Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Bite Me, Down Under

You’ve got to love winter in Manitoba – when it arrives, there’s no mistaking it. Like awaiting a federal election, in the days before it arrives you get that cold chill creeping down your back and you can just feel it sneaking up on you, like it or not. And then BANG! It's arrived. Thankfully, unlike politicians, winter makes our world fresh, it does actually go away after a while, and doesn’t make promises it can’t keep.

I’ve always been fine with winter arriving. Not just because it’s new and brighter and fun with winter activities like skiing, tobogganing and skating, but also because I know everyone else is suffering through the cold, JUST LIKE ME.
But stop the presses – this has all changed!
For those of you who are living north of the equator, like me, did you know there are other people in the world who aren’t suffering through this right now? Really. They might even be reading this blog while we speak (and you know who you are…). Do you realize that while we’re here reluctantly anticipating three or four solid months of long johns, bulky clothes and frozen extremities, they’re acting all crazy, doing things like planting flowers and getting their lawn mowers out? 
Okay, so I know our winter’s not too hard to escape, with places like Mexico, Hawaii or Florida all within a half dozen hours on a plane, but hey, they’re just places full of people visiting with no intentions of ever staying longer than their budget or all-inclusive plan will last. Plus, you know that sooner than later you’ve got to climb back onto a plane and come home again. And no one really lives for longer than 2 weeks in these places. With that many tourists continually arriving, especially the bright white-skinned crazy Canucks, really, who’d want to endure all that?
So here’s where I made my mistake and my view of winter changed, likely forever: two and a half years ago, I took a trip with my wife to Sydney, Australia, to attend a conference. It was actually our first day of summer when we traveled there, so when we landed, it was their first day of winter. But when I stepped out of Sydney airport, in June, into the crisp cold air, for the first time ever it came to me that while we’re experiencing summer in Canada, on the other side of the world, they were just starting their winter! Conversely, and much to my dismay, I also realized that while we’re enduring endless weeks of minus temperatures, they are not. It's actually quite the opposite. Not much gets past this blogger’s investigative eyes…
What does this mean? And why should we care? While we’re shoveling snow in the cold with wind-chills that put the temperature into the minus 200-range, people in Australia, whom I mean absolutely no ill-will especially if they'd send me a ticket to come visit sooner than later, are doing this:

And when we’re freezing and our glove-covered hands while scrapping our windshield in the dark, they’re doing this:

It’s gets worse. When our televisions are telling us that if we dare to go outside, our skin will freeze in less than 10 seconds, people in Australia, thinking specifically and only of us are doing this:

Winter is so much less fun now because I now realize that I’m not suffering with the masses - and I don’t have to be because other people aren’t. There are places to go for expanded periods of time - places where you don’t have to wear long johns or ear muffs or tell people where you’re going in case you get stuck somewhere in the middle of nowhere and freeze to death, just because your car ran out of gas or you happened to decide that this day would be a good day to explore a ditch full of snow with your car.
Maybe global warming is going to mess with this one day, but I’m guessing it won’t in the near future, or soon enough for my satisfaction. My only consolation in all of this is to know that while I’m trudging through the snow and risking frost bite, people on the other side of the world are wading through their warm and salty ocean waters, putting themselves in danger of shark bites (hot chocolate does nothing to make that kind of bite feel any better - ha ha!). It’s petty, but it does make me feel at least a little better.
So for the time being, the best I can do is throw on my faux-fur lined parka, extra-insulated gloves and touque, get my car warming up well ahead of heading home in the dark, and then do my best to grin and bare it - or more accurately, bare as little as possible until our spring comes, yet again.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

November 11th - A Day of Canons, Exploding Sheep and Remembrance

Growing up, whenever Remembrance fell on a weekend, I felt deprived of a day off during the school week. Plus, I also knew that this meant that I’d have to sit through a Remembrance Day ceremony in our school gym on the cold, hard floor and do my best to keep silent, something that a grade school kid (with friends who could make the funniest of faces at a moment’s notice, and would) will never excel at, particularly under those circumstances. To make it worse, when I found out that we wouldn’t get the following Monday off in lieu of it falling on a weekend, I felt even more ripped off! It was sad, but this pretty much was my attitude through the educational years of my life.

When it did fall during the regular school week, it was a great day as we weren’t at school, but unlike a Saturday or Sunday, there really wasn’t much to do. Stores were closed all day, movies theatres didn’t show any films, and most of what you had on television involved politicians, soldiers, and people uncomfortably standing out in the cold. The cannons they shot off at 11:11 am were cool, but after wondering a) where the cannon balls would fly, and b) if they’d actually hit something in the city (my school, for example, which would be really fun to discover the next day), finding out there weren’t actually any cannon balls loaded into them was quite a let-down, so I lost my interest in that too.

Through those years, we still pause to remember the significance of the day, but now I find that so much has changed with the way we handle what can be open for business that day, and what can’t. Back then, it was customary that businesses would not be open on November 11th, in respect to those who had fought and fallen for our country in World War One. Now, looking through our local newspaper this week, I see that this has changed – even though businesses can’t be open until early afternoon, it’s become a big shopping day in the shadow of the holidays to come.

Given the experiences I had as a child, you’d think this would be good news to me. But my perspective of Remembrance Day has changed, and it’s all because of a trip I took in the summer of 1990.

Funny things can happen when you travel, and when you’re traveling to Europe as recently graduated university student, times that by 10, at least.

I had just left for a 2-month, mostly-unplanned journey across as much of Europe as my Eurorail pass, my backpack and my bank account could handle. My buddy Jamie and I flew into London on a cool and grey early June afternoon, and soon after landing and making our way to the white cliffs of Dover, we found ourselves crossing the English Channel by ferry (pre-Chunnel days) on our way to Calais, France, where we’d spend our first of many nights in Europe.

When you travel without much of a plan, you have to expect the unexpected. Not necessarily the Spanish Inquisition (cause nobody expects that and that was much more south than we were), but when you’re willing to open yourself up to new experiences and meet new people, it’s amazing what and/or who will cross your path. One of the most limiting things I believe you can do for nearly any travel holiday is to plan your trip down to the last hour of every day. You need to provide yourself with the opportunity to make spur-of-the-moment decisions, especially in a close gathering of countries where if you happened to decide to head east for 2 hours you’d be in the mountains of Germany, or if you head south-west for 2 hours you’re in the vineyards of Spain - or in the middle of the Mediterranean if you go a little too far and can’t recognize the difference between land masses and water.

On our boat crossing, we happened to meet a few other travelers from North America, one being a fellow Canadian, Jeff, who wasn’t backpacking across Europe as we were, but was working as a guide at Vimy Ridge, a memorial site in France dedicated to the memory of Canadian Expeditionary Force members killed during the First World War.

The morning after arriving in Europe and we're just about to take our first train ride, from Calais to Arras, France. From left to right: Greg (Seattle), Jamie (Winnipeg), Rob (Seattle), and Jeff (Canada), our Vimy guide.

While celebrating our landing in our first French pub - we agree to follow Jeff, diverting ourselves towards the town of Arras, where we’d find a room for a couple of nights and visit the memorial, just a short distance away. We were easily convinced as we were seven time zones away from home, looking for some adventures, and hadn’t slept for over 30 hours.

The view of Arras from the top of their main church, taken by Jamie as I'm not great with heights and couldn't make it up the old wooden and metal stairs that lead to the tower!

Posing in front of our hotel, facing the town square.

So there we were – fresh and eager to explore Europe, and with the guided visit to the memorial a day ahead, we had so much to anticipate. The timing of our meeting with Jeff was also fantastic as he became a guide and connection to many locals residents and establishments in Arras where we would soon enjoy local homemade cooking, learning some local drinking songs in the pubs where as regular travelers we likely would never have entered, and we also learned the art of ordering and consuming a ‘meter of beer’ with your traveling buddies. But at the end of our few days there, nothing would compare to the experience of being guided through the Vimy Memorial.

Driving in through the multi-acre property, one of the first things we saw in the grassy hills was the occasional collection of sheep, quietly grazing as if they were in the middle of a farm. This seemed like an unlikely addition for the attraction of tourists, but it turns out that they graze in the ‘red zone,’ which are areas where there are suspected buried munitions from World War One that have yet to explode. I’m not sure what animal activists in Canada would have to say about this set up, but knowing French unions and their policies, I can’t see them cutting the grass weekly either. Our friend did say that every so often they’d be guiding a tour and from off in the distance they’d hear a muffled ‘boom!’ No comment was made though to the existence of any short-notice lunch specials in the cafeteria that may or may not involve recently deceased wooly animals.

Having just arrived at the Vimy Memorial, this sign explained why we saw sheep grazing in marked areas that were definitely NOT open to the public. No explosions were heard this particular day.

We walked up to and explored the sculpted memorial, which reaches endlessly towards the skies. It was an amazing sight – its size and grandeur was stunning, but at the same time it brought about feelings of peace and calm. Serving as a place of commemoration for the Canadian soldiers who fought, were killed or presumed dead in France with no known grave, it’s a moving tribute to the soldiers who were here and fought and died for our freedom.

Walking the steps to the tallest point of the memorial.

I had studied in Art History in university the significance of many of these sculptures, but of course, when there, I was completely blank as to their meaning. Being there though, you couldn't help but feel their significance.

Also on the grounds are some of the original tunnels, craters and trenches that you can explore with a guide. When in one of the tunnels, Jeff explained to us that there usually were two separate tunnels –the first, the one that we presently were in, would serve as a main route to get the troops quickly and safely to the front, and the second tunnel would be the way back to triage for the seriously injured, and as well for the dead they were able to retrieve when it was safe. It was something I had never thought about, but when seeing the system in person and trying to imagine how terrifying it would be to be traveling through these trenches to the front, hearing the bomb blasts and gun fire above, for morale alone, I could see why they would want the routes separated.

When we explored the tunnel that lead away from the front, we were led to a holding area for the wounded, and when our eyes adjusted we could see hundreds of hand-made scratches on each of the walls – these scratches were messages made by the injured solders who were on their gurneys, positioned close enough to the wall for them to reach out and leave behind the thoughts of likely their last moments in the war, and potentially in their lives. At this moment our guide told us a story that will stay with me for the rest of my life.

A year or so before, he had taken a group of Canadian war veterans through the very same tunnels and into this holding area, and one of the gentlemen, a guy who had said very little up until that point, walked over to one of the walls and found a message carved into the wall that was made by his best friend – a friend he had fought with at this very location, a friend who never made it back from the war. This was his first time visiting what was the original battlefield, and the first time he had seen the words left by his friend nearly 76 years before. I can only imagine what that would have been like – never having been able to say goodbye when they were originally there and now seeing his dying words. He was the lucky one, living on and having the chance to return so many years later, while for his friend, his body and his words will live on in the spot where he died forever more. Then I realized just how lucky I was. I came to this place by my own free will, and could leave when I wanted to, and safely. The freedom I had was due to the soldiers who originally fought at Vimy and from those who had written on these very walls.

Some of the many unmarked graves of fallen Canadian Soldiers.

At the end of our visit, we were all a lot quieter and certainly more reflective than we had been since we landed in London. I don’t think that when we were planning our trip to Europe, pinching ourselves about visiting places like Paris, Rome and London, we’d ever have expected that our travels that were so far from home would teach us so much about our own country and history, and the debt we owed. I never again would see Remembrance Day the same way.

Our group including a new friend who we had met the evening before. She wrote for the "Let's Go" book series, and we therefore referred to her as the "Let's Go Girl!" Sadly, I've forgotten her real name!

Now it’s 20 years later, and since that remarkable visit, my impressions of Remembrance Day have changed significantly. On Thursday, November 11th, 2010, as I’m taking the day off of work, I know I will be thinking about the significance of the day and what it means to me to have the freedom that we do and so often take for granted.

And in a couple of years when that day falls on a weekend, I won’t mind at all and I certainly won’t feel ripped off. I’ll remember the freedom I have in life and how easily I can travel to most places in the world. I’ll also remember and celebrate what others sacrificed for us to have peace.

Lest We Forget

God of our fathers, known of old—
Lord of our far-flung battle line—
Beneath whose awful hand we hold
Dominion over palm and pine—
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!

The tumult and the shouting dies—
The Captains and the Kings depart—
Still stands Thine ancient sacrifice,
An humble and a contrite heart.
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!

Far-called our navies melt away—
On dune and headland sinks the fire—
Lo, all our pomp of yesterday
Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!
Judge of the Nations, spare us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!

If, drunk with sight of power, we loose
Wild tongues that have not Thee in awe—
Such boastings as the Gentiles use,
Or lesser breeds without the Law—
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!

For heathen heart that puts her trust
In reeking tube and iron shard—
All valiant dust that builds on dust,
And guarding calls not Thee to guard.
For frantic boast and foolish word,
Thy Mercy on Thy People, Lord!

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Capturing Those Vacation Memories

“Those were the days.” How many times did you hear your parents say that growing up, and how often do you find yourself using it now when referring to something from your past? What was it about ‘those days,’ and have things really changed so much that we no longer enjoy life as we did back then? Maybe so – but I believe there’s hope for us all.

I think it’s safe to say that life has changed a significant amount over the decades, but I’m glad to see that though some traditions, things that were present when I was growing up (I’m all about traditions) are coming back, or at least have the potential to, particularly when it comes to vacations and how we remember or re-live them.

Let’s travel back in time 30 years or so and look at photography and how we took pictures on family trips. As a family, we didn’t fly very often, so most of vacations involved stuffing the five of us into our station wagon, garnished with a fake wood-grained exterior, stiff vinyl seats, roll-down-the-window type air-conditioning, and a radio that only picked up stations when you were within 10 miles (back then it was miles of course, not the silly little kilometers we have today) of a major city, and even then you were lucky if it wasn’t complemented with a good layer of static. Or worse-yet, if it was a choice of Country-Western or Country-Western! No offense, but when driving down highway number one from Winnipeg to Vancouver, you didn’t get a heck of a lot of choice when it came to radio stations.

Heading west in our 'trusty red steed'. I can't remember if this was our camping spot, but I do remember at times in some camp sites having to pay extra for trees.

On these yearly family trips, our dad was always the official photographer. Mom occasionally and reluctantly had the camera in hand, but when asked to take a group photo, she had a nasty habit of loping off peoples’ heads about half way down - using the viewfinder interior framing, of course! I also have a great aunt who, no matter who she was taking a picture of, managed to somehow include her favourite china cabinet in the background, always exclaiming to her husband afterwards with innocence, “now how did that get in there?” That comment was always followed by a sheepish yet sneaky furniture-loving grin.

Sparing the heads, this time my mom mercifully cut my Uncle Bill, Uncle Mike, Auntie Lorraine and my dad off from the waist down rather than cutting off their heads.

So for our family, the duty ultimately fell to dad, and it was a task that he loved. He equipment consisted of an old Pentax SLR carried on a thin strap around his neck, a side-mounted flash, and a tripod, ready to spring into action at a moment’s notice. Everyone in life has their talents, and my dad – his calling in life was the art of lining up our family members at any significant occasion or family gathering in a snap. Just to note - I’m not quite sure if our dad would take pictures because we were dressed up, or if we dressed up because our dad was taking pictures. I may never know. Not cause my dad’s no longer with us – he is (with a fancy new digital camera of course, never far away). He just doesn’t give away his secrets easily, especially when it comes to photography…or mushroom picking spots.

A classic 'family with Western visitors' shot in front of the house. I don't know exactly what had pissed off my brother (far right) to get him to make that kind of expression, but if I knew what it was, I'd gladly do it again just to see if he'd have the same look. I'm the innocent looking one with the lego creations.

Under the guidance of our father, our posing for the camera became a family ritual. When on vacation, if we happened to pass by an outrageously sized icon of our current or past culture (for example: Babe and his Blue Ox, a giant fish posed as if in mid-leap from the water, a giant moose outside of Moosejaw, Saskatchewan, or even the world’s largest Ukrainian Easter egg at Vegreville, Alberta), we stopped - and we posed. If we were on a ferry crossing from the mainland to Vancouver Island, we posed. If we were driving along a mountain highway and there was a grizzly bear with a sledgehammer breaking into someone else’s station wagon parked in the lot of a hiking trail, we’d stop and pose for that too. Of course that never really happened, but I’m pretty sure my dad secretly would have loved to have arrived at such a scene, and I know his camera would be ready with a fresh roll of 36, locked and loaded.

Above: Mom, Paul Bunyan and his oddly small feet. Below: The giant Easter Egg (also known in the Ukrainian community as a pysanka) in Vegreville, Alberta. As you can see, any obscenely-sized easter egg always brings eternal happiness and blissful dancers.

For the majority of families on vacation back then, taking pictures was very different. Without the ability to preview what you just took, you never knew what you were going to get until you had the film developed. This in itself made each frame of film more valuable than a room full of gold, and we knew that when we were given the extreme and rare privilege to hold the camera and actually take a picture, it wasn’t something we’d waste on silly or stupid faces (no matter how goofy my brother could look in a moment’s notice), not if we valued the idea of celebrating our next birthday. In our family, wasting even a single frame in a roll of film was on the same level as the rare treat of eating Kentucky Fried Chicken and not cleaning the meat down to the bone – it just didn’t happen, or you knew there would be serious life-altering consequences.

A rare family trip to Hawaii when I was in grade 5. With years of experience under his belt, my dad would seek out interesting architectural elements to 'frame his subjects'. We were just happy to have something to hang off of.

Ultimately the vacation would unfortunately end, and we'd arrive back at home, where we’d peel our sticky legs off of the car seats and unpack our luggage from the back of the station wagon. The camera was quietly put away in the top shelf of the front closet, and the trip was declared officially over and usually soon forgotten as we’d get back into the routine of every day life at home. It was always so good to get back home, especially being the kind of kids who would typically sleep in late and then sit around the TV like summer-time zombies, wasting away most of the beautiful summer mornings watching shows like The Wheel of Fortune with Pat Sajak hosting. Hmmmm, maybe some things don’t actually change after all…

We’d be back into our regular lives, but about four or five weeks later the experience of being on holiday would all come back, usually complements of Canada Post. In the mail, wrapped neatly in a golden coloured envelope, the slides would arrive. We didn’t do prints in our family - we were full-bore slide projector aficionados with a giant white pull-up screen that as kids we loved to do hand shadow puppets in front of until the picture show started (I never could do anything better with my two hands than my impression of a duck, which, if it was ever manifested to life, would surely be shunned from any duck colony as the most horrifying and un-duck-like thing ever seen).

With the lights out and the soft hum of the projector, our dad would walk us through our vacation experience once again. It was glorious. Nearly life-sized on the screen, and sometimes with conveniently placed scar-like dust on the slide that made us look a little more dangerous than we normally were, we were there - and in the background, were all the wonderful and amazing places we had been.

My dad actually went through the pains of transferring each slide into a separate slide tray, labeled the paper guide as to who was in each photo, the date, where we were in the world, and then added the new collection to the racks of other collections sitting on his office shelves like over-sized Lego pieces, stacking their way closer and closer to the ceiling with each passing year.

The collection still exists today and is contained in about 3 very large boxes in my basement, sitting and waiting for the day when I decide to finally digitize them all so that I can have my own slide shows for my family. There likely will be no prints here I’m happy to say. We’re also really bad for taking hundreds of pictures on our digital cameras and letting them sit either on our flash cards or on the hard drives of our computers. It seems like the process of selecting images and uploading to a print service site is much more arduous than what we used to have to do when we’d take the roll of film out of the camera, drive it down to the photo store, fill out the pouch, then come back anywhere from one hour to one week later to pick up the slides or prints. Who says modern conveniences are actually convenient? At least that’s my excuse.

With computer monitors coming in at 20 inches plus and TV screens in the 40 to 60 inch range, I think it’s our chance as a family to take our holiday pictures and re-live them as I experienced pictures as a child. Of course we’re in the habit of previewing what we took in camera once we’ve taken a shot, but having it displayed in such a large size, complete with a fatherly narrating, is what truly makes it a wonderful experience.

And then I’ll be able to say, with pride, these are the days. Indeed.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Boldly Go Where No Man Or Woman Has Gone Before - Just Not In Your Underwear

A number of years ago, I found myself in Paris, late October, and it was absolutely beautiful. It was one of those perfect fall days where the sky was a brilliant blue, the sun was warm, and the air was a fragrant combination of decaying leaves, fresh pastries and cappuccino. I had just arrived from Canada and was anticipating the two weeks I had to spend in Paris and the French countryside.

I checked into my hotel, and found out that I had a few hours to kill before my room would be ready. Even though I had not slept a wink on the over-night flight, I was energetic and eager to explore one of my favourite cities in the world. I arranged to keep my suitcase behind the hotel reception counter and before heading out, knowing how gorgeous the weather was outside, I quickly grabbed a pair of shorts, a fresh t-shirt, and changed for my trek through the city streets.

So there I was, a Canadian in Paris, as happy as can be. I’ve been to Paris enough times that each time I arrive, it feels like a second (albeit a tad more expensive than my first) home.

But something was wrong.

Have you ever had one of those dreams where you’re somewhere like school, work or at the mall with 30,000 other people, and you’re standing around in your underwear (or less)? Well, this is how I felt about 3 minutes after stepping out of my hotel lobby and onto the streets. (Note: for those of you who have never traveled to Paris, stepping out of a lobby never takes very long, particularly for those of us with limited resources ($) for hotel stays. The budget hotels lobbies are never bigger than about 5 feet wide by 3 feet deep, and this includes a reception desk and a rack or two of tourist brochures – and I won’t even go into the size of the typical budget hotel elevator here).

It took me a while to realize it, but after about 5 blocks of walking, my eyes were diverted from the historic architecture to the local haute couture – particularly to what everyone else was wearing around me. I can tell you that they weren’t wearing shorts and t-shirts, even though it was more than 20 degrees Celsius outside - of course anything in Canada warmer than 10 degrees brings people out in shorts and tank tops, particularly if an impending winter is near. This early afternoon in Paris, everyone around me was dressed as though they were off to either a very important meeting where they’d be discussing world politics or they were off to a ball worthy of an appearance by Cinderella or maybe even George Clooney. I’d like to think that they didn’t notice me, practically naked by comparison, but I’m sure in reality my appearance wasn’t dissimilar to a zebra attending a meeting of polar bears.

Typical fashions you see at any hour wandering around Paris.

Not ever worrying about what people think about what I wear, I did what any confident, who-cares-what-you-think kind of person would do – I double timed it back to the hotel, dug back into my suitcase and pulled out some clothes that would keep me from being nabbed by the French Foreign Legion of Fashion and therefore be thrown in the nearest jail for those who are couture-challenged.

So this brings me to today’s topic – finding the appropriate dress for your travel destination.

It’s good to do some research - what the local customs are, and what you can bring to wear, particularly if you hate that feeling of sticking out like a sore thumb. Don’t get me wrong, sometimes it’s great to look like a tourist (I can’t think of a bigger fan than myself of those fantastic flowered shirts you can pick up at any street corner in Hawaii), and at times it would be physically impossible to ‘blend right in’ (think of me, the 6 foot 1 inch tall Caucasian traveling anywhere in the Orient).

Wearing this, you're guaranteed to blend in at any luau

Another thing to consider is dressing not just blending in, but to respect local customs. I remember being in Europe for my first time after graduating from university. I was there for 2 months during the summer months, and in that time, I wore pants three times (each time reluctantly). Twice, because it was actually cool outside, but the third time was on a day that was 35 degrees Celsius with humidity levels of around 235% (or so it felt like). It happened to be one of my only days in Rome, and a day I wanted to visit the Vatican, where they will not let you in without the appropriate clothes, which doesn’t include shorts. It also turns out that with their newer safety restrictions, they won’t let you in with your all-essential Swiss Army Knife either (if you’re there soon and going through the security line, you’ll find a bunch of interesting items there, likely including my beloved knife!).

Maybe a little extreme for a way to dress, but if you really want to fit in...

In other countries, particularly if you’re female, you may find yourself wearing a veil or headpiece to respect local customs. If you’re a guy and you happen to be in Pamplona, Spain, mid-July, like I was once, you might find yourself wearing white pants, a white shirt and a red bandana around your neck (I didn’t do the pants or the shirt, but I did buy a bandana to feel like I fit in). If that happens to be you, please be wary of the bulls, the local Spaniards who’ll be happy to talk you into running ‘with’ the bulls, and most-importantly, watch out for the sangria or any combination of the three. They’ll all kick you if you’re down, so to speak.

Going to Scotland in wintertime with nothing warmer than a fleece would be downright silly and potentially hypothermia-inducing, while going to Egypt in summer without light cotton clothing would likely get you going on that heavy sweat weight-loss program, like it or not.

So basically, do the research, and it’ll add to the enjoyment of your trip. Plus it will give you the opportunity to start feeling like you’re on holiday before you even leave. Most importantly, it will likely keep you safe from having the uncomfortable feeling of standing on an open street corner in Paris with a thousand Parisians laughing and staring at your…pastries.

Friday, October 22, 2010

The Joys and Surprises of Fall Travel

For many people, once the calendar turns to September, sadly, the travel year is over. At least until the highly anticipated winter trips that involve palm trees, patios, and sliding doors without screens. It’s now fall (this side of the world), and in my opinion and from experience, I feel this can be one of the best times of year to travel.

Here’s why:

1. Less crowds
2. Flights and hotels tend to be discounted
3. If you’re traveling by car, there are way less RVs hogging the road
4. Your teacher friends can’t. And that should be good enough of a reason!
5. Sometimes you just find things you can’t with the summer crowds

One other excellent reason to travel in the fall, as silly as it sounds, is to take in some serious fall colour. This is what I did about 7 years ago. I traveled to Atlanta in late October to visit my brother and his family, and then continued on by car with them to a place called Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. As I was told, it’s a place renown for it’s fall colours, displays of pumpkins, outdoor markets, and what I’d find out later, for some famous large breasts. That I should explain. Pigeon Forge is just a few miles away from Dollywood, an amusement park owned by Dolly Parton. One can imagine with some humour as to what the roller coaster experience would be like - Wheeeeeeeeeeeee! Wheeeeeeeeeeeee! and you’re done!

This I found out also had influence on the neighbouring towns, such Pigeon Forge. I was expecting a scene of quaint cabins, babbling brooks, amazing foliage and abundant serenity, but this ‘cultural icon of amusements’ should have been my first clue as to what we were actually going to experience.

After a much longer than expected drive than expected from Atlanta (pre-GPS and a brother who doesn’t quite read maps well), we arrived in the dark to a decent little non-rustic rental property. Next day, up bright and early on a cool and crisp autumn morning, we started to explore. Picture if you will a 4-lane roadway running straight as an arrow through town, lined on both sides with Super-8-type hotels, Perkins-like restaurants, and more gift shops than you’ve ever seen, or ever want to. Just a side note - every single gift shop we entered had fancy scented candles burning and each was playing that same Vivaldi song you hear every time you walk into a gift store, no matter where you are in the world. The royalties for the artist must be staggering.

As it was, I put my movie-watching talents to use (this is my unique ability to lower my standards and enjoy nearly any movie, with the exception of the third and hopefully final Pirates of the Caribbean movie), and forged ahead for a weekend of exploring and experiencing what the town and countryside had to offer.

I have to say, blocking out the town, the area was incredibly beautiful with rolling hills on all sides, babbling brooks, and hiking trails through forests of stunning colour. Although there were still a lot of people around, it was fall, so we hiked a trail or two and just soaked in the surrounding scenes and at times felt like we had the place to ourselves.

This was turning into a good fall trip, but I didn’t realize that the true highlight was still to come.

It was our last full day there and that afternoon we stopped at a roadside farmer’s market. Pumpkins of all sizes were on display along with a variety of colourful fall vegetables and some aged but rustic looking harvesting machinery.

Just as I was about to declare the trip as good, but not fantastic, I saw the one thing, or I should say the one person that made my trip turn from good to fantastic.

Let’s call him Farmer Hatfield, or maybe Farmer McCoy, but this guy was incredible. He looked like he had just crawled out from the hills after decades of living in lonely isolation. Wearing his green cloth hat, plaid shirt, overalls and some complimentary bare feet, he appeared to be skinnier than a bulimic rake during a fasting. What teeth were left pointed in every direction ever explored by man and only resembled teeth in that they hung from gums but I’m sure didn’t function beyond that. Yikes.

And why was this so great? This, you can’t duplicate. This you don’t see in the travel brochures. You can’t dress someone up to look like this, even if you paid them. This was a genuine, true-to-form fall farmer’s market, and this was a true-to-form and authentic Eastern USA hillbilly – true to the area, and something completely unplanned.

At this moment, outside of all the commercialism and traffic and awfully scented candles, I knew I had found my gem of the trip and felt content. My fall travel, with the smaller crowds, the colours of the leaves and beautiful crisp air and quiet roads, my complete surprise included, was just…complete.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Adieu, old friend

Good-bye my friend, Summer.

You’ve come and (nearly) gone, again. This was the 43rd time I’ve had the pleasure of hanging out with you, and after last year’s late showing where we thought you were just a tease in fall’s clothing, it was good to have you back with some good full-blown, hot days and sticky nights.

Like road construction season and extra-long drives into work, you’ve always been there for us. Sometimes I find it unbelievable to hear people mutter the words ‘ah, it’s too hot out there.’ I’m not sure what planet they come from, but really, they should be sent back, parkas, touques and all. Do they not remember what winter is like and how long it can last? Ignore them all. They, like so many politicians and tv evangelists, are delusional and delirious for sure.

You’re an inspiration. You make us feel like hanging around and barbequing in the back yard, riding our bikes through the streets, and skipping out of work early on Fridays (and Thursdays, Wednesdays, Tuesdays and Mondays too). You heat up the interior of our cars to unbelievable temperatures, particularly on those days we have to wear grown-up clothes for client meetings, but we can forgive you for your playful and thorough nature. You’re just doing what you were meant to do, and having some fun.

You make our trees and grass grow, ensuring that we have something to on weekends, watering the plants and mowing the lawn. Sometimes you spend an entire day desperately trying to poke your nose through stubborn and unwanted clouds, but we know you’re there, waiting anxiously, with your UV rays and shadow-making abilities. You keep us outdoors and keep us from really bad tv summer programming. For that selfless act alone, we should be forever grateful. But if you’re the one who brought us Suzanne Summers, I think we should talk…

We were up at the very start of your days many times, but enjoyed your end-of-the-day shows even more, often at Lake Winnipeg, with your dramatic and spectacular colours. We usually weren’t alone – often there was us and a thousand of your friends – little hungry mosquitoes who never seem to miss a late evening show either - and then never seem to miss us on our quick trip back to our screened-in world.

You got us up at the crack of dawn and allowed us to do all the things we wanted to do in the evenings. You were our morning alarm clock and our gentle notice that it was time to go to bed and fall asleep, with a wonderful summer smile on our lips, once again.

It was fun having you around again. You gave us that feeling of warmth, but like a long-lost relative from the other side of the counry, we know it’s time you go away, bags packed, yet again.

Now it’s time for driving in the dark to work, driving home in the dark from work, all while wearing more clothes (at one time) than someone in, say, Hawaii, is likely to have in their entire closet. The fun has nearly gone - you’re nearly just another part of a collection of warm memories.

When you’re gone, we dream more. We dream of beaches and sand and warm breezes and we dream of not being able to see our breath as we quickly pass from the house to the cold and frozen car.

We’re less efficient at work when you’re gone. We spend the first hour there warming up from our painfully cold ride in, and then before the work day’s done, we prepare ourselves for the icy journey home in a car or bus where the heat won’t kick in until we’re just around the bend from being home.

We travel when we can to southern places that you seem to prefer October to April, spending thousands of dollars to walk in colourful shorts, order fancy drinks with fancy names, sit by man-made pools and to bring some resemblance of colour to our skin other than our usual winter shade. This gives us a coveted tan something to bring home and brag about for approximately five and a half days at our wintry homes before we crack and peel, becoming a healthy pale, once again (I think I heard one day at church that there was originally going to be an 11th commandment - ‘thou shall not covet thy neighbor’s tan,’ but being my usual sleepy self on an early Sunday morning, I think I might have misheard what was actually said).

So, be well, my friend. We’ll be more than ready to see you again after nine long and cold months. Have fun when you’re in places like Sydney, Buenos Aires and Ambatofinandrahana, Madagascar. I’d gladly challenge any of them to the idea that we don’t appreciate you and need you more than they do.

We won’t forget you, and we hope that you won’t forget us next year when it’s time to return. For all we care, come back early. Trust us, we’ll be ready!

Until then, with all respect and SPF 15,


P.S. About this global warming stuff and warmer winter temperatures…we know it’s really just you, giving us some much needed hope during some long and cold winters, but we don’t have to let David Suzuki or Al Gore know (consider it our little secret!).

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Of Paradise and Pelicans

20 years ago, in 1990, I graduated from the University of Manitoba. After four long years of study and wearing the typical black mock turtlenecks so well associated with the school of art, being anxious about my starting my career as a graphic design, I did the first thing any serious person embarking on their career would do – I went to Europe! 2 months of fun-filled, non-school-filled adventures. Well, I was there to learn, but more likely about strange languages, historical ruins, and foreign spirits (of the liquid kind, not the ghost kind).

20 years ago exactly from this date likely would have found me in Italy, during their turn of hosting The Beautiful Game, the World Cup. We had just traveled through France, catching The Rolling Stones in concert in Paris, and getting to know the white sand beaches of the French Rivera. Life was relaxed and life was good. But once the World Cup was over, it was time to move on, and the next logical place was Greece.

Greece is famous for many things – beautiful cliff-sides, white-washed buildings, amazing sunsets, and it’s also known for a certain liquid called ouzo, a anise-flavored aperitif that if drank in high enough quantities will have you singing songs in languages that have likely disappeared from record centuries ago. In smaller quantities though, it’s quite enjoyable. But this was our Europe trip – we were there to go big, or go home!

This leads us back to Greece, to me, my friend Jamie from Winnipeg, and another traveler named Rob from Seattle. After a long day of cruising the island of Mykonos on peppy little mopeds and hanging out at some spectacular beaches (for the record, any topless beach to a guy is almost always spectacular), we found ourselves in the market area of the town recanting the stories of the day and taking in a few drinks as the day cooled and the sun set over the narrow, cobblestoned streets.

We had found this great little bar to go to called Stavros – it was an Irish Pub in the heart of the town, it was just celebrating its grand opening, but unlike other drinking establishments in the neighborhood, it had no washrooms on the premises. Combine a few extra-thirsty guys, cool Irish beer, and no toilet facilities, and 9 times out of 10 you’ll get a story out of the mixture. This particular evening was no exception.

Jamie, having to go make room for the next beer, took off to find the nearest facility. About 20 minutes or so later, Jamie returned, with a curious expression on his face. Yes, he had found a washroom (to his relief and ours), but he went on to explain that on his journey back, he came across this part indoor/outdoor pub, and that standing right in the middle of the room on it’s own perch, was a full sized pelican, right in the middle of the other guests.

Being the good and open-minded friends that we were, we told him he was nuts and delusional and likely more drunk on ouzo than he realized. His story, even with the fine detail that only Jamie could include in a story, was more unbelievable than anyone could, well, believe. Also, we considered the source – Jamie, a joker at heart with a vivid imagination (and a lot of ouzo in him), was a guy who could easily try to pull something like this over our heads. Well, the wool wasn’t coming out and we were not believing his spectacular story, even as he defended it on the honour of his mother’s grave (who, by the way, was very well with health and was waiting for his next phone call home, likely at that exact moment).

In the end, Rob and I chalked it up to Jamie having a little too much ouzo to drink combined with possibly too much sun during the afternoon and the strain of leering towards the topless tanners. After further frustration of trying to convince us his story was true, damage done to his reputation, the conversation changed and the rounds continued on to the wee hours of the morning.

Funny thing was, about an hour earlier, I had had to go and find the washrooms, and after successfully finding them and before making my way back to the bar, I passed by the exact same pub Jamie saw and walked by the exact same pelican, quietly sitting on his perch, ignorant (or so it seemed) of his noisy and social surroundings.

But when I came back, fearing for being thought of as a drunken loon with a ridiculous story, I decided to not mention my believe-it-or-not sighting. And the whole time Jamie was trying to convince us of what he saw, I never let on that what Jamie saw was real. It was too much fun to see him squirm, plus I felt safe knowing the fact that the streets of Mykonos were like a labyrinth and that almost for sure, none of us would ever pass that way again.

Turns out after further research that this might have been ‘Pablo the Pelican’, a famous long time resident of Mykonos. Pablo, many years before, was saved from certain death by a Greek fisherman and then spent his days hanging out around the shops and bars of the town, amusing the locals and tourists alike (the pelican, not the fisherman, at least to my knowledge).

I’m not sure if I ever told Jamie the truth from that night. Strange and wonderful things happen when you and your friends travel for extended periods through Europe, and I suppose some things are just better left un-said. I’m sure with the perspective Pablo has each night, watching slightly tipsy backpackers quickly wandering by eagerly in search of a restroom, he too would agree.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The Final Chapter

I’ve had known for over a year that I’d be making the trek back to New York, this time at the invitation of the 911 Memorial Organization to record my story from September, 2001. I knew it was something I had to do, if only to finish a chapter in my life and move on to the next.

I’ve said it before, but anyone who knows me, knows I’ll travel nearly anywhere at the drop of a hat. I love the preparation, the research, booking the tickets, and I even love the smell of jet fuel. Yes, my addiction is that serious! This trip though felt different and I couldn’t recognize why. People kept asking if I was really looking forward to it, and honestly, I had to think about it.

I’ve been to NYC three times now. The first time was in September, 2001. Of course that ended up being the most dramatic and surprising of all of my travels past and likely to come. Second time was in March, 2006, for a few days while my wife was attending a conference in the Times Square area. This last trip was to be my third time. It’s such a fantastic city to explore – people get the misconception that it’s so huge and a challenge to get around, but really it’s like walking through a series of connected neighborhoods, each with their own personality and charm. This time though I had my appointment to meet with two of the folks who work at the Memorial Museum, Alex Drakakis of the museum collections, and Jenny Pachucki of the oral history recording department. I had chatted with them many times over the past few months via email, and I was looking forward to a face-to-face meeting. For me, this was the purpose of my visit, and I had built in some time afterwards to explore and enjoy the city some more.

When I arrived at the World Trade Center site, I met with both Alex and Jenny, and they gave me a great tour of their offices, including a great view of the construction at the WTC site from the 20th floor. It was so good to meet in person, and to also see the incredible amount of resources behind such a great project. Soon after I found myself sitting in a quiet and softly lit room with a microphone in front of me, and Jenny sitting across the table from me, ready to record. For the next 45 minutes or so, in a question and answer format, I spoke about everything I could remember about my time in NYC on my first visit. Having written in this blog for the previous couple of weeks before coming, so many details came to my head easily. Jenny did a fantastic job of letting me release these details, and thus bringing something of an official end to this chapter of my life.

After a few pictures with the girls and a good-bye, I then found myself back out on the streets of Manhattan having completed my task. It felt weird. It felt kind of sad. But it felt good. I imagined what it was like for the hundreds of people before me who had come and done the same thing, and wondered if they felt the same.

It’s a strange connection to have with a place. One friend, who was also in New York during the attacks on the World Trade Center recently referred to us as ‘honorary New Yorkers.’ I had never thought about that, and even though a declaration like that I feel I could never self-prescribe, I think she’s right. Here’s why.

I spent the next 2 days wandering around parts of NYC I had visited before, and parts I had never visited before. And even with this time spent wandering the city, there’s so much I have yet to see. This time though, I concentrated less on the famous physical structures, and more on the people – anyone from residents of the neighborhoods I was walking through to people working in shops and restaurants to people like me, visiting and getting to know one of the world’s most famous places. Anyone I saw was there had the appearance of someone who wanted to belong. There’s so much to attract people there, between the work culture, the sites and architecture, the food, the nightlife, the water, the history, and even the potential that a city like New York can hold. Growing up I had always wanted to visit New York because it is such a popular part of our culture – in movies and television - that I just had to experience it for myself. Before my visit in 2001 I had never expected to be so connected, but now I know that I am. Through my experiences I’ve been more than a visitor, like it or not. But I do like it.

So I think that’s why it felt strange or anxious to be heading back for another visit and why it didn’t instantly feel like a holiday. It wasn’t the meetings at the Memorial/Museum, and it wasn’t the challenge of the oral recording that I knew would put me through a roller coaster of emotions. In a way, this trip was like heading home, or to a second home I suppose. It’s a big place with great places to eat, great places to see sightsee, and with so much going on. It’s beautiful and sad all at the same time with its spectacular building and its run down buildings as well. Now I’m not so sure I could or would ever move here and try to afford a decently sized apartment with a any kind of view overlooking Central Park, but even if it means visiting every few years or so and staying in a hotel, I’ll always consider it to be a special place.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

So what happened to the girl? (New York, Sept 11, 2001 - Part 5)

It’s a strange thing, to know someone for about 6 hours or so, and then to find yourself searching for them with no idea of where they were or even if they were alive. I had Kamilla’s cell number, but knew that she didn’t have mine. I had tried many times to call her on her on the 11th with no success. I trying again over and over on the 12th, hoping that she would pick up and that my search would be ended in a happy manner.

Later that evening with one more call, after a few rings, instead of it ringing and ringing and ringing like it had for the phone calls before, she picked up the phone. I had been so distracted with the thought of where she was when the towers were hit Was she in the building? Was she even alive? That I forgot that she had no idea about my whereabouts and my fate. She was so relieved to hear that I had never made it there as we had planned and expressed the frustration of not having a way to get a hold of me. She had started to think that she might never know my fate.

What really had worried me about her situation was that she was at a hotel in the Canal Street area, which is close to the World Trade Center and where all the devastation was taking place. After the terrorists attack, the lower part of Manhattan was completely shut down to anyone except for emergency personnel where Canal street cuts across, so she was close, but still far enough away to be safe.

So what happened for Kamilla that morning? To my relief, she had slept in a little, and by the time everything started to happen, she was at a distance that kept her safe.

With everything that had happened, we had to see each other again, if only to celebrate our fates of that completely unbelievable couple of days. The next day was the Thursday, a day where things started to get back to ‘normal’ in the city, so we made plans to meet late afternoon in Times Square. I have to say, it was one of the strangest ‘reunions’ I’ve ever had. We had a great evening, going for a nice dinner and then a Broadway play (getting tickets to anything was easy as there were so many people who had previously bought tickets but couldn’t get there to see the shows), but there was one moment that always will stand out for me. As I wrote earlier, it was a strange reunion – we had only known each other for a handful of hours, but suddenly through the events of September 11th, we knew our lives would be intertwined forever. What was so memorable for me was that she thanked me. She felt for sure she would have been up in the towers early that morning on September 11th if she hadn’t met me. But we did meet, and we went up the night before. And for her (and for me) that changed everything.

In my last few days there in New York, I continued on to explore the city I had been so anxious to see. Over the next few days, I was witness to some very remarkable events. I can so vividly remember waiting at a subway stop, watching a few individuals posting letter-sized notes on the walls – these were hand-written notes that included a picture of a loved-one from one of the twin towers that was missing. With each day, more and more appeared. I also remember seeing how so many of them were from the same company, an organization that was located near the top of one of the towers. It was strange, as I looked at so many of the posted sheets, the people of the photographs looked back at me, and in most of them, they looked so happy. They all looked like regular people, like you and me. It was so hard to believe the fate that they had met, and what their families had to deal with. It made me so sad.

I also remember later, on the Thursday after my evening with Kamilla, riding the train back to Heike and Jen’s place. It was somewhere around 11 pm, and on the rail car I was in, I was the only one except for about half a dozen firefighters, just finishing a shift that I would guess was at the World Trade Center. They were absolutely covered in dust and grime and looked as tired as anyone ever could. This was still a time where there was hope to find more people trapped in the rubble and debris. If there was one thing I didn’t see in their eyes, it was hope. It was one of the quietest times in my life I can ever remember.

A few days later, on the first day that airports were open again, I found myself on a plane, heading back home. The tension was high among the other passengers and the airline employees. You didn’t see the usual joyfulness of people heading out on a vacation, setting out to explore a different part of the country or a different part of the world. It all felt so different. I was happy to be heading home, but I felt like there was a large part of me that I had left behind. I knew I’d be back, but I just didn’t know when. I’ve been back twice, the first time was four years ago for a conference that my wife was attending, the second time was just this past weekend. The adventure has continued, and that will be the next part of my story.

Here we are on the Thursday evening in Times Square, just before going to see a Broadway Show (Les Miserables)

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The wrong place, at the right time (New York, Sept 11, 2001 - Part 4)

Sometimes in life, we have to wonder about the choices we make, particularly about the places we go, and the effect it has on our lives. I've wondered many times why I ended up in New York during one of the worst times of its recorded history. After much soul searching, I still don't have an answer. But maybe it ties into your personality - and that, indeed, played a big part in my day. And my potential future.

I woke up early, eager for the day to start after spending the evening with my new found traveling friend, Kamilla. I had showered, dressed, packed up my bag and was pretty much ready to go, when my friend Heike came into the room and casually asked me if I'd like to go for a run with her. She had heard from Jens already about my meeting with this girl, and that I was to meet up with her that morning, but extended the invitation anyway, mentioning that we could be gone and back and that I'd only be a little late.

The next thing I did surprised even me - I thought about it. Here I was, in New York, only a few days into my trip, and I had this outing set up with another traveler (and she was cute! In the world of travel, that I suppose is a bonus) to spend the day exploring around Manhattan before she left for the west coast. It was an absolutely beautiful September morning, crisp and clear of the clouds and rain of only the day before. I was ready to go, map and travel book in hand. So I chose to do what was only natural. I, chose to go for the run with Heike.

Even when we were out running - we had driven to a forested area along side a lake that was just beautiful, I was thinking to myself, why in the world did I make this choice?

We arrived back at the apartment, and soon after the phone rang. I can't remember if I answered or Heike answered, but we knew by the display that it was a long distance call from Winnipeg. My sister from my home town of Winnipeg was on the phone, and I had never heard her sound so happy to hear my voice. She was about to drop a bomb shell of information that set me in shock for the rest of the day. When she said that a plane had just hit one of the towers of the World Trade Center, I actually didn't believe her. Or couldn't - it seemed impossible - someplace that I had just been. Plus, how much impact can an airplane make running into a building? I ran to get Heike to tell her the news, and because they didn't have a tv in their apartment, we had to go up to one of the neighbour's apartments. There we sat in disbelief, watching the towers fall, jaws open, right before our eyes.

Much of the rest of the day seemed to be a blur - I felt safe where I was, but for some reason felt like I should have been there, right at the towers. To what end though? Who in their right mind would want to be there? About 2 years ago, I was reading a collection of travel stories by American authors, and one of the stories was by one author who happened to be only a few blocks away at the time. All his article talked about was how even though he knew the right thing to do was to get as far away from the devastation as possible, he kept finding himself drawn back. And indeed, he did go and help out as much as he could. I realized while reading this, that this is what I felt too, and it was good to see that others felt the same way. I felt like I needed to be there, and it was driving me crazy being so close and not being able to help.

Once my family and friends were assured that I was indeed okay (as my sister said, why would anyone ever think that by chance I'd be at the World Trade Center so early in the morning?) my other issue was Kamilla. We were to have met around 8:45 am at the towers (the first tower I believe was hit at 8:51 am), and possibly go back up to the observation level. I had no idea where she was. I had her cell number, but could not get through no matter how many times I tried.

The day continued on. I have to note here that I will always be thankful, for the rest of my wonderful life, what running has brought to me. I've been running (mostly on, sometimes off) since I was in grade 6. On this particular day, in such a strange way, it played a big part of my life. I'm drawn to people who love the same things as I do, and on that day and being around Heike and her love of running and exercise, taking her up on her offer defined not only my life but potentially my future as well. This, on a day when so many other people in New York, the surrounding area, and in Washington found new definition in theirs, unfortunately by such massive loss of life.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

September 10th, 2001 (New York, Sept 11, 2001 - Part 3)

It was Monday, September 10th, and with both Heike and Jens working, it was a day on my own to explore the city. I decided to spent most of my time that day in lower Manhattan, and started off by wandering around the World Trade Center. It was a beautiful morning and I had thought of paying to go up to the observation tower, but decided to leave that to another day. I made my way along the water front, and eventually found a place to buy tickets to go to see the Statue of Liberty. The ferry ride out toward the island made for spectacular views of the city skyline. Getting off at the statue, I walked around but decided not to go up to the arm – I’m honestly not good with heights, and having turned around more than once on old, rickety rusting-metal staircases housed in the middle of centuries-old cathedrals, I decided to just avoid anything like that altogether. My interest was actually to get over to the Immigration Museum, which involved catching another ferry. You’ll see in one of the pictures included above, taken from the ferry, the weather was turning fast. The storm sweeping over the city was amazing, and I knew it would soon be hitting us. By the time it made it to us, I was deep into the Immigration Museum, enjoying the displays and especially admiring the old ads used to recruit potential immigrants, particularly from Europe.

A couple of hours later, the museum was closing and it was time to catch the last ferry back to Manhattan. While I was waiting for the ferry to depart, this girl came up to me and, with a distinctly Eastern European accent, asked if I’d be okay with taking a picture of her with her camera. I’ve done this hundreds of times through my travels, but this time was especially funny as she began to direct me to an infinite detail on how to take a good picture! I played along, and eventually handed back the camera. We sat and talked for the entire ride back, and once we hit land again, we just naturally walked around together, talking, not really with a destination in mind.

The weather was cool and rainy, so we decided something hot to drink would be best. It was already early evening, and for some reason we had a terrible time trying to find somewhere that was open. We went underground, poked around the side streets, but couldn’t find anything at all. We eventually found ourselves at the World Trade Center asking the security guards there, and were told there was a good place to get something to drink at the top of the tower in the observation deck. So, with tickets purchased, up we went!

I actually didn't really want to go up. It wasn’t the ideal night - the clouds were low, it was raining, and the outdoor observation deck was closed. I’d never stood outside at that height, and was disappointed that I wouldn’t get to feel what it was like outside at that height.

Once we took the elevator up, we nearly had the place to ourselves, outside of the occasional tourists like us. Even with the weather, it was an amazing view. We walked around, took pictures of each other, talked with a few people working there, and after about an hour or so, took the elevator back to the ground floor. We still didn’t have anything to sip on, but when we left the building, we came across this small restaurant and market – an Amish establishment I think, or the name had the word Amish in it. We stayed for the next couple of hours – talking and getting to know each other. Her name was Kamilla, and she had been traveling through the US for quite a while and was soon leaving New York to head to the West Coast of the US, then home. The conversation was typical of two travelers meeting – we talked about where we came from, what we did in life, where we’ve traveled, all the kinds of things that travelers have in common.

I can’t remember what time it was, but I knew it was getting late and it appeared that the restaurant was about to close. Having made a great connection as two people traveling on their own, we decided to hang out together the next day, a day that was supposed to be her last day in New York. She wrote her name and number on the only piece of paper I could find – my ticket from our entry to the observation deck of the World Trade Center. The plan was to meet up again the next day, around 8:45 am, back at the Trade Center. We also discussed the idea of going back up to the observation deck if the weather was good.

We said a quick good night, and back I went to Heike and Jen’s place. I remember that when I got off my last train and was walking to their apartment, it was still raining, but it was one of those gentle warm rains you never mind walking in. It had been a long and great day of exploration. When I arrived at the apartment, Heike was already sleeping, but Jens was up. I told him about my day, and he laughed, mostly at my chance meeting with this Eastern European girl. Quickly after, I was all wrapped up in my sleeping bag on the floor of the living room, smiling and anticipating yet another adventurous day to come.

Just a quick aside - after all of the events that were about to unfold the next day, I never watched the news or looked at any kind of publication that had anything to do with the attack - I just couldn't watch. Years later though, I was thumbing through a book that was handed to me that was full of photographs of the towers and the destruction of that day, and one picture made me absolutely freeze in my spot. It was taken in the restaurant that we had ended up in, soon after the buildings fell, nearly exactly from the point of view where I'd been sitting that night. Everything was covered in an unimaginable amount of dust and debris. I honestly couldn't believe that it was the spot that Kamilla and I had spent all that time talking and getting to know each other, literally just hours before.

Monday, April 12, 2010

The start of the journey (New York, Sept 11, 2001 - Part 2)

So what the heck was I doing in New York City anyway?

I had always wanted to go to NYC. Seeing it in so many movies and tv shows, knowing the history and the architecture, it was just somewhere where I had to go. Being the traveler that I am, I always look for opportunities, and my good friends Heike and Jens, originally from Germany, just happened to move there. Having a place to stay, for free, is always great. Heike and I have been friends since I was in second year university, having met on a ferry going from New Brunswick to Prince Edward Island, both backpacking our way separately around Eastern Canada. Along with another friend of mine, having been practically thrown out of a Charlottetown Bed and Breakfast on a Sunday morning with a church service blasting on the radio in the background (now that's a completely different story!), we've been great friends since ever since.

I flew in on a Thursday evening, and the plane took the perfect route parallel to the skyscrapers of Manhattan. I couldn't believe that I'd soon be wandering the streets - smelling the smells, walking among Manhattanites, hearing that distinctive New York accent. Heike and Jens picked me up in their oldsmobile - having the word 'old' in it was appropriate as it was nearly as old as I was. It had miles and character and the softest back seats you ever sat in. They lived on the New Jersey side, and soon we settled into their one-bedroom apartment. My space was on the floor in the living room, I soon had a wonderful glass of wine in hand, and being in a distant land, I was as happy as could be.

Of course I had no idea what was to come - I just had the excitement of someone about to explore a new city. On the first day, with Jens at work, Heike and I made our way over to Manhattan. Taking the train to the ferry terminal on the Jersey side, we caught the boat which dropped us off immediately in the shadow of the twin towers. That would become the spot for the next few days where we would always start and end our journey. Heike and Jens knew the city well and showed me many of the highlights - Times Square, Central Park, and on the Sunday, they took me on a special trip all the way through the park to a self-guided walking tour of Harlem. Three tall, very white folks, each with our cameras and backpacks, we set out for about 2 hours, wandering through streets I would never have dreamed of setting foot on before. Was I nervous? Hell yes! But even with the uncomfortable feelings I had for most of the journey, it was excellent and exciting. The coolest thing was seeing a church empty right after a service, everyone dressed in their sharpest and brightest white suit or dress, smiling away.

We'd had a great day, the sun had set, my feet ached, and we made our way back to lower Manhattan, again by the towers, to catch our ferry back to Jersey. Now on this trip, there were many memorable moments, particularly after the 11th. On this night though, as we walked between the rising towers, we paused, looked up the almost unimaginable heights of each of the towers, and Heike, in carrying her slight English accent from having learned English in England, dreamily said "Could you imagine if one of these ever fell?" I can't remember for sure, but I believe neither Jens or I gave an answer.

We soon after caught the ferry then the train back to the apartment, and after some more excellent celebratory wine, headed off to bed. It was a short sleep, and led up to what I will always remember as one of the more remarkable and fun travel days in my life, September 10th, 2001.