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.
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.
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.
Goatherder at the Met
It’s less than a week until Christmas.
To mark the ever-accelerating passage of time, here’s another photo from the Neapolitan Crèche at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. I’m calling this fellow the Goatherder.
The United Nations
All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood. — Article 1, Universal Declaration of Human Rights
Today is about some significant anniversaries.
For one, 70 years ago today the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly. One of the authors of that declaration was a Canadian lawyer and diplomat named John Humphries, who was Director of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights from 1946 until 1966.
For another, 61 years ago today Lester B. Pearson accepted the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, Norway. It was awarded to him in recognition of his work at the UN, including his 1956 resolution that an international United Nations force be sent to the Suez Canal to deal with the crisis there. At the time, Pearson was the UN General Assembly President and Canada’s Secretary of State for External Affairs. He later served as Canada’s fourteenth Prime Minister.
The international force Pearson envisioned is today known as the United Nations Peacekeeping Forces. Seventy peacekeeping operations have been deployed since 1957, and 14 are currently still underway.
The phrase “United Nations” was first used by US President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1942 as a term for the 26 nations who came together to fight Germany, Italy, and Japan during World War II. These Allied Powers, along with 24 additional countries, met in San Francisco in June 1945 at what was called the United Nations Conference on International Organization. They drafted the United Nations Charter, which was signed by 51 countries and ratified in October of that year.
Today, the UN has 193 members.
Given that I’ve been to New York City four times before my most recent visit, I’d already ticked off most of the “Top Ten Things to Do in NYC” a long time ago. Except for one.
I had never been to the United Nations Headquarters.
Here’s a pro-tip from me: Don’t wait until your fifth visit to New York to go to the UN. It’s far too important an institution for any citizen of this planet to ignore.
The UN has offices in Geneva, Vienna, and Nairobi, but its headquarters are in New York. The UN General Assembly meets here once a year. The UN Security Council also meets here, as often as necessary. Its five permanent members (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) were all members of the Allied Powers during World War II. The Security Council also has ten non-permanent members, who are elected for two-year terms. Canada has served on the Security Council six times since 1945, the last term being from 1999 to 2000.
I learned all this from our Austrian guide. She also told us how the UN Headquarters is designated as international territory. You can feel that, actually, the minute you walk into the building.
The chairperson of the committee that drafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was Eleanor Roosevelt, First Lady of the United States from 1933 to 1945. I’m going to finish this post by quoting what she said on the tenth anniversary of the declaration. Her words are ever so powerful and, given the current inclination towards ultranationalism that seems to be blanketing the globe, they are words we should all strive to live by.
Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home — so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world…. Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerted citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world. — Eleanor Roosevelt
Recipe Box: Ratatouille
When I was flying back from New York the other month, I watched a couple of episodes of Anthony Bourdain’s show Parts Unknown on the plane, including the episode he shot in Newfoundland. (If you haven’t seen it, do. It’s hilarious and oh-so-Canadian.)
A world without Anthony Bourdain is all the poorer, I thought as I looked out my window somewhere over the American Midwest. The celebrity chef, travel writer, and TV personality died six months ago today. I had this sad anniversary in mind while working on my last post about Le Bernardin. Eric Ripert was a close friend of Anthony’s, and he appeared on his shows many, many times. They were together in France, filming an upcoming episode of Parts Unknown, when Anthony died.
The first Anthony Bourdain show I ever watched was an episode he filmed in Provence for No Reservations. My sister had recommended his show to me; I had never heard of the guy and had absolutely no expectations. But I went to YouTube, clicked on the episode — and have been a fan ever since.
One line of dialogue in the episode about Provence always stuck in my memory. Anthony was preparing a meal for his new Provençal friends and he was quite nervous about messing it up. He set his dish of ratatouille down in front of them, they tasted it, nodded politely, and then said, “It’s true that your ratatouille is very handsome.” After much laughter, Anthony asked what he got wrong. They replied, “You didn’t miss anything. It’s just … not a ratatouille.”
I remember laughing out loud at that point. Food is so much a part of the travel experience, and we try our best to replicate what we eat elsewhere when we are back home again, but most of the time we fail. It’s never quite the same. Rewatching the episode now, after the dozens of Anthony Bourdain TV shows I’ve watched since, I marvel at his self-awareness. It’s a rare quality that few celebrities (and, to be honest, men) possess.
A traditional dish from the south of France, ratatouille is essentially stewed vegetables. Like many French dishes, its origins are simple: it was a way for peasants to use what they had readily available in their gardens.
Last summer, I made a lot of ratatouille. It was a very good year for zucchini at my local farmers market and every weekend, I came home with bags of the stuff — all shapes and all sizes. And whenever I saw my sister, I was given bowls of tomatoes and handfuls of basil and thyme from her garden. What better dish to make than ratatouille when you have more fresh vegetables and herbs than you know what to do with?
This recipe is based on several versions, including Anthony’s. Vary the quantities according to your own preferences. I like to use cherry tomatoes, but if you use full-size tomatoes, you probably want to peel and seed them. If your squash are on the larger size, quarter the slices. Make sure your eggplant is on the smaller side as you want each cube to have a bit of the skin. And, most importantly, cook each vegetable separately to help retain their shape and texture.
I’m sure what follows is also “not a ratatouille,” but in my humble opinion it tasted all right.
1 medium red onion, diced
4 garlic cloves, peeled and chopped
1 1/2 cups cherry tomatoes, halved
1 medium eggplant, cubed
1 large red pepper, seeded and diced
2 medium zucchini, sliced
1 yellow zucchini, sliced
several sprigs fresh thyme
one handful fresh basil, shredded
2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar
salt and pepper
1. In a large, high-sided frying pan, heat several splashes of olive oil over medium to medium-high heat. Add the onion and garlic. Cook until soft, then remove from the pan and spread out on a cookie sheet to cool.
2. Wipe out the pan and repeat with the cherry tomatoes. When they are beginning to soften, smush them with the back of a wooden spoon to release their juices. Cook a little bit longer, then season with salt and pepper. Transfer them to the cookie sheet, keeping them separate from the onions and garlic.
3. Repeat with the remaining vegetables, wiping out the pan, seasoning with salt and pepper, and transferring to the cookie sheet each time.
4. When all the vegetables have cooled to room temperature, combine them in a large mixing bowl. Add the thyme, basil, and balsamic vinegar, and adjust seasoning if necessary. Let the mixture sit at room temperature for 3 or 4 hours before serving to let the flavours blend. Serve reheated or at room temperature.
Dishing: Le Bernardin
While in New York the other month, my sister and I treated ourselves to lunch at Le Bernardin. This New York institution has maintained its three Michelin stars for the past 14 years and, just last week, it was named the world’s best restaurant by La Liste, a Paris-based ratings organization.
The world’s best.
Hee. It was quite the lunch.
Le Bernardin specializes in seafood, which seems like a natural choice given that the restaurant’s founders, Gilbert and Maguy Le Coze, grew up in Brittany, on the French coast. This brother and sister opened their first restaurant in Paris in 1972, calling it Les Moines de St. Bernardin after a song their restaurateur father used to sing about an order of monks who loved to eat and drink. When Gilbert and Maguy moved to New York in 1986, they simplified the name of their new restaurant to Le Bernardin.
Eric Ripert, who was only 26 when he joined the restaurant in 1991 as Chef de Cuisine, took over as Executive Chef after Gilbert’s sudden death in 1994. He is now a partner in the restaurant. When I got home from New York, I read Eric Ripert’s book, On the Line, which describes the inner workings of the restaurant. Want to know what I learned?
Le Bernardin is a machine.
In order to serve some 1200 dishes every day, 800 pounds of fish are delivered first thing in the morning. All of it is butchered on site — a process that takes six hours. To make 240 sauces each week, the restaurant goes through, per day, 10 pounds of shallots, 5 pounds of garlic, 10 pounds of ginger, and 30 pounds of butter.
(Thirty pounds of butter!?!!)
One neat thing about Le Bernardin, by the way, is that the day’s leftover food is donated to City Harvest, an organization that feeds one million New Yorkers each year.
Le Bernardin is on the ground level of a non-descript office building in Midtown Manhattan with screens hiding the interior from the street. If you didn’t know where to go, you wouldn’t know it was there. But once you are inside, it’s as if you’ve entered another world.
The service was seamless. We lost count, but my sister and I think there were at least seven people waiting on us. And because all staff are full-time, there are no actors moonlighting as servers at Le Bernardin. Instead, you are surrounded by professionals.
The menu consists of three parts: Almost Raw, Barely Touched, and Lightly Cooked. For the three-course prix fixe that my sister and I ordered, we were instructed to order one dish from the left side of the menu (Almost Raw and Barely Touched) and one dish from the right side of the menu (Lightly Cooked). I had Barely Cooked Scallop with Sea Beans and Bonito Butter Sauce and Pan Roasted Merluza with Stuffed Zucchini Flowers and Brazilian Shrimp Moqueca Sauce.
I apologize for the lack of photos. I was too overwhelmed with what I was seeing and tasting to pull out my camera.
When it came to my third course, however, there was no question that I had to document the moment. This is a Golden Hazelnut Sphere with Frangelico Mousse and Praline Ice Cream.
Yes, that is gold leaf on the hazelnut sphere.
I don’t know if New York’s streets are paved with gold, but this I do know: its pastries sure are.
Christmas at the Met
It’s December tomorrow.
Seriously, how is it possible that Christmas is just around the corner??
My last post was about New York, so today I’m posting again about that city. Here is a photo I took when I was at the Metropolitan Museum of Art two years ago to check out their Christmas tree. This is an annual display in the Met’s Medieval Sculpture Hall. Surrounding the tree are figurines from a Neapolitan Crèche dating from the Baroque era. The detail of these figurines is exquisite.
New York at Christmas time is magical — almost (but not quite!) as magical as Paris. Two of my closest friends are in New York this weekend, taking in the Christmas spirit, and I’m so pleased they get to experience the magic for themselves.
Everybody should, at least once.
Through My Lens: Empire State Building From the High Line
A month ago today (a month? already??), I flew home from New York City. Here’s a photo I took from the High Line while I was there.
I love visiting New York. It’s one of those cities I return to every chance I get because there’s just no place like it. New York has all the energy. All the energy.
I was surprised when I stopped to count and realized this last visit was my fifth time in the Big Apple. What was also a bit of a surprise — when I stopped to think about it — was that it took five visits to make me realize that New York is not an easy place to live.
I guess I’ve never stopped to think about how, in New York, you do the kind of things that make up a life. Like where you buy your groceries. Where you walk your dog. How you cope with a minuscule apartment (because apartments in Manhattan are ti-neeee!). Or how far you might have to commute when you work in Manhattan but can’t afford to live there.
That’s not to say the Canadian cities I know best (namely, Vancouver and Toronto) don’t have their problems. But as I rode the A train all the way from Manhattan to JFK to catch my flight home, it hit me that all those exhausted faces I was looking at had to ride that overcrowded train every single day.
I won’t describe my week in New York as relaxing — New York is never relaxing when you’re trying to squeeze in as many museums and performances and restaurants as possible. But it was a good break from my work and my life.
As all weeks away should be.