Monthly Archives: June 2013

Sweet Stuff in Toronto.

Toronto skyline.

Toronto skyline.

Visiting friends or family who live in different states or countries offers up a different perspective to experience the local scene of a place. It’s a double-trip because we can check out highlights we might be curious about and capitalize on insider info. We often take these visits for granted, they’re sometimes done out of obligation, but they can be loaded with gems. Travel agents who spend time with far-flung friends or relatives can use the opportunity to hone their writing. Interviewing their hosts, and any friends or neighbors, can expose you to a bird’s-eye view on a simple slice of life. I lived in Toronto over 20 years ago, and back then the town would roll up early. Sundays were like being in lock-down, and you couldn’t buy a thing—or a drink.  After several years, I paid a visit and surrendered my control freak nature to my sister Sandy and my brother-in-law Greg, and enjoyed a different experience of the city.  Today, Toronto pretty much operates 24/7 and the amount of construction with all the high-rise development around the waterfront area answers the question of why there’s a crane shortage. It’s crazy.

Local chill out at Sugar Beach.

Locals chill out at Sugar Beach.

Toronto was in the grip of a heat wave, so my hosts recommended we check out Sugar Beach. This former parking lot on Queen’s Quay is now a two-acre urban beach for city dwellers. Bright bubble-gum pink umbrellas, white Adirondack style beach chairs, candy-stripe rock outcroppings, a mini boardwalk, and artificial sand offer a welcome respite for locals and tourists and a tree-lined promenade runs through the park. Our visit coincided with the Redpath Waterfront Festival, a four-day experience of nautical history, digital storytelling, extreme watersports, concerts and the Tall Ships’ 1812. Food trucks and barbecue stands catered to the crowds and reps from Tourism Prince Edward Isle offered up a cup of their famous mussels and fries if you entered their five-day getaway drawing. I submitted an entry form and quickly went from feeling like a local to a tourist but it was all good. Under a beach umbrella, we enjoyed the scene and listened to the band.  Later, we cranked up the air-conditioner and they turned me on to a sugar kiss.  A fruit that’s a cross between a cantaloupe and honeydew melon, and its sugary sweetness was pure, thirst-quenching delight. That evening we grilled black cod and sweet corn they’d picked up earlier from the famous St. Lawrence Market, where you could easily plan a day trip and experience a major food orgy.

Some major decisions are made at the St. Lawrence Market.

Some major decisions are made at the St. Lawrence Market.

A Cabbagetown house.

A Cabbagetown house.

My family lives in Cabbagetown and it’s a gem of a neighborhood. It’s the largest area of preserved Victorian houses not just in Toronto, but in North America, and strolling though it is like being in a fairyland. The Irish settled this area in the 1800s and grew loads of cabbage, hence the name. Today, it’s the picturesque architecture of the brick homes with front yards of pale peach to scarlet red rambling roses, exploding hydrangea bushes, lavender, azaleas and rhododendron that creates what feels like an exclusive haven. “I’ve never sat out here,” my sis said as we settled on her front steps, breathing in the garden’s scent and sharing intimacies on life, love and the pursuit of happiness. We typically hang out in their backyard but I guess it took this Brooklyn girl to remind her of the pleasure you get sitting on your stoop. Later, we went into the night to find the Supermoon that had graced the planet but we must have looked like zombies as we staggered through the quiet streets with our heads craned trying to glimpse it through the lush trees arches.

The next evening, we enjoyed an after dinner stroll and stopped to chat with neighbors who were enjoying their own stoop. We exchanged introductions and got talking about the city and the area. Tony grew up in Pakistan during British rule and immigrated to Toronto when he was younger. “Because of my ethnic background, things were very challenging back then,” he said. But times have changed and he and his wife Holly, from Montreal, love their life in Cabbagetown. My sister mentioned that she moved to Toronto 38 years ago from New York. “Back then it felt like a small town, and it was conservative and a bit uptight. It was mostly Scottish, English, and Irish, now there’s an amazing ethnic mix,” she said. Toronto has most definitely grown into a cosmopolitan city. The Danforth is the Greek area, there’s also a Little Italy, a Little India, Little Portugal, and Chinatown. Not to mention a dynamic food scene, shopping, music, arts and all the other ingredients that contributes to a city’s cultural vibrancy. “It’s a great city, it somewhat reminds me of New York now. And then there’s lovely Cabbagetown, which is kind of like, you know…I know the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker,” she said. Greg’s American too, and originally came to Toronto on a research project. “I was disappointed Canada didn’t feel like a foreign country” he said. But two years later he set roots down and established himself as a professor of economics at the University of Toronto. These folks are all retired now.

Hidden lanes in Cabbagetown.

Hidden lanes in Cabbagetown.

We moved on and meandered through the neighborhood’s secret lanes, strolled through small Riverdale Park where locals walked their dogs, or just enjoyed the twilight hour on a bench. Across the park is Necropolis Cemetery, a lush and historic resting place. In front of a grand home we glimpsed feet on the top rung of a ladder that disappeared into a glorious tree whose branches spread across all directions of the garden and street. Looking up, we noticed it was a cherry tree rich with bright red drops of fruit. I asked the guy trimming it if they were edible. Then I heard a snap and he handed us a two-foot long stem, loaded with cherries. We enjoyed the sweet and juicy offering all the way home.

With the heavy heat came heavy thunderstorms. My flight was canceled and I had to spend another day with family, but it was all good.

Stay tuned for more on things to see and do in Toronto.


Stuck In The Middle With You, Ernest Hemingway and His First Wife.

Hammock-Beach-ReadingIt’s official, as of today, summer’s here! Thank the Lord. Spring is about glorious awakenings, autumn treats us to some of the most brilliant colors, and winter may get a bum rap but I love it because there’s nothing like waking up to a fresh carpet of snow, unless you’ve got to dig your car out from six feet of it.  But there’s just something about summer.   It somehow gives us a free pass. It allows us to shed the stress and slog of the daily grind. It’s kind of unspoken but it seems to allow for a universal laziness of sorts. Even retired friends and relatives whoop it up more, which is kind of strange since they don’t work. The Europeans have it right with their extended weeks of summer vacation. It’s probably one of the few areas where the U.S. missed the boat. But hey, you get what you get, so make the most of it, and for those travel ambassadors out there—don’t forget to write about it.

Woman_reading_at_the_beachOne of the pleasures of planning a summer holiday is figuring out what books to take, especially if you’re flying. The only thing that makes a plane ride bearable if you’re stuck in the middle seat of a coach flight is a good book. You’re partly folded up as it is, so why not go all the way and dive into a classic, or mystery, or someone else’s life? There’s nothing like tucking into a real page-turner. If you’ve already hit the road, chances are you’re toting a few books or a Kindle or some other digital device to get your reading kicks. Whether they’re of the rip and read variety or epic tomes, when you’re in the thick of a good tale, nothing—not even sleep—can get you to put a good book down. Pay no mind to anyone who may think you’re just lying around. Reading is an activity and a good one to have. Plus, it makes you a better writer. Whatever your plans are—vacation or staycation—books fuel that sense of escapism. Here are a few recommendations, fiction and non-fiction, collected from reading junkies, to pack for any summer getaway. They are in no particular order.

The Good Nurse: A True Story of Medicine, Madness, and Murder by Charles Graeber. Terrifying, unsettling, suspenseful, thoughtful—this is true crime at its finest. Graeber’s investigative journalism into the nine-year killing spree by the nurse, Charles Cullen, is up close and personal but it’s the cover-up by the hospital administrators that’ll really freak you out. I had the good luck to catch Graeber’s appearance at a local bookstore and the hairs went up on the back of my neck just listening to the excerpts.

My friend Mary has a thing for the British spy genre so if you’re up for a bit of espionage, betrayal, suspense—and who isn’t when it’s not your life—then you may want to venture down this road. Restless by William Boyd is a historical novel set during WWII. Its heroine is a 28-year-old Russian émigré living in Paris who ends up in the British Secret Service and learns to become the perfect spy. If you’re in the mood for more passion and deceit, she also recommends Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan. It’s an intriguing tale about an Oxford-educated middle-class girl in 1970s England whose beauty and intelligence leads her into a double life as a drab civil servant and as a secret agent infiltrating the current literary intelligentsia. Ultimately, it’s about the process of writing a novel seen through the eyes of a duped writer who falls prey to what turns out to be a disastrous government scheme to manipulate Cold War sympathies through the literary world.

If you’re into weird and supernatural stories, lose yourself in Vampires In The Lemon Grove by Karen Russell. Eight short stories make up the collection within these magical tales where anything can happen, from captive girls transforming into silkworms (creepy), to a president reincarnated as a horse. Russell’s been noted one of the best writers under 40 and she also wrote the best seller Swamplandia.

Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed. Strayed’s name couldn’t be more perfect. In the wake of loss after her mother’s death, and then her marriage, Strayed goes it alone with no experience, to hike the Pacific Crest Trail. She’s a train wreck and you’ll journey with her through the solitude, the terrain, and meeting and experiencing the other beings along the way that lead her to knowledge and healing. This book shows us why travel is good for the soul.

Visit the ex-pat life during jazz-age Paris with Ernest Hemingway in this novel told from the perspective of his first wife, Hadley Richardson. It may sound like paradise but the man was no picnic. The Paris Wife by Paula McLain takes you into their world and shows us heaven and hell all wrapped up in one.

Italian Folktales by Italo Calvino. This collection of magical, scary, and wacky tales is good for all ages and it made the New York Times Best Book of the Century List. One note, the Kindle version doesn’t live up to what’s in the paperback.

I wouldn’t want to relive my teenage years but revisiting the adolescent angst-ridden days of Mary Karr’s youth growing up in East Texas in her memoir Cherry is a wild ride. Karr’s writing is riveting, raw and addictive. There’s not a wasted word, and men and women will glimpse themselves in her writing. After her first kiss with a local boy she nails it when she wonders, “How can you know such a thing about a person and not lean into it?” Insecurity never felt so good.

The Magician’s Nephew by C.S. Lewis. The back-story to The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. Whether you’re 15 or 50, it’s C.S Lewis and it’s pure magic, and the perfect summer story to take you far, far away.

Transatlantic by Colum McCann. This book is on the reading list of pretty much every one I hit up for recommendations. It’s a multi-layered tribute story in which McCann explores the ties between the U.S. and his Irish homeland. This novel leapfrogs continents, centuries, and introduces a cast of real and fictional characters.

Joyland by Stephen King. All I know is that it’s a paranormal mystery tale and can only be purchased in hard copy or audio download, but it’s summer and it’s Stephen King so why not spend it with a master storyteller.

As much as I love summer, I wilt in the heat. A boiling hot New York day is not my idea of a good time, which makes Endurance: Shackelton’s Incredible Voyage by Alfred Lansing, one of my all time, favorite summer reads. This story is the definitive account of Ernest Shackelton’s fateful trip to cross the Antarctic overland. It didn’t turn out too good when his ship, the Endurance, became trapped “like an almond in a chocolate bar” in the ice and eventually crushed. Shackelton and his crew survived on drifting ice packs in one of the most inhospitable areas on the planet.  I’ve read it a few times.

There are loads of best of summer reading lists out there. What’s in your hot little hands these days?

Field Trip.

“What is that feeling when you’re driving away from people and they recede on the plain till you see their specks dispersing? – it’s the too-huge world vaulting us, and it’s good-bye.
But we lean forward to the next crazy venture beneath the skies.”
Jack Kerouac, On the Road

Milky Way over Evans

Milky Way over Evans (Photo credit: casey mac)

Stars.  What is it about looking up into an ink black night studded with stars that makes you feel at one with the universe?  Living in New York City doesn’t give us too much opportunity to really see stars.  They’re too dimmed by the massive amount of light set to a permanent on position.  But now I was in Colorado, my aunt had died, and I was on a back porch in a small town just outside of Denver, gazing up at the heavens and the wonder of it all.  In the distance, a coyote yipped.

It’s a funny thing to travel to a place and have no agenda.  No travel agenda, that is.  There’d be no activities, no wandering.  I was there to be with my cousins, to celebrate their mother’s life. On the porch the next morning, I wanted to jump into the wide expanse of big blue sky, not a cloud in it.  Birdsong rang through the air, settled around us and came in spells from the reserve the house borders.  This breadth of land is a plain field of tall, pale grass but there’s nothing plain about it.  To the west, the Rocky Mountains were as majestic as ever.  Their snow-capped peaks shone bright in the sunlight, like massive Hershey Kisses in their foil.   This mountain range humbled me.  I’m not the first person to feel their awe.  Nature does this to us in thousands of ways, large and small.  It was going to be a heavy trip for sure, but there was something about the sweet scent of grass, and the bigness of it all that I disappeared into. The doing of…nothing, the just being, the simplicity of it all put life and death into perspective.  Made it easy to give comfort.  These mountains have been here long before us and will be here long after the last of my family has turned to dust.

Snow-Capped Colorado Rocky Mountains

Snow-Capped Colorado Rocky Mountains (Photo credit: Rockin Robin)

My aunt was born a Kansas girl but eventually set her roots and boots in Colorado.  This side of my family, and the rest of my cousins and older siblings who came to pay their respects, hail from Topeka, the Land of Oz, and when we gather it’s like a trip back in time.  We don’t see each other often but when we do there seems to come alive some semblance of a childhood preserved by the memories we share of that place and the grandparents we lost long ago.   My brood of cousins, and siblings, has the greater history of the Midwest.  They are the Kansas of my childhood visits.  They are the brilliant fields of sunflowers and tall stalks of sweet corn, and the clink-clank of the Santa Fe Railroad that chugged and whistled behind my grandparents’ faded out white house.  They are the scent of the penny candy shop that no longer exists, a barefoot walk on a hot summer’s day to the Dairy Queen, drive-in movies, and lakeside camping.   They are mid-Western mannered, speak in “yes sirs and no ma’am’s,” and have a gentility those of us who grew up on the East Coast lack.   “It smells like Topeka in here,”   I said when I entered my cousin’s Mel’s home.   “I couldn’t ask for a better compliment,” she said.  In some ways, I guess I made two trips.

Sunflowers at Sunset

Sunflowers at Sunset (Photo credit: Stuck in Customs)

Flying back, the plane had a fiery sunset on its tail all the way home and I gazed out the window until I could no longer see the fields and the Rockies.   The rest of my cousins were also flying or driving back to their homes.  We all had living to get back to but I hoped my aunt was somewhere in the springtime of her youth, running wild through a field of sunflowers.

Trick Of The Eye.

English: Aerial view of Everest. Picture taken...

This past week, on May 29, marked the 60th anniversary of the first successful British expedition to Mount Everest.  These days we’re able to travel easily to pretty much any place on the planet, yet Everest still represents a challenge to anyone who attempts to climb it.   That’s a good thing.

We all have our Everest.  It might be something we’ve already accomplished or something we’re still aiming toward.   We may keep it private or choose to publicize it.  Whether we’re taking baby steps or moving fast, the point is we’re moving.  That’s also a good thing.  Writing is like this, and for travel agents and advisors with any interest in using this medium to create value for themselves, and their customers, taking advantage of the opportunities that expose them to travel experiences is key.  Sometimes you need to have “soft eyes” to see the opportunities.

What are soft eyes?  If you’ve ever been on safari, you know what they are.  If not, well…it’s
kind of like separating the forest from the trees, literally.  Everything looks like the same color out there on the savannah but the place is teeming with animals, large and small, yet many times you can’t see them.  So you try really hard to find them, and you can’t…but they’re there.  Opportunities that connect you to travel can kind of be like that and I recently found one.  It’s not always possible to get away, so I’ve come to have soft eyes about where I get my travel kicks.

Stray many can you spot? (Photo by author.)

Stray cats…how many can you spot? (Photo by author.)

The Times, Mount Everest Expedition report, May 1953.  (Photo credit:  The Times)

The Times, Mount Everest Expedition report, May 1953. (Photo credit: The Times)

Ever read Pax Britannica?  If not—no worries.  I haven’t read it either, but I do know who Jan Morris is—she’s the author of that book.  She also accompanied the first British summit to Mount Everest, except at that time she was a man.  In 1953 Morris was a journalist for The Times, and was assigned as an embedded special correspondent with Sir Edmund Hillary and Nepalese Sherpa Tenzing Norgay on their trek to Everest.  The rest—as we know—is history, and that summit also made Morris famous.  Morris had never climbed a mountain before that epic journey but was a very ambitious person and saw the opportunity for what it was.  Years later Morris became a well-known, and well-respected, travel writer.  In April, I worked an event at the Times Center and noticed that she would be in New York City for a Times Talk interview as part of GeoEx’s far-flung journeys.  I immediately booked a ticket.

A few weeks later, sitting in the theatre, listening to Jan Morris’ English accent, it almost felt like we were at home with her in Wales as she retold her travel tales.  The only thing missing was the pot of tea.  The questions focused on Everest but eventually settled on traveling and writing.  It was good to hear that she writes for her own pleasure.  So many times you hear of writers who slog it out, but writing—especially when it flows—is extremely pleasurable.  Sure, as a journalist, she may have had a head start but she still had to experience a sense of place to write about the destinations she visited.  And so it goes with travel agents.

Jan Morris in Wales.

Jan Morris in Wales.

For those who have no writing experience, where do they start?  The place we all start, at the foot of the mountain. There is no other way.  When asked how she takes stock of a new place, Morris quoted from The Bible, “grin like a dog and run around the city.”   Travel agents who go away on their company’s dime often travel with industry colleagues and adhere to an itinerary, but that doesn’t mean they can’t break away from the pack.  The best moments to write about often come from meeting up with locals or finding your own special spot.  It’s about capturing all the experiences—large and small—that happen along the way and mining your notes for the gems.

Those who climb Everest, or any mountain, don’t fix their eyes at the top.  They put one foot in front of the other and take it step by step. They rest, they watch, they climb. They collect information all along the way.  It’s about soft eyes.

What kind of travel opportunities do you see these days?