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.
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.
Shooting a memorable photo is often a matter of being in the right place at the right time. A good zoom lens doesn’t hurt either.
I took this photo in Venice’s Piazza San Marco in October 2007.
Basilica Cattedrale Patriarcale di San Marco ― that’s a mouthful, isn’t it? In English, it’s the Patriarchal Cathedral Basilica of Saint Mark, commonly referred to as Saint Mark’s Basilica. With features typical of both Italian and Byzantine architecture, this Venetian cathedral is east meets west.
I came across this photo last weekend while I was rummaging through the collection of black and white photos I shot on my last trip to Italy. It’s my photo choice for today, the Fifth Sunday of Lent.
I love the Italian word for “child” — bambino. And I love how the Italian language makes an ordinary pigeon sound so … well … unordinary with a word like piccione (say: pee-CHOH-nay).
We’re still in Piazza San Marco. Still people-watching.
Another piazza, another waiter. This time we’re in Piazza San Marco (St. Mark’s Square) in Venice. It’s a terrific spot for people-watching.