Gail At Large, By Paulo

a rare sighting of Gail at Large

a rare ‘Gail at Large’ sighting

You’ve probably figured out by now, if you’ve been reading for a while, that I’m not into selfies. Sure, lots of photographers take selfies but I’m not one of those photographers — I’m reflective enough without a camera. (Just ask my husband.) I have this blog, which is all me me me, so photos of me in posts in addition to my words are just overkill if you ask… me.

Anyway, now that the preface to this rare photo is out of the way, the byline: this most recent photo of me was taken a week ago by Paulo, when we were at the urban markets in Porto. I think it’s his comeuppance for all the photos I take of him, except that this one passed the “photographer filter” and appears online instead of being archived on an external drive.

Also, someone noticed that my first DIY haircut has made its first appearance, too. Yeah, the shock to my head finally wore off, Zhu!

Our couchsurfers arrived in Porto this evening and we’ll be showing them around for the next few days. Blogging will be light-ish.

I Survived My First DIY Haircut

my first DIY haircut

That is, my head survived. Have you ever tried cutting your own hair? Trimming bangs doesn’t count. The last time I had bangs was either the second half of 1998 or the first half of 1999. Before that it was high school. There are no pictures handy to verify the date but I distinctly remember the first time the new bangs were revealed. I arrived at the office, a corporate outfit in downtown Vancouver. My boss walked right by me and did a double-take.

“What happened to your hair? You look like a 12-year old.”

“Oh, it was around 2 o’clock in the morning and I decided I wanted a hair change.”

“Here’s some advice: don’t ever cut your hair at 2 o’clock in the morning.”

Needless to say, I took his advice. There have been no bangs since 1998/89, and I haven’t cut my own hair since. But I trimmed Paulo’s recently and thought to myself ‘Hey, I can do this. My hair is long enough to manage the angles.’

Famous last words, right?

There are people who LOVE going to the hairstylist, barber, what-have-you, because they like the head massage while breathing essential oils or having someone shampoo their hair. If the salon is posh or trendy they’ll bring drinks, making the whole pampered experience like going to a bar while sending your head to a spa. Some have found their hairdresser to be witty and engaging as well as skilled, and they’re loyal to that hairdresser because they’ve spent a lot of time and money searching for The One Who Will Make Them Feel Like A Million Bucks. These are usually the people who follow the recommended guidelines of a haircut every six to eight weeks, and look forward to that next appointment.

I’m not one of those people.

I will go to great lengths to avoid hairdressers, even choosing ones whose first language isn’t English because the small talk typically goes out the window and the whole thing is over sooner, not to mention the Asian ones are much cheaper.

The last time I got my haircut was in November, when Paulo was in the USA for work. My mother-in-law brought me to her hairdresser and wouldn’t let me pay for it. The lady did a fine job, she didn’t speak English, and she was quick. All good.

Yet, I will go to great lengths to avoid another haircut session. Since this is my first shot at cutting my own hair, I had to completely flatiron it first (because it’s curly) and the whole process took AGES. I’m talking hours — enough time to have my hair professionally cut and blow dried at least four times already — but the final result is promising. I think it turned out alright. I figure, if I can maintain the hair myself, why not? I can only get faster. But if I am to continue doing this, I’d better get a pair of proper scissors!

Down The Rabbit Hole

Miss Kyra shared her bunny with me

December 2004 (not my bunny — it’s too pink!)

Once upon a time, more than 20 years ago, I was in Melbourne, Australia, working for a company that sold books door-to-door. I was living in a flat in St. Kilda with my workmates, a motley mix of foreigners — mostly Brits — and young, itinerant Australians. At 19, I was usually the youngest and the only Canadian on my teams (I did meet one other Canadian from Victoria, but he didn’t last long). I’d just met them but was expected to spend all my waking hours with them in a hyper-communal living arrangement. Not only were we sharing expenses via a kitty, buying groceries together and divvying up the housework, we were on a company mandate to spend all of our free time together to “bond” as salespeople. Those first six months in Australia working for two rival companies with nearly identical employee training programs and policies turned out to be some of the most absurd yet strangely rewarding months of my life, where I made friends I still have to this day. It’s also where I learned a great deal about myself, human nature, and more about Australian people than I could ever, ever want to know…

Even though all this time has passed, I still don’t talk much about the first six months in Australia because it was such a weird time, based in these isolated quasi-communes and living like we were in some kind of transient work cult. Today, we would be a reality show and we’d be making money from the weirdness. But back then it was a way of life, a situation that could only be possible in the pre-internet days on the gigantic island that is Australia, cut off from the rest of the world and where news came by traditional media like TV, radio, and print. We lived in a bubble. A fun bubble in a Willie Wonka sort of way, but a bubble nonetheless.

Due to the nature of the work, the places where we lived became a revolving door of people. Many of us were on short-term visas, mostly Working Holiday category, living out of bags and going where the wind took us. Teams were changing constantly. We’d basically given up our freedom in exchange for accommodation, being continuously on the road in the company of other young people, and the promise of well-paid commissions for hard work. We had few responsibilities like finding places to live, but we made a deal with the devil and had to abide by a slew of rules. We were associated with cults because communication with “outsiders” was virtually impossible: nobody had mobile phones, pay phone calls were expensive, and we were monitored to a degree that still disturbs me a bit when I think about it. Later, when I was still in Australia but working elsewhere, someone told me there was an exposé on television about these companies and their dodgy practices and I was in it, portrayed as a “victim”, but I never got to see it. Probably a good thing!

The terms of employment were such that the companies dictated our social lives. We were strongly discouraged — nay, forbidden — to make friends apart from our workmates who were already living with us, but at the same time it was verboten to sleep with each other because that would “fracture” the team. Which of course, as you can imagine, invited a lot of clandestine rule-breaking. As if that wasn’t enough drama, the learning curve for our jobs was very steep and not everyone in the teams got along. There were personality conflicts, sexual tension, and the type of behaviour you’d expect when a bunch of strangers are thrown together in close quarters. Everyone was far from home, we only had each other, and this compression bubble turned us into a de facto family — a very dysfunctional one at times. We ate together, worked together, went clubbing together, did everything together. Between the two companies, around Canberra and Melbourne, I spent six months in these roving bands of sales teams.  It was like a portable, real-life version of Big Brother, with jobs but without the prize money.

I still think about some of those people from time to time, because of what we experienced together. I’ve reconnected with some later, in particular one friend who returned to England and set up in London. I’d met up with her a number of times over the years between living in Scotland and passing through London. Some people leave a strong impression, either for their personality or from something that happened. One individual I remember from those days was one of the funniest people I’d ever met, one of the few from that team whose name stuck in my head. I’ve often wondered over the years what he’d done since then and if he’d returned to Wales. I don’t know what possessed me to plug his name into the search bar today, but to my great surprise I found his name (a common one) in Amazon — by some crazy coincidence he’d just published a book about those very days in Australia!

Now, if you’d met anyone who’d worked for either of those two companies in Australia, you’d likely hear some variation of “I could write a book about those crazy times” passing their lips within five minutes. Because it’s true — even six months to a year of this nomadic and intense lifestyle could easily fill a book with outrageous stories, names changed of course. But here we are 20 years later and finally someone DID actually write a book about it, and it happens to be a guy I’d been wondering about all along. My curiosity got the better of me. I started reading some chapters of the book and indeed, he’s changed people’s names, but the stories are not exaggerated…

… and down the rabbit hole I went.

1-Year Anniversary: Turning 40 Series Finale

Exactly one year ago was the Finale to the Turning 40 Series. I spent a full year working on that series, and it was its own adventure — a veritable rollercoaster of highs and lows. In fact, I would say it was my biggest adventure to date, and I’ve had my share of those!

It is especially gratifying to reflect on that achievement, the year of the series (March 2012-February 2013), and the past year between the Finale on February 5, 2013 and now, knowing that it was never a “done deal”… I was initially told I wouldn’t be able to do it by the Powers That Be, and I had to prove myself at every stage. When you work against the odds, it makes the achievement that much sweeter. With every stage completed, I wondered if I would make it past the next one. When something had to be repeated, I crossed my fingers it would work out in my favour. I would accept the outcome no matter what it was, but this is something I really, really wanted and had to work for to get it. There was nothing particularly easy about it, including keeping it a secret because I had to do some rather conspicuous things while at The Firm in the afternoons and at my freelance job as a photographer.

If you think I’m being vague about this Turning 40 Series, I am. Due to the nature of the series and the agreements made, I can’t give details publicly. But I do speak about it in person and I provide the password to the page by request. I don’t give it to everyone, but a year later, chances are better that I will give it to you if you ask.

Here’s the Anniversary section, complete with photos.

I’m hoping you’ll be curious enough to ask, because the high I got from the finale sure beat skydiving on my 40th!

Flashback Friday: Me At 17


This was my Grade 12 photo, which is only marginally less painful-looking than my previous photos scanned from primary school: Grades 4, 5 and 6 — The Polyester Years.

To save space and weight in our luggage to Portugal, on my last day of work I scanned a huge batch of paperwork and photos which I sent to the shredding bin at the office. This was one of the “gems”… I believe it was taken late 1989, judging by the hair and my “can’t wait to get out of here” expression.