When I have fears that I may cease to be
Before my pen has gleaned my teeming brain,
Before high-piled books, in charactery,
Hold like rich garners the full ripened grain;
When I behold, upon the night’s starred face,
Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance,
And think that I may never live to trace
Their shadows with the magic hand of chance;
And when I feel, fair creature of an hour,
That I shall never look upon thee more,
Never have relish in the faery power
Of unreflecting love; — then on the shore
Of the wide world I stand alone, and think
Till love and fame to nothingness do sink.
— John Keats
Back when I was a child (no, really — I was still in my teens), I took a course on the English Romantic poets. The first semester was all about William Blake and the Lake Poets (Coleridge and Wordsworth, among others). The poets known as the Late Romantics— Byron, Shelley, and Keats — took up the second semester.
It was a challenging course; in her feedback to a paper I wrote on Keats, my professor gently suggested I was perhaps more inclined towards studying history than literature. (She was right.)
But those young poets never left me, in their way, and so, less than a year later, I found myself wandering through a Roman cemetery looking for John Keats’ headstone. He died of consumption — what we now know as tuberculosis — on February 23, 1821. Like so many ex-pats in Rome, he was buried in the Protestant Cemetery. Unlike most people, he insisted his headstone not bear his name, but rather “Here lies One Whose Name was writ in Water.”
On that same visit to Rome, I also visited the Keats–Shelley Memorial House beside the Spanish Steps. It’s the house on the far right in the next photo. It was sobering to see where Keats died, but also thrilling to see the incarnation of my entire Romantic poetry course in three rooms.
I stopped by the Keats House in Hampstead, in the north part of London, on my next trip overseas. Hampstead Heath, a marvelous open space of almost 800 acres that beckons when you are museumed out, lies just behind the house.
Since I keep bumping into Keats on my travels, I thought it only right that I acknowledge the 200th anniversary of his death.
But back to the Romantic poetry course that started it all for me. One morning, my prof began class by asking who among us had life insurance. Her point was how unusual it was for someone as young as Keats to be so aware of his own mortality.
Unusual, but understandable. Keats lost both parents before he was grown and then watched his younger brother die of tuberculosis. He had also trained as a doctor. By his early twenties, Keats had seen far more death and dying than most of us will see in a lifetime. His sense of how fleeting life is inspired him to write poems like the sonnet I started this post with, which he wrote a month after his brother died.
More death and dying than most of us will see in a lifetime — that, of course, refers to those of us who will live through this pandemic more or less unscathed. And those of us who do, have far more privilege than most.
Once again, we are in the Season of Lent and, once again, I’m taking you on a tour of churches I’ve photographed. This year, it’s Belgium’s turn.
For the First Sunday of Lent, here is a photo of Sint-Salvatorskathedraal (Saint Saviour’s Cathedral) in Brugge. A church has stood on this site since 646, making it the oldest church in Brugge. Parts of the current structure date back to 1275.
My hotel was across the street from this magnificent building. Sadly, I didn’t have the foresight to book a room with a view.
Next time, then.
Remember when I said I was going to stop writing about the weather? And the pandemic?
This was a tough weekend for some folks. Today is Family Day, a statutory holiday celebrated in about half of the country. This year it came right on the heels of Valentine’s Day and the Lunar New Year. Which means those of us who are inclined to get together with loved ones on any of these occasions have been three times tested in our resolve to follow the provincial health orders. Here in BC, we are now into our fourth month of in-person social gatherings being limited to the people we live with.
Also, come mid-February, most Canadians are utterly sick of winter. This is the time when those of us who can start escaping to the sun. But, with current travel restrictions, trips south just are not happening this winter.
So, yeah, that.
I, on the other hand, had so much to celebrate this weekend. Yes, my long-awaited snowfall finally showed up, thanks to the polar vortex. I woke up to a winter wonderland on Saturday morning and spent much of the day in Narnia (aka Stanley Park).
The snow is already gone, alas, washed away by last night’s rainfall. But for this Canadian, who loves snow but lives in a place where it is a novelty, it was a good weekend.
Here, take a look.
My weekend in Barcelona was one of those rare trips where I had next-to-no time for planning. It came about because I was whining to a friend about having no idea of where to go or what to do with the vacation time I had to use or lose, to which she sweetly responded by inviting me to join her in Barcelona. Before I knew what was happening, we were soaking up the Mediterranean sun together.
And so, when my friend suggested we start off the weekend with a self-guided walking tour she’d found in the guide book I’d purchased but not yet cracked open, I was all for it.
The tour was called the Modernisme Circuit and I had absolutely no expectations. Which is probably why I was so taken aback by my first few hours in Barcelona.
See, there was this Catalan architect. Antoni Gaudí was his name and he is at the heart of what makes Barcelona so unique. I had never heard of the guy, but as my friend and I walked from one Gaudí-designed building to the next, our mouths were agape. And I couldn’t stop taking photos, of course.
Gaudí’s designs were deeply influenced by his love of the natural world. There are no straight lines on his buildings. Like this one.
A large family home, Casa Batlló was built in 1877. In 1904, its new owner hired Gaudí to tear it down and build another, but Gaudí said no. He would remodel it instead. This is the result.
Casa Milà was another private commission. It was built between 1905 and 1910.
As I wrote above, Gaudí was deeply influenced by the natural world. Storks (the real ones) on rooftops are a common sight in Spain.
One of Gaudí’s best patrons was a Catalan industrialist named Eusebi Güell. He commissioned several buildings in and around Barcelona, including the elaborate Park Güell, which opened in 1926. My friend and I spent several hours wandering around this spectacular park.
Upon his graduation from architecture school, it has been said that Gaudí was told, “Who knows if we have given a diploma to a nutcase or a genius? Time will tell.”
Genius, I’m thinking.
Well, here we are. Still in the thick of the Long Winter (aka the second wave). Although the early daffodils have started blooming in Vancouver, I’m far more excited about tonight’s forecast calling for snow. Just, you know, to shake things up a bit. (It has been a snowless and very rainy winter for me so far.)
I was thinking that I also need to shake things up a bit on this blog. A travel-related topic to focus on would go a long ways to stop me from writing about the weather (ahem) or this year’s obsession (the pandemic).
And so, to that end, I’m going to concentrate on Spain for the next little while. I’ve always meant to write about this fascinating country, but somehow it kept getting pushed aside due to other, more recent, travel stories. Since none of us are going anywhere at the moment, it’s the perfect opportunity to move it to the top of my list.
My first visit to Spain was a weekend in Barcelona. Even as short as it was, my friend and I managed to fit in a lot. Lots of sightseeing, lots of great food, lots of good wine, and even lots of shopping.
Here is the Plaça Reial (Royal Plaza), just off La Rambla in the heart of Barcelona’s Barri Gòtic (Gothic Quarter).
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
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the winter I spent in Paris. Although I was on my own, ironically for being in a city so far from home, I had way more face-to-face contact with friends and family than I’ve had this winter. That is not something I ever thought I would say.
Not everyone enjoys travelling on their own. I really enjoy the trips I take with other people, even when they require a lot of compromise. On the other hand, if I limited my travel to the trips that suit the interests and schedules of my friends or family — well, I’d be giving up a lot of opportunities.
And so, I do a lot of solo travel. I’ve learned a few tricks over the years to help me be comfortable (and safe) when on my own in a foreign country.
But if there’s one thing I’ve learned this year, it is this: if you can handle the solitude of living alone during a pandemic, you will thrive at solo travel.
So. Here we are. The last day of the wildest, craziest year I’ve personally ever experienced.
You know what were the last words I wrote on this blog in 2019?
“May we all see more of the light in 2020.”
Ha. What a sweet, summer child I was a year ago.
So many strange words are part of our vernacular now. Physical distancing. Lockdown. Bend the curve. Quarantine. Bubble. Circuit breaker. Phase 2. Red zone. Tier 4.
One word I never want to hear again?
This is a travel blog, but, like everyone else, I’ve stayed still this year. But here’s something I’ve learned while bird-watching: it is only when you stay still that you really hear the bird song.
This assortment of boats on English Bay is my photo choice for my last post of 2020 because it illustrates something that British Columbia’s Provincial Health Officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry, said at a press conference a lifetime ago way back in May.
We’re in the same storm, but we’re not in the same boat. For some people, it’s been a luxury yacht, and for others we’re really an open skiff adrift without a working engine.”
Despite my naive wish a year ago that we put a miserable 2019 well behind us and all my hopes for a much better 2020, I will still, in faith and in hope, wish all of us a happy new year and all the best for 2021, whatever that may bring. May your seas remain calm, may your boat stay afloat, and may we all hear the bird song.
This is Eugenia, another of the sculptures that light up English Bay this time of year. She’s named for Eugenia Place, an iconic condo building along Beach Avenue that stands out because of the oak tree that stands tall on its roof deck.
This Eugenia changes colour from white to green to blue to pink to white again, but I think she looks most spectacular dressed in white.