Posts filed under ‘Lessons Learned’

A Writer in Edinburgh

Day 22 of my European adventure was Day 2 in Edinburgh. We had a big day planned, so it began early, with a huge Scottish breakfast. I’m not a fan of sausage and fried eggs, but fortunately, breakfast at the Kenneth Mackenzie Suites had plenty of options. Mom and I caffeinated well and started heading uphill to the western end of the Royal Mile.

The Hub
I thought that this was a church and got all excited, but it’s a place called The Hub. I believe it’s very important when the Edinburgh International Festival rolls around.

Edinburgh Castle
And soon we were enjoying a nice morning at the castle! Edinburgh Castle is basically the key tourist attraction in Edinburgh, so we planned it for day two to have the best chance at arriving before the swarm of tourists. We only had to queue for a couple of minutes, plus the weather was nice (if a bit chilly), so our strategy paid off.

Edinburgh pano
The view looking north across Edinburgh was lovely!

Cannon at Edinburgh Castle
If anyone ever sets off this cannon, the Sir Walter Scott monument is toast.

Heading Down
We went inside some of the main rooms of the castle, but the crowds were really starting to pick up, so we hit the Scottish Crown Jewels (sparkly!) and then started heading down after an hour or so.

Farewell Castle
As we left the castle, it was so lovely that I was starting to hope for a partly-cloudy blue sky all day! (Spoiler alert: this was not to be.)

Tartan Mill
We ducked into the Tartan Mill near the top of the Royal Mile, which was a factory, a museum, and a gift shop on steroids, all rolled into one. Mom wanted to buy some tartan scarves (I did too, but I lacked funds at this point) and we enjoyed our trip through this maze of a factory. I had previously been under the impression that, as McCaghrens (my maternal grandmother’s maiden name), we were related to the MacDonald clan somehow, but we couldn’t find any evidence of this at the tartan gift shops. I bought a little MacDonald booklet anyway, just in case. Our ancestors immigrated from Ireland, but there’s some sort of connection with Scotland. I started doing some genealogy research, but didn’t have time to research the Irish/Scottish parts. I’d love to do more research at some point when I have more time to waste and when I can afford the membership. It’s pricey!

After the tartans, we headed to the next big tourist attraction of the day, the National Museum of Scotland. The weather was starting to turn, so we were happy to spend a couple of hours inside. As a history nut, and one who grew up fascinated by kings and queens, I was really excited to read all about the Scottish kings, and how Scotland came to be a part of the UK, etc. The museum was new, and it was bright and cheery with clear presentations. I also liked the modern exhibit on where Scotland has been more recently and where it’s going in the future.

It was raining when we left the museum, so it was a perfect time for a late lunch at Spoon, which I’d read about in the Frommer’s guide. It was our one fantastic dining experience in Scotland! Spoon is a café that uses lots of fresh ingredients to make delicious soups and salads and sandwiches during the day, just what I want in a lunch spot. We had soup with our meals, which absolutely hit the spot in the yucky weather. I’m not normally a soup-in-July type of person, but I make exceptions in Edinburgh, apparently. The prices at lunchtime were perfectly reasonable, too.

Writers Museum

We needed somewhere else to go in the rain, so we decided to go to the Writers Museum after all. I had put it on my list as a “maybe, if we have time” sort of thing, and I know feel guilty for even admitting that. I am supposed to be a writer! But I guess I’ve never been properly introduced to Scottish writers. The museum focuses on Sir Walter Scott, Robert Burns, and Robert Louis Stevenson. I’ve never read Scott, I’m sure I’ve read Burns but he doesn’t really stand out, and I never really liked the children’s edition of Treasure Island that I’m sure my mom bought me one Christmas. I’m so glad that we went, though, because the museum is so informative, and it made me want to learn more about all three of Scotland’s classic great writers.

And! By the time we left, it wasn’t raining anymore!

We still had quite a bit of time before we needed to pick up our bags and head to the train station, so Mom and I headed up Calton Hill, where many of Edinburgh’s monuments are located.

National Monument of Scotland
The National Monument of Scotland is the most famous, because it’s still unfinished. It was meant to be a Scottish War Memorial and designed in the 1820s, but left unfinished in 1829. They’ve talked about finishing it periodically since then, even as recently as 2004, but no one’s managed to get anything concrete together.

Nelson's Monument
Nelson’s Monument is also on the hill, and it honours Lord Nelson and the Battle of Trafalgar. I think I should start a collection of Nelson monuments…I’ve now been to three (also Trafalgar Square in London and the one in Old Montréal). I was enjoying views from the hill, but sometimes when I’m in new cities, I get the urge to try to conquer my fear of heights in the name of better views. I don’t know. Maybe I think it’s good for me. I guess it is. At any rate, my mama was exhausted from me dragging her all over Europe, so she declined the steps to the top of the tower, and up I went.

View of Edinburgh
Yep, worth it for the view!

Me at the top of Nelson's Monument
Proof that I went!

Parting shot of Edinburgh, with the Dugald Stewart Monument on the right.

We grabbed a bite at Bar Kohl (I think) after that, and then went back to the guest house to pick up our luggage. They didn’t have 24-hour reception, so we had to take our bags and call a cab at about a quarter til 9, which left us sitting at the train station for several hours, but we didn’t have a choice. In hindsight, we should have used our time to track down some earplugs, because we were about to have a night of very little sleep on the train. A few rows in front of us, a group of four laughed and howled (I am not exaggerating) until at least 4am. I have never wanted to throw myself off a train more than I wanted to that night! When we arrived in London the next morning, we walked past their seats, and they had 4 empty bottles of champagne, along with plenty of other spirits. No wonder everything was so hilarious. But seriously, if you’re taking the Caledonian Sleeper, bring earplugs.


April 3, 2012 at 12:18 am Leave a comment

Adieu, Paris!

On day 20, Mom and I bid adieu to Paris. I always feel a little weepy when I think about leaving Paris, because I’m always a little worried that I’ll never find my way back. But then I always do. I don’t mean to make myself sound like a spoiled brat. I just mean that I have come to terms with the fact that I will always prioritize Paris over things like well-balanced meals and new clothes. My best friend and best travel buddy isn’t so keen on the idea of going to Paris, but I keep dreaming that I’ll be able to take her, someday.

But back to day 20, which began again at the same café where we began day 19. How far away perfect pains au chocolat seem now. Mom and I parted ways after that, because she’d been wanting to see the Unicorn Tapestries at the Musée Cluny for years and years, and I’d been dreaming about a repeat visit to La Sainte-Chapelle for eight years. We had tried to go to La Sainte-Chapelle the day before, but the line was long, and we didn’t want to take the time to wait, since we had quite an itinerary.

Palais de Justice and La Sainte-Chapelle

It was just a short walk from the café to the Ile de la Cité, the island in the Seine at the centre of Paris. Ile de la Cité is home to two important churches, Notre Dame and Sainte-Chapelle. Sainte-Chapelle is located inside the Palais de Justice, so you have to go through metal detectors before you get to the church, which accounts for the long lines. Of course, I forget the annoyance of the lines and the waiting when I entered the courtyard.

La Sainte-Chapelle

The church was built in the 13th century and commissioned by King Louis IX. The age of it astonishes me, for some reason. It’s just so much more spectacular than what I expect from anything built before the Renaissance.

The entrance fee is a bit steep, in my opinion, especially for a church, and especially when I wasn’t with my mom and had to pony up my own Euros. I think it was about 8 Euros, which I suppose is not the end of the world, but on my last day using Euros, I think the wallet was getting a little thin. Ah well. It was a worthy way to spend the last of my Euros. And of course, I forgot all about the entrance fee as soon as I got upstairs:

La Sainte-Chapelle windows 1
La Sainte-Chapelle windows 2
La Sainte-Chapelle windows 3

Just incredible!

The spectacular stained glass windows are taller and more narrow than in similar French churches, and the ratio of glass to wall is off the charts, so the effect is overwhelming. I had been inside the church just once before and it was exactly like I remembered it and more incredible than I had remembered it, at the same time. I wrote an awkward essay about the experience in my first nonfiction writing class, circa 2006, and it’s a subject that I have wanted to revisit, but I still don’t think that I am the writer that I need to be in order to do it justice.

La Sainte-Chapelle was more crowded than it was on my previous visit, and I think it’s because Paris has adopted those multi-attraction admissions passes. Suddenly any touring family with the cash to drop on a pass knows about La Sainte-Chapelle, and it’s just down the the road from Notre Dame, so why not kill two birds with one stone? It’s wonderful that more people are experiencing it, but I did selfishly wish that I’d been able to enjoy the windows in a bit calmer setting.

Mom had a wonderful time at the Cluny and told me all about the tapestries and showed me the postcards that she bought, and maybe next time I’m in Paris, I’ll see the Unicorn Tapestries, but this time, I know that I made the right decision in prioritizing La Sainte-Chapelle.

We met up in the Latin Quarter, thanks to our international text messaging plan, and we still had a few hours before we needed to get to the train station, so we decided to hit the Place des Vosges. Mom swore I’d seen it before, from the windows of a tour bus on a driving tour of Paris, but I didn’t remember the gorgeous red brick townhouses, so I’d put it on the itinerary as a possibility. Place des Vosges is also home to Victor Hugo’s house, now a museum, and it’s also near the Place de la Bastille. I knew that I’d seen the Bastille monument from the window of a tour bus, but I didn’t have a photo of it. And that matters to me.

Place de la Bastille
We got off the Métro at Bastille, took this photo, and then made our way into the Marais, one of Paris’ more fashionable arrondissements.

Maison de Victor Hugo
Inside Victor Hugo’s house, we saw old books and learned that he had lots of books, plates, floral wallpaper, and mistresses. Or just one mistress, maybe. I suppose it doesn’t matter. For any writing nerds visiting Paris, I thought that museum was interesting and informative, especially considering the price (zero Euros). It was also hot. I guess Hugo couldn’t afford central air conditioning.

Place des Vosges
We ate lunch at a café on the square, where I bravely revisited the galette (savoury crêpe), which had so disappointed me at the mini golf-bar-restaurant in Normandy. It turned out that it was the mini golf-bar-restaurant that was the problem, not the galette itself, as I quite liked the galette I had on the Place des Vosges.

After lunch, we took our last Métro ride of the trip back to the hotel to pick up our bags and call a cab. Taking the Métro to the hotel with all of our suitcases was an adventure that we were not to relive, so Mom splurged for a cab. We weren’t staying too far from the Gare du Nord, although the traffic made it feel much further. We made it in plenty of time, though, and even had time for Mom to buy some train snacks while I sat with the bags and determined that we needed to fill out customs forms before we got in line to go to the Eurostar waiting area. Word to the wise: fill out your forms before you get in line, unless you want to be yelled at in multiple languages.

The Eurostar gate at Gare de Lyon is not big enough for the amount of traffic that it gets, so I was glad that we didn’t have to wait too long. We had a smooth ride back to London, where we arrived at St Pancras International Station, which already had Olympic spirit.

St Pancras
I’m particularly fond of trains that pull up under Olympic rings!

Our adventures by train were not over, so we pulled our suitcases a few blocks to Euston Station, where we planned to take the Caledonia Sleeper to Edinburgh. In the days of high-speed trains (at least on other continents…), it’s easy to get from London to Edinburgh in just a couple of hours, but everything I’d read about the Caledonia Sleeper made it sound like a charming adventure, so I thought it would be fun. Plus, taking the sleeper train there and back saved us on hotel costs and it saved our daylight hours for sightseeing.

I knew from my research that we needed to book a sleeper berth, but I’d read that they didn’t usually book up during the week, so I wasn’t too worried. Until I got to the ticket counter and discovered that it was closed. We eventually found out that the ticket booth for the sleeper train is only open during the day, and it closes several hours before the train actually leaves around midnight. Oups. Our best option, according to the ticket people, was to hang around until about 15 minutes before the train left, and then mosey on down to the platform to see if we could get on the train. I wasn’t sure what we would do if we couldn’t get on the train, but I tried not to worry about it and I introduced my mom to Simply Food, which she thoroughly enjoyed.

Stay tuned to see if we got on the train on Day 21! Also: this is my 100th post! Finally!

March 6, 2012 at 6:40 pm 1 comment

All Good Things Must Come to an End

Nearly a year later, it’s still difficult to sum up what this trip meant to me, and what it felt like to check this trip off my bucket list. I’m still struggling to answer all kinds of questions as I near the end of the first draft of my book about the experience. Every time I meet with my thesis adviser, she has more questions, of course.

One of the concerns that I had, pre-trip, was that I would finish the trip and feel like I’d conquered Canada. I love Canada, and I love travelling in Canada. I didn’t want Canada to be over. This was a silly worry, because this trip was such a whirlwind that it only gave me a taste of what the country has to offer. I want to spend two weeks driving around Newfoundland, I want to see Alberta’s Rockies when they’re not buried in rainclouds, I want to spend more than half a day in Halifax and Québec City and Winnipeg. I want to eat pancakes at The Hoito in Thunder Bay again, I want another banana almond smoothie in Port Carling, I want to get lost under a huge bright sky on back roads in Saskatchewan, and I want to sail around 10,000 islands in Georgian Bay. Canada still has plenty of nooks for me to explore and re-explore, and I hope that I’ll have plenty of opportunities to do so.

I’m a great plan-maker, an out-of-control list-compiler, a terrific goal-setter, but I have follow-through demons. It’s why my first four attempts at books are forgotten and unfinished, why I ran away from a music education degree after seven semesters, why I find comfort in managing a figure skating results website that will never, ever, ever be complete. Once this trip moved from the theoretical to actual realm, though, there was no turning back. I had 30 days’ worth of itinerary plans and hotel reservations and ferry bookings and an agreement to return my rental car on the opposite side of the country. I had to finish.

As I drove through U.S. customs in Houlton, Maine, I remember feeling so sad that it was over—I’m not one of those travellers that is ever excited to go home at the end of the trip—but at the same time, I was exhilarated because I’d done this trip. I could cross it off. I’d finished something.

Of course, this trip would not have been possible without an enormous number of people, including:

everyone who gave me a place to sleep & plenty of laughs and encouragement to keep truckin’;
the Edwards family (Kat, Mark, Maddie, Chris), Tori + Cam + Austin, Erin + Kyle, Phil + Rhonda + Cate, Sarah, Christina, Laura, Lynne + Leo Sears

everyone who shared recommendations or met up with me on the road;
Meg, Raul, Aaron, Jenny & Sam & the rest of the Posts and Birches that I saw in BC, Janice, Karen, Kimberly, the Minto crew, Amber, Jen, the people who gave Christina restaurant recommendations for Moncton and Halifax, and anyone I might have missed listing

and everyone who has read the blog or offered encouragement as I continue to work on this project.

Most importantly, I am a lucky, lucky girl because I am blessed to have the best road trip buddies in the world. I don’t think I could have crossed Canada with anyone else and even if I could have, I wouldn’t have wanted to.

Chele and me
Chele, who was crazy enough to want to take on the “boring” part of Canada with me. I would have gone insane driving across all of that open space, if it weren’t for your wonderful company! Here’s to many more roadside attractions and parking lots in front of welcome signs!

J, me, and C
Jules and Christina, who traveled the Eastern half of the trip with me—Jules from Toronto on, and Christina joining us in Charlottetown. I wouldn’t have had half as much fun laughing my way across Atlantic Canada if hadn’t been for you. Here’s to southern accents on a hundred more epic road trips, at the very least.

Mom and me
And finally, to my mama, my original road trip buddy and my life’s biggest sponsor. Thanks for driving me around the Midwest before I was old enough to decide that road trips weren’t fun and for teaching me how to read an atlas at age 5. This trip only became a possibility because of you, and I can’t thank you enough.

Thanks for reading, everyone! The Canadian road trip blog might (finally) be over, but I have a few spots in the States to blog about, and then I’ll be leaving for a month-long trip to the UK and northern France in less than 3 weeks! So I’ve decided to adapt this blog a bit and make it an ongoing blog for my travels. I’d love for you to keep reading.

May 28, 2011 at 4:34 pm 3 comments

A Day Without Cheese

We woke up on Monday morning, ready to spend a more successful day in St-Pierre. It was already a better day because our hotel had breakfast! I love a good French breakfast to start my French days. After a croissant and a café au lait, my mom headed out to take a minivan tour of the island and Jules, Christina, and I headed out to set a plan of attack. We had a few hours before the ferry, and we had specific goals: we wanted souvenirs, motion sickness meds, and snacks. Specifically, Christina did not want to leave France without chocolate (Jules and I were also down with this) and I did not want to leave France without cheese.

We walked around the waterfront area a bit and found a shop with some souvenirs, but nothing that sparked our interest, as well a boulangerie, but we’d just had bread at breakfast, so I didn’t want anything. Also, they didn’t appear to have any cheese. Or chocolates. We found a couple of cute cafés, but neither opened before Monday afternoon. We started worrying that the day was going to be a bust, so we went into the tourism office to ask if anywhere on the island would sell us cheese and chocolate before our boat left.

Yes! A supermarket was scheduled to open at noon. We’d have to shop fast, but we would be able to make it. We just had to kill time until then. Not a problem.

Vive La France
The island was full of things to photograph, like super-French houses.

We did find some stores to go in, including one that sold really questionable fashions and a little convenience store where, in hindsight, we should have bought lots of things. But we were kind of disappointed that they stocked a lot of Canadian brands and not as many European brands, though it does make sense that it’s much easier to ship stuff from Canada than Europe. The pharmacy was open, though, so we stocked up on motion sickness meds, even though we’d heard that they were expecting a much smoother ferry crossing that afternoon. But we didn’t want to take any chances.

Lovely View
We found a really lovely hill that looked out on more houses, the war memorial (always a staple), a park, and a crazy old cemetery with all kinds of pretty headstones.

Since we were en France, we did a little photo shoot with a white foulard.

My trademark jump facilitated some sweet scarf movement!

Memorial Flowers
Flowers at the war memorial

Track + Houses
We kept walking, down the hill and around to where the supermarket was. We also found a track, a lake, a Twingo (my favourite French car) more colourful houses, the ice rink (of course we did), a miniature donkey, and the fattest horse I have ever seen. Photos of all of these things on the Facebook page; this is just the track and the houses.

And here’s the lake, with more houses and a nice reflection.

I started getting worried that my mom was going to be waiting for us (our cell phones work in Canada, but not France, despite the location), so I left some Euros with Christina and Jules, along with instructions to bring me back cheese and whatever chocolate it could buy. I went back into the main part of town, where I met my mom and started gathering up our bags to take to the ferry dock. About 15 minutes before they opened the gates to send us through passport control, Christina and Jules showed up—empty-handed. The supermarket hadn’t opened when we’d been promised that it would. No cheese. No chocolates. Giant fail for the France trip.

I tried so hard not to be disappointed. My mom raised me to get the most out of any travel experience that I was lucky enough to have. And it wasn’t just about the cheese and the chocolates. But I was disappointed because I was trying to absorb everything on this trip so quickly, to instantly get a feel for the places that I visited. I felt like I hadn’t had a chance to experience St-Pierre, because everything was closed. I wasn’t upset with anyone and I didn’t want to complain about it, but it was hard not to be disappointed, because I felt like I’d missed out on really getting to know St-Pierre. And, let’s face it…it’s kind of an obscure place, and the rink didn’t look large enough to host any major skating competitions, so I’m not sure I’ll ever be back. Maybe I will, though…I’ll just be sure not to go on a Sunday-Monday trip.

In conclusion, here’s what I learned from this excursion:
If someone says to you, kind of off-hand, that part of your trip might be a bit ill-timed, listen to them and find out why, otherwise you might drag your friends to a blustery island where you can’t buy anything to eat for long periods of time.

March 16, 2011 at 10:19 am Leave a comment

Lessons Learned: British Columbia

To recap the beautiful province of BC and to throw in some amusing tidbits I might have forgotten to write about, let’s go over What I Learned in BC.

1. I love British Columbia. (Already known, but reiterated)
2. Big boats are less scary than small boats.
3. It’s not too difficult to work up the nerve to do something once. For an example, let’s use: “cross a creepy-high suspension bridge.” It’s working up the nerve to do it a second time (example: “return trip”), especially once you hated it the first time.
4. I now know what a croup cough sounds like.
5. I can nap anywhere when necessary, even for 30 minutes in my car in a Safeway parking lot.
6. There are many reasons why hotels are more popular than hostels.
7. Roasted seaweed is a delicious snack!
8. GPS is essential for navigating mountains.
9. National Parks are not known for clean washrooms.
10. Canadians really are super nice. (Known, but reiterated)

Vancouver-area hosts! L-R: Chris, Katarina, Maddie, Mark, and me. I did actually take this, since I set up the shot with a tripod and timer and then jumped in…

…however, I did not take this one, but we thought it would be amusing if I put my signature on it anyway. Ready to hit the road!

June 19, 2010 at 12:17 am 1 comment


A serial road tripper chronicles her adventures.


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