Travels With My Friend
I was supposed to be travelling back from Nova Scotia today.
But I’m not. Instead, I went in early August. And instead of going to say good-bye to a close friend in person, I went to celebrate her life after she was gone, along with her family and friends.
These are hard words to write. You always think you’ll have more time. My friend thought she had more time — it was her suggestion I come see her in September, when all the tourists would be gone but the weather still like summer. She herself had a busy summer planned — travel, time with family, time with other visitors — and so I took the early-September slot.
I knew it wouldn’t be a normal visit. I knew she was much weaker than I’d ever seen her. I knew it would likely be the last time I could see and talk to her in person.
You always think you’ll have more time.
This is my travel blog. So why am I writing about the loss of my friend?
Because she was the best travel companion I’ve ever had.
I suppose that’s not a surprise. When you travel with your best friend, a person with whom you share so many of the interests that make travel so memorable — art, architecture, music, literature, good food — it makes travelling together so easy. Maybe it worked so well for us because we lived on opposite ends of the country, and so our periods of travel became our time to reconnect and to nurture our friendship.
After she was gone, I counted up how much of my travelling involved her.
Seventeen. Seventeen trips. Some of them as long as two weeks, others as short as a weekend.
It all started with a road trip. At that point, we were casual acquaintances, part of a crowd of thirtysomethings who hung out together in Toronto. One of my roommates was dating one of her roommates. We went to the same parties, had brunch together on Sunday mornings after church.
She told me about her upcoming trip to New Orleans. A mutual friend was driving her down for a job interview she had lined up with the New Orleans school board (she was a newly accredited teacher at the time, eager for a full-time teaching position when those were hard to come by). The two of them were also planning to go to the New Orleans Jazz Fest.
“I’ve always wanted to go to New Orleans,” I said.
“Why don’t you come with us?” she replied. It wasn’t an idle invitation — I could see she meant it. I had lots of flexibility with my time that year as I was finishing off a master’s degree while launching my freelance editing career. I was making slow progress on both at the time, so it wasn’t much of a decision for me.
“OK,” I said. “I’m in.”
I learned a lot about her on that trip. We enjoyed a memorable evening of live blues on Beale Street, saw Graceland, and had a bizarre three-hour tour of a Mississippi plantation where our tour guide looked old enough to have fought in the Civil War himself and we were the only tourists in sight.
What impressed me most about that trip was watching how my friend faced her fears. She was terrified of snakes, yet insisted we go for a long walk along creaky boardwalks through a Louisiana swamp. As we tramped along, she jumped at least a foot in the air at every little noise, convinced she would step on a snake before the walk was over. But she refused to turn back.
That road trip was the beginning of a friendship that lasted a quarter century. She introduced me to New York, a city she loved, and we went back several more times. The winter I spent in Paris, she joined me for Christmas and New Year’s. She couldn’t believe I had never tasted coq au vin, and so she insisted on teaching me how to make it. Chicken stewed in wine? Yes, please.
Another year she invited me to join her family in Florida for New Year’s. There were weeks in London and San Francisco, and a ski weekend in Whistler. We kayaked the Broken Group Islands (twice!) and Desolation Sound.
The summer she spent in Siena studying Italian art, I was in Prague on a writing course. We decided to meet up afterwards — or rather, I invited myself to stay in her dorm room for a few days before I had to travel on to Amsterdam to meet up with my father.
I tagged along when their entire class went to Padua to look at frescoes. We booked ourselves into a hotel room for two nights, along with some of the friends she had made on the course, intending to spend the next day in Venice. Being summer in Italy, it was hot, so we got an early start. By late afternoon, we were all knackered. There were five of us in total, and we decided to take a gondola ride. That led to beer and pasta with our gondolier. And that led to some of us sneaking out to smoke a joint along the canal with said gondolier. (You all know where this is going, right?)
To keep it short: we missed the last train to Padua. Five Canadian women looking for hotel rooms in Venice, at midnight in the height of tourist season. It wasn’t pretty.
But that mishap led to a lovely bonus day in Venice, and three of us decided to go to Murano, one of the islands adjacent to Venice, for lunch. My friend urged me to order the Caprese salad as I had never had it before. I was converted.
In addition to all of our, ahem, travel adventures, there were the numerous times she opened up her home to me whenever I was in Toronto. I would do my rounds of networking, as I called it, with clients, but I always had lots of catching up to do with my friends from when I lived there. She told me I was the perfect guest because I was never home, but, in truth, she was the perfect host.
Because of that hospitality, I always gave her first dibs whenever I lined up a home exchange, and she never said no. She joined me for 10 days the summer I was in Amsterdam — scheduling her time with me in between the chemo treatments for the disease that would eventually claim her life. I marvelled at how well she was doing. I could not keep up with her as we walked through the city’s streets. One day we cycled 20 kilometres to Haarlem and back. It was her idea to bike and that was the only day I could see she wasn’t 100 percent. She was close to collapsing when we pulled up to a café alongside a canal.
“You go sit,” I said, pointing to an empty table outside the café. “I’ll lock up the bikes.”
We spent another day in Delft, one of my favourite Dutch cities. It also happens to be where my friend’s father was born. She told me stories of childhood visits and we went looking for the house where he had lived. I’d met her father only once or twice, which is maybe why I could easily picture him as a small school boy running at top speed alongside the canals.
In 2018, we spent a week together in San Francisco. We cycled across the Golden Gate Bridge to Sausalito — that time it was my turn to almost collapse at the end of our ride. And she joined me for a weekend in Montreal where I had another home exchange arranged. That was 2019. I had no idea at the time that it would be the last time I would see her. How could I? The pandemic kept us apart after that.
My friend was a high school photography teacher and she showed me the best places to catch that unique photo. Like the Eiffel Tower from a side street I would have never found on my own. We both loved taking photographs in old cemeteries, and so, on one of my visits to Toronto, she showed me the Necropolis, which has some of the city’s oldest graves. It was a warm summer evening, and we soon lost track of the time. Or maybe we didn’t know that the gates would be locked at 8 p.m.
Ever struggle to climb over a wrought iron fence in a short skirt? She had a good laugh that time — at my expense.
She never said a word about my photography skills until I asked her for feedback. “Well,” she said slowly. “Your horizons aren’t always level. And check your corners. You want to edit out any distractions.”
Needless to say, every time I edit my photos, I’m checking my corners. And thinking of her.
She was a far better friend to me than I was to her. There was one travel dream I had, a trip I haven’t yet taken and likely won’t, and years ago, when I first brought up the idea, she had mixed feelings about whether she wanted to join me. But later she told me about a conversation she had had with her mother. “You know,” she told her mom, “I really have no burning desire to make that trip. But it’s important to Elizabeth, so that’s enough of a reason to go.”
Who does that? Not me — that’s for sure.
I’m shattered I didn’t get one last visit with my friend and a chance to say good-bye in person. But I am so incredibly grateful she was able to spend her last years in Nova Scotia, surrounded by her family and by so much love. And I’m so grateful they shared her with me for so many years.
I will miss her more than I can say.
Remembering John Keats
When I have fears that I may cease to be
Before my pen has gleaned my teeming brain,
Before high-piled books, in charactery,
Hold like rich garners the full ripened grain;
When I behold, upon the night’s starred face,
Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance,
And think that I may never live to trace
Their shadows with the magic hand of chance;
And when I feel, fair creature of an hour,
That I shall never look upon thee more,
Never have relish in the faery power
Of unreflecting love; — then on the shore
Of the wide world I stand alone, and think
Till love and fame to nothingness do sink.
— John Keats
Back when I was a child (no, really — I was still in my teens), I took a course on the English Romantic poets. The first semester was all about William Blake and the Lake Poets (Coleridge and Wordsworth, among others). The poets known as the Late Romantics— Byron, Shelley, and Keats — took up the second semester.
It was a challenging course; in her feedback to a paper I wrote on Keats, my professor gently suggested I was perhaps more inclined towards studying history than literature. (She was right.)
But those young poets never left me, in their way, and so, less than a year later, I found myself wandering through a Roman cemetery looking for John Keats’ headstone. He died of consumption — what we now know as tuberculosis — on February 23, 1821. Like so many ex-pats in Rome, he was buried in the Protestant Cemetery. Unlike most people, he insisted his headstone not bear his name, but rather “Here lies One Whose Name was writ in Water.”
On that same visit to Rome, I also visited the Keats–Shelley Memorial House beside the Spanish Steps. It’s the house on the far right in the next photo. It was sobering to see where Keats died, but also thrilling to see the incarnation of my entire Romantic poetry course in three rooms.
I stopped by the Keats House in Hampstead, in the north part of London, on my next trip overseas. Hampstead Heath, a marvelous open space of almost 800 acres that beckons when you are museumed out, lies just behind the house.
Since I keep bumping into Keats on my travels, I thought it only right that I acknowledge the 200th anniversary of his death.
But back to the Romantic poetry course that started it all for me. One morning, my prof began class by asking who among us had life insurance. Her point was how unusual it was for someone as young as Keats to be so aware of his own mortality.
Unusual, but understandable. Keats lost both parents before he was grown and then watched his younger brother die of tuberculosis. He had also trained as a doctor. By his early twenties, Keats had seen far more death and dying than most of us will see in a lifetime. His sense of how fleeting life is inspired him to write poems like the sonnet I started this post with, which he wrote a month after his brother died.
More death and dying than most of us will see in a lifetime — that, of course, refers to those of us who will live through this pandemic more or less unscathed. And those of us who do, have far more privilege than most.
Here in Vancouver, we woke up to a delightful surprise on Christmas morning: a light dusting of snow. Not enough to create havoc, but enough to call it a white Christmas, something that rarely occurs in Vancouver. (And go ahead and laugh, those of you who live in colder climates. It may not look like much to you, but for us, it was a significant amount.)
I went for a walk to take some photos for the blog and this little Italian car caught my eye. It’s a bit difficult to see the snow because of its colour, but I decided to post the photo anyways, simply because the car is a Fiat 500. And 500 — cinquecento — is a significant number for this post.
Because it’s my 500th blog post.
I had no idea where this blog would take me when I started six years ago, but here I am, still having fun with it. The best part, as much as I enjoy sharing my travel experiences with you all, is how this blog has given me a new lens on my hometown. Wherever I go in Vancouver, whatever I am doing, I now am constantly on the lookout for photos to take or topics to write about that will give someone who has never been to Vancouver a little taste of what life is like here on the Wet Coast of Canada.
That’s because you, my readers, come from all over. WordPress is nice that way in that they tell you these things. This past year alone, I’ve had visitors from 60 different countries.
Going forward, I’m thinking of slowing down somewhat on the frequency and length of my posts. That’s because I have some other projects that need my attention in the coming year, and no big travel plans in my near future.
Then again, who knows? I’ll probably change my mind when (not if) the inspiration hits me.
Today’s reminder of Amsterdam came from an umbrella I saw someone carrying: it was bright red with the three white Xs on black of the Amsterdam flag running along four of its ribs. Funnily enough, as much rain as there was in Amsterdam this past summer, I never once saw one of those umbrellas over there.
But I did here, in Vancouver’s West End.
And yes, that means our rainy season has officially started. To keep myself cheerful during these dark and dreary months, I’m going to finish off the series of posts about my summer travels that I haven’t gotten around to writing.
Staring with this one about Amsterdam’s canals.
Amsterdam has a lot of canals. A lot. And a lot of bridges. Far more canals and bridges than Venice, which is why some people call Amsterdam “Venice of the North.” But Amsterdam looks nothing like Venice. And when an Italian-American friend of mine once asked me what people did with their bikes in Amsterdam, I looked at her, puzzled.
“What do you mean ‘do with them’? They ride them, of course.”
“But how do you ride a bike in a city with so many canals?”
Oh, right. She’s Italian. She’s thinking of Venice. I told her how Amsterdam’s canals are all lined with streets — one on each side — and the streets had plenty of room for bikes. That’s also when I told her about my first-ever visit to Venice.
It was a holiday weekend in three countries (Italy, Yugoslavia, and Austria) and the youth hostel was completely full. The guy at the check-in counter told my friend and me that our best option was to try the convent down the street. He gave us precise directions: exit the hostel, turn left, and walk three bridges down.
“Do we walk over the bridges or beside them?” I asked in all seriousness. He looked at me like I was an idiot and asked, dryly, “If you don’t walk over the bridge, how will you cross the canal?”
Smart-ass, I thought, but as soon as my friend and I headed down the street, I saw what he meant. In Venice, there are no streets beside the canals and there is no way to get across a canal except by — you guessed it — walking over a bridge.
In Amsterdam, it’s entirely possible to walk the length of a canal without crossing it once. Where it intersects with another canal, you have the option of making a sharp turn left or right to start walking alongside that other canal. And at each one of those intersections, the bridges (there some 1500 of them in Amsterdam) go both over a canal while also going beside the other, intersecting, canal.
Last summer, I decided to get to know Amsterdam’s canals better and the best way to do that is to walk them. Off I went: down the Prinsengracht one day, back home along the Keizergracht, and then the next morning all the way along the Herengracht and back along the Singel.
The Singel is Amsterdam’s innermost canal, built way back in the Middle Ages and initially the city’s moat. In the seventeenth century, the city planners decided to add three more concentric canals parallel to the Singel. This expansion made Amsterdam four times larger than it was before and was desperately needed — by the end of the seventeenth century, the city’s population was four times greater than it had been when they first began building the new canals. (This was the Dutch Golden Age, when the Netherlands was the world’s maritime power and Amsterdam one of the world’s largest cities.)
The new canals all ended at the Amstel River, and were designed for both defense and transport and, yes, to manage all that water. (Remember, Amsterdam is below sea level.) The entire area became known as the Grachtengordel (canal belt) and was declared a UNESCO heritage site in 2010.
The first canal past the Singel is the Herengracht (Gentlemen’s Canal). It’s named after the men who governed Amsterdam during the Dutch Golden Age, many of whom lived along the Herengracht. One stretch, called the Golden Bend, was developed a little later than the rest of the canal, and its mansions were built on double-wide lots. Many of these are now consulates, banks, or museums.
The next canal is the Keizergracht (Emperor’s Canal). It’s the widest of the three canals and was named after the Holy Roman Emperor, Maximilian I.
And finally, there’s the Prinsengracht (Prince’s Canal), named after the Prince of Orange. It is Amsterdam’s longest canal and is the dividing line between the Grachtengordel and the Jordaan.
These three major canals are connected to each other by dozens of smaller canals. The Leidsegracht is the widest of these and used to be the main transportation connection between Amsterdam and Leiden (hence its name). The Reguliersgracht (regulator’s canal) is probably the most photographed canal in all of Amsterdam. It is also where, if you are at water level, you can look through seven bridges at one time — a fact you learn when you take your canal boat tour. And the Brouwersgracht (brewer’s canal) way down at the other end of the Grachtengordel is where a lot of breweries were located (hence its name).
Eventually, my Italian-American friend spent a weekend in Amsterdam with me and saw for herself how different Amsterdam’s canals are from Venice’s. And shortly after our arrival in Amsterdam last July, I told my nieces the story of how I expected Venice’s canals to be just like Amsterdam’s. My youngest niece has since told me, now that she has seen Amsterdam’s canals, that she wants to go to Venice to see for herself how the Italian canals compare.
That’s what it’s all about folks: cross-cultural awareness and understanding.
About those bikes: just because the streets alongside the canals are wide enough to bike on doesn’t mean that bikes don’t end up in the canal. It’s been said that Amsterdam’s canals are one-third mud, one-third water, and one-third bikes and that more than 15,000 bikes are pulled out of the canals every year.
Live at the Met
One of the reasons I wanted to spend a long weekend in New York last December was so I could strike one off my bucket list.
That one would be attending the Metropolitan Opera at the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.
Here’s a pro-tip: If you’re going to go see the Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center, take along a native New Yorker. And here’s another: If you’re going to go see Nabucco by Verdi, take along an Italian.
I was lucky enough to get to do both.
My New Yorker friend and I made plans to meet for dinner across the street from Lincoln Center. And so, after a long day of sight-seeing, I made my way uptown, making sure to leave myself plenty of time to pick up our tickets from the Will Call window, and so I could take some photos. But I was taken aback when I saw the playbills outside Lincoln Center.
“Plácido Domingo is singing tonight,” I told my friend when she arrived at the restaurant. I had paid absolutely no attention to who was performing when I had purchased the tickets online some months before.
“He’s directing,” she told me. “He doesn’t sing anymore.”
“Oh,” I said. Well, that made sense. Slightly deflated, I gave myself a shake. What did it matter who was performing? I was in New York City and I going to the opera.
But after we made our way across the street to Lincoln Center, walked up the grand staircase, found our seats, and opened our programs, we soon realized our mistake. Plácido Domingo was performing, in the title role. And conducting was the legendary James Levine. We were in for a memorable, you might even say, historic evening.
Over dinner, my friend had told me about the political significance of Nabucco for Italians. Composed in 1841, it was Giuseppe Verdi’s third opera and his first big hit. But he almost never wrote it.
While Verdi was composing his second opera, his wife died, only a few years after their two young children had died. The opera bombed. Devastated, Verdi declared he was done composing.
But a friend persisted in showing Verdi a libretto he thought was worth a look. It was about the Jews after they were conquered and subjugated by the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar II (in Italian, Nabucco). Verdi’s attention was caught by a single line of text in the libretto, “Va pensiero, sull’ ali dorate” (“Fly, thought, on golden wings”). This line, inspired by Psalm 137 (“By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept”), became the Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves.
And that chorus, my friend told me, became a rallying call for the oppressed Italians during the unification of Italy. Many consider the chorus to be an unofficial Italian anthem that lamented how the Italian people were occupied by other forces (namely, the Austrians) on Italian land. The Italian audiences would cheer and holler until the opera companies repeated the chorus as an encore.
Which is also what happened that night not four weeks ago when my friend and I heard Nabucco performed live by the Metropolitan Opera. In post-election America, the significance of the encore was not lost on us.
Nabucco was first performed by the Metropolitan Opera in 1960. The performance we saw was the 329th time that James Levine and Plácido Domingo had performed together, over a period 45 years. (And here’s a fun bit of trivia: none of the other soloists performing that night had been born when those two began their professional relationship.)
I’ve written before about how my love of opera intersects with my love of travel. What I had forgotten until I started writing this post was how it had been my mother who had introduced me to opera. She had an album of opera choruses and would play it, full volume, on our brand new component stereo. That album was my introduction to “Va pensiero, sull’ ali dorate,” and the tune has stuck in my head ever since.
Long before I began attending live opera performances, I used to listen to CBC Radio Two’s Saturday Afternoon at the Opera, which is a live broadcast of the Saturday matinee performances at Lincoln Center. I don’t know why I stopped listening to them, but today I made a point of tuning in.
This afternoon’s broadcast was Nabucco. Live from the Met. I closed my eyes as I listened to “Va pensiero, sull’ ali dorate” and was instantly transported back to New York. Not in body, obviously, but certainly in spirit.
I expect it will be that way every time I hear the chorus from now on. As I told a friend after I got back from New York, seeing Nabucco live at the Met was pretty much a religious experience for me. I don’t want that feeling to ever go away.
Through My Lens: Roman Jar
I’m yearning for La Dolce Vita this weekend―but I know it will be some years before I’ll have a chance to quench that yearning.
In the meantime, I thought I would share with you one of my favourite photos. I took this at the Castel Sant’Angelo in Rome.
Through My Lens: Golden Hour at the Palatine
I took this photo from the Palatine Hill, the centremost of Ancient Rome’s seven hills. It overlooks the Forum and is the oldest part of Rome.
My friends and I explored the Palatine ruins at the end of a full day of sight-seeing. The Golden Hour arrived just as we did, and the soft light gave the place a magic quality.
There are hundreds of wondrous and beautiful churches in the Eternal City, some of which have left me speechless and some of which have moved me to tears. But, to my mind, the Palatine is the most sacred and holy space in all of Rome.
Through My Lens: Majolica Cloister of Monastero di Santa Chiara
Today’s cloister has a splash of colour, which I thought appropriate considering it is Palm Sunday ― always a joyous day of celebration in the Lenten calendar.
This is the Majolica Cloister of Monastero di Santa Chiara in Naples, Italy, which was built in the fourteenth century as both a Franciscan monastery and a convent of the Order of Saint Clare, also known as the Poor Clares. During the eighteenth century, the garden of the cloister was completely transformed by the addition of the majolica-tiled pillars you see in the photo. (Majolica tiles are common throughout the Mediterranean region.) The pillars line two intersecting pathways that divide the garden into quarters.
It had only just stopped raining when we popped in to take a quick look at this cloister in October 2002. It was far too short a visit ― my friends and I had a train to catch ― but someday I hope to go back and photograph it properly.
Through My Lens: Capri
I can’t help myself.
It’s not like I need a reason to post a photo from Italy ― give me five minutes and I can come up with the slightest excuse.
Today’s pretext? Two friends of mine are on their way to the Amalfi Coast for what I’m sure is a much-needed and well-deserved taste of la dolce vita.
I took this photo from the top of the island of Capri in October 2002. That’s the Sorrento Peninsula off in the distance.