, without blowing my wad on the story here, Charlevoix, Quebec is an undiscovered foodie paradise.  Venison carpaccio.  Quite possibly the best onion soup gratinee I have ever picked out of my teeth.  Amuse-bouches of wild mushrooms on phyllo pastry (you might have noticed a certain obsession with phyllo pastry … truth is, I’ll eat just about anything if it comes on, or in, phyllo).  Tender, tender escargot swimming in garlic butter and cream.  And wapiti (that’s elk) Wellington (ooh, more pastry). Maple sugar breakfast crepes.  Duck foie gras.  Artisanal cheeses, and of course proper croissants with proper butter.

I vowed to myself to revel in the experience as fully as I could and eat everything that was put in front of me, even stuff I normally don’t like — and I did, and all of it was wonderful.

And I put on four pounds in six days, but WTF.

So now it’s back to the afore-pictured Kraft Dinner, angsting about all my unpaid bills, and doing incantations at the mailbox every day, hoping a cheque will arrive which will forestall my landlord evicting me.

But I did bring home a little slab of incredible sheeps’ milk blue cheese, and a tiny pot of the most exquisite strawberry jam with cinnamon in it.  Which might just get me through.

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6 thoughts on “Champagne Taste, Kool-Aid Budget

  1. Ah Karen, I too suffer from champagne taste and a beer budget, so I thoroughly enjoyed this little treatise on diminishing lifestyles. I was raised by middle class parents: my mum was a piano teacher (formerly a concert pianist) and my dad a piano tuner. I learned to play the violin before I was 3 and dutifully trotted off to the Royal Academy of Music in London planning on a career in that field – until I learned that unless you were that rare prodigy, you could plan on starving to death teaching small children to torture ear drums by shouldering their cats and pulling their tails!

    So instead, like you, I yearn to attend the occasional concert or other cultural happening – and instead read the reviews in the paper while snacking on the usual less-than-gourmet fare that can be afforded on a freelancer’s subsistence income.

    That said, your descriptions sound delightful! I’m sure the (paid) articles will entice throngs of people to the area to patronize the businesses you describe (adventures in outdoor toileting aside)! Great story!

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    • I think I should really have called it a ‘tap water budget’ … even Kool-Aid is getting beyond my reach, and beer is completely out of the question. Sigh. I know a little about the music thing … I stuck with piano till I got my RC grade 8 (with the same realization you had), and I studied singing as well, where I eventually discovered that while my voice had some quality, I wasn’t destined to be a top-quality opera star and a soprano repertoire isn’t exactly in commercial demand as far as singing with bands and such. Apart from singing at all my friends’ weddings over the years (which, hey, saves me buying bridesmaids’ dresses) my music career has gone nowhere.

      On the spectator side, though, I have discovered that small-town symphonies are often fairly affordable … I can’t swing tickets to the TSO, for example, but the Scarborough Philharmonic has many of the same players and their concerts go for $25-30.

      And while they might be performing in a high school gymnasium, at least there’s indoor plumbing. 😉

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  2. It makes me sad to think that arts and culture gets cut when money runs low but it makes practical sense – putting food on the table and keeping the electricity running is far more essential. Sometimes I’m envious of people who spend all their money on movies or fashion or art while living in squalour just so they can pay for their real passions. There’s something really romantic about the starving artist.

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    • Puccini certainly got a lot of mileage out of the starving artist thing. Not sure what my excuse is, since writing non-fiction (as opposed to that Great Canadian Novel, or even more romantic … poetry) isn’t generally considered so much art as craft. I’m certainly doing some version of freezing in a garrett for my lifestyle, though!

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  3. Great story! The food sounds sinful.

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