Welcome to the great wide nothingness

15 05 2015

It’s only when you try to drive across this continent that you realize just how darn big it really is. And if all you are doing is watching the miles tick down on your GPS, you will truly go nuts. Or fall asleep.

(Unless you are driving in South Dakota, where the speed limit is an unbelievable 80 mph/128 kmh. It is wise to pay a little more attention to the road when traveling at that speed plus 10%…)

Lots and lots of space.

Lots and lots of nothing.

So it’s lots of fun to look out for the sign along the side of the highway that tells you that you are about to cross into a new state. They are quirky, colorful and tell you a little something about the place you’ll be spending the next few hours of your life in.

At the outset of our road-trip, we planned to cross into 16 states and one Canadian province (which could easily be a state as far as I am concerned…). Here are a couple of these “Welcome to…” signs we found so far, not necessarily in the order in which we passed them.

Didn’t it used to be “Yours to discover”?

And Mount Rushmore was indeed a highlight.

Maybe a little too much information to digest while speeding by at 65mph?

Simple, straightforward. Kind of like Kansans.

Everyone’s claiming rights to Lincoln now??

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There’s a river and a sun in Missouri.

It says something about independence but it was the middle of the night and we were already exhausted.

Sweet. The good life.

Yes it is.

Wow… the people of Iowa welcome me personally! Imagine that!

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Cha Gheill, people!

9 05 2015

So this morning I woke up near Cleveland, Ohio. Good thing I know that at least because when we arrived at our hotel just before 4am, I am not sure I would have been capable of spelling my own name.

Yesterday’s leg was a day from hell. Murphy would be proud of the efficacy of his stupid little law.

We decided to change our planned direct westbound route from Utica to Niagara Falls to include a fun diversion of 170 miles / 220 kilometers. (It was a good idea at the time.) We thought we’d add a Canadian province to our itinerary (more on that later), and ended up driving into the back of a 3 1/2-hour traffic jam. The highway was closed and the (not-so-fun) detour led us on an 70-mile goose chase across rural southern Ontario. Don’t you love it when the big orange “Detour” signs that you are following just… end?

We got to Niagara Falls at 10pm, just in time to see the kitchy projected rainbow lightshow.

Oooooo....!

Oooooo….!

That was actually very pretty. A highlight of our trip so far.

But our adventures were not over just yet. We had three more hours to drive in order to make it to our pre-paid hotel room in Cleveland. (It was a good idea at the time.) At 12:20am, on the NY Thruway just south of Buffalo, our rental car stopped moving forward. It was something like…. putt putt putt…and….pffffffttt….

We had run out of gas in the middle of the night, in the middle of the Interstate, in the middle of nowhere, seven miles from the nearest gas station. It is moments like these that you thank your wise parents for giving you that AAA membership for your birthday when you started driving 29 years ago.

So an originally-planned six-hour journey turned into 10 hours which ended up turning into 18 hours on the road. Ugh.

But now: The reason for our trip into the great white north? My undergrad alma mater, Queen’s University (where basic gaelic language skills are a requirement for graduation: “Oil thigh na Banrighinn a’Banrighinn gu brath!“), sits right on the border to New York State, and we couldn’t just speed past without stopping by to say hello, buying some tricolour swag and chowing down on a barbecued burger care of the Queen’s Engineering Society.

24 years since I left that place with a degree in my hand, and 14 since I was last in Kingston. Gosh… what has happened to all that time?

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Cha Gheill!





The THINGS take Switzerland

1 03 2012

A couple of weeks ago, some visitors decided to stop by. The timing wasn’t great because I had just started my new job and am also attending university courses for the first time in 20 years. That double whammy had me going to bed at 9pm every night for the first two weeks because I was simply exhausted.

The THINGS, as they are known, belong to my only good Canadian friend, the lovely and hilarious Ironic Mom. She is sending them around the world in place of her 7-year-old twins. (Though I’m sure that on some days she would have been quite happy to send the twins.) On their Excellent Adventure, which started last summer, they have already criss-crossed the United States and Zurich was the first stop on the European leg of their tour.

In addition to my new job, we were in the middle of an incredible cold snap, with daytime high temperatures of minus 15 degrees Celsius (3 degrees F for you Fahrenheit types). So flying and rollerblading – my staple activities when the weather cooperates – were simply out of the question. Actually, anything that required leaving a heated building was rather painful and not recommended.

(Maybe they can stop back here in the summer?)

Other hosts have been very creative with their blog entries about the THINGS’ visit – writing in rhymes and singing in harmonies – I’m afraid all I can offer is a few photos of nothing special in the land of cows and chocolate.

"We’re here!"

"Geez. Looks cold out there."

"SH*T. It IS cold out here."

"Want to go for a hike?" "No thanks, not today."

So to escape Switzerland’s harshest winter in three decades (and as a warmer alternative to any outdoor sports activity), we went to the gym. The THINGS hid in my locker until they realized that it was ME that would be working out… that they were just along for the ride.

"Get out of there, you two."

On the rowing machine…

…the bouncy gym ball…

…and the crosstrainer.

We did venture out into the city one day, and made some more friends (animal and human) in the department store’s extensive Switzerland souvenir department.

"Moo."

… as the salespeople wondered what the hell they were doing climbing into the souvenir kiddie mugs.

To end their visit we made one last stop, at the world-famous Spruengli chocolate store. After all, what do Swiss people need all those cows for, anyway? Because they are the world’s largest per capita consumers of chocolate!

The THINGS knew this, but had to wait till their final day here to partake in the experience.

"Yum, look at all those chocolate cakes..."

"...and the pyramids of macaroons."

The THINGS got enough of the “food of the Gods” to last them till they arrive at the next stop on their world tour. (Trust me.) They are off to the UK next, where I’m hoping Spring has sprung and they get to spend more time outdoors. Watch for further installments of their Excellent Adventure on www.ironicmom.com.

Meantime… I have to get back to my new job.

Shoes definitely NOT made for walking.





Snowbird City

27 01 2012

The Canadians have landed.

The annual exodus from winter to warmer climes began about Thanksgiving (American Thanksgiving, that is…) and usually lasts until Easter. That means, we here in Hollywood, Florida, are currently in the thick of it.

A caravan of vehicles bearing the license plate “Je me souviens” begins moving south down I-95 just as Florida’s hurricane season is ending, and Quebec’s deep freeze is beginning. The colony grows by the day until South Florida is saturated.

Bienvenue! And spend some money here, you Lexus driver, you!

And they really are ALL French Canadians. In all my years of coming to Hollywood between November and April, I have never seen a Canadian license plate from west of Laval. I have no idea why.

One telltale indication that the snowbirds are back in town are the signs in the stores that say “On parle français” and…I walk by this one every day….

Yuck.

For those of you unfamiliar with this culinary delight from north of the border, it is truly disgusting. A heart attack on a plate if there ever was one. Fries drowned in cheese and gravy, basically. I had the honor of making its acquaintance once while at university in Canada, many, many years ago. My cholesterol level has not yet recovered.

R. and I have started playing a drinking game when we are out in one of the bars downtown or at the beach. It’s called “Identify the French Canadian”. I can’t say what it is about them, but we are generally 98% right (and therefore drink a lot). French Canadians just have this look, and they all seem to look the same.

But despite the invasion of les Français, we are thankful for their cash, which they toss around liberally, as every vacationer should.

To keep our French Canadian friends and neighbo(u)rs happy and entertained during their annual sojourn to Florida, Hollywood offers Claude, the two-step king.

Monsieur "MC et DJ prof." in action at "Disco-Karaoké".

He is out a few times a week in the bandshell on the beach, crooning old favorites from the 60’s and 70’s. Hundreds of retired Canucks spend their afternoons in the sunshine, tapping their feet to Claude’s rendition of “Mustang Sally” and other favorites I never new had French subtitles or translations. His finale today was what seemed to be some kind of folk song that had everyone joining in in a sing-a-long.

It’s fun for the whole family, as Claude’s elderly line-dancing groupies – also out for every afternoon performance – will attest.

The ladies doing their thing for Claude.

We Floridians just sit there and gape at the crazy tourists.





Writers’ Conference 101

24 10 2011

I am just getting back from my first ever real live Writers’ Conference. Well, I did go to another conference about two years ago, but it was kind of local and small, and I only stayed for two sessions. So as far as I am concerned that didn’t really count.

At this conference, for which I flew close to 6,000 miles, I was one of about 800 participants. We took over an entire Sheraton hotel, and arrived on the day that two former U.S. Presidents graced that very same establishment (different conference) with their presence. Along with a rag-tag group of “Occupy Xxxx (insert criminal corporation name or location here)” protesters that big names like Bush and Clinton seem to magnetically attract, wherever they go.

Our reception committee.

I went with a friend, who has been attending for the past three years – she introduced me into the protocol of this kind of event. For her, this year’s meet was a massive success story. She snagged herself a book agent faster than you can say: “million-dollar advance”.

I sort of had a writing project to pitch, but not really. So I was somewhat overwhelmed at the wheeling and dealing going on, at every available moment, even in the Ladies’ rooms and the bar, late into the night.

Some of the workshops sounded a lot like RW1, the iconic initial reporting and writing course at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism that I attended 20 years ago. But even though I have a bunch of skills and experience already, I did learn a lot about the industry and what it means to “get published” in the day and age of social media. It truly is a jungle out there.

So here is some of the stuff I took away from the conference, stuff to think about for the future:

  • Bookstores are dead.
  • Physical books are dead.
  • Long live the e-book.
  • Every single person has at least one great story to tell (or write), probably more.
  • Every single story has been written before, just not by you.
  • Media piracy is not necessarily all that bad a thing.
  • The continuum of lies in memoir-writing – it’s okay… go ahead and use it. (I think that is the most liberating thing I heard all weekend.)
  • Agents are the gatekeepers, and they seem to think they can play God, even in the brave new world of self- and e-publishing.
  • Most aspiring writers sacrifice an unbelievable amount of time, nerves and energy in order to write. Good thing the actual act of writing is FREE.
  • Twitter is evil but it ain’t going away, folks. Further resistance is futile.
  • NaNoWriMo.
  • There are a couple of very cool folks out there whose ideas are absolutely priceless, and whose work is pretty darn impressive.

And finally the kicker, don’t ever forget this one:

  • This day we write.