Rain, rain, go away…

Overcast in the Sahara

Overcast in the Sahara.

When I was in my 20s I lived on tour with a traveling circus. For three years I moved with them from city to city, mostly in northern Europe, and no matter where we went it rained. A lot. Even the locals remarked on the unusual weather.

“It’s never usually like this at this time of year.” Continue reading

that’s a lot to live up to

I’ve been reading quite a lot about Paris recently. I finished Dawn of the Belle Epoque: The Paris of Monet, Zola, Bernhardt, Eiffel, Debussy, Clemenceau, and Their Friends and have moved on to the follow-up, Twilight of the Belle Epoque: The Paris of Picasso, Stravinsky, Proust, Renault, Marie Curie, Gertrude Stein, and Their Friends through the Great War. (Both are by Mary McAuliffe.)

I give you their full titles to bring home the point that I’m reading about a lot gifted people who worked hard and succeeded in fields about which they were passionate.

Which is partly inspiring, and partly depressing.

I feel as though I should be working harder. But before I can even do that I need to work out where my passion lies. What is it that I have to say? What is it that I want to shout from the rooftops? I’m pretty sure that ‘I don’t know’ is not an acceptable answer.

And it folds back into earlier thoughts. When I tried to put together ideas about where I want to be five years from now, I didn’t have any kind of concrete goal for my writing. Other than just… getting better. I feel I should have a passion project. I should want to write a novel, or a travelogue, or something.

But I haven’t worked out what that is yet. And I’m not sure where to start.

Which destination would you revisit?

I stumbled across a list of travel-related questions on Nicolette Orlemans’ blog, and I think I’m going to play with some of them here for a while.

I tried to answer the first one – what and where was your most memorable travel experience – and realized I don’t have just one answer. And that the answers I do have, I’m already writing about.

So, on to number two. Which destination would you revisit and why? At the moment, my answer is Cuba.

My sister ran a yoga retreat in Cuba in February, and begged my mother and I to join her. And, given how brutally cold this past February was, she didn’t have to beg very hard. My sister has been to Cuba many times, but I hadn’t ever been before. My decision to go was spur-of-the-moment, and I didn’t do any reading or research before I left. And, to be frank, I was really only in it for the sun.

My first impression of the country… was not great. The airport in Varadero was painfully disorganized – it took our small group of eight people three hours to get through customs and into the country. By the time we boarded the bus to drive to our resort, it was nearly midnight, so I couldn’t see any of the countryside out the window.

Really, though, the airport (both arriving and leaving) was the only sour spot of the trip. We stayed at a three star resort, which was just fine. All I wanted was the sun and the beach, so I was very easy to please. For the first couple of days the wind came in over the ocean, so jellyfish were a big problem. Halfway through the week, though, the wind shifted, the temperature went even further up (yay!) and the jellyfish were blown out to sea, which meant I got a chance to swim in the ocean.

The very best part of the trip, though, were the chances I got to leave the resort. We took a guided walk up into the hills to see some local plant life and get a lovely view back down over the resort and the beach. We also got a chance to meet some local farmers and sample their fruits. Guava, sugar cane, coconuts, all freshly cut. One man gave us a tour of his house, and another one showed off his beautiful vintage yellow jeep.

On our last full day in Cuba, my sister organized a trip to Havana. Five of us piled into two of Cuba’s beautiful vintage cars (I rode in a green 1952 Chevy with a maroon interior) to drive the hour along the coast. I loved everything about this day. Our guide, Leo, was a school teacher who gave tours in his spare time because it paid better. He was friendly and patient and knowledgeable. And I followed him through the city, just delighted by the chaos and the exuberance and the life of it all.

And I want to go back. I want to read about the history and the politics and Hemingway, do my research, and then go back and see more of the country. Meet more of the people. The people in Cuba were so wonderful, so friendly. Intrepid Travel – a tour company I’ve travelled with before – does a 15-day tour of Cuba that intrigues me. So that trip is on my list! Maybe even for this coming winter…

Crazy? Probably…

So… I’m considering buying an apartment in Paris. I’ve tried to talk about this with a couple of friends, and when I do I frame it as… a joke, or a mental exercise. A pie-in-the-sky game that’s just fun to consider.

Except, I’m seriously considering buying an apartment in Paris.

If I trace the idea back to its root, my dad is to blame. We’ve played pie-in-the-sky all my life. I learned the game from him. And then a couple of weeks ago, my 76-year-old father, who had in the recent past talked about down-sizing to a small apartment or even a retirement home, impulse-bought a 15-acre property in the countryside.

When he first brought up the idea, I thought we were playing the game again.

“Well, in that case,” I said, “I’d like an apartment in Paris, please.” Paris got into my bones when I was there this past October, and I’m planning to go back again this fall.

And then my mother called me back two hours later to tell me my dad had bought the place. He’s selling up in the city and moving out there at the end of the summer. All by himself. I have a whole separate spate of concerns about that.

Inspired – sort of – by his lunacy, I spent a couple of hours poking at my own insane idea. And it’s not quite as crazy as it sounds.

As part of my where-do-I-want-to-be-in-five-years navel gazing, I’ve been thinking it’s time to consider buying a house. The problem with that is, due to my job, I move twice a year. In the summer I work at a large theatre in a small town, in the winter I work in television in the big city. I can’t afford to buy anything in the city – and even if I could, I’d need to sublet it for eight months of the year, which is an enormous pain in the ass. If I buy in the small town, I either have to commute two hours each way to work in the city in the winter, or I find a part-time retail job in the small town and all my travel money goes towards the mortgage.

But if I buy an apartment in Paris, I can have an agency rent it out to travellers during the high tourist season and then have a base in Europe for my travels in the winter. There are certain problems this plan doesn’t solve, but I like it the best out of all my current options.

I’m going to do some research and some math, and see if rental income would realistically cover the mortgage. I want to talk to the agency I found online and get a serious idea of the costs involved and what they charge for their services. But this might just be the five-year project I’ve been looking for.

How do you choose?

I wonder sometimes how other people choose the places they want to visit. For me, I generally travel to places I’ve formed an emotional connection to, often via some kind of media. Is that weird?

One of the trips on my current to do list is sailing around the British Virgin Islands with Intrepid Travel. I’ve travelled with Intrepid twice before – once in Morocco and once in Thailand – and had a wonderful experience both times. For me, it’s the perfect compromise between adventure and an organized tour. It takes away all the stress of planning and keeping a schedule, but I don’t end up just shuffling on and off a bus. I would have toured Greece with them, too, but they didn’t run late enough into the year.

I’ve wanted to learn to sail for a few years now. I fell in love with the idea the summer I worked in Prince Edward Island, but never had the opportunity to follow through. The trip notes for the sailing adventure indicate it’s up to the individual how involved they want to get in the actual sailing of the ship, and I love that they provide that option.

The reason I chose the Caribbean as a destination, though, is largely due to a cheeseball television show I fell in love with over the winter called Death in Paradise. It’s a BBC show about a detective who gets transferred from London to the Caribbean and ends up stuck there. Which would be great, except that he hates the sun, and the sea, and the sand. It’s a simple little detective show, with a little hint of romance, and it was exactly what I wanted over the winter. The past two winters in Canada (in fact, much of North America) have been particularly cold and harsh. And even just getting to see the sun and the sea on television was a relief.

The show gave me a bit of an emotional connection to the area, and inspired my curiosity to learn more. And when I came across the Intrepid trip, it seemed an ideal combination. I wonder, though, if maybe I’m not supposed to admit this kind of thing out loud.

Zeus’ Fallen Temple

SONY DSC

The ruins of Zeus’ temple at Olympia.

The Temple of Zeus at Olympia was once a colossus of stone. Immovable. For the ages. Built around 460 BC, it stood for eight and a half centuries and sheltered one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient world – a statue of Zeus thirteen metres tall made of ivory and gold.

Today the temple lies in ruins. My guide spoke of Continue reading

trying something new

I’ve started using my notebook in a new kind of way. I mean, not revolutionary – I’m still writing words down on blank pages – but still, different than I’m used to.

I *love* pretty notebooks. When it’s time for a new one, I always spend a huge amount of time looking for one that feels right. The problem is, though, when I buy a really beautiful one, or one I really love, either I think it’s too pretty to write in and I put off ever using it. Or I start to get precious about the way I use it. Always one kind of writing, always putting the date in a certain place, trying to keep my writing neat and coherent. And that kind of rigidity can stifle creativity.

I bought my current notebook in a drugstore for a couple of bucks, right before a road trip. It’s a cheap spiral-bound thing, 200 pages, the kind that’s designed for high school kids. I didn’t want to bring anything precious with me, so this was just going to be a scratchpad. And it turns out that not loading it with any kind of expectations was the best choice ever.

I do actually treat this notebook like a scratchpad. No dates. I jump from one project to another. I scribble down odd sentences and fragments of ideas. I keep lists in there. I jot down quotes that I hear in podcasts. I tear the occasional blank page out to use for a shopping list…

But I’m so much more productive. It’s a great system, particularly when I’m so busy. I don’t need to feel inspired. I don’t need a huge block of time. I can still be creative in the odd minutes that I happen to have.

I stripped away all the ritual around writing and it’s so refreshing.

On Sunday I sat down and typed out the chunks of various projects that have accumulated in there over the last month or so and I was surprised by how much I had. All those little bits and pieces added up!

So I’ve got a new system, at least for the moment. It’s good to shake things up every so often. Although sometimes I think my next notebook will end up being SUPER-beautiful to make up for this…

numbers, numbers…

I made the mistake of picking up a book called 5 and flipping through it in the bookstore. And this is, basically, what has triggered my most recent bout of navel gazing.

5 is a bright, colourful picture book for adults that asks the question ‘where do you see yourself in five years?’ It encourages you to think about that span of time in different ways, and to look at all the different aspects of your life, not just career or financial or relationships.

I did the math, and I will be 42 in five years. 42 is, of course, the answer to life, the universe, and everything, so it feels like a good target to be aiming for. And in five years it will be 2020, which is kind of a magical number, too. So I’m starting to think about the big questions.

Do I want to adopt a child? If I do, I should start thinking about it seriously now and making plans, because adoption is not a fast process and I’m not getting any younger.

Do I want to buy a house? If so, where? The city where I live in the off season or the city where I work in the summer? In Canada at all or overseas?

I need to get serious about learning money management, now that I have the career I worked so hard for.

I want to learn to sail. And plant a vegetable garden. And continue to travel.

What does 42 look like for me? What can I do right now to set the wheels in motion? I don’t need to have all the answers right this second, but I do need to start thinking seriously about the questions. Maybe I need to sit and write about it a little, maybe creating the story of it will help.

And once I have done the research, and made the choices, I want to write my goals down. Make them concrete. Something I can refer back to. The book, 5, also encouraged readers to write a mission statement for their lives. What is the big ideal, the driving force?

It sounds a little hokey, and it’s all pure navel gazing, but I think it’s a useful exercise. I just need to follow through.

setting goals

This morning I had the TED radio hour podcast on while I washed the dishes. It was last week’s episode (I think) about Champions, and in a way it became a meditation on the mentality and habits of successful people. Athletes, in this case.

I’ve been thinking about life goals over the last couple of weeks, and this podcast kind of ran with that theme. Athletes have concrete goals. They know what they want, and they have a training schedule to get them there.

So I stood there with soapy hands thinking, what does my goal look like? Smell like? Taste like? Because if I can’t picture it in glowing technicolour, in all five senses, how am I ever going to know it when I meet it?

And, I realize, the goal can’t be “getting published,” because I have no control over that. The goal can’t be external validation, it has to be internal.

So, what does this mean in a concrete sense? I’m not sure yet. ‘Become a better travel writer’ is valid, but vague. Maybe it needs to be ‘finish these five pieces you’re in the middle of, even if all you ever do with them is post them on this blog.’ Maybe it’s ‘learn from what you didn’t get right last time.’ Maybe it’s ‘travel for two months out of every year.’ Maybe it’s ‘stop going back to the same damn places over and over so you can stretch a little.’ Maybe it’s ‘keep going back to that one place until you’ve said everything you want to say about it.’

I’m beginning to understand that it might be time to sit down and actually think through what the big goal is. What do I want to achieve? What does that end point feel like? And what little goals will lead me down the path to that big one?

I need to do some research, and a lot of thinking.

The Great Railway Bazaar, by Paul Theroux

I picked up The Great Railway Bazaar in an effort to broaden my travel reading beyond country guides, Michael Palin, and Bill Bryson. The Lonely Planet book recommended Paul Theroux as a ‘contemporary master of travel writing,’ so it seemed like a good place to start.

This book represents the kind of travel writing that I’m most interested in: I’m going on a journey and I’m going to take you with me. Not so different from Michael Palin or Bill Bryson for that matter. There wasn’t a larger point or any kind of manifesto – just the details of an interesting journey.

Paul Theroux’s descriptions were wonderful, more evocative, more visceral, more poetic than other travel writing I have yet encountered, and I’m sure that’s why the Lonely Planet folk recommended him. But, to be quite frank, I’d rather skip the carefully tailored words and spend the time with Messrs. Palin and Bryson instead. The narrator of The Great Railway Bazaar was a condescending, racist dick. And the complete and utter lack of women as people rather than as sexualized objects was truly appalling.

A masochistic part of me, however, is debating reading his follow up, Ghost Train to the Eastern Star, where he reprises the same journey thirty years later, just to see if he has grown as a person at all.