The price of freedom: My $9k dream vacation

betty ming liu Art, Food, Inspiration, Relationships, Travel 12 Comments

Running away from home for a 10-day painting vacation in France came with a price — $9,079.80, to be exact. But it’s what I wanted to do. I had a great time. Plus, I learned the value of letting go. “Me first” is my new mantra!

Everything was new. I’d never gone on a vacation by myself before. Never went away to college either. I’m also not an outdoors-y person or a watercolor painter. Plus, my old portable easel was a piece of crap. All of these factors became critical for my June 5-15 escape.

I spent months preparing for this adventure, which boiled down to two words: RETAIL THERAPY. And I pursued my objective with tremendous enthusiasm.

And what a fantastic choice for a trip: 10 days in the Normandy region with two stops. We began with three days in Giverny, at Claude Monet’s garden:

Monet's flowers

Imagine, being in the home of the great Impressionist painter, standing in his sunlit studio and his yellow kitchen, admiring his Japanese art collection. On two evenings, after the property closed to the public, our group of about 18 painters was set loose on the property:


From here, we spent a week in Honfleur, a scenic, thousand-year-old seaside town much beloved by Monet and his crowd:


At first being on hallowed ground was intimidating. But I arrived prepared. Aw, this is me in full gear, with one of my favorite paintings from the trip:

painting800 copy

Check out the new, packable sun hat and walking shoes. That’s the new easel with tripod slung over one shoulder. The tote in my arms is a $43.34 diaper bag from Target. At least one of my brushes cost $48.

Working with small-sized paper was very convenient because of its portability:


But small came with a price too. A 5″x7″ block of 100% cold-pressed Fabriano watercolor paper runs $18 for 25 pages. I also brought larger, even more expensive paper and ended up overpacking.

Like the paper, most of what I was packing will come in handy for future watercolor experiments and for working outdoors, which is called plein air.

Here’s a run-down of my major expenses for this journey, which was sponsored by the Art Students League of New York:

  • $3,150 to register for the League’s workshop.
  • $1,253.80 for the round-trip Air France flight.
  • $1,820 for intensive watercolor lessons & workshops.
  • $919.68 for painting supplies.
  • $442.42 for the outrageous new easel.
  • $580.62 for outdoor gear, shoes, luggage packing bags.

Food expenses ($357.43) were actually quite reasonable because in Honfleur, I had my own little apartment and cooked a bit. Our group of nearly two dozen painters and assorted significant others often dined together and stuck to reasonably-priced places:

French food

Our fearless leader, Frank O’Cain, took us on museum tours, gave painting demonstrations and offered individual critiques. My most important takeaway came during a walk when he showed us how he evaluates a scene and abstracts its essence for his painting.

The goal is to simplify what you see into basic, geometric shapes. From here, identify colors that speak to you. Then keep on simplifying the colors and shapes until you get them working together. My first try at this resulted in way too much detail and confusion:

Sketch pad

By by the end of our journey, I was learning to simplify for real:


This practice feels like a meditation, a form of visual yoga. I want to keep seeing with these new eyeballs. I know they will change my writing and my relationships — for the better.

So….I return to my usual bargain-hunting lifestyle, $9,000 richer and happier. Running away from home was definitely worth it. And now I’m wondering, when and where next — for either me or you?

P.S. — A special shout-out to Phil Levine proprietor of 1WorldArt Travel, who the League hired to manage our trip and accompany us. Thanks, Phil!

Giverny flowers

Comments 12

  1. I loved following you and your adventures/discoveries on such a wonderful holiday! Thanks for all the insights and inspiration!
    I would really like to know more about the walking shoes and packable sun hat!
    Looking forward to seeing how you assimilate the painting tips into your own work. I like to take a workshop every two to three years to learn new things as well – glad you took the leap and had a totally ‘me’ holiday – so good for your soul

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      Heather, I’m glad you enjoyed going to France with me! Workshops every few years are great. In fact, new projects are always great. And you hit on something else I want to do…with all of this shopping, I’d liked to do a separate product review blog post, some time soon. Do you subscribe to my blog? If so, you will get an alert letting you know what’s up. Thanks for your interest in the shoes and sun hat. Will blog some photos soon.

  2. You’re inspiring me to run away from home! With college looming for Son No. 2, I can’t do that just yet, but I’m looking forward to a local adventure that will encourage me to see things through new eyes. Thank you for taking us with you!

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      Gayle, running away from home has happened in stages for me too. I’ve been building up to this moment with day trips, weekend adventures, etc etc. This was the big one. And I only have one kid — only one kid in college. So congrats to you for having two kids in college, while maintaining your sense of adventure!

  3. Sounds like it was a valuable and memorable experience.
    For your next excursion, consider an uncomplicated (and tres delicious) version of plein air workshop with Julian Merrow-Smith of Shifting Light and Postcard from Provence fame. Julian provides all art supplies including easels, oils, brushes, etc. plus your cost includes gourmet meals on site at La Madeleine B&B (a former, now tres chic), abbey near Carpentras) wine(!), wonderful vistas, inspiring instruction and outstanding camaraderie for 8 days of artistic heaven.

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      Dorothy, our trip was wonderful. I just went to the Julian M-S website — looks good too. Hmmm, for eight days, it comes to $3,750, all included. Let’s add another $1,200 for airfare, which brings us to about $5k, everything included. If we factor in the cost per day — without my additional crazy expenses for getting up to speed — the pricing is comparable to my League trip. I’ll keep it in mind. A trip to Provence would be heavenly….thanks for sharing!

  4. Betty,

    I am so happy for you! Running away is sometimes the best gift we can give ourselves. Loved following you on Facebook. Thanks for sharing your experiences and France’s beauty with us.

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  5. Betty, your blog is an unexpected and wonderful way to revisit our trip to France. Thanks for keeping the magic alive and well. I enjoyed being with you.

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