Love, Lust and a Really Great Dress

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.

Today marks the very last essay in this series.

*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.

When I finished my summer school adventure in Europe, I had to write a final paper for my liberal arts class, which had been built on the twin themes of love and lust, and wrapped around the art and architecture of Austria and Italy. What follows is an abridged version of that paper.

My 2014 field school experience was bracketed by two in-flight movies.

Flying into London at the end of June, I watched The Monuments Men, a film based on the story of a group of American art historians who came into Europe near the end of World War II, in order to track down and return thousands of pieces of art plundered by the Nazis. I didn’t know it at the time, but Austria, the country I was ultimately headed for, had been a key target of the art-stealing Nazis, and Adolf Hitler had planned to house all this stolen art in his Führermuseum at the Austrian city of Linz.

When I flew back out of London at the end of July, I scrolled through the list of movies, but my choice this time was easy: The Grand Budapest Hotel. Based on Stefan Zweig’s The World of Yesterday, this charmingly wacky movie stars Ralph Fiennes as Gustave H, a man who is most certainly ruled by lust but also proves to be capable of great love. (Ironically, Gustave H also steals a masterpiece, and has several brushes with pseudo-Nazis.)

As well as love and lust, my weeks overseas were an education in European history, especially the history of Vienna. And how I loved Vienna! I was quickly at home in this genteel café society. Vienna is driven by intellect, always asking questions, earnestly discussing, exploring ideas and looking for innovative ways to do things.

At one point in our classes, we were asked if cities have souls. Indeed they do, as do countries. Austria and Italy are countries with entirely different souls. Austria is smart, creative and industrious. Italy, on the other hand, is excitable, fun-loving and single-minded in its pursuit of enjoyment. Which is not to say that Italians don’t work hard. I believe that they do. But there’s a careful and joyful attention to the small sensual details of life: food, drink, dress.

American author Elizabeth Gilbert put forth the idea that every city also has its own word. She decided that Rome’s word is “sex”. I didn’t get that. I think Rome’s word is “look”. Look up, look down, look now – because you might miss something. Vienna’s word is “be”. And Salzburg’s word somehow eludes me.

Florence’s word, on the other hand, is “relax”. Relax, and take in all this beauty that’s in front of you. Relax and listen to those musicians in the piazza, or the ringing of church bells on a Sunday morning. Relax, and stop shooing away the sparrows that are helping themselves to your lunch in an outdoor café. Relax and sit on the steps of your hotel, with the proprietor, who wants to know where you came from and how long you’ve been speaking such hilariously awful Italian.

The things I have seen in these four weeks! The Sistine Chapel, Galileo’s own telescope, the cremation ovens in one of the SS’s most lethal concentration camps, a gravesite that contains the bones of the disciple Peter, the house Mozart grew up in, and – one memorable morning – Pope Francis himself. I’ve also had the incredible good fortune to stand in front of some of the world’s greatest art treasures, works that bear signatures like Caravaggio, Rubens, Rembrandt, Monet, Kandinsky, Vermeer, Raphael, Botticelli, Bernini, Giotto, Michelangelo, and da Vinci.

I’ve come back to Canada with some interesting souvenirs. From the monastery of St. Peter in Salzburg, two tiny pewter medallions bearing the image of St. Christopher, the patron saint of travellers. One has gone to my friend Royce, who wants to sail around the world. The other will go to my friend Linda, who has just won a bid to run for the Wild Rose party in Alberta’s upcoming provincial election. These strike me as equally perilous journeys, and both in need of some divine protection.

And there’s more. Dozens of postcards, little candies made of Murano glass, fashion magazines, and one serious luxury: a green silk dress which cost more than I’ve ever paid for a garment in my life. But it’s beautiful. The clever design of this dress delights me, and wearing it makes me feel sophisticated, chic and … a little tiny bit Italian.

Let’s roll back to love and lust now, and finish with a quote that comes from another great travel memoir, Jack Kerouac’s On the Road:

“Boys and girls in America have such a sad time together;
sophistication demands that they submit to sex immediately without proper preliminary talk. Not courting talk — real straight talk about souls, for life is holy and every moment is precious.”

If we’re fortunate, we get to travel. And if we’re very fortunate, our travels show us moments that we hold onto – in our hearts — for a lifetime. Jack is right. Life is holy. And those moments are indeed precious.

Very, very precious.

It’s all Spanish to me — language learning with guest blogger Stephanie Medford

Happy Thanksgiving to you Canadian readers! Everyone else, I hope you had a great weekend. Today, I’m delighted to be bringing you a guest post with Stephanie Medford. She’s going to be talking all about learning another language with library resources.

Stephanie is an artist and blogger and has been in love with Edmonton for as long as she can remember. Check out her hand-printed postcards and read about her adventures in Edmonton at

Take it away, Stephanie!

StephanieHello! I’m super excited to be a guest on Library Life Hack.

I’m the type of person who never pays for something she can get for free. When I decided to learn Spanish before traveling to South America, it never crossed my mind to pay for a class. I’m an independent learner and I knew the Edmonton public library had all the resources I needed. Having been in French Immersion as a child, it’s possible that my bilingual brain already had a leg up on language learning but I think that anyone who’s willing to put in the time can teach themselves a new language.

I knew that I would need a mix of resources to learn the different components of the language: speaking, listening, and reading/writing. While learning to understand and speak was my main priority, I was committed to getting a good grasp on the grammar as well, partly because I’m not one to do things halfway, and partly because I find that an understanding of small details makes the whole that much stronger. While there’s plenty of material out there, many of the resources I found were not terribly useful. Finally I stumbled on three items and used them almost exclusively during the 7 months of my self-instruction,, borrowing items for the longest period allowed, then returning them and putting them on hold again if I needed to.

The Pimsleur Language Program by Recorded Books received high reviews on the library site. It consists of a series of sequential CDs that immerse you in the language right from the start. I got the Latin American version, which was really helpful since the language is quite different in Spain (I soon learned that it varies quite a bit from country to country as well!). I listened to it in my car almost every day. The lessons repeat material over and over again, without it ever feeling redundant, so you don’t have to work to memorize anything. It’s designed so that you really know the material before it introduces anything new, and you are constantly reviewing old material. This was probably the most effective resource that I tried.

Ultimate Spanish by Living Language uses a great combination of listening, reading, and grammar and is a comprehensive introduction to the language. Lessons advanced very quickly and I found that I needed a firm grasp of the material before moving to each new chapter, which required a lot of extra study after each lesson. I liked how thorough it was but I struggled to remember things from one lesson to the next.

Complete Spanish Grammar by Gilda Nissenberg is a good guide to grammar, with plenty of exercises to practice the concepts. Because there are grammatical structures and variations in Spanish that we don’t have in English, I slowly worked through the exercises to get a handle on how the language is put together. Once I started trying to communicate I was really glad I had put in the extra time to learn the complicated verb tenses: trying to tell stories in only the present tense was no fun at all.

The final part of my self education project involved watching stacks of movies. I found an organization that has released independent movies from many Latin American countries – just search Film Movement in the library catalogue. It also pays to look through the Spanish section of the DVDs in any branch. All these helped me practice my listening skills, gave me a good understanding of how the accents vary from country to country. I watched Maria Full of Grace without subtitles and while I missed a lot of details and nuance, I was pleased that I was able to follow the story.

As obsessed as I was with learning the language, I didn’t work very hard. Outside of driving I put in maybe 3 hours a week. When I arrived in Peru I felt completely lost at first, but because I had built a solid foundation, my comprehension increased dramatically after only a couple weeks. 3 weeks in, I was already translating for others. The only thing missing from this self-study program was the opportunity for conversations. But listening to endless CDs meant I understood pronunciation and basic sentence structure, and once I was immersed in the language my speaking skills grew quite quickly!

Language learning is expensive. A 2-month “Spanish for Travellers” class costs $229 at Metro College. Rosetta Stone level One costs $199. I couldn’t find the exact Pimsleur program on Amazon but a similar Pimsleur course levels 1-4 costs from $210 – $305. Ultimate Spanish can set you back between $80 and $200 and Complete Spanish Grammar goes for around $13. Needless to say, teaching myself using library materials was definitely the cheapest option.

Thanks again for having me, and good luck in any language-learning adventures!

Hitting the Books — Without Hitting the Banks

Hello and welcome to part two of our Long Weekend Double Header!

Keeping Up With Tradition
For as long as I can remember, the Tuesday after Labour Day has been the first day of school. So, it only seems fitting that this blog post should be about hacking post-secondary education.

This is an idea that has been gathering momentum for several years now. I live in Canada, where the cost of post-secondary is high, but not necessarily out of reach. However, I know that’s not true in other parts of the world.

At the beginning of August, Forbes Magazine told us that student loans now make up the second highest form of consumer debt in the US. Only mortgages are higher. These are sobering statistics: the average borrower will graduate with almost $27,000 in debt, and 10% of those graduates will have racked up more than $40,000 in loans.

All of this — for an education that doesn’t guarantee you a job. Small wonder that alternatives like the UnCollege movement have started to spring up.

Let’s Investigate Some More
Over the past few months, I’ve looked at a variety of book resources that talk about education hacking. These are three that I thought were especially interesting:

    Hacking Your Education
    Written by Dale J. Stephens

    The Personal MBA
    Written by Josh Kaufman

    The Art of Non-Conformity
    Written by Chris Guillebeau

We’re going to look more closely at the alternative educational program presented in the “Art of Non-Conformity”, which Chris Guillebeau calls “The One-Year, Self-Directed, Alternative Graduate School Experience”. All three books present excellent ideas, but I chose this one because it was so tangible, but at the same time, quite flexible.

It’s proposed to cost about $10,000 — which is much better than $40,000 — but let’s see if we can use some library resources to get the cost down even lower. You’ll see the building blocks of Chris’ program below in blue, with the Library Life Hack suggestions in yellow.

Subscribe to the Economist and read every issue religiously. Cost: $97 + 60 minutes each week.
If your library has Zinio, use that and your library card to access The Economist online. Failing that, come in to your closest library each week. The Economist is a standard title in most periodical sections. It’ll get you out of the house and you’ll save $123.
Memorize the names of every country, world capital, and current president or prime minister in the world. Cost: $0 + 3-4 hours once.
I definitely can’t improve on the cost, but if you head to the kid’s section, they usually have an electronic version of Encyclopedia Britanica, where you can find it all in one place.
Buy a Round-the-World plane ticket or use Frequent Flyer Miles to travel to several major world regions, including somewhere in Africa and somewhere in Asia. Cost: variable, but plan on $4,000.
There isn’t much I can do for the ticket price, but libraries generally have extensive travel sections. Use those to get the most out of what you spend on your accommodations, food, transfers, etc. They’ll also help you figure out what to go see when you get there.
Read the basic texts of the major world religions: the Torah, the New Testament, the Koran, and the teachings of Buddha. Visit a church, a mosque, a synagogue, and a temple. Cost: Materials can be obtained free online or in the mail—or for less than $50 + 20 hours.
Libraries will usually have at least one version of each of these texts. Based on the least expensive versions available from and, you’ll save $54.53
Subscribe to a language-learning podcast and listen to each 20-minute episode five times a week for the entire year. Attend a local language club once a week to practice. Cost: $0 + 87 hours.
Podcasts are terrific because they’re so portable. If you’re more of a visual learner, I can also suggest Mango Languages, which is accessible online with a current library card. Mango offers more than 50 languages, ranging from Azerbaijani to Yiddish.
Loan money to an entrepreneur through and arrange to visit him or her while you’re abroad. Cost: Likely $0 in the end, since 98% of loans are repaid.
I totally endorse this — I’m a Kiva lender myself.
Acquire at least three new skills during your year. Suggestions: photography, skydiving, computer programming, martial arts. The key is not to become an expert in any of them, but to become functionally proficient. Cost: Variable, but each skill is probably less than three credits of tuition would cost at a university.
Right now, three credits of tuition at the university I attend will set you back $670, so that’s a good-sized window to experiment with. The three I picked were photography, illustration and screenwriting. The total savings came to $272.03 and you can see the book lists here.
Read at least 30 non-fiction books and 20 classic novels. Cost: approximately $750 (can be reduced or eliminated by using the library).
I drew up a list of the ones I thought were most appropriate for my interests. You can find them here, and the money saved by using my library card came to $684.74
Join a gym or health club to keep fit during your rigorous independent studies. (Most universities include access to their fitness centers with the purchase of $32,000 in tuition, so you’ll need to pay for this on your own otherwise.) Cost: $25-75 a month.
Going to the gym may be an important reason to get you out of the house during your year of alternative schooling, which is a perfectly good thing. However, if you’re strictly focused on saving money, libraries have excellent video resources that will help you learn a home practice in yoga, pilates, and tai chi. You will also find libraries well-stocked with books on developing running and weighlifting programs. You can likely save anywhere from $300 to $900 over the course of a year.
Become comfortable with basic presentation and public speaking skills. Join your local Toastmasters club to get constructive, structured help that is beginner-friendly. Cost: $25 + 2 hours a week for 10 weeks.
Toastmasters has such an excellent reputation that I would hesitate to advise you to look for a free alternative. Bite the bullet and do the real thing. I think it’s worth it.
Start a blog, create a basic posting schedule, and stick with it for the entire year. You can get a free blog at One tip: don’t try to write every day. Set a weekly or bi-weekly schedule for a while, and if you’re still enjoying it after three months, pick up the pace. Cost: $0.
I can’t offer anything here, except that there’s lots of useful, current (and free) advice on sites like and
Set your home page to Over the next year, every time you open your browser, you’ll see a different, random Wikipedia page. Read it. Cost: $0.
Nothing to add here either.
Learn to write by listening to the Grammar Girl podcast and buying Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott. Cost: $0 for Grammar Girl, $14 for Anne Lamott.
Take “Bird by Bird” out of the library. You’ll save $13.68. Grammar Girl is still free, though.
Instead of reading the entire Encyclopedia Britannica, read The Know It All by A.J. Jacobs, a good summary. Cost: $15.
If you take “The Know It All” out of the library, you’ll save $13.71.
TOTAL COST: $10,000 or less.
TOTAL COST: If you’re really determined, you can probably squeak through this year with just the cost of your travels and your Kiva loan. I’m going to estimate $6000.
*The total cost of the self-directed, alternative graduate school program does not include housing or food, but neither does the tuition for traditional school programs in the U.S. and Canada. Freedom and independence, however, are included at no extra charge.
*What he said.

Show Me the Money
This is already a pretty long post, so I’m going to wrap up quickly. Based on the items that I could actually affix a price to, if you embarked on a year’s studies like the one shown above, your library card would save you $1161.69. Now, that’s what I call a cha-ching!

Free Stuff!
Let’s close the doors to higher learning for now. There are so many exciting things happening in alternative education that I would need several more posts to cover them all. But for now, let me leave you with a challenge. Write up a list of the 30 non-fiction books and 20 classic novels YOU would read if this was YOUR year of self-directed studies, and send it to me at librarylifehack [at] In return, I will send you your very own copy of “The Art of Non-Conformity”. Absolutely free. Doesn’t get much better than that, folks. : )

Have a great week!


Note that the “The One-Year, Self-Directed, Alternative Graduate School Experience” has been reprinted here with the permission of the original author