My First Year In Portugal

picnicking in Luso, Central Portugal

picnicking in Luso, Central Portugal, with fresh figs from the home village

My one-year anniversary was actually a week ago, on September 29, but that day I was 3,150km away, running around Warsaw with Canadians and Mexicans. Now that I’m back in Portugal, I can write about the year that’s flown by.

So far this year, I’ve left Portugal three times and on each flight home I was consciously testing my feelings about being on a flight to Porto instead of Toronto. Honestly, each time I was all “ahhhhh, it’s nice to be home” even though two of those trips were forays to new countries (Cabo Verde and Poland) and if you know me personally you’ll also know I truly enjoy being in new countries.

Portugal really does feel more like home than Toronto, but I know it’s also related to being part of a family here versus seven and a half years as a one-person household in Toronto. I’ve been asked whether I miss anything about Toronto (the city, versus the people I know there), and I have yet to come up with anything besides the availability of different cuisines. Ask me about Vancouver and you’ll get a different answer, and the same goes for any other city I’ve lived in. I’ve been influenced by each location, and I can tell you things I miss — and don’t miss — from each place. Home is a very mobile concept for me, not linked to any geographic coordinates but to situation. And in my current situation, I feel very much at home in Portugal.

Expat Life

Lest you think my first year in Portugal has been all sunshine and roses, here’s the truth: the downsides of expat life have made their appearances, too. (I’ll be referring to this related list throughout the post, even though BuzzFeed GIFs drive me bananas and I think their title is overreaching: not ALL expats have these issues and most of the list doesn’t really apply to me, some items very mildly, some strongly in the past in other countries. For me in Portugal, only the last three apply.)

Even for serial nomads, there are inescapable downsides to expat life. Probably the biggest one I can think of is that friends and family reside in multiple cities and countries, and there is never a single time or location where all are gathered — not even for weddings or funerals. (See Item #8.) Long-term expats get used to it and find ways to deal with it, because you can’t control the distances between everyone, not even with Skype. I’ve been moving around all my life, but only the first 18 years were with my family and the rest were moves made on my own. The moving part is a drag, but then it’s over and the rest makes up for it, tenfold… except someone is always too far away.

The first quarter of Year One in Portugal (Oct-Dec 2013) was pretty rocky, since Paulo was sent off to the U.S. not once but twice for two weeks each, delaying the whole process of progressing past the Skype stage to feeling married and finally living with my husband. After a year of being apart we’d grown so sick of Skype that we were less-than-thrilled to use it again, especially so soon. But when there’s an ocean in between, Skype becomes the default communication tool.

Because I’m the one who moved, it took me months to really feel at home in our kitchen (versus it being Paulo’s kitchen). We ended up reorganizing it this past spring, to put things closer to my height since I use the kitchen more than he does, and I didn’t want to use a stool all the time to reach daily items. Now Paulo can’t find anything! That’s more of a Married Life item than an Expat Life item, but it’s worth noting that getting married AND moving to a new country at the same time is not an optimal scenario if you don’t like stress! It is also worth mentioning that we are not Spring Chickens, either: Paulo is 37 and I’m 42, and together we bring 79 years of stubbornness to the table.

That said, expat life in Portugal has added new dimensions to my photography. I absolutely love photographing Portugal! This country is a feast for the senses. Now that I’ve been here a whole year, I have a full set of seasonal albums for local life in the Life By Season Collection. Travel-wise, I have visited 17 of the 18 regions in continental Portugal, all except Castelo Branco, plus São Miguel in the Azores. Here’s the full Portugal Collection of albums, which includes my first trip in 2011, May 2013 (getting our marriage license sorted), June 2013 (wedding and honeymoon in the Azores), events, and local life by season.

Language

Language has been the trickiest part of expat life in Portugal, bar none. (See Item #4.) I struggle with Portuguese. We’ve registered me for government-sponsored language lessons, but they haven’t started yet (scheduling is based on registrants). I still can’t hold a conversation with my in-laws. Many people watch TV to learn a language, but I do not watch television and even the sound of TV drives me crazy. I have yet to speak Portuguese over the phone — a big stumbling block for me because I can’t read anyone’s lips for assistance in figuring out their words. The sounds all seem to run together.

Auditory learning has always been my biggest weakness: when I took music lessons as a child I needed the sheets to look at the musical notes. I know people who can play songs by ear, but they can’t read sheet music. I’m definitely not one of those people! In the case of language I need the written words to match the sounds. I can conduct simple store transactions but I’m working with numbers, not words.

But I’m making progress and that’s what counts, even if it feels very slow. I’m a visual learner, which means my Portuguese reading comprehension has outpaced my verbal and spoken comprehension, and I don’t need to run every single web page through a browser translator anymore. I’ve learned the series of keyboard strokes on an English keyboard for the Portuguese accent marks (though I have to look up the words because I forget where the marks go). I can read most signs and skim articles much faster now. Every successful exchange is a small victory: a couple of weeks ago I gave directions in Portuguese, and I watched my very first film entirely in Portuguese without subtitles. Baby steps!

You are probably wondering why I waited a whole year to register in classes, when most people would sign up right away. There are a few reasons for this and they don’t apply to everyone, but after talking with some other expats, I know I’m not the only one.

First of all, I’m not a very good classroom learner (which is why I’m in favour of alternative styles of teaching children, such as homeschooling and roadschooling, but this is a topic for another day and it is always hotly debated). I went to traditional schools with classrooms, I attended university classes of all sizes, from half a dozen to huge lecture halls of hundreds, but my greatest learning has not come from the classroom, it has always been in the field, i.e., on the job, in situ, immersion, hands-on, whatever you’d like to call it. It’s not the easiest way nor the fastest — in fact, it’s harder on self-esteem at the beginning — but learning is not a sprint, it’s a marathon. It’s about endurance, not pace. I am a firm believer in choosing the manner which suits the individual best, and that applies to all ages — children and adults. Consider standards to be the finish line: the kids will get there before I do but I’ll get there before the seniors, and in the end it doesn’t matter because we’ll all be cheering for the 95-year old who was the last person to cross the finish line. We are not competing with each other, it doesn’t matter how or when we get there, we just have to get there. Were you one of those babies who walked by 11 months of age? Congratulations! Do you walk any better today than the person who only learned to walk at the age of two? I rest my case.

Travelling solo for more than twenty years made me accustomed to figuring things out on my own, but navigating public transit in another language last weekend suddenly reminded me how spoiled I am in Portugal. Living and travelling with my husband the polyglot (he speaks five languages) has thwarted my typical “sink or swim” learning process. It’s easier to turn to Paulo and have him conduct all the communication in public, and it’s made me lazy. I know this sounds very strange but I’m more self-conscious about speaking in Portuguese around Paulo than with a complete stranger (they’re less likely to laugh at my mistakes, for example). You would think it’s easier to learn a language from a spouse, but in my case it’s not — not because Paulo makes it difficult for me, but because I don’t want him to teach me. I do not want a teacher/student dynamic at home unless it’s with children, and that’s more of a parent/child dynamic.

My second point about waiting to take language classes is to avoid information overload. Taking language lessons at the beginning can backfire: I’ve talked to some expats who say they’ve had to retake classes because they couldn’t retain the information. If I were an Erasmus student, of course I’d be searching for the fastest way to learn Portuguese because there’s a lack of time for learning and it competes with the demands of university, but in my situation I have more time, less urgency, and my overriding concern is to make it stick. Retention is a problem because my memory isn’t what it used to be and it’s only getting worse, so whatever method works best for remembering the words is what I’m going to use. I actually feel more ready to take language lessons now because I’m not dealing with other very basic things like figuring out the transit system and what to eat.

Food

There’s a reason why food is Item #1 on this list. Portuguese food takes some getting used to, but like anything it’s a matter of giving everything a shot (or two or three), learning where to look for things and tweaking recipes. After a year of eating Portuguese food almost exclusively, I know generally what I like or don’t like, but food is very regional here and I’m open to trying new ways to eat things I haven’t particularly enjoyed before (I’m rather ambivalent about octopus, for example). I view menus with much more confidence than when I first arrived, and it helps that I have no attachment to any particular North American items like peanut butter, junk food, condiments, fast food, or convenience food like macaroni and cheese out of a box. I avoid food chains, anyway, and have no love for restaurants run by corporations. In fact, I don’t miss the North American food lifestyle at all apart from greater access to the food of other cultures. But food there is generally imported, mass-produced, heavy on convenience and processing, and I wanted to leave all that behind (or at least as much as possible). Food regulations in the European Union are much stricter than they are in North America, which is a benefit to the consumers here.

Of course, Portugal is no different than any Old World country adapting to the modern world: it’s becoming more automated, and there is more processed food on supermarket shelves than ever before. But it is still relatively easy to find simple, unprocessed food made by hand rather than machine here, and I love having access to foods grown locally. In the photo above are fresh green figs which are new to me — I’ve only ever eaten the black figs fresh — and since fresh figs don’t last more than a few days, most people only know dried figs. We are lucky to receive bounty from the home village: olive oil, apples, cherries, chestnuts, figs, walnuts, pumpkins, etc. From my in-laws’ place we get gooseberries, passionfruit, lemons, cabbage, herbs, etc.

However, it took months and countless trips to be able to navigate the Portuguese groceries, supermarkets, and hypermarkets without circling for items endlessly, and to cook Portuguese food without consulting the internet for help. (See Items #20 and #21.) I’m no domestic goddess, but conquering our kitchen has at least elevated me from the role of a longer-term couchsurfer (that was me in 2011) to someone who actually lives here. I’ve learned to make a range of Portuguese food, and like my mission to find the best bolo de bolacha, I’m on a continual hunt for variety in existing dishes.

Friends

This has taken a while, but I knew it would (see: language). There are a few barriers at hand for making friends:

  1. I only speak English fluently. I know, it’s a handicap, a big one.
  2. I’m not part of a local established network such as a workplace or church community or school.
  3. We don’t have kids or dogs (update: we now have a dog!) — you would be surprised how easy it is to meet people when accompanied by a kid or a dog!
  4. I’m an introvert and I actively avoid small talk. But with language learning, even stringing together a sentence is hard work and any talk at all sounds like kindergarten-speak. I naturally switch to silent-and-listening mode when I’m outside of my house.
  5. Not being part of traditional localized networks leaves me with transient social networks such as couchsurfing, or the expat communities. There are Portuguese people within these transient communities, but they are a small minority.

As it turns out, the friends I spend time with are mostly expats. This is not an ideal ratio, I’m aiming for balance, but this is still only a few people and I am in no rush to make a lot of friends at once. Relationships take time, and I’m here for the long-haul.

I should add that I am not lacking in support — in fact, I’ve had more support here than anywhere else I’ve lived, ever. Paulo’s family and friends are extremely warm and inclusive, just like Portuguese people in general. They have reached out in all sorts of ways to make the transition to Portugal easier, and have offered to help with anything and everything. But I’m one of those people who choose to build my own networks independently from my partner; I compartmentalize my life on purpose. It’s a more complicated life, for sure, but I prefer it this way.

In a couple of years I will be eligible to apply for Portuguese citizenship. I may not be language-ready in a couple of years, but I do have every intention of eventually becoming a dual citizen. My attitude is that I’m here as an immigrant versus “just” an expat, which means I’m committed to the process of becoming a citizen and it’s going to take time and patience. But like I said, I have no plans to return to Canada or move elsewhere permanently. If Paulo gets an opportunity to be an expat, too, I will fully support whatever he decides even if that means moving again to another country temporarily, but for the time being we are both very happy in Portugal.

This became even more evident a couple of weeks ago when we were on our road trip (thousands of pictures still to be narrowed down!), visiting new parts of Portugal and camping around the country. Every day was in a different place and we woke up excited about exploring the area and documenting our discoveries. Portugal may not be a very large country, but there is so much to experience — food, landscape, architecture, history — that I am perfectly content about my decision to move here instead of staying in Canada and Paulo joining me there.

The first year has not been without its struggles, but throughout the year whenever I hit a roadblock I reminded myself of the timeline pattern in all the longer-term jobs I’ve had. The ones that were more career-oriented had the same bumpy timeline: a year of uphill before the plateau. In those workplaces where I stayed longer than a year (three companies in Vancouver, two in Toronto, the rest worldwide were a year or less), the first year was characterized by steep learning curves. I clearly remember periods of feeling discouraged and second-guessing my role in the company. In each situation I always had to remind myself that once I survived the first year it would get easier, and it always did.

I’ve viewed this first year in Portugal that same way: a constant state of learning, problem-solving, researching, and analyzing before the climb became more manageable. My two steepest climbs thus far are Language and Married Life. I’m learning about my newly-expanded family which includes a husband and in-laws and extended family, how things work, where things are, how to get there, what to say, what not to say, how much things cost, how to save money, what to do, what not to do… this life is not for everyone! Especially if you get frustrated easily, have little patience, or don’t like change. For me, my whole life has focused on adaptation and being self-reliant, and I will take this life any day over switching to easy auto-pilot mode.

After a year, I feel Portuguese has become my third nationality, after Filipino and Canadian. I didn’t realize this until last week in Poland, while being in a group of Canadians and Mexicans. I haven’t been around any Canadians in a year, and I picked up on certain things that probably only a Canadian living outside of Canada would notice. Something else I realized while in Poland is that I’ve become quite used to the Portuguese lifestyle with regards to meals and meal times (there is no lanche there! travesty!) and I think the Mexicans could relate to this difference, too…

In the past year, a number of people have contacted me through the website to ask about Portugal — what it’s like to travel here, and also to live here. I’m happy to answer questions by email, just contact me through the form but please introduce yourself first. I’m always surprised when people launch straight into the questions without giving me a backgrounder! I can’t really help you otherwise, since travel experience and expat life are both driven by personal circumstance, and just like the saying goes, Your Mileage May Vary.

Goldwasser From Gdansk, Poland (and some news)

Goldwasser from Gdansk, Poland

Have you tried Goldwasser (German “gold water”) before? We were only introduced to the liqueur this week, when our couchsurfer from Gdansk gifted us with this bottle. The first thing you’ll notice is the floating flakes of — real — 23 carat gold, followed by the 38% (!) alcohol content! The recipe of root and herbs have been a closely-guarded secret for hundreds of years, and it has a long, fascinating history, including some legends.

From Local-Life.com:

Local legend (which abounds in Poland) states several murky tales about the invention of Goldwasser, mainly revolving around the god Neptune bestowing the delectable drink upon Gdansk’s citizens. In one he is so sick-and-tired of residents throwing coins into his fountain on Dlugi Targ that he strikes his mighty trident splaying shrapnel everywhere, and this, inexplicably, is why you’ll find gold pieces in the vodka. The other, even more inherently suspicious, claims a Neptune overjoyed by the coins he was being lavished with decided to reward residents with an archetypal water-into-wine manoeuvre by turning the fountain water into vodka. Greedy merchants and landlords hauled it away by the barrel, but not the virtuous owner of restaurant Pod Lososiem – oh no; his vodka is filled with gold forever after for his good stead. Seems a bit of sly marketing on the part of the upmarket restaurant where the distillery once operated has entered the local psyche…

We tried some of this firewater on Wednesday night, and it really packs a punch! It’s supposed to have medicinal value, too, so down the hatch: Na zdrowie!

In other related news, although having a Polish couchsurfer was pure coincidence (and luck, for me):

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Can you tell I’m excited? It’s a six-day press trip sponsored by the Polish government, to promote the Polish food industry to Canadians. In a couple of weeks I’ll be in Warsaw and Poznan, eating, drinking, touring, and taking photos of everything. Nothing out of the ordinary for Gail at Large, except I’m on assignment in a journalist role. As my friend put it: “So, a Canadian raised Filipina who calls Portugal home will travel as a journalist to Poland in order to learn about and promote Polish food to Canadians… Yep, actually makes sense to me. — That should be a great experience!!”

But FIRST THINGS FIRST

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Casa Aguiar is hitting the road tomorrow morning and tripping around the country for nine glorious days, including places where Paulo has not ventured, eg. the Algarve. This also means I’ll be taking a holiday from blogging, too, but will likely take some pictures on my phone, which will end up in one or two of these places:

Instagram: http://instagram.com/gailatlarge
Twitter: https://twitter.com/ImageLegacy
Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/gailatlargedotcom 

See you on the 22nd!

Linha Do Douro Scenic Railway Trip: Videoclips

(photo by Paulo)

(photo by Paulo)

Today we played tourists and took the panoramic Linha do Douro (Douro Line) railway from Porto all the way to the end station, Pocinho, and back to Porto with a lunch stop in Régua. The weather was perfect for it, and the whole trip took about 12 hours. Yes, there’s lots of footage! I’m showing tiny videos for now (Paulo’s camera was set to the lowest resolution), and photos from my camera later.

Everything in this post was shot by Paulo. My pictures to come, I’ve started an album here.


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This last clip is of Portuguese musicians beside the historic steam train (which we did not take) about to leave Régua. You can see video and pics of that line here.


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August 24, 2014
Album: Linha do Douro Scenic Railway Trip (2014)

My Old Stomping Grounds

my front yard for almost seven years: Beach Avenue, Vancouver

my front yard, 1998-2005: Beach Avenue, Vancouver

I was digging through the archives of my farewell trip through Canada (Lua de Mel 2) last September, and came across these photos I hadn’t uploaded yet. I have many similar photos shot with old cameras from when I lived on Beach Avenue in Vancouver, a place I nicknamed Chez Gail while others called it Hotel Gail because there were always people crashing on my couch, some even staying for months. Good times.

This is one of the downsides of expat life: I don’t know when I’ll see these places up close again. Vancouver is nearly a full day of flying from Portugal (there are no direct flights, only connections) and much more expensive than flying between Toronto and Portugal. But even when I lived in Toronto to Vancouver the flight was expensive; I put as many expenses as I could on my two credit cards using Air Canada’s frequent flyer program to rack up the points. Most of my trips between Toronto and Vancouver (a 4-hour flight) were on points. Since I’m not doing that anymore, I have a feeling it will be a long while before the next trip.

Besides, cities are always changing, and I expect this old round building on Beach Avenue to be demolished at some point and redeveloped to match the rest of the neighbourhood beside the Burrard Street Bridge. When I moved into a west-facing 1-bedroom suite on the 4th floor, I paid $680/month and that was practically unheard of for Beach Avenue back then, even for studios without a view at all. I can only imagine what it must be like now!

my home building for almost seven years: Beach Avenue, Vancouver

my home building 1998-2005

The office where I used to work from May 1998 moved from the hustle and bustle of downtown Vancouver to the sleepy Sunshine Coast in the summer of ’99 and then moved several times on the coast since then. For a few of those years this was my view, and I commuted to the office by airline and ferry for a year between 2008 and 2009 while living in Toronto. I’ve watched many incredible sunsets and sunrises here.

Sunshine Coast, BC

my office view: 2003-2004, 2008

While on the Sunshine Coast, Paulo and I went wandering around the town of Gibsons and ended up on the pier. He took a photo of me taking a photo of the doorway, and you’ll see my shot below his.

You’ll find more photos of the trip in the Flickr album: Lua de Mel 2

Gibsons (Sunshine Coast, BC)

Gibsons, BC (photo by Paulo)

Gibsons (Sunshine Coast, BC)

Gibsons (Sunshine Coast, BC)

12th Blogiversary

Gail at Large's 12th blogiversary

To imagine in 2002 what this blog would look like in 2014 would be like looking into a crystal ball of the internet, something investors and probably most — if not the rest of us — would love to do. (If the blog were a human it would be a tween turning into an adolescent… shudder) Let’s look at how much the internet has changed according to Google:

Google Zeitgeist for 2002, by month. See the total number of websites and users by year throughout history.

Nickelback had the biggest hit of 2002 (more shudder), with “How You Remind Me” (let’s not!), according to the Billboard charts. How about films:

Top-US-Grossing Feature Films Released In 2002, according to IMDB:

  1. Spiderman
  2. The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers
  3. Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones
  4. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
  5. My Big Fat Greek Wedding

Do you remember who played in the World Cup Final on June 30, 2002 in Japan? Brazil beat Germany, 2-0. It was tears of joy, back then, for Brazil. In case you’ve been living under a rock or have been totally unplugged in the Seychelles this month, World Cup 2014 is a year Brazil would rather forget. Forever.

The year I started writing in this blog, euro banknotes and coins were put into circulation.

I started this blog two years before Gmail was launched. The iTunes Music Store did not yet exist, either. Feeling old yet, blog?

If you talked about the cloud back in 2002, any rational person would just look up at the sky. Today, maybe just your grandma.

This blog predates Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and MySpace. In fact, it’s older than 13 of the 15 top social networking websites as of July 2014 according to eBizMBA — only Classmates (1995) and Meetup (June 2002) have been around longer. If I’d known back then what I know now about the internet, something I would’ve paid more attention to is Dead Links — links to nowhere! This blog is a big link graveyard. I should’ve pasted some excerpts instead, since The Wayback Machine doesn’t save everything. I also dearly wish I’d saved screenshots of the various incarnations of this website interface, or even just the mastheads, a la Dooce. Too late now.

Site statistics aren’t nearly as entertaining anymore now that Google hides keywords from organic search enquiries. Far fewer of these gems, aw. Or this and this. Too bad!

Speaking of statistics, I’ve updated my Excel file, which tells me I posted way more in February this year compared to last year, but that’s no surprise since the Turning 40 Series finale happened on February 5. I also did better in May this year (because last year I went to Portugal to obtain our marriage license).

Blog Stats 2014-07-28 at 4.17.27 PM

2014 also marks the end of an era: Orkut shut down, for good. (That page will probably disappear, too, so here’s the announcement on TechCrunch.) It’s been many years since I logged into Orkut, which is the reason why I wasn’t able to archive the posts and albums from David‘s account or mine. I met a LOT of people through Google’s first social network, not just David. Forum history that’s 10 years old is gone, sadly.

The internet is notorious for short shelf lives, quick expiry dates, trends, and fads. I’ve seen so many sites bite the dust and jump the shark, I can’t even begin to name all the big ones. Some major websites have been “repurposed” — Friendster is now a gaming platform — and serious money is being invested in smartphone and tablet apps. RIM (now Blackberry) is a shell of the company it once was in 2002, its worldwide market share eroded to only 1% in 2014 by Android, iPhone, Windows et al, according to Statistica.com.

It’s a whole different world than it was 12 years ago, even in the blogging world. I’ve web-watched bloggers (and photobloggers) marry, have kids, divorce, come out of the closet, get written up for plagiarism, lose their religion, find another religion, delete their websites, some try and restart them, scale down to a microblog on sites like Tumblr, change their ‘voice’ or reinvent their image. To see so many bloggers virtually explode and implode is pretty dizzying.

Meanwhile, I’ve been quietly blogging along here on a regular basis, under the radar, wrestling with plugins and negotiating prices with domain hosts and experimenting with new layouts and watermarks (yes, even though I loathe watermarks I’ve resigned myself to apply them because of Pinterest — big sigh). No matter how much I mess around with the interface, I fully agree that content is still king, and while many bloggers try and stay motivated to blog with projects like Writing Prompts, Blog Challenges, Weekly Themes, Guest Writers and whatnot, I’ve always had the opposite problem: blogging has become such a habit that it’s like brushing my teeth. Except it takes longer… exponentially longer. If only blogging was as quick as toothbrushing, I’d free up a lot of time spent processing images and thoughts into posts.

Can someone make a plugin for that?

Liebster Award Nomination

Liebster Award Nomination for Gail at Large

While I was in Cabo Verde I was nominated for a Liebster Award Nomination by Vlad from the originally-named travel blog Eff It I’m On Holiday. Thank you very much, Vlad! I will definitely be hitting you up for info when we get around to visiting Romania.

What are the Liebster Awards? Basically, it’s a meme for the blogging community. I have no idea of its origins, and nobody else seems to, either, not even search engines. There are a few basic rules which seem to have evolved over the years, but the general idea is to promote blogs you enjoy, ones that you feel deserve more of a following. How? By answering the questions given by the blogger who nominates you, and in turn making up questions for your nominees. I’ve seen Liebster Awards for blogs across all different topics but this time it’s about travel, although this blog covers quite a few topics apart from travel. I’ve been flying under the radar for many years now, because I spent five years building a photography business and not reading other blogs, just updating my own. I’ve been in a blogging bubble, and only since moving to Portugal have I begun to step outside of it again.

When I saw the questions I thought ‘Oh man, this will take me forever’, but to my surprise I finished it in less than forever! It’s been a long while since I participated in any sort of meme, and will continue my time-honoured tradition of answering memes without nominating. Here goes:

Palau de les Arts

Palau de les Arts (Valencia, Spain)

1. How did you decide to start your blog?

In 2002 I was a frustrated part-time university student and full-time office worker who got sick of writing research reports and long essays. Blogging was a novel way to procrastinate, with the bonus of appearing productive (I’m writing, see!). In those days everyone thought blogging was oversharing and narcissistic, but it was such a relief to rant freely online. Eventually the ranting gave way to other topics. And on a related note, this is why I prefer to write a blog rather than a book.

Moulay Idriss, Morocco

Moulay Idriss, Morocco’s holiest city. Also referred to as ‘the poor man’s Mecca’ because five trips here is the equivalent of one trip to Mecca.

2. Think fast: your top three favorite destinations.

So far: Cuba, Iceland, Morocco, in no particular order.

Vila das Pombas (Santo Antão island, Cabo Verde)

Vila das Pombas (Santo Antão island, Cabo Verde)

3. What country have you always dreamed of visiting and why?

Madagascar. Well, I didn’t always dream about it, only in late 1992 while I was living in Australia. I was in a dance club, and the most beautiful girl I’d ever seen was dancing with me on a catwalk above the crowd. I asked her where she was from and she said Madagascar, and I decided I had to visit this place where such people were made existed. I like to go to places for random reasons, places that I never hear people talk about. I’m much more drawn to them than the ones that get a lot of media.

Air Berlin, Vienna to Rome

Air Berlin, Vienna to Rome

4. If you’ve visited it, what was it like? If you haven’t, are you planning on going anytime soon?

I haven’t visited it yet. A friend of mine in Toronto went last year, but he’s even slower posting photos than I am — I’ve barely seen any! Africa is such a huge continent I’m working my way into it slowly, starting with Morocco in 2007. Cabo Verde, our most recent trip, is “Africa Light” so maybe another island like Madagascar is in the cards, we’ll see. I got married last year so my travel planning is not for one but two, which means I don’t make all the decisions anymore. But it also opens up some activities I’ve done previously alone, like camping or hiking by myself, things I did only rarely because I acknowledge the safety issue.

in Iceland it's open season for... elves?

in Iceland it’s open season for… elves? (click for story)

5. How would you describe your travel style?

Deliberately random, leaving as much room as possible for spontaneity and serendipity. I like a lot of freedom, which is why I have avoided business travel. It may sound glamorous but it’s nowhere near the same, not even the time I was hired to shoot a wedding in Mexico and got to stay in a gorgeous suite at the resort. Believe it or not, but the few times I’ve travelled for work I have always pined for the freedom of leisure travel.

I can't believe that bus made it through the rivers

Stakkholtsgjá and Þórsmörk nature reserve, Iceland

6. What is the funniest thing that has ever happened to you while travelling?

It’s only funny now, years later, but at the time it was more like horrifying: I was on a night bus in Germany after celebrating New Year’s in Hamburg. Before I boarded the bus to Amsterdam, I had some drinks with a friend to ease out of a hangover. What a mistake! It was more beer than I could handle without desperately needing the loo, but there was none on the bus, which was packed, and we were on the Autobahn with nowhere to stop. I tried telling the bus driver I had a “medical condition” (my exact words), but he refused to stop the bus. It was dark but with interior lighting I couldn’t get away with anything, especially since I was sitting next to a French guy who could see I was in pee distress and thought it was hilarious. Instead of trying to help or at least look away, he was mocking me and waiting for me to humiliate myself in front of him. It got to the point where I thought I would pass out, so I did the only thing I could think of — remember, I just marinated my brain in booze for New Year’s, I was short of ideas — which was to grab my newly-purchased scarf, pull down my pants, and hope the scarf could take all the beer.

C’mon, what would YOU do?

The French guy gasped, he was loving this. Miraculously, the last-ditch act of pulling down my pants and sitting on the scarf was like a psychological plug on my bladder and the feeling passed. I pulled up my pants and spent the rest of the time before the first stop counting the painted lines on the road. Every time I had the urge to pee, I repeated this weird pants-down-scarf-sitting and it worked. When I arrived in Amsterdam, I had to run away from the French guy, though.

Cabo Verde Escudo

Cabo Verde Escudo

7. Do you have any regrets when it comes to previous trips?

Not following my own system. The (fortunately only) few times I’ve been robbed over the past couple of decades of travel happened because I didn’t follow my own system of securing money. A traveller has to be really consistent with certain things, because all it takes is that one inconsistency mixed with fatigue to let your guard down. It’s one thing to be robbed at home, you can still manage the day-to-day stuff and replace ID easily, but put yourself alone in a different country (especially in a foreign language you can’t speak) and it can turn into a nightmare.

on our way to fly over Manhattan

on our way to fly over Manhattan

8. What are the best and the worst things that have happened to you while flying?

Commercial flying: I opted for an airline-paid layover in Las Vegas a couple of years ago when my plane had mechanical failure (my other option was Buffalo, NY; no contest). Over the years I’ve been lucky enough to get upgraded to business a few times on a bunch of different airlines, most recently was last year on Air Canada. I always wanted to take those opportunities to gossip about celebrities doing stupid things, but there was only once when I got upgraded when I saw someone remotely famous, but I think he’s only famous in Canada. The most embarrassing moment in recent years was when I ordered a kosher meal on a flight to London, for kicks.

General Aviation flying: while flying over Manhattan in the VFR Corridor (my late husband was the pilot) in 2005, I learned the valuable lesson of not drinking anything just before taking such a flight. Won’t do that again!

couchsurfers giving free hugs

couchsurfers giving free hugs at Kensington Market in Toronto

9. How do you prepare for a trip?

Mostly internet research or talking to people I know who have been there. I try to use independent (read: unsponsored) travel blogs or sites geared to independent travellers, rather than forums where the users are resort/cruise people who enjoy being catered to and rate their experience according to service level or the weather (!–seriously, people do this). I use hospitality exchange sites wherever possible, not just to find hosts but to get local advice and to meet up with locals even if I’m not staying with them. (Couchsurfing converted to a B-Corp a few years ago which riled their user base, including us. We recommend BeWelcome as an alternative.)

sunset over Paris

sunset over Paris

10. What’s the one thing you didn’t foresee when you first started your blog?

Haha, I just get one? OK, one thing I didn’t foresee was how many things this blog has brought to me. I’ve had good fortune from it, like getting invited to stay in central Paris with a local, and having my iPod Touch returned to me in Atlanta when I dropped it in a cafe. The blog has also brought me freelance work. But the best part is that I’ve made close friends and interesting acquaintances through its history on the web, people I’d never have met otherwise. It’s like a 12-year old calling card!

Brain Storm

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If you were to believe any of the nonsense that is horoscopes, you would steer clear of Geminis like me because our brains are totally cluttered and we can’t focus on anything, not even finishing our sentences (or posts!). Anyone who marries a Gemini should read the fine print before signing. We’re like magpies, driven to distraction by any shiny object — trivia, photos, gadgets, weird things on YouTube — that pass before our eyes. Thus, all long-distance trips are prefaced by chaos because of that deadline called The Departure Flight.

This photo was taken a year ago, at our first Azorean accommodation in Ponte Delgada. It was a little loft apartment in Pópulo, accessible only by a private beach using a set of moveable stairs operated by remote control. We loved it! I took this photo from the loft bed which had a great view of the ocean. The apartment also had a washing machine, which I took note of in the accommodation description because I was working like a madwoman in Toronto before the trip — as per usual — and didn’t have time to do laundry… so I packed my dirty laundry and flew it across the Atlantic Ocean and washed it in the Azores.

Because that’s the thing about Geminis, if you believe this to be a trait I share with anyone born mid-year: we always get it donesomehow. It won’t be pretty, and we’ll look crazy in the process. Everything will be predictably haphazard, the more organized bystander will tut-tut over the sleep deprivation and lack of finesse, but the chips fall where they may and they’re usually in our favour.

The Departure Flight is on Saturday. (See above.)