Kelowna, our final destination on an amazing extended study leave.
We’ve been home for just over a week. People ask how it feels to be back home and I’m not quite sure how to answer, yet. Yes, it’s amazing to be back with family and friends, and yes, it’s wonderful to be back in our own home.
I went for my first bike ride yesterday, on what I affectionately call my ‘girlie’ bike. Riding along a close-by linear park, Mission Creek, it felt good to once again take in the sights, sounds, and smells that are so familiar and welcoming. In the afternoon, beach chairs slung on our backs, we took the short walk to the lake and simply took in the beauty that was before us. Back home, we sat on the deck with a glass of wine and olives, reliving the many afternoon wine sipping breaks we enjoyed in Portugal and Spain. It was wonderful to bask in the gratitude of the many wonderful lived experiences of the past 7 months living and working in Europe.
That was yesterday. The week before was not so peaceful and tranquil. One thing we learned while travelling was that the first week in a new location was always wrought with unexpected challenges and a sense of total upheaval. Unpacking, setting up a new ‘home’, discovering what cooking utensils were in the cupboards, finding where to buy groceries, getting accustomed to a new language and culture, getting the lay of the land, locating medical facilities, figuring out when stores and restaurants were open, getting a grip on the local transportation system, knowing when it was safe to cross the street…it all took time. While excited to embrace a new living location, we inevitably dealt with tension and stress until we could finally relax our breathing and appreciate all that was to be explored and experienced.
Arriving back in Kelowna felt somewhat the same. While it was familiar, it wasn’t yet ‘home’. Things changed. New buildings have been erected, prices of food and gas have skyrocketed, our grocery store no longer sells our favourite Sunday morning scones, our condo was a shell, void of our personal items, and pneumonia arrived home from Europe with my husband resulting in 2 days of emergency rooms in a hospital greatly suffering the effects of extremely low staffing. It felt like we had simply moved to our next location on our journey.
However, the settling in is happening. As I sit in my home office or on the deck, I look out at blue skies, vibrant green trees, our walls once again house the smiling pictures of adored kids and grand kids, books once again fill the shelves, and a cup of hot coffee accompanies my morning quietness.
It’s good to be home, truly home. Our time with family and friends is richer than ever, our appreciation of where we live has grown, gratitude for my husband’s amazing medical team is even stronger than before we left for Europe, and I have great anticipation for reconnecting with my work colleagues over the next 3 days.
But there’s a change, I can feel it. In me. I can’t explain it yet, but I am aware of it and look forward to digging deeper and reflecting on it, to discover that part of Europe that has taken route in my soul. Travel changes a person…it’s inevitable. We don’t always know how, but it does. You bring a bit of each place you visit home with you. Travel feeds your curiosity, grows your appreciation for other cultures and people, broadens your desire for new tastes in the foods consumed, forces you to reflect on why you do the things you do, broadens your perspective, and nourishes a deep love and expectancy for life. It’s addictive!
It is great to be home, and we are excited to revisit favourite locations, always enjoyed best with family and friends, and look forward to discovering new things about this fantastic place we get to call home. Until the next travel experience…
Until that next, new experience, I plan to take time to think back on all the amazing places in the world we have been blessed to visit, and reflect on what learnings from those experiences have taken root in my soul.
And you, what places have taken root in your soul?
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!
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
I love the sea (just ask my family and friends). Not only in a way that some people enjoy a seaside vacation, or playing in the sand, or jumping waves…although all that is fantastic. My love, my fascination, my attraction to the sea is so deeply rooted in my psyche, it’s hard to put into words. I love the smells, sounds, sights, and yes, the feeling of that sea salt on my lips and skin. Every chance I can I head to the ocean. It’s my happy place, my go-to when life gets overwhelming or doesn’t make sense. Being by or on the sea births certain emotions, an inner peace, an awesome appreciation, an addiction that produces a visceral reaction every time I get to be in its presence.
It’s why I choose to spend 8 months of my extended study leave in Portugal and Spain…by the ocean.
I grew up by the sea in a beautiful town called Bangor in Northern Ireland and loved to visit our grandparents who lived an hour down the coast in Annalong, a small fishing village. What I loved about both places was the location…right on the Irish Sea. My Uncle Artie was a fisherman, his ‘office’ was a fishing vessel on the wild Irish Sea, an area that is notorious for having some of the roughest seas around Britain. Our family vacations, whether in the South of Ireland, England, Scotland, or Ibiza were always by the sea.
Today we had another amazing experience that has added to my rich memory bank of adventures on the sea…this time a different part of the Atlantic Ocean, off the shores of Albufeira, Portugal. To celebrate our 4th grandchild’s 13th birthday, the 10 of us joined with 8 other travellers for a 3 hour expedition in search of dolphins (which, to our delight, we found!), then to cruise the coastline as we marvelled at the many caves and spectacular beaches, many of which are only accessible by water. Even though it was a rather cool, damp day (very Irish), the experience was breathtaking and exhilarating.
Once more I was transported to that special, happy place. A feeling of wonder and insignificance in such a vast body of water, and yet deep peace and contentment. It really was one of those transcendent moments.
Even though, or perhaps because, I grew up by the sea, I have a very healthy respect for the power it holds, and the need for warning signs that guide ships and small vessels to safety. Warnings that can be relied on, depended on, warnings that are constant.
Warning signs that if ignored can end in catastrophe.
My Uncle knew what he needed to look for to avoid imminent danger on those days when the swell of the water threatened to swallow the vessel. Before the global positioning system (GPS) was created in the late 1970s, fishermen like my uncle depended on the beacon of a lighthouse to guide them to shore, steering them away from being dashed against treacherous coastlines. They knew they could trust the lighthouse, that it was reliable, constant, a lifeline to guide them into the safety of the harbour.
As my research continues to focus on leading in uncharted waters, I wonder what warning signs might be ignored by men and women who care so deeply about those they lead? I wonder if perhaps in their desire to feed and nurture others, they become too busy to notice their own needs, only to find themselves dangerously close to the rocky shoreline, having ignored their own warning signs?
Where is your happy place? Where do you go to hit ‘pause’, to recalibrate? Where do you go to get life back in perspective, to find balance, to get grounded? What refreshes and rejuvenates you so that you can continue to be the person those in your circle of care and influence draw on for encouragement, support, and leadership?
In my previous post, I expressed the hope that being in a place for four months (as we are in Portugal and then Spain) would afford us some of the cultural insights that are unique to these areas. We have not been disappointed; culture and daily living is different than in Canada. Sitting at a restaurant, on the beach, sipping some delicious Portuguese wine, my husband and I had a great discussion around what we were observing as cultural differences between this location and at home in Canada. We laughed, the very fact that we had been sitting, sipping, for over two hours with no-one hovering wondering when we were leaving, no server coming to offer the conta (bill), or asking if we want anything else, was a stark contrast to what we would have experienced at home. Portuguese people know how to relax and truly enjoy the moment. No one is in a hurry, even if you really do need to leave the restaurant for an appointment! We adjusted, and have learned to ask for the bill a while before needing to leave. It is a joy, however, to have this travel time with a minimal schedule, where waiting to pay is not an issue.
Several of our experiences have caused us to recognize cultural differences, one such phenomenon relates to when places are open, or not. Because of the time of year in Albufeira, many places are simply closed until the arrival of tourists some time around the end of February. When in February? Well, that’s rather vague. Many places were already closed in November when we arrived, with either no signage indicating when they would re-open, or simply ‘closed for the holidays’. What holidays? Not sure…some opened for two weeks around Christmas, but closed again at the end of the first week in January, when once more they were ‘closed for the holidays’. Apparently holidays could be four months, two weeks, sporadic, or even five days a week. One place we kept trying to go to for Sunday pot roast turned out to be quite a challenge. First time we went most menu items were not actually available due to recent restrictions that would have them limit patrons for a predetermined number of days before Christmas until after the New Year. Understandable. The second time we went, arriving for dinner at 4:30pm, we were told they only served food until 4pm. No problem, we would come back next Sunday for their special pot roast, or roast chicken dinner, served from noon to 4pm. The day came, and my husband was pumped! He was salivating over the prospects of yorkshire puddings, bringing back warm memories of Sunday dinners at my parent’s home…Mom had mastered the art of cooking pot roast and yorkshire puddings! We arrived, sat down and were quickly told that the cook decided to take the week off, so they weren’t serving food that week. Really??
At this point, it simply became laughable. Even the British culture of the proprietor had been influenced by the Portuguese culture they had been part of for so many years. Seeing our disappointment, and ‘what can you do,’ laugh, they assured us that next Sunday, pot roast would be served up, guaranteed! We were there, and it did not disappoint.
However, as we left the restaurant, I had a real sense of feeling cheated. Not because of the quality of food, or the generous quantity that overflowed the dinner plates, but because I was in Portugal, eating a traditional English Sunday lunch, drinking Guinness, surrounded by British people. I truly missed hearing a cacophony of conversations, in multiple languages.
One of the beauties of Europe is that while you are residing in one country, everywhere you go you’ll encounter folks from many countries and cultures; just be quiet, listen, and take it all in. It can be intimidating and exciting all at once, but there is such a beauty to it. Fortunately for us, the majority of people speak some degree of English (how I wish I had learned a second language!). To give you an example, we were enjoying breakfast at a cafe last week. Over the course of our time there, we visited with people from Ireland, England, Wales, Germany, India, and of course, Portugal. It was so much fun. The common thread of course was travel, and a love for learning about others experiences. Some encounters, however, aren’t quite so successful.
This week my husband and I visited the end of the world, Sagres, at least that’s what Europeans considered it until the 15th century. Sagres is a small village of 2000 people, located on the very south-western tip of Portugal and is a place unlike no other we have experienced. A small place, it’s beauty is truly breathtaking, from the landscape, to the 100 plus species of flora, to the cliff-side walks overlooking vistas of unending ocean, to the 25 isolated beaches with avid surfers, and of course we can’t forget the fearless line fishing happening on the precipice of 200 foot high cliffs! This truly blew my mind! Do these people not know the potential danger and certain death they were inches away from? That several of their co-adventurers fall to their death every year? Well, apparently they do, but it hasn’t curtailed these brave souls from fishing here for many years. These are one of the many sights that remind me I’m from Canada…our authorities would have shut such activity down years ago due to potential danger. I’ve lost count of how many times we have commented on this very thing throughout our travels…apparently we North Americans need someone else to let us know what is dangerous, then set up rules to save us from ourselves. Hmmm!
I digress…while walking around the peaceful Fortaleza de Sagres, we passed a lovely, elderly couple who were clearly enjoying their time exploring this wonderful area together. By the third time our paths crossed, it seemed right that we should have some kind of an interaction. Which we did. We exchanged greetings, neither speaking the other’s language.. We learned they were from France. When we said we were from Canada, they immediately assumed we also spoke French! They excitedly talked about some of the places they visited in Canada: Montreal, Quebec City, Montcalm, Gatineau, to name a few. However, when we somehow communicated that we were from the West Coast of Canada, and couldn’t speak a word of French, they offered a rather pathetic “Vous ne parlez pas français aussi?” Which I rightly assumed meant they were expressing empathy towards our lack of French speaking ability. (I had to get my multilingual niece to help with this interpretation!). Still, using hand signals, body language, and tiny words, we were able to share a moment together celebrating the awesomeness of the creation we were enraptured with. We said ‘Au revoir’, they said ‘Goodbye’, and we parted company. Even that short encounter brings certain joy when shared by fellow travellers who have a deep appreciation for not only our similarities, but also our differences.
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.”
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?
Part of me feels the pressure to make this blog significant, inspirational, insightful…that’s a lot to live up to. It’s writing also happens to line up with the start of a new year, leaving behind a year filled with such mixed emotions, for everyone.
I do, however, need to start off with the acknowledgement that I am truly blessed. While the past year has had its fill of sadness and loss, it has also had a great deal of joy, laughter, and much to be thankful for.
I went for a walk on the beach today, as I have done most days since arriving in Albufeira, Portugal. This is a true novelty for me–not the walk, but where I walk. No need for winter jackets, gloves, touques, or boots. No snow. Most days the sun has been shining, but even on cloudy or rainy days, the weather is very mild with temperatures hitting around 16-20 degrees. We even had an amazing day at Monchique where the temperature hit 25 degrees.
Rather than the crunching of glistening snow, my feet sank into the soft sand as I revelled at the majesty of the glistening Atlantic ocean while the sun sparkled on the white caps. Watching the mist clear after storms truly is a sight to behold. Two very different landscapes, snow and sand, in the amazing world we get to inhabit, each with their own beauty and unique features.
But there’s more, the pièce de résistance…we got to spend Christmas with our son, daughter-in-law and six grandkids. What a treat! This doesn’t happen often since their immigration to Europe. The times we have been able to share Christmas are richly embedded in our memory bank of never to be forgotten moments. Over the past years we have spent two special Christmases with them, one in Ireland and the other in France. Now we get to add Portugal to the list. Papa and Gramma were truly blessed to be their house guests from December 24 through 26. The excitement grew as the days approached. The thoughtful planning of how we would spend our time: the games we’d play, movies we would watch, and last but not least, what yummy food would be prepared and enjoyed. To top it off Grama would be joining in their now Christmas Day tradition of jumping into whatever body of water they happen to be living on. So glad they are spending these few months in Portugal, away from the frigid Baltic Sea of their home in Finland!
Christmas was indeed wonderful! To be honest, the only thing that could have made it better would be to have our daughter, son-in-law, and granddaughter in Canada join us here in Portugal!
Still, we all entered our family time with great expectancy, and we were not disappointed. On Christmas Eve our six grandkids (now aged 9-17) put on their traditional Christmas play…oh my! Our grandparent hearts just about exploded with joy, pride, love, and amazement at their dedication, creativity, and excellence as they reenact the story of Christmas in song and spoken word. One grandson even saved some of his dad’s beard shavings (he has quite the viking beard), and pasted them on his face to be more ‘authentic’ in his depiction of a shepherd. We were doubled over in laughter when he turned to face the ‘audience’ to reveal this transformation.
Our dip in the water was indeed refreshing. The water wasn’t cold, nor was the air, all adding to the enjoyment of the experience. I was, however, taken by surprise by the strength of the waves and the undertow. My assumption that all the hill walking and stair climbing of Lisbon and Albufeira would rebuild the strength after knee replacement, was certainly overrated. How wonderful to be able to grab the hand of my grandson as I struggled to gain my balance and unstick my feet from the sinking sand as the tide fought against itself.
Christmas dinner was a culinary treat prepared with love by our daughter-in-law, aided by well trained sous chefs whose creativity and skill goes well beyond putting on Christmas plays. Our daughter-in-law home schools their kids, and honestly, they blow me away with how much they know about, well, everything! I think it’s fair to say that travel is an education in itself, but combining that with intentional learning that embraces the history and geography of where you happen to be living at the time is unequalled. What could be better than learning about the history of Rome while camping just outside the great city, or studying design while living in the Netherlands, or learning about ocean tides while living by vast bodies of water in Ireland, Portugal, or Spain. This is certainly one of the advantages nomad families get to enjoy. Amazing to say the least.
It’s fascinating being in a culture so different from your own for such a significant and tradition filled season of the year. Significant from my perspective. I expected a similar celebratory atmosphere in Portugal as we experience in Canada. Or as a child in Ireland. I expected decorations that celebrate both the sacred and secular expressions of the season in homes and shared spaces. There are some, but minimal at best. I expected…I’m not really sure how to describe it, but it seems like one could easily miss the fact that it’s Christmas. In the centre of Old Town there were a few booths selling mulled wine and other Portuguese treats (very delicious); there was even a large tent set up with an ice skating rink! Live Christmas music was played on some evenings, with a small number of people partaking in the offerings, but again, it didn’t feel like a community coming together to celebrate.
Now, to be fair, we are on the outside looking in. We don’t know what happens in the privacy of people’s homes, or in the churches scattered throughout this area.
My expectations for this season, in this location, were fully based on my own experiences throughout life. I didn’t have any conversations with locals about their traditions. Except at an Irish pub. It was raining on the evening before Christmas Eve – where else would an Irish born woman go on such a rainy day? The Guiness and warm Irish Whisky was a true tonic for the deep cold that comes with the rain and incredibly high humidity here during those days. The pub owner had planned to celebrate with patrons throughout the season from Christmas Eve to New Year’s Day, until the announcement of additional restrictions being enforced to curtail the spread of the new COVID variant. The plug was pulled, so to speak, on their ability to facilitate the festivities of locals and tourists alike.
Once more, how realistic were my expectations? Is what I was observing ‘normal’ for this area, or had people already dialled back their public seasonal celebrations in response to a global pandemic?
So, what does all this have to do with Blog #100, January 2022, inspiration, and insight? I entered this season with expectations, not expectancy. I had preconceived ideas of what ‘it’ would be like. While the expectations of time with our European family were greatly surpassed, I didn’t take time to really research the ‘norms’, nor learn of the Portuguese people’s personal experiences around the season.
I have also observed the same thinking around the focus of my current research. I entered expecting to learn about how to lead a hybrid team, I entered thinking only of that one aspect of leadership. I’ve learned that those expectations need to be readjusted. Instead, I’m learning to look much deeper as I read, listen, watch, inquire, reflect, and experience life in a context that is so different from my norm.
I have been in leadership roles most of my life in various industries ranging from not for profit, to government, to for profit, to education. In education we are often asked, ‘What is your philosophy of teaching’. A very important question indeed. However, in all my leadership roles in business, I have never been asked that question. Why do I lead as I do? Why do I make the decisions I do? Why do I value my team members as I do? It’s a big one! I’m learning that we are living in an age where the focus is on ‘how to…’, and not on ‘why?’. Yes, the current environment is new and ever morphing…and it will continue to do so. Many books and articles have now been published on how to lead hybrid teams, or lead in this unknown context, but are we stopping to ask ‘why‘? Are we stopping to consider what belief system of humanity is informing why we are making the decisions we are? What happens when the next ‘pandemic’ comes along, do we come up with another new list of how to’s, or do we pause and consider the ‘why’?
As we enter 2022, let me encourage you to truly hit pause and intentionally make time to think through your leadership foundations. In his book, Virtual Leadership, author Bart Banfield states, “The search for answers always begins with a question.” He further observes that, “Production and performance quickly replace inquiry…”
That being said, what is your philosophy of leadership? How does it play out in how you lead the valuable individuals under your care…no matter if they are hybrid, remote, co-located, or whatever? Who are you as a person, as a leader? What competencies do you bring to the table, and how do your personality traits inform how you lead?
I am re-learning that only when we are able to answer these questions can we then move on to how we practice our leadership. The ‘how to’s take on more meaning and effectiveness when they are informed by your philosophy and personhood.
This is the direction of my research…stay tuned as I continue, with great expectancy, to learn.