Friday, October 28, 2011

What Girls Want (on vacations)

Keeping your children happy on holidays - the secrets are about to be revealed...
If our girls booked our vacations stays, things would look a lot different.
First of all, I am not about to unleash the power of the internet and let our girls book any of our future holiday accommodations. That would be like giving sugar-starved, hyperactive kids a key to a candy store after closing. Plus I’m pretty sure that if that task were taken away from me, my wife would likely realize just how little I actually do around the house (outside of trip planning for the family) and potentially re-think our long term ‘marriage contract’. So for that reason alone, it’s just not going to happen.
There are other reasons though. Recently on a family trip to San Diego, California, I paid close attention to what actually keeps them amused and busy when we’re at our hotel. It’s not having fancy restaurants in the lobby, or amazing art hanging in the walls, or even the brand name of the hotel that’ll keep them happy and busy. The following are the things I discovered that they’re really attracted to and likely would keep them occupied for hours. 
Elevators and elevator buttons
When we’re in a plane and I’m yet again amazed that something so large and full of people and luggage could ever get off the runway and into the air, the kids are quietly reading, not paying any attention to the surrounding miracle. But put them into an elevator, and they’re grinning mischievously ear-to-ear and dashing at the speed of light to be the first to press the buttons. I imagine this gives them a feeling of control. After being directed through airports, flown in a plane, driven in a taxi or rental car, this likely is their first chance at deciding WHERE to go. Plus, it’s simple, and YOU know that THEY know that they have the power at their fingertips to influence any other passengers’ day, just by deciding just how many buttons to push.

 Room cards
I think everyone remembers the day when we were all given an actual key to use to access our rooms, and the importance of hanging onto it or facing the embarrassment of going back to the front desk to get a replacement. Now with key cards, they’re more like souvenirs or collectors items, particularly to those who like to hoard any and all things ‘free’. With our girls at an age where they’ve begun to assert their hotel independence, we’ve begun to get additional cards for each of them. It’s always a battle though between our girls as to who gets to swipe to get into the room, swipe to get into the pool, swipe to get in the back door entrance after hours, or swipe to flush the toilet (kidding! But you can bet our girls would LOVE this feature if it meant they got to swipe their cards that much more). I’m not even sure why my wife and I bother to get a card when we have two eager swipers, ready and waiting…
Luggage carts
I’m not sure if luggage carts inspired skate boards, or vice versa, but I have to say that they’re equal when it comes to the damage any kid can do to themselves and any immediate surrounding objects (including parked vehicles). Knowing that every kid at some point lives by the motto of ‘What? Me walk?’ after an exceedingly long journey from the car to the hotel lobby (20 meters), the luggage cart is the perfect (and fun) solution to tired, weary feet. The only time any kid has any interest in NOT riding on a luggage cart is when their other sibling is already riding on it and they get to control where it goes.
The luggage cart, also known as a Bellman's cart,
really should have been named "Monkey Bars on Wheels".
Really, really long hallways
When it comes to running programs, school fitness testing, or heck, getting up and crossing the room at home to get the remote control, it’s amazing how instantly tired our children can become. This all changes when they’re in the proximity of a long, hotel hallway. I mean, even I get tempted to kick up the heels and see just how quickly I could make it from one end to the next, dodging luggage carts, discarded room service trays, and yes, the occasional guest reaching for their morning newspaper. For kids, it’s like it’s instinct, not unlike a bird migrating south for winter, to sprint like crazy at the drop of a hat (or room key).  If only the remote were at the end of it.

Swimming pools
Like moths to a flame, this feature is an obvious diversion for any child, but for our recent trip, I was excited to know that half way through our trip we were moving from a rather ‘nice but regular’ hotel to a fancy ‘slap-on-the-extra-charges-like-peanut-butter-on-bread’ type of hotel. Or, as they say, a ‘resort’. Calling it this, at least for me, justifies paying nearly 3 times the price per night yet still getting two queen sized beds, a bathroom, windows, extra parking charges… So as excited as I was to jump into a ‘resort’ pool, to the girls, if it’s a hotel and it has something larger than an average bathtub and it’s holding warmer than room temperature water, that’s all that matters. To them, there’s no such thing as an upgrade when it comes to pools. That’s unless it has a water slide (um, no), diving board (um, no again), or extended hours (once again, no. In fact, the hours of operation were shorter). Sigh…
Our first hotel pool. The palm trees were a nice touch, but the girls would
have had the candles (positioned to make an ordinary pool look classy)
out after at most two cannonballs.
Our next pool. More palm trees, slightly bigger space, but sadly
no candles.
 In conclusion
Like children having more fun with the cardboard packaging that their Christmas gifts come in, any parent’s hotel choice can suffer the same results. So if you’re traveling as a family, forget the fancy stuff - keep it for the trips for you and your partner! If you want to keep the kids happy, skip all that and keep to the basics. It’ll likely keep more green in your wallet and put more smiles on their faces. That is, until they lose the tv remote.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

9/11 - 10 years later, minus a day

10 years ago today, as a tourist in New York City standing near the Statue of Liberty, I took this picture. Neither I, nor most of the world, had any idea of what was to come in the next 24 hours, and how it would affect us. With so many shocking moments that morning with the attacks on the Twin Towers and The Pentagon, with moments of silence - not knowing what to say and what to believe, our lives were changed forever.
The World Trade Center, Monday, September 10th, 2001 (I took this picture from Liberty Island, mid afternoon as a storm was rolling in over Manhattan)

While taking this picture, I didn’t realized how symbolic this dramatic storm was, rolling in almost from nowhere. I never could have considered that the scene that I captured on film, within a handful of hours, would never be the same.
Where were you that day?
Everyone remembers where he or she was the early morning of September 11, 2001 when they heard the news of the attacks – and I certainly do too. But for me, when I think of the tragedies of 9/11, I’ll always think of where I was the day before, on Monday, September 10th, 2001.
September 10, 2001

On that day, in the morning, walking around downtown New York City, the air was fresh and clear and crisp and clean. The birds were singing, and although the temperatures were warm, the leaves were just starting to show signs of the fall season that would shortly arrive.
On that day, people were scurrying around from place to place, enjoying the weather, the blue skies, and walking along with their cups of coffee and their rolled up newspapers. They had places to go, people to see, lives to live.
On that day, I was a tourist in one of the most amazing cities in the world. I was so excited to be there, to take in the history, the atmosphere, the buildings, the people, and to satisfy a curiosity that had been building up in me after years of exposure from television shows, movies, songs and stories, all centered around New York City.
On that day, I still felt innocence in the world. I felt trust and compassion and love. The world felt right. With so much to see and to explore, it was a world where so much was possible – in fact, anything was possible, and it was all there standing in front of me.
10 years later, minus a day
10 years later, minus a day, I think we all need to remember at least a little of how we all felt that day, the day before our world changed.
We need to remember that even though we’ve lived through such devastating events, good still exists, and is present in each and every one of us.
We need to remember the positive influences we can have, because people are there and willing to listen and learn.
We need to remember to trust others, as we want them to trust us. Without trust, any society is doomed to live in fear.
We need to remember and honour those who were lost on September 11th, and those who were directly affected by the attacks, particularly with the loss of loved ones. We also need to remember that they would want us to continue on with our lives, if only as a tribute to theirs.
And lastly, we need to move on. We need to continue to work every day to build a world where we can all celebrate what we have, respect all others, and know that goodness in the world doesn’t just happen – it’s built from the collective effort of every single person on this earth.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Pack to the Future

 “A good station wagon is one that can fit, at a minimum, a four by eight foot sheet of plywood, inside, flat. Anything else is just crap.”
These are wise words from my dad from the 1970s (maybe slightly paraphrased), owner of various station wagons and the exclusive family vehicle packer for years of family summer vacations.
It’s a funny thing, this statement always enters my mind this time of year. It’s the time of packing up the family car and traveling to the cottage, the beach, as well as taking extended road trips to the land of road side motels, waterslides, and of course, the great outdoors (with the occasional outlet mall thrown in).
Let’s go back to the 70s though first. As a kid, at the sound of the bell ringing on the last day of school in June (one of the greatest sounds on earth), my dad would be waiting in the parking lot across the street from our school, the car carefully and expertly packed to the fabric roofline with just enough room left for my mom, my brother and sister, and me to hop in, along with some pre-approved in-car entertainment - books, mad-libs, Archie comic books - nothing more.
Those were glorious carefree days, and I loved each and every one of them. That was what summer was all about – packing up and getting away.
Packing for any trip is an art, but when it comes to packing the family vehicle for a road trip, I’d have to say that no one was better skilled than my dad. Rumour had it within our family that rather than having a Master’s in Geography from Penn State, he actually had a Master’s Degree in Spatial Analysis and the Integration of Personal Belongings within Highly Limited Vehicular Spaces - but that was never actually confirmed.
Here’s the classic 70s red Ford station wagon we used to cruise down the highway in.

Just how skilled was he when it came to stuffing in the gear? When I pack our Subaru Forester SUV, I can barely get in the four of us and our gear, given two hours, an industrial-sized compressor, four Costco-sized jars of Vaseline, and a crowbar.
When my dad packed up our old station wagon for our family trips, this is how many people he could fit in with their gear:

He was so good that he could even get people to wear matching clothing. And that wasn’t easy in the 70s.
To be fair though, in our modern age, even with a Thule roof top carrier, the capacity of our car doesn’t even come close to what you used to be able to put in the classic woody. You certainly won’t be coming even close to fitting in a full sheet of plywood, even if you cut it in half. Packing space in modern vehicles has shrunk just as much as the quality of modern tv programming, our favourite childhood chocolate bars, or worst yet, the humour level of Jay Leno’s opening dialogues.

And they don’t even call them station wagons any more, that’s just too unsophisticated for today’s consumers. Now they’re called SUVs. Oooooo. They’ve raised them up slightly, made them more aerodynamic and added more dashboard gadgets (none will ever rival the 8 track player in my opinion), but even with advances of modern technology, I think the inside environment has not improved that significantly. For instance, you can no longer stick the smallest kid up front in the middle of the bench seat (also known as the ultimate ‘forward through-the-window launching seat'), thus exposing them directly to the continual abuse of their back-seated, sharp-elbowed, fidgety and slightly sweaty siblings. It’s a war zone that even the UN would have a hard time condoning.
I have to say though, with a big road trip coming up in 2 weeks, even with the challenge of a smaller interior, the spirit of the family car-loaded summer trip is not lost! In the end, it’s all about packing up and getting away from work or school, the household chores, the mail, the telephone and the daily routines.
If I had it my way, I’d be just like my dad, waiting outside our girls’ school every Friday of every weekend, packed to the roof rails, ready to explore a beautiful, summery world. 
In an age where we no longer have to sit on sticky vinyl seats in an un-air-conditioned car, or listen to the same radio station (before any kind of portable music listening devices were invented), we should remember that we’re still well off and living a luxurious life in the vehicles of the day.
And what is my motto that I hope that our girls remember when they’re older packing up their own families? Two come to mind – ‘grin and bare it,’ and maybe more importantly ‘you can’t take it with you.’

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Past, present and past

If you're even half as nostalgic as I am, you'll love this web site. It might even inspire you to create an image of your own and submit it.

The site is called Dear Photograph.

This is how it works - find an old print of yourself or of someone you know or knew, and bring it back to where it was originally taken. The older the image is, the more dramatic and fun it can be. Then you position the image as closely as you can to overlap the real scene in front of you, and shoot. Including your hand and arm makes it even better, rather than making the picture you take look like something altered in photoshop. Plus it gives it a more human element.

Here are some other examples of what people have created and submitted. Some of them are very amusing, while others nearly make you want to cry, especially when you read what the person submitting the images has written below. I've added in the original comments with the following images.

Dear Photograph,
Thank you for everything we had.

Dear Photograph,
Any idea where them dinosaur shorts are at?

Dear Photograph,
I wonder which parent let us up there?

As someone who loves to travel and take photographs and document my life as well as those around me, I'm always looking back through travel and family photos and reminiscing. It's wonderful to see where you've been, how you've changed, but it's also humbling to recognize that no matter how hard we try to live in the present, time always marches on.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Pump My Ride

Not every day's a holiday (boooo goes the crowd), but there’s nothing saying that you can't find adventure in every day life, even on days where you find yourself commuting to work. I think anyone would agree that it's annoying to be stuck in the city in summer on a beautiful day when you’d prefer to be heading out of town with a kayak or bike on your roof, rather than sitting in your car in traffic, listening to yet another classic rock station, waiting for traffic lights to turn green.

That’s why, when I can, I ride my bike to work. 

This is me and my trusty steed at The Forks National Park in downtown Winnipeg. My bike’s about 15 to 17 years old, has thousands of city and back-country trail kilometers on it, has many well earned scratches, but no matter what abuse I put it through, it always loves a good adventure, even if it’s just getting me to work and back.

We're living in a 'green' world and there are many ethical and green reasons to commute to work by bike: your fitness, your health, and your finances (gas prices are more of a pain in the ass than even the worst bike seat). I love riding to work. I have many different routes I can take to the office - some short, some long, some that follow along river paths, some that sneak their way through neighbourhoods and down quiet tree-lined paths. Whatever the day, you can choose a route to suit your mood (kind of like the difference between listening to ABBA or listening to Aerosmith - you can cater to your own inner extremes).

And hey, zipping down the road on your bike, not only do you save time by speeding by long lines of cars at the lights, but maybe most importantly, you LOOK good. Especially if you’re wearing some flashy cycling clothes, and if you show off those quick-reflex stronger-than-steel muscular calf muscles, brimming with sweat at the opportune moment (okay, this may sound like a little bit of vanity, but I've always felt that cyclists are rewarded with svelte looking legs to compensate for the usual lack of under-development that happens with their upper body since when cycling it isn't employed to do much more than steer, shift gears, brake and give the occasional single-fingered 'hello' to passing motorists).

And that brings me to another reason why I ride my bike. This.

Meet my Volkswagon Golf. Year of birth, October 2002, purchased after my VW Jetta (1991 – 2001) went on to a better place. Like my bike, it gets me from Point A to Point B as any other car would. But unlike my bike, it’s not the sexiest of cars out there. There’s no sunroof, no fancy ‘sport’ package – heck, even the windows are ‘roll-down’ (for those of you raised on power windows, this is where you have to use your arm strength to move the windows up and down - cycling does not build muscles for this action unfortunately). Plus, no matter how you flex your calves while driving this car, no one will see you. It’s like a tree falling in the forest with no one to hear. So sad.

I know it doesn’t sound that bad, and thankfully being a car in its 10th year of driving, there isn’t even any rust. But take into consideration what my business partners drive to the office, the cars that I park by every day at the office.

This is Dean’s car, an authentic 1971 MGB. Even when it’s quietly parked on the street, it just oozes style and elegance. Even the idling sound has a hint of a British accent along with a slight hint of the smell of high quality single-malt scotch.

This is Oai’s car, a Pontiac G6. As a hard top convertible that folds into the trunk and as a vehicle with sleek curves, you know people are looking at the driver wondering if he's an international spy, an NHL player, or even more exotic and mysterious, the owner of a Tim Horton’s coffee/donut franchise.

When THESE guys drive down the street, THIS is who’s waving to them.

When I drive down the street, THIS is who’s waving to me.

Their cars should out "Adventure! Speed! Sexy!" Meanwhile, my car shouts out "Practical! Ample trunk space! Good for getting groceries!"

So that’s why, when I can, I stick to my bike. Green living or no green living, it's my best action plan that just happens to benefit mother earth. I'll keep using it as my primary means of commuting, at least until the days grow short and the mornings begin to consistently dip below zero, usually by mid-October. At that time, I’ll put the bike and lycra away and reluctantly switch back to the Golf.

Besides, when you’re taking the time to commute by bike in the fall, enjoying the season, the leaves, the cool fresh air, but no one can see your calf muscles because you're forced to wear a double layer of cycling tights, really, what's the point?

Friday, June 17, 2011

Adventure travelers - find your inner couch potato

Lust for travel isn't a 9 to 5 kind of thing - for me, it's 24-7, as they say. But packing up and heading out on a vacation at any time of the day on any particular day usually doesn't work because:

1. even the simplest trip takes at least some planning
2. not everyone in the family enjoys packing as much as I do (my shaving kit is always ready to go at a moment's notice...)
3. uh, I've got this work thing I need to show up for
4. your kids' teachers seem really fussy about when your kids are gone weeks at a time (likely has something to do with the only being able to travel at peak periods when airlines max out their prices and change your reservation more times than Lindsay Lohan has court appearances)

So for those times when you have that travel bug, but really can't get away, here are some travel movies to 'get you in the mood'. Outside Magazine, one of my favourite reads, recently posted an on-line article with the best 5 adventure travel movies ever made. I'm not sure they all would have made my list (believe it or not, there is NO reference to Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure or Ferris Bueller's Day Off - so so sad). But there does seem to be some quality choices there that might actually satisfy that inner yearning to be far far away.

So tonight, if you wish you were jetting off to cycle through the alps in France, or to ride the class 4 rapids on the Bow River in Alberta, maybe these movies will help quench that thirst, couch-potato style. All from the comfort of your own living room, with no passport or full body cavity search required.

Travel on Ted...

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Vacations - the Good, the Rad and the Knarly

The word Holiday is defined in the Merriam-Webster dictionary as follows:
A day on which one is exempt from work; specifically: a day marked by a general suspension of work in commemoration of an event.
I think we can all agree that a holiday’s purpose is to take time away from work. For example, that could be a week or two away from your office or business, or for a stay-at-home parent, time away from the usual household chores, or generally from any situation that involves ‘deadlines’ and ‘must-dos’. I’ve also heard that trying to have a conversation with someone like Paris Hilton, Megan Fox or for that matter any political figure could be described as ‘work,’ (or they could be described as 'a piece of work') but I think that’s a little bit out of the description we’re looking for today.
So, with that in mind, of the following vacation types – which one would you say is most in line with the type of holiday you crave?

The Resort Rat (a 'turn me over when I'm done' kinda holiday)
Lying back and doing absolutely nothing but soaking up the sun is peaceful, and I can’t imagine anyone who wouldn’t find it relaxing and rejuvenating. I believe it’s in our nature, if even only for a short time, to lay back and be as unproductive as possible. That’s what all-inclusive resorts, hotel spa programs, cruise ships and road construction projects were created for. Ha!

Your butt goes here.

Typical family resort behaviour. I can't even count how many shots we as a family have exactly like this...

Many of my friends (and even myself, to a small degree) love a holiday that involves beaches, pools, swim-up bars and time-freeing kids clubs. A holiday like this means rest, relaxation, tan lines, and ultimately other people doing as many things as possible for you (within reason and within the realm of the law, of course - unless you're in Thailand).
With thousands of these kinds of small villages in Europe, how can you ever go wrong on a multi-day cycling trip?

The Adventure Traveler (a rugged adventure - but not without a mint on the pillow at night)
Now this kind of vacation takes a little more effort, and usually doesn’t include a broken-English speaking servant named Manuel finding out your drink and food preferences. If you’re the kind of person that loves to be on-the-go and you’ve signed up for an adventure travel type of trip, you’re in some way responsible for getting yourself from point A to point B, likely by bike, kayak, foot, or even as illustrated below.

I have no idea what kind of insurance would cover you in any situation where you choose to stand on the back of an elephant...

It may seem like a lot of work, and certainly it can be, especially if for example you’re cycling through the back roads of southern France and discover exactly how much effort it takes to cycle up the ‘picturesque and character-filled’ hills. (Warning – in France, every old village is built at the top of a hill – they say it has something to do with centuries-old defense systems. In my mind, I think it’s more because they want to make the cyclists earn those chocolate croissants and cappuccinos they’ll be devouring for breakfast.)  
There are rewards as well to this type of travel. Once you’ve finished your day, most often there’s a luxurious hotel, a wonderful meal and bottle of wine waiting for you back at your three or four star hotel, nestled within a thousand year old village full of life, history, culture, and likely, other adventurers like you. Some are recognizable by the bandages they wear after going down a hill much too fast and crashing head first, others by their funny bow-legged walking style after 8 hours on a bike, for 6 days in a row.
Adventure Junkie (where the return portion of the flight is not always necessary)
This kind of vacation, in a word, is mayhem (note: I’ve always loved the word mayhem. Sadly, having done many Google map searches, I’ve never been able to come up with a town or city anywhere in the world with that name – otherwise I’d travel there in a heartbeat).

If the board had a cup-holder, I'm sure I'd give this a try too.

Some vacationers can’t sit still longer than the time it would take to sit on an all-inclusive resort swim-up barstool and order a drink - and if they did, that drink is more likely to be a high-energy protein shake than a pina colada or margarita. These people tend to be labeled as ‘adventure-junkies.’ You've seen them around - typically they drive perpetually mud-caked Subaru Foresters, dress with at least one layer of fleece to top out their outdoorsy outfit, and they name their dogs after 11th century philosophers and physicists. 
Their idea of a holiday involves putting themselves in near-death situations. This may include climbing a 90 degree face of a mountain (usually named after the first person silly enough to try to climb it, who died trying to do so, and who’s body was likely never found), kayaking down class 5 rivers sporting nothing more than a wet-suit, a helmet and a sack full of ‘woo-who’s!,’ or participating in an ultra marathon in the middle of a desert, surrounded by snakes, scorpions, and man-eating coyotes, all after training for the 20 weeks leading up to the holiday, not eating anything more in a day than a handful of carrot sticks and the occasional organic energy bar. 
These are the people who proudly declare ‘I’ll sleep when I’m dead.’ Some of my friends (crazy as they are) are like this, and when they say this, I believe them (then I politely ask if they mind if I take out an extra insurance policy on them...).

As Long As You Get Away
Vacations mean different things to different people. And for this, I’m truly glad. Otherwise the next time I’m on a multi-day cycling trip through southern Italy, or when I’m kayaking off the coast of Vancouver Island, or even sitting at a café in a quaint little Spanish town after a day's hike, I’d literally be elbow to elbow with a bunch of like minded travelers all trying to have the same experience. I personally prefer to have a little more space and don’t mind getting up, at least on occasion, to get my own drinks. But heck, if someone wants to bring it to me, who am I to refuse?

Sunday, March 20, 2011

It's Friday and my head just might explode.

It’s actually Sunday afternoon, the first day of spring, and I’m just back from a nice long run in the cool rain. When I have the time at the end of a run, like today, I like to build in a little treat for myself – I take the time to do a cool-down walk down a side road that runs through the beautiful tree-covered riverside golf course we live by. Loving to run or walk through the rain, I found myself winding down halfway through the course when I all of a sudden realized that in my head, bouncing around were the lyrics to one of the most silly and annoying songs I’ve ever heard. Called “Friday” by Rebecca Black, it became an internet sensation this past week, gathering up more than 27 million views alone on You Tube (as of today), and it also came into the top 10 singles sold on Apple’s itunes.
Check it out if you dare:

If by chance you've been under a rock this past week and haven't yet heard of or viewed the video, here’s a sample of some of the prose within. Sesame Street would be jealous of the simplicity, and hey, maybe they should consider having her on the show rather than Katy Perry in a low cut dress (I'm not complaining about that):

“Yesterday was Thursday, Thursday. Today it is Friday, Friday. We we so excited. We so excited. We gonna have a ball today. Tomorrow is Saturday. And Sunday comes afterwards. I don’t want this weekend to end.”


“Partying partying - yeah! Partying partying - yeah! Fun - fun - fun – fun. Looking forward to the week-end.”

There’s always a danger when you go on a long run, or bike ride, or even a walk. You get into that mode, and you lose control of your thought processes as you give in to the rhythm of your body during exercise. It’s a wonderful and addictive byproduct, but sometimes things go astray and your conscience boldly cries out ‘mutiny!’ and all of the brain cells that are in charge of rational thought take over in the most rude and unpleasant way. Today, my punishment for pushing my body and mind through a long cold rainy workout was not a lactic acid buildup – it was that song running through my head.

Yet I have a database of at least 5,000 songs in my head, so why, why is this the one going round and round my head? Is it really so fun – fun – fun – fun? Am I I so so excited? Why not something from Pink Floyd? Or Cold Play, David Bowie or even ABBA for that matter?

This all got me to thinking (with the song still in the back of my head). Being the traveling guy I am, I’ve been on many trips where I’ve been in cities surrounded by centuries-old art and architecture, world-famous historical sites and landmarks, sculptures, bridges, spectacular ocean-fronts, thousand year old trees – and I find myself in somewhere absolutely un-historic and generic like an Apple Store in New York City, or at Pier 39 in San Francisco - or shopping for clothes at The Gap in London, England. Even worse, I’ll find myself going through the tourist trap shops in downtown Banff or likewise in Gastown in Vancouver. And let’s not even talk about the Mall of America in Minneapolis, a city with more bike paths and beautiful small lakes than you could visit in a lifetime. 

I think it's sad to spend your time in here when there are places like the high line to walk, or wonderfully tall buildings to visit.

Okay, if by chance you do find yourself here, if you love chocolate, head up the hill until you're at Ghiradelli Square. When you walk in the store they hand you a sample of their wonderful chocolate. Quickly walk through the store and join the line up to get in again. Repeat as many times as needed!

When compared to what these cities hold of an education nature, are these touristy destinations not the equivalent to finding yourself singing the lyrics to a song like Friday? There are so many thousands of quality songs out there that you can not only enjoy, but find actual meaning within their words. Note: this is why I unfortunately couldn’t include REM in my original list of world-class musical groups.

The odd thing is – these mostly secondary destinations and simply worded songs have some purpose. In their own way, they feed the soul. To put it in really simple terms (Rebecca Black might want these words for her next mega-hit), we can’t always have steak - sometimes we just have to have a hot dog. There’s comfort in comfort food, and when people are traveling around the world, there’s a certain degree of comfort going somewhere that’s packed with like-minded tourists looking for that popular spot, whether there’s something educational about it or if it has something to do with the city it’s in, or not. 

Now what you do with your hot dog is up to you. Ketchup? Mustard? Hot peppers? But it's still a hot dog.

And it’s the same with music. I already know that Friday comes after Thursday, and thinking back to my grade 1 education I know that Friday is followed by Saturday. But her words are comfort food for the masses. It’s simple, predictable, and hey, I’ll even admit, maybe even a little bit fun. I’m sure many millions of You Tube viewers had a good time in the office or at home making fun of the really silly lyrics and the ultra-cheesy video (if my kids ever sit in a car like that they’ll be grounded for life - or longer), but I wonder just how many of them also found themselves humming the very same tune to themselves this weekend, if only for a brief moment. However long that song stayed in their minds, I hope they had fun fun fun fun. But not too much, cause today is Sunday, and I’m pretty sure it’ll be followed by Monday.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Saying Goodbye to a Good Friend

I have no wind beneath my wings.

Sorry to reference such a sappy Bette Midler song, but it’s true - my wings are clipped. I’ve been grounded. I have a full tank of gas, and no keys to the car. There are 57 channels on the tv, and nothing’s on. Sigh. I’m feeling sad and helpless, and I know it’s all the government’s fault.

Maybe I should explain where this all began…

Let’s back up to the beginning of last week. Being within 2 months of my current passport expiring, and having an upcoming trip to Toronto and then 2 weeks later to Vancouver, I went and officially applied for a new passport, and thus, had to hand over my old one and wait for a replacement to come while my profile, unsmiling picture and my guarantors are being checked out.

It was so sad to hand it over- like saying goodbye to a trusted friend after so many good times together. Times that would include: drinks at night by the Harbour in Sydney, Australia; bicycle rides along the shore and over the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco; refreshing Starbucks iced-mochas on a patio in Midtown, Manhattan; being accosted and interrogated by German guards in Kiel, Germany at 5 am after spending the night at a disco then riding my bike through a red light on my way home when no one else was in sight (maybe this is less of a good time than I thought). And lastly, as an example of a long lasting friendship, sitting together on centuries-old stone walls on the Normandy Coast in France, watching the sun sink slowly into the Atlantic. We were as inseparable as Abbot and Costello, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, or even as inseparable as Sonny and Cher (at least until a divorce and an unfortunately placed tree came between them). 

Me and my passport crossing over the Brooklyn Bride into New York City.

Me and my passport on Bondi Beach, Sydney, Australia after some knarly surfing lessons.

On a cycling trip together through southern France.

Now this may seem kind of weird, being so attached to a collection of paper, ink and government issued stamps, but as a self-assessed traveloholic, my attachment goes deeper than one might think. I handed it in to the federal agent, and of course soon I’ll have a new one for future travels. But it wasn’t until I handed it over along with my signed documents that I realized that for the next two to three weeks, I do not have a passport.  This means for this amount of time, I’m stuck and I can’t travel. I can, at least, travel by car within Canada, but it means that I cannot fly, even within our own country (we mostly have those self-serving terrorists and the strict and ever-growing list of new travel rules that came from their actions to thank for that – do they never think of anyone else?).

So what if during this period of time a once-in-a-lifetime travel opportunity comes my way? For example, what if I win a contest where the first prize is an all expense paid trip to Egypt, but I have to leave this weekend? Or if the producers of The Amazing Race call for me to be a last minute contestant to race around the world, all at their expense? And most likely of all, what if the LA Lakers call and say that they need me, a forty-something six-foot-one white guy to come and join their starting line? That’s right. It’s a slam-dunk – I’m more stuck at home than an arts grad just out of university.

Or course I'd prefer the number 15 from my high school days, but I guess 8 will do. As long as it comes with the same paycheck that the other number 8 on the team gets...

This has made me realize just how much we (travel enthusiasts) rely on our passports to give us the freedom to wander about the world. It also makes me question what kind of control our democratic government has on us. We feel free, but really, how free are we?

Gone are the glory days where we could travel so freely and easily between so many countries. I think these hard-line measures are a trend that’s out of control and unfortunately will likely continue to grow to annoying levels. Look at what privileges have been taken away from us in the past 20 years or so:

  • Crossing vehicular borders with as little as a driver’s license (without a picture yet) and a really good smile.
  • Bringing our own water bottles onto planes, rather than paying $4.00 at an airport kiosk for something we know that they picked up at Costco for less than ten cents.
  • Smoking sections on planes. Hey, I know the smoke stunk like crazy, especially when you were sitting in the non-smoking section in row 15 when the smoking section started in row 16, but it added atmosphere having that layer of haze floating at eye level while trying to watch the ONE movie screen, 10 rows up just in front of likely the tallest people on the plane who always seemed to need to stand and stretch at regular intervals.
  • Travel agencies. I know they’re still around, but they’re getting harder to find. Sure, it’s handy checking out flights on line these days, but who didn’t use to love heading to the travel agency and coming back with 46 pounds of travel brochures to places with names you likely couldn’t pronounce and that you knew you’d never be likely to travel to? And guaranteed, there was always at least one drop-dead gorgeous girl working at one of the desks, the one you’d always hope that would put together your own personal travel itinerary, if you know what I mean...
  • And finally, those awesome bags of dry-roasted peanuts – especially the ones North West Airlines handed out (16 per package on average) – pure nutty bliss in a foil bag. Yum.

I guess it’s safe to say that times change, and if you don’t change with the times, life (and travel) will likely be full of disappointments.

So in retrospect, I guess I can live, if even for a short while, without a trusty passport. Rest assured, like a child 30 years ago searching excitedly in a box of cereal for the coveted prize, even if it meant being up to your elbow in Count Chocula, I’ll be anxiously checking the mail box daily, seeing if my new passport has arrived, ready to free me from my temporary grounding and possibly expedite my long overdue professional basketball career along side Kobe Bryant.


For the record, I did get my old passport back moments after handing it over to the agent, but they did unceremoniously clip off the top right corner, forever rendering it useless - like a bike with a flat tire, or like American Idol without Paula Abdul. Ha! Kidding on that one. But it will still always have a place in my life – or more accurately, a place in my sock drawer, right next to the resting place of passport 1996-2001 and passport 2001-2006.

Goodbye my old friend. You were too young to go, but you’ll never be forgotten - or recycled.

Rest in peace.

2006 - 2011

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Christmas - The Ukrainian Sequel

There are two great things about being Ukrainian. First thing is the food. Yum. Second would be the noses we all ‘inherit’ from our elders. Kidding! No, the second greatest thing about being Ukrainian is…Ukrainian Christmas! 
Time to put away the North Face and get out the Ukrainian garb! Nothing in the world feels better than a pair of red leather knee-high boots. Our family pictures for Ukrainian Christmas pretty much look exactly like this.

What could be better than taking the best holiday of the year – and then doing it all over again? Bring on the food. Bring on the family. Let’s do it all over again, just at the time when you’ve maybe finally lost most of the weight you gained 2 weeks ago. 

And presents! It’s great to have a second round of gift giving. Not all Ukrainians make the gift giving a part of their second celebration, but when my brother, sister and I were growing up, we often would wake up to happily find another wrapped present under the tree for each of us (along with a million dried out needles from the tree which had stopped sucking up water weeks before). I also seem to remember that each year we’d make some sort of argument of how it was so totally disrespectful to be going to school on such a special occasion, but not only did we have to go to school as usual, we’d even have to do homework that night if we had any. So much for holiday spirit...
Usually we'd only find one gift each under the tree, nicely wrapped. The gifts were always really good too since we knew Santa could get post-Christmas Boxing Day deals.

Anyway, tonight is Ukrainian Christmas eve. It’s mid-winter, it’s cold, and I’m feeling a little bit bound by the elements of winter and would love to be traveling somewhere in the world. Honestly, I could have my bags packed and be gone by evening – but sadly that’s unlikely to happen.
I received some great presents from our previous Christmas gift giving, but when your passion in life is travel, sometimes there are things you’d love to put on your Christmas list, but they wouldn’t be easy (or affordable) for my friends or family to purchase. My wife finds it impossibly difficult to buy for me when I tend to have everything I need already. Meanwhile, if I could add items like a trip to Europe or an eco-tour in Costa Rica, I could easily provide a list in mere minutes that wouldn’t kill anyone’s brain cells in the process. But with the price limit we set on each other’s gifts, I don’t think I’m going to make it much further than maybe Morris, Manitoba.
So I have a brilliant idea – this year, I’m going to write a letter to Santa with my wish list for Ukrainian Christmas. Since only Ukrainians are sending in their lists for this special night, it should be easy to get what I’m requesting with so little competition for his time and special gifts. And to make it even more fun and festive, I’ve put my wish list into a song format that follows the tune of “My Favourite Things” from the Sound of Music.

Here we go:
Dear Santa,
I’ve been a good boy all year long. I go to bed early, get up early, wash the dishes, mow the lawn, wash the cars (well, I take them to an automatic car wash, but heck, I still have to drive there), talk to the neighbours, and I even sometimes answer the phone when I know it’s a telemarketer (they get lonely too, I’m sure). It’s Ukrainian Christmas, and I’ve tried to live a good Ukrainian lifestyle. I’ve started pinching my nephew’s cheeks and calling Safeway ‘Safeways’ and the Bay ‘the Bays’ just like my dear old Grandma used to (not sure where the habit of adding in an extra s comes from, but I’m going to assume it’s a Ukrainian thing).
And just to confirm, was it cookies or perogies you wanted left by the fireplace mantel? Maybe I’ll leave both!
And so, here’s my list for Christmas tonight, again, in the form of a song:
Sunscreen on noses and tickets to Britain
Airplanes of metal and postcards you’ve written
Luggage all packed and gondoliers who sing
These are a few of my favourite things

Traveling with homeys and crisp Asian noodles
Jet ways and cafes and artists that doodle
Bike trips and boat rides and countries with Kings
These are a few of my favorite things
Booking flights on-line and drinks on a terrace
Bright sunny beaches and cafés in Paris
Gulls by the ocean with sun on their wings
These are a few of my favorite things
When the frost bites
And my mood swings
When I need travel bad
I simply remember my favourite things
And then I don’t feel so bad
[Repeat all verses - then go book a trip!]
Merry Ukrainian Christmas to all!