Category: Change

Views and life perspective…Blog #111

As I start to write this blog, I’m sitting in the lounge of Hotel Centre, Cordova, Spain, a very lovely hotel with excellent access to the older part of town…and the view from the rooftop terrace is spectacular. 

I’m into views…rooftop views over the city (like this one taken from the roof of our Cordova hotel), views from the top of cliffs looking over the ocean or Mediterranean Sea. Then there’s balcony views over the goings on of life on the sidewalks and streets below. We’ve marvelled at views from the top of the Duomo in Florence, or Miguelete Bell Tower in Valencia, and will never forget standing on Mars Hill overlooking the impressive city of Athens. Views give you a much different perspective, they remind you to take a step back and see the bigger picture. 

For me personally, being with family can also give you that fresh perspective; it reminds you that you’re not alone in the world, that the children you raised have grown into adults who reflect the values instilled through their growing up years, and have acquired wisdom beyond anything we as parents passed to them. Then there’s the grandkids…oh my! Seeing your offspring and their spouses raise their own children, is the moment we parents can step back and know the future is in good hands. A beautiful perspective.

We are enroute back to Valencia from a 10 day visit to the Algarve in Portugal. Ten days of having emotional tanks filled, and new memories created with both of our children and their families. Our family has been split all over the globe for some time, so this was a treasured time to be together; time for European Uncle and Auntie to meet their new niece, and cousins to meet their Canadian cousin for the first time…it was mutual love at first sight all around. There’s nothing like relaxing on a beautiful Algarve beach, sun shining, water sparkling, while grandkids and Papa try to build a sandcastle, laughter all around…basking in the simple joys of life. Quite a view to behold.

As you’ll know from former blogs, my husband and I spent December through February in Albufeira before moving on to Valencia for another three months. For this visit back we stayed in Carvoeiro. We discovered Carvoeiro while staying in Albufeira, and found it such a delightful place. Now, after staying there for 10 days, we absolutely love it! The views are spectacular, the cafés and restaurants plentiful, and while most are Spanish speaking, their level of English communication really helps when your non-existing Portuguese language skills amount to bom Dia and obrigada! Carvoeiro is a central location for many day trips to many more amazing beaches, and offers incredible hiking along cliff tops. The views over the Atlantic are truly breathtaking. Just to give you a glimpse of what I mean, this is the view from across the quiet street at our vacation rental. We will be back!

I was thinking, what other places have we visited whose views so impressed that, when recalled, can transport one back to that special moment in time. The place that immediately comes to mind is Santorini, one of the Greek Islands. We visited there in 2013 with some friends. Incredibly beautiful. Now, we are really fortunate to travel with friends who love to plan travel. On this particular Greek Island holiday, Mr. W. chose and booked all our accommodations. Each location, Athens, Samos, Mykonos, Naxos, Santorini, and Nafplio were spectacular, but when we arrived at our cave house in Santorini, walked out to our private balcony, the view took our breath away. The Mediterranean had never looked so majestic, and we could sit out on our large balcony and take it all in. A close second was the view from our private balcony in Naxos overlooking the same sea, the town itself quaint beyond words with locally owned shops, cafés and restaurants tucked around every corner. And the wine! How can such inexpensive wine be so extraordinarily delicious (this was true throughout Greece)?

So what is it about views that provide such opportunity for reflection and refreshment for overwhelmed souls? Perhaps it’s simply the way such vistas, and time with family, cause us to slow down, stop, take in our surroundings, marvel at what we see, ‘bracket’ whatever is happening in our day to day lives, and cause us to whisper a prayer of thanksgiving to the Creator for what has unfolded before our eyes. Often, these moments come unexpectedly, just waiting to fill us with amazement and wonder. They certainly prompt me to pause, probe, and ponder! 

What is it that creates these moments for you?

Tourists in our city: Valencia…Blog #109

Mercat Central Valencia

They say it never rains in Valencia, they haven’t lived in Valencia for the past 4 weeks! When friends ask what the weather is like here, I compare it to growing up in Ireland, or being in Vancouver, Canada in the Fall. We never expected Spain to be this bone chilling, windy, or grey. But…there is a light at the end of the tunnel, and it looks like a big, beautiful ball of fire in the sky. At least for most of the days to come.  

While it’s yet another rainy day in Valencia, we did have some lovely days this past week, and we enjoyed them to the fullest! In my last post you would have heard me describe the effects and impact of culture shock. Well, this past week we also had a welcome reprieve from that challenging state of existence…four of our good friends came to visit! Seeing them was like a breath of fresh air, like new life being breathed into us. For a week I closed my lap top, put aside the research and studying, put aside our effort to be ‘locals’, and fully embraced being tourists…and did we ever enjoy it. If you have never taken on the challenge of being a ‘tourist in your own town’, I highly encourage it. You see things through different eyes, and experience things so much taken for granted. Even though we are still temporary newbies in Valencia, it did feel like we were, in a way, welcoming our friends to our place, our city. However, along with what has become familiar to us, like taking busses, trams, foot power, and favourite eateries, we explored our as yet uncharted Valencia together. 

Our first meal together was at Boa Beach restaurant in Cabanyal, close to our flat, and to where our friends were staying. We celebrated being together again with laughter, great food, excellent wine and beer, and catching up with each other’s lives. Boa Beach provided the perfect environment for our reunion.

Experiencing the gastronomy of a location is important…so much culture is reflected in the food enjoyed. Paella is a rice dish originating in Valencia, and is so delicious. The traditional Paella is made with chicken and rabbit, while an authentic alternative features seafood. We discovered that the best way to enjoy it is to actually take a Paella cooking class (a no-brainer after the Carbonara cooking class my hubby and I took a couple of weeks previous). Monday morning, we hopped on the bus to a not yet explored Mercat de Russafa where we met our Paella chef and hostess. After shopping for the ingredients in the market, we headed to our culinary classroom for an experience not to be forgotten. First lesson…make Sangria and enjoy chef prepared tapas. We were off to an amazing start. The chefs then took us step by step through the preparation process, explaining the history of Paella, along with the essentials that go into creating an authentic Paella…and the best part came when we all sat at tables and relished the fruits of our labour. This is a Valencia experience I highly recommend!

The next day we found ourselves wandering around Old Town, taking in the sights and sounds unique to this area. Lunch was enjoyed in a small tapa’s restaurant, prepared in a kitchen so small, no one could have imagined the delicious food served from it. One of the treasures we found among the narrow streets and ornate balcony lined buildings was a silk artisan. Her work was stunning, so much so we just had to make some purchases; the pièce de résistance for our delightful and talented artisan – we were the first Canadian customers to purchase her work. What an honour for us to show off her work back home!  The remainder of the day gave us an opportunity to introduce our friends to some of our own cool discoveries, like the river that’s now a linear park – Jardí del Túria. So how did the river Turia become a beautiful, nine kilometre long park? The amazing story is all here for you to read and appreciate.

Many people had strongly suggested we visit the City of Arts and Science, which we decided to do mid-week. Tickets purchased, we arrived at our first stop, the Oceanografic, just in time for opening. I realise that some folks take issue with animals being captive in such places…I respect that. However, I have to say that from our perspective, this is an amazing place to visit. We were in awe of the beauty of the animals whose habitat was this carefully and thoughtfully designed structure of buildings, pools, averies…all created for visibility, interaction where appropriate, and immense beauty to behold. If you are having a bad day, I would challenge you to walk around and take in these amazing creations; I guarantee you will soon find yourself smiling, laughing, or simply being in awe of all you are experiencing. Next step…follow up your Oceanografic adventure with a visit to The Hemisfèric. We chose to see the Blue Ocean, and once more were in awe. This IMAX Cinema boasts a digital 3D screen measuring about 22 x11 metres. It was huge! The chairs were in a semi-lying position, enabling the guests to view the most spectacular under, and above, water life imaginable. And, the message of preserving our oceans came across loud and clear! Our visit to the Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias was completed by time spent in the Arts and Science Centre. While we all enjoyed the exhibits as adults, we couldn’t help thinking how much our grandchildren would be enthralled with all the hands-on activities the attraction offered. 

By this time…we were exhausted, ready to head back to Cabanyal for dinner at another of our favourite eateries, La Princesa Restaurante. Once more the food was amazing, great conversation about the joys and wonders we had just experienced, and of course, the ever present challenge of ordering food in an area where the English language is rarely understood. The confusion was such that we ended up paying for four desserts rather than two, five sangria (which were amazing), rather than three, had a delicious dish of venison cheeks delivered that we didn’t order. And, we turned away another two plates of food not requested. The overcharges on the bill weren’t noticed until the next day; still, when our friends approached Princesa’s the next day, they immediately righted the mistake, and all was well.  

207 spiraling stairs up this tower

A walking tour of Old Town on Thursday was capped with a trip to the Valencia Central Market where our friends purchased what was reputed to be the best olive oil in Spain (recommended by our paella chefs). Following another superb gastronomical treat, three of us climbed the 207 steps of the MIguelete Bell Tower of Valencia’s Cathedral and were rewarded with a spectacular view of the city of Valencia, and the four PM chime of the bells! Two euros well spent!

One thing you need to know about our friends, music is a shared passion. Not just music observers, but performers, composers, music teachers, orchestra members, pianists extraordinaire, and vocalists. Needless to say, when we learned that renowned oboe player Francois Leleux was performing with the Valencia Orchestra under the direction of Conductor and Artistic Director Alexander Liebreich, purchasing tickets was a must. The concert was inspiring, uplifting, and memorable. The Auditori can seat 1.490 spectators, and is truly spectacular. It can be found in the same area as La Ciutat de les Arts i les Ciències.

Our friends left at the end of the week to explore more of Spain, but in that short, but packed week, we created more wonderful memories to add to our many adventures together. There is no doubt it’s difficult to be away from family and friends as we sojourn in Europe, making us all the more thankful for these times when we can share our journey with them – they are part of our story. 

As far as our culture shock experience, it is diminishing; however, we are accepting the reality that we will continue to work it through until we leave, and that’s just the way it is. That’s what living and learning through travel is all about.

Culture shock…Blog #108

House is 6 floors high, 107cm wide. In La Seu, Valencia

I’ve heard about it, been aware of it, down played it, and now experienced it…culture shock! Shock is a great descriptor.

When I was 11, still living in Ireland, my dad, was recognized as the top sales person in his company and thus won an all expense trip for the family to a location of his choosing; my parents decided on Ibiza, Spain. It was truly amazing, very different from our home country. The language was different and the food was not quite the same as we were accustomed to. I remember one particular dinner at the hotel in which we were staying. I can’t recall what was on the menu, but whatever it was, we thought, called for ketchup. Admittedly, ketchup was like a side dish for us. Once the food was served my brother naturally asked for ketchup. The look on the server’s face removed any doubt that this was not customary for our dish…or any dish served in this establishment. Still, he returned with the requested condiment, and with the chef. They stood by my brother and watched what he was going to do with the ketchup, then shook their heads and walked away. We thought this was funny, continued on with our delicious meal, and decided that the Spanish people had strange ideas about food, and easily accepted it as being a cultural thing. No big deal. The language barrier was overcome with non-verbal hand descriptions aptly demonstrated by my dad, and learning very basic, and important, words and phrases: baño, por favor, Cuánto cuesta este?, Muchas gracias, and, Podemos tener más papel higiénico? (can we have more toilet paper?). For 2 weeks we were able to get by. 

We observed another very strange thing…around 2pm, everyone seemed to disappear, leaving the pool at the full disposal of our family! We were so excited, and enjoyed our choice of deck chairs, servers, and of course, no one to worry about when splashing to our heart’s content. Later that evening, we learned of our error. 2pm marked the time when the sun was at its hottest, and the smart people of Ibiza knew to escape to the cool of their rooms. So here we were with our virgin Irish skin, washing off what little sun tan lotion we had applied by jumping into the chlorinated pool, towelling off…repeat. By bedtime we were in such pain! Our red scorched skin replaced the need for any lights being turned on that night! Again, we learned, and quickly mimicked the practice honoured by everyone around us on the resort. For 2 weeks we were able to get by.

A few decades later I am once again in Spain; it’s not so easy, and we are not on vacation, and it’s not just about the sun or getting more toilet paper, and we are not in the comfort of a resort. We are living in the old fisherman’s quarter of El Barrio del Cabanyal. The area is steeped in history; a walk around reveals glimpses of a turbulent past. It truly is a neighbourhood, not a tourist attraction. And, English is not spoken by, well, anyone! For this we were not prepared. It’s not just the language, we feel like outsiders, like we don’t belong. We’re not the ‘longed for welcomed guests’…we are trying to insert ourselves into someone else’s home, and it is hard! Not only is the language different, but the non-verbal actions are challenging to interpret. It’s almost a feeling of indifference that we are getting. Please don’t misunderstand me, this is what we are seeing and feeling…it is not an exposé on the character or hospitality of the Spanish people. When we do find someone who can speak English, they are more than happy to help, the challenge is finding those people.

One of the Fallas monuments in Valencia El Carme

Another surprise awaiting us was the constant setting off of fireworks. According to Mario, our amazing tour guide, Spaniards love fireworks; the noise, the smoke, the smell of gunpowder, everything about them. And, it is early March…time for Las Fallas. Officially, the festival runs from March 15th -19th, with Noche de la Cremà  finishing off the celebration. However, the locals start celebrating March 1, with firecrackers going off every few seconds…be still my heart! For those who enjoy an elevated BOOM, a thunderous firecracker show called a mascletà is held every day at 2 p.m. in Plaza del Ayuntamiento. My husband attended while I remained as far away as possible…by the Central Market. It was unbelievable…the ground literally shook under my feet! I know I can’t do justice to describing this event, so please visit this Fallas site to get a better sense of what this celebration is all about.

Getting the chicken ready for paella

As we walk around our neighbourhood we see large groups of people celebrating and enjoying being together; it’s like multiple block parties with paella being cooked on open fires in the middle of the road, lots of laughter, and drinking. We walk by, watching, observing, but not joining. We are outsiders, not part of their history, or present, or future. It really is lovely to see the community created by these folks, it makes me miss home.

One of my projects while on extended study leave, is to study for and write the exam for my GPHR (Global Professional in Human Resources) designation. The module I am currently studying relates to culture, in particular culture shock. The context relates to organisations supporting expatriates as they go on assignments to other countries. As I read through the general ‘symptoms’ I was amazed at how many I was personally experiencing. The list includes: irritation, homesickness, loneliness, nervousness, loss of appetite (no, not in my case!), sleeplessness, feeling tired, extreme pride in one’s home culture, hypersensitivity, confusion. Pretty significant, and relevant. The good news is that, according to my study material, “culture shock is temporary, and everybody goes through it to some extent in the process of cultural adaptation.

Good to know. What struck me about all this when considering the desire of many to work from anywhere, to mix work with travel, to relocate to a different country while working from your home country, is the lack of dialogue I’m hearing about the potential for culture shock when making these big life decisions. Organisations, when sending employees to work abroad, need to take the responsibility to support and adequately prepare their people for such tasks. However, who prepares individuals and families for such undertakings? Let me strongly suggest those of you considering such a move to do your homework, take time to make informed decisions, learn the language, make connections in your host country, and don’t underestimate the impact of culture shock.   

For us? In the 2½  months until we return to Canada, we are going to continue using our on-line programs to learn Spanish, dig into understanding as much of this unique culture as possible, watch bonfires, admire ninots that make up the Fallas monuments, find the best paella valencia around, learn to make paella, spend as much time as possible at the sea, watch and observe and respect and take in all the Spanish culture has to offer. And we will be richer for it.

El Cabanyal beach on the beautiful Mediterranean Sea, a mere 5 minutes walk from our flat

Welcome to Spain…Blog #107

Seville, Spain

From the peaceful, natural beauty of Portugal’s Algarve to Spain’s 3rd largest city, Valencia. What a change! The Algarve provided rest for my soul and a visual buffet for my senses. Everywhere you turned there was another picture to take…and I did! I really do miss those views. (Check out past blogs for a glimpse of what I’m talking about.)

However, before coming to Valencia, many folks told us it was one of their favourite places to visit, and live. I never asked why. It’s on the Mediterranean Sea, how could it not be as spectacular as the Algarve’s coastline? It’s different…so different. We also set out on this trip to experience new cultures, but never did I expect the culture shock that hit once we arrived in Spain. But, I get ahead of myself.

Since leaving Albufeira just over a week ago, we drove to Seville, Spain, stayed for one night, drove to Torremolinos, stayed one night, and then drove to Valencia, all in a beast of a Mercedes Van! Now, those of you living in North America may not fully get the magnitude of this task…let me paint a picture for you.

Two Canadians, used to driving a small SUV, are driving a massive, seven person Mercedes Van in small, narrow, people laden streets of Old Town Seville, all the while depending on a GPS that keeps getting lost; this is not a task for the faint at heart! Infact, it is downright stressful. A fact to keep in mind, these narrow streets are one way only, so if you happen to miss the ‘obvious’ turn Siri is sure you need to take, the recalculations take so much time that you have also missed two or three more turns that should get you back to where you got lost in the first place! Once you have finally reached your destination there’s no place to park the ‘beast’. But…thank goodness, you spot a space that says something we decide to interpret as, ‘only park here if you are checking into the Hotel Las Casas de la Juderia’. We park, and nonchalauntly walk about 50 metres back to our hotel. (By the way, our interpretation was pretty accurate!). We got checked in, and took advantage of valet parking for an additional fee…money well spent I might add. The wonderful valet whisked our car away and helped us with our mega heavy luggage and medical supplies. 

A note about the hotel…it was amazing! The most unique one we have ever stayed in. Hotel Las Casas de la Juderia consists of 22 buildings that have been restored from the 18th century, all the while preserving its culture, furniture, and maze of hallways to navigate. Awesome! And, it is located right in the middle of Barrio Santa Cruz – Seville Old Town . We only had a short time to spend in this amazing town, so to make the most of it we did a bit of walking, had a wine and tapa break, engaged a horse drawn buggy to show us the sights, indulged ourselves with delicacies from a Patisserie, treated ourselves to a fantastic Flamenco Show, out for more tapas for dinner where we were serenaded by a talented young man while we FaceTimed our daughter back home, then collapsed into bed! Wow…it was all fantastic, but we had only scratched the surface of incredible place.

After a great buffet breakfast at the hotel, we were back in the beast, finding our way out of Old Town, through Seville, and on to Torremolinos. The terrain was beautiful, so varied and with an abundance of olive groves that spread out as far as the eye could see. It was pretty surreal when we started seeing directions for Africa as we approached Málaga. Africa will have to wait for another trip, another adventure.  

We finally made it to our destination where the GPS wrought havoc once more. When it says to turn right at the next turn, you figure it’s pretty safe to do so. Well, not when it is a dead end street that ends in an underground parking lot with no way to turn around without heading into the bowels of the parkade; a one floor, basement parkade, with maybe 15 parking spots fit for tiny cars and scooters. Not a Mercedes Van. Again, my husband’s driving skills were tested as I directed the inch by inch turnaround, inside the parkade, and back up the 12% grade, spiral type road to exit. (The exit was also the entrance…fortunately no other vehicles decided to enter while we were exiting). Phew! Nerves shot, pulse racing, marriage intact! GPS? No comment there!

Torremolinos is on the Mediterranean Sea, but sadly the weather was dull, overcast, and windy, so it did not show off its enticing beauty. However, the next morning it redeemed itself as the view from our hotel balcony provided a front row seat to the sun coming up over the sea. Lovely!

After the most delectable breakfast I’ve ever devoured, champagne and all, we hopped in the van for a long drive to Valencia where more challenges, learning, adventures, and discoveries awaited us. 

You’ll have to wait until next blog to hear more about the culture shock we are experiencing, until then…

Leaving Portugal, bitter sweet…Blog #106

It’s our last day here in Albufeira, Portugal – of course it can’t go by without one final walk along the incredible stretch of beach that has been our home for the past three months. There’s no wind blowing but still the waves are strutting their power for all to see. As I sit on the power tide created ridge on the beach, I see a big wave coming. I close my eyes and just listen…it’s still, like the calm before a storm, then comes the crash of the wave, followed by the soaking I get as the ocean splashes over the sand ledge where I’m perched. It got me, and a couple sitting a few meters away. We look at each other and laugh…what else can you do? As the water recedes I hear the sound of shells rolling and soft, bubbling water as the next wave gets ready to pound the beach. I could listen for hours! In those few moments the waterscape changes as it continues to do with every new wave. As we walked this beach on an almost daily basis, we’ve marvelled at how much the beach changes, while preserves its beauty.

These past four months have provided the opportunity to spend much quality time with our son, daughter-in-law and grandkids. We love each of them and cherish the new memories created. We’ll miss them terribly! However, being with our European kids means being away from our Canadian kids. We miss our Canada family and friends. No matter where in the world they are, family and friends are such an important part of our lives; too often we forget to stop and appreciate the blessings and joy they each bring to our lives. BUT, over the next four months we are excited to have all our kids and grandkids, EU and Canadian, together in Spain for a visit. AND welcome friends coming to visit as well…the adventure just keeps getting better.

Our time here in Portugal has been fantastic. As my husband and I travel to Valencia, via Seville and Torremolinos, we will have time to reflect on the many memories created. In a way it feels like we’re venturing out on a new trip: new locations, language, surroundings, culture, living accommodation, food…new everything. We are excited. 

Before I head out on the beach I stop at one of the cafés we have frequented to pick up a coffee and one last Pasta du Nada. You’d think after four months of having them more often than I should, the novelty would’ve worn off…not so! I still love these creamy custard treats, especially sprinkled with cinnamon, a spice that I’m actually not overly fond of.

We are leaving at a time when Albufiera is just starting to come alive again. When we arrived a few month back, we were told that March is when things start to fully open up…just as we leave. Restaurants that we had been longing to try just opened, a café on a side street in Old Town finally opened up; we treated ourselves two days in a row to their delicious offerings. I realize how perfect it would’ve been to work out of that café…oh well. The café on the beach that I did work from was amazing and so hospitable.

I love watching people as they take their first walk along the beach. The awe and wonder on their faces is undeniable. I want to go to them and say ‘isn’t it marvellous? Isn’t it breathtaking?’ But I don’t. With all the different languages we hear around us, chances are pretty strong that they wouldn’t understand anything I’ve said. Instead, we share the unspoken nods, glances, and smiles that seem to say everything without a single word being spoken.

When I look at all I have accomplished these past months for my research, I’m actually quite amazed. At times I have felt panicked thinking I should be doing more, forgetting that sitting thinking and reflecting on what I just read or just written is all part of learning. I’m a doer, and often need to be reminded that ‘doing’ isn’t the goal, but rather stopping to reflect on my learning, process it, and apply it is what really matters. 

As I sit soaking in this amazing creation, my mind wanders. I used to think of the ocean, or sea, as being my happy place… I’m not sure that’s the right word anymore. Don’t get me wrong I still absolutely love being by the water, but over these four months it’s become more than just my happy place. It’s become a place where my thoughts have had time to freely make themselves known, a place where I’ve been forced to acknowledge that life can be just plain shitty, but also filled with such joy. It’s a place where I’ve been forced to come to terms with how I’ve grown up viewing myself and where that negative thinking has come from; I’m finally seeing how its deep roots have infiltrated so much of my life. 

Sitting by the water over these past months is where tough conversations have taken place, where words have been spoken from a place of hurt, words that were not totally seasoned with love and grace. It’s also a place where long walks have been enjoyed, hand in hand, with the person that I love more than life itself.

It’s place where I have paused to be vulnerable with myself, and am learning to be brave enough to be vulnerable with others.

As I relish being at ‘my ruminatting place’, I notice a deep sense of peace and contentment. I don’t want to leave, but yet know that without leaving and moving on I’ll never experience the new, wonderful and exciting adventures and lessons yet to be encountered on our journey.

Spain, here we come!

When Google Translate doesn’t help…Blog #105

Fado…a ‘must see’ Lisbon experience.

We first discovered Google Translate during our trip to Prague some years ago. It was amazing, and helped out in so many ways from reading menus to asking for directions. Our time in Portugal has also been aided by this helpful app. While most menus provide an English translation, we have had the need for language support in several other areas. Grocery shopping, for example, was an immediate area of challenge. The first day upon arrival in Lisbon we needed groceries. No car? No problem. Grocery stores were within close walking distance from our AirBnB. For the most part, buying meat, cheese, fruits, and vegetables was easy (as long as one could identify what the fruit or veggie was). What wasn’t so easy was knowing what kind of yogurt, oatmeal, milk, or even shampoo and conditioner was before us on the shelves. Open  Google Translate, use the camera feature, and we were good to go! 

In one instance while dining at a favourite eatery, Basilio, there was a sign hanging on the basket of ginger on the counter by our table. The symbol was a dog sitting, with a line across the picture. We have similar types of signage in Canada to indicate such things as no smoking, or no cell phones. You know the ones. Looking at the placement and context of where the sign was located, we were certain the message was clear.  My husband and I had a lengthy discussion around why ginger may be dangerous for dogs, and why a restaurant would need to provide signage to that effect. Being curious, and wanting to share this knowledge with family and friends, I took a picture. It wasn’t until we returned to our apartment that I actually asked Google to translate the words accompanying the picture; ‘Nao sentar’. 

Ok, those Portuguese speaking readers will immediately realize our mistake. The ginger basket was simply a vehicle on which the owners could hang the sign until needed to mark a table for incoming customers. For those of you, like us, not familiar with the language, Nao sentar means ‘don’t sit’. To be fair, had we used Google in the restaurant we would have learned this, but would have missed out on a very interesting conversation about the perils of ginger and our canine friends.

We recently had incident where we wished Google Translate could have helped. In preparing to leave Portugal to move to our new European location in Spain, we had to pick up a vehicle in Faro. After a rather frustrating experience (too long to get into here), we were upgraded to a Mercedes van (a little extreme for the two of us). However, it provides comfort, and plenty of room for us, our luggage, and other supplies we need to take along. We should have known we were in trouble when the customer service people told us the vehicle was from Spain, having been dropped off by one way travellers. 

My husband started the vehicle, and successfully drove out of the car lot, figured out where the gear changer was located, and headed back to Albufeira. Everything was good, until he touched something, causing the car to get stuck in first gear! Finding a place to pull over, he pushed, tapped, and pulled on every available lever and button (of which there were many). It began to feel like our youngest grand daughter pushing buttons, pulling levers, and turning wheels to make things happen on her Fisher Price car! To be fair, the car was trying to tell us what to do by way of information showing up on the control panel. The trouble was, all instructions were in Spanish! There is nothing in the basic Spanish lessons we are both taking that equipped us to know what should be done to get us out of this predicament, nor could our precious app get close enough to provide any kind of translation. Finally, after much random button and lever maneuvering, the gear changer was released…although my husband had no idea which was the magic move. 

Unsure of which road to take to get us home, rather than using my phone I decided to use the car GPS. You can guess what happened…Spanish! AND GPS gadgets that more resembled a gaming controller than a car GPS! For sanity sake, I used my phone. 🤷‍♀️

Knowing we only spoke English, why no-one at the rental place thought to introduce us to the foreign machine we had just rented remains a mystery. However, we did stop at one of their drop off locations once we made it back to Albufeira, where one of their service agents kindly switched the system to English, linked my phone via bluetooth, and introduced us to the various bells and whistles possessed by the van. We breathed a sigh of relief. 

My husband and I have both been driving for more years than I choose to mention. We have driven all kinds and sizes of cars, in various countries, but have never found ourselves in this kind of predicament. It’s interesting how inadequate and foolish you can feel, trying to do something you have done for years, but being completed lost and overwhelmed because what was once familiar, changed. I think many leaders are feeling like this. They have been leading teams, creating processes, fostering cultures successfully throughout their careers, but now find they have to re-think and re-learn everything. They knew how to be effective, but what was familiar has now changed. Learning how to lead and support their people in the fast changing contexts in which they find themselves can be like operating in an unfamiliar language. 

A word of advice? Seek out people who know this new environment, this exciting, yet overwhelming working environment, and ask for help. Believe me, you will learn to enjoy the ride once you do.    

Carvoeiro, one of our favourite places in the Algarve.

The rubber band snapped!…Blog #104

Still overwhelmed by such beauty!

Two more weeks in Albufeira, Portugal, before heading to Valencia, Spain. We are thoroughly enjoying, and appreciating, balmy 16-20 degree celsius weather, boasting azure skies, sometimes dotted with fluffy clouds, and the occasional refreshing rain. Most days start with breakfast on the deck, where we can look out between buildings and clearly see the ocean spread out before us. The background sounds combine the squawks of seagulls, sweet songs of various birds, people calling to each other on the street, or from their balconies, and vehicles manoeuvring through steep, winding streets. The morning routine of hanging laundry out to dry and walking your garbage to the end of the street is embraced by all. Mail is delivered by a CTT delivery person often driving a scooter, with parcels dropped off by the delivery van. Mid-morning see’s an elderly couple walk down the hill for their morning coffee, while several locals gather outside the cafe for a morning espresso and chat. All this from my office balcony perch on our 4th floor apartment.

View from ‘my’ table

Somedays I head to my favourite cafe, Roca Beach Bar, right on the beach. Not only is the coffee good, but the Pastéis de Nata are amazing, served warm with cinnamon to sprinkle on top. I’ve become a regular, and receive such a warm greeting each time, with a genuine ‘check-in’ to see how my work is going. They have even dubbed a table as being ‘your table’, one that welcomes me with a breath-taking view of the vast beach and ocean just steps away.

Then the inevitable thing happens. Around 17:00, the sun loses its warmth, and slowly slips from view, eventually causing the air to drop to single digit temperatures. I had no idea how cold it would be in the evenings here in the south of Portugal. Ok, not as cold as at home in Canada, but still cold. We learned that the buildings are constructed to provide cool in the blistering summer heat, but in no way equipped to warm their inhabitants during the winter. From white concrete walls, to beautifully tiled floors, summer efficiency doesn’t feel so great when trying to warm oneself while huddled around a fireplace. Sure, it does a great job of taking the chill off the air, but once you stray more than a few feet away from its blaze, the chill quickly wraps itself around you.

This is where the rubber band snapping comes in. Finding wood for a fire is easy here in Albufeira; you simply add it to the grocery list and pick up with your regular staples…oat milk, granola, eggs, fire starter, logs, firewood. Easy. Except these 9 kilos plus bundles are stacked in bins that require one to bend over, lift, twist, and drop into a shopping cart. I’ve been doing it successfully for 2½  months, until a few days ago. I have no idea what I did differently, except that my back decided enough was enough, and snap! Instant pain, instant ‘I can hardly move’, instant inconvenience! The shopping cart became my crutch until reaching the ‘comfort’ of our car.

With the aid of a heating pad, topical cream, Tylenol, and rest, I am well on my way to healing. The past few days, however, have made getting comfortable a real challenge. Sitting for too long hurts, lying down makes me ache, and walking has dropped a few gears to slow motion. However, even though I knew the bricks creating the footpaths had gaping cracks, the roads had many potholes, the stairs were totally uneven, and the walk to the beach was a downhill trek (not to mention the uphill return climb), the pain that shot through my back with each crack, dip, step, and hill, drew attention to these irregular surface conditions. Nothing changed about the footpaths, roads, or hills over the past few days, but my attention was drawn to them because something in my body had broken down, making it difficult for me to ‘make do’ with such uneven terrain. 

It got me thinking about life and work in general. When things are going well, when there are no new challenges that come along to disrupt the flow, we don’t pay much attention to problems or issues. Sure, they exist, but we work around them, we put up with them, until we can’t. Why is it that something, be it catastrophic or minor, has to happen before we give attention to those things that we can actually change in order to make life, systems, processes, or relationships better? Why do we settle for mediocrity when we could actually implement changes that just maybe, would bring growth and increased joy or efficiency to our personal and professional lives?

I obviously can’t do anything to change the surface conditions in Albufeira, nor can I change the building construction; however, my rubber band experience can serve as a reminder to pay attention to what I can change (yup, even how I lift). And more than that…do something to effect that change.

Culture = habits? … Blog #101

Sunday evening, church services were done, and the sitting room was all set up ready for company. Mom had been preparing for our visitors over the past couple of days, and the spread she presented was nothing short of front-cover-cookbook ready. The sandwiches were trimmed and cut into triangles, the scones were the perfect three bite size, ready to be lathered with Devonshire cream and homemade strawberry jam. Mince tarts, chocolate fudge shortbread, ‘plain’ shortbread, and Victoria Sponge cake were all part of the fare, served on a triple layer cake plate. Now, with the fireplace blazing, the room provided a warm and welcoming atmosphere for some good Irish craic with friends.  

If you think Mom put on this spread for a special occasion, you’d be greatly mistaken; this was a normal, regular, and most enjoyable cultural entertaining norm for a family in Northern Ireland, right up to when we immigrated to Canada in 1970. People would feel free to drop in anytime, knowing the kettle was boiled and ready to ‘wet the tea’ and let it ‘draw’ for the appropriate amount of time. As well, the pantry always had a tea treat at the ready for those welcomed guests who would simply drop in for an unannounced visit.

This was our ‘habit’ each Sunday evening. Similar times were enjoyed at my grandparents home in Annalong, Ireland. I have fond memories of sitting around the fire listening to my granda, with his gentle Irish brogue, recite stories and poems from years gone by, while granny cooked up her delicious tomato soup in the tiniest kitchen possible (I’ve no idea how they raised six boys in that tiny home!).

When our family immigrated to Canada, we expected those habits of culture to continue for us. Dad and mom expected neighbours to drop by anytime for a visit, they expected Sunday evenings after church to be times of visiting with new friends. Sure, my parents still invited people over, and guests were delighted by the table spread before them (albeit, with a greatly reduced salary the fare was more simple, though every bit as delicious), but such visits only happened when intentionally planned for. No one dropped by for a visit and a cup of tea. Mom waited, but no knocks ever sounded on the front door. It didn’t take long before her confidence started to crack; did people not like her? Was she an inadequate hostess? Would she ever have close friends again? It was a devastating turn of events for this accomplished homemaker who freely expressed her love and appreciation for others through hospitality.

Culture was not a topic of conversation back then. People were people. We didn’t encounter folks from other countries on our small island (the cultural landscape of Ireland has certainly changed over the years…a lovely thing to see). In our new home called Canada, we knew things were different, but had no words to describe it, only expressions of sadness, hurt, and longing for what had been.

Eventually, as a result of a heart attack, my dad met an Irish doctor who opened our eyes to the ‘Canadian way’. Dr. Mark quickly became a family friend, and provided our first lessons on cultural training. Who would have thought it would be considered an imposition to drop in for a visit? As time passed we would soon discover not only the differences in our cultures, but also in our common words of expression. Apparently it wasn’t a good idea for a student to use the term ‘stupid ass’ in class. Nor was it a compliment to tell someone their home was homely. (We learned that ‘homey’ was the complementary word we were after.) Another cultural practice, or habit, was drinking tea. Let me be clear, there is nothing wrong with tea…it is still a pleasure to be enjoyed by young and old alike, no matter where they call home. 

However, our habit was to have tea first thing in the morning, mid-morning, before going to the market, when we came home from the market, with lunch, afternoon tea, dinner, and of course supper (the snack we had just before bed). Not until my then boyfriend (now husband) came into the family did we realize this was not the norm. 

Culture is a beautiful thing, but even some cultural practices, or habits, can be a barrier to fully enjoying the many wonders of life and living. Let me share this example. As a young woman I was suffering with constant headaches. I saw one specialist after another, and none of their brilliant minds could figure out the problem. Until one. This doctor was an eye, ear, nose and throat specialist (ENT), but most significant was his heritage: he was British. In our first consultation, he inquired about my tea drinking habits. When I recounted a normal day, we added up how many cups of tea I was actually consuming…more than ten cups a day, well beyond the recommended daily allowance of caffeine! His prescription was for me to stop drinking tea for a period of time. I did, missed the tea desperately, but did not miss the headaches that magically disappeared at the same time I cut out my tea drinking rituals. 

Our culture, our habits, were so ingrained in who we were, we had no idea others would not share the same. Growing up, I had no exposure to other cultures, our family travels were mostly to the South of Ireland, England, Scotland, Wales, and just before immigrating we visited Ibiza and Canada. There is a great difference between visiting a place and residing in a place. Marriam Webster offers this as a definition of reside…’to be present as an element or quality.’ How long does it take to move from simply living to residing in a location? I don’t know…but I certainly hope that being in a place for four months (as we are in Portugal and then Spain) will afford us some of the cultural insights that are unique to these areas.

The idea of culture being habits, has created a bit of a mind shift for me over the course of my current research.  Organization culture or team culture is a topic of great interest in these changing times. We read articles and books about adapting to culture, learning culture, creating a culture, or embracing culture, among other topics, but the challenge seems to be most apparent when we start looking at changing culture.

“Culture will not change by propagating different values. Culture can only change by changing habits and behaviours. These in turn will change values, plans, procedures, and norms and finally the ‘stories we tell ourselves about ourselves’ regarding our bottomline assumptions and beliefs.”  

Jutta Ekstein and John Buck, experts in the ‘Agile’ space.

While changing my behaviour around drinking copious amounts of tea may not revolutionize an organization, it was a change in my habits, my culture, that certainly brought healing and growth to how I live my life. And, opened up a whole new world of coffee (decaffeinated of course!)

We continue to live in a time of change, change that often calls for a re-examining of organizational culture. Is it possible that such an examination might reveal some habits that, if changed, may be the first step in shifting a culture towards one that more realistically aligns with the values, plans, procedures and norms aspired to as an organization? 

The Cambridge Dictionary defines a catalyst as ‘someone or something that causes a big change’. Is it possible that individuals within organizations could be the catalysts for a necessary cultural shift in an organization by intentionally changing one habit at a time? I wonder what some of those habits might be for your organization?

Praia da Oura Leste, Albufeira, Portugal

Tea cups photo by Rodolfo Marques on Unsplash English tea service photo by Sebastian Coman Photography on Unsplash

It’s been a week!..Blog #98

I have a renewed appreciation and respect for people who chose to pack up and move to another country for a temporary, or extended time to embrace working from anywhere. Our son has coined the phrase “lifestyle travelling”, meaning, you operate with a different lens, and open yourself up to the sorts of risks one would normally face, but you expand that to the “open road”. That’s what my husband and I are doing, he’s retired and I’m continuing my extended study leave. However, to say our first week had some hurdles would be an understatement. We have faced multiple challenges that make it hard to believe we only arrived 6 days ago! I know someday we’ll look back on this and laugh…but not yet.

Rather than giving you the ‘glass half empty’ story, I’ll focus on the ‘glass half full’ perspective.

  • (Luggage lost for 5 days) Our clothes did arrive, eventually, delivered right to our door with an apology. It felt like Christmas! No need to for a replacement wardrobe. We have been planning this trip for over a year, and had purchased clothing that would layer well and be versatile for the 8 months in Europe. Much as shopping for a new wardrobe may be fun, we were really happy with our own selection. 
  • (Supplies in lost luggage) The pharmacists here in Lisbon are great, helping us choose the best products, closest to what my husband uses at home. Full marks for them! 
  • (Medical support equipment breaking) Baxter, our supplier for all things dialysis, has gone above and beyond for us. Truly a life-line! If you want to study what great customer service looks like across borders, look no further. 
  • (Limited power in the apartment) We are learning to be more intentional in our use of electricity…limit it, or loose it! And we are good with that. 
  • (Cave like lighting) Because of the lack of natural light in our place, we are spending a great deal of time outdoors, exploring Lisbon and finding third spaces to soak in the Vitamin D while getting reading and research done. 
  • Through all of these ’bumps’ our hostess has been over the top amazing! As many great hospitality stars AirBnB gives, she deserve twice as much! And, 
  • (Language) Google Translate has become my constant companion. We had planned on learning some Portuguese and Spanish before leaving Canada, but time got away from us. We are also so impressed with the graciousness of the Portuguese people—they are so hospitable in speaking English, even apologizing for not speaking fluent enough! The most Portuguese we can manage is ‘obrigada’, a word we have been called on to use more times in a week than imaginable. 

Lisbon is an incredible city. Every day we set out in a different direction to see what we can find and are loving the surprizes around each corner. We are staying up close to São Jorge Castle, so every direction we go seems to be up, then down, then up…you get the picture. 

As we’ve been experiencing the unexpected this week, I am reminded of the research Nathan and I published in 2019. The focus was on remote workers competencies for success, our attention being from a work context. Possessing those competencies goes well beyond working. If you choose to be a remote worker working from anywhere, or even working a more hybrid model, I would suggest the competencies identified need to be present to simply do life in such settings. The freedom to work and live anywhere is a gift and privilege to be treasured, but it also comes with responsibility — personal and professional, to make things work. It’s not easy to pack up and go to a different country to pursue such an adventure. We thought through all the possible scenarios of what might happen and were fairly confident we had contingency plans in place. We still were not fully prepared. When you pack up and leave, you are not only leaving your home with all the conveniences, you are leaving your support network—social, family, and medical. To be sure, you can reach out via text, email, or phone if necessary (but you need to first get that new EU sim card purchased), but with 8 hours time difference (for us anyways), they may be fast asleep when you are in the middle of it all. We are fortunate to have our son and family living in Europe, but they are not where we are. We have travelled to Europe several times, but this is not a vacation. I was born in Europe, but I left as a young teen. This is all so different.

Do we regret the decision to take this journey? Not for a moment! Would we recommend it to others? Without a doubt! Is it as easy as we anticipated? Not the first week! But there is so much more adventure to come.

Stay tuned. 

Learning to re-think…blog #94

I love soda bread!

 For those who don’t know what it is, it’s the homemade bread I grew up eating in Ireland. Delicious warm, and even better toasted with lots of butter and marmalade. Sometimes Mom would add raisins, but even plain, it was scrumptious. It’s the one kind of bread I know how to make, and it turns out great every time. (Yes, this is a picture of my own handy work.

You can imagine my excitement when we turned on the TV and saw that the cooking challenge for the day on the Great British Baking Show was for the bakers to make their version of soda bread. 

Their version of soda bread?

When the challenge was further explained, and the bakers had to take the basic bread and make a savoury and a sweet version, my enthusiasm waned. My horror was fuelled when the creations included things like salmon, olives, blueberries, dried fruit…. How could they do that to Irish Soda Bread? Once the bakes were complete, and the judges did their tasting, I must admit that some combinations of ingredients actually may find their way into my next bake. 

I need to own the fact that I fell prey to the ‘that’s not the way we’ve always done it ’belief; I passed judgement before giving the ideas a chance to play out.

As I approach this research regarding proximity equity in hybrid or work-from-anywhere teams, my desire is to bracket my own beliefs and ideas, and adopt a posture of curiosity, inquiry, and learning. As noted in my previous blog, my learning journey includes interviews, reading books, examining research literature, listening to podcasts, and recording my learnings as I go (and probably several other things that will unexpectedly grab my attention over this next year). 

The book that is currently stretching my thinking is Think Again: the power of knowing what you don’t know, by Adam Grant. If you could see the amount of highlights I made in the book you would grasp the impact this book has had on my thinking! Here’s a quote from the author, 

“Thinking like a scientist involves more than just reacting with an open mind. It means being actively open- minded. It requires searching for reasons why we might be wrong—not for reasons why we must be right— and revising our views based on what we learn.”

Read that over a few times before moving on…I had to. Let me state again that I am 100% Irish, which means I was raised in a home where heated dialogue was welcomed and encouraged, and we learned how to argue our point and get our opinions across before leaving the table. Fairly respectfully, for the most part, but the winner was the one who’s ideas or opinion was strongest, not the person who was the most open to being wrong! The idea of embarking on research, looking for reasons to prove a hypothesis I had already bought into, was actually a refreshing concept. As encouraged by Adam Grant, I’m learning to recognize my cognitive blind spots and revise my thinking accordingly.

In the early stages of this research, I am already finding the need to ask more questions to gain insight into people’s experiences, to intentionally listen hard, to bracket what I think they may say about how a certain situation could or should have been handled. By learning to think again, I find I am beginning to watch and listen for the gaps, the pauses, the unspoken emotions—and to gently probe for what’s not being said. 

As I look for themes about what it takes to lead in this new context, I’m seeing the idea of leaders needing to be willing to re-think their positions, their beliefs; to be ok with admitting they’re wrong. I’m also becoming more aware of the need for leaders to be willing to provide honest, constructive, specific feedback, even if it’s not what their members want to hear. That takes courage and it takes a willingness to maybe not win the boss of the month award; it also demonstrates a deep desire to see their members succeed, to do what it takes to serve their needs, not the leader’s own needs.

A question I may be adding to the interviews going forward…

“If I knew then what I know now, what would I have done differently? How might that inform how I think and act moving forward?”

How would you answer? I’d love to hear about it.

There are so many more take-aways from the book, it is well worth the read! 

A big thanks to those of you who graciously subjected yourselves to an interview these past three weeks…you know who you are. I can honestly say, without folks like you, my learning  journey would be crippled! As would the final outcome of the research. And thanks to the many interviewees still to participate.