Paris: Two Guidebooks; Two Times

I had never been until last year. I wanted to save it until I had the time to savor the city. I wasn’t sure if I would love it (sigh….all those charming Paris movie and novel scenes) or be hugely disappointed it wouldn’t live up to my decades of pent-up expectations. The first time I went in May (ahhh, Paris in the springtime) and ended up staying an extra week. I returned five months later (mmmm, Paris in the fall). Clearly I am enamored. Since all of my time in the City of Light was an independent exploration (no tour buses and guided walking tours for me) and most of it was solo, I was intent on experiencing it my way. On the other hand, I did need a bit of guidance to travel the lesser experienced sights of the city but wanted to avoid the Fodor/Frommer/Rick Steves/Rough Guide/Lonely Planet tourist paths. Ultimately I found two small guidebooks and used one for each trip.

100 Places Every Woman Should Go In France by Marcia DeSantis, a former Parisian expat, was chock full of suggestions for Paris. It was my springtime guide to the city. I began with her suggestion that I overcome my acrophobia: don’t just snap the iconic exterior photo, but climb the Eiffel Tower steps to the second floor cafe (670 stairs of beating heart and sweaty palms) to toast my accomplishment with an overly priced glass of champagne and gaze at Paris’ rooftops and towers.

It was also her recommendation that took me to the department store Galeries Lafayette, not to shop but to gaze in awe at it’s magnificent stained glass dome and to Sainte-Chappelle, a medieval Catholic chapel where I listened to a concert while the setting sun played off its stained glass windows.

I would have never spent Paris temps precieux at a movie theatre, but her description of La Pagode art house cinema (a reconstructed Japanese pagoda used originally as a ballroom complete with tearoom garden and more stained glass) inspired me. I saw Still Life, a thoughtful English movie but could have seen their weekly screening of Breakfast at Tiffanys. 

Paris Sketching

It was her enthusiastic description of Merci, a concept store opened in an old wallpaper factory that found me there sketching over a cappuccino on a rainy day resulting in one of my favorite Parisian photos.

Bocce Ball Paris

In Luxembourg Garden, I searched for the bocce ball courts (as per her suggestion) and spent the better part of an afternoon cheering for very serious Frenchmen, while trying to figure out the games’ rules.

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And I braved the terrifying prospect of getting a haircut in a hip Parisian salon with my minimal French – made all the more fun when the stylist eased my concerns with champagne.

When I returned in the fall, I took with me City Secrets: Paris, the Essential Insiders’ Guide by Robert Kahn. This compact guidebook is filled with insider personal recommendations of 150 artists, writers, architects, historians and gourmet chefs who live in or regularly visit Paris.

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It was the keen eye of an artist contributor that made me take notice of the public art Metro stops and actually sit to listen to the street musicians.

 

I would never have found La Belle Hortense, a tiny wine bar/bookshop/tapas restaurant/literary and art gallery had it not been mentioned by both a food features writer and landscape architect in the guidebook.

As a travel sketcher, I appreciated the recommendation of a painter contributor to browse and augment my watercolor pencils at Magasin Sennelier, the historic artist supply store that invented oil pastels for Picasso.

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In a Paris guidebook seen through the keen eyes of artists there were a multitude of recommendations about looking in through shop windows and doorways and looking up at murals, lighting, ceiling motifs.

 

 

Greece: Volunteering for Syrian Refugees

     “Tell me, what is your plan to do with your one wild and precious life? Mary Oliver

I love that question. My friend, Alice Mendoza, a retired 40 year Bainbridge Island public school teacher regularly quotes it from her mother’s favorite poem. Alice admires Eleanor Roosevelt and each year her students had the privilege of learning how the former First Lady of the United States promoted and modeled the importance of community and global service. Alice also spent two years teaching in an international school in Morocco shortly before she retired. And so it was no surprise when she announced two weeks ago that she was traveling in February to the island of Lesbos in Greece to volunteer with Seattle’s Salaam Cultural Center assisting with the Syrian refugee crisis. She’s using her one wild and precious life to help save the wild and precious life of others.

Lesbos is the nearest island to Turkey and for the overloaded and/or defective rubber rafts carrying the flood of refugees, its the first safe haven that many of them reach after a dangerous six hour crossing of the Aegean Sea. They arrive scared, cold, wet and hungry; some of them with immediate medical conditions. Some don’t live through the dangerous trip. It’s winter on the Aegean and Alice’s update today reported that several babies died of hypothermia on the rafts that landed this week.

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A variety of NGOs, including the Salaam Cultural Center and their volunteers, along with the people of Lesbos have managed to create a temporary infrastructure that tries to accommodate the refugees’ needs as they arrive by the boatload, sometimes thousands in a given day. In January of 2016 alone, 18,000 refugees made the trip. Lookouts watch the Aegean Sea 24/7 for signs of incoming rubber rafts. Once the raft lands the shaken passengers are given dry clothes if the volunteers have a supply, food and a medical checkup if needed. This is where Alice will be volunteering. They’re then bused to the port on Lesbos and put on a ferry for an eight hour trip to Athens for more formal refugee processing. A social media global campaign has been mounted on behalf of the Greek Islands to award them the Nobel Peace Prize.

Alice is self-funding all of her expenses, but set up a GoFundme account here to raise $10,000 to buy needed supplies for the refugees as they land- childrens’ socks, shoes and hats; dry sweatpants, raincoats, warm coats and thermal blankets. I donated; its the least I could do with my one wild and precious life. She got the Senior Center on Bainbridge Island to knit warm hats to take and has been speaking to groups to raise funding and awareness. Alice was an elementary teacher and knows in her volunteer capacity in that short window of time she has to comfort a traumatized child whose language she may not speak, she needs a translator. Beanie Babies. I have boxes of them (a collection discarded by my peregrine son when he moved on to collecting real pets). Tiny bean stuffed translators; all of them are accompanying Alice when she leaves in February.

Tell me, what is your plan to do with your one wild and precious life? Mary Oliver

 

Ecuador:Go!Clown With Patch Adams

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This happened two days ago. You know that Facebook feature that randomly posts photos of your past life? Facebook posted this. This actually happened six years ago and it made me laugh as hard two days ago as it did when Patch Adams (that’s him on the right in the photo) and his merry band of clowns tried to kidnap me in Ecuador. When I didn’t go willingly they insisted on a group nose-picking pose.

It happened because I was traveling with my peregrine son through Ecuador which found us passing through Quito for an overnight stay three times during the trip. We stayed in the Mariscal area, a touristy but easy place to find cheap food, a good latte and information from fellow travelers. It also had La Casa Sol, an inexpensive guest house that let us safely leave bags of non-usable stuff as we ventured on multi-day trips that took us from the tropical jungle to the chilly mountains. When we arrived the last time late at night after a day long bus ride, the guesthouse was filled with clowns. Lots of them. Uber enthusiastic, red-nosed, horn-honking clowns. My peregrine son looked about and announced he was leaving to find another hostel. I stayed. I was too tired and too curious.

It turned out my charming hostel was hosting a Go!Clown mission, part of Patch Adam’s global outreach program at his Geshundheit Institute. I’d seen the 1998 movie based on his life starring Robin Wlliams so I knew something about the back story. But when you’ve just come out of a week in the remote Amazon jungle to discover you’re the only non-clown in a hostel full of them (always in costume and character….always!) it requires some re-entry time no matter how famous the sponsor. Which is what I was doing the following morning contemplatively sipping my coffee in the breakfast room when blown soap bubbles landed in my cup. I moved over a chair to let three clowns join me and sat on a whoopee cushion. I had inadvertently become an audience of one for their rehearsal of the day’s activities. What I discovered in between their magic tricks and making of balloon animals was that the group was headed to the Quito Womens’ Prison for the day to bring joy and happiness to the inmates. Later that afternoon I happened upon them on the main drag of touristy Mariscal performing for confounded backpackers. And even later in the evening in the sitting area just outside my room earnestly debriefing the day under the guidance of Patch Adams himself using the Institute’s educational philosophy about problem solving. And that is when I quit being disgruntled that I was surrounded by constant clowns. This was a volunteer humanitarian mission born out of a philosophy that spontaneous play in sad places (prisons, hospitals, clinics, orphanages, places that have been ravaged by civil war and trauma) incrementally heals the mind and body.

The next morning Hunter “Patch” Adams wandered into the breakfast room before the rest of his volunteers and I had a chance to meet the person underneath the clown costume. The 1998 movie never did produce the dream he had when he allowed the rights to his life and mission to be made into a movie. He wanted enough attention and funding to let him build a hospital that implemented his model of medical therapy on the 300 acre West Virginia Geshundheit Institute. He wanted the Go!Clown missions, which were annually in Ecuador, Guatemala, Peru and Russia to expand to other countries despite the fact that he was already traveling 300 days a year doing lectures and leading the missions. And he had a new idea – to include traumatized U.S. military veterans on the clown missions to provide a healing opportunity for them.

The rest of the exuberant clowns honked, tooted and danced into the breakfast room to leave for their day’s work at two Quito hospitals. They tried to get me to join them but we had a flight home that morning and so the photo op happened. Two days ago when Facebook memory prompted me, I checked the Geshundheit Institute website. He’s still fundraising for that hospital. He’s taking Go!Clown missions to other countries. And last year a group of military veterans donned clown costumes and joined a mission.

Vancouver, Canada: Indigenous Tourism

It began with my search engine attempt to find reasonably priced accommodations in downtown Vancouver, Canada over the U.S. Thanksgiving Day weekend. An intriguing name rose to the top of the search engine feed: Skwachays Lodge: Aboriginal Hotel and Gallery. Hmmm. Located on West Pender Street across the street from Vancouver’s Millenium Gate entrance to Chinatown, the hotel was not only reasonably priced but within walking distance of almost everything we wanted to see. Owned and operated by the Vancouver Native Housing Society, the hotel had the added attraction of not only a fair trade gallery of art by First Nation artists, but each room was decorated by a team of Native artists and interior designers with unique indigenous art. Finding Skwachays Lodge inspired a theme for the weekend’s trip- what other Native owned businesses could we support while in Vancouver?

Skwachays Lodge is the first Native owned urban hotel in Canada and had just celebrated its one year anniversary when we were there in November, 2015. Originally the Vancouver Native Housing Authority bought and renovated the building to be used for housing for indigenous people seeking medical treatment at Vancouver area hospitals; but when it got less use than anticipated, the Housing Authority turned it into a boutique hotel for tourists and art studio and living space for indigenous artists. Eighteen suites on the top floors are for paying guests.

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Each suite has a theme and lovely name such as the Sea Kingdom Suite, Moon Suite and the Wilderness Teachings Suite. Our’s was the Northern Lights Suite featuring two beaded metal wall hangings by Nancy A. Luis, one of a black bear and another of two wolves singing to the moon woven into a dream catcher. A wall mural painted by Jerry Whitehead of a procession of powwow dancers beneath the Northern Lights greeted us every time we entered and left the room. Even if you don’t stay at the hotel, you can appreciate the details and art of the suites here.

Proceeds from the hotel support the indigenous artists who live on the other floors of the hotel and their studio spaces which are located there as well.  “You arrive as a guest and leave as a friend,” said the front desk clerk who checked us in and then showed us the breakfast room (pointing out the single slab cedar breakfast bar), fireplace and seating area to read, sip a glass of wine and meet the other hotel guests, all of them drawn by the experience of supporting the unique dual mission of Skwachays Lodge.

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It was Thanksgiving, we had a travel theme and so we asked the staff at Skwachays for a dinner recommendation. They suggested the Native owned Salmon and Bannock Bistro on West Broadway. The small restaurant was packed. Indigenous art hung from its red walls and the menu was all tasty aboriginal dishes from local ingredients including bannock, bison tenderloin, game sausage and Indian Candy (salmon smoked and candied). The restaurant serves wine from Nk’Mip, British Columbia’s only First Nation winery.

The hotel staff became our resource for cultural experiences as well. In addition to all of the art, there was a smudge room on our floor which can be used by hotel guests with advance reservations through the hotel. We hadn’t done that so the staff recommended the Bill Reid Gallery of Northwest Coast Art to see the works of Canada‘s acclaimed Haida artist and other indigenous carvings, paintings and jewelry. The gallery is like a museum with touch screens that explain the art and often artists at work. The hotel advised us on how to use the city’s extensive mass transit system to get to the Museum of Anthropology located on the University of British Columbia campus.

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MOA, the Museum of Anthropology, is home to Canada‘s best collection of indigenous art and artifacts.  Even the architecture of the building was inspired by Northwest Native post and beam structures. Full length windows in the Great Hall help showcase many towering totem poles and wooden carvings. The museum also features indigenous cultural artifacts from all over the globe in room after room of display cases and pull-out drawers all tastefully displayed and explained. To do the museum justice takes most of a day.

 

 

 

 

 

 

How India Begot Spain

The instructions for the 30 day India non-extendable tourist visa are clear. I must have proof that I’m exiting the country at the end of my visa or I may not be allowed to enter the country at the New Delhi airport. Hmm.

I’m a month away from my trip to India as a volunteer in a humanitarian project. I’m well into my normal pre-trip mode. I’ve been doing guidebook research to get a general sense of where I’ll be (England’s Rough Guides publications are my favorites for their more detailed descriptions and budget travel advice). Though I’ll be mostly traveling with a small group on a guided itinerary, I like knowing some facts before arriving. My advance reading always includes travel memoirs to get a more personal sense of the country. Because it’s India and women traveling there need to be particularly aware of cultural differences, I’m reading female authors. The annual anthology, The Best Women’s Travel Writing is always a good start. Also the owners of my favorite local travel store, The Traveler, on Bainbridge Island carry a well curated collection of guidebooks and memoirs and are generous with advice. Since my final week will be spent working in one of Mother Teresa’s hospitals or orphanages, my online research has focused on what that experience will be like. In spite of all my pre-trip reading, I try to enter a country in a state of modified tabula rasa – open to the newness of my journey and as free of preconceived notions as possible.

What I hadn’t done (I realized while completing the online 30 day India visa) was to make a plan to return home. Unencumbered by the boundaries of work and limited vacation days my peregrine self had focused on the getting there and the experience of being there but not the getting out of there. Which is how India begot Spain.

I have a love affair with Saudi Arabia’s Emirates Airlines. Heavily subsidized by the Saudi government it’s an airline that still treats it’s international coach passengers with elegance (real silver wear, plates and menu choices) and grace (more legroom, soft, muted colors and interesting in-flight entertainment). Because of the government funding, it’s also often less expensive than any other airline. It has a direct flight from Seattle to Dubai. And as a partner with Alaska Airlines, allows use of Alaska frequent flier miles. It’s taking me to India. Where could it take me cheaply away from India if 1) I could continue traveling in March and April, 2) I didn’t want to stay anywhere in Asia as March begins their season of heat and humidity, 3) I didn’t want to go anywhere in Europe that required packing winter clothes and 4) I really need to improve my Spanish?

Valencia, Spain (…..via Madrid). Valencia, Spain’s third largest city, is located on its eastern coast with the geography of a subtropical Mediterranean climate. It’s March weather is temperate and it has the added bonus of having an annual two week festival in March, Las Fallas, that celebrates the end of winter. It also has language schools. And my search for accommodations found an inexpensive, charming Airb&b apartment in the historic district that the owner will rent to me for a discount because I’m staying a month. But then Valencia begot Salamanca, Spain.

In doing some research for a Spanish language school, I also discovered a volunteer opportunity near Salamanca. In return for me practicing English with students taking a week long English immersion class, I would get a free week of accommodations and meals at the 4 star mountain resort where the course was being held. I applied (I was a high school English teacher). I got accepted. I’m going. And I still haven’t planned the return trip home.