Category: writing

Adjusting to ‘home’…Blog #114

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? 

Retreat in Ibiza…Blog #112

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 set aside 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?

Views and life perspective…Blog #111

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is it that creates these moments for you?

Tourists in our city: Valencia…Blog #109

Mercat Central Valencia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

207 spiraling stairs up this tower

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

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

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

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

Culture shock…Blog #108

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

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

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

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

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

One of the Fallas monuments in Valencia El Carme

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

Getting the chicken ready for paella

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

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

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

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

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

Welcome to Spain…Blog #107

Seville, Spain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The rubber band snapped!…Blog #104

Still overwhelmed by such beauty!

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

View from ‘my’ table

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

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

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

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

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

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

Culture: celebrating similarities & differences… Blog #102

Cliffs at Sagres

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. 

Yes, that is a man fishing on the edge!

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. 

Fortaleza de Sagres

Culture = habits? … Blog #101

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Praia da Oura Leste, Albufeira, Portugal

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

Portugal…here we come! Blog #97

It’s finally time!

As I write this blog, we are on the first leg of our journey from Canada to Portugal…I can hardly believe it has now become a reality. Just a year ago my proposal for an Extended Study Leave was granted, and our plans for the year began to take shape. There have been changes, adaptations, and many workarounds, but we did it; our eight month adventure in Europe has officially begun.

Looking back over the past year, we have had many hurdles to overcome. The original plan was to be in Europe for 12 months, visit at least 5 countries, and basically live life as digital nomads while I researched and interviewed around the topic of leading hybrid teams. You know the saying…the best laid plans… Well the goal remained the same, but the plan changed. A combination of the pandemic and kidney failure (for my husband), greatly tested our resolve to step out on this journey, but here we are! For the next 8 months we will split our time between Portugal and Spain, with a short visit to Finland, and perhaps…? Some plans are still fairly fluid.

Besides the many things I have already learned from my research (I’m setting those learning aside for this blog), I have a whole new appreciation for people choosing to travel and live abroad for an extended time. We watched our son and family pack up their 6 children and make the move to my home country of Ireland, and as a young teenager I immigrated with my parents and siblings from Ireland to Canada. I had, at least I thought I had, a good understanding of the process; was I ever wrong.   

It turns out there is no guidebook for what we are doing. Nor are there people in certain levels of governments who can give you the playbook for travelling to another country for 8 months. Don’t get me wrong, most of the folks I interacted with wanted to be helpful, and even tried, but nothing seemed to be as straightforward as one would think. 

 Born in Ireland, living in Canada, I have both an EU passport and a Canadian one…very handy. Early spring it was brought to our attention that my husband needed to have a visa to travel to Europe because of the length of our stay (I was even told that I needed one as well…hmmm). So we started the application process. Do you know how difficult and frustrating it is to find information on a website from a country that’s not your own, nor shares the same language? After many emails and phone calls, a lovely person at the Portuguese Consulate finally looked at the site and admitted, “Oh yes, that is rather confusing, isn’t it?” You see, there isn’t an option for our situation. I’m not going to Europe to work, my husband is retired, we are not travelling for medical reasons, I’m not providing training and development, we aren’t going to volunteer, nor am I going to further my education. Without making a selection, you don’t get access to the portal where the necessary documents can be uploaded and an appointment made. So, I had to choose something, and they would ‘fix’ it later. To make a really long story short, after a trip to the Consulate, more conversations, it turns out my husband didn’t need the visa we were seeking, but rather has to go through a totally different process once in Europe. We laugh about it now…but then, not so much. I do want to say that the young gentleman we eventually worked with at the consulate was great…it was certainly a learning process for all involved.

Covid also presented many challenges for travel, all also overcome. I never realized how many people you could call to find out the proper process, testing, timing, locations, without finding anyone who would give a definitive answer. Again, easy to laugh at now…but I can assure you, my Irish came out full force at times.

The other hurdle we were forced to deal with was my husband’s newly diagnosed need for on-going kidney dialysis. We are overwhelmed with the support provided by his medical team, our local hospital (Kelowna General Hospital)), solution provider (Baxter), client support, and government funding for the treatment Rob has received. Mind blowing to say the least! However, traveling overseas when one is required to hook up to dialysis each and every night is not a common practice. This, we learned, is new territory. Not to be defeated, we started asking questions, reading, seeking input, making phone calls, and came to discover that, while not without great effort, it is possible. So with dialysis cycler and transformer, extra solution for ‘just in case’, way more suitcases than our previous ‘carryon only’ travel mode, here we are.

Without the help and support of an amazing family, great friends, a fantastic medical team, and the opportunity to take time away from teaching at Okanagan College School of Business to entrench myself in research, we would not be 30,000 plus feet in the air, filled with excitement for what this adventure holds.

I hope you’ll follow along with our journey.

PS We are now safely in Lisbon…unfortunately our luggage didn’t make it! Decided it wanted to stay in Toronto 🤷‍♀️. Stay tuned!