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Through My Lens: Salt Spring Island Cat

This is a travel blog, yes, but who doesn’t run into a cat or three while on her travels?

This is Amy. She was keeping me company while I enjoyed myself in my friend’s garden on Salt Spring Island the other weekend.

The best travel days always include gardens. And cats. Truly.

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Through My Lens: Highland Cows at Ruckle Farm

Another island I hopped to this summer was Salt Spring Island. I go here often, thanks to the hospitality of one of my dearest friends.

These Highland cows are at Ruckle Farm on Salt Spring’s South End. Salt Spring has a long agricultural history and Ruckle Farm — founded in 1872 — is one of the oldest farms in the province. It is still being farmed by the Ruckle family.

Fun fact: Highland cows are a Scottish breed of cattle and my friend who lives on Salt Spring Island is a proud Scottish-Canadian.

Just though I’d mention that.

One more note: The haze in this photo is due to the smoke from BC’s wildfires, which blanketed the southern coast of the province the weekend I was on Salt Spring Island.

Through My Lens: Galiano Island Sailboat

I did a bunch of island hopping this summer — one of the perks of living on BC’s West Coast. My first stop was Galiano Island. I took this obligatory sailboat photo at that island’s Montague Harbour.

Through My Lens: Underbrella

Whoa.

When the temperature drops ten degrees in two days, you know that September is just around the corner. Wildfire smoke aside, it’s been a fabulous summer here in Vancouver and this photo is a metaphor for my current mood.

These cheerful umbrellas are part of a public art installation in Yaletown called Underbrella. It was put up back in May as a way to celebrate the time of year when we Vancouverites put away our umbrellas and start worshipping the summer sun.

And that we have done.

Yellow-headed Blackbird

We’ve just finished a second consecutive weekend of summer temperatures, so I am starting to believe that, just maybe, summer has finally arrived.

To celebrate, here is a photo of a Yellow-headed Blackbird — a new-to-me bird I saw the other day at Piper Spit on Burnaby Lake. These birds like freshwater wetlands, which is exactly where I found this fellow.

A Summer in Amsterdam

As I settle back into life in Vancouver once again, I am also reflecting on the summer I’ve had. For those of you who are wondering, I won’t keep you in suspense: I eventually did reach what I call the fourth and final phase of adjustment to living in another country and culture.

It happened on my last Saturday in Amsterdam. Taking advantage of the gloriously warm, sunny weather, I was enjoying a long walk through the city’s centre. My mind was preoccupied with everything I had to do before leaving Amsterdam (a not insubstantial list). At the same time, I was feeling slightly sentimental about the sights and sounds around me, knowing it might be a long time before I would once again walk along this canal or across that bridge or hear the ding of a tram.

As I made my way past a tour group outside the Oude Kerk that was blocking my way, the guide’s voice caught my attention. She was holding up a laminated map of the Netherlands and explaining how much of the country lies below sea level.

And that was the moment when it hit me: I was actually going to miss the place. This overrun-with-tourists, charming-to-the-point-of-kitschy, historical-but-oh-so-modern city had completely captured my heart in a way I did not expect it to. And in acknowledging that, I knew I was — finally — feeling completely at home in a city that was not my home.

I don’t think it was a coincidence that I came to this realization on the same day I learned the mystery of Amsterdam’s traffic rules. I’d been puzzling over them all summer long.

There are no yield or stop signs in the centre of Amsterdam and no cyclist slows down — ever — at intersections. And so, within a day or two or my arrival in Amsterdam, I had learned that the bike is king. Pedestrians may walk on the road (indeed you often have to because your path is blocked by the many bikes parked haphazardly on the sidewalks), but as you walk, you always, always keep an ear tuned for the ding-ding of a bicycle bell — which is not a toy in Amsterdam. If you don’t immediately jump out of the way, the inevitable “pas op!” (watch out!) is hollered by the cyclist bearing down on you. At intersections, even when you have the green light, you make like an owl and spin your head 360 degrees to check for bikes. Because the bikes are everywhere.

All of which makes walking in the centre of Amsterdam rather stressful. You can’t not pay attention.

But even knowing all that, I could not figure out how the cyclists did not ride into each other. Finally, on my last weekend in Amsterdam, the mystery was revealed to me.

Yield to the right.

Suddenly everything fell into place. So, so simple. But then, the Dutch are masters at simple.

Some other, not insignificant, observations from my summer in Amsterdam:

  1. There are two Amsterdams: one for the tourists and one for the Amsterdammers. You’ll have a much better time if you try to avoid the first as much as possible.
  2. The Dutch know how to have an awful lot of fun with minimal fuss. There’s an important lesson here: keep it simple. (See above.)
  3. Travelling by train is by far the most civilized way to get around.
  4. There is far too much water in the Netherlands, but the Dutch — out of necessity — have been so creative at finding ways to live with it, beside it, and on it, they hardly seem to notice.
  5. Amsterdam is a twenty-first century city in a sixteenth-century setting and the only reason that is possible is because, unlike Canadians, the Dutch aren’t compelled to pull down any building older than, oh, 50 years.

I also learned not to bat an eye at the massive amounts of alcohol consumed in the streets during festivals such as Amsterdam Pride or the Prinsengracht Concert, at male cleaners in women’s public bathrooms while in use by the women, or at people setting a table on their front stoep, complete with cloth napkins and long-stemmed wine glasses, to enjoy their dinner on a warm summer’s evening.

One lesson I wrestled with all summer long was coming to an understanding of the Dutch notion of tolerance, which they call gedogen. I finally clued in that gedogen is nowhere close to Canada’s notion of tolerance. (We like to define it as acceptance of or openness to diversity.) In the Netherlands, something might be illegal (say, smoking weed), but if it doesn’t bother anyone, the law is not enforced. That’s gedogen. It has nothing to do with acceptance; rather, it is all about pragmatism, which is a personality trait all Dutch people possess. (And pragmatism, I should think, is fundamental to living easily and comfortably in one of the most densely populated countries in the world.)

My most important lesson of my Amsterdam summer came to me from the girl in the phone shop, however. I had popped in to find out why my mobile phone had stopped receiving data, and she went totally out of her way to walk me to the grocery store down the street where she said I could buy a new SIM card for a few euros less than what she was selling them for. To make conversation as we walked back to the phone shop, I asked whether she gets a lot of dumb questions from tourists.

“Well, yes,” she said in that way the Dutch have of not mincing their words. “But I always am happy to help because when I am somewhere on holiday (she pronounced it hol-LEE-day), I always hope that someone will help me.”

Gulp. I realized I could do far better in being a kinder host to the tourists who overwhelm my Vancouver neighbourhood every summer.

It would be a shame if I spent a summer in another country and did not come home a little poorer and a little wiser. So I am happy to say that was not the case for me this summer. And as I looked through my collection of photos, trying to decide which one to include with this post, a wave of homesickness for Amsterdam came over me.

It was the best feeling.

Zandvoort aan Zee

I realized something today. No matter what side of the pond you’re on, the first weekend in September feels exactly the same: you’re mourning the end of summer and slowly, surely, starting to feel a wee bit excited about the new season ahead. Even the high school next door to me, after weeks of silence, came alive this morning.

But before I get too maudlin about the end of summer, here are a couple of photos from my day at the beach, which is where I spent one of the hottest days of my Amsterdam summer. As soon as I saw the forecasted high was going to be a delicious 26°C, I got myself down to the station and hopped on the next train to Zandvoort aan Zee, which is the closest beach to Amsterdam.

Turns out I wasn’t the only one to do so.

But crowded beaches are terrific people-watching places, and I learned that the Dutch are no different than Canadians when it comes to worshipping the sun, the sand, and the surf. I learned another thing as well: the North Sea is cold — far colder than the bay in my backyard.

But that didn’t stop any of these people.

Through My Lens: Jardin du Luxembourg

It’s been more than six years since I was in Paris and although it felt like I had never been away, one of the hardest things for me to get my head around this time was the weather.

On my last visit, I struggled to keep warm during a snowy winter that felt far too cold for my thin Vancouver blood.

This time, we were immersed in heat and humidity. Although we were spared the experience of one of Paris’s infamous heat waves, I did wonder which is worse when travelling: being too hot or too cold? I don’t know the answer, but the question is a reminder that weather always plays a factor when forming an impression of a place.

However, this I do know: a definite bonus about visiting Paris in the summertime is being able to see the gardens in full bloom. One of my favourites is the Jardin du Luxembourg, or Luxembourg Gardens. Located in the 6e arrondissement, they were built for Marie de’ Medici, widow of King Henry IV, to go with her new palace, called, appropriately, the Luxembourg Palace. That’s it in the photo. These days, it’s where the French Senate meets.

Through My Lens: Sunset at Sunset Beach

And … boom.

No sooner is it officially summer and we’re in the middle of our first heat wave. Heat waves in Vancouver are rare, which means few homes have air conditioning.

Which means I’m awfully warm.

Some friends surprised me with a picnic at Sunset Beach this evening, and instantly I was able to cool down. There’s often a breeze that comes in off the bay, but it also helped that the clouds moved in to block the sun’s heat from us as we enjoyed our meal.

Which means I didn’t take this photo tonight.

But you get the idea. There’s nothing like a picnic on the beach while watching the sun set.

Through My Lens: Music Under the Sun

It’s the first day of summer! Finally!!

This week also marks the start of Vancouver’s outdoor music festival season. The big ones are the Vancouver International Jazz Festival, which starts this weekend, and the Vancouver Folk Music Festival at Jericho Beach in July.

Vancouver is not that different from other Canadian cities in having great outdoor music festivals, but what we do have that is uniquely West Coast are some pretty spectacular settings.

Like the stage at Jack Poole Plaza with the North Shore Mountains as its backdrop. This photo is of Spirit of the West performing on Canada Day a few years ago.