Wednesday, December 20, 2017

You Win Some, You Lose Some

Excerpted from A Change of View:
From Patras, we followed our instructions to the letter, along the rugged north coast of the Peloponnese, down through Nafplio, into Astros, and ended up down a back lane. We asked some older gentlemen sitting in front of an unsigned restaurant a little ways back if they had any idea where Angelica’s apartment might be. It’s across the street from a little church? “Ah, go to the blue sign and then straight...” Got it, straight past the blue sign...”No, no, go to the blue sign, straight and continue to a crossing, keep going you will find it.” Okay, past the blue sign, to a...”No, no, here, I will come with you.” Uh, it’s a little crowded in here. “Oh, no room. Okay, you must listen. Go to the blue sign, then this way a little bit,” he motions with his entire body. Hey man, that’s not straight! “Continue to a crossing, go straight,” I raised my eyebrows but he carried on, “and you will come to the church.”
We have come to the conclusion, in our extensive European research, that “going straight” means to follow the main road, even if the main road turns at a ninety degree angle, dwindles to a goat path, or merges with a forest.
This same man told us that he was open for breakfast in the morning, and we should drop in. What time do you open? “Seven a.m.” We’ll see you at nine.
There was no address number on the building that looked like it could have been an apartment across the street from the church that was reached by going down the straight road through Astros. Honestly, during our downtimes, I sometimes step back from all this and just marvel at our good fortune.
As I got out of the car, Jonas said, Good luck, Papa. The cleaning lady was supposed to meet us, but there was no one around. I walked up the stairs (“Sea view,” the ad said, so I assumed upstairs) to the open door at the top. Hello? I called loudly. A woman walked into view and smiled that, ‘I’ve been expecting you’ smile. She explained, entirely in Greek, how things worked, and I responded in English. We didn’t really understand a word the other was saying, but with the context and body language, we managed just fine. Then she furrowed her brow, and asked, “Family?” Downstairs, in the car, I pointed. She almost jumped, and said, “Go!” pushing me out the door with two hands, alarmed that I’d make them wait outside. 
She smiled brightly at Jonas and Matthew, shaking their hands, and patting their shoulders, then breaking into full-blown hugs. Then she showed us all around the apartment with renewed enthusiasm. A nice kitchen, large living room, three bedrooms, and five (seriously, 5) sets of patio doors, three of which led to the forty-foot long balcony facing the (albeit distant) sea-view, and the cute little church cross the street. Finished with her explanations, Tasia bid us farewell. All these people that are so kind and helpful, that we will never see again in our lives.
We drove to the supermarket and picked up several bags of groceries, and when we returned to put stuff away, we made a significant discovery in one of the cupboards. A jar of peanut butter. We hadn’t had peanut butter since home, it being a bit of an expensive delicacy here. And we pretty much OD’d on Nutella in Italy, so this was thrilling.
We are in Greece, a kilometre or two from the beach, and we’re excited about peanut butter.
Breakfast at Angelo’s was one of those moments worth writing home about (so if you’ve stuck with me this long, here’s the payoff). He sat us at a table in the middle of the empty restaurant, wiping his hands on his apron as he asked us what we’d like to drink. The boys asked for orange juice and lemonade, and Angelo returned with orange and lemon soda, then he raced off without another word. Ten minutes later, he walks out of the back room with a huge platter of scrambled eggs covered in a couple kinds of cheese, and sliced ham and tomato on the sides. He brought out plate after plate of toast. Then some plums. Then some more toast. A full plate of watermelon. A large bag of plums. “They are from my friend, you take them.” Then two glasses of his homemade wine.

With each successive course, Matthew said, Ho man, this is going to be expensive! or, Wow, Papa, can we afford this? I had to admit, I was starting to wonder. When I went to pay, I pulled out thirty-five euros (about fifty bucks) just to be sure. I asked Angelo what the damage was. Thirty-nine euros. I hesitated for just a second, the money visible in my hand, and when I went to reach into my pocket for the extra, Angelo waved his hands and said, “No, no, is good.” Well, it was a pretty darn good breakfast, and at least now we know that you drink red wine with breakfast, and not white like we always have.

Arriving at Tenuta San Francesco

After a too-long drive around the Gargano Peninsula (I have no idea why we did that), we pass the scene of a dreadful car accident spread across the highway in the northbound lanes, with ten kilometres of cars lined up behind it. The southbound lane continues at the well-over-the-speed-limit rate of 140 km/hr.
Signs for a Best Western keep popping up, and after several failed attempts at smaller, divier joints, we decide to just give in and try it. Two double rooms, the very classy-looking concierge says, will be one hundred and seventy-eight euros. Ugh, my face says. “How much did you want to pay?” We couldn’t just take one room? “No, too small,” he says. My shoulders slump involuntarily. It’s been a long day. He continues in wonderfully-accented, perfect English, “We do know a nice little bed and breakfast. Would you like me to call over?” He dials the number, rattles off some information, listens, then puts his hand over the phone and says, “You speak Italian?” No. “You will manage,” and he waves at nothing in particular. More speaking and listening. “How does eighty euros sound?” Great. “The man will come and pick you up. Please, we can wait outside.” He opens his palm towards the front door.
It’s not busy, so classy concierge waits with us, and soon our helmeted, muscle-shirted, moped-riding hotelier arrives. I exchange a hearty handshake with the concierge. I can’t help but think that I will never see this man again. His face is the picture of kindness as we walk away.
When we drive out of the city and into the countryside, I begin formulating a back-up plan in case this guy tries to lead us into the woods and relieve us of our packs. I make several jokes about why the guy is carrying an axe on the back of a moped, but Laura assures us that everything will be all right. Okay, but if he tries to take us down some desolate gravel road, we are NOT following. Stop it! says Laura.
About ten minutes into rural Italy - and again, could the sky be any more blue? - just as I suspected, we pull into a beautiful property surrounded by vineyards. He stops in front of what looks like a row of townhomes, then walks us over to the main house, passing by a large pool on the way. A woman comes out of the house and shakes our hands, ruffles Jonas’s hair, and pinches Matthew’s nose in that, “You are adorable!” kind of way. Several members of their family follow us all back to the townhouses. It’s fantastic, way better than a hotel. Mr. Moped, who in no way reminds me of a serial killer, is now our second-best friend in Italy (Rosanna will always be number one). 
We awake early the next morning so that we can pack up, then spend some time in that lovely pool. Do I need to mention how blue the sky is again? It’s a perfect pool and a perfect pool day. I think if I’d know about this place a few days ago, Sulmona would not have appeared on this itinerary.
The entire family comes out to say good-bye, and we exchange some small talk about our trip. The son, probably in his very early twenties, has this faraway look in his eyes as though he’d like to come with us. “What are your jobs?” he asks. Today I understand full well the meaning of his body language and tone of voice. I’ve been so caught up in planning this trip, that I haven’t been able to think about it or see it from the outside. Until this moment, looking into this young man’s eyes. We had tons of questions and feedback at home, but here in rural Italy, what we are doing comes into focus, and for a moment, I feel a little pride about finally being able to step out of that shell of comfort, of marriage/mortgage/kids/work. Laura is a teacher, I’m an artist. He looks befuddled. Yeah, it’s pretty cool. We’re very fortunate, I say.

Looking around as we drive out through the vineyards, all I can think is, Man, if I lived in a place like this, I might never want to leave. But then again, I’m not twenty-one anymore.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

The Spanish Window

If there's one thing I can't get enough of, it's architectural detail. Doors, windows, columns, stairs, carved stone, shaped plaster - it goes on and on.
A recent trip to southern Spain simply presented more opportunity to bask in the warmth of more fascinating building styles. Of course, I can find some of this kind of stuff around my own city, but its familiarity provides ample cover and often tired eyes. Travel has a way of awakening one's mind and spirit to the new and old and the always there, and our time in Andalucia (and Toledo and Madrid) was yet more evidence that this is true.

The chronology doesn't really matter, but it will give an idea of how we travel. Since we only had two weeks, this wasn't slow travel, as in the manner of our 275 day trip around the world with our kids, but it was by no means fast either.
We arrived in Madrid, and within a couple hours were on a train to Toledo. Two nights in Toledo and the we whisked off to Seville for a four night stay. On one of those days, we trained to and from Cordoba, because, you know, more architecture. We then rented a car and drove to Arcos de la Frontera for a walkabout and some lunch, then to Zahara de la Frontera for a climb up the hill to the old fort for some dazzling views across the countryside. After a couple hours, we carried on to Ronda, and spent two nights. Back in the car for a lovely drive to Granada, where we spent three nights under the lights of the Alhambra, then busted it back to Madrid, with a pit stop in Baeza for an extended lunch.
We could've spent one night and a couple days in Seville, and one night in Granada, seeing the Alhambra in the morning and then taking off for somewhere else. That would've given us another five days (!wow!) to see more places. But that's not really us. There is just too much to see and enjoy in almost every place to breeze through without taking some time to just wander aimlessly, sitting at a cafe when your legs call for it, watching the city live and breathe.
In and amongst all this wandering and sitting and breathing, a feeling comes alive inside me, one that asks whether I could live in this place (language barriers aside!) Many times, the answer is yes. I don't know for how long, but for a few months? Certainly. A year? Maybe. I imagine all the places that I would sit with a book, all the new foods I would try, all the streets I'd stalk with my camera, all the alleys in which I would set up an easel.
Here is a celebration of taking it slow, a journey through southern Spain and her wondrous windowed glory.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Ten Years Ago

Ten years ago today, we spent our first full day at our villa in Volissos, on Chios Island, having arrived in the dark the evening before.
Chios was our first rest stop, our first holiday planned during our nine-month trip around the world, and we were doing it up right: two weeks of rest and relaxation on a Greek Island. What could be better than that? Well, arriving in the dark, and unsure what exactly was living in our attic, on an island that smelled like dust (we were later told that it had not rained in a year, and it had also been an extraordinarily hot summer with temps in the high forties celsius), I was thinking that I'd blown it. I spend a good fifteen minutes feeling sorry for myself and feeling like I'd let my family down. Did I mention the smell of dust? After almost eight weeks of travel, we'd be stuck here for two weeks, and somehow, through all my planning and research, this was the best I could do?
As it got a little bit lighter out that morning, I noticed that everything looked like it was covered in dust too. But then, the sun came over the mountains behind us, and the sky began to swell with a blueness that is patented by Greek history. I thought to myself, yeah, this might turn out okay.
The short version of this story is yes, it was a wonderful time.
Sadly, Laura's father passed away a few days after we landed on the island, and Laura went back home for a week to be with her mom. Our two weeks stretched into nearly three.
It seemed like this could really take the wind out of our sails, but Jake's death eventually reinforced our sense that it was important for us to do this kind of a trip while we were healthy and fully able to embrace everything that would be thrown at us, particularly in the coming months, knowing that Syria, Egypt, India, and a few other countries were still to come.
(It also provided an opportunity for us to discover how good people can be when you need them to be, and while I won't go into the full story here, just know that if you are going to Chios, Tassos and Margarita from Hatzelenis Tours are the people you want to talk to. Accommodations, car rental, advice, kindness, ability to help steer you through adversity, just pretty much anything you need, they can manage it.)
And of course, looking back now, and seeing how much has changed in both our family and the world in these ten years, this trip with our two young sons was a treasure that continues to reward us with shared memories and continuous inspiration.
Every country we visited on that trip was special in its own way, as was every single day. Our time on Chios was no different, and one son remains firm in his assertions that Chios was indeed his favourite place of all.
So. Chios.
Here's to you.
An image from the Airbnb listing for our house on Chios. Airbnb did not exist back in 2007 I don't think. Our house at the bottom right. The Aegean Sea at the top, a couple hundred metres from the house.
Another view of the house.

This was our beach, Limnos Beach, the 'north' beach.

Emporios Beach, the 'south' beach.

A typical west-coast beach (there was sand, just not in this picture - and watch out for the spikey balls of death).

Karfas Beach, the 'east' beach by Chios Town.
But it was our beach, Limnos Beach, that was to be our most consistent landing point, our sandbox for those eighteen or nineteen days.
A typical street in the nearby town of Volissos, home of our bakery and our market.

A view from our fort in Volissos.

Mesta, one of the idyllic little towns on our island.

Our trees on the island.

Our sunsets on Limnos Beach, version 1.

Our sunsets on Limnos Beach version2.

Breakfast on day one on our patio.

Our donkey.

Jonas's fingernail also made its return on the island.

And another view to the sea from Volissos Fort.
Our skies in Greece, the top-right six all from Chios.

Our friendly host, Tassos. Your go-to man on Chios. Sadly, Margarita was not in the office the morning we caught our ferry, so I didn't get her photo.

Margarita and Tassos's Hatzelenis Tours website -

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

A Little Bit of Toledo

I'm not sure if it's because it was the first town we visited or what, but Toledo is really something. Beautiful from every angle, loads of alleys full of a longing to bring you on board, and enough hills to keep an Olympic walker in prime condition.

Here is my Toledo.

Prints of many of these images are available to purchase in a variety of sizes. See my website for more details.