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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.

Kayaking in the Broken Group Islands, British Columbia

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.

Interacting with the Dutch wildlife

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.

Photographing Gertrude Stein’s grave in Père Lachaise Cemetery, Paris

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.

Having a bit of fun at the Vermeer Centrum Delft

Through My Lens: Kinderdijk Ponies

Who of you needs to see a photo of some ponies? Or a windmill?

I took this photo while exploring the windmills at Kinderdijk with some friends a few years ago. It didn’t make it into my earlier post because most of the mill is hidden.

But I really do like the ponies.

Sister Cities, Sister Countries

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. believed that the arc of the moral universe is long but that it bends toward justice. He also knew that there are evil men in the world, who seek to thwart that benign curve and push us all back into darkness. Because of those men, there are moments in history when the great struggle between freedom and tyranny comes down to one fight, in one place, which is waged for all of humanity. In 1863, that place was Gettysburg. In 1940, it was the skies above Britain. Today, in 2022, it is Kyiv. — The Honourable Chrystia Freeland, Deputy Prime Minister of Canada

As I am watching, reading, and doomscrolling these past three weeks, what has surprised me most is the resurfacing of long-buried fears. A lifetime ago, when I was in high school, the marches were about nuclear disarmament, not the climate crisis. We had long class discussions about the chances of a nuclear holocaust wiping out the human species. The last gasp of the Cold War was a fearful time to be a teenager.

Same song, different century.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine is reminiscent of another war waged in the last century, but recent enough to bring up familial memories for those of us who came to Canada from Europe. My mother was born in Nazi-occupied Holland. I often wonder what impact living through war the first five years of her life had on her psyche.

What memories of this war will Ukrainian children carry for the rest of their lives?

I have long known that my mother’s family had been forced out of their home by the Nazis for the last winter of World War II. But a month ago, I was shocked to learn that the neighbourhood where they spent that winter underwent an artillery bombardment by the Canadian army in its fight to liberate the city. Pamphlets were dropped from the sky to warn the residents of the upcoming shelling, which went on for hours. Nineteen people died. I was so floored by this revelation that I spent the next week wondering how it was I’d never heard about it.

Floored, because I had also long known that my thirteen-year-old uncle was killed the same day. A stray artillery shell had landed in the street and bits of shrapnel went flying. My mother remembers being thrown down the stairs into a cellar by an uncle after the explosion. But I was never told about a bombardment. How do you forget undergoing an hours-long artillery barrage?

Then I remembered the Sunday afternoon I spent with two cousins some months ago. As we looked through old family photographs, I came across a letter in which a relative of my mom’s described her memories of that day — the day my uncle died. She wrote how the extended family had been all together in one of their homes, but in the next town over. Several relatives were injured that day; the letter writer’s sister had a piece of shrapnel embedded in her leg for years afterwards. Perhaps my mother and her family were there not to celebrate their liberation (as my cousins had always been told), but to escape the shelling where they were living?

It still leaves unanswered questions. How did the family know when it was safe to return home? What was left of that home when they returned?

More than three million Ukrainians are wondering when it will be safe to return to their homes. Are wondering if they have homes to go back to.

When a girlfriend and I travelled around Europe in the mid-1980s, we spent a long, cold night on a Yugoslavian train filled with drunken conscripts on their way to boot camp. That’s how I learned that almost every European country had compulsory military service at the time. That’s when I realized only a simple accident of geography — and my gender — kept me from going through a similar rite of passage.

The NATO-aligned countries abandoned conscription after the end of the Cold War. Ukraine did too, in 2013, and then reinstated it in 2014. We’ve all heard how men aged 18 to 60 are not permitted to leave Ukraine right now. What isn’t getting anywhere near the same attention is that almost a quarter of Ukraine’s soldiers are women. Many of these women are bringing their children to the border, handing them over to distant relatives, and then going back to fight in a war they didn’t want, a war they didn’t ask for.

When you grow up on the Canadian prairies, you are deeply aware of the significance of the Ukrainian-Canadian community, so I was not surprised to learn that Canada has the second-largest diaspora of Ukrainians anywhere in the world. What I did not know is that Vancouver and Odesa have been sister cities since 1944. Like Vancouver, Odesa is a port city. Like Vancouver, it has beauty — its historic centre is a World Heritage site. But unlike Vancouver, it is piling sandbags in front of its monuments and lining its beaches with landmines in anticipation of a Russian attack. Half a million of Odesa’s residents have fled. What is remarkable is that the other half million have stayed.

As we watch the Ukrainian people suffer and die in real time, it is difficult to not feel despair. I fully expect the repercussions of this war to be as consequential as anything we have lived through in our lifetimes. As a teenager, I feared the outcome of a Cold War that had been going on for so long I never expected the Berlin Wall to ever come down. As a child, my mother fled her home and watched bombs rain down on her city right up until the day they danced in the streets to celebrate their liberation.

One day the people of Ukraine will rise up again to celebrate.

Because the alternative is unthinkable.

Vancouver City Hall

Liberation Tulips

When Canada’s lockdown began almost overnight about eight weeks ago, I found myself reflecting on how adaptable the human spirit can be. I also found myself wondering whether what we are going through in these pandemic times has any similarity to what life was like for my mother’s family during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands. Not that a pandemic is anything comparable to a war, but what pandemics and wars do have in common is they require us all to live with constant uncertainty.

I’m not the only one who is thinking back to World War II. In her speech to the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth last month, Queen Elizabeth made reference to the challenges faced during that war as well as the family separations that were endured. She finished by expressing her confidence that, one day, “we will meet again.”

One of the sad consequences of this pandemic is that all of the celebrations to acknowledge the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II have been cancelled. No world leaders are congregating in the Netherlands or France or Britain, and no veterans are gathering on what was likely to have been the last significant anniversary for which they might have been able to attend.

Today is Liberation Day in the Netherlands, the day when the Dutch remember and celebrate their liberation from Nazi occupation. The links between Canada and the Netherlands are strong; the Dutch Royal family found refuge in Ottawa during World War II and most of the soldiers who liberated Holland in 1945 were Canadian. All of the activities that were to have taken place in Vancouver to celebrate the liberation of the Netherlands have also been cancelled.

One thing a pandemic could not stop, however, is the blooming of the Liberation Tulips. The goal established last fall was to plant 1.1 million tulips across Canada, one for every Canadian who served in World War II.

Here then is a photo I took last week of one of those tulip patches. These 800 bright red “Canadian Liberator” tulips are blooming in front of the Seaforth Armoury in Kitsilano, home to the Seaforth Highlanders. The regiment was involved in liberating Amsterdam in 1945 and about 40 of its members were planning to travel to Holland this month. Although the march into Amsterdam they intended to recreate on May 8 will not be happening, Canadians still appreciate the service those veterans gave our country and are thankful on behalf of the Dutch citizens they liberated.

Remembering Rembrandt

Today marks the 350th anniversary of the death of the Dutch artist Rembrandt van Rijn. He died in Amsterdam in 1669, and was buried in an unmarked grave in the Westerkerk. I want to acknowledge the anniversary of his death for one simple reason: Rembrandt is one of my favourite artists.

You don’t really get a sense of what Rembrandt means to the Dutch until you see how his most famous painting, The Night Watch (in Dutch: De Nachtwacht), is displayed in the country’s national museum, the Rijksmuseum. The painting is the focal point of the immense Gallery of Honour and your eyes are immediately drawn to it as soon as you enter the gallery.

About a kilometre away from the Rijksmuseum is Rembrandtplein (Rembrandt Square), one of Amsterdam’s busiest squares. Now the centre of the city’s infamous nightlife, its origins were as a butter and dairy market. In the centre of the square is a cast iron statue of Rembrandt that dates back to 1852. That’s a photo of the statue up above. At the artist’s feet are life-size bronze cast statues of the some of the subjects depicted in The Night Watch, which were created to celebrate Rembrandt’s 400th birthday back in 2006. In the photo below are the two central figures: Captain Frans Banninck Cocq (on the left) and Willem van Ruytenburch (on the right).

The Rijksmuseum is calling 2019 “The Year of Rembrandt,” and it is celebrating with a variety of special events and exhibitions. The museum has also begun a year-long study and restoration of The Night Watch in full view of museum visitors.

Who could have known when Rembrandt died, alone and penniless, that 350 years later so many people from all over the world would be so enthralled with his work?

Happy Easter!

Sint Janskerk, Gouda, August 2017

Through My Lens: Pieterskerk of Leiden

Today is Palm Sunday, and I’m posting a photo of the Pieterskerk in Leiden. Dedicated to Saint Peter, this church dates back to the early fifteenth century.

Pieterskerk has an American connection; it’s where the Pilgrims worshipped for over a decade before they sailed away on the Mayflower in 1620. Some years before that, the Spanish lay siege to Leiden from May to October of 1574. When the siege was over, the citizens of Leiden held a service of thanksgiving, where they ate herring, white bread, and hutspot (a mash of potato, carrot, and onion). Some think that elements of this thanksgiving celebration, which became an annual affair, were carried to North America by the Pilgrims.

Which means we have the Dutch to thank for our custom of eating mashed potatoes at Thanksgiving.

Through My Lens: Sint Janskerk and Sint Servaas of Maastricht

For the Fifth Sunday of Lent, I’m posting a photo of the two churches that border the Vrijthof, which is the main square of Maastricht.

The church on the left is Sint Janskerk, a Gothic church dating back to the seventeenth century. Dedicated to John the Baptist, the distinctive red tower of this Protestant church was originally painted with ox blood (ugh), but these days, they just use regular paint.

On the right is Sint Servaas, a Romanesque church dating back to the eleventh century. The basilica is dedicated to Saint Servatius, first bishop of Maastricht and its patron saint. He died in 384 and is buried in the crypt. Sint Servaas is the Netherlands’ oldest church.

Through My Lens: Inside the Bovenkerk of Kampen

Today is the Fourth Sunday of Lent. I’m posting this photo from inside Kampen’s Bovenkerk for a couple of reasons.

Reason # 1 is because it was inside this church, listening to this organ, where I first fell in love with the music of Johann Sebastian Bach.

And Reason # 2? Because today is one of Bach’s birthdays. I say “one of” because apparently the man had two depending on whether you are looking at a calendar in the Old (Julian) Style or the New (Gregorian) Style.

This organ is one of three in the Bovenkerk. It has four manuals and 3200 pipes, the oldest of which date back to the early seventeenth century.

There was a music lesson was going on just before I took this photo. The student was up above at the console behind the pipes, while the teacher was down below, chowing down on a sandwich as he hollered out his feedback. I felt sorry for the student, but was so happy I got to hear the music.

Through My Lens: Bovenkerk of Kampen

For the Third Sunday of Lent, I’m posting a photo of the Church of St. Nicholas of Kampen. St. Nicholas is the patron saint of seafarers and many churches in the Netherlands are dedicated to him. (In the seventeenth century, this tiny republic along the North Sea had the world’s largest naval fleet.) The church is more commonly known as the Bovenkerk (Upper Church) and it gives the town of Kampen its distinctive skyline.

Archeological evidence points to a church standing on this spot since the early thirteenth century. A Romanesque church was built first and probably in use for about a century before it was replaced by a much larger Gothic building.

As far as Gothic cathedrals go, it is a fairly simple design, but that it was built at all speaks to the influence and power that the town of Kampen had as a trading town on the edge of what was then the Zuider Zee. Some form of a tower has existed since the building was first erected, but its present form and height dates from the nineteenth century.