Calidris Reads: Denmark

Reading and traveling are two of my favorite things, so it’s a joy to combine the two. Aside from being a voracious reader of travel guides, I also love to read books about other writers’ travels. In Calidris Reads, I will briefly introduce you to these books and provide my personal rating from 1 to 5 knots (Terrible to Must-read).

The Year of Living Danishly:
Uncovering the Secrets of the World’s Happiest Country

Helen Russell

First sentence: “It all started simply enough.”

Indeed, it all starts simply, when Russell’s husband, fondly dubbed “Lego Man” in the book, receives a job offer to work for the toy company at their home base in Denmark. Despite a successful if exhausting career in London publishing, Russell decides to take the plunge and move with him to the tiny country (pop. 5.7 million; smaller than Toronto).

Living Danishly, she soon learns, can be challenging, baffling, frustrating, and rewarding. Danes are both freethinkers and rulemakers and are not shy about letting you know when you’ve stepped out of line. Each month of the year leads to new discoveries about the Danish way of life and questions about how aspects of it contribute to Danes’ high level of happiness. From traditional food to modern furniture, raising children to celebrating Christmas, Russell shares info and anecdotes that are always illuminating and often funny.  As when the two Brits visit their first Danish bakery and are confronted by an unhelpful clerk:

“The place is empty, so we stand expectantly, waiting to be served. But the woman behind the counter remains expressionless. ‘Hi!’ I try, but she averts her eyes and busies herself rearranging a crate of buns….We smile. She does not. Instead, she points to an LED display above her head that shows the number 137. Then she points at a deli-counter-style ticket dispenser behind us….Is she seriously telling me that I have to get a ticket?…Bakery woman has now folded her arms resolutely, as if to say, ‘Play by the rules or no buttery pastry goodness for you.’ Knowing when I’m beaten, I turn around, take three paces to my right, extract a small, white ticket with the number ‘137’ on it from the machine, then walk back. The woman nods, takes my ticket, and uncrosses her arms to indicate that normal service can commence.”

Or when they naively hoist the revered Danish flag up a pole without consulting the flag laws and a disapproving neighbour presents them with a comprehensive list of rules that he has helpfully printed off his computer and laminated for them.

I must confess, I shared Russell’s curiousity about why Danes consistently rank themselves so high in happiness, so I found all the factoids fascinating and I thought she threw in enough humour to help the medicine go down in a most delightful way. Even if you have no intention of visiting Denmark, The Year of Living Danishly will have you wondering whether the Danes are really onto something and you’ll be asking yourself: Would I be happier living Danishly?

5 knots Must-read

Travel in the time of contagion*

Last week, I finally ventured out into the big, scary world for my first bit of travel since February and the beginning of the lockdown. It wasn’t far, just a short camping trip out to Pacific Rim National Park with a close friend in her lovely new camperized van, but it was interesting to see how things are working in our BC tourist industry.

I crossed The Big Water as a foot passenger on BC Ferries, choosing an evening sailing on a Tuesday night with the idea that the ship would be fairly empty. I also assumed most people who boarded with cars would choose to stay in their cars. Wrong on both accounts. There were few walk-ons, but many car passengers did come upstairs to wander around, use bathrooms, and buy food. According to current BC Ferries policy, everyone is required to wear masks at all times and most people did, but there are always those who don’t and I didn’t see any ferry staff enforcing the rule. On the positive side, every second row of seating on board was roped off to create safe distancing.

At Green Point Campground in the national park, check-in was accomplished with distancing and safety barriers. Individual sites are far enough apart that you don’t have to worry about being near other groups. I wasn’t sure if the park was limiting occupancy, since many sites were marked Occupied or Reserved, yet seemed to have no one in residence. Because of this, the campground was extremely quiet (lovely) and felt empty (a bit spooky). The bathrooms were open except for the inside showers and provided warm water and soap for hand washing. All good, but I noted that they had blow dryers for hand drying rather than paper towels; I’m sure I remember reading that one shouldn’t use blow dryers as they scatter the virus around, whereas paper towels act as a final scrub to remove germs.

When we headed to Long Beach (this was a Thursday), we found it very busy, with parking spots near-impossible to find and hundreds of people both in the water and on the sand. It is a big beach, however, and sunseekers naturally space themselves out anyway, so distancing wasn’t a problem.

Dropping in at Tofino, 21 k up the coast, I saw few masks in evidence but since the town is a magnet for freewheeling younger folks, that wasn’t surprising. The only store we entered, Chocolate Tofino (excellent, BTW!) did have safety measures in place, including a tight limit on the number of shoppers inside, barriers between staff and customers, and a mandatory hand sanitizer station at the door.

Overall, I revelled in my chance for a getaway, short as it was, and I never felt the risks were unreasonable, probably no worse than going into a grocery store back home.

*You’ll note that I have not used the name of the-virus-that-must-not-be-named. That’s because the last time I did name it, that posting drew over 8,000 spam comments—ranging from offerings of pyramid schemes to ads for male enhancement products—which were impossible to remove, and I ended up deleting that posting to get rid of them.

Reality check

I saw this pair of photos on a Facebook post and had to give a rueful chuckle. So true! How often  we have high expectations of a travel experience that arise from photos that we’ve seen or descriptions we’ve read, without reflecting that the photo may well have been staged or the description may be omitting some important elements. And yet, it’s only natural to look forward to the exciting travel experiences we plan, sometimes for months or even years.

We travelled to Costa Rica a few years back with the express goal of seeing birds. Bryn was very into birding by then and he was making a documentary film about Costa Rica and its relationship with nature. A prime target was the resplendent quetzal, a magnificent bird with iridescent plumage and metre-long trailing tail feathers. The guide told us that our best chance would be to stake out a wild avocado tree that was in fruit, as the quetzals love to eat the tiny avocados. We would need to be in place around dawn, as the birds might arrive to feed any time thereafter.

The guide woke us at some ungodly hour and we drove in darkness into the valley through a thick layer of mist. The tree we were targeting was in a farmer’s field and he had given us permission to climb up the hillside through his cow pasture to where the tree perched on a high knoll. After navigating an extremely steep, slippery, muddy path, we settled in to wait for the birds. It felt like a classic birding expedition: the semi-darkness of sunrise, a remote location, peaceful silence, and that buzz of excitement as you anticipate the arrival of your quarry.

Then the tour bus pulled in. A horde of people tramped into “our” field. People carried small children or dragged them by the hand. They set up folding chairs and scopes. More groups arrived, each with their own guide. They blundered around in their neon-coloured rain slickers, talking loudly, some eating breakfast on the go.

We were gobsmacked. This was not at all what we had expected. But, of course, if we had thought about it, we would have realized that there were likely many other people who wanted to see the elusive bird, there were many other guides, and it would be their business to know this particular tree had ripening fruit and might attract the quetzals.

No birds showed up, whether because of the bustle of dozens of tourists milling around the tree I’ll never know. Luckily, we did see the quetzal later in the day, at a different location, thanks to our excellent guide. But that morning was definitely a letdown.

How can we avoid falling into the trap of disappointed expectations when we travel?

Well, we might try changing our expectations or changing our experience. For example, we might:

  • Try not to have expectations. Do research, choose destinations or experiences, and then try to let go of expectations. Instead, be in the moment. When we travelled to the Yucatan, I really wanted to see Chichen Itza, the famous Mayan site, because I had studied it in university. However, I dialed back my expectations after researching the site and realizing it would be extremely hot, unpleasantly commercialized, and very crowded. Accordingly, I tried to focus on enjoying what I could at the site rather than bemoaning the lack of tranquillity and opportunities for quiet contemplation.
  • Be realistic about expectations. Take a peek at the stats of how many people visit that place. About 30,000 visitors gawk at the Mona Lisa every day and if you’re hoping for a lengthy, private tete-a-tete with her, you’re bound to be disappointed.
  • Re-examine expectations. What is it about this place or activity that is really important to you? If being solitary or having majestic silence at a site that sees tens of thousands of visitors every year is the experience you seek, that is probably not realistic. But if you can adjust your expectations to “I will be there, I will be fully engaged, I will simply experience this to the best of my abilities, no matter what the circumstances,” you may still be able to find meaning in it. In Nova Scotia, I thought that taking a day cruise on the famous Bluenose II would be fun. But somehow, the reality just didn’t live up to the romantic notions in my head. Still, I reminded myself, I was on the sea on a beautiful ship, the wind in my face, and I had a stunning view of Lunenburg. I looked around and noted all the lovely details of the ship, the polished wood, the gleaming brass, the white canvas sails against the sky. I let go of my unrealistic expectations and relaxed into the cruise for what it actually was.
Across the river from Chenonceau.
  • Change the experience by finding a new approach. The Château de Chenonceau is the second-most-visited chateau in France, receiving around 800,000 visitors yearly. Not much chance of a unique or personal experience. However, in seeking places we could walk the dog we were caring for, we discovered a wooded path that runs along the other side of the river from Chenonceau. We rambled through the forest with just ourselves and the dog, coming upon perfect views of the chateau and its reflection in the still water.
  • Alternatively, choose a different experience that isn’t on such a well-beaten path. Mona is great and she’s certainly famous, but there are 35,000 works of art in the Louvre, many of them—IMHO—more interesting than Leo’s lady. Pick any one of them instead of Mona and you won’t have to line up for an hour to get a brief glimpse.

Finally, one of the best ways to beat the expectations trap is to remain open to and ready to embrace places/experiences that we haven’t planned or built expectations around. On a steaming hot day in Panama, we drove over the central mountain range to visit the Caribbean side of the country. After a few hours, we pulled off the highway onto a rocky, bumpy little track to check out a farmer’s field for birds. Not only did we photograph some interesting species, but we discovered that the track led down to a gorgeous swimming spot in the river, overhung with tall, leafy trees. The water was cool, green, and transparent and we were the only people there. Resistance is futile and I was soon paddling around, luxuriating in this totally unexpected delight. No expectations, yet it was an experience I will never forget.

Have you had a travel experience that did not live up to your expectations? Or have you found your own way around the expectations trap? Share in a comment!

Calidris Reads: France

City of Darkness and Light

Rhys Bowen
4 knots Recommended
First sentence: “Like many Irish people I have always been a strong believer in a sixth sense.”

One in a series of light mysteries set in the first years of the 20th century that centre on the adventures of an Irish woman. This installment has the protagonist in Paris among the artists and philosophers of the period, trying to track down some missing friends and solve a murder. It’s fluffy stuff, but takes you into the fascinating neighbourhoods of Paris and drops lots of famous names. A good plane read.

Five Nights in Paris

John Baxter
4 knots Recommended
Opening (from Chapter 1): “Some years ago, as a change from spending all my time writing, I began taking people on literary walks.”

This book is a mash-up of essays on a wide variety of topics loosely connected to the idea of “Paris at night.” I found the arrangement of the essays baffling and odd. There’s a prologue, followed by five pieces on random subjects. The rest of the book is organized by the five senses: sound, taste, touch, scent, and sight. An intriguing premise, especially when you consider experiencing each of these by night. However, the essays often seem to have little or no relation to the sense they are grouped under. Despite this, I found myself enjoying the book. Baxter’s writing conjures up little-known and fascinating aspects of the famous city. I found the best approach was to simply savour each essay on its own without attempting to make it fit a larger pattern.

Loire Valley:
DK Eyewitness Travel Guide

5 knots Highly recommended

This travel guide series focuses on presenting information in visual formats: maps, site and building plans, photos, sketched-out comparisons between architectural styles, etc. Smallish bits of text are balanced by lots and lots of images. Comprehensive, no, but the format makes for a quick and fun introduction to the chosen area. We used this guide extensively because it is very specific for the area we were covering. Being an old-school bookie, I admit partiality for the thick, glossy pages and high-quality image reproduction.

Portraits of France

Robert Daley
4 knots Recommended
Opening (from the prologue): “There are a thousand years of French history in this book, but it is not a historical treatise; there is much about France’s wars, but only the one battle that changed her forever is described in detail; there is much about religion, but it is not a catechism; much about food and wine, but it is not a cookbook; much about places of interest, some of which may be worth a detour or even a journey. However, it is not a travel guide….Each portrait had to bear on France as a whole. Apart from that I would write about places, things, and people I had stumbled on or gone looking for that had seemed notable to me, that had impressed or in some cases shocked me.”

Confession: I didn’t actually read the entire book but not because I didn’t like it. I simply ran out of time during the trip. However, I did scan sections and read parts of it, really enjoyed the writing and would definitely return to it to get “in the mood” for another trip to France.

France’s Loire Valley in Winter

Chateau de Chenonceau in the Loire Valley in February

France is one of the most popular destinations in the world. Which means that its beautiful places are overrun with tourists much of the year. The Loire Valley, with dozens of historic chateaux, fortresses, villages, and foodie delights like vineyards and farmgate sources, not to mention beautiful natural spaces, is no exception. When we visited in late January and February, we could tell by the acres of parking stalls that the larger sites are braced to receive hordes in spring, summer, and fall.

But in winter, those parking lots were nearly empty. We strolled through any site that interested us on a given day–no need to buy tickets in advance or line up. Once inside, it made no difference what the weather was doing outside. If it was a bit chilly, it made us appreciate more the challenges the original inhabitants faced in keeping warm. One of the chateaux had big wood fires burning in the huge fireplaces, which added to the historic ambience and put a lovely hint of woodsmoke in the air.

Beyond the chateaux, those charming medieval or Georgian streets are still there for your enjoyment, although you might need to bundle up for your stroll and sit inside the cafe or patisserie rather than on the patio (some restaurants do have a heated area outdoors). Cafe au lait or chocolat chaud is especially pleasant on a chilly day and you can savour the French food without guilt, knowing that you’re burning off extra calories when you walk in the brisk weather. And speaking of food, even the tiny gastronomic restaurants have space for last-minute dinner guests and the local farmers’ markets run right through the cold months.

The cooler temperatures and lack of crowds made the whole experience of visiting a site less tiring. I hate it when vacationing becomes an endurance test, i.e., I’ve paid 15 Euros to get in here, I have to stay X number of hours and see the whole bl**dy thing to get my money’s worth, even though I’m overheated, exhausted, and my feet are numb. This scenario is far less likely in the winter.

Whether you’re driving around or taking public transit, everything will be quieter. Parking in the villages will be easy. Churches and cathedrals remain open year-round and you will often have them to yourself on weekdays if you, like me, just like to sit in the pews and drink in the magnificent surroundings.

A few things to keep in mind if visiting in the winter:

  • Some sites are closed, especially in the second and third week of January when apparently many tourist-focused businesses shut so that employees can vacation after the busy Christmas season. Those that are open may have reduced hours.
  • Some amenities are unavailable, such as guided tours or onsite restaurants.
  • If a site’s gardens are a primary attraction for you, this is not the time to visit. The gardens will be immaculately maintained and pleasant to stroll, weather permitting, but trees will be bare and few, if any, flowers out.
  • Yes, it rains. And it’s windy sometimes. The temperatures are much like in the BC Lower Mainland, mostly hovering above zero. I believe that in the four weeks we were there, we had a couple of frosty nights. But we also had gorgeous sunny days with clear blue skies, as you’ll see in the photos.
  • The banks of the Loire (and other local rivers) are frequently flooded in winter. As many of the beautiful walks in the area run along the river shores, some were too wet or muddy to use. However, we never had any diffculty finding somewhere near the river to perambulate, if that’s what we desired.

Coronavirus travel info

Just a quick update to the coronavirus travel situation.

You will likely have heard or will soon hear the breaking news that the World Health Organization has declared the coronavirus outbreak to be a pandemic.

In view of this news, those who have travel planned or who are thinking of travel should know that the Canadian government has created a page specifically for travel advisories related to COVID-19. This is probably the best place to find science-based, non-hysterical information about the dangers of travel to specific countries.

Safe travels!

Is housesitting for you?

Leon, our charming host in France.

Following a recent housesit in France, I have had a number of queries from curious friends and family for more information about how housesitting works. I hope this post will answer a lot of questions and give you a sense of whether you might like to try it.

Mark and I began housesitting about three years ago. I had bumped into housesitting sites on the Web and thought it an interesting idea.

In the typical housesit, no money changes hands. The sitter lives in the host’s home for free while the host is away and performs certain duties without pay. Those duties may include pet care, plant or lawn care, pool maintenance, etc. The sitter is also expected to keep the house tidy and clean to the standards of the host. There are variations on this model e.g., I’ve seen ads where the host expected the sitter to pay for utilities during their sit, or where the sitter was asked to look after an AirBnB suite, but these are not common. Sometimes the host will allow the sitter to use their car. Out of five sits that we’ve done, two gave us the keys to their car.

So that’s it in a nutshell: free accommodations for the sitter and free house/pet sitting for the host.

Sit periods can range from a couple of days to a year. There are sits available in major cities like Bangkok, London, and Los Angeles as well as in very rural settings. They are in sprawling farms and in tiny apartments.

To find a sit, you might want to belong to a housesit website, which will list available sits as well as available housesitters (should you be a homeowner seeking a sitter). I’ve dealt with three sites: nomador.com, trustedhousesitters.com, and housecarers.com, but I’m sure there are many others out there. Nomador (about $90 per year, with a free trial option) has a lot of sits in French-speaking countries plus other countries. Trustedhousesitters ($130 annual fee) I haven’t accessed for a long time, so I’m not sure whether they specialize in certain areas. Housecarers (US$50 per year) is the one I’ve used the most and the one where I’m still a member. It has a lot of sits in Australia, but also worldwide. You can browse all of these sites without becoming a member so you can get an idea of the kind of sits available, but if you want to apply for a sit, then you need to become a member.

Once you are a member of a site, here are some tips for getting the housesits you want:

  • Develop a good resume. Do a couple of sits so that you can advertise experience. You can do sits closer to home in order to gain this experience. Our first house sit was on Mayne Island.
  • Get references. Remember, from the host’s point of view, this is all about trust, so you need to do everything you can to gain their trust. Start with personal references and an RCMP background check (currently $25) then add references from hosts as you accumulate experience.
  • Be diligent about checking the site. An interesting offer will attract a number of applications quickly, so if you don’t see it for several days, you may have already lost out.
  • Be flexible and ready to commit when you see something you like. In the case of France, we had just returned from a trip to Panama and had already committed to a sit in Nanaimo over Christmas. I knew we had open time from mid-January to end of Feb, but I wasn’t seriously searching for a sit and I actually never considered France. However, when the French sit popped up and the time frame was ideal, I did some quick research on the area and thought, Wow, this would be a great place to spend several weeks. I also checked flight prices (terrible) and considered the ongoing general strike in France before applying. The point is, from first seeing the ad to applying was only a few hours, and there were already several other applications.
  • Keep your online profile up to date. Add photos. Mention previous sits and locations. After your initial contact message, your profile is your best chance to impress hosts with your reliability, personality, and character, so make it good.
  • Have a backup plan. We have not had any problems (crossed fingers) but I have read stories about hosts (and sitters) cancelling at the last minute, so I’m sure it happens. Since you’ve already made various arrangements—booked flights maybe, rented a car, taken time off work—what are you going to do? Cancel the whole thing and pay the penalties? Or go ahead and make other arrangements for accommodations? Either way it’s going to cost you more money than you planned, so it’s best to consider this in advance.

Housesitting has been a great experience for us. We’ve really enjoyed spending time in places we wouldn’t necessarily have visited otherwise and having a “home” rather than a hotel to relax in. We’ve also loved spending time with the pets we’ve met and getting to know our hosts.

If you think this might be something you’d like to try, do your research. Visit the sites I’ve listed and look for others to find the one that best suits your own needs. Read through their rules and browse the available sits before becoming a member. It’s a different way to travel but it might just be right for you!

Knot Spots: Airline Response to Coronavirus

Spotted: vancouverisawesome.com

It seems a bit disingenuous to write about the joys of travel during the current coronavirus scare, when people are afraid to pass through airports or be entombed in airplanes with hundreds of unknown people from all around the world. Even those who would dare those risks are reconsidering travel plans when the very real possibility of quarantine looms large. No one wants to spend weeks in a windowless cruise ship cabin. (Shudder.) My own friends and family are canceling or postponing trips for these reasons.

Perhaps the airlines are starting to feel the pinch, as a note just popped up to say that Air Canada and WestJet will waive fees to change flights if you go ahead and book flights now (between March 4 and March 31 for AC and between March 3 and March 17 for WestJet). I’m guessing new bookings have plummeted to zero and they are desperate to get some cash flowing in. I suggest that ALL airlines and ALL hotels/accommodations follow suit or they will be completely shut down for the next few months, until the health situation stabilizes. No one is going to be crazy enough to book travel as long as there’s a good chance they will lose their money if they have to cancel.

Meantime, what I want to know is how will the airlines and hotels accommodate people who booked months ago and are scheduled to travel soon? Has anyone heard anything from them beyond “Tough luck”? I even wonder if travel insurance companies are going to cover any of this. (Doubtful.)

Willkommen/Bienvenu/Welcome

The next time you travel to an international destination, wouldn’t it be fun to meet a local who could speak your language and would take you on a themed walking tour, telling you all about their beloved home town?

When I stumbled upon the International Greeters Association website during our recent trip to France, I immediately loved the idea. When I found out the service is free, I loved it even more.

The first chapter of what would become IGA was founded in New York in 1992 by Lynn Brook. According to Big Apple Greeter: “On her extensive travels around the world, Lynn realized that almost everyone she met wanted to visit New York City, but some were a little intimidated. She wanted the world to know New York City as she did: a great big small town with diverse neighborhoods, mom-and-pop stores, fun places to dine, and friendly residents who go out of their way to help a visitor feel welcome.”

The concept was a resounding success and the organization now covers 123 destinations, with over 3500 greeters.

The IGA has the following core values:

1) Greeters are volunteers.

2) Greeters welcome individuals and may serve small groups of up to six people.

3) Meeting a Greeter is free of charge.*

4) All visitors and volunteers are welcomed without discrimination.

5) Greeter organizations support sustainable tourism. Programs respect natural and man-made environments, bringing both cultural and economic enrichment to local communities. Programs aim for a lasting positive image of each destination.

6) Greeter organizations create a mutually enriching opportunity for cultural exchange; create links between people in creating a better world.

I connected through the Loire Valley Greeters site, where they feature hosts from six Loire cities, including Amboise, where we were staying. I was also able to specify my language of choice (English, because I’m an ignorant North American monolinguist) and a theme (history). Other themes included literature, architecture, local products, nature, and shopping. Once all those filters were applied, the site offered me several greeter options. I picked a friendly face and sent through my request for a date/time.

I quickly received a confirmation and a contact for our greeter, Charles.

Charles was a delight, full of enthusiasm and knowledge about the history of Amboise. He was well prepared for our visit and even carried a binder with visual materials to illustrate some of his stories. Together, we wandered through the old streets, with Charles chatting about specific houses or the general history of the area. We peered into courtyards and poked around in one of the lovely old churches, Église Saint-Denis. We had the opportunity to ask about things that had puzzled us. It was really like a stroll with your favourite teacher.

We were thrilled to discover this organization and to visit with Charles. My only regret is that I didn’t know about it earlier in our trip so that we could have met greeters in some of the other towns we visited.

*I was contacted later by the Amboise group to solicit feedback and to request a donation. I was happy to provide both, but it’s your option whether to donate.

Calidris Celebrates

My intrepid travelling companion and I. You can tell we’re on the road because he’s toting my camera backpack and I’m wearing my trusty Tilley hat.

I am very excited to announce this is my 100th blog post! This month also marks the third anniversary of this blog, which I started in December, 2016.

When I started out, my goal was simple: to publish at least one blog per week for one year. Once I achieved that, I gave myself permission to blog when the mood struck, but I’ve continued to post fairly frequently over the last two years. Part of my reason for blogging was to get myself writing regularly and sharing more of my work with the world. I really enjoy choosing topics and writing about them, although sometimes time is short and I don’t get to blog as much as I want to.

Travel blogging is a way for me to remember and record my thoughts and adventures. I must admit, I do go back and reread my old blogs to relive those memories.

I want to thank all of you for reading this blog. You’ve travelled with me to Nova Scotia, Thailand, Cambodia, California, Hawaii, Arizona, Louisiana, New York, Washington State, England, Wales, Ecuador, Yemen, Costa Rica, Australia, South Africa, Namibia, Germany, the Yucatan, Panama, and cruising the Caribbean. You’ve met members of my family and suffered through my opinions on a variety of topics. You’ve seen more photos of birds than you probably ever wanted to see.

I hope you’ve been intrigued, had a laugh, learned something, or mulled over an idea you hadn’t previously considered, and I sincerely hope you’ll continue to read along as I indulge my wanderlust.

PS Happy holidays!