O Canada

Since returning to Canada, I’ve experienced some (completely unpatriotic) location confusion. I may have even said something like “when I get back to Canada…” while standing on Ontario soil. What I mean of course is when I get back to BC, because there are just a few things about Ontario and Quebec that strike me as entirely foreign, and even hilarious.

For one, why so much roadkill?? Sure we have roadkill in BC too, but we don’t have maimed racoons, deer, squirrels, beaver, and other unidentifiable furry brown things distributed every few kms along our highways. At this point, I’m not even sure they are real road kill anymore. I imagine it’s some sort of public safety stunt.
“No one reads signs anymore, eh Pete.”
“Ya Pat, but I got an idea. Stay with me here. We get some of ‘em taxidermy animals, rough ‘em up a little and bolt those down to the asphalt every so often.”

Of course there weren’t enough taxidermy deer, so they still had to make a few signs.

In BC our signs read something like this:
*Cute picture of a deer*
Next 20kms

In Ontario the signs read something like this:
*Cute picture of a deer*
NIGHT DANGER
Next 20Kms.

Night danger?!?! Is that some sort of deer gang?

Well before you crap your pants in fear, good news. Ontario is full of adorable roadside attractions sure to fill your heart with an unbearable dose of cheesy country charm. In fact, you literally can’t miss them since each corn maze or goat zoo gets a full size road sign, as if heritage grist mills are just as important as hospitals.

So on your way from Toronto to Ottawa, why not make a quick stop at Pingle’s Fun Farm or better yet, Saunders Country Critters Zoo. Then fill your belly with some of Mrs. Garrigles fine mustard. Finally, finish of your adventure with “The Spooky Wagon Ride” featuring grotesque squash growths and life size models of Kathleen Wynne.

Of course the signs that made me laugh the most were not in Ontario, but in Quebec. There is one street sign that is the same almost everywhere we’ve been: Greece, Germany, Holland, Spain, Portugal, even France. The stop sign. No matter what language the locals speak, it is always a bright red octagon with the letters: STOP. Except in Quebec. And of course that’s okay, because we like Quebec. Just the way it is. Never change (and please don’t leave).
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But signage aside, BC and Ontario, and yes even Quebec, really don’t seem that different at all. Here’s how I know that I’m actually not in Europe any more:

People ask how you are all the time. Grocery store cashiers, the visitor centre staff, the poutine guys, EVERYONE. It puts a smile on my face immediately. I don’t even care that they don’t really care. It’s just nice to be asked.

It takes so freaking long to get anywhere. While driving between Montreal and Quebec City I commented that it looks just like the Netherlands. Big flat farm land and water water everywhere. But then I paused for a second. There was not a single church steeple in sight and I knew we wouldn’t be hitting another town for the next hour and a half. Nope we certainly aren’t in Europe anymore.

Peeing for FREE! While in Europe I got in the habit of scheduling my bathroom breaks around train rides and dinner times, just to be sure that I wouldn’t have to pay a cent for bladder relief. In one moment of desperation, I even snuck into a five star hotel in Rome and explored two floors in hopes of finding a free toilet. In Amsterdam, I shopped around for the cheapest port-a-potty, before realizing that one euro was the going rate. If a pee costs the same amount as a beer, than we’ve got a problem.

The service at restaurants. Yes that’s exactly what I mean, the fact that there is service. In Spain, Portugal, Italy, and most of France usually we had to explain ourselves before sitting down: “To eat? Can we eat?” Nine times out of ten we sat in the wrong section, came at the wrong time, or asked for the wrong menu. It was never easy to trade money for food. So when we sat down for dinner in Montreal and were brought a glass of water and a menu with no questions asked we almost cried with joy. Sure they turned into real tears when we saw the total and remembered that yes tipping is a thing here. But mostly tears of joy, because we are back in Canada. Even if the stop signs are in French and there are no mountains in sight, we really are back in Canada!

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Castles and Cathedrals

Did you ever spend time staring at something as mundane as traffic, just trying to figure out how all the cars could be so small?

If you have, you’re probably a North American who has spent a week or two in Europe, or perhaps you’re Sarah Allan.

Sarah spent the last two weeks exploring southern France with us. Her full-time job may be teaching children in Prince George, but her part-time spring break job was reintroducing us to the wonders of Europe. Sure we were generally the tour guides, but Sarah offered us a fresh set of eyes and a heightened level of enthusiasm.

“This cheese is amazing!”
“Wow, there are so many appartement buildings! Where are all the houses?”
“Ya definitely, why shouldn’t we do a spontaneous day trip to Barcelona?”

Just as Jakob and my feet were beginning to grow travel weary, Sarah’s wide-eyed wonder gave us the spark we needed to continue taking in each new place with a sense of awe and curiosity.

Sarah is going to tell you the story herself in her own guest blog post(!!!), but after a wild 65 hour journey back home during which EVERY ONE of her planes was delayed or cancelled, I am sure she is going to need a bit of time before she is ready to reflect fondly on the past two weeks.

So in the meantime, here are some of my favourite sights and stories from our adventures with Sarah:

March 13

It turns out, Nice was the perfect place for Sarah’s first impression of France! Our Airbnb was nestled in a medieval village not far outside of the city and only a 30 minute walk from the beach.

Any guesses where we went first?

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The beach of course!

Sarah was still thawing from her long Prince George winter, so the beach was an obvious first outing. After this I was sure that her jet-lag was going to get the best of her. But as any teacher would, she ignored her body’s exhaustion and pressed on!
Little did she know, the next activity on my to-do list was a steep urban hike.
I’m not sure it was worth it…

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The view from the top!

March 14

The next day we ventured out of our little village and into Nice

Now I know why it’s called the azure coast, everything, including the bikes were a shade of blue.

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Sarah and Jakob were dead set on renting bikes and cruising the promenade. I was a bit more apprehensive. I liked the idea, but as soon as I saw that the pay station required a local phone call, I started making excuses. “I bet the required damage deposit is pretty big…probably need a French bank account…it’s too far to bike all the way home…it’s probably cheaper to just take the bus back.” Really I was just scared to talk on the phone in French #secondlanguageintrovertproblems. Jakob waved away my worries and commandeered the automated phone payment system solo, Sarah unhooked a bike and adjusted the settings, and I stood there completely useless. Guess they don’t need my fumbling translation skills after all.

Jakob and Sarah’s self sufficiency was certainly an asset over the next two weeks since I had work lined up for about 6 days of Sarah’s week and a half visit.

March 18

After a brutal two day work week, I was ready to go back to travel life. So first thing Saturday morning, we headed south from Aix-en-Provence to…

Jakob and Sarah had already explored Marseille while I was cracking ancient codes in the archives. But they didn’t venture into any of the city’s churches without me, knowing that would be an unforgivable sin.

So our first stop was this spire, perched atop a hill overlooking the ocean:IMG_6484

The view from the top was really the best partIMG_6474 2Because inside was mostly a mess of gaudy gold decor and ….boats??

IMG_6476Yup, boats hanging from the ceiling, boats above the alter, even boats built into the pillars. I spent a few moments looking for a shrine to Saint Boaty Mcboatface. As self-identifying cathedral snobs, Jakob and I turned up our noses and tried to explain to Sarah why this basilica was a tacky disappointment. There was no explaining with words, so we set off in search of experiential evidence.

It wasn’t long before we found Marseille’s Cathedral. I prayed it would be boat free.
IMG_6495And indeed it was. As we stepped into the cool dusty expansive sanctuary our eyes widened, our breath caught, and our pace slowed in reverence. Nothing is more awe-inspiring than wandering between the hefty pillars of a 1000 year old cathedral.
“Now this is a Cathedral,” I whispered to Sarah, “doesn’t it feel different than that basilica, it makes you feel…” I paused, lost for words.
“Small?” offered Sarah.
“Exactly.”

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Bliiinded by the liiiiiight

We also had a little too much fun tracking patterns on the mosaic floor.

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Giants should be able to go to church too #equality

That evening we drove to our next destination: Montpellier. Where the real adventure of the day began. I had been having trouble communicating with our Airbnb host. He was in Paris for work and wanted me to call him to get instructions for finding the key. I tried to explain to him via text that my spoken French is not as strong as my reading, and it would be best if he could just text me the instructions #secondlanguageintrovertproblems again. He insisted. So after a fumbling conversation, I determined that the key was in his mailbox, and I was supposed to get the mailbox key from a neighbour(?). He told me to call him when we arrived.

Well that plan quickly deteriorated when we arrived at the apartment and began inspecting the mailbox. It had a flimsy wooden door with a slot big enough to fit most of my hand through. With the help of Sarah’s iphone light, we spotted the keys and our hosts name on the mail. With barely a word exchanged, both Sarah and I turned to the shrubbery behind us and began looking for branches that could fit through the opening. This is how northern girls solve problems.

A new plan was hatched. Sarah offered to keep look out, while I turned a crooked shrub branch into a hook. We paused for a few moments starting up a casual conversation about French mailboxes when an unsuspecting resident meandered by. As soon as the civilian was out of sight, I regained focused, held my breath, tried to forget how hungry I was, and focused all of my energy on retrieving the key.

Seconds later the keys were leveraged up out of the mail slot and into my hands. My mind raced as I began to think of ways to add mailbox heists to my CV, who says I don’t have practical skills.

March 19

Carcassonne-game

Have you ever played this game?

Turns out, Carcassonne is not only the name of one of my favourite games, but also a real place! Aaaand it happened to by only a couple hour drive from Montpellier. On the way, we spotted this monstrosity towering over a tiny village.

So of course we had to check out another church, it was Sunday after all. Weaving our way past a crowd of church goers in the foyer, we peered into the sanctuary wondering if this village was used to nosy Canadians interrupting their baptism festivities. The priest nodded to us and we took that as confirmation that our shorts and flip flops were tolerable. Inside didn’t compare to the grandeur of the Marseille Cathedral, but it was nice to see a more lived-in church space, full of young faces, and at least one newborn.

After hitting the road again, it wasn’t long before we caught our first sights of Carcassonne.

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It even sort of looks like the game box cover!


At this point in our trip, we really just do the free stuff. But we decided to splurge and introduce Sarah to the wonders of the audio guided tour.

We certainly didn’t regret it.

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Ooo another cathedral!

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Ok maybe we have had too much of cathedrals for one weekend

March 20

I imagine when most people go to Barcelona they carefully plan, book accommodation, research must-see sights, scope out a few tapas bars…you know, standard “I’m going to Spain and want to have a good time” stuff. We decided to go to Barcelona about 3 days before we actually went. I was studying googlemaps (as was a common past-time growing-up in my family) when I noticed that Montpellier is not far from the Spanish border. In fact, Barcelona is not far from the French border. BAM! A spontaneous trip to Spain was born.

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First we had to check out this crazy creation.

The Sagrada Familia is a modern cathedral that has been under construction for almost 150 years. The original architect, Gaudi, who seems to have built every other building in Barcelona as well, is long dead, but his crazy project has continued.

We opted out of the 18 euro entrance ticket and the 3 hour wait and continued to explore the city.

Until we stumbled across this gem. Can never have too much cathedral time.
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After doing our routine reverent walk around, sit still and stare up, and then make fun of the saints with silly expressions on their faces, we noticed a small line gathering in one corner. Upon inspection, we realized it was a line for an elevator to the roof!
Yes please.
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This wasn’t your typical cathedral balcony visit, no it was a rickety set of scaffolding perched precariously on the roof tiles. It’s like the reconstruction crew was having their mid morning coffee one day and said,
“Hey Juan, what if we don’t take the scaffolding down?”
“Ya I was thinking the same thing José. Maybe we can throw in an elevator, charge a few bucks.”
“Yup we can start buying the good wine, no more Father Pedros’.”
And like that, Barcelona gained yet another stunning tourist attraction.

We finished off the day with my favourite part of Barcelona, the beach.

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Sarah couldn’t get enough of it! If only we had gotten to the sand before the sun had set.

We finished off the day with dinner in an empty restaurant. It’s not that the food sucked. It’s that we aren’t very good at eating like Spanish people. As in not at 6:30.
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March 25

After a long week of work, during which Jakob and Sarah had too much fun exploring Montpellier and Toulouse, and I had a more reasonable amount of fun discovering things like this:

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My first actually counterfeit coin!! I read about them all day, but they don’t usually keep the actual evidence with the trial papers.

it was time to say goodbye to Sarah.
We spent out last day wandering the streets of old Toulouse.

And before we knew it, it was time to say goodbye to Sarah.

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I know we look happy, but those smiles are forced

We are so thrilled that Sarah decided to join us on our crazy trip…but you’ll have to wait until her blog to find out how she felt about it. Stay tuned!