Lockdown Living - Vol. 1: Sebastian Modak, The New York Times Traveler


We’re all spending a lot more time at home—but how are we really spending it? We’re asking a few particularly creative people how they are living during lockdown, how their talents are helping them keep cool, what they’re baking, what they’re binging, and what perspectives they hope they bring to the other side.


Sebastian Modak doesn’t usually spend a lot of time at home. In 2019, he was living out of a suitcase while serving as The New York Times’ 52 Places traveler (“I literally had 10 t-shirts to my name for a year”), crisscrossing the globe visiting a new place each week for the paper’s travel series.  He was planning to enjoy a 2020 closer to home, and well, you can imagine how that’s going. We asked the pro-traveler and journalist (and our co-founder Andres’ brother) how he’s handling being in one place and what habits have made him a pro at maintaining relationships near and far. 


Where are you? Who are you quarantining with?

I’m in my apartment in Harlem with my partner, Maggie, and our cat, Chutney. It’s so strange to be in New York while still missing New York.

What’s your typical day like?

I’m still writing—about how things have changed or will change. Otherwise, I wake up later and go to sleep later than I probably should. I’ve been surprised at how fast time has been moving. A lot of people feel the opposite, but for me, it’s when I’m traveling that time drags. The constant stimulus of meeting new people and having new experiences means last year felt very long to me, whereas this year has gone by in the blink of an eye.


Sebastian was constantly humbled by the kindness of strangers, like these restauranteurs in Hong Kong.


What are you doing to try to keep a routine/keep yourself in balance?

I didn't have anything close to resembling a routine last year, so I'm not craving structure necessarily. But, I have put some things into place. I read for an hour with my coffee every morning, which I never felt like I had the time for before. Now I get to really spend time with a book or the latest The New Yorker. 


Have you picked up any new habits since you’ve been home? Any projects you are working on?

As the weather has gotten better, I’ve gotten more into cycling. It's surreal to ride through the middle of Times Square during rush hour. A few years ago, I bought a very nice bike (very nice for me at least, I’m used to $100 clunkers from Craigslist), but I didn’t use it that much. Now I feel like a dad going through a midlife crisis, going deep down the rabbit hole of researching different pedals and tires and probably spending too much money. But I justify it because this might be how I get around New York in the future. 

Every winter, ice caves form on the shores of Lake Superior in Ontario; Sebastian donned some snowshoes and saw them up close.



You traveled the world for a year, and now you are on lockdown at home. How are you coping while housebound?

I wrote a longer piece about this. I’ve met so many incredible people through my travels. As I was organizing Zoom happy hours with friends in New York, I realized that my friends down the street or in Brooklyn are just as far away as the friends that I made in Siberia or wherever else. I came to the realization that if I can catch up with my friends in the same city, why can’t I reach out to those people and reconnect? Talking to them makes me feel a lot better, not just because I can relive the experiences I had traveling, but it also gives me a sense of global solidarity. It’s unprecedented to have the entire world going through something at the same time, and it’s comforting to see that my friends in Siberia have a lot of the same fears and frustrations. 


The country of Georgia takes hospitality very seriously, as Sebastian discovered at nightly supras, or feasts.


Any habits you learned traveling that are helping you now?

Travel makes you a more observant person, and I don’t know if it’s because I’m moving and doing things slower or because I’m going on daily walks, but this has made me more mindful of my surroundings. New York especially is a place where time can just disappear into a vacuum, but noticing the little things makes this more manageable and even enjoyable. I notice buildings I’ve never seen before or a little patch of flowers that only blooms in March.




The Sopranos. 

My partner and I made a deal that I would watch The Sopranos, which I’ve never seen, if she would watch The Wire, which she’d never seen. We’d put them both off because who has the time to watch 6 or 7 seasons of a series—we have the time now. 


Making some new friends at a King penguin colony in the Falkland Islands.



The City We Became N.K. Jemisin. 

Last year I read maybe one book because I was so busy moving, and I think I've read 15 books this year so far. I found myself gravitating towards sci-fi/fantasy, which I think makes for the best travel literature because you're traveling to a different world entirely. This is based in New York City, which is a nice reminder of all of the reasons that I love the city even when I can’t interact with it. 

Uzbekistan was once the thriving heart of the Silk Road and much of that legacy remains at places like Samarkand's Registan Square.


The Happiest Hour-ing:

Negroni (and all its variants)
I’m having a cocktail every night, which is maybe not the most healthy routine, but it’s become a mindfulness exercise—making my cocktail and doing riffs and variations each night. A Negroni is my go-to, so when it was colder I gravitated towards the Boulevardier, swapping bourbon instead of gin. And the Snowe Cocktail, the Simone, is a go-to for me, not to plug my brother's own invention.


Sidebar: Staying Connected


A global traveler like Sebastian has friends from Siberia to South Harlem—and his ways to stay connected with all of them are the same. 


The Zoom Happy Hour

By now, you’ve probably done a few of these that email with a meeting ID can strike you as a tad tedious. Recapture the magic of going out by mimicking what you used to do. Order the same to-go dinner as your friends so it’s like you’re having a dinner party—or try to make the same recipe in realtime. Set up a virtual karaoke night with Watch2gether. Bond while co-watching a dumb action movie on Netflix. Attend a virtual wine tasting. If you liked it, find a way to do it virtually.


The Just Because

Don’t neglect the power of the random message. “I’m not going to let any of the links that I've created with the outside world slip,” Sebastian says. “Sometimes you don’t need to organize a phone call. Recently, I got a Whatsapp message from a piano player that I met in Italy. It’s just a video of him playing piano at home and it was a nice little reminder that someone, somewhere far away is still thinking about you and that those connections still exist.”



Any unexpected purchase that’s kept you sane?

Shameless plug here, but we recently added a few essential home luxuries from Snowe for the lockdown, knowing we’re going to be spending all this time at home. We’ve always love the percale, but recently tried out the linen sheets which are unreal, bathrobes, honeycomb for me and classic for Maggie, and real tumblers for all the cocktails we’re going to drink.

Hampi, in the Indian state of Karnataka, was once home to a thriving empire; many of the temples and palaces are still standing.

Supply and Demand

The liquor store closest to us closed down the first week of the pandemic, so we’ve been doing big orders from Astor Wines and Spirits. It takes a while for them to come because they are so slammed, so it’s like Christmas when our new shipment comes. There’s been some impulse buys for sure: “Oh I’ve never heard of this obscure French bitter. Let me get a whole bottle and see what happens.” 

    Let the games begin

    Online games let you reconnect without the pressure of a marathon phone call. “Multiplayer video games have been a great way to connect with my friends,” Sebastian says. “Even if it’s people, I haven’t talked to in years, we can play these mindless games while catching up over a headset. Mentally check out together and everyone wins. If you’re not the console-gamer type, downloadable Jackbox Games, like Quiplash and Drawful use your phone/laptop—and are easy enough for parents to pick up.

      He didn't do much (see: any) cooking on his trip around the world, but in the Italian village of Sori, he tried his hand at hand-rolling trofie pasta.



      What advice would you have given yourself on Day 1 of lockdown knowing what you know now? 

      To give myself a break in terms of productivity. In the early days of quarantine, people on Twitter were saying “well Shakespeare wrote King Lear when he was quarantined,” and I felt this pressure—“This is my time to be creative, to write.” But, it’s ok to feel paralyzed and unproductive, and to channel those energies into things that aren’t necessarily the textbook definition of productivity. Our tendency is to be productive because we think this is what I do with time. It took me a couple of weeks of being hard on myself to realize that occasionally I find more peace sitting down and playing a video game than I’d find pitching 50 editors on a story. And that continues even now. This is still not normal, this is still disruptive, and that’s OK.