Forget Lonely Planet… Hire Me, NYT

Earlier this week, my friend Ellie sent me a job listing for a travel writer with The New York Times. Long story short: I’m applying, I assume she is too, and I hope that some of the people reading this post will do the same. Like I said last week, travel writing has gotten stale and pretentious. If I can’t be the one to land the job – and, believe me, I know what a long shot it is to even make it out of the slush pile – then I hope it goes to someone who’s up to the challenge of making the world sound interesting again.

Fair warning: The application is long. Part of it includes a 500-word essay answering the question, What is the most interesting place you’ve ever been and why? For this week’s post, I’m sharing my first draft and asking for your full and unvarnished feedback. Without further ado.

When I rattle off my European travel itinerary, the most-asked question I get about Helsinki is, “Where is that again?” People recognize the name, but can’t quite place it on a map. Explaining that it’s in southern Finland usually doesn’t help. Neither does pointing out that it’s east of Stockholm and north of Riga. That’s understandable, really. When has a reference to Latvia ever cleared things up?

But Helsinki’s location is precisely what prompted my visit. Perched on the edge of the Baltic Sea, Helsinki is a popular connection hub between the Scandinavian Peninsula, Eastern Europe and Asia. When a layover between Copenhagen and Tallinn landed me there earlier this year, I decided to stay a week just to see what the city had to offer.

Turns out, not much – at least not in the dead of winter. A shocking number of locals were quick to point this out when I searched message boards and social media groups for ideas about how to fill the precious few hours of daylight the city gets in March. “Come back in July,” was the top suggestion.

Tempting as that sounded, it was not particularly helpful. I opted instead to embrace the Finnish winter in the boldest way possible, by which I mean that I went ice swimming in the dark.

For this I visited Kulttuurisauna, an eco-sauna where Finnish people pay $15 to steep themselves in a two-meter wide hole that’s been cut into the frozen surface of the Baltic Sea. While I watched some of the more robust patrons swim a few strokes in the icy water, I could only bear to take a quick plunge before clamoring back up the rickety ladder and onto the dock.

But, as is often the case with boundary-shifting experiences, it’s not the action, but the reaction that makes the discomfort worthwhile. As I huddled in the moonlight, sputtering and seizing, the freezing winter air hitting my skin, I found myself in a place somewhere between peace and pain. The proper term is probably “shock,” but to me, it felt like euphoria.

Ice swimming was my Helsinki highlight by a mile – and not just because the city doesn’t have much else to offer in March. Rather, it was because the experience was perfectly unique to Finland. There are few places in the world where one is encouraged to jump into the frozen sea and then sit around talking about it with a bunch of naked strangers in a dry sauna afterwards. Every place has something interesting to offer every day. It’s up to the visitor to find out what that is.

***

Oops, I bombed! The feedback is in and no one liked the above. So I did it again. Here’s where I landed. I don’t think it’s great, but hopefully it’s better.  Long story short, I’m probably not ready to work for the NYT… but it never hurts to try. Many many thanks to everyone who commented – the feedback was so thoughtful and insightful… I’ll be applying it far beyond this little piece.

Helsinki might not be the most interesting place I’ve ever visited, but it’s the one where I went ice swimming. At least, that’s what the Finns call it. In reality, the water is so cold that it’s more like plunging – sort of like the ice bucket challenge, but in reverse and instead of donating money to charity afterwards, you just sit around naked in a sauna and brag about how brave you are.

For my foray into ice swimming, I visited Kulttuurisauna, a simple, trailer-like brick building boasting two wood saunas and an unfortunate view of the Hanasaari Power Plant. Behind the building was a wooden dock that was outfitted with a rickety metal ladder, which was loosely held in place with what appeared to be an old clothesline. Just beyond that was the two-meter gap in the ice that revealed the frigid, murky water people paid $15 to jump into.

The whole scene made me wish I had chosen a more mainstream holiday destination – one with warm museums, six full hours of daylight and the firm suggestion that everyone keep their pants on. But such regrets were useless. I had already paid the admission for one thing. And I was also holding up the line. In fact, that’s really what got me over my case of metaphorical cold feet: the prospect of native Finns thinking I was a cream puff.

On the off chance they were doing such a thing, they would have been right. My body did not take well to ice swimming – though, in fairness, not many do. As I lurched off the bottom rung of the ladder and into the frigid water, I couldn’t help but gasp. My heart felt as though it stopped beating; my muscles seemed frozen in place. For a split second, I panicked, fearing I would sink to the bottom of the Sea or, even worse, got sucked toward the churning industrial propeller that kept the water from refreezing. Only a few seconds had passed, but it felt like a desperate eternity. That’s the bad part of ice swimming.

The good part is what happens when you get out. You expect that it will only get worse once you leave the water, but that’s not the case at all. The rush of Arctic air, which was bitterly cold just minutes earlier, will have lost its bite. Each breath will be deep and even, the clearest you have ever drawn. As time goes on, your brain will have trouble deciding whether your body is hot or cold and, more importantly, why your mouth is yapping about it to a naked girl from Belarus. You will feel invincible.

Or maybe you won’t. Who knows? No two cases of Cold Shock Response are the same. But it will be a memorable experience regardless – one that reminds you that while every place is interesting, it’s up to the visitor to find out how.

9 Comments
  1. You forgot to mention this experience was a prelude to falling in love. But, you have mentioned this so many times, I would love to try it. What is the one thing you would recommend for Paris. I will be there next week.

    • Yes – it’s sad to leave that out, I know – but it’s not central to the story (just MY story). Actually when I read the piece aloud to him last night, I asked if he was disappointed I left him out. He said no, but suggested I add a bit about the owners of the sauna being artists and some other business with a propeller. Not bad ideas, but at 500 words you really have to be judicious. As you know, I am not good at that and evidently neither is he. So it’s a learning experience!

      Anyway – Paris. Exciting. If you haven’t already been, or haven’t been in a long time, then I really think “the obvious” is the way to go: climb that tower! Or go to the Louvre. Or do the Arc de Triomphe. If you feel that’s been done, I would try the flea market – though there’s a good chance you’ve been there too. In which case, I would recommend the local route: best blow out I ever got was at a Parisian salon (http://www.alvarezparis.fr); walk around the Marais quarter; have a 2 hour cup of coffee; go out at night and sit at one of the outdoor cafes with heat lamps and blankets and have a glass of wine. Personally, I would go and see the Nutcracker or a cirque show (some of the best acrobats in the world!) but I know that’s not for everyone.

      Anyway – I’m asking my Hong Kong friend (who is French and now lives back in Paris) for a few recommendations for another reader… I’ll let you know what he says. He has excellent taste. Will be in touch.

    • Per my last comment – here’s what I learned about bars and restaurants in Paris. I’ve never been to any of them, so I can’t vouch for them personally but I can say that my friend has always given me excellent recommendations in the past and don’t expect these to be any different:
      1. Lunch at Comptoir de Relais, get there before noon to get a table; no bookings
      2. Clover – dinner. make a booking
      3. Clamato and Septime are two great new places, book ahead
      4. Old School: Chez Georges
      5. Best value: La Regalade Conservatoire
      6. Cheap and cheerful bio/natural wines: Le Verre Vole

      ENJOY!

    • Yes, I know what you mean… the original had more personality. It was also twice as long, which made it easier to go the fun route… anyway – I agree with you. Will try to get some of the original tone in there :) Thank you for reading and your feedback! Very helpful.

  2. I used to be an editor and I used to work at a magazine, so this advice comes from that experience: don’t bury your lede. If I had approximately 10,000 applications to get through, your opening paragraphs wouldn’t be compelling enough to get me to keep reading. Your reader is going to be skimming piles of these applications, probably hundreds of them one after another — your last two lines are your travel story, they are what sell you, but there’s at least a decent chance that the editor wouldn’t make it to them. Put them up front. Or maybe the second to last paragraph up front? I’m not going to be applying for the job but I definitely thought of you when I saw it — I think you’d be great at it and I hope you get it. And I think you’ve chosen a great experience to demonstrate your aptitude for it. But I wouldn’t start with a geography lesson. (And forgive me if this sounds rude — I would never criticize a regular post, but that is my unvarnished feedback on this one!)

    • Oh this is so helpful – thank you! Totally the kind of feedback I was hoping to get… actually even better than I was hoping for since you’re coming from a place of experience, as opposed to opinion. Thank you! Totally flipping it when I apply :)

  3. I read this in a writing book (that I can’t locate nor recall at the moment) & it has helped me: No one cares about your process. Unless the process is the story, i.e. climbing Everest, go straight to the result. No one cares why I choose to write this blog post or that. They just want the blog post. In this case, no one cares why you went to Finland, nor why you went ice swimming. Use the start mentioned above & then take us directly to the brink of the ice. It’s about that experience, not about you. You are the vehicle with which we vicariously travel. I want to see the scenery not hear about the car.

    This one is a pet peeve. For the love of all that is holy, do not start with an anecdote. I hate this. I don’t know the author, why am I interested in what they do? Give us a reason to care, then tell us a story.

    Rude, but you did ask.

    • Hello! Thank you so much. You’re so right… and thank you for the advice in general. I sometimes get bogged down in process… I have to get better about that. In any case, I totally rewrote the piece and I did a lot of what you said… but I still think I can cut more from the beginning because even though I like it, you’re right. Just cut to the ice, right?

      And, by the way, none of what you said is rude. Honest, yes. Helpful, for sure. To the point, fine. But rude or out of line? No. Even if I didn’t ask for it, there’s nothing wrong with feedback. Besides, there’s a time and a place for being polite, but providing edits on a job application isn’t one of them.

      Long story short – thank yoU!

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