Have you ever had something nagging in the back of your mind that is not so strong as to be hushed, but also not so quiet as to be ignored? I think that niggling (or whatever you might call it) has been my constant companion for a few years. Just to be clear, when I use the word niggling, I don’t mean worrisome, more like persistent.
I found this quote in a blog called That Niggling Thought, it gives voice to what I’m endeavouring to say.
Sometimes a thought returns so incessantly it needs to be investigated. Learning to listen and to simply be open to trying is more challenging than we’d like.
My niggling thought? Should I write a book? Of course, along with the idea has always come an inner dialogue with the potential to fast track me onto a roller coaster of reasoning that only a strategic thinker could conceive.
But, what if I did? What would it be about? Would anyone want to read it? Would anyone pay to read it? What if no one did read it, would it have been a waste of time and money? But…what if I did and it ended up being an encouragement to others? Perhaps even insightful? What if it made them laugh, or cry? What if it provided an enjoyable read as they relaxed on some spectacular beach overlooking the ocean on a warm summer’s day? Ok, that’s maybe going too far. But…what if?
Sometimes you just need to open that unknown door, and do it! That’s exactly where my niggling has led me.
If you’ve been following my blogs for a while, you’ll know that my husband and I spent several months in Portugal and Spain while I was on an extended study leave from teaching HR and Management at Okanagan School of Business in Kelowna, BC, Canada. We expected it to be an adventure, and it was. We expected it to be a learning experience, and it was. We expected it to be amazing, and it was. We didn’t expect it to be filled with many challenges and shall we say, growth opportunities. But it was!
The years of niggling finally provided both the impetus and inspiration to write a memoir, which I did. Having finally submitted it to a publisher, a whole new learning journey begins.
I invite you to share in this journey with me. Hopefully it will be both informational and inspirational. Hopefully you’ll pay attention to whatever is niggling at you and step through that door to adventure and learning. And hopefully you’ll share your experiences of following the niggling.
The deepest satisfaction of writing is precisely that it opens up new spaces within us of which we were not aware before we started to write. To write is to embark on a journey whose final destination we do not know.
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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?
We opened the curtains only to be awestruck by the most breathtaking view from our hotel balcony. This is what we would feast our eyes on for the next six mornings!
We return to Canada in less than two weeks. While in Europe our plan was to set times aside, step away from the research and writing, and be on holiday. Last week was one of those setaside times. Ibiza, Spain. One of the Balearic Islands. Growing up, our family never missed a vacation…my parents highly valued these times away, just the five of us. While in Ireland, most vacations were to the South or to England and Scotland. However, Ibiza was our first family tropical vacation. They say that memories over exaggerate things, not this memory. Ibiza was every bit as beautiful as I remembered.
When laying out our schedule for Europe, Ibiza was not on the list. Bilbao and San Sebastian were strong contenders; however, after a few longs days of driving between Portugal and Spain, we decided to find something closer. It was only then that Ibiza came into the picture.
For six days we lazed by the pool, read and listened to audio books, walked the promenade, explored Dalt Vila (Old Town), ate delicious meals, drank excellent Spanish wines, and treated ourselves to a three hour sunset cruise on a 35’ sailboat while enjoying a lovely charcuterie served with Cava. That’s it. No tight schedule, no rushing, just relaxation.
At one point, my husband asked, “So what have you been reflecting on or thinking about while sitting out here?” “Nothing, absolutely nothing” was my immediate response! Now, if you know me, you’ll know that’s a totally uncharacteristic reality for my mind…for it to be so at peace, so quiet, so…present, is a rare happening. Not until the question was posed did I fully realize how completely relaxed and free of concern I actually was. We needed this down time, and our six hour overnight ferry ride from Valencia to Ibiza transported us to the perfect retreat.
I thought I would be inspired to do some writing, to dream of future plans, but no…all I wanted to do was take in the peace, tranquility, and beauty around us.
As a side note, Ibiza has the reputation for being a party Island. That’s true, to a certain extent, but not where we were. The most rowdy noise makers were the birds…and their song was most welcome.
It’s curious…Ibiza has always been a special place for me. Wonderful childhood memories I have spoken of fondly with family and friends. Never did I expect to add to those memories by spending time there with my husband. Such serendipitous events are really quite wonderful. I remember another such time while flying from our home in British Columbia, Canada to Florida, US to meet up with my brother and his family. Severe weather caused us to touch down overnight in Denver, Colorado, biting into our precious holiday time. No luggage, no toothbrush, just what we had in our carry-on. It was February, and we were dressed for Florida, not Colorado. I was not a happy journeyer. It was then my husband reminded me of a restaurant I had often talked about whilst visiting Denver. Casa Bonita. Mexican food, mariachi bands, cliff divers, and the best sopapillas I had ever tasted! Why not look it up and go visit? Car rented, and we were off to add a family memory to one experienced when I was eighteen! Serendipitous indeed.
Impromptu activities, serendipitous events, interruptions, unforeseen experiences, out of the blue happenings — all things that aren’t planned, and at times, totally out of our control. Some interruptions are immediately delightful, but not all. However, we get to choose how we respond. I’m great with the impromptu things, especially when they are my idea 🙂 My husband, on the other hand, handles those unforeseen experiences with grace and optimism, me not so much. I need time to get my head around the disruption before embracing it.
What about you? What serendipitous events have you experienced that turned out to be a gift greater than anything you could have anticipated, or even planned?
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.
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.
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.
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 Cremàfinishing 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.
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.
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.
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.