Lonely Planet – Ireland

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IMG_4627Apologies, friends. It’s been more than a year (a year!) since we last met, and the fault is entirely mine.

To be fair, it’s been a rather big year. I survived a busy first year of teaching middle school, which is enough to shatter any pleasure reading schedule (yes, I read some great books – just in smaller quantities – and yes, I will tell you about them as soon as I can!). I also did a fair bit of paid writing, which always trumps blog freebies (you can read my recent work in Avenue Calgary and Spur [page 6] magazines, if you are so inclined). I trained for and ran my first half-marathon in June – a goal I have been hoping to cross off my list for a long time. And to top it all off, I got married last month to the Lager Blogger. It has been a wonderful, wild whirlwind of a year.

Now, it’s time to get back to blogging, and what better way to start than with a travel recap? Ireland’s been on my must-see list for the better part of a decade, and my husband (!) and I wanted to have a honeymoon adventure. We’re not sit-on-the-beach people, so on a very cold February afternoon, I contacted Stephanie at Discovering Ireland to see if we could arrange a road trip right after our wedding in July. Once we had the bones of the trip booked booked (a Peugeot 208 and eight nights of accommodation in converted castles and manor houses, followed by four nights in Dublin at an Airbnb that we booked on our own), it was time to start getting excited. It was time to order a travel guide.

I’m a passionate and engaged traveller, and I am fussy about my guidebooks. There’s no such thing as one-size-fits-all, although some are more consistently good than others. I’ve always had a deep fondness for the Lonely Planet. I got my first one – Europe on a Shoestring – for Christmas in 2005 before I headed to Bournemouth, UK as an exchange student. In the days before smartphones, it was a lifeline on more than one occasion. I used Europe on a Shoestring to track down hostels in Barcelona and Paris, to learn how to barter with Spanish street vendors and to calm me down in Denmark when I got on the wrong bus and couldn’t find anyone who spoke English. Lonely Planet has accompanied me up and down the east coast of Australia (where, truth be told, the Rough Guide guidebook is actually a better choice if you’re trying to camp. But that’s a story for another day), through New Zealand’s North Island, snowboarding in the Alps and navigating the Cannes Film Festival. Lonely Planet has also been a feature in a lot of other travel-related books I love (Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven, Around The World in 80 Dates), and it’s always been a not-so-secret dream of mine to be a Lonely Planet writer. Could there be a better job?

Neither of us are huge fans of fixed-itinerary trips. Once the skeleton is mapped out (where we’re sleeping, mode of transport), we like to leave the rest up to our mood, the weather, our budget and a whole host of other factors that require flexibility on the go. As travellers, we’re also impossibly nosy. We want to know whether our hotels are well-reviewed, if they’ve made it into the guidebook. We want to know if the pubs recommended by Discovering Ireland are really the best pubs in Ireland or if there’s something even better off the beaten track. We want to check on things we drive by (what was that monastic ruin back there all about, anyway?). I’m a sucker for facts and trivia, and I like to know a little bit about the history behind the sights we see. I want information in the form of anecdotes from a trusted friend – and I want to build on these anecdotes with stories of my own.

This is why the Lonely Planet is so useful. It’s a little bit of a history primer (perfect for excited we’re-nearly-there-can-you-believe-it? airport reading), a little bit of a geography class and a lot of friendly, digestible recommendations (which pubs serve food and which ones don’t?). I like to add to it with a little bit of writing of my own, too. While I don’t like writing in books as a general rule (and I would never, EVER write in one of my beloved novels), I love to scrawl all over my travel guides. I’m an inconsistent journal writer. I have good intentions, but I can get distracted by the adventure (much like I do with this blog). But it doesn’t take very much energy to scribble a few notes in the margins to record an impression of a place.

We just got home on Monday, and we brought back a book full of the best stories. My Lonely Planet – Ireland doesn’t map out the myriad trips that one could take in Ireland if one was so inclined, or at least it doesn’t anymore. It maps out our trip, our stories. My Lonely Planet tells the story of the beautiful hand-knit sweaters that could only be purchased after a 1.5-hour ferry ride, of rented bicycles with baskets, of “we wish we remembered to pack hiking boots!” It tells the story of wrong turns in Dublin, of new friends, late nights, cozy pubs and hearty food. It tells the story of a pair of newlyweds who love adventure – and each other – very much. You can’t buy that in a travel guide. That’s a story you have to write for yourself.

 

 

 

 

Buying a Piece of Paris

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Buying a Piece of Paris (Photo- Macmillan USA)During an emotional time last year, when I was dealing with some personal upheaval and getting ready to relocate from Australia back to Canada, I went through a random Francophile phase. I’m not entirely sure what fuelled it, other than a deep love of croissants. Within the space of about two weeks, I read the French parenting book Bringing Up Bebe (it should be noted and emphasised that I am single and childless), and the pseudo diet book French Women Don’t Get Fat (it should also be noted that I’ve been about the same size – a comfortable US 4/6 – for the better part of a decade).

I fully acknowledge that it is weird to read a parenting book when you don’t have any children, and a diet book when you don’t intend to go on a diet, but it was a weird time. I think what may have drawn me in was the French outlook in both. Everything in moderation, act like a lady, remain calm, look after yourself first. These are important messages, regardless of what you’re trying to do with them, and especially important messages when you are deciding what to do with your life in a time of great change.

A few months ago, I tried to recapture that same French spirit with Petite Anglaise, but it didn’t take hold in the same way – perhaps because I didn’t feel Catherine Sanderson fully embraced the French spirit in the way that that Pamela Druckerman and Mireille Guiliano do (and gasp! Druckerman is an American! Guillano splits her time between the US and France, but is clearly French through and through). It also may be that I didn’t need books about France quite as much as I did in late 2012.

But from time to time, one catches my eye. Enter Buying a Piece of Paris, which I found at the local library.

This fun little memoir is written by Ellie Neilsen, an Aussie who is charmed by the City of Lights as a tourist and decides to go about claiming a piece of it for her very own.

“…What I wanted, more than anything else in the world, was to walk into that butcher’s shop and buy a piece of paradise. I wanted to say, ‘Bonjour, monsieur’ and have Monsieur say, ‘Bonjour, madame’. And I wanted to be able to tell him, calmly and with some authority, that I would like half a rabbit (no, I don’t need the head) and a few pieces of canette (female duck’s legs) and some andouille. Whilst thanking Monsieur I would purse my lips, shrug a shoulder, and outline my weekend cooking-plans in flawless French.

Of course, this could never happen. For a start, I am not in the habit of eating rabbits, headless or otherwise. When I purse my lips I look comical or intoxicated (depending on the time of day), and I cannot speak French. I am, however, greatly in the habit of imagining myself in all manner of situations that are outside my real, everyday life. So that day, almost four years ago, as I stood at my window, willing the street beyond to leap up two floors and embrace me, a plan popped into my head. It was a perfect plan, one that involved daring, danger, and a ridiculous amount of money. It was a plan that would show that butcher’s shop who was who. I decided to buy Paris. Well, just a tiny bit of it. I’m not totally irrational.”

Nielsen is charming, sharply observant and a little bit silly. I identified with her strongly, except that financially, I have no hope of buying a piece of Paris (at least not anytime in the next two decades).

There are moments where she comes off as a little bit smug and entitled, but to be fair, I don’t think practical people run around having these types of whims. I don’t always agree with what she does, but it makes for a good read. This was just the right amount of French escapism to get me in the mood for summer, and give me a healthy case of the travel bug again.

Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven

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Undress Me In The Temple of Heaven (Photo: Hachette Book Group)When I recently had lunch with my friend Jason and he told me about his plans to travel to North Korea, it immediately reminded me of how much I loved this book, so I decided to read it again.

I first came across Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven at a budget bookstore in New Zealand right down the street from where my former employer’s Auckland office is located. During my last eight or so months in Australia, I made frequent overnight trips to Auckland for work, because I was managing teams of writers in Sydney as well as an expanding office in NZ. As a result, I spent many evenings on my own in this awesome serviced apartment (if you need a place to stay in the Auckland central business district, I wholeheartedly recommend this place) watching a lot of crazy NZ television shows and reading books, including this one.

This is the kind of gripping travel writing that I love – it’s tense and suspenseful with a well-paced plot, plenty of humour and the kind of encounters with really good people that you seem to have when you run into sticky travel situations. In the 1980s, Susan Gilman and her friend Claire decide that they need to go backpacking in China, which has only just opened its doors to tourists. Armed with a Lonely Planet guidebook and inspired mainly by a ‘Pancakes of Many Nations’ special at the IHOP, two white, suburban, middle-class girls get in way over their heads in communist China – where one of them quite literally begins to lose her mind.

Jason raised his eyebrows at the title (so did I, when I first saw it), but for the most part in this book, everybody keeps their clothes on. It’s a thrilling travel memoir – and a great tale of friendship, youth and adventure – that’s well worth a look.

 

Canadian Pie

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Canadian Pie (Photo: Penguin)When it comes to sharp, observant essays and travel writing with a heavy dollop of humour, Bill Bryson stands head and shoulders above the pack – but if I had to pick a second place contender, Will Ferguson would definitely be the guy for the job.

I first encountered Ferguson when I was gifted a copy of Beyond Belfast for Christmas a few years ago (thanks Mom!). It’s also worth a read. It’s about hiking the Ulster Way in Northern Ireland and is brilliant and funny – and I was living in the UK at the time, so I especially appreciated it. The Globe & Mail did a great review when it first came out, which you can read here.

While I was knees-deep in Canadiana at the public library researching a pretty major history paper I have to write on Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Rilla of Ingleside for one of my courses, I came across this guy. And of course, in the interest of paper procrastination, I just had to read it.

I’m so very glad I did. If you could put The Morningside World of Stuart McLean and whatever the Canadian equivalent of Bill Bryson’s Notes From A Big Country (released in the US as I’m A Stranger Here Myself) into some sort of combination machine and blend them together, the result would probably come close to Canadian Pie. Chatelaine calls it a “laugh-out-loud travel read” and I’d have to agree.

When you go away from a place for awhile, like I did (I lived outside of Canada for over six years), it’s impossible not to return and see it through the lens of an outsider a little bit. Ferguson totally nails this feeling – and the result is a keenly observant, often very funny look at Canadian culture and what makes us tick. He gets stalked by cougars on Vancouver Island, muses on Canadians’ obsession with creating “big-ass objects by the highway” and generally appears to be having a very good time. I had a very good time reading it, too.