Category Archives: Blog

Paris, the final stop on the solo adventure

May 23, 2019

The morning after the Colmar trip, I woke in my room on the 4th floor of the fabulous Paris apartment, threw open my balcony doors and immediately slammed the suckers shut again. Why was it so frigging cold out there?

Turned out a cold front had moved in and was slowly marching across Europe, bringing rain and an expected high in Paris of only 8C. Good thing I had packed for Reykjavik.

I was looking forward to a cooking class later that morning in the home of Chef Marthe Brohan. Her apartment is in the 15th Arrondissement, about an hour and a half walk from where I was staying. A long way, yes, but I’ve always felt that the only way to really see a city is to walk and getting lost is part of the adventure.

After donning two sweaters, raincoat and scarf, I grabbed my telescoping, ultra-light travel umbrella and headed out the door. A little rain was not going to stop me. Wind, on the other hand, was another matter entirely.

Two blocks into the walk, I knew my umbrella was not built for sudden strong gusts. Any second it was going to turn inside out and leave me scrambling in the pouring rain to right it again. The practical solution? Wait out the storm over coffee and pain au chocolate, and if one cup turned into two or three, book an Uber.

I ducked into the nearest café and stopped dead in the doorway, taking in the leather chairs, roaring fireplace, oriental rugs and the huge rhino head mounted on the wall. Had I walked into an old-world men’s club? Was that front door really a time portal? More importantly, would I need an escort?

The look on my face must have spoken volumes, in English, because a waitress quickly assured me that the Rhino was a fake, the flames in the fireplace were real and I could sit anywhere. Unfortunate decorating choices aside, the café turned out to be as delightful as the storm was insistent. Two coffees,and one Uber later, I arrived in time for the cooking class.

When travelling solo, there is no faster way to feel truly alone than schlepping along with a group of people on a museum tour or neighbourhood walk.  You aren’t part of anyone’s posse and they’re all trying to hear the guide so the best you can do is keep up when the guide moves on because no one will be aware if you fall behind. Filling your days with large group events will have you missing home before you know it. For me, finding opportunities to sit down and share food with others was the perfect antidote, and that cooking class was not only a way to fill that need, but a way to start seeing behind those imposing Paris doors.

Chef Marthe welcomed three of us into her home that morning. The first, a woman around my age from Florida who had left her husband to figure out Paris on his own for a few hours. The second, a man in his 70’s who hailed from somewhere else in the States but had been living in China for six months and was now travelling solo through Europe, And then there was me, the lone Canadian, hoping desperately that neither of my cooking companions were Trumpers. Biting my tongue till it bled would make for a very long three hours.

Chef Marthe. Take us to school

I breathed a sigh of relief when both, with no prompting from anyone I swear, announced that they were not MAGA supporters. This kind of revelation became the norm as the trip progressed which I found fascinating, but that is a topic for a completely different post.

Our lunch menu included an asparagus starter, cod for the main and crème caramel for dessert.  The three of us made a good team, measuring and whipping, chopping and stirring while gradually getting to know each other and picking up insights into the art of French cooking.  Lunch was served with wine at Marthe’s dining room table, where she also gave us tips on where to find the best bread and macarons, (other than hers, of course) the best chocolate and cheese as well as restaurants that a French chef could confidently endorse.

That’s another thing I love about going behind the private doors of a city. Every host I encountered was happy to share their favourite places to shop and eat in their neighbourhoods. That kind of information made each neighbourhood a little more real and a lot more accessible, sending me on very specific missions to see for myself if those macarons or that market were indeed the best.

When we left, we all hugged, wished each other well in our travels and headed off in different directions with no emails exchanged or promises to keep in touch made. Camaraderie without expectations. How perfect is that?

Continuing on the Experiences theme, that evening I attended a private cabaret performance in the home of Sylvain Phillipe, a singer/dancer who had just retired from a career in Paris cabarets. Ever a performer, Sylvain turned the studio attached to his apartment into a cabaret venue for small groups. One half of the studio was stage and dressing room, the other half a kitchen where he prepared a casual pre-show dinner for the evening’s guests — a couple from the States, a mother/daughter duo from B.C. and me.

Here we are. Entertain us.

We got to know each other while sipping wine and munching hors d’oeuvres, and learned more about our host over quiche and salad. Sylvain’s homemade cake would be served with champagne and macarons after the performance, so with glasses topped up, we settled into couches and chairs in front of the stage and the accompanist took his place at the piano.

Over the next few hours, Sylvain put on a one-man show that took us through the history of French music from the 1900’s to the present with performances by Maurice Chevalier, Charles Aznavour, Josephine Baker and Edith Piaf, to name but a few. Sometimes he transformed behind the curtain at the back of the stage, and sometimes he sat down at the vanity on stage to become the performer he was talking about.

He sang, he danced, and he brought French music and performers to life in a setting that was charming and intimate and completely different. When the show ended and the champagne cork popped, we all agreed that the evening had been a huge success! More hugs at the end and again we set off in different directions, although the couple from the States did insist on waiting with me until the Uber arrived because it was past midnight and the street dark. I was learning to be more fearless in my approach to life and the world, but was glad of the company, nonetheless. And yes, I prefer Uber when I travel because I know exactly how much the fare will be before I get into the car and I don’t have to figure out foreign currency on the fly when the ride is over.

Midnight champagne aside, I was up and at ’em early the next day. My time in the city was running out and I wasn’t about to waste precious hours sleeping. First stop, a crepe-making party hosted by a young man with no experience in cooking anything but crepes. The class was the polar opposite of the one with Marthe, and I had a wonderful time making sweet and savoury crepes with a family of four from Calgary while gaining insight into Breton culture and every day life for young people in Paris in 2019.

From there, I headed to the Marais, following a walk laid out by Corey Frye, a transplanted American who shares his love of all things Parisian through video tours on his site A French Frye in Paris. His material is private, available only to supporters known as The Frites. I am a proud Frite and if you’re thinking of visiting Paris any time soon, you need to join!

I was lucky enough to meet up with Corey that afternoon for the café chat at the end of his Saturday afternoon video tour. We sat down with coffee in front of his camera and chatted live with Frites all over North America. He asked me about travelling solo in Paris and my experience with Airbnb Experiences, all of which I was more than happy to share. It didn’t matter that the day was still drizzly and cold, the laughter alone kept us warm and happy. That chat was definitely a highlight of the trip. Thanks again, Corey!

The view from the fifth floor
of the Pompidou

From there I hiked over to the Centre Pompidou, the one museum I wanted to visit on this trip. There is much to see at the Pompidou, but my goal was the Modern Art and Contemporary Art collections on the fifth floor.  There are over 9,000 pieces in the Modern and Contemporary collections, including works by Picasso, Matisse and Warhol but the ones that held me spellbound were a handful of paintings from the 1930’s. Paintings that were intended to meet, and I’m quoting here, the  ‘educational role of art in a Fascist Society, described as an instrument of spiritual government.’ 

Paintings that were, and again I’m quoting: ‘devoid of bourgeois intellectualism and rooted in ancestral tradition. The values conveyed – religion, rurality, family and social order – were considered a virtue by the (Nazi) regime.’

The similarities to what we’re seeing all over the world today are undeniable. The rise of religion, the glorification of an idyllic past, the fear of the other as a threat to social order. History is repeating itself. Do humans never learn?

The effect was chilling, and I left the Pompidou a little more somber than when I’d entered. But the rain had stopped, so I walked down to the river, hopped on the Batobus and put the problems of the world aside as I watched Paris drift by from a window seat.

That night I packed up and completed the online check-in for my morning flight to Prague. Tomorrow, I would meet Sandi at the airport there and we would continue on together. My solo adventure was ending, and I was looking forward to sharing the details with my travel buddy.

The burning question now is, would I take another solo trip?

In a Paris heartbeat!

Cheers, Lynda

The Prague/Budapest leg of the trip is over and I’m back home again. Loved both cities and would have liked more time in each. When I see you next, ask me about the Hungarian Iron Clap. It’s not what you think, I promise. 😊

Squirrel

May 13, 2019

And finally, Paris. The reason the whole idea of a solo trip idea began.  The last time I was there with Sandi, we hit the Louvre, Versailles, the Orsay, all the hot spots. After six days, we’d barely scratched the surface of the City of Light, yet this time around I didn’t want to visit museums and galleries. This time, I wanted to stroll the streets, explore the Marais, get acquainted with Saint-Germain-Des-Pres. I wanted to peek behind doors, take the bateau bus along the Seine and sit at the cafes sipping wine or coffee, letting the journey take me where it may. Sounds idyllic doesn’t it?  A perfect plan to just ‘be’ in Paris. But I have always been easily distracted.

Who could resist Colmar?

A shiny object, a bar of music, anything can be the squirrel that has me wandering off in a new direction.  This time the squirrel with the fluffiest tail turned out to be Colmar. A medieval town in the Alsace region with cobblestone streets, houses dating back to the 14th century and a canal that gives it the nickname, Venice of France.   

The pictures alone had me at hello, but with only 5 days in Paris, a side trip was out of the question. I tried ignoring the siren song of those pictures to no avail. As I lingered over them yet again, the squirrel whispered, “Isn’t distraction the very essence of letting the journey take you where it will?” Who knew squirrels were so wise?

So I tossed my plan and booked a seat on a train to Colmar before I left Toronto. On a whim, I also threw in a one night stay in an Airbnb, only to discover later that I’d be heading to Colmar in the middle of May Day protests and celebrations. Proving once again that squirrels are not to be trusted!

The balcony in my room!

When I booked an apartment on the fourth floor of a grand old building near the Arc de Triomphe way back in early November, the location had seemed ideal. Close to the Champs Elysees, the metro, grocery store, bakeries. What more could I want? Then came the first Yellow Vest Protest on November 17 followed by another and another.

Being not only easily distracted but ridiculously optimistic, I assured myself that things would calm down by the time I arrived. And I kept repeating that mantra over and over even as shop windows were being smashed on a weekly basis. Macron was changing the laws, after all. The people were winning. Still the protests continued and based on the military presence in the city and the blockades already in place the day I arrived in Paris, May Day was going to be madness. What better time to get out of the city, the optimist hollered? Colmar, here we come!

I’d been warned in advance that Gare de Lyon train station can be daunting, which is why I wisely had an Uber pick me up an hour before I needed to be at the station. But even at 6:30 a.m., long before the protesters arrived, the closures and diversions meant that my 20 minute ride took close to an hour.  The driver was wonderful, hurrying as much as possible to get me to the station on time, but according to my GPS, with luck, we’d arrive 7 minutes before my train departed.

Interior of Gare de Lyon in Paris

Desperate for information, I did a search to see if the station posted Departure information online and Voila! Everything I needed to know was right there. My train to Colmar would leave on time from Hall C on track 11.

The driver was a hero, letting me off near an escalator that took me up to Hall C.  Once at the top, the track numbers were easy to spot. Naturally, Track 11 was at the very end. I made it to the turnstile with 1 minute to spare.

French trains are clean, fast, efficient and they’re heading wherever you’re going. Why don’t we have more trains?

My ticket showed what car I was in and the seat number, and since every car had a sign indicating what number it was, finding my spot was easy.  I hoisted my backpack into the overhead rack, took a breath and ordered coffee from the man pushing the hospitality cart down the aisle. Gotta’ love civilized train travel.

Arriving at Colmar two hours later, I dropped my pack at the Airbnb and headed down to the canal that connects the town to the Danube and gives rise to the title of Little Venice.  Built in 1864, the canal gave business owners and farmers a way to get their goods to market. Today, small boats or barques take tourists up and down the canal, past homes and shops and the market where vendors still bring fruits and vegetables, meats and cheeses and of course pastries, every day except Monday.

If you’re lucky, your driver will be the friendly Russian guy who will regale you with anecdotes of local history and lore in at least 4 languages. Thanks to him, I now know that in the Middle Ages, houses weren’t painted ice cream colours to be cute. Those colours were code for a population that couldn’t read. Blue meant fishmonger, green meant produce, yellow was for bakers and pink for public houses. I like to think there was a lot of pink back in the day.

The ride takes you under low bridges which means a lot of ducking and boat wobbling. I can’t imagine anywhere in North America taking this kind of insurance risk, especially without supplying life jackets as you climb aboard. But in Europe there’s a certain assumption that you take some responsibility for your own safety and if the guy says “duck,” you duck. More importantly, you don’t worry that you’re leaning on someone, and someone else is leaning on you. It’s a small boat, after all. If you fall out you must have leaned too far. You can’t swim? Then why did you get in? But don’t worry, help will come. Just hold onto the paddle. And watch out for the swans.

After the boat ride, I walked the narrow, cobbled streets where overhead signs and flower boxes abound, cafes offer prix fixe menus of two or three courses, and fairy tale shops tempt you with gelato, chocolates and pastries. The gelato won out twice that day, justified by all the walking I’d done, right?

I was told by a local that the villages in the area compete with each other for the title of Most Beautiful Town. Next morning the squirrel and I rented a car and drove twisting roads through hills lined with vineyards that have been around longer than I have and will likely be there long after I’m gone.

Everywhere I stopped, the spirit of that competition between towns was evident and I wished I could stay longer, drive farther. But my return ticket was already booked and later that day I was on the train again, heading back to Paris. Was the side trip worth sacrificing a day and a half in the city? Absolutely. The squirrel and I have already decided there will be a next time. 😊

Next up, Paris. For real.

Cheers

Lynda

Because I usually forget to take pictures, I sometimes use fabulous ones taken by others. In this post you’ll find Colmar: Adisa ; Train: Alexey Novikov ; Gare de Lyon: Jan Kranendonk ; Squirrel: Gale Verhague. All from Dreamstime.com

When The Shark Bites

May 8, 2019

Yes, Iceland is known for Shark Bites. Not the kind you get in the water, but the kind that come on a toothpick.

Meet Hakárl, tiny little bites of fermented Greenland shark in tiny little jars that they wisely keep covered until the moment you agree to pick up one of those toothpicks. That’s when the smell hits you, hard. Like smelling salts.

Do not linger over the jar or the ammonia smell. Simply pop the bite into your mouth, chew slightly until the taste also hits. That’s when you wash the whole thing down with the shot of Brennivin that is usually served with the Harkál because the taste is strong enough to burn away anything that came before it.

Now slap your glass down and know that you are officially in Iceland!

Confession 1: I didn’t intend to visit Iceland. I was booking a flight to Paris because Iceland Air had the best rates and a quick touchdown in Reykjavik didn’t bother me. It wasn’t until my son-in-law, Matt, said, “You do know you that can get off in Reykjavik for up to seven days, then get back on a flight to Paris at no extra cost, right?”

Wrong. I had no idea that Iceland Air offers this service. Because I had already made some arrangements in Paris and would be meeting my travel buddy, Sandi, in Prague, I could only spend two nights in Reykjavik, but I’m very glad I did. Iceland is like nowhere I’ve been before, and I will definitely go back for a week at least.

Lava fields covered with moss
Lava fields covered with moss

The rising sun disappeared behind the clouds as we descended toward Keflavik airport. When you’re landing at 6:30 a.m. (2:30 a.m. back home) it’s hard to take in all the details but where I was headed, the sky was gray, the mountains far off and the landscape below almost lunar with nothing but miles of lava rocks and moss. I’m told it will turn green soon, but during my stay it was still brown. That forbidding landscape continued all the way to the Blue Lagoon, which was my first stop.

Lava rocks line the path to the Blue Lagoon

The Blue Lagoon is a geothermal pool, hotel and retreat spa all in one. I loved it, but if you join Facebook groups for travel to Iceland (which I recommend) you’ll find plenty of people hollering ‘Tourist trap’ and ‘Too expensive. Find a smaller one’ whenever the subject of Blue Lagoon comes up. But that’s like comparing a hotel room to Airbnb accommodation.  They are simply not the same animal.

Air BnB hosts usually supply a bed, hairdryer, soap and towels. They don’t leave little bottles of shampoo and body wash for you take home. They don’t replace your towels daily or make your bed. They won’t book you a taxi or find someone to carry your luggage, nor should they do any of those things. The rates they charge are nowhere near hotel rates, just as the rates at other geothermal pools are nowhere near the rates at the Blue Lagoon, but you’re paying for a completely different experience.

Because my flight arrived hours before check-in anywhere, I knew I’d be tired and jet-lagged so the Blue Lagoon was the perfect destination when I first touched down. I recommend pre-booking a seat on the bus that will take you directly there and you definitely need to pre-book your spot at the Lagoon.

Blue Lagoon offers three price levels: Basic, Premium and Retreat Spa. Because I was only paying for myself, I booked the Retreat Spa. Might as well start the trip off with a fluffy robe, massage, full-body skin pampering ritual and breakfast buffet at the hotel, right?

Confession 2: When I indulge myself, I do it all the way and never feel guilty. Life is short and the last thing I want is for Lorne or my kids to take the trips or have the experiences mom always dreamed about but never did.  My bucket list has already started springing leaks and I intend to get through the rest of that list before there’s nothing but a hole in the bottom of my bucket.

When my four hours at the Blue Lagoon were over, I went straight to the Bnb in Reykjavik and spent the rest of my time in that city. I could have booked a day trip or half-day trip to the Golden Circle, but my time in Iceland was short (about 36 hours) and I felt that the more I tried to cram into those hours, the less I’d remember. So, I promised myself I’d be back, and opted to spend my time getting acquainted with the biggest city in Iceland and the people who live there.  

Typical Icelandic Mashup. White fish with potatoes and whatever vegetables are at hand.
Icelandic Mashup with white fish, potatoes and whatever vegetables are on hand.

That’s why I booked an Experience through Airbnb for the first night. One that took me into a home half-an-hour outside the city where a charming couple introduced me and two other travellers to Harkál and Brennevin (grain alcohol flavored with caraway) before serving us a fabulous Icelandic dinner. Arctic char and gravadlax appetizers, a salmon starter, lamb for the main course and two kinds of dessert, including one with Skyr, a cultured dairy product that isn’t at all like yogurt and is served everywhere.

The five of us talked about life in Iceland, what it’s like to live with so many months of darkness, why cod liver oil is available at every breakfast buffet, why licorice and chocolate are layered together in a favourite Icelandic chocolate bar and the economic boom of tourism. Our hosts were gracious and open. There were never long or awkward silences, even with language barriers, and the evening was over all too soon. It’s an experience I will long remember and highly recommend.

Breakfast at the Treasure BnB

Sadly, everything you’ve heard about the high cost of food in Iceland is true, which is why I booked a BnB that included breakfast, and not simply toast and coffee.

There was a daily buffet of eggs, meats, cheeses, cereals, Skyr, fruit, breads and cod liver oil shots.  In short, everything I wanted, in whatever quantity I cared to eat.  I liked not having to go out in search of coffee in the morning and the mother/daughter team who owned the BnB were happy to chat while I ate. Nice way to start the day.

I spent the rest of the morning roaming the windy streets of Reykjavik then headed for Harpa, the musical hall, to meet up for a Food Walk. Once more into the wind with visitors from Ireland, Canada and the US, all of us on a quest for the best of traditional Icelandic food.

Deli meats spiced with fennel and smooth Icelandic cheese

Our guide, Ben, took us to six restaurants, feeding us Icelandic history and lore as well as everything from soup to two desserts. We also made a stop at a deli for meat and cheese sampling and another at the original home of the Iceland hotdog.

There was one vegetarian in the group and because she did eat fish, the restaurants made sure there was something for her at every stop. The Deli, not so much but that is the nature of the beast. All of the courses were delicious but I particularly enjoyed the Arctic Char with almonds and white wine. And of course, the desserts.

After 3 fabulous hours of walking, eating and learning about the city and each other everyone left full and happy and I didn’t need to go anywhere for dinner.

As an aside, the hot dog is made with lamb and tastes very different from what we’re accustomed to, but a couple of bites was enough for me.

Confession 3: I am not a hot dog person so you really should try it for yourself.

This guy needs a hug. He didn’t sign up for the Food Walk.

Later that same date, I took an Icelandic Mythical Walk. Our charming guide showed no disappointment that his group included only me and a young woman from Calgary, who was also travelling solo. As we wove our way through backstreets and cemeteries, he also wove wonderful tales of elves, trolls and ghosts, complete with actions and sound effects that had both of us laughing and wanting more. Hugs all around at the end of the tour was a testimony to the wonderful time we had!

An early flight the next morning made sure I was in bed early that night and up at the crack of dawn for the next leg of my journey. Was I nervous dragging my rolling backpack through the streets of Reykjavik at 4:30 a.m.? Initially yes, but the sun was already coming up and I wasn’t the only one making the trek to the bus stop so I soon relaxed and ended up chatting with a couple from Wales while we waited.

I loved everything about Iceland and will be back for at least five days next time to take in Northern Lights, glaciers and geysers. But even on a visit as short as this, there are things that stand out, like the traditional Icelandic toast. A single word: Skál.

For a little background, imagine a table full of Vikings back in the day. Tough guys with no taste for sentiment or frivolity, they’re sitting around  eating, shouting and sharing a bowl filled with their favourite libation. Each taking a sip and then passing it to the next guy saying, Skál in their clipped, efficient way. They weren’t saying ‘to your health’ like the French and the Irish, and they certainly weren’t invoking merriment with ‘Cheers’ like the British. They were simply saying ‘Bowl,’ in case the receiver was too drunk to know what was coming his way.   

I love that. No wasted words or treacly sentiment. Just elegant simplicity – two words I never thought I’d use together when talking about Vikings!

So, until next time,

Bowl!

Lynda 😊

Carry On Flying

May 3, 2019

If you’ve been losing sleep wondering, did she make it onto the flights with only carry-on? I’m happy to say that the answer is a triumphant yes! Even the dreaded bag-o-liquids made it through the security checks unquestioned. But like the old Carry On comedies of the 60’s, a sense of the ridiculous and a healthy dose of slapstick definitely helps when you’re trying to pack less than 25 lbs for 15 days.

My first concern was that dreaded little bag for liquids. How could I get all my creams etc. into that? The answer: by knowing exactly how much I’d need for those 15 days.

So, I started measuring everything I use in a day. In the shower, I squeezed shampoo into my palm, measured how much I’d squeezed, then used it to see if it was enough.  Did the same with the conditioner and shower gel. Ridiculous? Absolutely, but it worked. And I kept going.

At the sink, I measured cleansers, toners, face creams, body lotions, even that spray you use before blow drying your hair, and the creamy one afterward to keep the frizzies down. I counted every pump and put every fingerful into a measuring spoon, and when I was satisfied that the amount truly was enough, then I multiplied those amounts by 15 and put exactly that much into small containers with lids. The math went like this: 3 pumps of serum, twice a day = 6 pumps/day x 15 days = 90 pumps.  ¼ tsp of moisturizer, twice a day = ½ tsp x 15 days = 7.5 tsp, all of which went into little jars with lids.

Interestingly enough, after all that measuring, I now know that in a day, I need a lot less of all the products than I assumed. And it was a real lesson in the over-packaging of cosmetics and skin care. Those big jars really don’t hold all that much, so why cart that jar on a plane?

Once everything was measured and jarred or bottled, I dutifully labelled them because there was no way I would remember what was in each one. Then I squeezed all the jars and bottles into a  one-quart bag. Yes, it required some shaking, some juggling, a little swearing (ok, a lot of swearing) but eventually the zipper sealed, the bag held, and nothing leaked. The hardest part was getting the sucker into the small daypack without making the pack bulge and exceed the new depth requirements for on-board hand luggage.

I literally sat on it to make everything inside concede defeat and exhale.  Then I left the daypack on the large rolling backpack overnight to reduce the depth of the clothes in the large one. My method wasn’t as effective as one of those vacuum bags would have been, but they were such a pain when I tried them out on a weekend jaunt to the cottage that I stuck with the much more low-tech backpack-on-top compression method instead.

So far, my system has worked and on my next trip I won’t have to measure. I’ll just fill each jar and know that I’ll have enough. At least that is my theory. Will I actually run out days before the end of the trip? That remains to be seen.

As for clothes, having to meet the ever-shrinking size and weight criteria for carry-on meant that I couldn’t overpack, and I don’t know about you, but I usually take far too many ‘just in case’ clothes, and don’t end up using half of what’s in my bag.  So I planned on hand-washing my unmentionables until I reached the washing machine in Paris, and then pared down the wardrobe to the bare necessities: 2 pairs of jeans plus 1 pair black pants, 2 t-shirts, 2 tanks, 1 hoodie, 1 cardigan, 1 lighter/shorter cardigan, 2 scarves, 1 pair pjs, 1 short silky robe because it rolls up into nothing, 2 pairs of shoes (including the ones on my feet) and 1 pair of slippers. No dresses because I couldn’t find one that I liked. Apparently, this is going to be the summer of wide leg jumpsuits which fills me with horror. I wore those things when I was young and to this day, I have vivid memories of trying to get out of it in a tiny bathroom stall. Not my finest moment, which is why I left the jumpsuits on the racks and moved along, thinking I might find a dress in Paris. I’ve heard they have a few shops here and there.

In the final analysis, was there a distinct advantage to using only carry-on? For me, yes. Travelling solo, my main concern was being able to schlep everything on my own because one cannot always count on the kindness of strangers to carry your bag up the stairs for you – and in Europe, there are always stairs. Although one nice gentleman did carry my rolling pack up to the plane in Reykjavik, where they still bus you out on the tarmac so you can climb yet another staircase to the door.  It was all very Air Force One, and I really wanted to stop and wave at the top, but I kept it classy and merely nodded.

 

The other advantage to carry-on was not having to find the baggage carousels or watch one bag while waiting for another. There aren’t two sets of eyes on the luggage on this part of the trip, so I have to be aware of where my stuff is at all times, which is easier with 2 small bags.

So far, I’ve made it onto two flights without issue. Will I continue with carry-on for the entire trip? Probably not on the way home because, souvenirs. I have made promises to little people to bring back something gorgeous from Paris, something space-related from Iceland and something durable from Prague or Budapest, and it simply won’t cut it if I hand out cash instead of gifts when I get home.

At some point, I know my souvenirs will outgrow my carry-on. When that happens, I’ll check the bag and carry on, so to speak.

Next stop, Reykjavik and Vikings!

Cheers, Lynda 😊

 

Solo Travel Adventure

April 21, 2019

Lynda on a paper airplaneNext Saturday, I head off on a sixteen-day travel adventure. I’ll be meeting up with my intrepid travel buddy, Sandi, in Prague on the ninth day, but for the first eight days, it will be just me and my rolling backpack in Reykjavik and Paris! 

Sure, I’ve travelled solo for business more times than I like to count, but I’ve never been alone on vacation and I’m excited and nervous at the same time.

Being older, I take comfort in the fact that I will be largely invisible, meaning I can stroll instead of march, pause instead of glance and not worry about whether my jeans are cool or my shoes cute enough for the streets of Paris. 

That same invisibility, however, will likely make life more difficult in cafes or when standing at a counter. And pickpockets may mistake this older woman for an easy target, which is why I have a ‘theft proof’ backpack and tiny locks for my purse. I will be Fort Knox on legs that have been working out! Should that prove insufficient, I’m also pretty good with my elbows and can say “F#*k Off” in several languages.

But it’s not yellow vest protests or pickpockets or even those groups you hear about who swarm people, slap bracelets on their arms and then demand payment that worry me most. What most concerns me more is the potential loneliness of solo travel.

Going to bed alone, waking up alone. No one to share a view, a joke or even a simple observation. I realized early on that I would be in uncharted emotional territory for the first half of this trip which called for a different kind of planning because even the cutest shoes wouldn’t save me from being given a wide berth if I started talking to myself on the street.

I wouldn’t need the anonymity of a hotel, or the echo of my own footsteps through the empty rooms of a condo.  I’d need human contact, and with luck, someone who knew I would be coming back and if I didn’t, it was probably time to call the police! To that end, I booked a regular BnB in Reykjavik where they’ll expect me for breakfast in the morning. In Paris, I signed up for a room in a woman’s apartment through Airbnb. A woman who, in her write up about the room, came just short of apologizing for the fact that she and her daughter live there and will be home most of the time. Hurray, I thought when I read that, and hit Book Now right away.

I also investigated the Experiences on Airbnb. Local people who offer tours, workshops, horse back riding and more importantly, meals in their homes. Some are gourmet, but I opted for a home cooked meal in Reykjavik. I’ll have enough tables-for-one at charming cafes over those eight days, so the idea of a small group of four or five around a table, sharing food and conversation, or even just smiles and nods, holds a lot of appeal. 

Cooking classes in Paris were booked for the same reason. A little people-time combined with the chance to learn some kitchen secrets from French chefs seems like a perfect way to spend an afternoon. And then I joined a group called the Frites, which is basically a bunch of North American women who follow the video tours of Paris resident Corey Frye and try to meet for a Café Chat when a few of us are in Paris on the same day. I’m really hoping that works out while I’m there.

But all the planning in the world can’t guaranteed a smooth trip. I have no idea how those eight days will go, and I’m sure I’ll be glad to meet up with my travel buddy in Prague. In the meantime, I’ll be sharing my adventures and pics in this blog while I’m out there, strolling, eating and elbowing pickpockets.  At least that way, my family will know I’m still alive.

Now, I’m off to pack for carry-on only. Wishful thinking? Stay tuned!

Cheers, Lynda 😊

You On Your Pogo Stick, Son?

April 21, 2016

pogo-stickIn case you haven’t heard, John Gibbons, the manager of the Toronto Blue Jays, recently reacted to new MLB regulations by saying “maybe we should all go out there wearing dresses tomorrow.”

Not surprisingly, the people who have come out in support of Mr. Gibbons’ word choice, have labelled the women who are disappointed with his statement as petty and thin-skinned. One man went to so far as to say that Mr. Gibbons’ remark wasn’t sexist because it was simply a matter of fact. Men are stronger than women and an all-female baseball team will never beat an all-male team.

Fair enough. That being the case, would Mr. Gibbons’ supporters have reacted differently if he had said, “Maybe they should all come out there in wheelchairs tomorrow.” Because that too is simply a matter of fact. A team of able-bodied athletes will defeat a team in wheelchairs.

In keeping with that theory, is anyone who takes offense to that statement merely being petty and thin-skinned? Or was the comment so utterly offensive that even the women in Mr. Gibbons’ life would have told him to stop. The very fact that none of those women were disappointed in the statement he made speaks directly to the problem of unconscious, systemic sexism.

I’ve never met Mr. Gibbons, and I’m sure he’s a wonderful husband, father etc. And the women who know him best understand that he was not trying to be a jerk. It was dad being dad. His way of goading the boys into playing better. Come on, lighten up.

But if the wheelchair comment is a step beyond dad being dad, a place where Mr. Gibbons would never go, it’s only because society has evolved to a place where we no longer refer to someone with physical disabilities as a cripple. Or someone with mental disabilities as a retard.

We have come a long way in understanding the power of language when it comes to disabilities. Yet, the same understanding has not happened for women. Men still insult each other with, you play like a girl. And the much worse, are you or on your period?

Statements like that aren’t meant to be funny. They’re meant to be demeaning. Just like the wheelchair reference is demeaning.

So here’s a way to figure out if what is about to come out of your mouth is sexist or not. Every time you’re about to say girl, woman, period, why not substitute ‘cripple’

You play like a cripple.

You run like a cripple.

You on a cripple, Son?

You were cringing as you read that, because I was cringing as I wrote it. But it’s an easy way to recognize unconscious sexism and just stop. And try this instead:

Rather than hollering ‘maybe we should all go out there wearing dresses,’ Mr. Gibbons could say: “maybe we should all go out there riding pogo sticks.’ The message will be the same. You can’t play good baseball on a pogo stick.

But will anyone be offended for the pogo stick? Unlikely. In fact, I rather like the image of the Blue Jays on pogo sticks. And their playing would suck a whole lot more than if they did indeed pull on dresses.

So instead of girl, woman, period, next time say pogo stick. And no one will mind at all.

Adventures in Credit Card Security

February 16, 2016

security-alert

Got an email alert from American Express. Some fool had my card number and was trying to use it for a telephone purchase in Toronto. Of course, I was out of the country, so the algorithms didn’t line up when the merchant went for approval. The purchase was declined and the email instructed me to call and let them know if was legitimate or fraudulent.

“Fraudulent,” I told the nice young woman on the phone. And the process of cancelling the old card and sending me a new one began.

Easy-peesy, right? Not even close because I didn’t want them to send the card to my home. I wanted them to send it where I was.

“No problem,” said the nice young woman. “You just need to answer three security questions that will be randomly generated by Trans Union Canada.”

In case you haven’t heard of them, Trans Union is a credit reporting agency, like Equifax. They gather information about you and make it available to institutions looking to issue you credit. This includes your credit history as well as basic information such as your name, current address and phone number. They also keep historical information about past addresses going back more than 10 years.

None of this seemed problematic when the nice young woman said, “You need to get all three questions right, and you only get two chances.” Fire away, I told her.

Question One. Which of the following credit cards do you currently hold? A, B, C or none of the above. For me, the correct answer was C.

Question Two. In which of the following towns or cities have you lived in the past ten years? A, B, C or D. For me, the correct answer was D.

Question Three. Which of the following is a previous address. A, B, C or D. Again, for me, the correct answer was D.

But I failed the test. She generated three questions again. Two of the same ones came up. Again, I failed.

How was that possible? I know where I’ve lived, I know what credit cards I have. Yet, there it was on her screen. Failed.

Now I had to wait 48 hours before 3 more questions would be generated.

I tried speaking to supervisers, I tried to escalate the call because something was wrong, all to no avail. There is no way around the questions and no way to speed up the process.

So I waited 48 hours. Another nice young woman asked me three questions. Again, I failed.

Now I was pissed. “Trans Union must have some wrong information,” I told her.

Perhaps, she agreed. But I still had to wait another 48 hours to try again.

She gave me a phone number for Trans Union. I called and sure enough, they had all of my personal information wrong. Even my name was spelled incorrectly.

Turned out they had combined both of my daughters’ information with mine to come up with a person who didn’t actually exist but had my Social Insurance Number.

The woman from Trans Union agreed that I could never have passed the American Express test with real answers. And it would take 30 days for the report to be updated for their clients. Her advice to me? Answer the questions incorrectly. She even told me which answers to give for the questions.

I called Amex. The nice young man was very understanding but regardless of the Trans Union errors, I still had to wait 48 hours to try the test again. Unless I wanted to have the card sent to my home address instead. “I’m not there,” I told him.

“I know,” he said, and we went around and around that issue for a while until finally I said, “Fine, send it there.”

“Someone has to be there to sign for it,” he told me.

“Fine,” I said again, knowing I’d have to impose on the lovely woman looking after my cat and the next door neighbour and anyone else who might be willing to wait around for the courier to arrive.

Turned out that they didn’t send it by courier after all. They sent it by Express Post. The tracking information said it was successfully delivered, but not to my house.

So I called Amex again. Since more than 48 hours had passed, I said I wanted to try the 3 questions again so the card could be sent to the address where I was instead of my house.

This time, I answered the questions with the incorrect information supplied by Trans Union and I passed the test. My card was sent again. I was told it would come by the US Postal System. No need to wait in.

Of course, the card arrived by courier. The driver went to the wrong unit and knocked on my neighbour’s door instead of mine, but fortunately he was home and he signed for it.

Two weeks after the jerk in Toronto tried to buy plumbing parts with my old card, I finally had my new one.

The whole ordeal has left me shaking my head.

Security is only as good as the information behind it. Trans Union has a lot to answer for, and American Express needs to initiate a way for customers to get around their roadblocks, when the information they’re relying on is wrong. And you need to check with every credit reporting agency out there to make sure they have your correct information!

What I Learned From NaNoWriMo

December 30, 2015

sysyphus-walking-away-2

As a professional writer and writing instructor for over 17 years, this November marked my first foray into the madness of Write A Novel In A Month, otherwise known as NaNoWriMo. The acronym has always intrigued me because the first thing I see when I look at it is No Write More, an interesting conundrum when the goal is to pound out roughly 1600 words a day, seven days a week for 30 consecutive days, but I digress.

While the concept of banging out a quick and dirty first draft is a good one, it’s not something I’ve ever been able to do. I can write 5,000 words a day when I need to, but that is something I call Deadline Hell. The place I enter when I have a contract in hand, have already cashed the advance cheque and the deadline for submission is approaching.

By the time I descend into Deadline Hell, avoiding all human contact because I rarely shower, never shave anything and all communication comes in the form of a grunt, I’m well into the book and the story can pour out. It’s rarely beautiful as it pours and later I’ll take out redundancies and add in whatever I’ve missed, but when I stumble out of bed at three in the morning to pick up where I left off, I do so with direction and confidence.

The very opposite is true when I start something new. I have a vague idea of where I’m headed but no clear idea how to get there.

Yes, I teach writing and yes, I use all the tools that I share with students. Character Sketches. Wants, Because, But. What’s At Stake? Plotting Through Character Arc. All of these and more come into play when I sit down to write, but at that stage, the words on the page are not cohesive or logical or even readable. They’re musings and observations. Following the characters as they walk around and talk to each other, letting them get to know each other and allowing me to understand who they are beyond the static facts of the sketches I wrote. Until I do that, all the planning in the world doesn’t matter. I have to hear their voices, let them speak for themselves and sometimes I have to kill them off and start again because they want to be in a different kind of book entirely, not the one I intend to write at that moment.

After eight novels, six novellas and a raft of other writing, it still takes me a while to feel my way into a new story. I usually write the beginning a number of times, coming at it from different points of view or settings or moments in the story. This can take days and none of the effort is wasted because each time I write that opening, I’m learning more about the story. I’m figuring out what the hell I’m trying to say because if I don’t know that then I need to stop spewing out words and find out.

Then of course research pokes its head into the mix. Perhaps it’s a weakness, but I can’t write without knowing what I’m talking about. A single line on the page that came out of nowhere – and is often as simple as a dog walking into the action – can mean a lost hour finding out about that breed and resulting in no words on the page. And therein lies the problem for me with NaNoWriMo.

Being competitive by nature – something that all the positive affirmations and deep breathing exercises will not change – those lost hours of research and pages of drivel only served to make me tense and irritable because the word count had to reach a certain level every day or else I was a failure. And all of those words on all of those pages did not count. They were part of a process, quick and dirty writing at its best or worst, but as vital as that process is to me, they did not a story make. They were merely planning and I could not in good faith put them on that pulsing NaNoWriMo chart.

Go ahead, tell me that’s not the point of the exercise, tell me I’m an obsessive/compulsive idiot who doesn’t get it. The truth is that I am obsessive/compulsive, and undoubtedly crazy because I dwell on people who don’t exist and things that never happened, but that’s what makes me a writer.

The knot in my gut that forms when I don’t write is real, but nearly a month in Deadline Hell hasn’t made it better, it’s made it worse. I park my butt in the chair and my fingers on the keyboard as required to make any book come to life. But instead of anything remotely resembling a story, all that came out was gobbledegook, which only served to make the knot bigger.

Now five pounds heavier and sunlight deprived with a week left to go in NaNoWriMo, I realize it’s time to stop. Deadline Hell is a place I need to go to when I know the story, not when I’m in the early, development stage. Perhaps this is something that others also know and they enter the fray at that point in order to push the sucker out. But it seemed to me that the point of the exercise was to get a first draft of a new work done and over with. Spew it out, clean it up later and count every single word toward your goal. Sadly, the perfectionist that is part and parcel of being obsessive/compulsive only allowed me to count the words that form a story and drive it forward.

A week before the month ends, I have a Word document filled with thousands and thousands of planning words, and another with 5,000 solid, usable words. I have the beginning of a story I believe will be good, perhaps fabulous, and I’ll keep going forward because that’s what a writer does. But I’ve confirmed what I’ve always instinctively known: I’m not a good candidate for NaNoWriMo.

So I’m bowing out gracefully, coming up from Deadline Hell before I gain another pound. Allowing myself to walk in the sunshine and stop feeling guilty when I spend time with my granddaughters because I should not be baking cookies, I should be writing.

I will say ‘Well done’ to those who meet the 50,000 word goal, and stand and cheer for every soul who answered the challenge, but I will not sign up again next November. Perhaps I’ll try and grow a beard instead!

They Need A Good Bombing (and other shit my mother said)

November 15, 2015

They need a good bombingRemember the naval war between Spain and Britain? The one in 1588 where the invincible Spanish Armada tried to take control of the English Channel with their huge and heavily armed ships. If you recall, the English at first attempted to disable the Armada with long range gunfire, but soon realized this kind of shot merely damaged the rigging which was quickly repaired. So the English turned to smaller, faster ships that could close in and take repeated broadside shots into the Spanish ships at short range. This resulted in considerable damage and an Armada forced to turn tail and run, giving the Victory to the British.

What does this have to do with ISIS and the coalition trying to beat them? Everything.

The coalition is like the Armada, with big powerful jets and drones and bombs that can inflict plenty of damage once they’re in place. ISIS on the other hand relies on smaller, faster tactics. Machine guns, suicide vests and trucks coated with armour plate, each one loaded with bombs and driven by men with visions of virgins dancing in their heads as they smash into markets, schools, hospitals etc. ISIS knows the drones and bombers will never get there fast enough to stop them, and so do the people they are attacking.

In effect, ISIS is the British navy, able to navigate more quickly, turn on a dime and deliver destruction much more effectively than the huge, lumbering coalition.

To think that more air strikes are the answer is to ignore not only history, but exactly what is happening on the ground in Syria, and Iraq. Air strikes are an easy sell to a Western public that likes big displays of firepower and very few casualties on our side, but they don’t work. What works, as illustrated in recent battles between ISIS and Kurdish pesh murga, is local military properly trained and armed with tanks, guns and missiles that are capable of delivering the kind of shots that are needed in an instant. The moment the truck loaded with bombs appears, not twenty minutes later when a drone or bomber finally arrives.

And what has this to do with Canada? Again, everything.

Our government plans to withdraw our bombers from the current mission and thank God. U.S. Generals have admitted that all the bombs dropped so far have not managed to stop the threat and despite what our former government liked to pretend, Canada is not a world military power. We don’t have the budget to provide our own military with new equipment so we certainly can’t send the kind that is desperately needed in Syria and Iraq. What we can and should do is send humanitarian aid along with men and women who can train the fighters on the ground to be more effective. And we should help those trying to escape the madness of ISIS.

We are not a nation that turns from conflict, but neither are we a nation of fools. After the tragic events in Paris, we need to resist the bleating of the right and the calls for more bombs, more suspicion and less compassion. Canada can and will be part of the war against ISIS, but we need to be smart about our role, and give those fighting on the ground what they need, versus what we want them to have.

Sex Ed Made Easy

November 12, 2015

sex-2

Sex Ed Made Easy

or

Why I’d Rather Chew Soap Than Talk To My Daughters About Orgasms

I admit it. I took the easy way out when it came to talking to my daughters about sex. Not the actual mechanics – that they understood from about the age of eight and I took comfort in knowing they were well and truly disgusted by the very notion of such things happening. But I knew that initial disgust wouldn’t last, and by the time they hit puberty, curiosity would start to take hold.

It didn’t help that I wrote romantic comedy. Neither daughter would read the books because they could not put ‘mom’ and ‘sex’ in the same sentence. Much like the brother-in-law who tried to read one of my books and had to put it aside after encountering the word ‘nipple,’ but that’s another post for another day.

The dilemma for me was how to talk to a pre-teen about consent, orgasms, figuring out what you like and more importantly how to ask for it when having sex.

To my mind, the number one consideration when having sex has always been “do you feel safe and happy.” Not either/or, but both at the same time. This made the consent part fairly easy to talk about regardless of how much eye-rolling and walking away I encountered. The rest was harder. Much, much harder.

What mother wants to talk to her kids about orgasms? And what kid wants to hear about any of it from mom? The problem of course is that pornography will quickly fill in any blanks that we leave and it was more of a horror for me to think of those young female minds getting their first impressions of what sex should be from anything titled Busty Backdoor Nurses or Poke-Herhontas #8.

Luckily, when I was faced with this dilemma women’s erotica was making its way onto the literary scene. Today there are plenty of books to choose from, some of which are poorly written (50 Shades of Crap, for instance) and some that would probably scare the crap out of any pre-teen, which might be great for a while, but isn’t the long term goal. But in 1993, there was Slow Hand, a collection of short stories told from a female point of view and penned by talented writers. Stories that were not simply titillating but also tender and emotional and sometimes controversial, which was perfect because the desire for sex is neither simple nor straightforward and I didn’t want my daughters to ever think that it was.

So I made sure they caught glimpses of me reading that book, and saw me close it abruptly and set it aside when they entered a room. And one day I inadvertently set it on a table and left not only the room, but the house, hoping one or both would pick it up.

While I had my suspicions, it wasn’t until a few years later that I finally found out that the plan had indeed worked. They both read it and talked about it (and were suitably appalled that I was reading it), but those stories did what they were supposed to do, feeding them important information that they carried with them into their teen years and beyond.

Slow Hand is tame by today’s standards which is why I still find it a great introduction to the exciting and confusing world of sex for both boys and girls. So grab a copy, make it forbidden and then leave it lying around. While safe and happy was my starting point, these stories helped launch the girls on their own journeys and isn’t that the point of sex education?