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.

The Wisdom of Ferris Bueller

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.

Life moves pretty fast.
If you don’t stop and
look around once in a while,
you could miss it.
— Ferris Bueller

I had a Ferris Bueller moment sitting on the steps of the Basilica of San Lorenzo in Florence. It was a sunny Sunday morning and I was on my way to the Galileo Museum. There were church bells ringing everywhere, and I had a takeout latte and pastry in my hands. As my backside touched down on the ancient stone steps, all I could think was “This is completely perfect and I am insanely lucky.”

Part of that luck was the fact that I’d stopped whizzing around for a moment and actually thought about where I was. By nature, I’m a frugal traveller, and so I’ll pack as much as I can into a trip, especially in a place like Florence. I’d arrived in one of the world’s greatest cities on a Friday night, and had to leave again less than 48 hours later. There wasn’t a moment to waste! Except … there was. There were lots of moments.

So I stayed on the steps a little longer than I needed to. Florentine life swirled around me: families heading to church, tourists getting lost, and itinerant street vendors laying out fake Louis Vuitton bags on blankets. It was marvellous to be a speck in that busy summertime universe.

And then I picked myself up and headed off to behold  a telescope that had once lived in the mighty hands of Galileo Galilei (known to us as Galileo). As well as having an interesting name that sounds like the Renaissance equivalent of “Obla di Obla da”, Galileo brought us the concept that the Earth and other planets revolve around the sun. For this groundbreaking thinking, he ended up spending nine years under house arrest, accused of heresy. La la, how the life goes on.

A sparrow in Florence helps out with my pie crumbs. Il bel far niente at its finest.

A sparrow in Florence
helps out with my pie crumbs.
Il bel far niente at its finest.

A week later, I had another Ferris Bueller moment, this time in Rome. I’d gone to see a Caravaggio painting at the church of Santa Maria del Popolo on a Saturday night. Not just any Caravaggio painting, but “The Conversion of St. Paul”. I’d fallen in love with St. Paul in 1986, in a first-year Art History class. 28 years later, we finally got to meet face to face.

When I was done, I sat down on the church steps and tapped out “I just saw the painting” to one of my nearest and dearest back in Canada. The man at the other end of the phone would squint at the incoming message and then slowly smile. He alone knew that this Caravaggio masterpiece was my single most important quest in Italy.

And then I cast my gaze over to the square that adjoins the church, called the Piazza del Popolo. It was about 7:30 PM, and the sun was starting to go down, drenching the square in beautiful golden light. Someone was playing an accordion and I could see a man making long trails of huge transparent bubbles. Small children laughed and danced around him, like he was the Pied Piper of Dish Soap. All I could think was “This is completely perfect and I am insanely lucky.”

Italians use the phrase il bel far niente to describe Ferris Bueller moments. In her landmark travel memoir, Eat Pray Love, Elizabeth Gilbert talks about il bel far niente:

This is a sweet expression. Il bel far niente means ‘the beauty of doing nothing.’ … even against that backdrop of heard work, il bel far niente has always been a cherished Italian ideal. The beauty of doing nothing is the goal of all your work, the final accomplishment for which you are most highly congratulated. The more exquisitely and delightfully you can do nothing, the higher your life’s achievement.

I think Mr. Bueller was right. Life does move pretty fast. You don’t want to miss those moments. Take a picture with your heart — and tell them that Ferris sent you.

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.


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.