South East Asia: New adventures! by Jessica Lee

Biking around Koh Chang, Thailand

Biking around Koh Chang, Thailand

They say with every closed door, a new one opens. And to be honest, I couldn't wait for this aforementioned door to shut fast enough. I've been wanting to do this South East Asia trip since 2012 and each time, something was in the way. But now it's finally happening. I've been in Thailand for the last couple of days and can't wait to see more of the world and take some photos too.

I've been updating Instagram the most often, and you can follow along on my adventures from there.

A wedding (and roadtrip) in Madison, Maine by Jessica Lee

In mid-June, just as Summer was starting to bubble to its boiling point, I drove East for a week to photograph my friend Flora's Maine wedding. Along the way, I stopped in to say hi to my friends in Montreal (I lived there for a year in 2015), had the best pho in my life, enjoyed poutine in the park, made an awkward rest-stop and had a run-in (literally) with some wildlife. While in Maine, I also managed to stop at Bar Harbor and eat lobster three times before leaving.

Self-portrait on the outskirts of Sherbrooke, QC

Self-portrait on the outskirts of Sherbrooke, QC

The drive from Toronto to Montreal on Friday was uneventful. When I arrived, I caught up with my friend Greg, who was talking about wanting to do some beekeeping when I left Montreal last year. He updated me on his life and I was glad to hear that he had taken up beekeeping with a Montreal non-profit and also now runs guided tours for beekeepers in Nicaragua. Incredibly random, but so awesome at the same time. I spent the rest of my short time in Montreal catching up with friends and stocking up on goodies. The day after, I drove to Maine.

My friend Greg, holding a hive frame at the Insectarium in Montreal.

My friend Greg, holding a hive frame at the Insectarium in Montreal.

I arrived at the U.S. border around 9:30 pm at night and drove as the sun was fading on a country road for another hour or so. The U.S. board official wished me a fun wedding and warned me about moose on the road (foreshadowing?).

Sure enough, on the way in, I almost hit a deer before it scampered off into the woods. I arrived to the wedding grounds, Lakewood Golf Course, said hi to the bride and groom and headed to bed.

The next day was the wedding. Here are a few highlights:

The wedding came and went without a hitch. I was happy to make some beautiful photos and touched to be included in the special day. I left Lakewood Golf Course in high spirits and headed to Bar Harbor, Maine, which had intense, but charming Dawson's Creek vibes. I had a lunch of lobster with a view of the harbour (fantastic), then stopped for a lobster roll on the way back for dinner (also fantastic). The lobster roll place (on the side of a country road) was also known for winning a couple of ice-cream competitions, so I sampled some delicious ice-cream too.

But of course, the story isn't complete without some mishap along the way. While driving on another country road at night on the way back to Toronto, I came across two moose standing in the middle of the road. I slammed the brakes but still ended up rear-ending one of the moose with my car. The moose ran off into the woods and no one was hurt. The only damages were my shattered windshield, and a dashed perfect driving record.

Things I learned in 2015 by Jessica Lee

San Diego, U.S.A.

San Diego, U.S.A.

I began January 2015 in San Diego, California, a place where I realized I was at the happiest in my 20’s. It was a big gamble to go to California for a month at this time because though I knew I needed a break from the Winter in Canada, I still wanted and needed to hold on to my job in Montreal and also I needed to watch my budget. However, the sunshine, break and change of lifestyle was exactly what I needed to refresh myself to get ready for the rest of 2015.

San Diego also taught me a lot about myself and my resiliency, as the second day of my stay there, my wallet mysteriously disappeared. 2015 was a year of great breakthroughs, adventure and double-takes. I got published for the first time in the Toronto Star and made it to Canadian Press’ freelance photographer’s list. I spent a grand total of 59 days this year on the road when I wasn’t in Toronto or Montreal. There were so many good times and laughter, but also a few tough moments, which is where the learning comes in.

This is what I learned in 2015:

1. How to say no to things
Learning to say ‘no’ to multiple projects or people was one of the most difficult things I learned to do this year. It felt odd and there was a tension within myself. But to make room for bigger and better things, sometimes you just have to say no to projects that don’t pay enough or people who don’t respect your time or situations that drain you emotionally. Because I said no to some projects and contracts, I was able to say yes to spontaneous road trips, shooting for McDonald's Canada and shooting for Frito-Lay.

Road trip through the States!

Road trip through the States!

2. Take things slow.
This is your life, enjoy it. As much as you’re supposed to work hard and constantly better yourself (growing up in hyper-competitive Toronto, working hard is ingrained into you), sometimes you just need to relax. After living for a year in Montreal (I moved back to Toronto this summer), I learned to adopt the carefree French attitude of enjoying life’s pleasures. Every weekend, my routine included a leisurely brunch with friends followed by tanning and reading in the park. What is the point of life if you don’t get to enjoy the beautiful moments? I once knew a guy who was hardworking and had a great job and a great salary and a great apartment, but he spent so much of his youth working, he didn't have time to develop his relationships or even go out and now in his late 20's he doesn't have anyone to enjoy his life with and even worse, his social skills are so rusty, he is having trouble finding people to spend time with him. Anyway, the point of this message is: you don't have to be working hard all the time and you should keep a balance in your life.

San Diego living :)

San Diego living :)

3. Visualize the bigger picture.
Early on in my photography/writing career I did work for free and I also devoted a large amount of time developing my own blog (which was a labour of love) but with every photo I took and every blog post I wrote, I slowly got better at what I was doing and all my work became my portfolio and ended up getting me into the door of some bigger companies. I made huge strides (Toronto Star, Canadian Press) in my freelance career this year because of all that experience. You give some away, and you get some more. Don’t get discouraged if early on in your career you have to give away some (or all) of your work for free; all of it is coming back to you in experience, just remember to look at the bigger picture.

Crete, Greece

Crete, Greece

4. How to tell the client they are wrong (respectfully and politely).
Sometimes you can do all the work the client asked for, the way they asked for it, sometimes doing it several times over and still the client isn’t happy for whatever reason. This is not your fault. Early on in our lives, we learn to make people happy, whether it is our teachers or parents; by meeting their expectations in whatever way they expect from you; or at your first job where you’re told the customer is always right. Yet as you get more life experience, you realize that some people just can't be pleased, and sometimes the customer is just an unhappy person and that has nothing to do with you. The solution to this is to surround yourself with a network of other freelancers who will give you support and encouragement. 

Tanning in Montreal with fellow photographer, Dale.

Tanning in Montreal with fellow photographer, Dale.

5. How to live with little to none (this is especially useful for a freelancer)
As I mentioned earlier, this year in January, my wallet went missing on my second day in San Diego and I had to live with no money for a whole four days before my credit card, which was express-shipped, arrived in California. Through this experience (literally one of my worst fears while travelling), I learned just how little I could live with and still survive and have fun - sort of like how Evey in V For Vendetta, toughens up at the end when V put her through all that crap. The truth is, many of us have all of these built-up fears of “what if”s, but when things actually happen, we cope better than we think we can. Through the experience, I ate a lot of bread, and grumbled about being hungry, but a lot of people live with much worse. Also, a majority of people think they need a lot of money to have a great life (according to a study, after a certain point, money won't make you happier), but really it’s all about attitude, which brings me to the next point.

Friend owned the boat, so free ride :)

Friend owned the boat, so free ride :)

6. Money is just something that can be made again (spend on people you love). Earlier this year, after making a transition from working at a full-time job to being a freelance photojournalist, I lived minimally for a while – rarely going out or having dinners at restaurants. Then in March, someone I met started taking me out a bunch, spending a lot of cash on food and drinks. When I asked him why he was doing all of this, he said "money is something you can make again", which I understand more now. At the end of your life, it's much better to have memories made with people, facilitated by money, than to die with a pile of money and no fond memories.

Sailing in the Bosphorus in Istanbul with my friend Dave!

Sailing in the Bosphorus in Istanbul with my friend Dave!

7. Be patient, and wait for your moment. Earlier this year, as a newly hired contractor for a project, things at the company shifted and suddenly there was a lot more than the team could handle. It was brought up in a team meeting that there was a need for a writer who could take on a couple more assignments each week. As the new person, I wanted to jump in and show initiative, yet somehow I knew this wasn’t the right opportunity for me as I knew I wanted to focus more on my photography. There was a tension in my chest as I held my tongue and didn't volunteer - they had to hire someone else, but in the end I was glad I didn't jump in as a few weeks later, there was a need for someone with video skills, which is much closer to photography than writing. The lesson to come away with is to wait for your moment. This is true for everything else in life, if something doesn't feel right don’t feel pressured to jump into a business opportunity, buying a property or a marriage, because if it’s truly right for you, it will come again. You just need to have faith!

Old Port Montreal office space

Old Port Montreal office space

8. You don’t get anywhere if you don’t ask. Earlier this Fall, I missed my flight home from Istanbul to Toronto because there was this thing called Passport Control where before you even enter security to board your flight, you have to get in this big line where it’s a pre-screen. In my entire life of catching planes and travelling, I’ve only ever missed one flight, so I didn’t accommodate for this extra two hours of waiting before boarding. In Toronto (and other airports around the world), if you’re about to miss your flight, there are airport employees who can push you through the lines so that you don’t miss your flight, but no such thing existed in Turkey. You are on your own in this country. Anyway, as I was about to miss my flight because I was in this line, I started asking people if I could skip ahead of them. I found that many people are surprisingly accommodating if you tell them you’re about to miss your flight and will let you go ahead of them, no questions asked. Unfortunately, I did this near the end of my wait, and still ended up missing last boarding call by 10 minutes. But now I’m less hesitant about asking for things, even from strangers.

Nashville, earlier this August.

Nashville, earlier this August.

9. Photography is not real. I knew this before, but I understand more of the depth of it now. I don't mean obvious things like photoshopping pigs in the sky, but rather things like how lighting can make a picture dramatically different. Through a lot of varied photography jobs this year, where I had to make products or people look good, I learned just how much work goes into lighting or waiting for that one key moment to get a frame. There was this local politician I saw quite often day-to-day professionally, who wasn’t the best looking guy out there in the world – but that’s okay, not everyone needs to be Brad Pitt. But in a photo I saw of him, this photographer managed to make him look attractive, even slightly appealing (with no photo alterations, just good use of lighting!). This is the power of photography. Hire the best photographers you can, it's worth it! :)

Tijuana, Mexico, in January

Tijuana, Mexico, in January

10. The gifts you receive aren’t really because you deserve them but because the people you know are AWESOME, big-hearted and generous. This year, I’ve been blessed by so many delicious treats, great meals and fantastic experiences. A lot of it was the plain luck of having the right people in my life or meeting the right people (like when I met my friend Alek who gave me an unforgettable motorcycle ride through San Francisco up to Hawk Hill, with sweeping views of the Golden Gate Bridge), but then there are the times when you try to give back to people who gave to you first and they end up giving you even more. And then there are things you receive which you just can't ever repay (like photography advice that ends with you getting published in Rock and Ice), so you just learn to be grateful and try to give back to the world in some other way. What I am trying to say here is that I'm really grateful for everyone who has contributed in some way to my life this year, so thank you.

Dave and I in Istanbul, Turkey

Dave and I in Istanbul, Turkey

*Bonus*: Always consider opportunity cost! This year, I found a cheap flight from Oslo, Norway to Crete, Greece. It was $53, what a steal! But what I didn't consider was that the flight time, 6 am, meant that I wouldn't sleep all night and would arrive to Greece sleep-deprived and cranky. It also cost $53 for the bus to the further airport in Oslo that this flight operated from. So if you see something that looks like a good deal, always consider the other factors.

Here's to an even more awesome 2016! Stay adventurous!

Alek and I on Hawk Hill, San Francisco

Alek and I on Hawk Hill, San Francisco

Toronto Engagement session with Jess and Matt by Jessica Lee


I recently photographed a young couple close to my heart. Jess has been my best friend since we were five years old. We played with dolls when we were young and always re-enacted wedding ceremonies with them. When I got a call one night with her excitedly telling me she was now engaged to her long-time boyfriend Matt, I was ecstatic with joy - the moment had come. We quickly organized a photo shoot.

Jess and Matt asked for a vintage look to their photos, so we decided to shoot in the Distillery District of Toronto which has an old-world feel to it with its cobblestone floor and heritage buildings. We also wanted to catch one of the last summer sunsets of the year so we drove to nearby Cherry Beach for a second round of shooting. The couple wasn't camera-shy at all and what you see in the photos is the real emotion of being in love coming through.

I am so happy to be a part of this couple's life and honoured that they asked me to do their engagement photos and to be their maid of honour. I'm looking forward to the wedding in 2016!

Gear: Canon 5D Mark III, 24-70 mm f/2.8 lens.

New Orleans: 10 years after Katrina by Jessica Lee

Imagine having a home one day and then the next day not having anything.

While in New Orleans, Louisiana, after tiring of the infamous but touristy Bourbon Street, we went to the Lower Ninth Ward, the area hit hardest after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. We were curious to see what the area looked like now, 10 years after the disaster. What we saw opened our eyes to the realities of what the locals went through after the flood.

Sometimes when you're seeing images or hearing stories about tragedies that happen in places miles away, it all seems so surreal. You know it's happening out there somewhere, but when you switch the T.V. off or stop reading the article, it just isn't in the forefront of your mind anymore - at least that's the way it is for me.

When we were in New Orleans, it was as if there was a strange divide to the city. The first place we arrived to was just outside of the French Quarter. While we were elated to see the colonial French architecture of the houses, on some streets, there were broken windows and some shady characters hanging out. My friend did not feel safe leaving his car parked in that area, so we found a garage. 

In the touristy French Quarter, buildings were freshly painted, neon signs were sparkling and enticing. There were plenty of tourist gift shops and fancy restaurants. 

The Lower Ninth Ward was a stark contrast to what we had been used to seeing in the French Quarter. Many houses were left abandoned, just held up by beams; shells of what used to be family homes.

The doors to the abandoned homes were left open and with my curiosity piqued, I went in. Being in those homes was eerie. I was worried I would find a dead body somewhere, or stumble onto a violent drug addict. In some houses with greenery growing through, I was afraid a critter or snake would fall from above onto me. 

Scattered around the floors of these houses were left over children's toys; a lot of scrap wood and junk. Anything valuable had been pillaged. People had since moved on. I don't know anything about the people who lived in these houses but I can only hope their situations have improved if only so slightly.

I post these photos as a reminder of the history, a tribute to the lives that were lost and the humanity that stepped in to help after the hurricane.

Cincinnati, Ohio: an unexpected "hidden gem by Jessica Lee

On our first day driving towards the Deep South, we weren't planning on making a stop in Cincinnati, Ohio. It was supposed to be a straight plow towards Nashville, Tennessee. But we saw the tall buildings and the cityscape and couldn't resist our curiousness so we took the next exit and went in.

It was right about dinner time and the sun was setting. Locals were taking their evening strolls with their dogs and families. We went for our own walk to see the city as well and along the way, we found the most amazing park at the riverfront.

Cincinnati recently developed new infrastructure around the water area and it was so exciting to be there, enjoying the "newness".

Much of the area around hadn't been commercialized yet, but I'm sure this will change in the next few years as more businesses open near the gardens and attractions on the riverfront.

There was a beautifully curated maze garden, swings facing the river (and bridge) and a brand new water park and a very fun-looking playground for children. If I had this kind of playground when I was young, it would have been one of my favourites for sure. (I am still "young" if we are talking about life expectancy - even John F. Kennedy, who was 46, was considered a "young president", but unfortunately much too old to be running around with five year olds on a playground.)

Sometimes I wish I could have toddlers to babysit on particularly amazing playgrounds so I could experience the playground myself without being judged by parents - because no one wants to be the strange overgrown person running around on playgrounds with little kids. If you clicked the link, yes it's a completely different context since the guy was a sex offender and also the movie was a fictional scenario, but you get the idea - parents are overprotective and can sometimes be a little frosty.

Regardless, I was incredibly impressed by the riverfront area and snapped a few photos of the new playground, swings and water park. We did not have time to see the rest of the city before moving on, but if you're ever around the Cincinnati area, definitely stop in for a walk around the water. Maybe you will discover more than we did.

Au revoir Montreal, hello new adventures! by Jessica Lee

I recently came across a journal entry from two years ago. In 2013, I had been travelling in and out of Montreal for work when I was in public relations and communications.

During those weeklong trips, I spent time on St. Denis and St. Laurent street, and St. Catherine of course, but time seemed so fleeting. My dream back then was to live in Montreal for six months to get the "wake-up and casually walk down to the coffee shop/patisserie" experience.

I want to wake up, stroll down to a local bakery/patisserie, order a fresh, hot croissant, sip my coffee and read the news in French. Then I would call up my French boyfriend and we would have lunch together. After that, he would go back to work and I would go back to my coffee shop work. We would cook a nice meal at home over wine and call it a night.

It's done. I've been in Montreal for over a year now and I found out Montreal is more than just stereotypical French lovers and cafes. 

I am trying to synthesize my collective experience of a year and a little bit more in Montreal into a blog post, but it's difficult, so I'll just share my favourite memories.

I lived in cafes for the year, no doubt. Cafe-life is a part of me which will never change. I will continually enjoy the smell of coffee, the stillness of a relaxed work-space and the carefully curated design of cafes. Montreal did cafes well. As a freelancer, I spent a majority of my time in Montreal with the other freelancers, busily typing into a laptop and occasionally looking up at life.

But if you were to ask about Montreal outside of coffee, I would tell you about the times I biked down that big hill on rue Berri on my way to rock climbing at Allez Up in the Fall, seeing the faces of the sweating, struggling cyclists going uphill, knowing that would be me on the way back. And on that bike ride down, if I could catch all the green lights on the way, I knew it was going to be a good day. 

As I got along further, while biking on Canal Lachine in the middle of the day on Wednesday at 2 pm, there would be impeccably-dressed hipster-chic office folk, sitting with a picnic spread out on the grass facing the water like there they were done work for the day or as if there were better things to in life than to spend it all working - they were probably right.

There were the times biking to lesser-frequented parts of the city in search for new work space, and discovering gems. Verdun. St. Henri. Wellington. That time I spent a weekend on the balcony reading at a friend's apartment on a quiet residential street and listening to the sounds of a French child's birthday party down below. Little joyous moments like these characterize my stay in Montreal. The experience was much more though, these are just fragments.

I remember endless afternoons lying in the sun in Park Lafontaine or Mount Royal, sometimes with friends and sometimes with a book. Many times, with both. Afterwards, we would all cook together and enjoy each other's company.

Then there were the "barely-surviving but glad to be alive" days. Cold Winter nights shivering back to my apartment on Bishop street after a movie at the Forum. Trying to cross the street in the Winter but finding the snowbanks are too high. 3 am poutines after a night out dancing. Quiet nights in the summer on balconies with friends, pondering about our futures while sipping wine. Terribly awkward French parties when you find you're the only Anglophone there.

I never got to visit all of the breakfast restaurants I wanted to go to. There was also a 90's music dance club I never managed to drag friends too. And maybe the next time I step into Montreal, the businesses will be gone, the rising rent driving out tenants, or things would have changed so dramatically they wouldn't be the same.

But nothing ever is. The very last week of my time in Montreal, I discovered a cute, little tea shop just a five minute walk from my apartment. I met a new group of people I knew I could be close friends with, but there never was enough time to let those friendships blossom. C'est la vie. Life is full of goodbyes and hello agains. There will be other times. There will be other people. Always. But this is what I have, these are the memories of Montreal which I hold in my heart.

If you ever visit Montreal and walk down the same streets I did, frequent the same cafes and bars I did -  please know, I lived here. I had some of the best times of my life here. It was fantastic. But I had to leave because there is so much more of the world out there, more memories to make, more strangers who might become close friends. I just have to go out and open myself to the world. I know if I do, it will give back to me.

Photos of me by Dale Tidy

Photos: Toronto IFSC World Bouldering Cup by Jessica Lee

I shot the IFSC World Bouldering Cup in Toronto recently, the same event I shot last year in Hamilton. I think the key difference between this year's shoot and last year's is this year I wanted to document exactly what was happening in a photojournalism perspective, whereas last year, I focused on the event from a climber's point of view; shooting climbers in strange positions that I knew were hard to do.

As a result, I focused more on angles and thinking ahead to where climbers would be, rather than relying on "luck" aka being in the right place at the right time. Also, I trusted myself more on judgement. Previously, I would gather around where all the other photographers were because I thought maybe they knew something that I didn't, but honestly, everyone's shooting with a different lens, so they wouldn't be thinking the same way I would in terms of frames anyway.

I won't caption the photos because they are strong enough images where you can figure out what's going on, but I will explain a little about how the competition works: basically, the climbers get four minutes each to climb each "problem", which is from the bottom of the wall to the top, so it's an intense situation where the climber has to perform in an efficient manner, while under the gaze of two judges and the crowd. The winner of the competition is the one who climbs most of the problems in the final round. Many climbers don't even make it up to the top of most problems because the moves you need to make to get to the top are tough and require great skill, which is what separates the champions from just good climbers. But isn't that just like life? 

Goat Rock and Highway #1, California, baby! by Jessica Lee

Ever since hearing the catchy Phantom Planet song "California" in middle school at the height of when the T.V. show The O.C. was popular, I've always wanted to drive down highway #1 while playing that song.

I finally got to do that when I visited Sonoma County and went climbing at Goat Rock, about an hour away from San Francisco. Highway #1 stretches all along the shore and makes you wonder why Californians are so lucky to witness this beauty regularly.

The drive reminded me of when I drove along Great Ocean Road in Australia. I realize I've been lucky to experience so many adventures already at my age and I've seen so much first-hand. But really, check out that link. It shows how my photography skills and my eye has only gotten better since these last three years. Go on, here is another one.

Nothing's ever absolutely perfect as you can always improve your craft, but over the years, I've definitely developed a greater personal style and the confidence to try new things, such as purposely shooting into the light, or experimenting with light flares, because who says there's only one way to do photography? And sometimes overexposure looks good. And maybe once in a while, I actually want my photos to look blurred or grainy. Check out one of my first travel photo essays...

Of course a lot of it is subjective. But here are photos from that day I went to Sonoma County and drove along the Pacific Coast highway. We stopped for food at a Mexican market, then continued on to Goat Hill, where allegedly the large rocks there are smooth from mammoths rubbing their itches on their backs against the surfaces. There, we went bouldering for a good couple of hours, until magic hour hit, then we took a few snaps, and watched a sun set from the rock; which by the way, sunsets will never get old for me. Neither will singing California obviously, which we did on the way back before hitting a favourite French restaurant, tucked into a corner of slanted street.

Photos: San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge and Hawk Hill by Jessica Lee

If there’s one thing you should do in San Francisco, California, I would recommend speeding up and down the hills of the city on a motorcycle, then going by the same way to see the Golden Gate Bridge. 

That’s exactly what my friend Alek and I did when I was there earlier this year. Alek took me on a journey across the Golden Gate bridge to Hawk Hill where we observed the view from above. 

The sensation of wind brushing past you as your adrenaline races, combined with blue skies, vast green hills and the change in scenery, and not least, the putter and hum of the motor engine underneath you; is more than enough to produce a wide grin from ear to ear underneath your motorcycle helmet; while you wonder what good thing you did in your life to deserve this amazing experience.

Photos: Climbing in Mont Orford, Magog and Sherbrooke ...and Washington D.C. by Jessica Lee

Now that it's pretty much summer, I felt it would be appropriate to finally put these photos up from last fall.

My friend Olivier who lives in Washington D.C. got a few days off work and drove home to visit his family in Magog, Quebec, for Canadian Thanksgiving. Along the way, he picked me up from Montreal.

Upon hiking into the forest, we came upon a French family with small children, pointing at a tree. They had spotted a porcupine.

I've never come across a porcupine in person before, but from this experience, I can tell you that they are very slow-moving, and relatively easy to photograph because of this. You just have to make sure to get them to face the camera.

We spent the rest of the day bouldering in the area, then packed up and headed to explore Magog.

We did a quick walk-through of Magog, then headed in for the night.

To be honest, I don't think I would ever visit Magog or Sherbrooke on my own if not for Olivier.

Both are charming little towns great for raising families, and if you'd like slower pace of life. What really struck me though, was meeting and being welcomed in by Olivier's family, and listening to their stories of living on a farm, being in the country and harvesting maple syrup (they own a few acres of sugar bushes). We ate turkey with all the trimmings, and I listened to the struggles of living on a farm from Olivier's brother and sister-in-law. This is stuff people pay for when they go on cabane a sucre tours, but here I was, getting to experience all of this just because I was a friend.

I think the most endearing thing to me was how Olivier's brother explained to his young children (under five) where the turkey came from. It was one of the turkeys on the farm and the children noticed the day before that one of the turkeys had gone missing. The children were the cutest things in the world when they played and it broke my heart that Olivier was working away in another city while his niece and nephew were growing up.

I should explain how I first met Olivier. We met when I couchsurfed in his home in Washington D.C. with another friend in the summer.

Many people are averse to welcoming strangers into their home and also staying in a stranger's house, but by being open, I got to experience this weekend in Magog and Sherbrooke; and also gained a new friend.

The next day, we woke up early to go canoeing, a popular outdoor Canadian pastime.

We spotted more wild life including a crane, which we followed around the lake while I took photos.

The weekend ended and Olivier had to go back to work in Washington. He offered to host me again in Washington D.C., and because I can't seem to turn down road trip offers, I went along for the 9 hour drive.

This brief trip gave me sunshine and the opportunity to finish browsing museums I didn't have enough time for the first time around.

San Diego: Unexpectedly, my vacation takes a turn for the worse by Jessica Lee

I was recently published in the Toronto Star, the paper I grew up reading.

SAN DIEGO — Mom, if you’re reading this, don’t worry! I’m fine. I’m in a new city, know absolutely no one, just lost my wallet, but it’s going to be okay. I landed in San Diego, in search of sunny relief from the grey Toronto winters. I’d arranged with my employer I would work remotely for a few weeks and even found someone to sublet my room. I thought I had it all figured out.
My wallet went missing the first day. All my identification, credit cards, $300 in cash and gift cards. Gone! I had no money to live on, no access to cash, and, as a young solo traveller, visiting California against my family’s wishes, the last thing I wanted was to have my mom bail me out of trouble, all the while saying: “I told you so.”
I needed to prove, myself. Almost half the world lives on less than $2 a day, according to the U.N., and so could I.
I had half a burrito leftover from lunch, so that took care of dinner that night. I also had a place to stay. I had paid for a night’s stay at a youth backpacker’s hostel the day before and arranged with the hostel to continue to live there in exchange for doing light chores every day.
But what was I going to do with no money in San Diego?
“At least the beach and sunshine are still free, right?” said my friend Kris from back home.
The next morning, I ate a free hostel breakfast of pancakes, fruit and bread; then stashed more bread from the buffet in my backpack for lunch. I spent my day in touristy Embarcadero, walking past enticing aromas of pizzas, bakeries and waffle cones, and staring glumly at tourists inside museums I couldn’t visit. It’s one thing to travel frugally and to decide not to visit an attraction, but it’s entirely different when you have no choice. I kept hoping my wallet would magically reappear.
That night, the hostel held a “Free Spaghetti and Salad Night.” I had survived two days with no money.The next day, I grew restless. The weather was perfect for the beach. The problem was distance. I didn’t mind walking, but two hours and a half of sweating on a dusty highway to get there would be pushing it. Wasn’t a beach day for relaxing?
I dug up all my loose change and had $2.30, enough for a one-way bus to Coronado Island. I wasn’t sure how I would return, but being stranded on a beach was better than feeling sorry for myself. Besides, you need money to enjoy bars and cafés downtown.
Once again, I packed bread from breakfast for later and got on the bus. The ride on the bridge above the ocean was incredible. White ships glided over a huge expanse of water, and mountains loomed in the distant background. But I was worried. I had three more weeks in San Diego.
I thought about dumpster-diving, busking for change, and asking restaurants for their surplus food. The night before, I scoured Craigslist for odd cash-paying jobs and posted an ad for freelance photography. I was irritable from hunger and wasn’t sure I could continue much longer.
We got to the beach and I leapt with joy; palm trees, sand, and a stretch of blue horizon greeted me. I tanned away my anxieties.
At lunch, I accidentally ate more bread than I intended and now had no more food for the rest of the day. It wasn’t even 4 p.m.! I wasn’t very good at rationing. But I had other worries; I had to get back to the hostel.
I thought about hitchhiking, but walked to the bus stop. Desperate, I asked a stranger for change. He had a dollar, which wasn’t enough, but I explained my lost wallet to the driver and was allowed on the bus.
That night was horrible. I was starving and surrounded by smells of food made by guests at the hostel, but I hadn’t made friends and didn’t want to impose on anyone. I brought up my wallet went missing ,but no one understood I literally had no money for groceries.
The next morning, I knew I had to make moves to improve my circumstances. I called my consulate, but the office wasn’t open until 10 a.m., and it was in Los Angeles.
Reluctantly, I packed another lunch and dinner of bread.
Then a miracle happened.
A package arrived for me at the front desk. It was my new credit card, express-shipped from Canada! Never has plastic looked so good. Everything would be fine.

I met Holden Caulfield in Montreal by Jessica Lee

I met Jack, 17, in Montreal, at a hostel party. He's originally from England, but left home at 15 and has been travelling around for a while. He had such an interesting story, I had to ask him for an interview. He is an idealistic, young Holden Caulfield-type who actually did what most of us wanted to do, but were too scared to do - and he's doing fine at it. 

Keep reading to see why he amazes me.


You left home when you were 15. Why and what have you been doing?

Well the reason why is kind of strange I think. I never wanted to travel my entire life but when I was 13 or 14, my mom told me we were going to live in California with my adoptive grandparents and we were really excited. I told all my friends ‘I’m going to live in California, it’s going to be amazing.’ And then one day she was like ‘Actually, it’s really hard to move to that country, let’s just move to Scotland instead.’ And I hated Scotland. So she moved my entire life, you know, I left all my friends behind. I didn’t know anybody. And she moved me to the shittiest place in the world. The second I was free I was like ‘I have to get out of here.’ I looked at the cheapest flights I could find and Cyprus was only 45 pounds, leaving in a week’s time. So I bought the ticket without telling my mom or dad and I started packing my things. And then two days before, I sat at the kitchen table and was like ‘Hey, can someone give me a lift to the airport tomorrow?’ ‘What? Why?’ ‘I just booked a flight to Cyprus.’ And then I told them what my plan was. And then I got to Cyprus, found a job at a meditation centre. I would assist classes and was a receptionist for a while and I did a lot of design work for them too. And after working there, that gave me enough money to travel the rest of Europe. I did all of Turkey with a girl – that’s a whole other story – we travelled together, and then I went to Bulgaria but didn’t like it, so we caught a flight from Istanbul to Portugal and we lived in Lagos for a bit, and then Spain. And then came back to England. Yeah, I came back to England for a month and she came back home to Canada and I did all of France, then I came here.

So that all happened when you were 15.

Yeah. I turned 16 in Cyprus, and when I turned 17, I was in Seville, Spain. And when I turn 18, I’ll be in Mexico.

How do your parents feel about all of this?

I think at first they were a bit confused. They were like ‘why is he going there on his own? Why isn’t he looking to do college courses?’ And they thought I was throwing away my life, you know? I always had aspirations to become a lawyer, in my mom’s footsteps. I had always been a perfect kid, like my entire life. I was exactly what they wanted and then one day I was just like ‘fuck that, I’m leaving now.’ And that really surprised them and my dad didn’t talk to me for a long time. My sister used to bitch about me to my grandparents. The whole family just sort of kicked me out, other than my mother. But I came back, I was living there for a month and everything seemed to be alright. They seemed to know I was going through some stuff at the moment and this is how I’m dealing with it. I don’t know, it’s hard to explain. There’s this whole back story to it and I feel like I’m saying the front of it, if you know what I mean. …they don’t like it, is what I’m trying to say. They don’t like it.

But you’re supporting yourself and you’re managing.

I think also they had a massive problem with me being with somebody older than me for most of my trip because they felt that she was taking advantage of me the entire time, just cause she was older. But it was a mutual relationship. But my mother worried because of that. She was like ‘what’s this weird 24 year old woman doing, taking my son around Europe?’

And you met your girlfriend at the time in Cyprus?

Yeah, a little town called Latchi, just outside of Cyprus. We worked in the same place and she got arrested accidentally. You know what Workaway is? She was over there on Workaway and she was volunteering. And someone saw a Canadian was working there without a VISA so they called immigration up and they arrested every single American, every single Australian in that place and took them to jail. And from that point on, they weren’t allowed to volunteer in Cyprus anymore. So she was like ‘I’ve nowhere to go’, but I was like ‘I’ve got an apartment, I’ve got a car, I’ve got food. I’ve got everything.’ So she just moved in with me. And we all lived in this apartment building and it was a crazy experience. Everything fell into place, you know? It was perfect.

Most kids your age, at 17, they’re just about to enter college, and they haven’t quite figured out how the world works yet, or how to take care of themselves but you’ve been on your own all this time. You seem to have everything figured out.

Maybe. Well I think a lot more than having a career or going to college is happiness, and that was probably one of the main reasons I left in the first place. In Scotland, I could have gotten a great uni[versity] degree and carried on with my life, but I was thinking, ‘I don’t want to throw this away just so I can have money’. ‘Cause I look at my dad and he has a lot of money and I look at my mom and she has a lot of money but constantly they’re stressed out and never happy; so I figured by travelling, it’ll give me some time to think, you know? ‘What do I really want?’ Instead of living up to society’s expectations, and that’s when I started getting into yoga, and that sort of opened up my mind to ‘you can live on the beach with no money and be ten times happier than somebody who owns half the world'. A lot of people will sort of hold a lot of negativity over life in general. They wake up in the morning and [will] be like ‘Oh, it’s freezing cold, I hate my job’, and all that kind of stuff. But none of it matters. I know this sounds weird to say, but we’re all going to dead soon right? And in the short time, why would you waste it doing something that you don’t want just so you can brag to your friends that you have a house and a kid and a wife who’s good looking? I think in a sense I’ve given up on life.

Like you’ve given up on that sort of life?

I’ve given up chasing something that other people are telling me I should want and chasing what I want personally instead. Like a relationship with a 24 year old woman seemed like the best thing in the entire world to me at the moment and I couldn’t stand England so I came here, which is insane. I had barely any money. It didn’t work out and I knew coming here it wouldn’t work out, but I still knew even if it doesn’t, it’s what I want right now.

You followed a woman to Edmonton but you knew it wouldn’t work out?

Yeah I had a sort of feeling. You know when you’re travelling with someone, you’re in a new city every day. Every person you meet is new to both of you, but when you go to a hometown, that’s her family, her friends who have known her her whole life, and here comes me, I’m an outsider. And I have this thing where I’m not old enough to be drinking with her friends. It was like she was looking after me more than I was looking after her. When we were travelling, I was responsible for her safety, I feel. I figured out where we were going, what we were doing. When she was at home, she didn’t need any of that and there just wasn’t anything between us when that was taken away, which was sad, but there are a lot of differences between a 24 year old and a 17 year old right? So what did I expect?

Going back to the idea of happiness, what are you going to chase in the future? What is your idea of a perfect day or a perfect lifestyle?

I think about it a lot. I believe- although I said earlier that career achievements don’t mean anything, I do believe you can gain some sense of happiness from that happiness. But I prefer to be content instead of short periods of happiness. You know whereas my dad, he might make much money and that will make him happy for a week and then he’ll be miserable again. Like I’d rather just live on a beach in Ecuador with my house I bought for $15,000 and surf every single day and host couchsurfers. I love people, that’s my favourite thing in the world, meeting, talking, getting a sense of their mentality, where they come from, how they were raised, their background. You know it’s like reading a new book every single time, coming across someone new. So I just want to have that new experience. Keep myself busy, with new experiences, new people, with just things I enjoy.

What are you planning to do after Montreal?

On the 24th of February, I fly to Denver, Colorado, and my adoptive Auntie lives there, so I’m going to stay there for a week and a half, and then I’m flying to Los Angeles. And then I’m going to meet my mom and we’re going to hang out for two weeks. And I have plans to go to Mexico with a girl from New York.

I have one last question for you. What is the greatest lesson you’ve learned since leaving home?

Just to be humble. That’s the best thing you can possibly do in your entire life. Coming from a rich English background, my entire life is constantly comparing your life to other people’s like ‘my friend Reese got an iPad and iPhone for Christmas and my mom only got me a shitty car’ or something like this. When you let go of all of that, you know what you have and appreciate it. Don’t brag.

"Roaring twenties" - My San Diego existence by Jessica Lee

My existence in San Diego is the closest I've come to what I would like my ideal life to be like in my "roaring twenties".

I start my mornings waking up leisurely at 7:00 am. A switch to west coast time means I'm actually waking up around 10:00 am back home. During this time, I'll send off a few emails and read the daily news while sipping my cup of tea, and take care of whatever tasks that need to be done back home for work. Then I start my job at the hostel around 8:30 am. Replenishing breakfast supplies, saying hi to management, greeting guests, light cleaning. It finishes at noon, and then the day's adventure will start.

A sample of an adventure can be anything from a day trip to La Jolla shores, surfing at Ocean Beach, hiking at Mission Trails or a motorcycle ride up north. One thing in common however, is that the days always end in a beautiful pink sunset, whether on top of a mountain, from a restaurant patio or on a sail boat. I'm greedy about sunsets. I've enjoyed many before, but I can never get enough. I always have to be sitting somewhere with a good view when the time is 5:15 pm.

I guard my time well, but I always make sure to leave room for spontaneous outings. One night we ended up at Pacific Beach, sharing tacos with a Mexican girl and listening to the stories of her huge 500+ family. Another night ended being escorted onto a military base and watching movies in the ridiculously high-end barracks the American Navy lives in (honestly, the apartment I was in was comparable to many of the King West apartments in Toronto - impressive).

Most nights are spent at bars in the Gaslamp District or the hot tub of a neighbouring hotel. On exceptionally good nights, they end in movies at the theatre or dessert at the Cheesecake Factory.

The thing I love about America is its excess. Food here is cheap, so the living is easy. The days are leisurely and the constant sunlight keeps me warm.

I'm not saying the people here don't struggle. But I keep my needs low and find I can get on by quite easily. The taxes are lower and the food portions at restaurants are huge. One meal usually equals three for me. I don't shop (stopped that habit long ago), rarely drink and my only vice is probably eating tacos all the time since the Mexican food here is much better than on the east coast due to the proximity to Mexico.

Regardless, when I look back at San Diego, I know I'll remember it with a smile. I'll think of all the characters I've met, all the moments I've lived and remember it with gratitude. The universe can be quite generous when you open yourself to the world.

San Diego, California: a first look by Jessica Lee

California: where do I even begin?

San Diego is the heaven of my dreams. At least that's the way it seems in January; coming from cold, windy, grey, sometimes snowing Toronto. The only warmth I feel there in the Winter comes from family and friends.

When the cold gets too strong for me, I get on a plane.

"Welcome to beautiful, sunny California," says the pilot as we land. We're off to a good beginning, as I can see bright sunshine from my seat inside the plane.

I feel my first burst of joy as I step into the arrivals gate. Sunlight streams through glass windows and I see blue skies and palm trees. With my luggage on my back, my pants rolled up and sunglasses on, I wait in a spot of sun for the bus that will take me into the city.

I had forgotten what summer felt like.

The bus to from the airport to downtown San Diego is the best introduction to the city possible. Along the coast, it is a sprawling sea of catamarans, boardwalks and beaches, endless ocean blue, until we reach Broadway Avenue. Then it is sidewalks, bars and restaurants in the shining, flashy Gaslamp Quarter, but with an old-time, almost Mexican feel where almost every bar is a cowboy-themed and every restaurant with Hispanic influences.

The people here are real characters, not your usual suburban soccer moms or typical office workers; there are trench-coated, middle-aged folk, leathery-tanned skin, drinking from a patio, or shuffling along the sidewalk. The women wear muted shades of pink or beige and the men are in black. Young California city slickers walk the streets in dark blazers with jeans, everyone wearing sunglasses. A few of the catatonics occasionally wander up to you on the streets and give you a fright.

San Diego is a strange city; but a warm and inviting one. It's easy to stroll along the street in the Gaslamp Quarter and walk up to the harbour, look at all the boats and take in the bustle of the people, the tourists taking photos, the business meetings, afterwork drinks and young nightlife. I would move here in a heart beat, if they would let me.

Hola from San Diego, California! by Jessica Lee

I woke up this morning and frankly I was a little stressed. I couldn't find my cash and I was running late meeting my friend for surfing. I borrowed some money, then headed to Ocean Beach. I caught a few waves, dried off in the sun and now I'm here on Ocean Beach Pier enjoying the view and a lobster taco. It's a Monday.

More on San Diego soon... Stay loose!

What I learned in 2014 by Jessica Lee

It seems like just yesterday I was writing What I Learned in 2013. Time is a slippery and fleeting creature that you just cannot stop or slow.

I started January 2014 in Paris, France, in the middle of my European backpacking trip. After counting down and watching the Eiffel Tower shimmer for a few minutes with thousands of people at Trocadero, I walked home to my rented apartment on Magenta Blvd., amidst joyous French wishing me "Bonne Année!"

2014 was a year filled with adventure, wrong turns, mishaps and bliss. And lots and lots of learning. I was given many fantastic opportunities, got to see spectacular sights in new countries, and I met the most wonderful people in over 25 cities. There were definitely more good moments than bad, and for that I am grateful. Here are some of the most important things I picked up in 2014:

1. There is a lot of beauty in life.
I saw this in landscapes, cityscapes; in every mountain of every train ride I passed through, in all the lakes I've taken in, in the vast desert silence which made me understand how small I am in this world. There is beauty in every heart-stopping piece of literature and I've read, every sunset and patio I enjoyed, in all the beautiful, heart-wrenching goodbyes, free gifts from life, fireworks in the sky, in drunken dance halls and bars where I've shared a pitcher of beer with the awe-inspiring people I've encountered, chance meetings in unexpected places and music that makes your heart swell. Enjoy life, it's marvellous. Be open and let it surprise you.

2. There are many inspiring and big-hearted people with overwhelmingly attractive souls out there. Their energy will pull you towards them. Keep these people close, make them your friends, don't take these people for granted, appreciate them at every moment, draw inspiration from them and give them your time and energy. These people are rare to find, but once you meet one, they multiply because good people tend to hang out with other good people. It might not be entirely obvious at first if you've found someone awesome, but slowly through different situations and time you've spent together, you'll see their character come through, and that's when you know that they are quality and deserve a place in your life.

3. You cannot control what other people do, only how you react to them. Yes there are lovely people out there, but there are also others who will disappoint you, steal from you and lead you into bad situations. There's nothing you can do to change other people if they're not willing to change, you can only alter your attitude and decide to not let them ruin your day. In Rome, a lady attempted to steal from me in a crowded subway, I was shocked initially, but I took it as a learning experience. Later this year, someone whom I initially thought would be a fantastic person, whom I invested time in turned out to be a dud so I put less energy towards that relationship. Ideally, it would be great to know if someone is worth your energy and resources before you give your time to them, but life rarely comes with labels - you win some, you lose some.

4. Be strategic in your professional life and understand timing. One of my work contracts which kept getting renewed previously ended earlier this year due to budget cuts and my poor gauging of the situation. It wasn't my fault the budget was gone, I was doing great work and felt I deserved a more competitive rate, so I asked for it. Unfortunately, I asked at a completely inappropriate time because of a government budget cut and as a result, I lost one part of the contract. The silver lining of this story is that I learned quickly from this- later in the year at another company, I asked for a raise at an appropriate time and got it.

5. Be precise and careful in moments which require it. In January, I bought a cheap plane ticket with RyanAir from Barcelona to Malaga. It was something ridiculous like 25 euros, which is roughly $35, or a night's stay at a hostel in Paris. There were a couple of catches though- they required you to check-in online 24 hours beforehand and print out your ticket. I neglected to do these things and had to pay a 150 euro fine or forfeit my ticket. It was a tough lesson to learn, but I paid the fine to board the plane. It was the worst travel day I have ever had because I also had to spend my night on a cold aluminium bench at the airport, but that is another story. Now I'm more careful about fine print and boarding times; and have since missed only one ride share, which I had no control over because they overbooked.

6. Allow serendipity to play a part in your life, look out for cool opportunities. In Barcelona, I was walking to a café one day and stumbled into a firefighter's protest, which made for some awesome photos, one of which is short-listed in a photo contest. In Quebec City, chance allowed me to attend a free jazz concert. Earlier this summer, I ended up moving to Montreal and having some of the best days of my life because of an acquaintance I met in a tiny bar in Toronto. Most times, the unexpected moments in life are the best, you just have to be open and go with the flow.

7. Spread your joy. I met one of the most lovely people to be around earlier this Spring in Toronto. My friend Dale is a photographer like me and as a result, we spent a lot of time together in coffee shops editing photos. Every time I'm with this guy, he leaves me immensely happier, but it doesn't stop there; he is abundant and genuine in compliments for the baristas as well. It doesn't take a lot of effort to be kind, but it's such a nice thing to have and improves the atmosphere considerably.

8. This world is vast. I've met so many people this year who are different from me, and it amazes me how big some differences are, such as culture and upbringing; yet other things are the same. We all desire connection to other people, we all want our stories to be heard and we all have goals we strive for. 2014 was the year I met desert-dwellers, a bunch of crazy (in a good way) Europeans, unlikely folks in cities you would never expect them to be in; people in all stages of life.

9. Sometimes partying is more "productive" than "work" work. This was a strange lesson for me to learn this year, growing up in business-oriented Toronto, at a study-at-all-hours university, in a competitive swim-or-sink journalism program where no one really had a social life for a few semesters. I started working in the hospitality industry this year, and the way hiring goes here is whether or not someone fits in with the culture of the company influences if they'll be hired more than what they'll say in an interview, or a cover letter. Hospitality is about taking care of people, so naturally it goes that if you're the life of the party and your guests are having a good time, then you are doing a good job. Basically, it's easier to party your way into a job in this industry than interview your way in. The partying is the interview. Of course, it all depends on the industry and the circumstance.

10. There are unlikely heroes everywhere. This is a story I don't like to tell because it shows vulnerability and poor decisions, but it is life and a good lesson because tells me my intuition is all wrong sometimes. One night in Belgium at the beginning of this year, I went out with a group of people I had just met at a hostel. We went drinking at the infamous Delirium Tremens. I got excited at all the fruity beer options and had a little too much to drink too soon. As I fell to the bar floor, I felt one of them supporting me on their shoulders. Because I hadn't recognized their voices yet, I thought it was the guy I had been talking to all night who was really friendly, but as I gained consciousness, I realized it was the quiet guy in the group who I barely talked to, who I initially perceived as closed-off because he gave short answers when we spoke. Nevertheless sometimes your heroes will surprise you. I definitely needed help getting back to my bed that night and two almost-strangers made sure I got there, supported me on their shoulders the entire way, paid for a taxi ride because I couldn't walk, didn't take advantage of me and personally made sure I made it to my bed. It totally could have gone in a different direction and maybe I wouldn't be here writing this now. I am grateful for their kindness, and pay it forward whenever I can. Also, I am now much more responsible with my alcohol and have accepted I cannot match drinks with Europeans.

BONUS: Life is unpredictable, embrace the randomness. A year ago, when I visited the lovely city of Montreal on a work trip and wished to be living here, I didn't know I would be living that dream so soon. The story of how I ended up here began at the end of April in Toronto when I met a dashing gentleman in a dark basement bar (isn't that how all the best stories start?). Many stars had to align for me to move to here, then later on in July, I was going on a camping trip to Quebec and on the way back, I stopped in Montreal for a job interview and didn't even go back to Toronto. I'm glad it happened the way it did. I've lived some of the most turbulent, passion-filled and exciting days of my life this summer in Montreal. I have learned a lot and really appreciate everything this city has to offer. I discovered new interests (mostly 80's music and balcony tanning), developed new skills (coding), learned more about myself and met a lot of people who have opened my mind and taught me so much. I don't know what's in store for me next year, or if I will even be in the same city, but I am open to all possibility. SEE YOU IN 2015! Stay adventurous!

Photos: Notre-Dame and Sainte-Chappelle, Paris by Jessica Lee

I loved Paris but a lot of being there was about trying to hold on to my money. First of all, accommodation is expensive, not quite like New York, but up there; then there are all the temptations of food, cafes, macarons, shopping, museums and monuments. There are several "must-see"s in Paris which include the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, Musee D'Orsay and Versailles. The Arc de Triomphe can be seen from the ground, while the churches are stunning, unless you're an architecture, history or art enthusiast, once you've seen a handful of the best, the next couple of cathedrals can be underwhelming. Notre Dame and Sainte-Chappelle are two of the most impressive cathedrals in Paris, and I took a day to take in the intricate beauty and the detailed art. 

New York City round two! by Jessica Lee

This story starts way back in May of this year. Or if you want to be even more specific, it starts in the year 2007, when I was in high school and had just discovered one of my favourite musicians of all time, Butch Walker. You may know his name from his production work with some of the biggest pop musicians of today such as Pink, Taylor Swift, Avril Lavigne, Fall Out Boy, etc.

Anyway, he had a few shows with Ryan Adams in New York City and I was thinking of going.

I had never been the type to travel from city to city just to catch my favourite musicians - the furthest I had travelled for music was from Toronto to London, Ontario. But alas, they weren't playing a show in Montreal and so it was between Toronto (my hometown, at Massey Hall, a venue I had been to countless times) or the more exciting option, New York City.

Sometime between late Summer and Fall, I must have have mentioned to my friend Olivier that I wanted to go to New York City for the concert because he booked a hotel for the weekend and suddenly it was set.

New York City was kind to me this time around. I spent the weekend walking around Manhattan, jetting around the city in taxis (the way locals do it), taking in the Christmas spirit and eating a lot of gourmet food. I recently moved in with two serious rock climbers and everyone's always watching what they're eating, so I decided to take a break weekend in New York.

Our first day in New York, we walked around Lower Manhattan, visiting neighbourhoods the neighbourhoods of Little Italy, Chinatown and NoHo.

We stumbled into a New York rollerblading group called I Roll NY and watched a competition for a while.

Then, we found a Christmas Market and all these European Christmas Market memories came flooding back.

Of course, there were key differences between the New York City Christmas market and the European Christmas markets - the main one being the food focus of European markets and the artisan focus of this one.

We ended our first night at the Village Vanguard, enjoying jazz music in a basement and knocking back some brandy. It seemed like the appropriate thing to do in New York.

The next morning, we started our hunt for breakfast and by chance came upon Eataly, a gourmet Italian food market by Madison Square Park.

I first heard about this market by its recent cookbook being featured in all the bookstores in Canada. To all the marketers out there: writing a book with beautiful pictures is an awesome way for self-promotion.

We consumed all the pastries with our eyes, but eventually settled for a sit-down meal of fresh pasta.

I enjoyed my meal of tagliatelle with short rib ragout very much.

Next, we headed to Chelsea Market, which might be my favourite place in New York City.

There's an incredible contemporary artisan vibe at Chelsea Market. The place is made up of exposed brick walls and beams, but finished with crisp glass windows and design-driven typography. It seems like an ideal place to spend a morning with friends, eating your way around the different stalls and restaurants.

After a quick tour around the market, we made our way to the High Line, a pedestrian-only structure above the city that allows visitors to view the city without traffic or bike interruption.

The High Line used to be a means of transport for goods throughout New York, but when the trucking industry gained popularity in 1980, they shut it down and turned it into a walking path instead. While they were redeveloping the neighbourhood, it became trendy and new apartments were built along the way.

There are park benches, picnic tables and a million different places to view the sunset - which is exactly what we did.

As night settled in, we rushed to Hammerstein Ballroom to see the concert which had brought us to New York. If you squint, you can see me in the second row of the floor on the left side of this photo taken from Ryan Adams' twitter.

It was a good concert, but both Butch and Ryan didn't play my favourite songs! I suppose it doesn't matter too much. The concert was a fantastic and fairly legitimate reason to visit New York and I'm glad I finally caved.

Off a post-concert high, we went to Shake Shack and had our first Shack burgers, then disappeared into the night in the city that never sleeps.

New York, New York by Jessica Lee

Ah New York. The place where people go to chase their American dreams.

I landed in New York at the end of my European tour in February. This was my second time visiting, and though I could see why many fall in love with this city, I knew it just wasn't for me.

Maybe New York and I started on a unfavourable terms this time around because it was frigid and I was already thinking of going some place warmer.

Nevertheless, I was drawn back to this big city to see if I felt the same after so many years. I first visited the big city when I was 15 over winter break with my mom. It was mostly a shopping trip. At 15, I was impressed by the big buildings, flashing advertisements and all the bright lights. There were also American and international brands in New York that I saw in magazines which I couldn't buy in Toronto.

When I got back to Toronto with my luggage full of new clothes, friends and classmates would compliment me on my finds. New York was cool simply because it wasn't available in Toronto. Now that I've taken up minimalism, New York isn't as exciting anymore.

Regardless, I still found things to do. Breakfast first of course, at Clinton Street Baking Co.

I had been craving North American-style pancakes since eating nothing but crepes and pastry in Europe and Morocco (I know, what a difficult life), and these blueberry ones were perfect. I added a side of maple bacon and hot maple butter apple cider, and it was exactly what I needed.

Then I had a stroll around Manhattan.

I spent most of my time in New York in museums, but also wandered into some shops. Some of the merchandizing in the stores here is absolutely incredible, comparable to art galleries; and the best part is that it's free to see.

I wandered to Central Park, but it just didn't live up to the hype of what I had been expecting.

Check out this cool, curved building.

And of course, the iconic yellow New York City taxis.

Then, I headed to my first museum of the day, the Guggenheim. I loved the architecture, but the exhibition wasn't really my cup of tea.

Later in the night, I headed over to the Museum of Modern Art (MoMa).

In between all of this, I took a few subway rides during rush hour. I have to tell you this story of how I squeezed myself into a packed subway car and my bag was sticking out of the door so the door wouldn't close, but I didn't know it was because of me. And this bloke said "Miss, you're holding all of us up." And I thought this bloke was so rude because of his tone when he told me, but it's probably just what New York is usually like.

I was in Montreal last summer and someone threw away all my unopened food that was labeled in the communal fridge of the hostel I was staying at, and I was pretty ruffled because I didn't get an apology from the front desk staff. Some guy asked if I was from New York because of my attitude.

I've travelled around the world and dealt with some rough situations, but I'm not sure if I would last a month in the harshness of New York City. Growing up in Toronto, people were pleasant and generally nice to me and so I've developed assumptions that people are kind - which is generally true. I imagine the lifestyle to be either like the movie Inside Llewyn Davis, where I'd be shuffling around in the cold in a thin jacket or like the movie Frances Ha, where I'd be constantly worried if I was going to make the astronomically high rent that month. 

I'm visiting New York City again next weekend. This time, I'm hoping to spend time in jazz clubs and visit neighbourhoods such as Greenwich Village, West Village and walk the HighLine. Maybe my opinion of New York City will change. I guess we'll see...