Philly Kindness

A few years ago, I was making my way to Florida for Christmas. My mother had started renting a condo there for the holidays after my dad died, and from the moment I laid eyes on the place, nestled between the Gulf of Mexico and the Intracoastal Waterway, I loved it madly.

The first trip was during the great economic meltdown of 2008-2009, which also happened to be during El-Nino, and the weather was perfect. Eighty degrees and sunny for the three weeks I was there. I met new people, danced on the beach and found new happy places.

In 2009-2010 I invited some friends to help me celebrate my birthday. The weather was cool and the energy different, but as we danced at the local beach bar on New Years eve I loved it even more.

Maybe it was the following year, I’m not sure, as dates have a way of getting away from me, but I was very excited as I made my way to Heathrow, anticipating a rather fabulous time. I was excited about the pool, the random chats with strangers, the food, the shopping… everything. I was all but humming with excitement as I stood in the queue at check in. As I approached the ticket agent (if that’s the right term?) I knew something was up by the way she dropped her eyes when she saw my reservation before saying, ‘The second leg of your journey has been cancelled. You will be overnighting in Philadelphia. There’s nothing I can do so I don’t want to hear about any of your problems.’

It was clear she loved her job and had exemplary customer service skills, refusing to look up and barking at me the way she did. I was angry, for a second, then I shrugged and said, ‘there’s nothing you can do about it, why would I yell at you?’ It was a subtle dig at her in many ways, but I’d flown enough to know these things happen, and I’d get there eventually. She looked up at me in surprise and said, ‘I like the way you handled that.’ Then she gave me my boarding pass and sent me on my way.

I remember using my credit card to call my sister and let her know what was happening so she could cancel my shuttle van. Then I walked around the terminal, taking in the familiar and fabulous sights.

I got on the plane and found myself sitting next to a young girl, nineteen, maybe twenty. She was talking to her mom, asking her to book her a hotel. She was crying, scared of being in Philadelphia on her own maybe, or perhaps desperate to get home after a long time away.

After she hung up I said, ‘I’m sure the airline will provide us with accommodations. Call your mother back, tell her I’ll make sure you’re ok when we land.’ I forget her name now but I will never forget her smile when I said this. ‘Tell her I’m Canadian, so she has nothing to worry about.’ To this day I have no idea why I added that part.

Flights, airports, everything is different during the Christmas season. People feel the kindness of the time. The magic. I remembered the year I took a shuttle to the condo along with six other strangers. The driver was wearing a Santa hat. When Feliz Navidad came on the radio we all started singing along to the chorus. I was the last person to reach my destination and I felt giddy and teary, watching my fellow passengers being dropped off, walking into big hugs as people waited outside for them, Christmas lights blinking in the darkness of the land surrounded by water.

This flight was subdued, perhaps everyone on board had dealt with the same agent I had. I don’t know why but it was quiet. It didn’t feel so jolly.

Then, we arrived in Philadelphia. Those of us who were overnighting unexpectedly were asked to make our way to a kiosk to get our new flight information. I remember thinking, here we go, navigating a new airport at ten at night, me looking out for someone’s kid. But we didn’t have to look because employees met us as we got off the plane. They were wearing Santa hats and had all our information ready and organised, including a shuttle to our hotel, to which we were escorted. As we made our way I pretended I was famous, being guided by bodyguards through the thronging mass of adoring fans. This also perked me up considerably.

It was snowing lightly as we stepped out into the cold night into the waiting shuttle van. It made the drive pretty, seeing the white flakes against the lights on the highway. When we arrived at the hotel the driver opened the van doors and took out our luggage, carrying it to the door of the hotel. There were maybe eight of us, and as he ferried back and forth I dug in my bag for the US money I had from my last trip. All I could find were a handful of ones, and not a big handful either. I folded it up to make it look better, thanked him, and said Merry Christmas. Then I raced inside before he could see my four dollar tip.

As I stepped inside the lobby I could feel a different energy. The quiet, subdued passengers from the flight all seemed to be getting a second wind, a new sense of joy, as we stood about, not quite sure how to proceed. It was quiet, the bar empty, but someone asked if they could get a Philly cheesesteak nearby and then someone else said that sounded like a great idea and the person working reception called the kitchen and the bar lights came on and everyone suddenly seemed rather delighted with this unexpected stop. I stood watching until it was my time to check in. I didn’t want a Philly cheesesteak. I wanted to take a shower and go to sleep. I asked if it would be possible to get an apple, some crackers, and a mug of herbal tea. The worker came back with stuff she found in the kitchen. When I handed her my voucher she said, ‘Save it honey, use it for breakfast.’

I melted at the kindness, and at being called honey. Grabbing my suitcase I found the elevator and made my way to my room.

Now, I love hotels. I love the way they smell. I love the quiet when you walk down the halls. I love looking at the décor and deciding if I like it or if I would do something different. I love the quiet. This one was very much to my liking: a king size bed with white sheets and a jumbo tv. At the time I was sleeping on a bed from Ikea and didn’t own a tv, so it felt like a suite at the Ritz. The bathroom was gorgeous, clean and modern, and I stood under the hotel shower until I was embarrassed by all the hot water I was using. I turned on the TV and found the Big Bang Theory, a show I liked at the time. Heavier snow was falling, and as I watched it land in the parking lot, a little part of me hoped there was a storm, and I got to stay another night.


My flight was leaving at just after eight, and I made my way to checkout very early. I had a mug of coffee while I was waiting and skipped breakfast. The same clerk served me, and this time I was ready. In my large suitcase I had copious amounts of British chocolate – Cadbury Roses and all kinds of stuff. I had pulled some out for the woman who had been so kind the night before. As I handed it to her she said, ‘Girl, you gonna make me cry,’ then she came from behind the desk and gave me a hug.

We got to the airport, and I found my gate. Then I took a little stroll. Nothing makes me happier than an airport. They are the portals to new dimensions. Gateways to new experiences.

On the flight I was sat between two children. The parents were on the other side with one child and I offered to move but the kids were happy. One wanted to sit next to the window and one wanted to sit next to his mother, across the aisle. So I sat in the middle. Somehow we all ended up watching Despicable Me together. I hadn’t seen it and thought it was hilarious. The little boy took on a Siskel and Ebert approach, resting his hand on my knee as he filled me in on the backstory. The parents slept. I had fun.

And then I landed at the Tampa Airport. My happy place. How I love it. When you get on the tram and you see the outside, the blue sky and the palm trees, I feel like life makes sense.

I made my way to baggage claim then outside to hail a cab. I hadn’t rebooked a shuttle because I didn’t want to wait.

The driver asked me where I was from and before I knew it I was hearing about some footballer he loathed and I’d never heard of, so I looked out the window and watched for cool billboards, something I only do in Florida. I love seeing adverts for Cracker Barrel and shopping malls and restaurants I’ve never heard of and factory outlets I love. I love crossing the bridge that seems to float just above the water. I love seeing the sign that welcomes you to Treasure Island, Florida. I could go on for days about the things I love, the same way the driver was still bleating on about football when I said, ‘Stop! Stop! There’s my sister! Pull over.’

I had the door open before he came to a full stop as my sister looked slightly alarmed at everything that was happening as she tried to carry a bag of groceries. She climbed in with me, saying, ‘I saw this little blond ponytail and thought, that looks like Marina…’ she rambled. It was a nice break from hearing about some overpaid goon who played for Chelsea. Only I could go to Florida and find a cabbie obsessed with the premier league, something I almost avoided in NW England, where I lived at the time.

But it was nice. I was excited to see my sister, and she was happy to both see me and set down the groceries she had walked all the way to Publix to buy.

The guard at the complex waved us through, and I gave both him and my cabbie some British chocolate.

Later that day we walked on the beach and I told my sister about a funny movie I’d seen on the plane, with ‘little yellow characters that looked like buckets’ as she yelled, ‘minions!’

I laughed as I thought of how the ticket agent dealt with me in Heathrow, and how things had turned out. I loved my hotel in Philadelphia (I think it was called the Four Points) I loved the interaction with the staff, I loved the airport and I loved how the young girl who was so scared on the plane sat at the bar and told me she was fine, so I could go to bed. I loved the staff wearing Santa hats and the shuttle driver and the hot shower and how comfortable the bed was. I loved the sunshine and buying groceries and drinking a cold Bud Light Lime by the pool. I loved meeting up with people I’d come to know on earlier trips. I loved the feeling of the place, even with the hiccups that come with traveling with family.

With travel, as with life, approach is everything. How the agent dealt with me was her approach, how I replied was mine. Maybe she’d been yelled at by all the customers who came before me. Maybe she had a friend coming in and she’d been excited to meet them and now they were delayed as well. I don’t know. What I do know is that giving her grief was not going to help, and perhaps she could have been a bit kinder in how she informed me. But it all turned out ok. And I hope she had a great holiday.

The world seems to be on fire, and the United States is changing. The off the chart customer service you once took for granted is not there anymore. The weather is crazy and so is the politics. I haven’t been since before the pandemic and don’t know when I will return. But I remember that trip and it still brings me happiness. I think it is better to celebrate the joy in the memory than lament the current state of affairs.

Approach is everything. And so is pretending.


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.

Copenhagen and History

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.


Self Promotion

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!

World Thoughts

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.

Random Acts

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.

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


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.

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.