The Simple Joy of 7-Eleven

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

What We Keep

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.

ET enjoying my back garden.
My fabulous cake. Please note the Teddy Grahams reclining on fruit rollups.

Travel Snippets

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.

Argentina

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.

Austria

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.

Belgium

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.

Brazil

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.

Czech Republic

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.

England

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.

France

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.

Germany

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.

Greece

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.

Indonesia

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.

Italy

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.

Malaysia

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.

Morocco:

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.

Scotland

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.

Spain

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.

Sweden

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.

Thailand

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.

Uruguay

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.

USA

Arizona

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.

California

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.

Florida

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.

Georgia

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.

Massachusetts

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.

Nevada

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.

New Mexico

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.

North Carolina

Kill Devil Hills: Sunshine, beaches and brilliant restaurants. It has it all, but I remember it for almost drowning. Not a good time.

Rhode Island

Newport: I hear I had a good time at a jazz festival here. The photos seem to indicate that is the case

Tennessee

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.

Washington State

Seattle: The place where I first had pesto on a slice of pizza in Pioneer Square at 2 in the morning. Great memories.

Wales

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.

Next Up:

Australia, Nepal, New Zealand, Florida and Maine.

Another Ides, Come and Gone

March 15th was the Ides of March. For some reason I embrace this date in history like St Patrick’s Day or one of those bank holidays that give us a four-day weekend. I look forward to it, perhaps because I had a pretty good teacher in high school for this period of history. Maybe because I did a minor in Classics at university. But mostly I think it’s the writing in Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Julius Caesar. Studying this play taught me so much about word usage and drama and history and literary terms, which I love.

A tragedy is not something terribly sad, at least as it is defined in literature. It is the story of the fall of a heroic person, which brings us to the question, was Caesar a tragic hero? Well, yes. Because he was noble enough to go against orders from his superiors, but fell victim to his fatal flaw, his ambition. Was he truly the tragic hero in the story? Maybe not. That could be Brutus, who thinks long and hard over actions he takes then thinks long and hard over whether he made the right decision, before falling on his own sword. Brutus is my spirit animal, some days. Think, think, think, then regret. Thankfully I don’t own any swords, and we have something Roman’s didn’t have – therapists and cheap wine from Sainsbury’s.

As I’ve studied English at various levels I’ve read a few of Shakespeare’s plays. Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear. For pleasure I’ve read A Midsummer Night’s Dream. When I lived in Stratford Upon Avon, I saw the Royal Shakespeare Company perform Twelfth Night and Romeo and Juliet. Due to a stunningly good high school English teacher I can still quote endless soliloquies and sonnets. But it is the story of Julius Caesar that captivates me most. Now, Julius Caesar did remarkable things, but perhaps the most important was appointing his adopted nephew Octavian as his successor. Rome flourished under his calm, competent leadership. Caesar also ushered in the era of the Twelve Caesars, with other exemplary leaders like Claudius and Tiberius and Hadrian. But it is always Caesar and Shakespeare’s take on him that I return to.

If I really think about it, and I have, and I do, it’s the Soothsayer who makes this play my favourite. He has nine lines in the whole thing but is a pivotal character. He does his absolute best to save Caesar but is dismissed as being mad. Still, he tries and tries. I like the way he reads the crowd, how he knows where to stand so he can get close to Caesar to speak to him. I like how when Caesar challenges him, saying as he passes, ‘the Ides of March have come,” the Soothsayer replies, “Aye, Caesar, but not gone.’ I love his confidence in his skill, and I love his quick reply. We all know in the end he was right, and if he gloated about it, Shakespeare never let on, and thankfully it was before the days of cable news and he wasn’t on CNN telling Anderson Cooper his side of the story.

As I’ve gotten older, the play has taught me a lot about life. Brutus was a friend who turned against him, which happens, but Marc Antony went on to be the kind of friend we all wish we had and avenges his friend’s murder. That might be extreme but talk about loyalty!

Caesar himself was no slouch when it came to reading people and I remember being quite captivated as he studied Cassius and drew up his own conclusions.

Caesar asks Antony for fat men to surround him, knowing they are happy, complacent, and will not bite the hand that feeds them. Shakespeare would be called out for fat shaming today, but that was not the point. He knew people happy with their place would be loyal, but not so the thin and scheming Cassius. Perhaps planning a murder burns up calories. This is not something I can easily research, as I’m a bit afraid of plugging that into Google. Still, Caesar sees him and knows to be weary. He says, ‘Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look
He thinks too much: such men are dangerous.’

If only someone had told Caesar about Brutus. Oh, wait.

The lesson here is to be careful of the people who surround you. Nicely done for showing, not telling, Mr Shakespeare. 

I think the play fed my interest in the Roman empire, its history and its accomplishments. I also quite liked the idea of living in a hot climate and wearing flowing white togas and sandals all the time. Sort of solves the mystery of why I didn’t date much in high school, I guess.

So another Ides has come and gone. I spent the day thinking about Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, two men from another time and place, an empire long gone, and how great it would be to have a soothsayer looking out for me. And possibly a friend like Marc Antony.

Shakespeare. Cheaper than therapy and better for you than wine.

Merry Christmas to Me

So, I’ve bought myself a leather biker jacket. I’ve wanted one for a while, and thought I deserved a Christmas treat. The company selling it had a 20% off sale, so I ordered it. I felt both exhilarated and guilty, the way I sometimes do when I shop. Guilty at spending money on myself. Exhilarated because once, when I was a sales rep for a publishing house, the author of one of my favourite books came to talk to us dressed in a biker jacket, jeans and Converse trainers. I’m sure she was wearing a top, but I clocked on the jacket and shoes. She had style and confidence and was the writer I wanted to be, back then. I felt a mixture of envy and enlightenment as I listened to her talk about her old family home falling apart after centuries, and how it hurt to see the land where it once stood. After my parents sold our house, I had recurring dreams about the sale falling through, and us being able to stay there. It’s funny. I have no desire to see my hometown ever again, but I still miss that house. Ordering from catalogues may be simple, but when it comes to ordering from the Universe, I like to complicate things.

I don’t know if it was a girl crush or her visiting was part of some universal plan to set me on the right path, but her short talk to a bunch of sales reps had a profound effect on me. Someone else mourned a dwelling as though it was a person. I felt a connection, like my thoughts were not crazy, but shared by another. And I really liked what she was wearing. I immediately bought a pair of Converse trainers. I’m now on my third pair.

As I waited for the jacket to arrive, I thought about all the Christmases I had growing up. We were a Christmas family. Birthdays were not celebrated. I can count on one hand the number of birthday cakes I’ve ever had. But Christmas celebrations were epic, with at least a dozen people at the house, excellent food that seemed to flow in a steady stream, and a warm home with a fantastic tree surrounded by carefully wrapped presents. It was easily the most wonderful time of the year.

As I got older, things changed. The focus on presents was around the grandchildren. Instead of wrapping gifts Christmas eve my dad and I went to my nephew’s hockey games. We stopped for coffee afterwards. When I got home I ended up in the kitchen as my mother prepared feast after feast. I was tasked with simple duties and looking back it seems I spent a lot of time crushing walnuts with a rolling pin. That can’t be right, but some things stick in the mind, and others don’t. For me, it’s walnuts. And clothing choices, I guess.

My jacket arrived on the morning of the 23rd, and as I pulled it from the box I knew it wasn’t right. It was too small, perhaps not in actual size but in how I wanted it to hang. The zippers were too big, too showy. Even as I pulled it on I knew it would be going back. Looking in the mirror, I felt like I was going to a Hallowe’en party, dressed as the Terminator. It wasn’t what I wanted, after all. Part of me was disappointed, part of me was pleased. Once it was returned my credit card would be paid in full again. This started me thinking. If I had ordered it when I first saw it, I would not have wasted so much time hankering after it. I could have ordered it, returned it, and moved on. I would have known sooner that I am not the leather biker jacket type. Since that day I’d listened to that author, things had changed. I was now a published author. I had done it my own way, mostly in a hoodie. The holidays are different now, too.

After my dad died, Christmas changed forever. I suggested going to Florida one year and we ended up at a gorgeous condo right on the water. We met great people. We didn’t exchange presents, and we didn’t have turkey. But a new tradition was born. Long walks on the beach, cold beer at an outdoor bar, shopping at factory outlets. I loved every second of our Florida holidays.

If I could order up a Christmas the way I ordered up a biker jacket, I’d ask for such different things. The stuffing my mother used to make, and her mashed potatoes. A trip to the rink to see my nephew play hockey. Coffee with my dad, sitting on a bench at my favourite condo in Florida, in flips flops, jean shorts and hoodie. It might not fit perfectly, but I know it would hang just right.

My First Attempt At Casting

The publisher who bought the audio rights to my novel sent me a questionnaire awhile back, asking if I had any ideas on who I wanted as a narrator.

I thought about it for a second, thinking how much I loved Cillian Murphy in Peaky Blinders, or Tom Hardy in, well, anything, when I realised I needed an American accent. And a male actor, if it is okay to say that. There are two female leads in my book, but the character who seems to resonate with most readers is the main male character, Hank. I may have made him up but I see him in my mind as clear as day. I know how he walks and talks. And I want good things for him. I love Hank, the way I love Tim Foley, a male character in a book called Gypsy Autumn that found a place in my fourteen-year-old heart and has stayed there ever since. The way I love Dominick Birdsey from Wally Lamb’s beautifully sad yet life affirming I Know This Much Is True. Mark Ruffalo played the part in the screen adaptation and was perfection. I love him too, and Michael Keaton and Colin Farrell and Tom Hiddleston. I told myself to be realistic, narrator-wise. But then I remembered something.

A friend told me a while back I had to start dreaming bigger. Thinking about Tom Hiddleston narrating your book is the big league of dreams, I think. So I gave myself a pat on the back and got back to work. I thought about Hank’s voice, his dignity, his quiet strength, while giving myself permission to imagine without constraint while running through a catalogue of shows and series I loved. Frasier is my all-time favourite, and while I think David Hyde Pierce can do anything, he seems so happy on Broadway I didn’t want to pull him away from that. My other favourite series is Criminal Minds, about a group of FBI profilers who solve crimes with intelligence and not force. If I thought there was an agent like Aaron Hotchner, Spencer Reid, Derek Morgan or David Rossi in real life, I’d pitch a tent on the lawns of Quantico. A squatter at FBI headquarters. That’s something I could see myself doing, if it was summer and my tent had a shower and bathroom.

By the time I was done Spielberg was directing the audio, Andre Rieu was playing the violin with his orchestra, and Tom Hanks was playing Hank. I was being interviewed by Anderson Cooper and I had so much money in the bank I went shopping at Louis Vuitton on a whim.

Imagination is a wonderful thing.

Truth be told, Hank’s voice and his character is based on a soldier I saw being interviewed who fought in Normandy and Bastogne. I would have asked my publisher if we could have had him, if it was possible. This would have been my dream – maybe not the biggest dream, but genuine. Much like Hank.

In the end my Australian publisher sent me some audio auditions and I chose a man who read beautifully and had a family connection to Normandy. I liked the symmetry of that.

Still I think about the soldier I saw interviewed, and I like to think he knows, wherever he is, about the role he played in my book. He does, at least in my imagination.

To Have and to Publish

I can still remember where I was when I said it. Part prayer, part desperate plea, part hideous, crawling fear that I was wasting my life and would never be happy.

I can’t remember the time of year but I know the kitchen of the house where I stood was dark, even though it was daytime, and despite the windows. It was a grey, rainy, windy kind of day where you could either curl up with a good book or a long-haired stranger in a white shirt and riding boots could knock on your door, looking for Catherine. With my luck the stranger would show up just as I was hitting the best part of the story, and he’d have a horrible cold. Perhaps an axe. Maybe both.

I don’t know what motivated my actions, but I do remember walking in circles as I said, ‘I just want to write a book, I want to be a writer. I want to be a published author. I don’t care if I ever get married, I just want to write books.’

It appears some omnipotent force was listening that day, for my debut novel is about to go live on Amazon. I’m not sure that’s the correct way of saying so perhaps I should be clearer. An agent signed me in July 2020. My book was edited and rewritten and cried over, mostly by me but perhaps by my editor, too – I’m not sure.  Last December, a London publisher made an offer. Two audio book companies bid for the rights. Contracts were signed. Germany bought the rights, and a translation is being worked on as I write this.

Still, I didn’t want to tell anyone. I waited for the email saying ‘Oops, we meant to sign a Martina McLennon who wrote a book called This Time Among Us’.

I started writing my second book. I worried about my third. But still, it didn’t feel real. Even as the jacket was designed. Even as the advance money started to roll in. I felt I was tempting fate when I wrote out my acknowledgments. But I kept going, because all I’ve ever wanted, since I started reading books at the school library years ago, was to be a writer.

Then, magical things started happening. People I’d lost touch with read about my deal in the trade papers and got in touch. Friends started asking when they could buy a copy. One heady day I was asked if I would be doing a signing in Canada.

So I sent out an email to all my friends who at one point had heard me say, head bowed, voice soft, that I wanted to write. Unless I’d had a glass of red wine in which case the strength of my voice and how I held my head varied.

And I was overwhelmed by the support and kindness and love shown me by the people I told.

I’m still not convinced that on November 11th the digital version will drop. In eight days I will know for sure. And I’m still not married.