Stranded

The older I get, the less I cling to the need to control every activity and event when I travel. I guess you could call it wisdom – I’ve finally figured out that the universe will do, what it will do. It doesn’t take my wishes and requests into account for the most part. So, why freak out when it does things that I don’t like? Missing trains and planes. Getting in in the middle of the night because it took longer than you thought to get to wherever you are going. To some extent worrying about these things or trying to control every thing will only expend energy that can be used to enjoy whatever journey you are on.

Speaking of conserving energy, whenever one considers the prospect of taking a road trip (especially a big one like the one I am on right now) it is absolutely vital to conserve energy by going with the flow. So, for example, when your engine blows by the side of the road on a car that you just spent way more than you have prepping for said trip, you gotta let that go. How do you let that go, you ask?

Well, you can start by drinking a stiff drink. The problem with this option is that we were stranded outside of Upsala, Ontario at a gas station that was closed. No stiff drinks to be found.

Deep breathing works. And, it can be done anywhere – even in the middle of nowhere. So, yes, this was a good option…for about 15 minutes.

Now, what do you do for the remaining 4 hours that are you stranded waiting for a tow truck?

You dig around your trailer for whatever food that hasn’t spoiled.

You play ball with your laughing kids (who have the whole let things go down pat).

You note the sun going down over the field behind the gas station.

You note, gratefully, that you are so stranded that there is no light pollution to obstruct your view of the vast sky and stars.

And, then you realize that travelling is as much about being stranded in a strange place as it is about moving through new places. The key is to see that this too is a part of the experience.

Finding Wonder Where You Are

I’ve posted about the fact that while I love to travel, I haven’t done very much travelling in my own country. For me, the travel bug pulls me towards the unknown. I always assumed that Canada is well known to me and therefore not interesting enough to travel through. Now, this is not very open-minded of me, I admit. After all, isn’t one point of travel to find wonder in whatever place you find yourself in?

So, yes, I finally recognized a few years ago that Canada is also a magical place which is vast and quite unknown to me in many respects. To rectify my lack of exploration in Canada, I’ve spent a lot of time trying to explore Ontario and noting how beautiful it’s green spaces are and how vast and many are its lakes. If you have been on the shores of Lake Huron or Lake Superior, you know exactly what I am talking about.

Now, anyone who knows me knows that I don’t do anything “small.” I have a passion for trying everything in any place. It’s the old cliche of go big or go home. So, this year rather than picking the best flight deal I could find to wherever, I decided it was time to really see this nation of mine. My partner and I decided to do some research into getting a small trailer so we could drive from Thornhill, ON to Victoria, BC.

You may ask why we didn’t just tent it across the country. My response is simple: teenager aboard. Have you seen the movie Deadpool? Well, if you have then you know the kinds of options parents of a teen have. There is sullen silence and there are mean comments. Very little exists in-between…unless said teenager is feeling gracious. Parents are utterly at the mercy of the teen. When we first suggested that we were going to drive across the country to Victoria to our teen, the response was lukewarm at best. When we then uttered the idea that maybe we could tent it, the message was very clear: tenting across the country with a teen would be more precarious than leaving food out at a campsite in Grizzly bear country. For our own safety, we decided a trailer would be best. We could then placate the angry teen with running water and privacy for sullen musings.

We are now seven days into the journey and I have much to share. But before I talk about our current adventure, I will spend some time talking about the planning and preparing for taking a road trip like this in my next few posts.

South Bank London: Coca Cola Crowds

Landing after an overnight flight is always very disorienting for me. It doesn’t help that I hate flying! I know – what kind of travel junkie hates flying? Though I once hid this fact from those who read my blog, I recently learned that I am in great company. Many of my favorite travel writers and photographers also hate to fly. So, I land in London – grateful to be on the ground again but very, very jet-jagged.

As many other writers have noted, jet-lag is a very special mindset. It can both distort and confuse the tired traveler. Unlike most of our trips, this one begins with a family member picking us up at the airport. I am very happy about this because attempting to drive (say across a country on the other side of the road with no sleep which I’ve done before) after a long overnight trip is always a tad…ahem…challenging. As we speed down the motorway, I notice that London hasn’t really changed that much since my last trip here 10 years before. The skyline is still familiar to me with the Gherkins and the London Eye providing familiar landmarks. What is different, however, is the marketing. I soon learn to my dismay that the London Eye is now the Coca Cola London Eye. Oh well. I decide if there is going to be one place where all of the city sights are named after shoes and soft drinks then let it be the very touristy South Bank of London. Generally speaking, I tend to prefer the hidden gems and stay away from any place with line ups or crowds of people. Often, the more remote a place is, the more content I become. On this trip, however, I have made a commitment to take my family to what is arguably one of the most ‘touristy’ places in London.

 

Gazing at the underbelly of the London Eye

That I decide to even enter the throngs of people on the South Bank is – as anyone who knows me well – a miracle. Like flying, I do not relish entering into crowds of people if I can help it. What brings me here is my small and irresistibly cute 6year old daughter who  has chosen (of all the things that London offers) a ride on the London Eye as the “one” thing that she really wants to do on our trip to the UK and Iceland.

Thankfully my jet-lagged state helps to numb me as I make my way through the crowds of people to the…well…other crowds of people cuing for a 30 minute (overpriced) ride on the London Eye.

One thing that you will learn about London very quickly is that it is a remarkably efficient city. Though there are cues everywhere (locals don’t call them line ups), you will find that they generally move very quickly (unless you are at the airport, that is). It only takes 45 minutes before we are able to squeeze onto one of the Coca-Cola pods. Of course, in the pod is another little crowd of anxious tourists all vying for the ideal spot to view this great city.

At first, I am annoyed but I manage to squeeze through and gaze through the dirty windows of the eye, taking in this large and wonderful city. I reluctantly admit that, yes, though touristy, the eye provides an excellent view of the city.

 

 

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A Bird’s Eye View of London

As the ride comes to an end, I finally find a way to make peace with having spent a pretty penny for what is the kind of attraction that I generally shy away from. I turn to my daughter and ask her what she thinks of her choice of the London Eye. She smiles and casually asks: “Mom, can you please give me two pounds to go on the merry-go-round that we walked by to get here? This ride was ok but it goes way too slow to be fun.” I realize that there is a life lesson in this somewhere and make a note to myself to ponder this more carefully at some future time…particularly, when planning my next trip. For the moment, I sigh as I once again steer through the crowds and crowds of people on London’s South Bank.

Belonging

The other day I was teaching one of my favorite classes on Modern Canadian Fiction and we began to discuss the concept of home. What does it mean to be at home? Is home a place that you are born in? That your parents came from? That you escape to?

These questions are precisely the ones I ask every time I land in Portugal. My most recent trip is especially poignant for me because it is a pilgrimage that I am taking on behalf of my mom who died last year before being able to make the journey here herself.

I was born in Toronto – a city that is known for its diversity. In Toronto, is is easy to see how so many people work to make the city their home. Different areas of the city are tributes to the many immigrants who come here. I grew up in an area called Little Portugal. It had (and still has) many Portuguese bakeries, bars, restaurants. In fact, to this day many of my aunts and uncles still cannot speak very much English. Why? Well, because they don’t really need to if they stick to their ‘home.’

So, when I land in Portugal I am not sure if the feelings of homecoming have to do with my nostalgic feelings about my childhood in Toronto’s Little Portugal or if it runs deeper than this? In part, I know that I feel closer to my mother – and in feeling so, I feel a connection that makes me feel like I’ve come ‘home.’

I also feel a connection to the land which is odd because I wasn’t born here. The customs, the food, the gas stations – are like home…but not. We learn this as we navigate the one way entrances into the rest areas off the highway. FYI: if you drive in the wrong way, you cannot turn around to get gas. A bit of a problem if you are running on fumes. There’s more too to these rest stops. In Canada, the rest stops have bad fast food (with the exception of Tim Horton’s, of course – you don’t mess with Tim’s in Canada). In Portugal, the food is heavenly. Gourmet sandwiches, espressos, freshly baked desserts are all on offer – and cheap too. It is because of these rest stops that our four hour car journey from Lisbon to the Algarve is so pleasant despite having flown all night with two wee ones on Air Canada Rouge flight (Walmart of the skies anyone!)

Home is wherever your journey take place. So, while I am anxious to get to my destination in the Algarve, I also relish this highway drive. It is perhaps simply the fact that I am on the road once again that really helps me to feel like I am home again.

The Great Green North

With the exception of a short stint in British Columbia, I’ve lived in the Canadian province of Ontario my whole life. It’s a beautiful place to live…that is, when I am paying attention to it. For the most part, however, I tend to rush from chore to chore and from class to class without really seeing much of it.

Enter camping.

Now, there are many stereotypes about Canadians that circulate among people. You know them all, I’m sure. Canadians are friendly or Canadians are polite. And, yes, I guess many of us are the latter two. But, the one that I’m often amused at is: Canadians are fanatical nature lovers. In the past, I’ve often been asked where my favorite places to go camping are. My response, up to fairly recently, has been – camping? You mean sleeping outside? With bugs and bears? No thanks. I’m a city gal. My version of camping is sipping drinks on a nice patio by the lake and then, going home to my bed to sleep (um, I’m still a big fan of this kind of ‘camping’, by the way.)

For years, my brother-in-law would point out the questionable nature of my Canadian-ness given my refusal to try camping.”You like canoeing,” he would say. “You like hiking,” he would say. “Camping is the next step. Without camping, you cannot call yourself a Canadian.” Hmm, well, maybe he was right but still, I reasoned, there is a BIG difference between hiking outside and sleeping outside, right?

And, then, almost two years ago, it happened: I got a brochure about the Learn to Camp program offered through the Ontario Parks (http://www.ontarioparks.com/learntocamp). While risking the respect of all of my serious camper friends (and yes, they mocked me for doing this!), I decided that this would be a great opportunity to try out the whole roughing it in the bush thing. And, hey, if it didn’t work out, the park we chose (Earl Rowe – http://www.ontarioparks.com/park/earlrowe) was only 75 minutes from home. I could do this (and if I couldn’t, well, then I’d stop at a patio on the way home).

The nice thing about the Learn to Camp program is that your fee (which is quite modest) covers the rental of your site as well as all of the equipment that you need to try out the whole roughing it experience. Given my uncertainty about this whole thing, I liked the fact that I could try this out without making any long term commitments.

Although I was a little concerned about how comfortable I would be sleeping on an air mattress in a tent, I soon discovered that I was truly an outdoorsy woman. Not only was camping cheap, it gave me a great way to feed my wanderlust between our longer trips. I also found myself let into a whole secret society, complete with a whole new language. No longer do I look blankly when someone asks me: does your tent have a full fly? What was the drainage like on that site? Or, more importantly: how do you make sure that your tent is never downwind from a privy?

So, if you are like me, a city dweller with a desire for travel but one with a limited budget, take heart because there is a whole new world awaiting you. As the tagline for Ontario’s tourism goes, the world is yours to discover – and the best part? Well, s’mores, of course!

Where to Eat in Washington, D.C.

As many of the people I am lucky enough to meet on my travels attest, traveling is as much about food as it is about seeing new places. Though a very expensive city, Washington does not disappoint us in terms of choice.  Certainly, you cannot go to Washington without trying something from the food trucks lined up in the National Mall. We take the time to try both the frozen yogurt as well as the soft-serve ice cream. Both are welcome in the famous Washington heat. The trucks offer many other choices as well from Middle Eastern fare to pretzels. If you are looking for a relatively (remember, this is an expensive city) inexpensive meal near the Smithsonian museums this is where you want to go.

But, if you are looking for something a little more interesting. I have some great suggestions for you.

The first is Old Ebbitt Grill (http://www.ebbitt.com/). This place is a real gem that evokes a male-dominated club of times gone by.  Feeling like I have just stepped into a novel, I am efficiently whisked to my seat. My family and I are already charmed by the place before we even order. We can all feel a great sense of the American past here. The restaurant, we learn, is actually very old and was a favorite haunt of such people as President Roosevelt and President Grant.  The restaurant was originally opened as a saloon in 1856. This makes it the oldest saloon in Washington – though its current location is not the original site. To make the most of our lunch here, we each decide to order something different. My partner orders the Walrus Burger and I order the OEG BLT. Both entries are excellent. I have never tasted such a fine burger and watch enviously as my partner eats his lunch. Though as a rule, we never order dessert at lunch, we knew that this was an opportunity not to be missed. Again, we order several items: the Chocolate Chip bread pudding, the Butterscotch Blondie Sundae and the Chocolate Brownie Cappuccino. All of these desserts are outstanding, though our favorite is clearly the Blondie. When we get the bill, we all agree that while not cheap, the Ebbitt is good value. I would recommend visiting the Ebbitt after a morning visit to the White House since they are within walking distance of one another.

Now, since we are on a tight budget, we cannot really afford to repeat our visit to Ebbitt during this stay. If you are on a budget as well, one place you will want to visit is the French bakery, Paul (http://www.paul-usa.com/en-US/home/la-maison-paul.html). The locations in Washington are much like other locations around the world. The day we visit, the bakery is packed but we manage to find a seat. The sandwiches we order are fresh and provide far better fare than some of the chains that we have visited on this trip. For dessert (ok, so we often have dessert during lunch when traveling…) we try a crêpe with butter and sugar. It is so good that we are instantly transported back in time to a small street stand in Paris. The bakery also does take out if you want to grab a bite and find a park to picnic in.

My final suggestion is a very special place that serves outstanding Mexican food: Oyamel (http://www.oyamel.com/). Unlike other Mexican restaurants that I have been too, this joint is unusually authentic. The first thing we notice is the outstanding service. Even though the place is very busy, our waiter stops to help us figure out how to order. The restaurant features antojitos – Mexican small plates – which is just like tapas. The great thing about this is that we are able to order a little of everything. The first thing we order is the guacamole. We are delighted when the waiter comes to our table with avocados, lime and some other ingredients and makes the appetizer right in front of us. We try everything from Papas al mole to Quejo fundido con tequila – everything is delicious and we lament the fact that we are eating here on our last night in Washington. This is a place not to be missed.

If you manage to eat at each of these restaurants, you will have (in my humble opinion) tasted some of the finest food that Washington has to offer.

 

Arriving in Washington, D.C.

Like other places that I have travelled to, this city is one that I have imagined in great detail. Of course, when travelling to a place like Washington, D.C., it’s hard to not have any preconceived notions. After all, I already knew what the Capital building looked like – not to mention the White House. Still, seeing something on a screen or on Google Earth is entirely different from actually being in any given place. There is really no substitute for the material and physical experience of being in a place. The smells. The irritations. The surprises. None of these sensations can be had when looking at an image of the White House in the latest American blockbuster.

The first thing that I notice about Washington is the presence of the police. It is an odd experience for a Canadian to see police every 100 feet. And, while in other places (read: New York), police presence leads to a sense of unease, here the combination of the police and the general sense of order in the city lead to a very safe feeling. I have no hesitation walking through the National Mall at night with my young children or sitting in a cafe late at night.

There are many things to see in Washington. And, best of all, many of these things are free. I am, of course, referring to the Smithsonian museums. There are 19 museums in total. There is no way to cover them all in such a short span of time so the first thing we do is to prioritize what we want to see. My partner and I choose our top priorities. The kids choose theirs. For the most part, these meet in some happy centre.

The museums are opened for extended hours in the summer months. Because we have chosen to come in August, the crowds are tolerable. According to one local we meet, the latter half of August is an ideal time to visit Washington because the crowds and heat of July have dissipated a little.

The nice thing with having access to free museums when you have small children is that you can “museum hop” which goes a long way to keeping the kids engaged. So, when the kids are bored with the Art Gallery, we take them to the Air and Space museum. The Natural history museum has something for everyone which is clear in the lines of adults and children who eagerly wait to get a glimpse of the Hope Diamond.

Overall, I would suggest no less than 5 days if you want to get a good sense of the variety offered by the Smithsonian museums. Take the time to pick up a map of the museums before going in. This will help you to pick and choose the exhibits that you want to go see. You can also plan your visit in advance by visiting the museum’s website: www.si.edu.

Grieving

It has been some time since I last had the desire or strength to write. There are some parts of our life journeys that take away our passions for the things we normally love and enjoy. The illness and subsequent death of my beloved mother this past May has traumatized me so much that, for the first time in my life, my mind has not wandered to other places. For the first time in my life, I have little desire to explore new cultures, foods or lands. I cancelled my plans to go to Scotland in June. For the first time, I feel like staying still.

It is, thus, under different circumstances and with a different perspective that I find myself travelling through Washington, New York and Cape Cod this summer. Normally, my desire to learn about new places pulls me forward, leaving me with the feeling that I will never see or take in enough of a new place. This time it is different. This time it is my children who pull me forward, trying their best to rekindle my desire to move again.

I know – on some level – that moving again is good for me. My body benefits from the living world around me even though my mind is often not in the moment. Driving through Pennsylvania, I find myself looking at the beauty of the landscape through a kind of fog. The beauty of the forests that border the road fail to reach me and I wonder if I will ever feel a connection with the world around me again.

We stop for the night in Clearfield, PA and my fatigue is beyond anything I’ve ever known. But then I realize that it not just my children who pull me forward. It is my mother too. Her constant reminders to take care of myself; to not waste time on unimportant things constantly run through my mind. Towards the end of her life, I made some promises to my mother and one of the most important of these promises was that I would find the strength to keep moving. And, so, tomorrow morning I will get up and move my body forward to Washington. The hope is that, at some point, my spirit will find a way to
move forward too.

Thinking hats

February is a really difficult month for me. It is when my restlessness often hits a high note. Generally, it has been months since I’ve been on the road and it will be a few more months until I am back on it. This leads me to feel as though I am in deep rut, going through the motions of my everyday life. And, this despite the fact that I love what I do for a living and have a wonderful home life. The problem, of course, is not that I don’t have a great life, but rather that I need to find ways of feeding my wanderlust in between my travels.

Recently, I gave a talk at one of the universities that I teach at. The focus of my talk was how creative thinking can really help students to
approach their academic work in ways that will keep them intellectually engaged. As I struggled to find the time to write my talk because of my heavy work load this term, I found myself dreaming of being on the road instead. It didn’t occur to me that my talk would actually help me to deal with my own nagging wanderlust.

I decided to use Edward De Bono’s ideas to speak to students about the power of creative thinking. Most people are familiar with De Bono’s ideas, even if they haven’t heard of him before. Have you ever heard the saying: put on a different thinking hat? Well, De Bono is famous for coming up with the idea that we can simply put on a different hat to help us approach a problem from various angles. His metaphor is a useful one because it encourages us to see problems from different angles that may help us to solve them. For a
critical and rational thinker like me, I often forget that sometimes how I look at a problem will make all the difference in the world. In other words, logic is not always the answer. For example, telling myself that I should stop feeling restless because I would be able to travel later this year did not help – if anything, the pull from places afar felt even stronger.

So, how to solve this problem? I tried a different thinking hat – a creative one. No, I could not take a long trip at the moment but I
could take a short one. Ok, I thought. That is a good first step. The second problem was where to go. The response: Niagara Falls and Niagara-on-the-Lake. Great because it was close and not expensive. Not so great because I have been there so many times. Not to be deterred, I tried on the creative hat that I had just lectured about. (I like to practise what I preach!) My talk focused on asking questions that would help students to think differently and the one question that really stood out to me, as I delivered that lecture was: “what
if?” What if, I asked, I had never been to Niagara before? How would I approach this trip? This is a powerful way of approaching a problem. And, my trip? Well, even though I have been to Niagara umpteen times, I discovered some new great places that I recommend if you ever find yourselves there.

Things to Do in Niagara:

Syndicate Brewery & Restaurant (http://syndicatebrewery.ca/blog/farm-to-table/

We often associate the Niagara region with producing great wines, but I discovered a great little brewery right on Lundy’s Lane. In a town where overpriced chain restaurants rule, this little gem
provided a solid meal at a very reasonable price. The restaurant offers a prix fixe menu. For $20 you get an appetizer, main course and dessert. Try that at places like TGI Fridays. The restaurant makes all of their food right on the premises. While the steak I ordered was not the very best I’ve ever had, it was decent. I especially liked the fact that the ingredients for the meal – even the steak- were fresh and locally sourced. My caprese salad and my apple coffeecake were wonderful. If you call ahead, you can also ask for a tour of the brewery
in the back. Though not exactly as polished as other breweries I’ve been to (i.e. St. James Gate in Dublin), having the brewmaster explain how beer is made is a neat experience and as part of your tour, you can do a tasting for only $5. I recommend calling ahead to make a reservation.

Paris Crêpes Café (http://www.pariscrepescafe.com/#)

Walking into this little gem, is almost like walking into a café in Paris. The bistro is a classy little place and one that is obviously a favourite with locals. The atmosphere is perfect, right down to the traditional French music being played. Again, like the Syndicate, this place offers good value in a city where few restaurants do. I went for lunch
and had a Parisienne crêpe which was filled with tomatoes, goat cheese and mushrooms. And, though I don’t often get dessert at lunch, I couldn’t resist trying a couple of their sweet crêpes as well. I would recommend the Beurre Sucre and the Nutella crêpes. As a bonus, you can watch your crêpes being made by a very skilled chef. The café also offers a special Sunday brunch and would be lovely for an afternoon coffee.

 

Unresolutions

If you have read my posts over the last couple of years, you will know that I’m not a big fan of making resolutions. The problem with such resolutions for me is the implication that somehow I’ve been neglecting something. Go on a diet? Exercise more? These suggest that I’ve been neglecting my body. Read more? That I’ve been neglecting my mind. The list of potential actions that I am lacking in is a long one. There are, of course, so many
things that I don’t do.

This brings me to my point: I don’t like the idea of resolutions because they focus on where I am lacking. For me, I would rather begin a new year by focusing on what I have been doing well, rather than what I’ve not been accomplishing at all. Thinking about what I have done also proves to me that there really is no limit to what I can do. And, that is really the best way to move forward through another year.

Happy New Year everyone. May this coming year bring you health and joy. And, may it take you (and I) wherever it is that we want to go…