My debut novel has won an Independent Publishers Press Award, known as an IPPY. I got a very cool gold medal in the post.
I am tremendously grateful for my US publicist, the IPPY awards, and everyone who read it and liked it and let me know.
My debut novel has won an Independent Publishers Press Award, known as an IPPY. I got a very cool gold medal in the post.
I am tremendously grateful for my US publicist, the IPPY awards, and everyone who read it and liked it and let me know.
Last January I visited Copenhagen. It was an odd time of year to visit the country perhaps, but a friend had frequent flyer points and wanted to go and I tagged along. I’d never been to Denmark.
From the moment I started telling people I was going, something interesting happened – everyone who had been there raved about it. Everyone loved it. Everyone thought it was beautiful or told me their favourite museum was there, a place called Louisiana. A few people said if they could live anywhere, that’s where they would live. It was not like Paris, which I adore but some dislike, or Spain, or any place really, in that the love for it was universal. I was excited to see what all the fuss was about.
We flew out on a Friday, and I was smitten with British Airways First Class lounge. Cold champagne and hot mashed potatoes – it was like they read my mind about things that made me happy. The flight was delightful, what with all the extra leg room and the flight attendants dancing attendance upon us. We had cream tea and another glass of Champagne, and I said as we landed the trip was already perfection, and that I wasn’t drinking anymore alcohol.
I had found the hotel and apart from a bathroom door that didn’t quite click shut, it was lovely. The staff were kind and helpful, informing we when I asked about bottled water that the tap variety was drinkable. I was shocked and pleased but bought a bottle from a shop anyway. The air was cold and bright as we made our way to a nearby jazz bar. I got to test my new Monzo bank card on a bottle of fizzy water and near beer and was delighted when it worked. The music was fine and the venue atmospheric, but the most fun came from people watching. There was a couple on a first date I guessed who went from awkwardly sitting across from each other, to gently holding hands, to a full on snuggle by the time we were ready to leave. I wasn’t sure if it was real or the product of whatever amber liquid they were drinking, but she seemed happy enough so I smiled and made my way back outside. We wanted to have a good rest and an early start. Besides, I love a good hotel room when it is more than dropping stuff off and using it to sleep. This one was nice. One wall was lined with windows, and it looked over an outdoor bar. A few times over the weekend I stood looking out, thinking how much fun it must be to meet friends there in the summer, when the days were long and the nights had a golden light.
Saturday dawned cool and grey, the way I pictured a winter Scandi day. We bundled up and set out, grabbing a coffee from a small kiosk in the middle of a town square. The young man who waited on us was cheerful and kind and I regretted not having kronor to tip him. He was so nice about it when I apologised that I felt even worse and gave him a few euros, for when he travelled.
We walked and we walked, visiting shops and a castle and stopping for lunch on the harbour. The meal was a collection of dark breads with assorted fish and the best potato salad of my life, and I left with a mixture of happiness and melancholy, knowing the chances of my visiting again were slim. I wish I could remember the name of the place, but I don’t, however it was a short walk to where the Little Mermaid rests in the harbour. It was smaller than I imagined – understated, classy and sleek – like Copenhagen.
It felt like it was near the end of the day and getting colder, although it was only four o’clock, when I saw an interesting building. It was modern, round or maybe cylindrical shape, on the edge of a street. A sign stated that it was the Museum of Danish Resistance, and my friend and I decided to visit.
I have been to a lot of museums over the course of my travels. I have visited more war museums than I can remember. In some of these I read stories of young soldiers that still live inside of me. I defy anyone to visit the Museum of the Somme and leave feeling the same way about our world as upon entering. But the Danish Museum of the Resistance was something else. Focussing on the lives of a handful of people at the start of the war until the end, you walked a meandering route, getting updates on how their lives changed as the war progressed. There was a young man who fought in the Resistance, and I found myself uttering small prayers he survived. At the end you learn the fate of each person, and then you watch a film about the ones who survived and how they spent their time after the war. We left as it was closing and as we stood once again in the cold I said to my friend, ‘that was both heart-breaking and beautiful.’ I think he agreed.
The way the museum told its story, much like the building itself, was deceptive in its simplicity, carrying so much weight with dignity. I still think about it.
We went back to the hotel room where we saw the door was left ajar. I was alarmed about my passport and my remaining cash, but nothing was amiss. We brushed out teeth, I tried to fix my hair after wearing a hat all day, and then we went to the old meatpacking district, now home to a variety of gorgeous restaurants. We got a table in the window of one called Gorilla and I had a lobster roll done with tarragon and gruyere that was out of this world. I still think about that, too.
Sunday was more walking, more marvelling, and the best dark chocolate cinnamon pastry of my life. A touch of rain fell, then the sun came out, and I fell a bit more in love with Copenhagen.
It was a short visit and I was already planning my return when it came to an end. There was no first class lounge at the airport and the flight was just as nice, but the sadness of the trip being over settled in, as well as the lingering feelings from the museum, the tang of unworthiness I often feel after seeing what people went through during a war that took place not so long ago. It seems unreal that people can suffer so much and then go on, but I learned at the museum about those who did. I liked that their stories had been completed for me.
January turned to February and to March. Somehow lots and very little changed in my life at the same time. This happens when you are a writer. You work hard then wait for feedback. Wait for reviews. Wait for sales. Eventually, just as another book begins to percolate, you get editorial notes and brace yourself for their impact. All the while there is the concern about cashflow and retirement and the fear of being perceived as negative when you voice concern that you are worried about your life. It takes it out of you, but it is nothing compared to what the people living through war and occupation go through. I try and remember this.
A few weeks ago I was talking to my sister about the Ukraine and if we will ever visit Florida again, and somehow we ended up on the subject of Jeff Bezos money. I said that if I had his cash I’d put a pack on my back and travel until I simply keeled over someplace. I wouldn’t mind if that happened in Copenhagen – I would obviously have more than enough tip money this time.
When a friend asks you to write about some books with strong settings for a new magazine and you casually ask if you can promote your own – and proceed to put yourself in very good company, too. Thanks, Becky!
At the airport in Pokhara, Nepal, they hand write your seat number on your boarding pass. They also put your checked luggage (in my case a large backpack) in a wheelbarrow before disappearing with it. As I watched my bag being wheeled away I felt a tinge of concern that I might not ever see it again. It seemed so primitive and I was rattled, as our taxi had been stuck behind a large number of cows for so long I was worried we’d miss our flight. I can’t remember seeing any signs for security, but somehow we found our way there. As I was patted down by a female security guard she stepped back, looked at me and said, ‘What is that thing, poking there?’
For a brief second I was terrified that somehow, unbeknownst to me, in some sort of travel induced euphoric daze, I’d dropped a knife down my shirt and had somehow not noticed. I think I had a tremble in my voice as I said, ‘Do you mean my ribs?’
‘Let me see,’ she said. So I showed her.
Even as she touched my lower ribs I remember her still looking unconvinced.
My friend, having gone through her own inspection, was waiting for me on the other side of the curtains. ‘What took so long?’ she asked.
‘My ribs are too prominent,’ I replied. Then, away on our own watching planes land, I told her about my rogue knife-in-my-shirt-that-I-did-not-know about thoughts.
‘I have them too,’ she said.
Then we laughed, as we boarded our flight, and ended up back in Kathmandu.
It was the small moments of unexpected happiness that travel brings that I missed the most, as we navigated the pandemic. And the tiny things you learn first-hand. Simple things, like the fact that the carrots in Australia taste better. Sweeter, with a more satisfying crunch. And you don’t need to peel them, just wash them off and you’re good to go. I discovered this at a grocery store in Bellingen, New South Wales. Around the corner was a clothing shop named Retro Bello, where I bought a sundress that makes me feel fabulous whenever I put it on. I’d never heard of Bellingen before visiting Australia, but I love it now and can’t wait to go back.
The 7/11 on Gulf Boulevard in Treasure Island, Florida, is my favourite place to get coffee. They have piles of little International Delights creamers, and the staff are always so happy to see you and have a chat. I think that is why the coffee tastes better. The nearby ocean helps, too.
The airport in Stockholm smells like cinnamon. What more can be said?
You are expected to barter with the sellers at Chatuchak market in Bangkok, even if the prices are already fabulous. I learned this when I bought a belt from a leather worker. I asked the man in the booth how much and he said, ‘Five hundred bhat.’
I looked at my friend, who had lived in Thailand for a few years, as he did the conversion.
‘About 15 US dollars.’
That meant about eight British pounds.
‘Sold,’ I said.
A small smile of surprise appeared on his face, behind his curtain of sandy blond hair. He looked like someone you’d see in the crowd at a Grateful Dead concert and I liked him immediately. He fit the belt for me, took my bhat, and I walked away.
‘Why did he look so surprised?’ I asked.
‘He expected you to haggle over price.’
‘Oh,’ I said. Later, I would regret this, but on day one of a trip using foreign currency, I always overspend.
It’s been twelve years and the belt still looks brand new.
There’s a restaurant in Bar Harbour Maine that serves lobster in a cream sauce that tastes like Christmas cookies. It’s the best thing I’ve ever tasted. And I know my food.
Toiledau i fyny’r grisiau is Welsh for ‘toilets upstairs’. I learned this in a pub in Cardiff City Centre. Just in time, might I add.
The water in the canals in Amsterdam is so clean, you can scoop up some in a clear glass and see it for yourself. I woudn’t drink it, but it looked quite dazzling in the May heat when I saw it. I told a friend how much I enjoyed Amsterdam and he said he had been in 1987 and did not like it. As we shared experiences I realised cities, like people, are capable of profound change.
‘You need to go back,’ I said.
The little things you experience and learn when you travel are the reasons why I am always happiest with a pack on my back, a map under my arm, and a new place in front of me. You can read about these places, watch travel shows, but it’s the bits you discover first-hand that change you as a person. I may press my clothes for work and worry about my bag matching but when I travel I can be wearing an old curtain and shoes made of Kleenex boxes and I feel like I’m on a Paris runway. Travel is my happy place.
Soon after I moved to England from Canada I got a job working in publishing sales. It meant a lot of time on the road, navigating roundabouts and small twisty streets. It was both terrifying and exhilarating to enter small market towns and discover they were the birthplace of Charles Darwin (Shrewsbury) Henry V (Monmouth) and Oliver Cromwell (Huntingdon). When it comes to travel nothing beats a good road trip, and I’ve been on enough to know.
In the early nineties I camped my way across the United States, on my way to journalism school in British Columbia. We started in Maine, which bordered the province of New Brunswick, where both I and my travel partner/boyfriend at the time grew up. There was no emphasis on how much ground we had to cover in how much time – the route we travelled was marked with places we wanted to see. On day four we pitched our tent in Maryland and took the train to Washington, DC. Our first stop was Arlington Cemetery. It was August during a heatwave, and I felt guilty for wearing shorts in a cemetery. We followed the signs to the grave of John F Kennedy. The eternal flame flickered even though there was not a breath of wind, something I didn’t understand at the time. Across from the grave of John F Kennedy and his wife was a simple white cross marking Bobby Kennedy’s resting place. My father once said when his time came, and if there was a God, he planned to ask him why he didn’t protect Bobby Kennedy better. I thought about this when I saw his simple marker, and I was overwhelmed. You learn new things when you travel, and you feel both new and old things, too. When my father died I remembered what he said, and hoped he got an answer, but I’m not holding my breath.
After seeing the eternal flame we walked quietly to the Vietnam Memorial. I never really knew much about the Vietnam War, apart from seeing Apocalypse Now, and somehow knowing the war was wrong. I was in no way prepared for the impact of the Wall. It starts off small, a few names listed, then as you move along the path, it seems to grow. More and more names appear. It feels like you’re walking downhill, being pulled forward even as you want to stop, go back. A man with long hair wearing an old army jacket was standing with his palm pressed to the black marble. Packs of Marlboros were at his feet. I wanted to turn around and run but I pushed on, at first fighting tears but then letting them come. I was sobbing as I made my way to the washroom. A woman in a blazer, a park’s employee, took my arm and said, ‘We got another victim of the Wall here’ and led me to an area where I sat. In my memory I am surrounded by women in tears, but it might have been a few. I was a young woman of extremes at the time. But I remember the person who was kind to me, and I remember being wobbly the rest of the day. Sometimes travel makes you grow in unexpected ways. Sometimes it hurts. I know a lot more about Vietnam now.
One Christmas I travelled to Australia. In Brisbane on my own after saying a last goodbye to a friend I wandered to Streets Beach from my hotel. It was so hot I think my bones were starting to melt. On the way back, I stopped and had red velvet cupcake gelato. Due to the heat I ended up wearing as much of it as I ate. As I walked by a Cartier shop the security guard out front said hello to me. I have owned a Trinity ring from Cartier for many years. I have walked by the stores in various cities but never felt comfortable going in. I took a few steps past, then turned around, showed him my ring, holding it out as if to say, ‘I am not the poor sunburned slob you see in front of you!’ although I was. He opened the door.
The blast of air conditioning inside felt like Xanadu. The woman who approached me looked like a model. I showed her my ring and she held out a tray for me. Yes, my hands and the ring were sticky from a mix of sunscreen, gelato and sweat as I handed it over, but that did not bother her as she showed me a seat. Ten minutes later she returned and said, ‘It looks like a brand new ring!’ It did.
Australians have no pretentions. I love it, and them, for that.
I’ve wanted to visited Morocco since I saw the movie Casablanca at a young age. The plot was lost of me, but I loved the ceiling fans at Rick’s Café American. The romance of it all was reinforced years later when I discovered the writer Paul Bowles, who lived in Morocco and set the Sheltering Sky there. Other writers like William S Burroughs and Truman Capote and playwright Tennessee Williams also called it home. The American socialite Barbara Hutton had a home in Tangiers she opened to the artistic community. It must have been fun to write and dream and drink and not worry about funding your retirement, something I feel like I’ve been doing since birth. Yes, I had a romantic view of Morocco when I set off. The outside of Barbara Hutton’s home in Tangiers did not knock my socks off. The sand in the Sahara Desert is as hard as a rock. It sounded so romantic to say I slept on a mat in the desert, but the reality was the sand had no give, and after a night of shifting about trying to get comfortable I became very much aware, for the first time in my life, that I had a back. I did not meet the ghosts of any great writers, but it was worth it, to see the shooting stars and the satellites literally flying by. I learned camels are not comfortable to ride and that Bedouins can whip up quite a meal with a gas stove and no refrigerator. Also, Pringles cost a fortune in Morocco. I’m not sure why.
The phone system in Brazil is called TIM. On a trek through South America with friends I had the cheapest phone in the group, and the only one that got coverage. As I called my mom from the airport two other friends said, ‘Could your mom call my mom and tell her I’m ok?’ My mom said yes and made the calls. Later, on Ipanema Beach I called her again to tell her where I was. She mentioned the song the Girl from Ipanema and I was clueless, so she started to sing it as I watched for pickpockets and studied the crashing waves. Later we would have a similar conversation about a song called You Belong to Me when I was in Tangiers. The song says Algiers, which I learned later. I’m sure I will sing it there one day.
The bus ride from Kathmandu to Pokhara takes about ten hours. There’s no air conditioning, and you can’t keep the windows open because of the dust from the road. The bumps are so great my FitBit counted them off as steps. But the thing I remember most is seeing Gurkhas training, carrying packs, running in the dry heat. I wanted to call my father and tell him. He had many books about the Gurkhas, and to see them running along the road beside me created a small moment of connection with my long-gone dad.
Lumbini, birthplace of Lord Sakyamuni Buddha, has to be the hottest place on earth. Not a good place to run out of water while walking the endless grounds and the Fountain of World Peace, but I did just that. A newbie mistake for a seasoned professional. I did however have little cotton socks to put on as you must walk around it without shoes, and I have visited enough holy sites to know to stay covered and bring tiny socks – the heat! the dirt! All those other feet! I had a new pack from Primark, and I was a good girl and shared. I walked the three circles, running my hand along the bells, and offered up my prayers. As I write this I realise one of them has come true. Another reason to return to a country I love. Besides, I have no worries about my ribs if I find my way back to Nepal. Sitting on the sofa watching travel shows during lockdown has covered them up in a way that means they will not raise any bells with airport security. But I figure that will change too, once I get my pack on my back, and get on the road.
Waiting for our deluxe bus ride to start as a random cow stared at me.
While doing an email clear out I found this letter I submitted to a newspaper that had a section about random acts of kindness or something like that. I can’t remember now. But I still remember the lovely young man who helped me on one of the biggest days of my life, and I still say thank you when I think of him.
Dear Nice Guy,
You don’t remember me, but I think about you a lot. I know that sounds a bit creepy, so let me explain.
It was October 23, 2007. I had just taken an overnight flight from Halifax, Nova Scotia, to Heathrow. I’d landed around 6 AM then queued up at immigration with a lump in my throat, eyes gritty from exhaustion, and my heart going a mile a minute. I was about to immigrate to England, and I was terrified. As I clutched my passport with its brand new UK Ancestry visa inside I started to think about all the things that could go wrong. Maybe they’d scan it and discover my dear departed grandfather was a horse thief, and I couldn’t come in. Or maybe they’d look at me, pale with terror and sweating and think, we don’t need her here. With each step in the queue I became more and more nervous, like I was Piglet from Winnie the Pooh trying to immigrate. By the time I was called forward I could barely speak. I forget what I was asked, but then the lovely woman said ‘Welcome to the UK’ and I went weak with relief.
I was here. I’d made it. Now, I had to conquer the tube. Armed with a set of directions sent to me by the friend I would be staying with I set off. I remember waiting outside, looking at people going to work, and thinking I could not wait to be a commuter. Then I got on the train, eventually making my way to Clapham Junction. That’s when things got a little dicey. At the airport in Canada my case was so overweight they were going to get me to re-pack. In the end, I simply paid for extra baggage. My suitcase weighed a ton and was the size of a small fridge but by the time I got to Clapham it seemed to have grown in size and now weighed about two tons and was the size of a Ford Mondeo. Rush hour had started, and it seemed like every person in England was walking down the stairs that I needed to go up and I could barely lift my legs, much less the sum total of my life, housed in a black suitcase that looked fit to burst.
As I stood there panic gave way to despair and I thought, ‘What am I doing here? I should be married, have a mortgage, a clear career path, and instead I am starting over in my thirties where I know one person in a country that has crazy train stations (please note, one of the things I love most about England now is its train stations) and I can’t even CARRY MY OWN SUITCASE!’
I stood to the side, feeling like everyone was staring at me, wearing two coats but starting to sweat for entirely different reasons. I was tired, I was alone, I was scared.
And then you appeared. You had on a long black cashmere overcoat and black Buddy Holly style glasses and when you said, ‘Do you need some help with your case, miss?’ I thought it was the most beautiful question I’d ever been asked, and that includes two marriage proposals.
At first, I admit, I was kind of stunned. And a bit confused. I’m still not great with accents, but back then I was hopeless. If you’d been from Glasgow I’d probably still be standing at Clapham.
‘Yes, please, thanks, wow,’ I gushed, as you carried my case up the stairs, and pointed out where I needed to go.
I know I thanked you profusely, perhaps ridiculously, but you had no way of knowing what your simple act of kindness did for me that morning. No way of knowing that I’d lost my father to Parkinson’s, had been doing contract work and was in debt up to my eyeballs when I decided I needed to start over in a huge, epic fashion. I felt like the weight of the world was both on my shoulders and in my hands. And I felt invisible. That changed when you saw me struggling, perhaps giving up, and stepped in to help.
It was a long time ago but I think of you often, when I’ m at train stations, when I’m travelling and whenever men step in to help with my bag, which seems to happen a lot even though I pack much better now. I thought of you when I landed the job of my dreams, and sometimes when I walk along the Thames, marvelling that I get to call this country home.
I’m sure you don’t remember me, but I will never forget you. Thank you.
The Owner of the Big Suitcase.
There’s a 7-Eleven in Florida that is one of my happy places. It looks out onto what I guess could be considered a busy road. It’s wide and has four lanes but I don’t remember many cars. To the left is the beach and to the right is the place where I get my nails done. I know the shops, the restaurants, the houses well. I just don’t know the name of the street. It’s at the corner of Gulf Boulevard, in Treasure Island, if that helps.
I can’t remember the first time I went into this particular 7-Eleven. I think it was when I put gas in my rental car. There was a little sign saying you had to pay before pumping, so I trotted in, wallet in my hand, my mother’s voice about how easy it would be for someone to mug me ringing in my ears. I went years without a handbag, just carrying around my wallet, hearing her warnings. The closest I came to being mugged was in a parking lot in Stratford Upon Avon in England. I heard my mother’s voice then, too. But that’s another story.
When I tried to pay the tall male clerk said, ‘Yea, that sign doesn’t apply to you,’ and he chuckled.
Because I was Canadian? A woman? I had no idea what he meant. I just felt like I was special the way he said ‘you’. Later I saw the sign indicated this policy was in effect at night, but by then I’d already spun all my theories of what it could mean.
The second time I went in was very early in the morning in the week before Christmas. There was a time when getting out of bed for me took an act of God. I would curl up in warm sheets and hit snooze over and over. My father used to get up early and feed the birds until we complained at the noise they made. Dad was a fan of animals and mornings. In many ways he knew what was important in life, but he was not a fan of hot weather, although he rallied to trot through Disney World with us, and later with his grandchildren. After he passed away my mom, who loved hot weather, started renting a condo in Florida at Christmas. I fell in love with it and the neighbourhood it was in the minute I laid eyes on it. I loved the thatch roofed local bar called the Ka-Tiki. I loved the houses on the road that ran parallel to the beach, especially one that had an outdoor ceiling fan. I looked for it each time I walked by. I fall in love with houses all the time, but I’ve only ever fallen in love with two stores while travelling: A clothing shop in Bellingen, Australia called Retro Bello and a 7-Eleven in Treasure Island, Florida.
I think I was heading to get some milk for my mother’s tea when I ventured into the convenience store the second time, the air conditioning greeting me along with a hello from the clerk that marked my first visit. I saw the coffee pots at the back of the store and headed to them, telling myself convenience store coffee would be pretty dire. When it sits on those little burners is gets a wooden, scorched-earth sort of flavour. And it’s generally weak. So even as I walked toward it, I was preparing myself to be disappointed.
What I saw was not one pot, not two pots, but several pots of coffee. The handles announced the type and I perked up, impressed by the selection and finding my favourite dark roast. Then I saw something that truly thrilled me: International Delights creamers. Lashings of it in those cute little white pots with the covers you peel back.
I love International Delights coffee creamers. I love the French Vanilla flavour and the Bailey’s and the Hazelnut. I love going to American grocery stores and looking for new flavours. Once I saw After Eight and to this day I am disappointed I did not buy it.
I don’t think I can express the simple joy I had standing there in shorts and a t-shirt and sandals, pouring French vanilla creamer into a cup of coffee. As I stood at the cash I wanted to tell the clerk how happy I was, but those are the kinds of things that make people think you are weird. I know this, first hand.
When my sister flew in a few days later I took her to 7-Eleven and showed her the coffee station and the little creamers. Instead of being delighted, she couldn’t believe it as I poured them into my coffee. ‘They’re not good for you,’ she said, sounding much like my mother and her wallet warnings, rather aghast at my stupidity. I am very careful with my diet, but if International Delights cream was laced with arsenic, I think I’d still drink it.
‘I know. But they’re fabulous.’
She looked askance, added one to her coffee, and we walked over to the beach to drink it. It was one of those moments you know you will remember forever. Maybe not the day, or what you were wearing, but the feeling. That all was right in the world. That despite a dodgy bank balance (me) you were indeed pretty blessed. That life was good.
As Florida became a tradition, so too did the 7-Eleven. After a night out dancing at the local bar my brother and another sister and I went there for pizza and ate it on the beach walking home. We bought cold beer there and red wine when we ran out and didn’t have it in us to walk to the Publix. We had so many good times in that little patch of Florida.
We’ve logged many Christmas trips, and I don’t think I’ve ever told anyone how much I love the 7-Eleven, but I’m saying it now. It makes me happy, whatever I’m picking up and whoever I am with.
Maybe its crazy that I find so much happiness in a chain convenience store in Treasure Island, Florida. But I do. I think my Dad would, too. He liked coffee, loved air conditioning, and always enjoyed a chat with a stranger. Sometimes when I sit on the bench and drink coffee with my sister I like to think he knows where we are, and the happiness I feel.
I didn’t make it there for the holidays this year. I hope to return soon. But in the meantime, there’s a certain pleasure in knowing it is there, waiting for me. That the coffee is brewing and the waves rolling. Maybe I’ll find the After Eight flavour on my next trip.
May the coming days bring everyone good coffee, good times, and the simple joy I find at 7-Eleven in Treasure Island, Florida.
Happy 2023. #seveneeleven#7eleven#retrobello#bellingen#creamernation
Two of the characters in my very first book, The Time Between Us, fall in love at Maxim’s. So on a recent magical three day weekend in Paris, I returned with them in book form to revisit their old haunts. I am sure I felt them around me as I strolled the streets of my favourite city. Here’s to them, and to Paris.
Recently I paid an enormous sum of money to fly back to the area of Canada I come from. I wasn’t born in Halifax, Nova Scotia but most of my family lives there now. It is where my mother chose to spend her final days on earth. It is also the place where my sister lives, in a house with a basement where I have stored many of my belongings since I moved to England fifteen years ago.
I have not ventured home often since my move to Europe. When my mother was alive we met up in Florida over the Christmas holidays. I used my vacation days to see new parts of the world. And time has a way of ticking by faster than we would like. Somehow or another, it was my first trip home in four years when I landed. No one was waiting as I got off the plane and it saddened me. When my father was alive he was always at the gate, his shock of white hair making him stand out from everyone else. When he was alone, as he often was, I would yell, ‘Hello, Dad!’ and give him a big hug. My mother never approved of my exuberances, right until the very end. I was more sedate when she was with him at the airport.
On this trip my sister was picking me up, but she was running late. In the end that was a good thing, as I heard myself being paged and learned I had grabbed the wrong suitcase from the conveyer belt. When I exchanged cases with the rightful owner, I all but walked on my knees, grovelling apology after apology.
‘Don’t worry about it. These things happen,’ he said. I felt a bit of a shock at his words. I felt the genuineness of it. I felt the kindness. I felt the relaxed approach to life that does not exist in London. My sister was late and a random stranger was kind. I was indeed home.
We left the airport, driving along the back roads as I marvelled at the beauty of eastern Canada: the endless lakes that dot Nova Scotia, the feeling of community that seems to float out the front doors that line the roads. A cake my niece and her children baked for me greeted me on my sister’s table. It was a multi-layer blue and white concoction decorated with everything from teddy grahams to fruit roll ups. It looked like something the Cat in the Hat would have baked on that rainy day he was inside with the kids. I loved it so much I didn’t want to cut it. But I did. We had a tea party. It was very sweet, both the cake and the party.
I think it was the second day of the trip when I started going through the boxes in my sister’s house. Each trip I cull more and more. Things I thought I couldn’t live without that I now donate to the Salvation Army with ridiculous ease. Wine glasses I have been saving for my forever home? Gone. Caithness glass purchased on my first trip to Scotland? Maybe someone’s life will be improved by the money spent on it at a charity shop. That’s the kind of stuff I think about, now that I am older. A big tea kettle shaped like a grape, bought as a wedding present for someone I never cared for and am not in touch with? Well, that promoted my sister to say, ‘Why on earth would you buy something so ugly?’ We had a good laugh before I tossed it out, too. One simple action and the history and the object were gone.
First edition Calving and Hobbes? I was happy just seeing them and hugged them to my heart. Old Christmas cards and letters. I started going through them, finding a Valentine from someone I barely dated. It was the nicest card anyone ever sent me. Of course I kept it.
I was making some good headway when I saw it, the familiar brown fur poking out at me. Well, not fur. The fuzz they put on stuffed animals. My old ET doll. I picked him up like he was part Faberge egg, part puppy. I knew he was there, but it still felt like the best kind of surprise when I found him. Like he was waiting for me, like my dad used to do.
I was twelve when I went to the theatre to see ET. It was some sort of rite of passage, the first movie I went to with friends, no parent in sight. Although the only movie I saw with my mother I was seventeen and she wanted to go see Song of the South. I drove, she paid. ‘Wasn’t the little bluebird cute?’ she said as I started the car. That’s all I really remember. And it’s more than I remember about ET. But then the merchandising took hold, and I was desperate for an ET doll. I did not think I would get one. My mother had a dislike of cuddly toys I still don’t get. They collected dust? Were a waste of money? I don’t know. But I remember the day my brother David, fourteen years my senior and one of my very favourite people at the time got out of his big blue car with a Dominion Playworld bag in his hands.
That was the posh toy store that sold ET. I remember being excited and nervous. Was it for me or his girlfriend?
I remember him handing me the bag, and I remember ET staring up at me. It was a little bit of magic that still lives in my memory in vivid detail. I had an ET doll! I called my friend to tell her. I ran around the house. I hope I thanked my brother.
Childhood moved on. I’m not sure what replaced ET. Smurfs, maybe. Make up. I cringe when I think of the purple Maybelline eyeshadow I once wore. Some toys were given away. Most of them, actually. But not my ET doll. Never.
ET didn’t make it to university with me. He stayed behind at my parent’s house. He didn’t make it to British Columbia or Toronto or even London, not at first. But this time I decided he was coming home. My sister gave me a Samsonite carry on for all the stuff I was taking back. I never fly with a carryon, as I detest lugging stuff around. This time I had two, and might I say it was great fun trying to navigate the tube with no free hands. I was so tired when I got home it took a few days to unpack. When I opened the carry on ET was staring up at me, like he was waiting for me, as he always has. So he’s here now, an honorary Brit. He’s in pretty good shape, save for a small hole under his arm perhaps caused by all the waving I used to make him do and a bad case of osteoarthritis, maybe from all the years he’s logged in a crate.
I parted with more expensive things. I kept what I had an emotional connection to. What made me happy. Maria Kondo would be proud.
A friend of mine said there might be some value in the ET doll. I could probably sell it on eBay.
‘I’d never part with him. It would hurt too much.’ Like an old friend, we might not have seen each other much, but there was comfort in knowing he was still there.
It’s funny, the things that matter when you get older. But magic is magic no matter your age. And sometimes that magic comes in the form of old toys and tea parties. On my expensive trip home, it certainly did for me.
On a French road trip a few years ago, I was travelling from Carcassonne to Verzeille with a friend when we pulled over in a tiny spot called Pomas. We walked around for a few moments and passed by a man with a serious expression and even more serious beard. As his stare followed us while we searched in vain for an open boulangerie I said, ‘he looks like Solzhenitsyn.’ After a quick wander through the streets that netted no bread products or hot drinks, we were making our way back to the car when I saw the beard and said, ‘there’s Solzhenitsyn, staring at us again.’ Later, after we travelled through several beautiful places and forgot the name for Pomas I said, ‘you know, where we saw Solzhenitsyn.’ It became a bit of a running joke.
For the rest of our trip, as we visited an endless number of fascinating spots, I thought of what stood out about each village and jotted it down. It’s something I do now, with each journey I make. I may have always wanted to cast my eyes on Stonehenge, but it’s the chocolate and toffee coated popcorn bought at a family-run shop in Rye that I was eating in the car which I will always remember. I am certain I am the only person who walked Stonehenge with my teeth stuck together and desperate for a wet wipe, the only person who walked by both an alligator and a big black snake on a camping trip in Florida and was more afraid of the guy with the gun building a fire and drinking beer, and I am convinced I am the only person who, after three days staying in a hotel at the foot of the Himalayas in Pokhara, Nepal, woke one sunny morning, saw the mountains and said, ‘Have they always been there?’
And so, a collection from my wonderful world of travel. I hope to add to it soon.
Buenos Aires: While taking the posh ferry to Uruguay, we snuck into first class and had Champagne. The air conditioning was bliss, and the champers not bad.
Honerau: I got chucked from the train trying to get to Prague because my papers weren’t in order and spent the night in a train station with a big guy from New York with similar paper issues and a bad case of the trots.
Vienna: I remember a park very clearly and that’s about it. Strange, as I spent four days there.
Brussels: I liked the raspberry beer and some swinging wicker chairs outside a pub I discovered. Mostly I remember two men having a loud and long fight under my hotel window.
Ypres: Standing at the Menin Gate on the anniversary of D Day, a woman asked me if she could lean on my husband. I didn’t say, ‘he’s my friend,’ I just saw him nod and her sort of collapse, I think in sadness, against his sturdy frame. I loved him a little bit more for his kindness.
Rio de Janiero: The place where I held hands with my best female friend as we went through some dodgy areas on our way to Carnivale. I felt nineteen. It was a ball.
Karoly Vary: Famous for its thermal springs and spas. I visited one on a girl’s weekend. My masseuse asked me how long I had back issues and I said I was not aware I did. Walked out with a twinge in my back and voila, back issues. The power of suggestion in a creepy building with endless doors.
Prague: Where the waiters at a fantastic restaurant mooned us, a group of ten women on a weekend hen-do. It was brilliant.
Birmingham: Down the road from a huge shopping centre is an art gallery that houses a lovely collection of Edward Burns-Jones’ angels. In the other direction is a memorial to the people who died in the blitz. The positioning of these two such different elements of life always makes me think when I visit the Bull Ring.
Brackley: Beautiful village down the road form George Washington’s ancestral home and where my favourite bench in England resides.
Heptonstall: The poet Sylvia Plath is buried in a cemetery in this part of Yorkshire. After visiting her grave a man walked up to me and said, ‘Do you know where Hugh Grant’s wife is buried?’ causing his wife to bark, ‘not Hugh Grant! Ted Hughes!’
London: Where I started over and got it right.
Nottingham: After wandering around for hours looking for my car, I stopped a community police officer and asked for help, saying I had parked it next to a Hertz. I should have qualified with ‘the car rental people’ because we walked for a few moments and ended up outside a funeral home.
Stonehenge: Walking from the parking lot to the stones behind a family, I heard a young girl singing. I didn’t recognize the song but it seemed innocuous enough, so I was surprised when her father stopped dead in his tracks, wheeled around and said, ‘I’ve waited my entire life to see Stonehenge and I don’t want to hear another $^%$^& word about Justin Bieber today!’ She stopped singing. I started laughing.
Warwick: A castle, the history of the Kingmaker, a haunted alms’ house. One of my favourite villages in England.
Albert: Pivotal to World War I, my friend and I landed at the train station in the pouring rain only to have the employee say she had not heard of the Musee de la Somme even though it was spitting distance away. The first time in my life I said, ‘young people!’
Arras: Ninety percent destroyed during World War I, but I remember it vividly for the suicide note I found in the prayer book in the cathedral. I still feel sick about it.
Bayeux: Walking the streets I’d never seen before but which felt so familiar, I started to believe in reincarnation. I love Bayeux.
Castres: Sat in the sun in a big square and ate fries. A great day in a beautiful place. Excellent fries.
Lille: The place with the scary dinosaur baby statues.
Limoux: A big storm blew up unexpectedly while we were eating outdoors, and my friend’s salad blew away, prompting us both to laugh like fools. Moments like this let you know you’re travelling with the right person.
Mirepois: In the market I thought I’d lost my diamond earrings after trying on a simple hat that cost 99 euros and was cranky the rest of the day, only to discover I left them at the B & B.
Montsegur: After hiking straight up for what felt like days, a rude man at the top decided to inform me of the history of the place and kept saying, ‘do you understood’ while I tried to get away from him. I’m a bit discouraged by this my memory, as it was a beautiful spot with much sad history.
Narbonne: I will always remember this place as being where I had one of the best meals of my life, and the cute little jugs the wine came in. The two may be connected.
Narbonne Plage: A place where my heart opened up, and where I can’t wait to return for a nice long stretch.
Nice: A homeless guy swore at me when I gave him cold orange juice on a hot day. I think he wanted beer. What can I say? I was 21 years old at the time.
Paris: Ah, Paris. This is a long one. At a restaurant called d’Artegnan’s, on a small road called Au Pot de Feu, a German couple sat next to us and we started talking. Somehow the topic of boxing came up and the lovely gentleman ended up telling me he had lived close to Max Schmelling, my father’s favourite boxer. After the meal ended and he was leaving he said, ‘tell your father his daughter is a beautiful delight.’ I smiled but didn’t tell him my father had passed away. It was one of the best days and evenings of the year for me. And the pudding was out of this world.
Perypetuese: While reading the map the driver said to me, the navigator, ‘where is the turn?’ and me, proud as a peacock of my new map reading skills yelled, ‘right here, under my finger,’ causing said driver to pull over and gently take the map and consult it himself.
Renne le Chateau: They were filming a documentary on aliens and kept asking me not to get in the shot as I wandered around in a daze looking for my mother ship. Apparently there are a lot of UFO sightings in the area. My friend remembers it for the large hill we had to drive and how hard it was to find a parking spot.
Sete: At a dodgy bar overlooking the harbour I borrowed the bartender’s pen to write since my travel partner could not set down Sam Eastland’s The Red Coffin and pay attention to me.
St. Afrique: While walking through a market, I trod in dog poo while staring at a very beautiful man, causing my travel partner to howl with laughter.
St. Nazaire, Carcassonne: Walked into the Cathedral thinking a sound system was belting out opera only to discover four Russian opera singers performing. I still get chills thinking about it; but was too cheap to pop for the 15-euro CD they were selling.
Biberach: My first castle, my first walk through the Black Forest. Exciting stuff at 21.
Munich: Where I threw up waiting to board my flight, then started to cry. Travelling is not always easy.
Athens: At the acropolis I saw graffiti that said, ‘Hannibal was here.’ At 21 I was outraged it was defaced. Now I kind of laugh.
Santorini: Greece may have laid the foundations for all kinds of great stuff like democracy and the Olympic Games, but I remember it mostly for fabulous ice cream bars and an American couple getting engaged as a group of us watched the sunset. I really liked her sandals.
Banda Aceh: A beautiful area devastated by the tsunami. After seeing the museum and the monument we went to the memorial park and saw the stone tablets thanking each country for its kindness. An emotional day in an area as hot as a blast furnace.
Pulau: While sitting on a beach outside our Gilligan’s Island style accommodations, a wild boar came tearing down the sand from out of nowhere. At one point it might have frightened me but seeing as the day before I had been aggressively chased by a monkey with huge teeth while on a motorcycle, I barely looked up from my book.
Castiglione: Saw a pair of suede boots in a store window that I still regret having left behind. I am always amazed at the wonderful shops you find in the smallest of places.
Florence: On my first visit I thought it was a large, sprawling, overwhelming city. On my second visit fifteen years later I found it compact and charming. I also discovered I am indeed claustrophobic as I climbed the steps of the Duomo with the heart rate of a rabbit on meth.
Rome: Hotter than ten kinds of hell and worth every drop of sweat shed to see the Colosseum.
Venice: Where I finally had a Bellini at Harry’s Bar. It cost eighteen euros and wasn’t that good. I was also travelling with the wrong people so I need a do-over for Venice.
Kuala Lumpur: A lovely sign in the airport greets you with the information that the penalty for drug smuggling is death. Outside the airport the same thing is written on billboards the size of Wyoming. After seeing this message a few times I contemplated nipping to the loo and flushing my Tylenol. Talk about your effective deterrent to painkillers.
Casablanca: Where my hotel room tried to kill me. Really. Upon entering I missed the foot high mud guard type thing at the door, which was easy to do since the corridor lights were on a timer that went off and on faster than a strobe light, and I pitched headfirst into the loo. Welcome to Morocco! When I recovered, I couldn’t find the slot to put my key to get the lights to work and had to get help from the front desk. When I finally had lights I went to open the ridiculously heavy curtains and discovered where the wall facing the street should be was an open space with a balcony. I looked into the street and thought what the hell, only a superhero could get up here and I’ve never met one of them, so I crawled into bed and fell asleep.
Fez: Arrived during the Slaughter of the Sheep. Glad the tour leader told us men would be walking about with machetes and bags o’ sheep bits before I saw it with my own eyes.
Meknes: Where I saw one of the most beautiful sunsets ever and then had a young man wave at me, smile, and make a heart with his hands. All in all, the sunset was the winner.
Tondra Gorge: Checked into my hotel room and flopped onto my bed only to land on a screwdriver and some screws – that’s how new the room was. Stunning mountain view, cold swimming pool. Having lost my watch I needed a wakeup call but the room lacked phones. One of the employees knocked on my door with his own mobile and said, ‘I set it for you already.’ Nice staff. Can’t remember the name of the hotel.
Sahara Desert: Saw a shooting star as I slept on a matt on the unforgiving desert sand. Was delighted with the experience until the guide showed us sidewinder tracks where one had curled up about fifteen feet away from me overnight. Had I seen it at the time, my screams would still be echoing in the vast desert.
Essaouira: Went for a long walk on the beach with someone I met on the group tour. Thought there was a connection, the beginning of a friendship that might lead to more trips. It did not. This happens, when you travel.
Marrakesh: Lovely hotel, lovely bar in the hotel next door, lovely chocolate martini.
Glasgow: The coolest taxi driver ever hails from Glasgow. After picking me up at my hotel and taking me to see a church designed by Charles Rennie MacIntosh, he then took me to see where the artist was born AND knocked a dead bird off a monument I wanted to photograph. Meeting him was one of the highlights of my trip, and I don’t even know his name. This happens, too, when you travel.
Edinburgh: Family legend has it my grandfather said, ‘I’ll never see Princes Street again’ just before he died. He left Scotland for a better life in Canada only to die young, his health ruined by mining. I hope he knows I thought of him as I walked Princes Street.
Barcelona: Walking through one of the squares, I saw a young man fall off his skateboard and land on his shoulder. His friends fell all over the place laughing as he sat up dazed. One offered a hand and pulled him up. He didn’t get mad that they laughed. How I wished I had my youth to do over.
Madrid: As my travel partner sat sick on a park bench one early morning, I raced into a café trying to find the banos and was told to vamos by the staff. Lovely way to start a trip. No plans to return, despite my love for the Prado Museum.
Stockholm: The friend I was travelling with wanted to go to see a Viking ship at a museum. I had no interest but tagged along, only to find the Vasa was the highlight of the trip for me. I also had my first delicatobol – a creamy mocha coconut thing – that is out of this world and I love them to this day, which is surprising as I don’t like coconut. The things you learn when you travel. Gorgeous people and chocolate and a very cool ship. Not bad for a three-day weekend.
Bangkok: Five minutes after landing at the airport I knew I was going to love Thailand and I was right. The people are beautiful, the food out of this world, and the weather perfection.
Chiang Mai: Walking down the street one night after sitting on a rooftop patio listening to Elvis Presley, I saw a rather inebriated tourist trip, fall into a parked car, spin around and trip over the curb, spin around again and fall over a gate into the street. It was like some sort of urban ballet and made me laugh for hours, especially when his travel companion took my arm and said, ‘watch yourself, miss’ when I was standing still and in no danger. Brilliant night.
Colonia: Where I had very good sangria on one of the hottest days I have ever experienced and got dizzy climbing a lighthouse. The two are not connected.
Grand Canyon: After hiking in the boiling heat all day, we pitched a tent, desperate for some sleep. Suddenly, the air was filled with the patter of paws and the howls of what I was certain were man-eating wolves. Terrified I tried desperately to wake my boyfriend at the time only for him to say, ‘Go to sleep, it’s just kids playing.’ In the morning the ranger told a sleep deprived me, ‘Oh, those were coyotes and could have been miles off. Things echo in the Canyon.’
Mesa: Where the campground caught fire and where I talked in the shower rooms to a local woman about her recent marriage for so long that her husband came in looking for her. She said, ‘come on in honey it’s just me and the Canadian from the site over’. In he came and we all got to talking, standing by the sinks. I regret to this day I did not keep in touch with them. Sonny and Dee, if you get this, please get in touch.
Phoenix: Where a Burger King employee gave me a free apple pie after a staff member really messed up my order. The manager was a man wearing blue eye shadow and I was staggered at how good it looked on him and thought about asking for makeup tips.
Winslow: Driving along I saw a sign for Winslow, Arizona and wondered why it sounded so familiar. Since this was in the dark days before smart phones I was left to ponder until I saw a sign telling me I was ‘standing on a corner in Winslow, Arizona,’ and we ended up singing Eagles songs as we found a dodgy bar. I do this a lot – sing in cars and look for dodgy bars.
Bakersfield: In a shopping mall food court I started singing Far Away Eyes, my favourite Rolling Stones song, which mentions Bakersfield. These things are very exciting when you are twenty-three.
San Francisco: On my first trip I stayed with a friend who parked me on her sofa while she spent the weekend talking to her boyfriend in Germany. On my second trip I saw a woman urinate standing up in front of a shop in a district called the Tenderloin. I won’t tell you what I saw on my third trip. I thought it would be all flowers in your hair, but it was not. I like the Ghirardelli chocolate, though.
Key West: After three visits I still love Key West. At the Green Parrot I drank cold draft for a buck a pop, ate birthday cake someone brought in for a local, and danced to a juke box. Heaven.
Miami: Where I had my first of many mudslides.
Orlando: Mecca for us Mouseheads. The sun setting over Main Street USA is one of my favourite things to experience.
Tampa Bay: Home to my favorite beach on earth, Sunset Beach; and the live music at the local bars is out of this world.
St. Augustine’s: On my first trip as a small child I was taken to the Old Jail, and remember being terrified of the guillotine. On my second trip I remember passing the Old Jail and feeling that same creepy feeling, then watching porpoises play in the water. On my last trip it was so cold we sat in a British pub and I worried about the porpoises. I love Saint Augustine’s, creepy jail and all.
Atlanta: Where Margaret Mitchell lived. As a thirteen-year-old I read Gone with the Wind and dreamed of being a Southern writer. Standing in the spot where she lived as she wrote it sort of took my breath away.
Savannah: After reading Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, a friend and I travelled to Savannah, where they refer to it as ‘the book’. While standing in Monterey Square a local man with two different coloured eyes looked at me and said, ‘I know the house you looking for. I know the boy Jimmy done shot. Come on, I’ll show you.’ He was intoxicated and I was nervous but we followed him anyway.
Tybee Island: Sitting on a park benchon a long pier after partaking of a few sea breezes I watched some men pulling on a fishing rod. To my delight they pulled up a shark! After he flopped around for a while (and I curled up in a ball on my travel companion’s lap) they pulled the hook out of his nose and tossed him back in. I did not set a toe in the ocean for the rest of the trip, and kept an eye on the sand, just in case.
Skidaway Island: After booking a camp site I was told to ‘watch for gators, its nesting season.’ I did not sleep for three nights. This allowed me the additional fun of discovering my travel partner slept with his eyes partially opened, leading me to believe he was stung by something and having a reaction and waking him, which did not make him happy.
Boston: Weekend trips from university, shopping and history. Take out the beans and Boston is magical.
Cape Cod: Mashpee Commons shopping. Outdoor shops that feel like Main Street, USA. Wonderful stuff.
Hyannis Port: On a road trip with my mother and sister I discovered I am the only member of my family with a sense of direction, and in Hyannis Port I learned I do not like soft shell crab. My sister still laughs at my reaction to the deep-fried nightmare arriving on a bun.
New Hampshire: In the parking lot of a liquor store about the size of the Mall of America, I watched a group of kids chuck rocks at cars, unsure of what to do. A man behind me had no such qualms and called them a few names that made both them, and me, scramble.
Las Vegas: On my first trip I did the Stratosphere, one of the ten most intense rides in the world. On my second trip I won a teddy bear with my throwing skills at New York, New York. Anything is possible in Vegas. I love it.
Santa Fe: Arrived during a festival of some kind, perhaps an effort to appease some Sun God and have him turn the rays down a shade as the heat was unbelievable. I had the best lemonade ever and loved the streets and shops of Santa Fe. It is gorgeous.
Kill Devil Hills: Sunshine, beaches and brilliant restaurants. It has it all, but I remember it for almost drowning. Not a good time.
Newport: I hear I had a good time at a jazz festival here. The photos seem to indicate that is the case
Columbia: Where I thought I fell in love. I was wrong, and for this I am eternally grateful.
Nashville: Home to my favourite airport bar. I have logged many hours here, waiting to be collected by Southern friends.
Seattle: The place where I first had pesto on a slice of pizza in Pioneer Square at 2 in the morning. Great memories.
Aberystwyth: While driving along admiring the extreme landscape, a fighter jet came from out of nowhere and scared me so badly I screamed in my car. It really echoes, both fighter jets and car screams.
Cardiff: On my first visit I sat in a pub in the pouring rain and ate bad food while trying to work out the sign that said ‘toilets upstairs’ in Welsh.
Caernarvon: Castle ruins right on the water and a walled city. I expected to stumble on a dragon, or a knight, with each step.
Llandudno: At a lovely hotel overlooking the bay the staff upgraded my room when I told them the boiler was broken at my house and I hadn’t had a proper hot bath in a week. I think the tears helped as well.
Australia, Nepal, New Zealand, Florida and Maine.