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Hurricane Fiona

Devastation in Port aux Basques is unbelievable.’

About 97,000 still without power across NS and PEI six days after Fiona.

More than half the fishing ports in Fiona’s path damaged.

Fiona reshaped PEI’s coastlines.

Those are just some of the headlines a week after Fiona slammed into Atlantic Canada. The hurricane will likely be rated as one of Canada’s worst natural disasters — the pictures and stories coming out of Port aux Basques in Newfoundland are heart-breaking.

You can be sure I was paying close attention to the storm’s track as it headed for the same place where I’d spent a week last August. Thankfully, my friends in the Annapolis Valley came through the storm just fine. They had lots of wind and rain and some power losses, but the west side of Nova Scotia is pretty much unscathed.

Family who were travelling on Cape Breton Island rejigged their plans and headed inland to get out of the storm’s path, then hunkered down in a hotel with a supply of storm chips. They too were safe.

Only a week after Fiona, photos of Ian’s destruction on the Gulf Coast of Florida — where I spent New Year’s some years ago with the same Nova Scotian friends — are dominating the news. The Carolinas, where I spent a month as a student many decades ago, are now waiting for Ian’s impact.

If I didn’t know any better, I’d wonder if I was the common link to all this hurricane activity.

Here is a photo I took last summer in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia. I figure the ocean-facing chairs are as good metaphor as any for storm watching.

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

The Hill We Climb

We will rebuild, reconcile and recover
and every known nook of our nation and
every corner called our country,
our people diverse and beautiful will emerge,
battered and beautiful.
When day comes we step out of the shade,
aflame and unafraid.
The new dawn blooms as we free it.
For there is always light,
if only we’re brave enough to see it.
If only we’re brave enough to be it.
— Amanda Gorman

Through My Lens: Windward Oahu

In a parallel universe, my sister and I would be getting on a plane today, headed for two weeks of sun and surf. But alas, no winter beach time for us this year.

Because it’s 2020.

Not to worry. I will instead wallow in my memories of the last time I was in the Aloha State. I took the above photo somewhere along the Windward side of Oahu, which is where my sister and I had planned to stay.

If all goes well, maybe next year.

If all goes well.

Day 100

It’s been 104 days since the WHO declared Covid-19 a pandemic, and five months to the day since Wuhan, China, was locked down. And it’s Day 100 of my pandemic.

I didn’t really consider my own need for physical distancing until I had a routine dental exam on March 16, only to learn an hour later there was a Covid-19 outbreak associated with a dental conference that had taken place in Vancouver earlier that month. I called my dentist. They were closing down their office until further notice.

Talk about a wake-up call.

Life has become an endless cycle of Zoom calls, laundry, and pandemic baking. I find joy in mundane events like the opening of a rebuilt grocery store around the corner from me that shortened my weekly grocery trek by almost two-thirds and greatly reduced my shopping stress thanks to its extra-wide aisles.

Even my cats seem different. They follow me from room to room and seem to be sticking much more closely to me than ever before. Which is ironic given that I’m home more than ever.

This pandemic has provided some valuable lessons in how we function as a society and as a community. How we care for our elders, how our cities function, how our supply chains work, how dependent we are on temporary foreign workers for our food production.

On a personal level, I’ve mastered baking sourdough bread. I’ve also become much more aware of who calls Vancouver home now that all the tourists are gone. Previously (and sheepishly, I will admit), I thought all the people around me speaking Spanish or German or one Slavic language or another were visiting Vancouver from elsewhere. Turns out they are actually my neighbours. Which makes me happy. Diversity is our strength.

BC has done a pretty good job at flattening the curve. We hope to move into Phase 3 of our reopening within a few days. The most significant aspect of the next phase will be the lifting of the request to avoid all non-essential travel in the province, and the reopening of hotels, campgrounds, and other tourist accommodation.

Travel within Canada this summer is still rather uncertain. As our health officials (who gave their 100th briefing on Covid-19 today) keep telling us, each region of Canada is having its own pandemic.

What is becoming certain is that a return to international tourism this year is unlikely. I’ve noticed over the last week or so how our health officials note at every briefing the growing number of cases in parts of the United States where British Columbians have strong connections, such as Washington, Oregon, California, and Arizona. Two of every three Canadian residents live within 100 kilometres of the US border — the current border closure between our countries is unprecedented. But necessary.

So what about the next 100 days? Can we make summer travel plans? I realized early on in this pandemic that my travel plans for later in the year would have to be put on hold indefinitely. Instead, I’m thinking small. Really small. Thankfully, I live in a beautiful part of the world that I can enjoy in a physically distant way. I also plan to frequent as much as possible all the local businesses and attractions that rely on tourists. They are all on life support right now.

Three months ago, I found myself thinking a lot about my last visit to New York. I’m not sure why. Maybe because New York has been hit so hard by the pandemic, maybe because it’s the US city I have visited most often, or maybe because it was the last time I left the country. At any rate, here is a photo I took in Morningside Park on that week-long visit.

I can’t help but look at it and think, “We are all that turtle.”

Here’s to a safe and physically distant summer, wherever you are in the world.

At the Nat

All right. It’s high time I post something to acknowledge the game often referred to as the “national pastime.”

And no, I’m not talking about Canadian federal elections — although, given our proclivity for minority governments (yesterday we elected our third fourth in 15 years), you would not be wrong in thinking so.

I’m talking about baseball. And yes, I know it’s our neighbours to the south who consider it a national pastime much more so than we Canadians do, but we do have some fans in this country. Basically, all of Toronto during the Blue Jays’ back-to-back World Series championships in 1992 and 1993. (I was one of them.)

Here in Vancouver, we don’t have a Major League Baseball team, but I know a few people who will be tuned in to the first game of the 2019 World Series, which got underway tonight.

Some of those people I’m related to, and they like to hang at the Nat every summer. I went along one night last August, just for something different to do (and to take a few photographs).

The full name of Vancouver’s ball park is Nat Bailey Stadium, named after the founder of White Spot (a popular Vancouver restaurant chain best known for their burgers). The home team is the Vancouver Canadians, the one Canadian team in the Northwest League of Minor League Baseball. They are also the Short Season A affiliate of the Toronto Blue Jays — and please don’t ask me what that means, as I have no idea. (Thanks, Wikipedia.)

It turns out that the Nat is a really fun place to hang out on a summer’s evening — with all the emphasis on fun. Several of each season’s home games are followed by a fireworks display and one is designated Dog Day of Summer — you get to take your four-legged best friend with you to the Nat. If you’re thirsty, there is craft beer; if you’re hungry, there are three-foot long hot dogs. And for entertainment (in addition to the game, of course), there are the Sushi Mascot races — Ms. BC Roll, Mr. Kappa Maki, and Chef Wasabi race around the diamond. A winner is always declared, but if your appetite is whetted, be assured you can also get sushi at the concession stands.

As it happens, the game I went to last August was a close one, finishing off with a walk-off single. But even if the Canadians hadn’t won, the night was winner.

Walking and Drinking Our Way Through San Francisco

San Francisco …
Bridges, fog, food …
It’s crunchy granola, but it’s also double martinis and thick slabs of beef.
A city of towns, neighbourhoods …
A tough town for a stick shift. — Anthony Bourdain

So. What to do when you don’t know what to say about a new-to-you city?

Me? I turn to Anthony Bourdain. And as I did so, I had to laugh.

I laughed because he seemed particularly fixated on martinis while he was filming his San Francisco episode.

And I laughed because as my friend and I spent our week climbing the hills of San Francisco (hence, “a tough town for a stick shift”), we finished each day with an adult beverage. Or two.

Double martinis indeed.

This was my first one, which I sipped as we listened to jazz in a bar that time forgot at Haight and Ashbury.

Haight and Ashbury, of course, was the epicentre for the Summer of Love. With a little imagination, it seems like the entire strip is one that time forgot.

See what I mean?

We spent a morning strolling through Chinatown — one of the largest in North America, and certainly the oldest.

Then we hit the Castro, San Francisco’s gay village.

We finished our day in the Mission, enjoying cold beers in another bar that time forgot.

The Mission got its name from Mission San Francisco de Asis, one of the 21 Catholic missions established in California to convert Indigenous peoples. From Dolores Park, in the heart of the Mission, you have a great view of the entire city.

We also spent time in the Embarcadero, which is where my home exchange condo was located.

We bought fresh produce at the Ferry Building Farmers Market. (Being a ferry building, this is also where you catch any one of several ferries to get across the bay.)

And we ate sushi overlooking Alcatraz in the middle of San Francisco Bay.

We finished up our last day in North Beach, the Little Italy of San Francisco and home to the Beat Movement. We rested our aching feet at Francis Ford Coppola’s bar in the Sentinel Building (the green building) …

… and imbibed in yet another late afternoon cocktail.

San Francisco is known to be a foodie town (be sure to try the tacos), but during our short week, it was definitely the adult beverages that sustained us.

City by the Bay

A few weeks ago, I wrote about my visit to San Francisco last summer, intending that post to be an introduction to a handful of posts about my summer vacation. And … a month later, here I am.

Huh.

Part of my delay in writing about San Francisco has been, well, the things that keep me hopping from day to day and week to week. Like other trips. Also, work. Spending time with family and friends. Chores.

You know, the usual.

A more truthful reason, though, might be that I just don’t know what I think of San Francisco.

One thing I did figure out while I was there is that when I travel I much prefer to spend a much longer period of time in a place. Long stays in a city, like my winter in Paris or my summer in Amsterdam, let you really dig into the rhythm of a place and figure out what makes it tick.

Not so easy in a week.

At any rate, I’m going to do my best to share a few posts with you about this City by the Bay.

This photo was the view we had from our too-cold-to-sit-out-for-long balcony on the night of our arrival. It would prove to be the most spectacular night of our stay — every night afterwards, the fog rolled in.

But at least we had this.

San Francisco in July

It’s the last day of February and Canadians are getting a little cranky.

Winter is going on … and on … and on.

Those of us who can have fled south to warmer climes like Arizona and Hawaii. Or Florida.

Sigh.

And people like me — who have little to complain about with respect to cold and snow and ice — tend to just wait it out.

I went south last July instead. Which, I learned, was a mistake.

San Francisco in July, it turns out, is much cooler than Vancouver in July. In fact, I have since learned that it’s entirely possible for San Francisco to remain enshrouded in fog for the entire summer. They call it June Gloom, No Sky July, and Fogust.

When I was there, we saw lots of the sun, but without fail the fog rolled in every evening. Despite my lovely home exchange condo with a lovely view over the Bay, it was far too chilly for this Canadian to sit outside on the balcony for any length of time to enjoy that lovely view.

So. Lesson learned. Go to San Francisco in the spring or fall. Or here’s an idea … in the middle of a Canadian winter!

Here’s a photo of the iconic bridge that San Francisco is known for: the Golden Gate Bridge. This is the best view I had of it the entire week.

Because fog.

Epiphany at the Met

Here are some last photos from the Neapolitan Crèche at the Met. I don’t think I need to tell you who these fellows are. I’m posting these photos today to commemorate the Feast of the Epiphany.