How’s Your Spider Sense?

Last summer, I spent a month on the road in Europe, as part of an international business school experience. For the last little while, I’ve been posting an occasional series of purely self-indulgent* essays, inspired by the slice-of-life wisdom that only travel brings.

*You could say that I’m invoking the “it’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to” rule. After all, it’s my blog and I’ll… etc. etc. Still, I hope these are at least a little entertaining.

Over several years of roaming around other countries, I’ve worked at amping up what I call my “spider sense”.

This is something we all have, in varying degrees. It’s that queasy little feeling you get when someone is trying to scam you, or when you’ve stepped into an unfamiliar neighbourhood and something isn’t quite right.

Last summer, I put my spider sense to the test when I went to Bratislava. (Bratislava is the capital of Slovakia, a country that came about when the former Czechoslovakia dissolved in 1993.) I’d never been in eastern Europe, so I was very excited but also a little bit cautious.

I found what looked like a really nice hotel (at a great price), and started figuring out how to get there from the airport. Since I was arriving at 10 PM, it looked like I might have to break one of my primary transport rules and take a taxi. I justified the extra expense based on my safety, and knowing that I could walk to the train station for my departure the next day.

At the same time, I’d started poking through the  Lonely Planet Guide to the Czech & Slovak Republics. I checked the taxi section for Bratislava, which talked about an “unofficial English-speaking surcharge” followed by a reference to “skulduggery”. This looked to me like polite Lonely-Planet-lingo for “thieving cab drivers”. I hit the web and found a current online guide to Bratislava — with an article charmingly titled “Taxis – How not to get cheated”.

Decidedly nervous by now, I checked my hotel’s website and discovered that they had a driver service. Brilliant! I wrote to them and we made arrangements for the driver to pick me up at the airport and bring me to the hotel. This would cost me 23 euros. Not cheap, but not outrageous. I was all set.

I arrived in Bratislava, got through the customs line-up and looked around for a guy holding up a sign with my last name on it. Nope.

So I went outside to the front of the terminal and waited. Nope.

I tried calling the hotel, and couldn’t get through. The lady who’d been sitting beside me on the flight tried calling the hotel, and couldn’t get through. I went back into the airport to the car rental kiosk, to see if the car rental guy could try the hotel on his land line. And … he couldn’t get through.

A British couple was also at the kiosk, waiting for their rental car, and asked what had happened. When I told them, the wife shook her head and said “Well, whatever you do, don’t take a taxi. They’ll rob you blind.” I smiled and thanked her, but my inside voice was busy muttering obscenities.

Car Rental Guy told me to take a bus to the train station, and even showed me how to buy a ticket from a ticket machine. I figured out the bus schedule and then I checked my spider sense. Was this really a good idea? My spider sense seemed pretty calm. I checked again. Still calm. So, I caught the bus. I reasoned that if I got to the train station and things were too scary, I’d be able to find a last-resort taxi pretty easily. Plus, I had a map. A rudimentary map, but still a map.

Here's my goofy little photocopied map

Here’s my funny little photocopied map

By the time the bus got to the train station, it was 11:30 PM and very dark. My hotel was at 4 Stefanikova Street and according to my little map, Stefanikova Street was right off the train station. I walked a few steps and checked my spider sense. I was feeling a little more cautious, but still OK. So I just started walking, looking for street signs and building numbers. A few minutes in, I found a building that claimed to be 8 Stefanikova Street. That seemed encouraging. Lo and behold, 4 Stefanikova Street was another 50 steps away. Ta dah! It was that easy.

Doing stuff like this will momentarily make you feel like Marco Polo. It doesn’t last, but it sure feels awesome in the moment. What does last, though, is a newer spider sense, made stronger by experience.

Your spider sense is a gift, and the time you spend learning to listen to it will pay off handsomely. It will warn you when you’re heading into trouble, as well as reassuring you when things are actually OK. And don’t tell me that you don’t have one, because you do. We all do. You can trust me on this one. Just ask your spider sense.

Walking In Your Footsteps

This summer, I spent a month on the road in Europe, as part of a summer field school in Austria and Italy. For the last little while, I’ve been posting a series of self-indulgent essays, inspired by the slice-of-life wisdom that only travel brings. Today, however, is a little different.

Because today is Remembrance Day.

“they say the meek shall inherit the earth”
Walking in Your Footsteps, The Police

July 6, 2014

Dear Jan,

Yesterday, I went to see the place where you spent the final days of your life: the site of the Mauthausen Concentration Camp.

And you are not one person named Jan. You are many. Far too many.

You came into Mauthausen from Poland, and so your name is Jan. But if it was Italy, you’re called Giovanni. If you were born in the Soviet Union, it’s Iwan. Holland, Johannes. France, Jean. Spain, Juan. And on it goes.

You share a first name with my own beloved father, who was called John, although he was just a boy the day you were marched through the gates of this hell on earth.

It took me a couple of hours to get there from Vienna, on the train. I was nervous. Mauthausen was one of the most lethal concentration camps in Europe. I expected to feel an aura of evil rising up out of the ground. I’d already made the decision not to take any photos.

Instead, what I found was a quiet, solemn place of memorial. A memorial to you and to the legions whose lives were stolen on this small tract of land, overlooking a quarry. One row of the barracks you lived in has been preserved. I can walk into the rooms and see the very beds you slept on.

It’s all strangely benign and I find this disturbing. I tell my companion that I feel like I’m walking through an interpretive display in one of Canada’s national parks. I have to keep reminding myself that my feet are falling on the very same ground as yours, Jan. The same ground as thousands upon thousands of prisoners.

As a Canadian born in 1961, I’ve only experienced WWII in movies and history books. As surreal as it feels, Mauthausen is not a movie.

There’s a pattern to how we visitors are guided through this site. Once we’re past the barracks, the path leads us into another building that houses a museum. Here, the spaces are filled with artifacts that are much more personal. A prisoner’s glasses. Another’s drawings. And one that momentarily takes my breath away — a filthy pair of the infamous blue and grey striped uniforms that prisoners wore. No, this is not a movie.

In another room is a chapel. It’s clean and sparse. I’m confused. Why did the prisoners have a chapel in this building? And then the tumblers in my brain click into place, unlocking the answer. It wasn’t for the prisoners. This was a chapel for the SS to worship in. I make a spitting motion towards the pews. “You bastards” I hiss under my breath. “What did you think you were doing with a chapel?”

Eventually, we come to a set of stairs that lead us to the lower floor of this building. Down here are three rooms, each housing a brick crematorium. They have been left much as they were the day that the Americans liberated Mauthausen. The first two are a disturbing sight, but the third is heartbreaking.

For in that third crematorium room, every square inch of the walls is covered in photos and memorials. To you, Jan. And to Giovanni and Iwan, to Johannes, Jean and Juan.

And now, I do begin to cry. There’s just so many of you. So many.

And every one was someone’s son, brother, friend, husband, lover … every one of you has somebody who made the pilgrimage back to this terrible place, to lovingly hang your picture on the wall. How can they have been so brave?

Once I leave, there are just a few rooms left on the tour. Two of them, I can’t bring myself to walk into. One is the autopsy room.

The other is the gas chamber.

In hindsight, I realize that there’s a wisdom to how this site has been laid out. Mauthausen didn’t grab me by the scruff of the neck and shove me face-first into the ungodly horror that was the Nazi’s “final solution”. Instead, it led me, step by careful step, on a two-hour journey into its own heart of darkness. And this is wise. For if Mauthausen had simply beaten me up, perhaps I would simply do my best to forget.

And that is the goal, I believe. To make sure that I remember. To make sure I remember that these were people, not statistics. To make sure I remember that Adolf Hitler was democratically elected. And that the power to create another Hitler lies in nothing more than the hands of ordinary people casting votes.

When the U.S. Army finally liberated Mauthuasen, on May 5, 1945, there were 20,000 prisoners behind its walls. One of those prisoners was a man named Simon Weisenthal, who had been marched to Austria from the Janowska concentration camp in Poland, as the Nazis fled from the advancing Red Army.

Weighing less than 100 lbs., Weisenthal was so weak that the Americans didn’t know if he would survive. But Weisenthal did live. And then he became a legend. He dedicated the rest of his life to hunting down Nazis and bringing them to justice. Today, his legacy is the Simon Weisenthal Center, a global human rights organization, based in Los Angeles, which teaches the lessons of the Holocaust for future generations.

Rest peacefully, Jan. Simon Weisenthal didn’t forget you. Neither will I.

There’s No Friend Like An Old Friend

This summer, I spent a month on the road in Europe, as part of a summer field school experience. For the next little while, I’ll be posting a purely self-indulgent* series of essays, inspired by the slice-of-life wisdom that only travel brings.

*You could say that I’m invoking the “it’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to” rule. After all, it’s my blog and I’ll… etc. etc. Still, I hope these are at least a little entertaining.

Twenty-five years ago this summer, I made my first trip to Europe. My destination was Greece. I’d pulled $100 out of every paycheque for a year, scrimped and saved, and on July 19 in the year 1989, I put myself on an Air Canada flight to Athens. Twenty-five years ago, I also met my good friend Kieran from Birmingham.

As well as my initial foray into Europe, Greece was my first encounter with the vaguely criminal nature of taxi drivers. I stumbled off the plane in Athens and into the clutches of a cabbie who charged me $50 CDN to be dropped off at a place that was nowhere near my hotel. This is a story for another time, but it’s the early catalyst for this post’s travel hacking tips.

Oh Greece, How I Loved You
Given that my introduction to Greece was taxi-generated robbery followed by culture shock (I’d never been in a non-English-speaking country), I spent the first 48 hours thinking I’d made a serious mistake.

But it got better. Much better. I had booked myself on a tour called the “Greek Island Wanderer” with a British company called Explore (they actually still run this tour) and I consider this to be — quite literally — the best money I’ve ever spent.

Once my roommate arrived, I had someone to share my culture shock with, which helped immensely. And two days later, we were on our way to the Cycladic Islands. I remember stepping off the ferry onto Syros, looking around, and thinking “Aha! Here you are!” Here, indeed, was the idyllic travel-agency-poster version of Greece that I’d been dreaming about every night for the past six months.

The Explore tour took us to all kinds of off-the-beaten-path places and left us plenty of time to roam around on our own. And even though our group spanned a very broad range of ages (and levels of sanity), we had an enormous amount of fun together. I stayed in touch with several of the wanderers, including Kieran from Birmingham, who I swapped letters and parcels with for years afterward.

Sadly, I am as good at losing contact information as I am at losing bread recipes and I fell out of touch with Kieran just before the ten-year mark. Our last contact was 1998, not long after he’d gotten married and had a little girl.

And then one morning in 2011, I opened a Facebook message that started with “Hi! You don’t know me but you know my Dad ….” It was Kieran’s daughter, now an internet-savvy teenager, and she’d located me on behalf of her father. Seriously, how cool is that?

When I planned this summer’s epic voyage to Europe, I made sure to include a side trip to Birmingham, where I got to have a joyful reunion with my old friend, and meet his wonderful wife and daughter for the first time.

Their hospitality was legendary. They let me stay with them, took me out for dinner, and didn’t worry when my still-jetlagged self slept until mid-morning. Then they showed me around Birmingham and made sure that I tasted the best sausage rolls in England. When we went to the airport, I extracted a promise from my lovely friends that they would seriously consider visiting Canada before too long.

The Lesser-Known Rewards of Travel
Travel writers will talk a lot about expanding your horizons, feeding your soul and so on. But it’s not often that travel writers talk about the friendships we make when travelling. Kieran had kept all of his photos and memorabilia from our trip around the islands, and we spent several hours roaming through the pictures, laughing, trying to remember names and dredging kooky stories out of our dusty memories.

There was Irish Michael, Crazy Joe and a couple we had nicknamed Flora and Fauna. And there was me, so hung over one morning that I forced my roommate to have breakfast on a seawall (in case I threw up), and Kieran, who’d had a sweet travel romance with a quiet girl named Mary.

Tours form themselves into a sort of temporary mini-society. You might not like everyone, but if you’re lucky (and I always have been), you’ll leave your tour with warm, heartfelt memories of most everybody. Such is the case with Kieran. I’m exceptionally blessed to have had the opportunity to recapture my friendship with him, and in the same space, to have had his help to reach back into a couple of weeks in my life that were absolutely magical.

Taxicab 101
And … now that I’ve made you sit through another chatty, rambling story, let’s talk taxi.

Although I’m sure they aren’t all bad people, cab drivers have a universally bad reputation. In general, I’m pretty cautious with them and these are my tips for handling taxis when you’re travelling:

  • The first rule of Taxi Club is don’t take taxis. Seriously. You learn a lot about a city when you’re walking through it, or using its public transit system. Save your money for exotic local food, exotic local drinks and wacky souvenirs.
  • And if you have to take a taxi, ask. If you’re going to or coming from a hotel or a hostel, ask about fares before you flag down or call the taxi. Staff will usually know the rough fare between their location and common destinations like airports and train stations.
  • The second rule of Taxi Club: when your cab arrives, ask what the fare will be before you get into the car. If there’s a discrepancy, point out that your hotel says that the fare should only be “X” dollars. The cab driver will always argue, but my experience is that this exchange alone seems to curb the impulse to run up the meter.
  • Unless you’re hauling huge suitcases, keep your luggage with you and get into the back seat of the cab.
  • And if there’s a serious dispute, have the driver stop the car. Then get out with your bags and tell the driver to wait while you find a police officer.
    (***Note that this is a very drastic move, and one that I recommend only be undertaken in broad daylight and a well-populated area, only if the driver is attempting an extreme rip-off, and only if you feel that you can do it safely.)
  • Make sure that you’re being dropped off at your actual destination before you pay (see the introduction to this post).
  • And finally, just accept that a less-than-honest taxi trip will happen from time to time. This summer, I think I got slightly ripped off by a Roman cab driver. However, it was a fare of 10 euros including tip, and it bought me enough time to see three lesser-known Caravaggio paintings. 10 euros is about 15 dollars CDN. That’s $5 per Caravaggio. Worth it? Totally.


A Primer on Pyrohy

Hello and Ласкаво просимо!

(If your browser can handle Cyrillic lettering, you’ll see a pair of unusual words up there. You pronounce this “laskavo prosīmo” and it means “Welcome!” in Ukrainian.)

Today, I’m following up on a request from a reader in Australia who wants to learn how to make pyrohy.

First things first. What are pyrohy? (Most often, you will hear non-Ukrainian speakers pronounce this word as “perogies”.) Pyrohy (or perogies) are wonderful little round dumplings made of a lightweight dough and stuffed with all kinds of imaginative savoury fillings. You can bake, boil or fry them and they are most often served with butter, onions and sour cream.

I live in Alberta, one of the western provinces of Canada. Alberta was largely settled by immigrants from the Ukraine and they have left an indelible stamp on the cuisine of my home. I, for one, am very grateful for this influence. I love pyrohy and their cousins, holubtsi (cabbage rolls) and nalysynky (crepes). I’m sure that I’ve eaten at least my body weight in these yummies over the course of my life.

So, I’m not surprised at all that someone in Australia wants to learn how to make them.

Here are my pyrohy, in all their pillowy goodness,  ready to be boiled

Here are my pyrohy, in all their pillowy goodness,
ready to be boiled

And Then the Truth Comes Out …
But I’m embarrassed to admit that the only time I eat homemade pyrohy is when someone else makes them. The rest of the time, I buy pre-fab ones.

Now that I’ve cleared my conscience, the next thing I can tell you is that I hit up my home library in search of a book that would teach me the finer points of making them by hand. “A Feast of Perogies and Dumplings” by Samuel Hofer fit the bill perfectly. This little book was a veritable encyclopedia of Eastern European carbohydrate treats.

I tested out Samuel’s “No Fail Perogy Dough” recipe and then created an adaptation that worked for life hacking. Here it is, step-by-step:

Get two medium-sized potatoes, scrub them (don’t take off the skins) and then cut them into 1/2″ pieces
Put them on to boil and let them cook until they’re reasonably soft. While they’re cooking, you can:
a) cook any other ingredients (like sauteed mushrooms) or
b) start the dough
Here’s my dough recipe:

  • Melt 2 tablespoons of butter in a bowl.
  • Beat 1 egg into the butter.
  • Take 1/4 cup of water from the boiling potatoes, add to it 1/4 cup of cold milk. Beat the milk and water into the butter-egg mixture.
  • Throw in 1/4 teaspoon of salt and stir
  • Begin adding all-purpose flour, 1/2 cup at a time. By the time you get to about 1 1/2 cups, you should have a dough that’s starting to form a ball. Keep adding until you have a ball that sticks together.
  • Cover your bowl of dough and set it aside for about 20 minutes to rest.
While the dough is resting, mash your potatoes very well, and beat in about 1/3 cup of milk or cream or sour cream. Once the potatoes are reasonably smooth, you can add some fillings. The dough recipe makes about 18 pyrohy, so you can make more than one kind of filling, if you like. These are what I experimented with blending into my potatoes:

  • Basil and asiago cheese
  • Sauteed mushrooms and truffle oil (I found a small bottle of truffle oil for $10 at the Italian Centre Shop in Edmonton)
  • Chopped smoked salmon, dill and cream cheese

These were all very, very good, but feel free to experiment with your own creative ideas. (And then make sure to write and tell me what you did.)

Once the dough has rested, pull it from its lazy slumber and get out your rolling pin. Roll out the dough until it’s about 1/8″ thick.
Now you need something circular that’s between 3″ and 3 1/2″ wide. (Jar lids and very small plates work well.) Use your circular thing to cut the dough into round pyrohy wrappers. Once you’ve cut out as many as you can, you can start building your pyrohy.
This next step is a little fiddly, but it’ll make a difference to the speed of your work, and the quality of your finished product. Wet down a paper towel and drape it over all but three of the cut pyrohy. This will keep the dough from drying out while you’re assembling.
Place a tablespoon of filling in the center of your wrapper, stretch the dough so that the edges meet and pinch to seal. (If you’re worried about the edges not staying stuck together, put a small glass of milk at your workspace, and use your index finger to trace a small line of milk around half the wrapper, to act as a sealant.)
Once you’ve filled and sealed up this first round, mash the scraps of dough together and then roll again. You should get about eighteen pyrohy wrappers from this recipe.
You’re in the home stretch! From here, your pyrohy can be either boiled or pan-fried. Boiling will take between 5 and 7 minutes. If you panfry them, brown one side and then flip them over to brown the other side. And I recommend butter.
Serve them with more butter, sour cream, fried onions and crumbled bacon. And marvel at how something so simple can make a person sublimely happy.
Pyrohy also lend themselves remarkably well to being “tossed”. Try lightly frying up some garlic, green onion, capers and sun-dried tomatoes. Toss your freshly-boiled pyrohy in the saute. Put sour cream on the side, and prepare to swoon.

Show Me the Money
I tried making pyrohy multiple times, so I really can’t give you an exact price figure. Be assured, however, that these are not expensive to make. With the exception of the fillings, the bulk of the ingredients are staples in most kitchens. The extras ran me about $10.

Pre-fab pyrohy aren’t expensive either, but — like many of our experiments on this blog — there’s just no comparing between pre-fab and homemade. The homemade ones are about 127,000 times better. And given that they take about half an hour to create, it’s well worth it.

Library Resources
Samuel Hofer’s wonderful little book, alas, is no longer in print. The copy at my home library has also been taken out of circulation recently. However, I located an excellent fall-back in the form of “The New Ukrainian Cookbook” by Annette Ogrodnick Corona. She calls pyrohy by their alias, which is “varenyky” and there are 7 pages of varenyky recipes in this lovely, recipe-packed book. If you take the book out of the library instead of buying it, you’ll save yourself $19.75. Which is not bad at all.

And that’s it! Thank you for reading all the way down to the bottom of this very long post. If you’re reading this from Canada, let me take this opportunity to wish you a belated Happy Thanksgiving. Tune in again — in a few weeks’ time — for another travel essay!

The Real Reason I Went to New York

This summer, I spent a month on the road in Europe, as part of a summer field school experience. For the next little while, I’ll be posting a purely self-indulgent* series of essays, inspired by the slice-of-life wisdom that only travel brings.

*You could say that I’m invoking the “it’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to” rule. After all, it’s my blog and I’ll… etc. etc. Still, I hope these are at least a little entertaining.

On my way to Europe, I stopped in New York. And there was a reason for this. I had an important task to take care of, one that’s been nagging me for quite awhile.

Let’s Go Back to the Start
Back in 2003, I went to Connecticut to work at a trade show. The jump in/jump out point was JFK Airport in New York. The show wrapped up on a Saturday night, but my flight back to Canada didn’t leave until Sunday night. With a day to kill, I figured out how to get to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan and spent a glorious few hours roaming its beautiful rooms, joyfully basking in some of the world’s greatest art.

At the time, though, things were not so great in my life. There was man trouble, but worse, as a freelance graphic artist, I was perpetually, miserably broke. When I handed over my credit card to pay for a few small souvenirs, I held my breath because I wasn’t 100% sure it would go through.

The beautiful Temple of Dendur

The beautiful Temple of Dendur

Walk Like an Egyptian
Now, if you’ve ever been to the Museum, one of its great treasures is the Temple of Dendur. It’s an Ancient Egyptian temple, gifted to the U.S. government by the Egyptian government. It was dis-assembled, shipped to the U.S. (don’t ask me how) and then re-assembled in its very own room in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The minute you walk into that room, you feel an immediate sense of calm. Because it’s set off by itself, all of the ambient noise falls away and you find yourself in a peaceful, tranquil oasis.

Promises, Promises
There’s a pool surrounding the Temple, and people throw coins in it. Back in 2003, as I walked around shooting photos, it occurred to me that I should toss in some coins too. But I didn’t want to make a wish. Instead, I wanted to make a promise. I tossed a few pennies into the pool, and quietly said

“When I come back here, things will be better.”

A pool full of wishes -- and one promise

A pool full of wishes —
and one promise

Fast forward to 2014. I was now on my way to summer school in Europe, but I’d arranged my travels so that I could stop overnight in New York. I got up early, and got to the Museum just as it opened. I picked up a map, and made my way over to the wing where the Temple of Dendur is housed.

When I walked into the room, I took a deep breath — and immediately started to cry.

I had kept my promise. It had actually happened. Things had gotten better and I had finally come back – to the very same spot — to give thanks.

That morning, I’d tucked eleven pennies into one of my pockets – one for every year since 2003. When I was ready, I pulled them out and tossed them all in at once with a whispered “thank you”.

I thought it was a good idea to add a little extra oomph to my gratitude, so there was a dollar in quarters in my other pocket. Those went into the pool next.

Are You Kidding Me?
Now at this point, you’re probably thinking I’m crazy. Who goes all the way to New York to throw $1.11 in change into a museum display? I mean, seriously?

This is what it looks like when four quarters simultaneously hit the water

This is what it looks like when four quarters simultaneously hit the water

Apparently, I do.

And if you think I’m crazy, I’ll admit that there are instances where I might agree with you. But — for whatever reason — getting myself back to that room in the Museum became really important to me.

For many of us, keeping a promise to ourselves is so much harder than keeping one to someone else. Especially if the promise is a little wacky. Or expensive.

But I can’t tell you how satisfied it made me feel to realize that I had actually done something I said I was going to do — even though I’d made the promise at a time when I couldn’t imagine how or when I’d be able to deliver the goods.

That, my friends, is definitely worth $1.11.
Plus airfare and hotel.

Always Have A Plan B
And now, today’s travel hacking tips. In my last post, I was busy crowing about the cheap, fast and easy method of using public transit to get from La Guardia Airport to Manhattan.

However, when I tried making the return trip, I discovered that a power outage in Brooklyn had caused severe delays on the subway line I needed. Oops.

Luckily for me, a Plan B appeared to be close at hand with the NYC Airporter bus, which costs $13.00. However, I cannot really recommend this service. It’s advertised as running every half-hour, but I waited close to an hour for a bus that was supposed to arrive “in the next 20 minutes”. (Lying to customers seems to be an acceptable marketing strategy in New York.)

Once the bus arrived, it did get me to La Guardia in 45 minutes, but not before I’d made a panicky call to Air Canada, wondering how late I could check in and not miss my flight. (And because I don’t have US roaming on my phone, that toll-free call cost me an extra $14.87.) You’ll find terrible reviews for the NYC Airporter on Trip Advisor and I’m sorry to say that they’ve earned them.

Here are my tips:

  • Take public transit if you can, and save your money for something more interesting. (The Q70 bus from La Guardia is even equipped with luggage racks.)
  • Avoid the NYC Airporter unless you absolutely have to use it.
  • In both cases, leave yourself plenty of time for something to go wrong.

And always have a Plan B.

A Tiny Tribute To Two Very Big Hearts

This summer, I spent a month on the road in Europe, as part of a summer field school experience. For the next little while, I’ll be posting a purely self-indulgent* series of essays, inspired by the slice-of-life wisdom that only travel brings.

*You could say that I’m invoking the “it’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to” rule. After all, it’s my blog and I’ll… etc. etc. Still, I hope these are at least a little entertaining.

Hello! Yes, it’s been a mighty long time since you heard my voice on this blog. But today, I’m back with a travel hacking tip and a tiny story.

Let’s Begin at the Beginning
We’ll start with the story. My educational path has been fairly checkered, but I did manage to finish a diploma in Fine Arts way back in 1984. I was a student at the Abbotsford campus of what is now the University of the Fraser Valley, under the tutelage of two amazing teachers: Janina and Mircho Jakobow. I don’t know a lot about their history. They were both very talented artists, classically trained, and they’d come to Canada from Romania.

Can’t Draw
I first met this dynamic duo in my portfolio interview, after I applied for entry into the design program at Fraser Valley. This was also my first encounter with Janina’s customary bluntness. “Well” she said, looking at my sketches. “I can see that you have some design talent, but your drawing is not so hot.” She was right, of course. I spent the next two years learning (among many other things) how to draw.

Looking back on it now, I wonder what it was that possessed them to try and build a fine arts program in what was – truthfully – a pretty backwater town in rural British Columbia. But they took on this task with a great deal of devotion and optimism. Day after day, they worked to expand our minds as well as train our hands.

Hitting the Road
One of their great mind expansion techniques was a semi-annual field trip to New York City. They would shuttle twenty-odd students across the continent from Vancouver, and pack in as much art, fashion and culture as we could handle in a week. I joined this trip in my first year of school, the spring of 1983.

Somehow, Janina and Mircho let me talk them into allowing my two best friends from Edmonton to come as well. We unpacked ourselves into a budget hotel in Times Square and had a week that we still talk about, some thirty years later. Museums! Broadway plays! Shopping! I remember flying home and wondering how I would ever again be satisfied with the cultural offerings of Canada.

One of the places Janina and Mircho insisted we visit was Pearl Paint, on Canal Street at the edge of Manhattan. It was a mecca for art students looking for cheap materials. Of course I went, and bought everything I would need for the rest of my time in college. And then some. And then some more. It was like visiting Aladdin’s Cave of Art Supplies, and I left no pencil or paint tube behind.

Hitting the Road Again
Several years later, well after I’d graduated, I got word that both Mircho and Janina had both passed away. Mircho had suffered a sudden heart attack. He and Janina were very deeply bonded, so it was terribly sad but not surprising to hear that she followed him soon after.

Thirty-one years have gone by since that trip to New York. I’m still in a creative profession, although I don’t draw as much as I’d like. And I’m headed out on another field trip experience, this time for four weeks, in Austria and Italy.

But my first stop on this odyssey is New York. It seemed only fitting that I should plan a trip to Pearl Paint, still in the same location. I thought I could make it a tiny personal tribute to Janina and Mircho, who — bless them — had taken a yappy, temperamental 20-year-old named Sally and done their patient best to turn her into a designer.

And Now, a Detour for Some Travel Hacking
Way back at the beginning of this post, I promised you a travel hacking tip. Here it is. If you’re flying into La Guardia Airport in New York, skip the various shuttle services (which tend to get tied up in traffic) and hop onto the Q70 bus at Terminal B. It’ll take you to two subway hubs where you can catch a train to pretty much anywhere. I was able to get from La Guardia Airport to Times Square in an hour, for the princely sum of $2.50.

In a big city, this is a good way to experience life at street level. And you’ll find this kind of transportation solution in many of the big cities in the United States, as well as those of Europe. Besides New York, I’ve taken the MAX train to Portland’s airport, an MTS bus to San Diego’s airport, and the Tube from Heathrow to downtown London. None of these cost more than $10, and got me to my destination quickly and efficiently.

A New York icon since 1933

A New York icon since 1933

Returning to Our Story…
After I booked tickets and hotels, I printed subway schedules and maps from Google, and figured out how to make my tiny tribute work.

And then … Pearl Paint closed.

Without warning, at the end of April. Apparently not even the employees knew it was coming. A New York icon since 1933, it was shuttered almost overnight. I decided to go anyways. I bought a pair of china markers before I left Edmonton, and guessed that I’d be able to find a place to leave a little bit of heartfelt graffiti.

Getting to Pearl Paint was easy, but the store looked sad, permanently locked up behind big steel gates. I located a spot to leave my mark, on the ancient ironwork steps leading into the store, where my feet had last touched down in March of 1983.

I pulled out my china markers and looked around, a little apprehensive. I mean, what happens when a random person starts drawing on the steps of an abandoned store in a working-class New York neighbourhood? I didn’t know.

As it turns out, nothing happens. People went about their business and ignored me. Still, I worked quickly and as soon as I finished, stood up to admire my handiwork. Then I kissed my fingertips and quietly said “thanks, guys.”

Thanks indeed. For so much more than you probably ever realized.



Mais Oui! A Guide to Learning French Online

Meet Jessica, who writes on behalf of This is a website with all kinds of tips and tools for beginners, intermediate and advanced learners, as well as French teaching resources, ideas and activities for primary and secondary teachers.
Take it away, Jessica!

I didn’t require much convincing to decide to learn French online. Indeed, this has proven to be an effective, inexpensive, and convenient way to learn the language. There are, however, several challenges that I’ve faced and I’d like to share them with you — and tell you how I overcame them.

First, I had a real problem with pronunciation. Like all native English speakers, I found this difficult because some French sounds have no English counterparts. I had an especially tough time with the letters U and R, which take on modulated pronunciations and which are difficult to describe in text. It’s challenging because you don’t have a tutor to guide you on the correct accents. I overcame this by watching French movies and listening to French music, all of which can be accessed through your local library. I also recently visited France, which allowed me to get firsthand experience in French pronunciation.

And then there’s the French H. The French H comes as either muet or aspiré. Both sound the same (they are both silent), but there’s a huge difference in that mute H (H muet) requires liaisons and contractions whereas aspirated H (H aspiré) acts as a consonant. Remembering which H word is which is tricky, but I’ve overcome this by making a vocabulary list that has definite articles such as l’homme (H muet) and le homard (H aspiré). English movies with French subtitles also helped. (Additional helpful hint: I’ve discovered that the longer you make spelling mistakes, the more difficult it will be for you to fix them!)

Listening to French recorded lessons, watching French movies and my interactions with other French learners in discussion forums and other online communities has been a great resource. As an example, I now automatically pronounce B, C, F, K, L, Q, and R whenever I find them at the end of a word.

When I was starting out, I had a problem concentrating in my lessons and following my personal schedule. I’ve discovered that — for me — learning French in a structured manner was the path to learning effectively and efficiently. I enrolled in an online class and set a specific time early in the morning for my French lessons. (I also talked to my family and asked them to give me sufficient space and support.)

Finally, French is unique in that French words are assigned gender (they are either masculine or feminine). This, as I’m sure is the case with most native English learners, has been very confusing to me. The only answer seems to be memorization. There is no other way around it. I have read countless books to get proper usage of French words and to determine their gender.

And in the end, has it been a worthwhile endeavour? I can confidently say: mais oui! It certainly has.