Category: Travel

Excursions from Dawson City

As the heart of the Klondike, Dawson City has numerous attractions which relate to its history as an Indigenous centre and as the site of the l898-1899 gold rush. The town itself is a national park and well worth a visit. I have discussed these in two earlier posts: Life in Dawson City, and Greetings From Dawson City, Yukon.

Apart from its history, Dawson City is the jumping-off spot for at least two excursions which can be most memorable day trips. Both trips take the visitor to some of the most fabulous vistas in the Yukon and suggest the need for more time to explore further.

The first trip we did was over the “top of the world” highway to the Alaska border, 105 kilometres west of Dawson. After crossing the Yukon River on the free ferry (which runs 24/7 during the summer months), the road mounts to the tops of the mountains south and west of Dawson. In 2004, when we visited Dawson during a major forest fire, we saw nothing on the highway but smoke. This time, we had dramatic views of the Yukon River, lush valleys, and what seem like endless mountains beyond. As we mounted above the tree line, the vistas became even more breath-taking. To say we were “on top of the world” is no exaggeration.

After the border crossing, we continued to the tiny hamlet of Chicken, famous for its “public gold panning areas” and as the locale where 19-year-old schoolteacher Anne Hobbs, in 1927, came to find adventure in a one-room schoolhouse. Tisha: The Story of a Young Teacher in the Alaskan Wilderness (published originally in l976 and still available) recounts her classic memoir of love, rejection, and ultimate acceptance in the wilderness. It is a marvellous story which sticks with you. Like so many such stories, it is hard to imagine the life she must have led. Beyond Chicken, the visitor can drive another 78 kilometres to Tok, Alaska, the first major Alaskan community on the well-travelled Alaska Highway, and, from there, south to Haines Junction, Yukon or west to Fairbanks, Alaska.

Another excursion we did was up the Dempster Highway to Tombstone Park, which, in l972, was named a UNESCO heritage site of “exceptional biological importance.” The Dempster Highway stretches 735 kilometres from near Dawson City, Yukon to Inuvik in the Mackenzie River Delta of the Northwest Territories. It is the only Canadian road that crosses the Arctic Circle. Completed in 1979, It passes through six distinct geographic regions, each very different, all equally interesting and breathtakingly beautiful.

Much of the Dempster lies within Beringia, a broad stretch of land from Siberia to the Northwest Territories which was unglaciated during the last North American glacial period and was the home of many exotic animals which have since become extinct. It has also been the home of Indigenous peoples who have hunted and traded in the area ever since. Although the Canadian government built the highway expecting it to be a “road to resources,” it is used now primarily for transportation to the Northwest Territories, for Indigenous hunting, and for tourism.

Tombstone Territorial Park is called Ddhäl Ch’él Cha Nän (or “ragged mountain land”) by the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in who agreed in their land claims to this part of their traditional territory becoming a park. The rugged mountain tops looming above the forest and tundra of the valleys below are spectacularly dramatic. Hikers and climbers must be experienced and well-equipped to climb into these mountains successfully.

The Tombstone Interpretive Centre, located at kilometre 71.5 of the highway, provides information and activities about the cultural and natural history of the park and the highway, mid-May to mid-September. Nearby, the Tombstone Mountain Campground offers car camping with fire pits, picnic tables, outhouses, water, and a picnic shelter. Several back-country campgrounds on lakes are also available. Visitors have a choice of six hiking trails from 0.5 kilometre to up to 19 kilometres in length, and ranging in difficulty.

Driving the Dempster is an exhilarating experience, especially in good weather when the mountains and tundra stand stark against the horizon and the vistas go on forever. The diversity of habitats along the highway encourages a tremendous variety of plants so that wildflowers are rich and vibrant throughout the growing season. When we were there, the fireweed was rampant as was the Arctic cotton, which my friend harvests for her art projects. My bucket list now includes a trip up the Dempster in late August-early September when the flowers are in greatest profusion.

Seeing animals in the wild is a matter of luck, which is a rare and exciting experience. In the spring and fall, one of the world’s largest herds of barren-ground caribou (197,000 as of 2013) travels through the Ogilvie and the Richardson Mountains (at the north of the Dempster) on their annual migration to and from their calving grounds on the Arctic coastal plain. The caribou of the smaller Fortymile herd and the mountain caribou of the Hart River Herd (some 2,600 animals) sometimes winter further south. Bears may be seen, and moose, Dall’s sheep, wolves, and numerous smaller mammals. To spot the animals takes time, knowledge of where they might be, and luck to be in the right place at the right time.

For a comprehensive, beautifully-illustrated description of the Dempster Highway, its geography, history, flora, fauna, and climate, see The Dempster, published in 2017 for the Friends of the Dempster Country Society, email: friendsofdempster@gmail.com.

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The Dawson City Music Festival

Are music festivals on the wane? That the 50th anniversary concert celebrating the Woodstock Music Festival may not happen has led some commentators to conclude that summer music festivals may be no more. Music festivals epitomized the energy and buoyancy of the ’60s and have long returned across the country each summer, drawing enthusiasts for musical experiences in the open air. Some have come and gone. Others continue with no apparent loss of enthusiasm.

One such festival is the Dawson City Music Festival, this year in its 41st annual incarnation. Over the years, almost all the young members of my family have attended the Dawson City Music Festival, using it as an excuse to visit the Yukon and perhaps to canoe the Yukon River. My sister volunteers her beautiful log house on Eighth Avenue as the venue for the Music Festival after-party where the artists, techies, and volunteers gather for an all-night celebration. The Dawson City Music Festival was on my bucket list. This year, we decided to take it in.

The Main Stage of the Music Festival was in Minto Park where a massive tent shared space with a beer garden and Emerging Artists stage, a children’s playground and numerous food carts offering a surprising array of ethnic food. Other venues were the Dänojà Zho Cultural Centre (Long Time Ago House) the home of the local Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in First Nation, St. Paul’s Anglican Church constructed originally in 1902, and the Palace Grand Theatre which has been providing entertainments since 1899.

Old and as uninformed about modern music as we are, we knew none of the musicians. At the Main Stage concerts and at a couple of workshops, we heard only some of them. We particularly liked The Jerry Cans from Iqaluit who use Inuit throat singing and the Indigenous language of Inuktitut in their folk-rock repertoire, Ryan McNally and The MessaRounders (from Whitehorse) who are known for their blues, jazz and old-time music, and Major Funk and the Employment who use their horns and big vocals to play very danceable music.

I also particularly liked the Orkestar Kriminal, a group of five women and five men, who come from Montreal. They play unique instruments (among others, the sousaphone, trombone, saxophone, bouzouki, baglama, piccolo, accordion, and flute) and sing in Yiddish, Russian, Greek, Spanish, and Pashto. Their songs focus on international experiences of crime and prison. In addition to their Main Stage show, they played a concert at the historic Commissioner’s Mansion as part of the very popular Music Crawl which started at the Robert Service cabin, moved to the Commissioner’s Residence, then to the banks of the river, and then to the S.S. Keno.

We could not attend more than a little of the entire festival. What impressed us was the extent to which the best of the musicians got the audience involved. Both on Saturday and Sunday nights, we were amazed to see the floor of the Main Stage tent fill with hundreds of dancers of all ages; children, young people, old people, singletons, apparent drifters. It seemed that everyone there was dancing. And they went on and on. It was a great party.

On Sunday night, the after-party continued in my sister’s house and backyard. There, it was great fun to meet the musicians and the volunteers and to listen to Ryan McNally sing and play in her greenhouse. Altogether a most memorable event.

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The Theatre Under the Stars

No theatre experience is more engaging than when it takes place during the summer in the open air at Stanley Park in Vancouver. Malkin Bowl, near the Stanley Park Pavilion and the rose garden, has been the site of musicals presented since l940 by the Theatre Under the Stars (TUTS). Apart from the quality of the theatre, the fading daylight, singing birds, the scent of the evergreens and the sound of the nine o’clock gun render the site sublime

A community theatre, TUTS is dependent on volunteers, staffed with only a few paid professionals. It provides invaluable experience for the young performers who are part of the cast. Their energy and enthusiasm is contagious. This is particularly so in their production of Disney’s Newsies which we attended on Sunday night and which is currently alternating with Mama Mia.

Based on the 1992 musical film Newsies, redone as a musical which debuted on Broadway in 2012, Newsies tells Disney’s version of the real-life story of the strike by newsboys who sold newspapers in New York City in l899. The strike was prompted by the decision of Joseph Pulitzer, owner of the New York World, to raise the price of the “papes” he charges to the newsies who sell his papers.

It is a delightful musical with a compelling story that illustrates the evolution of labour-management issues, and with believable characters who draw us into the complexity of their responses. The range of music is appealing and the choreography utterly fantastic. Director and Choreographer, Toronto-based Julie Tomaino, and Music Director, Christopher King, have produced a delight which I highly recommend.

All the cast members were strong. Adam Charles plays the charismatic leader of the strike, Jack Kelly; Cole Smuland, his friend Crutchie with a disabled leg; Julia Ullrich, the reporter Katherine; Daniel Curalli, the “brains” of the strike; and Jordyn Bennett, his younger brother. The two latter characters are the only Newsies with parents. Equally impressive was the ensemble of dancers.

On Sunday’s performance, we sat beside the mother of one of the ensemble, Haley Allen. The young actor comes from Smithers and is a recent graduate of the Musical Theatre Program at Capilano University. She is like many of the cast who have come through that program. Haley’s mother told us how excited her daughter is by the opportunity to perform every second night for six weeks, and to bond with the cast who have become her friends. As I had learned a little about her, I watched Haley with particular interest as she sang, danced, and performed mind-blowing gymnastic tumbles and jumps. Her talent is evident, as is that of all those who shared the stage with her. Clearly, their personal bonding is reflected in the strength of the collective.

Jerry Wasserman of the Vancouver Sun, in his review headlined “Fabulous Dancing, with Politics by Disney” (The Vancouver Sun, July 13, 2019) wrote that “this production… feels at first like Les Mis, then Les Mis crossed with Annie for the Disney Channel… a stirring story with a feeble ending that lets the nasty capitalists off the hook.” He concludes that “Director Julie Tomaino’s muscular, athletic choreography… reveal(s) as much about the spunk of these downtrodden orphan kids as their political resistance does.” He notes also that “the elaborate fights” directed by Michael Kovac and Ryan McNell Bolton, “that mesh nicely with Tomaino’s energetic choreography… drive the show.” Andrea Warner in The Georgia Straight (July 25-August 1, 2019) writes that “Newsies charms with heart” and “some of the most epic and impressive dance numbers in the company’s history.” It’s an amazing show which left us feeling warm and wonderful. Musical theatre at its best.

***** TUTS has just announced an extension of the 2019 season to August 24th.

 

 

 

 

 

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An Excursion to Giverny

Giverny is near the Seine River, a drive of an hour and a half northwest of Paris, close to Vernon. In 1883, impressionist painter Claude Monet moved there to live as a tenant with his children and the family of Alice Hoschedé whom he later married. There he began to plant the first of the two gardens which came to inspire his painting. A decade later, he bought the property and began construction of the lily pond which became the subject of thousands of paintings including the eight massive Water Lilies (Les Nymphéas) painted at Giverny and, after his death in 1926, installed in L’Orangerie in Paris. The paintings evoke changes in nature during the day and throughout the year and are considered a significant contribution to the evolution of modern abstract art.

His son Michel Monet bequeathed his family home and gardens at Giverny to the Académie des Beaux-Arts on his death in l966. Restoration of the home and gardens began in 1977 under the direction of Gerald van der Kemp who had previous experience renewing Versailles. In l980, they were opened to the public and the Fondation Claude Monet was established. Given the impact of the Water Lilies paintings, it is little wonder that the house and gardens at Giverny have become a very popular tourist destination, attracting over 600,000 visitors every year.

We were warned that Giverny would be crowded. It was, but friends had discovered a self-guided tour offered by Paris City Vision that would take us there and back by bus and, most important, ensure that we had a “group entrance” to the house and gardens. The “group entrance” meant we avoided the long line of individual visitors waiting to enter. We were able to enjoy the gardens and the house for as long as we wanted, at our own speed. As our time was our own, we spent the rest of the day indulging in a delectable meal at a very friendly and accommodating restaurant. On our return to Paris, the bus drove along the right bank of the Seine and gave us final views of the river and many of its attractions.

As someone who plays with gardening and enjoys photography, I found our visit to Giverny positively exhilarating. The present-day gardens have been planted “in the spirit of Monet,” an idealized version based, among other things, on records of seed orders found in the archives and on Monet’s many paintings of the gardens. Numerous planting schemes create a palette of bright colours which change with the seasons. In the summer, the roses, nasturtiums, lavender, lilies, irises, clematis, tulips, a range of perennials and annuals, take the breath away. By contrast, the greens and accent colours of the lily ponds, the Japanese bridge, the groves of bamboo, the weeping willows, and the reflections in the water induce a serenity which invites rest and contemplation. I would gladly return to the gardens again and in other seasons.

As for the house, I loved the Japanese prints and the other artworks on the walls (most, copies of originals hanging elsewhere), his bright yellow dining room, and the kitchen with its blue and white tiles, fireplace, copper pots, and massive stove. Claude Monet was a very successful artist who lived a long life, had influential friends, and was able to enjoy the fruits of his talents. The restoration of his family bequests will ensure that Giverny attracts visitors in perpetuity. Theirs is a gift to cherish.

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Tales from Charles de Gaulle Airport

During our recent trip to Paris, we had occasion to spend three nights at a hotel near Charles de Gaulle Airport. It was an interesting experience.

The hotel, the Innside by Melia, was pleasant enough, but not one I would recommend. The staff were friendly and helpful, but the hotel was not as well-located as it made out. The television and air conditioning did not work in the first room they put us into, and we had to change rooms. The service for multi-nights was deficient. Most important, there were problems with my credit card which were the fault of the hotel and their booking agent, booking.com, which may cost me unnecessary international telephone charges.

When I connected to the WiFi in our first room, I found an email from the hotel to the effect that my credit card had bounced and I had two hours to correct the situation. I knew that this was a mistake. When I had booked the hotel the previous week, CIBC had sent me a text asking that I confirm (Y) or not (N) a booking charge they had received from booking.com for prepayment of the room. I confirmed the payment and received another text telling me to go ahead with the transaction. I emailed booking.com on the Thursday to explain the situation and ensure that the room was confirmed. The following Monday, I checked in without a problem and, an hour later, received the nasty email from the hotel.

I texted CIBC. I then tried to call Canada to correct the situation. I called the number on the back of my credit card for calls from outside Canada and the United States. That number did not work. At first, I couldn’t get beyond the French telephone system. Then I got a message to the effect that, outside the USA, this call would cost $2.00 per minute, did I want to continue? I continued to hold, got my credit card balance, the date of my last payment, the minimum payment due at the end of July, etc., etc., but no person to deal with my problem nor to confirm that my call to CIBC would be “collect.” I ultimately hung up in utter frustration. I then noticed that there was a text on my smart phone from CIBC giving me yet another number to call.

By this time, the defects with our tv and air conditioning had become apparent. The staff person who moved us to another room then explained that my credit card was indeed okay, and that “there had been a miscommunication between booking.com and the hotel.” Gee, thanks. It would have been nice to have received an email from the hotel to that effect an hour earlier.

To escape the near-heart-attack anger I had experienced over the telephone, I decided to do a little recce. The staff said that the shuttle to CDG was just out the door, turn right and walk about five minutes to the CDGVAL, a train which links the three terminals and the parking lots at the airport. I followed the instructions, then the signs. After what seemed to be a very long time, I found the CDGVAL train which took me to Terminal 3 Roissypole.

Terminal 3 was spacious and roomy, cool and comfortable, totally upbeat. I found a bank of RER kiosks to purchase RER tickets and passes, with the help of a friendly, English-speaking team attached to an information desk. They provided me with all the information I needed.

Opposite the entrance to the RER was a good-sized Marks & Spencer. When I canvassed their stock, I realized that we could buy all that we needed for supper and breakfast, and we need not spend a single extra cent at our hotel. The problem was how to get the groceries (and the wine) back to the hotel. There was a bus shuttle that served some hotels at the airport, but not ours. I would have to walk back or take a taxi. The RER Information team told me where to find taxis.

Outside a nearby door, I met a group of Algerian-French taxi drivers sitting on a bench, their cars in a queue waiting for passengers. They had time to kill. I asked their stories, and they told me where they came from, how long they had been in France, and how they came to be there. We talked about Uber and how it was a threat to their business. I told them that I was from Canada, had once hitch-hiked across North Africa, and that I was the first anglophone to teach senior level English at the Normal School in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. One driver gave me three euros for the thirty ten-centime pieces that weighed down my wallet. Another told me about when he had once been to Canada. We had the most delightful time. Before I knew it, thirty minutes had passed and it was time to move on. I went back to M&S, bought my groceries and returned to get a cab. The “supervisor” of the taxi drivers agreed to drive me to our hotel for 14 euros. I felt that I had made a friend.

The next day, we walked to the CDGVAL shuttle station. Early in the morning, we discovered that the distance was not as far as it had seemed the night before. We then took the CDGVAL train shuttle to Terminal 1 to find the gate we would need for our return flight. For the heck of it, we also took the CDGVAL to Terminal 2 to see where most Air Canada flights depart. The train is very efficient, comfortable and frequent, but we realized that it would be difficult if we were loaded down with luggage. We decided that we would need a taxi to pick us up at our hotel and take us to Terminal 1. That’s ultimately what we did. The short drive from the hotel pickup to Terminal 1 on the last morning cost 20 euros.

I add the prices because there are now standardized rates imposed on taxis taking people to downtown Paris from Charles de Gaulle airport: 50 euros to the right bank, 55 euros to the left bank. Clearly, the taxis doing short runs at the airport are charging a premium.

I had asked my Algerian-French taxi driver friend what restaurant he would recommend at the airport. He suggested the buffet on the ground floor of the Ibis hotel in Terminal 3. We found the buffet only a few steps away from M&S. The meal was excellent, and the price perfectly reasonable. We ate so well at lunch that we needed nothing for dinner. The next time I want a hotel at CDG, I will book at this Ibis.

Returning to our hotel after the lovely meal at the Ibis was painless. Our hotel may have been the most distant of the “local” hotels, but with no baggage or groceries, it was a nice walk. The next day, we took an excursion to Giverny (see next post), returned to M&S that evening for more groceries, and then took another taxi back to our hotel. As the airport was busier at that hour, the taxi queue was longer and no one was keen to leave the queue for a short run. The drivers now quoted 20 euros for a run to our hotel. One who had been part of my conversation a couple of days before offered to do it for 15 and we went with him. I felt like I was a Charles de Gaulle “local.”

 

 

 

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Paris Thirty Years On

It’s been thirty years since we were last in Paris for any length of time. For all the eternal verities of the old monuments, museums, and traditional street scenes, the changes are striking. Apart from the update on the public transit system which I discussed in my last post, there is a new atmosphere in the city which illustrates the dynamism of the city.

What is most engaging is an apparently all-pervasive new interest among the French in speaking English. When I visited Paris as a student in the ’50s – ’70s, the French had a reputation for being unfriendly to visitors. They proudly spoke French and expected everyone else to do so as well. At one time, the French government actually ran a poster campaign encouraging their citizens to “be friendly” to visitors. Today, no such campaign is required.

Although my husband and I speak French, if not with a great accent, we both found this trip that everyone we talked to shifted into English the moment they heard our accent. Shopkeepers in all the local stores and in the department stores, bus drivers, security guards, “volunteers” in the subway, staff at the museums, other travellers on the buses or the Métro, people in the laundromat, all took the opportunity to speak English, even when their English may have been more limited than our French. Sometimes, when their English was in fact quite good or they had travelled in Canada or the United States, they would engage in long conversations.

Apparently, a new generation of French started learning English in grade school, studied the language for three or four years at least, and they are eager to practice what they remember. Many told us that they learned English because of the movies, music, and the media. Their enthusiasm for the language seems to reflect a new openness to engaging with visitors which we had not experienced before.

It seems ironic that, just as the French are embracing English as the principal means of communication in the world, the English are threatening Brexit. The British may not want to participate in the European Union, but the French at least have now adopted English. It’s a major victory for the English language which the Brits are spurning.

Another change is the all-pervasive use of credit cards and smartphones. Everybody pays for everything using bank cards. Tickets for public transit, groceries in the supermarkets, purchases in local stores, entries to the movie theatre, theatres and museums, restaurants and brasseries all prefer payment by bank card. To buy stamps for postcards, I had to use a machine at the local post office and use my bank card to pay for each 1.8 Euro stamp. Ordering tickets for the symphony or for museums presupposes that payment will be by bank card and that a smartphone can be used to show email copies of the tickets on entry. Our Canadian bank occasionally rejects purchases I have made on Visa and sends me a text seeking confirmation that the particular purchase is okay. Without a smartphone, I could not get the text. My husband, who has always resisted using smartphones, now realizes that having a smartphone, and knowing how to use it, have become necessities for contemporary travel.

The diversity of people in Paris is also evident. Public transit is full of people of all races, colours, and creeds from all over the world. There are so many tourists in Paris from Japan, China, and Korea that Asian languages are seen everywhere. And “ethnic” restaurants are proliferating in Paris as much as in Toronto. We discovered several small Asian restaurants which served delicious fare, were inexpensive and extremely friendly. Apart from McDonald’s and other North American chains, Marks & Spencer has many stores in the city, large and small, selling finely-prepared food which is reasonably priced, can be heated on the spot or eaten cold and is popular with tourists and locals alike. The busy Marks & Spencer at Terminal 3 of Charles De Gaulle airport is an outstanding example which we used often to provision informal dinners for our room at the airport. I wonder what will happen to M&S post-Brexit?

Another new development in Paris is the vast expansion of public greenery which now prevails in the city. In the past, open spaces were covered with gravel and sand. If there was grass, it was formal, considered decorative and people were forbidden to walk on it. Now, children play on the lawns at the Parc Montsouris and other such parks, and families picnic. The small open space just up the street from our apartment, now called Place des Droits de l’Enfant, sports trees, benches and public art. René Coty is a lovely boulevard nearby which runs from the Parc Montsouris to Denfert-Rochereau and onto the Boulevard Raspail. In the centre of this wide boulevard, tall trees now line a sidewalk on both sides, encouraging the public to walk in the shade. It is a beautiful street which has enhanced the quality of the neighbourhood enormously. The Paris City Council promotes these initiatives as part of their public policy priority favouring the greenification of public spaces.

There are several new attractions in Paris which warrant the attention of visitors. The Paris Symphony has built a striking new Philharmonic Hall at La Villette in the northeast of the city which opened in January 2015. The architecture is highly controversial, but the concert hall itself, the Grand Salle Pierre Boulez, seats 2400, all arranged around the orchestra which is placed in the centre. As everyone is seated so close to the maestro and can see the orchestra as it goes about its work, the intimacy of the concert is amazing. With excellent acoustics, the yellow, orange, and cream colours of the undulating lines of the room add to the glow of the music. The Institut du Monde Arabe is another new museum with breathtaking architecture, excellent amenities for seniors, and an emerging collection. In addition to the permanent historical and archaeological exhibits, a current exhibition shows art from contemporary artists from all over the Arab world, work we would not normally see. Another exhibition, called Foot et Monde Arabe, features Arab football players and teams that have been famous over time. Included are the Jordanian Women’s Football Team, and a presentation on playing football in Palestine under current conditions. The renovated Musée Picasso is utterly beautiful, with modern elevators, places to sit, and an innovative exhibition of Picasso’s lesser-known earlier work, and an exciting current exhibition comparing Picasso with mobile sculptor Alexander Calder. Clearly, there is much to see in Paris.

***** Thanks to Tim and Judith for their input.

 

 

 

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Mastering the Paris Transit System

The highlight of our recent visit to Paris was, for me at least, two bus rides I took towards the end of our five-week trip. As a student in Paris over fifty years ago (is it really fifty years?), the Paris subway system seemed marvellously extensive and, to my mind, had to be one of the best in the world. Then, it was so easy, and I took it for granted.

Not this trip. This time, I found that using Paris public transit in my mid-seventies was a significant challenge and a disturbing mark of my aging. As the weeks of our visit passed, my mood was affected by my reaction to Parisian public transit. I found myself dreaming about crowded buses and endless trips on the Métro. And thinking that this city was too big for me.

Unlike in Toronto (where public transit has become child’s play for politicians, sabotaged by years of political interference), public transit in a truly world-class city like Paris is a rapidly expanding complex venture which is constantly changing and appears to be based on a rational assessment of public needs. In Paris, now, there are 16 Métro subway lines, five RER rapid transit train lines, two trams, and endless bus routes. All snake across the city, intersect at some stations but not at others, and are accessible using some tickets but not others. All are well-used. Learning how this system works and how to use it safely is a major challenge.

We initially decided to use the buses which ran up a major street not far from our 14th Arrondissement apartment. We know that buses are slow, subject to the congestion of the streets, and often crowded. But they seemed to go more or less directly to places that we wanted to visit. And since we were visitors with no particular deadlines, when we arrived was of little concern, and we could enjoy the sight-seeing en route.

Alas, different buses on the same street have different stops, and the official schedule (which is indicated at each stop) is more aspiration than reality. When one must wait too long, there is no choice but to take a cab or search for the nearest Métro stop. On one bus ride, there was some sort of demonstration on the street and, without prior notice, the bus driver just abandoned his route and dumped all the riders several blocks from where we wanted to go. As we walked to the Musée d’Orsay that morning, my husband swore that he would never again take a Parisian bus.

Buses also seemed to be dominated by older people, many with disabilities, some in wheelchairs and many young mothers with children in strollers. There is a reason for that. The subway system is comprehensive, relatively reliable, and in the process of being upgraded everywhere with the occasional rolling sidewalk, new security doors, escalators, and signage.

Notwithstanding these obvious improvements, we became acutely aware of the demands that the Paris Métro makes on its users. The Métro is built using long tunnels linking one line to another and using many steps, often on several steep staircases. For someone with mobility issues, using a cane or walking stick, or pushing a baby stroller, the Métro is decidedly difficult. We became very conscious of which Métro stations had escalators and where they were located. Elevators appeared to be non-existent. The stairs on the Métro became a factor which favoured the buses.

Another complexity of the Paris Métro system is the size of the stations and the variety of exits (sorties) provided. At Châtelet-les-Halles, for example, there are at least ten different sorties, some of which are accessible not in the station itself but via the nearby Les Halles shopping mall. The direction of the sorties is marked but finding them may require consulting the maps posted on the walls or help from one of the many English-speaking “volunteers” there to assist visitors like us. Going out the wrong sortie can put you a long distance away from where you want to go. Nobody wants to walk outside at length under a hot summer sun.

Since the RER lines were built after most Métro lines, RER stations will not necessarily be at exactly the same place as the Métro station with the same name. Everything is marked, but visitors have to be alert to the signage and take the time to follow it precisely. Miss the correct signage, and you will find yourself going on the wrong subway line, or the wrong direction on a Métro or the RER.

Learning to use the more modern and accessible light rail RER lines is a major step forward. The RER lines extend across the City and far into the exurban suburbs. The RER line we used when we lived in France thirty years ago goes from Saint-Rémy-lès-Chevreuse in La Vallée de Chevreuse to the west of Paris all the way to Charles de Gaulle Airport in the east. A “new” (to me) RER line now extends to Versailles Rive Gauche, a short walk to the palace and its gardens.

In the city, the RER lines act as an express train, stopping at fewer stops than the Métro and crossing the same area much more quickly and comfortably. So long as one’s route is in the city, the same ticket applies and there is no additional cost. It is more expensive if one is using the RER to go out of the city. To go from downtown to CDG airport, for example, costs about 10 Euros each way, but that cost covers all your Métro transport on that trip within the city itself. To get from downtown to St. Rémy costs 5.8 Euros. To go to Versailles costs 3 something Euros. If you are spending the day travelling the RER and the Métro, a day pass is cheaper than two one-way fares.

Clearly, those familiar with Parisian public transport use the RER system a lot. On our last day there, we used the Métro and the RER to go all the way from CDG to the Tuileries (near the Louvre) and back using a day pass. Each trip took less than 45 minutes (even with one change between the Métro and the RER and the need to use a long moving sidewalk at the exchange). Most of the way, it was comfortable and uncrowded.

In addition to the buses, the Métro, and the RER, Paris now also has at least two tram lines which are modern and accessible. I travelled on the T3A line from Pont du Garigliano near the Bois de Boulogne in the west to Porte de Vincennes in the east, and then on the T3B line from Vincennes to the new symphonic theatre at Parc de la Villette in the 19th Arrondissement in the northeast. That line extends further around the north of Paris all the way west to the Porte d’Asnières near Clichy. These are comfortable new light rapid transit lines which are above ground, have frequent stops, connect at no additional cost to the bus system, and provide public transit to more distant suburbs where the density of population does not warrant underground Métro service. They are also designed to accommodate crowds and wheelchairs.

The Paris trams are precisely what was planned and funded for Scarborough eons ago. In Toronto, they got scuttled by Rob Ford and other politicians of all persuasions who continually put their own interests above the needs of the public. Toronto imposed an extra 1% tax on everyone to pay for the extended Scarborough line and still squabbles about the nature of what should be built. While we have nothing, Parisians enjoy the use of their modern new trams in a timely fashion. 

The final weekend I was in Paris, I mastered the bus system. After visiting the new L’Institut du Monde Arabe, located near the Seine and east of Nôtre Dame, I found a bus stop (#89) right there which went to the Porte de France, a station on the new tram line. I knew that the bus which runs right near our apartment (#62) also went to the Porte de France. So I caught the #89. For my single ticket which cost 1.9 Euro, I rode to the end of the line, discovering many interesting new developments east of the massive National Library en route. I then transferred free of charge onto the #62 to take me back to the apartment. For much of the time, I had the bus to myself. When I didn’t, I was obviously the only non-local on the bus, and my fellow travellers were very helpful ensuring the I got off at the correct stop. I felt that I was back in the Paris that I once knew well.

It was apparent throughout all our use of the Parisian public transit that the French will always give up their seats (on the bus, Métro, RER or tram) to anyone who is disabled, using a cane or even just older. On the single occasion when this did not happen almost instantly, I was in a very crowded tram, confused about where to pay using my ticket (rather than the passes locals use) and rather abruptly asked a young teenage boy for his seat. He got up complaining about “the pushy American” who thinks she can take his seat. A French woman watching the incident admonished him that his complaints were totally unjustified; as a Frenchman, he should have given up his seat voluntarily. 

A related incident occurred at the beautiful Sainte-Chapelle on Isle de la Cité. I was sitting beside several young anglophone tourists who occupied five of the twenty or so chairs set up down one side of the chapel. An older, grey-haired French woman stopped in front of them and in polite French asked if she could have a seat. The girls stared blindly, did not move, and the senior went on her way. The youngest then turned to her companions and said that she did not understand what the woman had said. When I told them that she was asking for them to give her a seat, the five were embarrassed, got up and left. Clearly, it takes a village….

 

 

 

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The Perils of Visiting Paris as a Senior

I thought that I knew Paris well. We spent the first year of our marriage living in a sixth-floor walk-up apartment in the Second Arrondissement just off rue St. Denis. In l988-89, during a sabbatical year as a family living in La Vallée de Chevreuse, the lush green “Silicon Valley” to the west of the city, we were in Paris at least weekly. During that year, I drove all over the city and I didn’t think twice about showing the sights to my parents and their friends who were then in their early seventies.

But I have never visited Paris as a senior… and that makes all the difference. What a culture shock that has been. The city has certainly changed in the thirty years since we last lived here. (I’ll talk about that in another post.) More importantly, I have changed. Now approaching 75 years of age (which is only late “middle age” in the current era), our recent visit to Paris has taught me much about myself, and the perils of travelling as one ages.

First, I find it much more difficult adapting to change. It’s harder to travel, and takes longer to settle into a new environment, and to feel comfortable in new situations. Secondly, there are practical perils of big cities which I must recognize and learn to deal with for my own protection. Paris may be no different from any other big city but, for these purposes, it is the city which has made me personally aware of the challenges imposed by aging.

The biggest peril is falling. I have not had a problem with falling in the past. On this trip, I fell four times. Twice occurred in the same spot on the sidewalk to the nearby RER station, with no great consequences. The friends I was with the second time realized that I had tripped on a defective grate in the sidewalk. The third time was a major tumble on the sidewalk where I walked every day. This time, I was preoccupied with our conversation, stepped into the gravelled tree well of a tree lining the sidewalk and took a major tumble. I hit my head, broke my glasses, and suffered cuts and bruises to my face, hands, wrists, arms, and knees. Some stranger had to lift me up off the ground. The fourth fall was getting onto a bus on the tarmac at Frankfurt airport on our way home. I tripped on the entry to the bus, falling on all the injuries from before. Fortunately, I broke nothing. Probably one of the few advantages of being plump. (My brother, a family doc, once commented that the Canadian Health Care system would save significant resources if seniors could be bubble-wrapped. My bubble-wrap must be built in.)

My husband is the official “faller” in our family. Whenever he falls, he breaks something. He has gone through a series of tests over the years to diagnose the cause of his falling and has used a cane to aid his mobility for at least the last year. He had three falls in Paris, two not particularly serious, the other when he fell in the door of a brasserie, had to be lifted up by someone in uniform, and suffered sufficient injury and indignity that thereafter he ceased most sight-seeing.

Now, I am using a walking stick regularly, and am trying hard to concentrate on where I walk and how. I’ve learned that the sidewalks of Paris are remarkably uneven and that any construction (which seems as all-pervasive there as elsewhere) causes major changes to the surface of the sidewalks and roads nearby. I’ve learned that trees and the areas in which they are planted can be hazards, and that publicity posters can be dangerous distractions. The huge crowds of people who fill the sidewalks in the touristy areas and the popular museums are moving quickly and constantly jostling. The public transit system is full of steps, long corridors, and publicity which distracts from the need to pay very close attention to where I am going and what I am doing.

When I was younger, I used the Paris Métro with great joy and abandon. Now, I think twice about the nature of the transit I am going to use and the qualities of particular lines and stations. Which stations have escalators and moving sidewalks? Which stations have long steps to climb? Which exits will help me avoid the crowds? Or shorten the distance I have to walk? (I will do my next post on the Paris Transit system.)

Visiting museums and attending events has become a real pain. There are long lineups for security inspections and then to purchase entry tickets. Unless you like standing in a slow-moving line in the heat for long periods of time, it is necessary to pre-purchase museum tickets. There is a variety of Paris Museum Passes available, including ones for two, four and six days, which give priority access. I bought mine on the spot at the Paris Tourism Office located in the Hôtel de Ville. One can also buy passes and tickets on the internet. My friend bought hers from home and traded the voucher she received on the internet for an actual pass when she arrived. It is not necessary to have printed tickets. One can also use priority entrances by showing tickets that are stored on one’s smartphone. The bottom line, however, is that you really need a smartphone and to know how to use it.

Even with priority access for tickets, there is still the need to stand in the security lines. Security lines exist everywhere; most are reasonably efficient, but they do require standing with no place to sit down. And, at the Louvre, for example, the line outside the Pyramid entrance is in the hot sun. When one visits a particular museum or monument now depends on how long the security lines will be at any given time of the day.

As for the museums themselves, in the summer, they are very crowded, so much so that one feels no desire or ability to see what the museum has to offer. Too often, the museums have very few places to sit, and are full of steps to climb and rooms that have been closed “for renovation.” It is remarkable how poor the cafeteria and restaurant facilities generally are: few and far between, hard to find, under-staffed, with slow service (made worse by the fact that almost everyone uses bank cards to pay).

The Louvre, for example, prides itself on its “accessibility for the disabled” and its Museum Plan. After standing in the hot sun to get through the security line, I was invited to take a small elevator downstairs to the entry level. I visited the Disability Office to get a plan of the Museum and find out where everything was. These were welcome surprises, harbingers I thought of a good visit ahead.

Alas, not true. The Louvre was by far the worst of all the museums I visited on this trip. I found it impossible to find the elevators, and staff hired to provide “information” gave contradictory directions. The elevators that do exist are small, old-fashioned and dreadfully slow. Too many escalators were out of order. Signage was totally inadequate. I soon discovered that reading room numbers high above from a distance conflicts with my need to use reading glasses for the identifying information provided in the Museum Plan. In one area of the Museum where many of the rooms are empty for renovations, there was no advance notice of a dead-end corridor which required everyone to retrace their steps back through many rooms already seen. The restaurants and washrooms were lamentable and totally inadequate for the millions of people who pass through the Louvre every year.

Better to go to a smaller place which is less popular. I will never again go to the Louvre, even though the “Medieval Louvre” with its original foundations built in 1200 and 1385 is one of my favourite spots in all of the city. Were I to return to Paris, I would gladly revisit Le Petit Palais with its permanent collection of art owned by the City which is spacious, quiet, free of charge and has lots of places to sit. Or the Rodin Museum with its lovely gardens. Or even the Musée de l’Armée which has been modernized, and offers commentary in several languages and lots of movies (inherent places to sit). Or the spectacular new L’Institut du Monde Arabe with its banks of modern elevators and plethora of comfortable white leather sofas strategically located throughout the gallery.

As an older person, my priority has become my personal well-being and safety. To enjoy a museum, having places to sit has become important, to appreciate the artefacts, rest and, most importantly, to avoid falling. Having a readily available restaurant or café, without long lineups for payment, is a necessity to satisfy medical needs and prevent dehydration. These are new criteria to think about when travelling.

 

 

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A Rental House From Hell

My husband and I spent two weeks in Halifax this past August. When in April I put my mind to our accommodation, I discovered that Halifax was already booked out for the time we needed. So I looked at Vacation Rental By Owner and Airbnb.

I discovered a house which I thought would be suitable. It was in Dartmouth, across the harbour from downtown Halifax. The promo for the house spoke of the quiet street on which the house was located and touted the wonderful view of the harbour. Since we love our “cottage” overlooking the harbour in Vancouver, we thought we would compare Canada’s two major ports. The rental price was steep, but we assumed that, if the proprietor was charging the rent he did, the house would be up to the standard we expected.

It was a modern house, pleasant enough. There was a cozy living room with a fireplace, many interesting artifacts, and a wall-mounted television. Across the hall was an open dining room and kitchen. French doors led to a patio which, indeed, had a splendid view of the Halifax harbour. Furnished with a table and chairs, the patio was a very pleasant place where we could eat dinner, watch the boats go by, and check out the success of the fisher-folk with their lines out in search of catch on the shore beneath us. The house had laundry, three bathrooms, and parking in the back. The location was close to the Alderney Centre, where I could catch the ferry that transports commuters from Dartmouth to downtown Halifax every fifteen minutes. So far, so good.

I have had little experience in using computer rental services, and, when I spoke with the owner over the telephone, I did not think to ask him about the bed. The blurb for the house had a picture of the bed which looked okay. Elsewhere in the promo, it said that it “slept two.” As we discovered on our arrival, that is code for “double bed.” Maybe Maritimers take doubles for granted, but we haven’t slept in a double bed since we left our Paris apartment 46 years ago. And this was a soft double. Since my husband is six foot four and had medical issues at the time, sleeping on a soft double was highly problematic. It took us at least three or four nights to get used to the constraints of the space. Had I realized that the bed was a double, I would not have rented the house.

But that’s not the worst part. The owner definitely did not tell me about the train directly across the street beside the water. Even if he had, I probably would not have picked up on the significance of it. We are used to trains on the CN track below our Vancouver apartment in Ambleside. There, several trains pass by daily. We sometimes hear them if our sleep is fitful, but generally we forget that they are there. They pass by and are gone. When I arrived at the Dartmouth house, I noticed what I thought was a single track across the street, and asked the owner if we would hear the trains. “Yes,” he said, “you will hear them.”

And indeed we did. During the daytime, I was at my writing course. When I returned for the evening, the tracks were quiet. Only later, the activity began. We discovered that what we thought was a single track was instead at least three sets of tracks and that the purpose of the tracks was to marshal the railroad cars parked between us and the ferry terminal. Beginning shortly after midnight, the bumping and the clanging began, as an engine backed into the closest car and began to assemble the cars that would make up a new train. Have you ever heard train cars crashing together when they are being marshalled into a train? It is horrific, a constant clatter of loud banging, squealing and clashing, repeated as many times as there are cars in the ever-growing train, a persistent staccato, over and over. I heard the train from the moment the marshalling started, shortly after midnight, until the first train was assembled and pulled away an hour or so later. It would then be quiet for a while, until about 3:00 a.m. Just when I was finally back to sleep, I awoke to hear the chugging of the engine in the distance as it got closer and closer. Before long, the clatter and banging and shrieking started yet again and continued for another hour or so until train number two was assembled. Sometimes that happened three times a night.

My husband, who takes sleeping pills every night, generally slept through the racket. I had a few pills left on my high-power sleeping pill prescription, to be used only in times of great stress. When I discovered the trains, I decided to hoard the pills for those nights before I needed to present something orally in my course. Very shortly, I finished my supply of pills, Nytol didn’t work, and I was dragging myself around exhausted. I never even thought to close the window or go out and buy ear plugs. My lack of practical problem-solving skills in this situation may indicate early onset dementia. More likely, I was just too tired.

There were other issues with the place. On our arrival, the owner advised that the dishwasher didn’t work. Okay, we could wash our own dishes. Then his wife told me that they did not have a coffee pot. Her daughter apparently borrowed the coffee pot and not yet returned it. A tea drinker, she suggested that we could make coffee using paper filters over a cup, one cup at a time. We also discovered that the kitchen sink fixtures were in poor repair. What does it say about owners who charge big bucks for rental that covers their own vacation, who have more than three months’ notice to make the repairs before their unsuspecting tenants arrive, and who do not fix the dishwasher, pay $79.00 for a new coffee pot, and have a kitchen sink in proper repair? And then there is that antiquated double bed, an anomaly by modern standards. All of these would be deductible expenses.

When I told a friend about the rental house, she advised me to write a review on the VRBO website to warn future prospective tenants. I decided that I would write a post about the house instead, and then email the owner with the link. Mr. and Mrs. owner of 72 Shore Road, Dartmouth… be warned. As for me, I will know what to ask in the future.

 

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Renaissance from a Forest Fire

In August 2003, my cousins Doug and Cheryl Fraser were on a fishing trip to Tofino on Vancouver Island when they received an emergency call to return home to Kelowna right away. Okanagan Mountain Provincial Park, a tinderbox of old timber and dried duff which had accumulated for decades, was on fire. The Park sits to the west of their property which was in an area subject to an evacuation alert. Officials watched the progress of the fire which was dependent on the speed and direction of the wind.

Doug and Cheryl, attracted to the Rimrock area by the thick forest on their five-acre property and the view over Okanagan Lake, completed construction of their dream house two years before. Now they faced a desperate scramble to save their home. Doug consulted local fire officials who advised him to move anything flammable away from the house. The woodpile had to go. Doug called in professional woodsmen who felled fifteen trees which were close to the house, cut off all their branches, got rid of the leaves and the pine needles, mulched them, and hauled them away. The tree trunks were left lying on the ground, denuded of all readily flammable vegetation. They put three sprinklers on the roof, and used hoses to water down the cedar soffits.

Their neighbours thought they were crazy, but the plan paid off. One week after the evacuation notice was posted, the fire swept through Rimrock. When Cheryl and Doug returned to their house after the fire, they found the house below in rubble, and the house above razed to the ground. Of thirty houses in the area, fifteen were totally destroyed. Some the fire burned; others blew up when air in the modern-insulated, air-tight homes heated so rapidly that the houses exploded. The forest of trees on their property was charred, black and standing stark. The tallest of the trees, with a thick cambium layer, survived the fire although their trunks were singed close to the ground. Travelling fast through the property, the fire apparently jumped the structure with its soaking roof and no dry plants around to fuel the flames. Their house remained intact, with only a couple of window seals broken, a few spark burns on the roof, and some shingles that had become brittle and needed to be replaced.

After the fire, professional foresters removed five logging truckloads of marketable fir trees from the property. In all: 125 dead trees taken to the local mill where the wood was made into lumber. Within months, Doug and Cheryl started replanting. A local nursery gave everyone in the area a pallet of ponderosa pine seedlings, a total of 100 baby trees each. Doug and his brother Don dug up another 250 two- to three-foot fir, pine and larch trees which were growing under power lines up and down the valley. The brothers planted the young trees in sites across the five acres, strategically placed with open spaces nearby. To the east, is a standing stump from a tree that did not survive. Doug pulled it upright and keeps it for the birds.

It has been another season of forest fires in British Columbia. The worst ever, with hundreds of people evacuated, and fire fighters brought in from across the continent. The sky remains smoky, apparently from forest fires burning in Washington State. British Columbia is an economy based on the forest industry. Fires occur naturally and can be useful to clean out the forests and renew the resource. Out of control, they can bring devastation and disaster. My cousin’s experience in Kelowna is proof, however, that, from all the horror of that 2003 cataclysm, a renaissance has come.

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***** With great thanks to Doug and Cheryl Fraser for sharing their story. *****

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A Five Star Photography Workshop

Billed as the “Ultimate Urban Travel Photography Workshop with International Award Winning Architect, Urban Designer and Photographer, Rick Hulbert,” this four-day workshop held in Vancouver last week was one of the most intense and engaging learning experiences of my life.

I’d taken a workshop with Rick years ago, while he was still working as an architect. It had been very useful and relatively laid-back. I jumped at the chance for a repeat, with a focus on my hometown. After all, blogging about Vancouver is one of my favourite themes, and improving my pictures would make future posts all the better.

Retired from architecture for more than a year, Rick now teaches photography all over the world. From his professional background, knowledge of art history, and interest in the rapidly changing neurosciences, he articulates his (perhaps revolutionary?) philosophy of photography with unbridled passion. His lectures are amazing. His own photographs used to illustrate his points, awesome. He answers all questions with equal grace, no matter how technical, controversial, or simple (as many of mine certainly were). Post-course, students receive a copy of his key point visuals, which relieves the pressure of taking notes and focuses student attention on what he says and does. Conscious of what each student wants and needs, he ensures everyone equal “one on one” time. It seems that Rick has become the platonic ideal of a photography teacher: rigorous, thoughtful, constantly learning himself, and downright funny to boot. No wonder he is in such demand.

The ten participants in the workshop were photography enthusiasts: devotees of camera clubs, journalists who use photos to illustrate their stories, a hip sound man who is a sports photographer wannabe, a busy father of four who somehow fits serious photography into his work/life balance, some who have already sold their pictures, at least one a computer tech. I was by far the least photo-experienced of the group. The workshop promo said to come and “share your skills with others.” Everyone did, most generously. One, with a camera similar to mine, helped me with my settings. A second showed me how to set up and manipulate my new tripod. Another told me that I could press the button in the corner of my iPhone screen and take pictures without even opening the phone. (I blush to admit, I’d never used that feature before. How could I have missed it?) He also showed me how to download photos onto a USB stick, an essential task in sharing photography (and much else) which I had never quite mastered. Even before the workshop began, I’d learned these two new skills which will undoubtedly change my life.

The False Creek Bubble (photo by Bruce Hawick)

The False Creek Bubble (photo by Bruce Hawick)

The promo material promised that the course was “all about taking your photography to the next level.” It warned, however, that “you need a camera that you know how to use” and that you should “read the manual that came with your camera so you will be familiar with its features.” Easier said than done. Since creating my blog, my handy-dandy iPhone has been my camera of choice. But I knew that showing up at a Rick Hulbert workshop with only an iPhone was not on. I bought a light-weight, mirrorless camera two years ago but, out of sheer laziness, I’d used it only in Intelligent Auto mode. “Read the manual.” Are you kidding? Manuals are for techies. It takes a long time to become familiar with all the features on the contemporary camera computers we can now buy, and I hadn’t used my “new” camera for at least a year.

Fully aware that Rick doesn’t teach “Camera Operation 101,” I scheduled some lessons before the workshop to learn how my “new” camera worked. I also started to use my early morning walks for photo shoots. I thought I was ready to go. But, to go “to the next level,” in my case, was a really big leap. Rick recommends shooting in Manual and Aperture modes, and primarily in RAW file format. That’s a totally different thing. Manual mode I had forgotten. Shooting RAW files, I had never done before. I had no idea what impact this would have on how I used my camera. On Day One, I floundered big time.

On the Georgia Viaduct (photo by Bruce Hawick)

On the Georgia Viaduct (photo by Bruce Hawick)

That day Rick lectured in the morning. After a late lunch, we did a “hands on” walk-about over the Georgia Street Viaduct, down Main Street, and then along the waterfront to the Science Centre and the Olympic Village at the east of False Creek. It was less than a two kilometre walk, a glorious sunny day, and we stopped often to practice what Rick had taught us, and for him to make suggestions. His promo had said that we would learn what to wear on a photo shoot. I did! And it was definitely not what I had on: a black Icebreaker sweater, a wool sweater-coat and a new camera bag too small to hold all my gear. The next day, I jettisoned this attire and came more properly outfitted. That aside, around 4:00 p.m., in the shade of a patio near a bakery, Rick talked cameras and lenses with the more experienced photographers. They were on a short break while awaiting the change of light to continue the photo shoot into the evening.

Into the evening? How do they do it? I realized that I had to pace myself. Feeling a bit of a wimp, I took my leave, rode the Aquabus to the Plaza of Nations, and found my way home. I don’t know when I have ever felt so tired. I was utterly exhausted. Why was I so sore all over? What happened to my much-vaunted energy and the fruits of my physical training? Who knew that photographers worked so hard?

Day Two was another intensive session when Rick explained his principles for successful photography and we applied them to our pictures. In “Image Review” with Rick Hulbert, we saw a master manipulating Adobe Lightroom to improve the RAW data files we’d taken. Apart from teaching us about light, how to see, what to look for, and how to get what we want, “re-visualization,” as he calls his post-production editing, is an essential tool of the modern digital photographer. He made sure we knew how Lightroom works and why we would use its many features. Day Three was a lecture on street photography, a film, and an afternoon photo shoot on Granville Island, including another walk-about to unusual sites only a photographer like Rick would notice. Day Four was an early morning (6:30 a.m.) photo shoot at Jack Poole Plaza on the harbour, with another full day of “Image Review” to further embed our skills.

After four days, others in the group were fading and even Rick admitted that he too was tired. No wonder. He gives out 100% all the time, and then some. It’s true that many of the activities he offered on the last two days were optional. But who wants to opt out when Rick is at hand to share his expertise? I may not yet be able to apply all I have learned, but I now understand the lingo and have the basic concepts firmly embedded in my brain. There is no doubt that I am many levels higher than when I started. Everyone rises to expectations, right?

Granville Island (photo by Bruce Hawick)

Granville Island (photo by Bruce Hawick)

So, how to rate Rick Hulbert as a teacher of photography? A+++ He more than delivers on what he promises, with the caveat to potential students that he deliberately pitches his program to make the best possible photos. “Learning by doing” is the name of the game. Nothing is more effective. Rick teaches a theory of photography which will stay with us forever. And the attention he pays each student makes it like a master class in photography. Listening to more experienced photographers teaches much, by osmosis. Just remember to get lots of sleep and exercise before the workshop begins, bring a water bottle and some trail snacks to keep you going. And tell your family in advance that you will be late getting home for dinner.

***** The uncaptioned photos are my RAW files of data, “re-visualized” with the help of Rick and the group. 

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“Spa in the Sky”

Have you ever felt run off your feet? Busy, busy, busy? Totally occupied with a thousand things, all of which you want to do, but which all too quickly fill your days?

That’s been me the past few weeks. October seems to have been so busy a month: family dinners, the renewal of the opera and concert season, multiple medical appointments, working out at the gym, runners to cheer for, guests to entertain, a quick trip to Vancouver, people to visit, Thanksgiving, Hallowe’en, home repairs, organizing our upcoming vacation, doing some writing, getting the garden ready for winter. The list goes on. And on top of that, the persistent dreadful drone of the American election.

At the #6DegreesTO event in Toronto in September, I picked up the most marvellous little book by Pico Iyer, one of the “Framers” invited to talk about Inclusion. Iyer is a well-known essayist and travel writer born in Britain and now based in Japan and California. He writes regularly for Harper’s, The New York Times and The New York Review of Books. His book is The Art of Stillness: Adventures in Going Nowhere (2014, TEDBook, Simon & Schuster).

His description of Leonard Cohen at the Mount Baldy Zen Center in the San Gabriel Mountains near Los Angeles immediately engaged my attention. I had no idea that Cohen had spent 40 years meditating with the abbot there, or that his monastery name is Jikan which means “the silence between two thoughts.” Apparently, Cohen practices the silence of meditation as avidly as he crafts his poetry and his songs.

Iyer invites his readers to “take this book… as an invitation to the adventure of going nowhere.” He describes how he left his dream life as a writer in Manhattan and around the world to live in a tiny single room in the back streets of Kyoto. “Going nowhere… isn’t about turning your back on the world; it’s about stepping away now and then so that you can see the world more clearly and love it more deeply.” When so much of our lives are lived in our heads, perspective comes not from what we do or where we have been but from how we reflect on it. A real change in life can come from changing “the way I look at it.”

Iyer writes about how freeing up the mind to “play” fosters creativity. He gives the example of Google’s headquarters where employees spend a fifth of their time lounging in tree houses, jumping on trampolines, or practicing yoga. Every building on the campus of General Mills in Minneapolis has a meditation room. Apparently one-third of American companies offer “stress-reduction programs” to their employees. And then there is the institution of the Sabbath, the traditional day of rest, which has existed for a reason and which we increasingly erode to our detriment.

He writes of his meeting with Matthieu Ricard who is known as “the happiest man in the world” and who has written that “Simplifying one’s life to extract its quintessence is the most rewarding of all the pursuits I have undertaken.” When Iyer asked him how he deals with jet lag, when he is in such demand all over the world, Ricard replied, “For me, a flight is just a brief retreat in the sky. There’s nothing I can do, so it’s really quite liberating. There’s nowhere else I can be. So I just sit and watch the clouds and the blue sky. Everything is still and everything is moving. It’s beautiful.” Iyer relates how he met a young woman on a flight from Frankfurt to Los Angeles who sat down and just sat there, “apparently at peace” throughout the entire flight. When Iyer finally spoke with her she said she was a social worker from Berlin en route to a vacation in Hawaii. “Her job was exhausting… (and) she liked to use the flight over to begin to get all the stress out of her system so that she could arrive on the islands in as clear a state as possible, ready to enjoy her days of rest.” I think I will try that the next time I fly. 

It is a beautiful little book, with stunning photographs taken by Icelandic/Canadian photographer Eydis S. Luna Einarsdóttir who lives in Vancouver and travels every year to Iceland. This book is a companion piece to a 14-minute TED TALK by Pico Iyer. Also check out the TED TALK by Matthieu Ricard “The habit of happiness.”

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My Husband’s Worst Nightmare

The news out of France yesterday left my husband positively ill. The headline read “45 people trapped in cable cars overnight.” The story told of how a series of cable cars stopped working over Mont Blanc in the Alps on Thursday. Apparently, the cable cars stalled because of a “technical incident.” Helicopters rescued 65 people before darkness fell and then dropped rescue workers with blankets, food and water into the remaining cars to spend the night with the 45 tourists still on the system.

We know those cable cars. In July 1989, we spent the last weekend of our sabbatical year in Europe with the boys, camping at the winter ski resort of Chamonix at the foot of Mount Blanc. At 4807 metres, Mont Blanc is the highest mountain in Europe. If not a skier or a mountain climber, the three-star attraction at Chamonix is the cable car ride up the Aiguille du Midi which, at 3,842 metres, provides a breath-taking view of the valley below and the mountains above. It is heralded as the most impressive attraction of the French Alps. Beyond that is the cable car which traverses Mont Blanc to La Palud on the Italian side of the Alps, a second three-star excursion.

The boys and I were keen to make the trip. Bill who is deathly afraid of heights was not. After two days of procrastination, day number three dawned bright and sunny. How could we not cross the Alps by cable car? Could Bill do it? Good sport that he is, he agreed to go up the Aiguille du Midi at least. So we set out.

Mounting the Aiguille du Midi was a three-step challenge. The first 1500 metres was an eight minute ride in a large cable car holding many passengers to the Plan de l’Aiguille. At 2310 metres, this was the jumping-off spot for hikers and skiers at lower elevations. Although the car sometimes hung 500 metres over the rock, Bill could bury himself among the other bodies on the cable car and pretend he wasn’t there. From there, it was another eight minute cable car ride up the remaining 1500 metres to the upper station. At 3,842 metres, this higher view of the valley below and the peaks and glaciers above was stunning. Bill avoided looking.

Now what? A short elevator ride took us to the station for “la télécabine de la Vallée Blanche.” This was the prize. A 35-minute, 1300-metre trip would take us over Mount Blanc to Pointe Helbronner. At 3365 metres, this was the summit near the Refuge Torino in Italy, above la Palud. The cable cars were small, holding four passengers each, arranged in groups of three along the cable which stretched out of sight over the mountain. Having come this far, Bill decided to join us for the rest of the trip. In retrospect, his decision was heroic or foolhardy, depending on your perspective.

We waited for our cable car, got in, and arranged ourselves inside. Bill and Carl chose the seat with their backs to the mountain; Ben and I looked ahead. The trip was more than we could ever have bargained for. As we rose up beside the mountain peaks, we seemed to soar above the rocks and glaciers nearby. Below we could see skiers and climbers on the slopes of Mont Blanc. Bill turned green and shrivelled up in his corner, refusing to look out the windows. Carl, feeling a little nauseous, fell into a stoic calm. Ben was looking about wildly, excited by all he saw. I was taking pictures.

What we hadn’t counted on was the cable stopping and starting en route as passengers got off and on. Each stop left us hanging in space; each start terrorized Bill and left Carl more ill at ease. The 35 minutes to Pointe Helbronner seemed forever, and then we had to return. At least, we just went over the peaks, and did not descend all the way to La Palud. Needless to say, it was a most memorable day.

Is Bill’s current state a little post traumatic stress disorder?

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A Visit to Algonquin Park

This past Labour Day weekend, my husband and I visited the backcountry of Algonquin Park. We spent the day with our son, daughter-in-law and her family picnicking in a campsite on Grand Lake, not far from where Tom Thomson painted his iconic “Jack Pine.” My earlier visits to Algonquin Park had been primarily limited to the Highway 60 corridor, so this was a new experience for me. I now get it. I now appreciate why Ontarians so love their largest and most diverse provincial park.

The Achray Lake Campground is about 50 kilometres west of Highway 17 as it skirts around Pembroke and Petawawa on the Ottawa River. It is a trailhead for several popular back country canoe trips, and a campsite set among pine trees, half of which welcomes dogs. We gathered around two picnic tables beneath shady trees beside the lake and near its protected swimming area. This was a lake beach with soft yellow sand and shallow water that went out a very long way before it became deep. The water was warm and clear, with none of the muck and reeds which I had always disliked about Ontario lakes before. When we stood still, we could see the guppies swimming around our feet and the fresh water clams as they created their trails moving through the sand. In the distance, the occasional canoe passed by, and we could spot the loons. It was a perfect sunny day and, although it was a statutory holiday, there were not that many people around. This was an Ontario lake beach at its best.

We spent the day noshing on the food and drink we’d brought in the coolers, swimming, canoeing, playing with the dogs in the water, sleeping, reading, and exploring. Sitting around the picnic table or standing in the water, I got to know members of the Filipino-Canadian family into which my son has married. One of the partners is from La Beauce in the Chaudière-Appalaches region just south of Quebec City. She is a charming French-Canadian woman who always speaks French to their 19-month-old daughter. Those of us who know some French soon realized that we could attract the attention of the infant when we spoke French. All afternoon, we practiced our own French on the toddler.

I met three families of campers who were set up among the pines for their annual weekend away. They had pushed the tables together for communal eating around a big fire pit. Their multiple tents included a huge North Face “Mountain Manor” which, apparently, has two interior rooms and a large inner vestibule to accommodate a family and a large dog in the event of rain. The very creative fathers had fashioned a climbing apparatus which allowed the several young children to move and twist between the ropes. They also created a home-made zip line from a rope which dropped on an angle to a distant tree. They’d placed a pulley on the line from which they suspended a seat to allow the children to run down the line. I learned that one of the fathers was an ex-military with search and rescue training.

When we got to talking about why my husband and I had given up camping, one of the men suggested that we get a small tent-trailer like his mother-in-law had, which provided a good bed above the ground and could be hauled by a small car. They also explained the Ontario provincial park registration system and how we would need to register on the internet six months in advance to the day, if we wanted to get one of these ideal spots by the lake on a summer weekend. I spoke with another camper who had the premier campsite on a small wooded knoll overlooking the lake. He told me that he and his wife had camped there for two weeks, that they came from Hamilton, and were planning a move to the Lower Mainland around Vancouver when they retired next year. They have two sons in Vancouver, and he has a sister in Kelowna. We spent some time discussing the pros and cons of various suburbs and small towns around Vancouver where they might choose to live. Shooting the breeze with strangers is one of the pleasures of camping. Now I am highly motivated to find a tent-trailer outlet, and I know exactly the place where we could store any new acquisition. Maybe we haven’t given up camping, after all. Maybe we just need to do it in a different way. And in Ontario.

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An Interlude on Amherst Island

For thirty years, the all-women’s law firm where I practiced as a lawyer has treasured our Annual Firm Retreat. For two brief days, the existing partners join with those who have moved on or retired to relax, reconnect and recharge our batteries. Until this year, the retreat was held at the beloved country home of one of the partners, a sprawling property at Sturgeon Point near Fenelon Falls, which provided an idyllic setting beside the Kawartha Lakes. That property was sold last year, and we had to find another that would help wean us off what we had come to cherish.

The alternative this year was a trip to Amherst Island. Amherst Island is in northeastern Lake Ontario, west of the islands around Kingston and east of the more populous Prince Edward County. Although the size of Manhattan, the island has a permanent population of only 380 people, and is totally attractive to outsiders for its low-key, laid-back country charm.

We stayed at The Lodge on Amherst Island, a most comfortable self-catering former fishing camp turned guest house, with an extraordinarily well-equipped kitchen, expansive common rooms, well-appointed sleeping quarters, and beautiful grounds by the water. Owned by Molly Stroyman of Toronto, and often used for art shows, writers’ retreats and musical events, The Lodge was ideal for our purposes. Our lavish breakfasts we enjoyed while basking in the eastern sun flowing into the family room beside the kitchen. Dinners in the screened multipurpose room gave us the sunsets in the west.

The twenty-minute ferry ride from Millhaven on the mainland transports visitors to another world, where the pace is slower, the wildlife prolific, and the vistas of Lake Ontario pounding over the limestone of the south shore stunning. The prime economic life of the island is farming, raising dairy cattle and especially sheep. There are said to be 3,000-plus sheep on the island, not including the 1,400 lambs produced each spring. Topsy Farms, on the west end of the island, allows visitors to feed the newborn lambs, and to shop for quality products made from wool and sheepskin. Feeding newborn lambs is totally engaging, but hardly conducive to putting lamb on the menu.

The only hamlet on the island is Stella, close to the ferry. The General Store (seeking new management) is beside the Post Office; there are three churches, a public school, a couple of cafés, The Weasel and Easel selling crafts and local art works in the historic Neilson Store Museum, a radio station and the remnants of a blacksmith shop. Activities on the island include the Canada Day Parade, a Farmers Market during the summer, the Presbyterian Church Garden Party the last Saturday of July, a Book Sale in August, and numerous community dinners and teas held throughout the year. Besides The Lodge, there are four bed and breakfasts on the Island. In the past, I have stayed at premises offered by the Foot Flats Farm, and can vouch for the comfort and hospitality we enjoyed there.

Thanks to photographer Helen Feldmann for the wonderful photos.

 

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