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Walking the Basque country: Part 2

This is a continuation of Part 1

A little interlude…

I mentioned that our hotel had some interesting architectural features, including a glass partition dividing the bathroom from the bedroom, which I had nearly walked into the first day.  Overnight Tuesday, I was awoken by the crashing sound of Jean hitting it from the bathroom side. I had assumed that he just hadn’t quite seen it, same as me, but there was a bit more to the story.

He woke up in the night to use the facilities and, seeing a familiar bowl shape in the bathroom, proceeded to sit on that. Only it wasn’t a toilet; it was a bidet. And he sat on it in such a way that he activated the faucet, spraying water both on him and the floor, which he then slipped on, causing him to crash into the glass door.

He wasn’t really hurt, and I’m still giggling about it.

Wednesday

Wednesday was our “free day”. After the included breakfast at our hotel—which was very good—we decided to head back into San Sebastian and spend more time in that city. We didn’t catch the “express” bus we were expecting, but it still got us there, just with some extra stops on the way.

Since we didn’t want to lose our hiking momentum, the first thing we did was climb up Mount Urgull behind the Old City to get some views. We also visited the free museum in the castle there, which covered San Sebastian’s rather lively history. (As an aside, I was still battling a cold this day, and concluding that Spanish nasal decongestant wasn’t quite as effective as North American. But overall the congestion didn’t stop me from doing anything.)

Streets of San Sebastian

Mount Urgull in the background of San Sebastian streets

When we descended it was around lunch time, and we had resolved to have a pintxo experience. Pintxo are what the Basque call tapas, but apart from the different word, they also serve them differently that in other parts of Spain. Instead of just ordering them from a menu, they prepare them and lay them out on trays all over the bar. You pick up a plate and go through collecting the items you want to try. You then order a glass of wine, enjoy, then traditionally pay at the end (though sometimes have you pay before).

Some recommend having just one item per bar so you can try lots of them, but given that I think you’re expected to order a drink at each place—well, we didn’t want to be that hung over. So we aimed to try two places.

The first was just a random pick among the many bars available. It was a pretty good assortment of appetizers, and a nice Rioja, and we even found a place to sit (though again, it’s more traditional to stand and eat).

For the second we decided to aim for one recommended the Rick Steeve’s book, called Bar Zeruko, which had an “award-winning chef”. And it is true that everything we had here was a step above the first bar. For example, after putting our items on the plate, they took them from us to get all items to the proper temperature and re-plated nicely with the appropriate sauces and seasonings. It was quite busy here (as most places were), but we shared a table with a nice Indian family.

Playing in San Sebastian

Another San Sebastian scene

We then walked over the San Telmo Museum, which featured art and exhibits on Basque culture. Jean was overtaken with an “afternoon sleepy time” feeling (maybe it was the wine, maybe it was the crashing into glass walls), so he mostly rested while I visited the exhibits.

We then bused back to Getaria.

No group dinner was booked this night, of course, but our attempts to find a place to eat were frustrating. Almost every place listed in Trip Advisor was closed this day. Still not entirely sure if that’s a typical for Wednesdays in October, or if it was because they were resting ahead of the national holiday the next day, when every restaurant was open again.

At any rate, we ended up eating at yet another Pintxo bar, even though I didn’t feel like having that kind of food again, which at any rate wasn’t anywhere near as good as either of the bars we’d been to at lunch. Jean was saved from dealing with my full grumpiness about this by the fact that someone else from the group joined us for dinner, so I had to act at least semi-civil.

We redeemed the evening slightly by then going to a small deli restaurant for dessert—at least those were quite good. I had molten chocolate cake and Jean had this very interesting lemon-lime sorbet with cava (sparkling wine) thing.

Thursday

Today’s walk was apparently the shortest of the trip, and ended with a walk on the beach. Our start was delayed a bit, though, as it was Spain’s national day, which meant reduced frequency of public buses. So our bus ride to the town of Zumaia departed a half hour after we were expecting it to.

Zumaia

Zumaia is not too hard on the eyes

That also meant that there were lots of other people out hiking on this beautiful day. We did part of the el Camino again (again the less popular part). Then we did some walking on rock formations called flysch.

Cathy on the cliffs near Zarautz, Spain

Life on the edge

We ended up walking back in town, early enough in the day to take a little coffee break. With the holiday, though, we had to split into two groups at different establishments.

We then went to hang out at the beach. (It was really a tough day.) A lot of people took their shoes off. A few were surprised by a rogue wave, though no damage done—just slightly wet pants.

Flysch at the Beach in Spain

Most of the beach looked like your regular sandy beach, but it did have this neat part, with more flysch

There were also some caves to explore.

from inside the flysch cave

We then headed back into town to find an ice cream shop, and wait for the bus back to Getaria.

Reward after a tough, tough day 🙂

The group dinner that night was at a restaurant where the waitress didn’t speak much English, which provided some challenges. Now I’ll mention that the vegetarian couple on our tour had limited eating options all week in these small French and Spanish towns; none had a concept of vegetarian entrees. But at this place they weren’t even able to get minimal accommodations, such as putting an egg instead of ham on a salad.

For the rest of us, the food was pretty satisfying, I think, but there was the strangeness that at every course, everyone received their food except one person, who had to wait another 10 minutes or so for theirs. Even though it was inevitably another one of what  someone else had ordered. Not sure what was up with that.

Jean and I ordered clams, done two different ways, as main courses—not realizing they were more of an appetizer size serving. And of course, served with no veg or starch. Very good, however. And did leave us with ample room for dessert.

For that menu, we took out the Google Translate app, which caused considerable giggling as one of the desserts was being translated as “panties”. (Very avant-garde of them, serving edible underwear.) I stayed away from that item and ordered a truffle tart, which was very good, not overly sweet. Jean ordered the same lemon-lime sorbet and cava dessert he’d had the night before, but didn’t find it quite as good here.

For wine with dinner, we had the local white, txakoli, which was nice and fresh.

Friday

Now might be a time to mention that I had missed packing a few clothing items I intended—forgot to get them out of the laundry and into my suitcase. Thus answering the question I usually ask myself when packing: Do I really need to bring so many clothes? The answer to that is YES.

It was just a daily annoyance trying to pick among the clothes I did have to find something clean enough, suitable for the current weather, which turned out to be warmer than the original predictions. So those people who say you only need two pairs and three shirts: You’re nuts! Clothes are not heavy. And you don’t want to spend your vacation time hand-washing them. Bring enough to cover your days away, already.

Anyway. On Friday I hiked in my oldest, rattiest hiking pants and re-wore my lightest T-shirt, as this was predicated to be the warmest day yet: 26 degrees + humidity. Two people on the tour decided to skip this one. Both of them had sustained injuries after booking this trip (one to a knee, another to both feet) and though they’d managed to complete all hikes to date, they had decided that was accomplishment enough.

For me, the runny nose had stopped, so that was a relief. (It really was a cold of short duration.)

We started by taking the bus to the nearby town of Zarautz, from which we walked back to Getaria. Zarautz was distinguished by having one of the longest beaches in the region.

Zarautz Beach

Zarautz from the Mountain

View of Zarautz from above

The hiking route took us by many vineyards, all producing the txakoli wine we’d had the night before. Stéphane said that none were open for visiting, though people did seem to be waiting at one of them? I dunno. Would have been interesting to visit if we could have.

On this walk we did get into a little bit of political discussion, on Brexit (they opined it was a bad idea, and the fault of older people who won’t have to deal with it), Justin Trudeau and Canada’s native problem (Jean brought that up—ssh, don’t air our dirty laundry), and hunting policies of various countries. It all stayed pretty civil except for the Londoner insisting that London economically supported the rest of the UK, which the Manchester folks didn’t appreciate. But it didn’t seem to create any permanent tensions.

I guess because the two slowest members were not participating, the walk (billed as 12 km, but measured at more like 10) was done before we knew it, and Getaria came into view before 2 PM. (We also felt, even though it was just a week, that we had definitely improved our fitness compared to the start.)

Walking in the Vinyards above the Village of Getaria

Walking the vineyards above Getaria

We got back, showered and changed, than had a drink with the group and Stéphane at the nice hotel lounge. No group dinner was booked for the evening, and the rest seemed to be leaning toward pizza at the deli. Jean and I decided to just do our own thing.

We ended up at a place called Txoko. After we’d been seated, given our orders, and had started drinking our txakoli, we noticed the rest of the group arrive! They’d changed their minds and decided to eat here as well. But we anti-socially stayed at our own table.

We got quite good service here, and splurged a bit on salad, followed by clams, then a shared grilled sole, one of the more expensive fish options. It was all very good and fresh, though. We were kind of excited that the menu said the fish came with potato and tomato side, but it was such a tiny portion, it was sort of hilarious. (Tasty, mind you.) For dessert I went with rice pudding and ice cream, while Jean had creme brulee.

Saturday

Today was the last day of the tour, so the only items on the agenda were hotel breakfast followed by shuttle to the Bilbao airport at 8:30. Jean and I were not flying out this day, however. We’d had trouble finding any reasonable flights back to Canada with a Bilbao departure time of 11:00 AM or later. So we booked a flight back on Sunday, and added in a night at a Bilbao hotel.

From the airport, we expected to take a taxi to that hotel, but the bus driver agreed to drive us and the other three people on the tour who had also extended it by a day, which was very nice of him. Our hotels were only 200 m apart.

Despite our morning arrival, we were able to check into our room. It was a more typical European size, but nice. It was the first of the trip with an actual double bed, rather than two singles pushed together, and with a coffee machine. (No face cloths or Kleenex still, though.)

Bilbao is known mainly for its Guggenheim Museum. But it was predicted to be the hottest day yet—high of 30—so we decided to start with a visit to the Old Town. We toured two churches here, but neither was that impressive—Basque churches are quite plain compared with the amazing ones in other parts of Spain. We also walked through the market.

Stained glass in one of the Bilbao churches

Then we headed in the direction of the Guggenheim. It’s architecturally very interesting, so we walked up and around both viewing bridges before going over to it ourselves.

Guggenheim Bilbao

Guggenheim Bilbao

Outside they have a spider sculpture that is pretty much exactly like the one at the National Gallery in Ottawa (it is the same artist). There’s also a puppy monument that, Jean informed me, was originally just a temporary exhibit, but the people of Bilbao liked it so much, the Museum bought it for its permanent collection.

Puppy at the Guggenheim

Puppy at the Guggenheim

Some people on our tour who’d visited Bilbao on their free day had recommended the bistro restaurant at the Guggenheim, as did my Rick Steeves’ travel book. So we had decided to eat there. In looking for it, we followed the signs marked “Restaurant”. When we got to the entrance, there were a bunch of people crowded around the posted menu. I thought, we don’t really need to look at that, let’s just go eat.

Inside, though, was this very fancy, white linen sort of place. We were almost the only patrons at this point, and were outnumbered by wait staff. Then they handed us the menu.

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So, 110 Euros is about 165 Canadian dollars, otherwise known as notably more than we’d typically been spending for the both of us to have dinner on this trip. Should we just walk out and go to the actual bistro?

But it’s kind of awkward to just walk out, isn’t it? So we justified it. After all, we hadn’t managed to get into the fine dining El Cano restaurant we hoped to dine at in Getaria. We’d been eating cheap bag lunches all week. Let’s splurge!

My friends, all nine course were really exquisite, probably some of the best food we’ve ever had. And it was actually more than nine courses, as they started us off with an amuse of tuna, quail’s egg, and basil gazpacho. The house-made bread was herb, sundried tomato, and olive oil. Each item was sourced in a particular way that they told us about, shrimp from this particular cove where they were especially flavorful, baked beans elevated to gourmet levels but still reminiscent of baked beans.

We did not have the wine pairings, both because of cost and because we didn’t want to end up really drunk, but we each had two glasses that were really nice. I start with an orange wine, which is white wine given some skin contact so it gets colour, while Jean had a jura. He followed with a nice Rioja while I had a great blend of Pinot Noir and Txakoli wine, which I will never be able to find in Canada.

This would have been a great place to take food photos, as you can imagine the plating was also lovely, but Jean was a bit intimidated about doing that. Nearer the end of our meal, more people had arrived for lunch (most dressed somewhat casually, as we were), so I did take a couple with my phone.

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This was an extra dessert, not on the menu, of custard, macaroon, and chocolate beignet

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The coffee cups were interesting

We then went in to visit the exhibits. It’s all modern art, and not necessarily the greatest art collection we’ve ever seen, but I did enjoy this tall lighted work of cascading, thoughtful phrases; the huge Andy Warhol painting of Marilyn Monroe collage; the Basquiat works; and this super slow-mo film by the featured artist, that was strangely compelling.

It’s the 20th anniversary of the Guggenheim this year, and to celebrate they were doing a week of special video, music, and light projections onto the building’s surface at night. When we left our hotel for dinner later, tons of people were heading in that direction to watch it. While waiting for our selected Italian restaurant to open, we saw some of the show.

And Italian food was a nice change, though the restaurant was quite warm. Afterwards, we tried to walk back to see more of the presentation (which repeated in 20-minute loops), but it proved rather complicated getting there, and once we did, it was too full of people to get to a good view. Oh well.

Sunday

Sunday was just a travel day. We decided to avoid the stress of a fairly short layover in Paris by booking an earlier Bilbao flight, which meant getting up quite early, then having a long wait at the Paris airport. We were grateful for its decent wifi, and the comfy seats at the Starbucks, which was tolerant of us buying only the periodic latte.

The flight to Toronto was a couple hours longer than the one from Montreal had been, then on getting there, we had to wait a bit before landing. An early thunderstorm had prevented other planes from landing at their designated times, so our turn got pushed back a bit.

That then meant that more planes than usual were landing at the same time, which made customs a bit of a nightmare. They have this whole electronic scanning, take-your-photo thing happening now? (In Europe, they still just have a person look at your passport, you know?) Then even after that, slight wait for the luggage to be unloaded.

But it got there, we got there, drive home was fine, there you be.


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Walking in the Basque Country: Part 1

Jean had this trip in mind for a while. I was less certain about it, as I knew nothing about these places—San Sebastian, Bilbao, Biarritz—which meant I had no particular desire to go there. But when I read the description of the trip on the Exodus website, it sounded pretty good. So we went ahead with booking it.

We were headed to this part of France and Spain:

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These are the main cities (or towns) there:

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Friday / Saturday

It’s tricky booking travel to these smaller European destinations from Canada. We decided to try to fly into Bilbao around the same time as the rest of the tour group (flying in from London—Exodus is a British tour company). That meant flying to Montreal initially (on Westjet) to catch an earlier evening Air France flight to Paris, from where we got another flight to Bilbao.

So it was a bit of milk run, but everything went well, basically. The “long” flight was only about six hours. Then we had to go through security again (why?) and very slow passport control (unusual for Europe), but basically everything was on time and our luggage made it through. We arrived a bit ahead of the rest of the group, but eventually met up with our tour guide, Stéphane, then the rest of the group. We totalled 11.

We were then bused to our hotel in Ascain, France, which is too small to be on the map above, but isn’t far from Biarritz. Hotel room was small but fine, and the place had a nice patio out front and the staff were all quite friendly.  They also offered a quite delicious and sustaining daily breakfast (as we knew the “typical” French breakfast of coffee and croissant would not suffice for hiking).

Dinners were not included in the tour package, but for most nights, the tour guide did a group booking for us at a local restaurant, which generally worked out well. The only ongoing issue was that the concept of “splitting the cheque” seemed foreign in these parts (in both France and Spain), so each evening ended with us all having to do math to figure out who owed what.

The highlights of our first French dinner were the really great fish soup (mussels, scampi, white fish) to start, the fries that came with our duck à l’orange, my iced nougat dessert, and that Jean’s cheese dessert was offered in the form of: Here are several slabs of delicious French cheese. Slice off as much as you want.

Sunday

Now’s the time to mention that we were really lucky with weather: Though the Basque region can be pretty rainy, we had nothing but sun all week. Particularly in the beginning, it would start out cool then warm up nicely, followed by a cool evening. Later in the week the temperature trended up, almost (but not quite) to too warm.

The first hike was described as a “gentle walk perfect for stretching out our legs”. This was a ruse, as it actually had more elevation than most of the hikes (470m), and involved climbing and descending two mountains (small mountains, but still) and a hill. Plus, it was listed as 9 km but everyone’s mileage counter (including mine, on my phone) reported it as more like 12 km.

But it was nice.

St Jean de Luz and the Bay of Biscay

Overlooking St Jean de Luz and the Bay of Biscay

We saw some animals here, in the form of wild horses named pottocks. They are small and tough and were previously used in mines. More recently, they were problems with them mating with larger horses, such that they couldn’t get enough food in the mountains to survive the winter. Now, to preserve them—and though they are still considered wild—they have “owners” who ensure they get vaccinated (and presumably try to keep the larger horses away from them).

Wild horse in the Pyrennes Mountain's of Spain

A pottock in its natural habitat

They also do some free-range farming in these mountains, notably of the Basque pigs, who do seem to be living the good life.

It’s a pig’s life

With the first walk, we found we were able to keep up with the group and didn’t have too many sore muscles the next day.

Back in Escain, they were having an annual festival. (Nice of them to time it with our visit.) Part of the involved shepherds guiding some of the pottocks down to a pasture in town, so the tourists could see them without hiking in the mountains. A bit odd, but the horses didn’t look too unhappy being on view, eating their hay. There were also farm animals display, a competition of sheep herding by those amazing border collies, and market booths set up selling food and crafts. We got some lunch items here.

Group dinner was at a place that specialized in fish and seafood. Jean and I shared a very nice cold foie gras starter, with a glass of local sweet wine reminiscent of sauternes. I then had grilled hake, a local fish on many menus, while Jean tried the Basque specialty of squid cooked in squid ink. Very nice texture on that. We shared a crème brulée for dessert. This place was also the only one to help us split the bill: the waitress emerged with a calculator.

Monday

The Monday hike started with a ride to the most popular tourist destination of the area, the train station that brings you up the Rhune mountains. We also took the train up to what was probably the most spectacular hike of the trip. It was a cooler morning, and the clouds were low-lying at that point—it was very neat to be walking above them.

On top of the World

On top of the world

Pittoks (Wild Pyrenees horses) in the Moutain

More pottocks, less impressed than we were by the view

The idea was then to walk down La Rhune, and back up to the train station, take the train down, and walk back to Ascain.

This is the border between France and Spain

On the border between Spain and France, as marked by the stone

But after lunch (for lunch, by the way, we each to buy our own provisions from the local store before heading out), before starting our ascent back to the train station, someone asked about just walking all the way back from where we were. The guide agreed that it was a reasonable option, and that it saved us from having to wait around for the train. The group agreed on that approach, and we did see some interesting things on that stretch of trail.

Sheep grazing n the Pyrenees Mountains

Grazing sheep

A former hunting lodge (vulture hunting) now used by some hikers

Feral Pittok in the Basque Pyrenees

A pottock who isn’t too worried about us

At one point the group got split up, on a rocky path that were more of challenge for some (Jean and I were kind of in the middle) and ended up taking different paths down. But the guide managed to gather us all eventually.

La Rhune: group split on path down to Ascain panorama (Andrew's)

You take the high road, and I’ll take…

Our final French dinner was also nice, at Etorri. I had salad followed by squid with tomatoes and garlic, when Jean had duck and duck: foie gras then roast duck with cherries. And creme brulee for dessert (again).

Tuesday

Today was the day we moved from France to Spain, so we started with a private bus ride to Col de Sainte Ignace. The bus then carried our luggage on to our hotel in Getaria while we took a short boat ride, then walked into San Sebastian, where we caught a public bus to Getaria.

BasqueDay4_184of-4686_171010-HDR

Where we took a boat to start the walk

The trail head start included the exciting site of a public toilet (rare on this trip), so four of the women decided to take advantage. It had a system of lights we didn’t quite understand, but the door wasn’t locked, so the first one went in.

We outside then noticed that the light changed to yellow, then red, which seemed a bit ominous in itself, and then we heard this sound of whooshing water. Followed by some screaming, then B. emerging, pants unbuttoned.

“I haven’t had time to go yet!” she said. It started squirting water out all over, pointing to her speckled pant legs.

So, this was a self-cleaning system that activated after each person. Light green, you go in and do your thing, you emerge, light turns yellow, then red, and it sprays water onto the floor and seat to clean it, then green and ready for the next person. Kind of a nice system, really, for the rest of us in line. 🙂

This was one of the easier walks, which is good because the intermittent sore throat I’d noticed the past two days had evolved into nasal congestion, which meant hiking with a copious supply of TP (European hotels don’t supply Kleenex, period) for nose blowing. It did start with a quite a few stairs going up, but then was largely flat until we later descended into San Sebastian. Here we were walking on part of the famous El Camino trail, albeit its less popular (because harder—more elevation) northern end.

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Approaching San Sebastian

San Sebastian was a bigger place than most of us were expecting. We had about an hour here before needing to take the bus, so we prioritized finding a place with coffee and washroom. We followed that up with ice cream before getting the inter-city bus to Getaria.

Our hotel there, Hotel Saiaz, was one of the nicest we’ve ever stayed at in Europe: Quite spacious and interesting architecture and room design. (Including a glass door to the bathroom which looked cool, but will lead to a funny story later.) It also had a fridge, which was handy.

We walked around Getaria a bit, getting cold supplies at a pharmacy where the pharmacist spoke excellent English (not always a given in these parts) and locating the Michelin-starred restaurant Jean had read about (El Kano). Unfortunately, with the combination of a food expo in San Sebastian and the national holiday Thursday, they were all booked up for the week.

Our dinner this night, as it would be the case each night, was booked for 8:30, as the Spanish don’t think anyone should eat their final meal of the day any earlier than that. I started with white asparagus, since Spanish main courses don’t include any sides—just whatever protein you order. (Jean nevertheless had foie gras again.) The asparagus was very good—fresh and flavored with olive oil. We then both had the sea bass, which was nice. I ordered a peach dessert which turned out to be… canned peaches. (Seriously?) Jean did better with the rice pudding.

Spanish menus also don’t routinely include wines by the glass so we got a bottle of Rioja. (At least the wine is fairly cheap.) It was good, but we weren’t able to finish it.


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On goals, expectations, and what happens before 9 AM

Pocket, LinkedIn, and Google like to push self-improvement articles at me. The habits you need to adopt to succeed in your career. Change this about your outlook to become a happier person. 10 things these successful women do daily.

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Most of these articles, I ignore. Some I do click through to in genuine interest—often to end up disappointed. Others, I hate-read: Dive in with full knowledge that I’m going to strenuously disagree with the dispensed advice. For example, the ones that insistthat  for success, you must do activities x, y, and z early in the morning—no other time of day will do!—that I only read with scorn.

Like this gem from Benjamin B. Hardy, PhD: 8 Things Every Person Should Do Before 8 A.M. #3 on his list is “Hard Physical Activity”.

Of course regular exercise is a fine idea, but why before 8 A.M.? This is a recipe for failure for night people who can’t possibly get motivated to do physical activity at that time. I’ve been following a fitness regime for some 30 years now, but without engaging in a single exercise session before 10 A.M.

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This is about all I manage to do in the early morning (before 9 A.M.):

  • Get out of bed
  • Groom myself (bathe, brush teeth, style hair, makeup)
  • Dress myself
  • Feed the cats
  • Prepare and eat breakfast (including coffee, of course)
  • Charge my phone
  • Listen to CBC radio
  • Read (mostly news, from various sources)

And yet somehow (I can’t even explain this), this takes me some 2+ hours. I don’t see any of these activities as optional, but they don’t leave me with time to do much else at that particular time of day.

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I don’t even want to talk about his insane concept of taking cold showers. #TeamWarmWater

Then there are these general, life-affirming items:

  • Review your life vision
    and
  • Do at least one thing towards long-term goals

But, like, what if I don’t really have a life vision or any long-term goals?

Well, there are a billion self-improvement articles out there telling me why that’s a tragedy that will turn me into a sad failure.

So I must admit I found this one article by Jason Fried really refreshing: I’ve never had a goal

I can’t remember having a goal. An actual goal.

I do things, I try things, I build things, I want to make progress, I want to make things better for me, my company, my family, my neighborhood, etc. But I’ve never set a goal. It’s just not how I approach things.

A goal is something that goes away when you hit it. Once you’ve reached it, it’s gone. You could always set another one, but I just don’t function in steps like that.

I just worked at whatever I was working on and ended up wherever I am. I continue to approach work and life that same way today.

To which I say, yeah, that. I do things, but not toward a goal. I’m not exercising to lose 10 pounds, or to run a marathon, or to win a weightlifting competition. (This lack of goal always puzzled gym people I talked to. “What are your fitness goals?” “Just to stay healthy.” “Hmm, that’s not an option on my list here…”)

I try to blog regularly, but not to gain a certain number of followers, or to make money, and certainly not to change the world. I just like to do it, so try to make time. I’ll work on a piano piece if I like the song enough to want to play it smoothly, but not with the aim of performing it for anyone else.

Is that weird? It seems to be weird. But I don’t know. All this focusing your activities toward some future goal—doesn’t that make it harder to enjoy the present? And in the end, isn’t the present all we have?

cookie-monster-wisdom

But that’s threatening to make this into some sort of life advice column, and the world doesn’t need more of those. If you need goals, set goals. Review your life vision to your heart’s content. Do it at 6 AM if that floats your boat.

Me, I’m considering this other article by Jason Fried, Living without expectations. Unlike my apparently natural ability to work on things without any particular goal in mind, I don’t relate to this at all. I am not good at not having expectations of things. I can’t seem to help picturing future events in a certain way.

And yet, I think he has a point that having high expectations of how something will be is a recipe for disappointment. The movie was just fine, but because it didn’t quite live up to that great review, you can’t appreciate it. It might an attitude worth trying to cultivate, though that hardly seems easy.

For instance,  maybe I did actually get something of value from Dr. Hardy’s article—his point about getting 7+ hours sleep. It was bolstered by this Popular Science article on How many hours of sleep do you actually need? To which the answer, for almost everyone, is 8 hours, ideally. Those people who think they can manage on only 6 hours or so? They just don’t realize that fatigue is affecting their performance, but testing proves it:

The less sleep you get each night, the less cognitively aware you are the next day, the day after, and every day after that. Simple.

I was never deluded enough to think I could manage on only 5 to 6 hours sleep, but I definitely tend to delay bed time in order to fit in more evening activities, then end up dragging my butt in morning. So I’m seeing if I can curtail that a bit. Try to head to bed 15 minutes earlier than before, set the alarm 10 minutes later (and chuck you, 8 tiny ways to make your life better, and your asinine advice to set it 30 minutes earlier).

season-4-episode-7-v1-artwork-760x380

Yep, even sleep can be turned into a life-improving, goal-setting exercise

Results so far are mixed. Some days I literally don’t get home in time to make the new 15 minutes earlier bed time. And going to bed does not always equal sleeping; some nights are restless, leaving me still dozing past the new alarm time. (The Popular Science article suggests an afternoon nap to fix that, but I’ve never been a good napper, and I don’t if work would approve of that sort of coffee break.)

Still, it seems worth continuing the experiment, to see what happens. I have no particular expectations.


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Walk strong!

I’m not a gym person. I do the ballroom dance classes; I’ll go out for walks, hikes, or snowshoeing. But apart from that, it’s at-home fitness for me. I got free weights, I’ve got machines, and I have yoga mats and straps. And I have a big-ass TV, because for motivation in using the fitness equipment, I find exercise videos helpful.

But back in the fall I decided I needed something new. I hadn’t stopped exercising, but was certainly gravitating toward the shorter, 20-minute workouts more often. And finding it fairly easy to make an excuses to skip a day, or days.

inwell_syf-6_image_coverThe videos still in fairly high rotation tended be by Jessica Smith. And I was sometimes supplementing those with free offerings from her YouTube channel, a quite extensive collection of routines she films in her living room, organized by time, style, and activity. But I was intrigued by her Walk Strong! series of videos, even though I had to pay for those.

The physical DVDs seem to be available exclusively from Amazon US for $58.88. but for $5 less ($53.88) you can get instant access to online versions of them. They just run in a browser on PC, tablet, or phone, so all you need is your user name and password (and a means to play or cast them to your TV, preferably).

It also comes with a PDF of a welcome guide that emphasizes this is a program about a health, not a promise to make you skinny (despite the video series’ “6 week total transformation” tagline), and a six-week calendar suggesting an order in which to get through all videos a number of times.

I found this approach really worked for me. Getting 10 new videos at once in itself alleviated boredom. And although you had your typical fun cardio, interval cardio, upper body strength, lower body strength, and so on, there were also a couple with a very original focus:

  • Brain Fitness Fun: Moves requiring coordination and sequencing, that you therefore have to think about. Augmented with on-screen text giving you facts about brain health.
  • Prehab Routine: One that works every joint in your body, from your neck (I always discover mine is remarkably stiff) to your hips (including some Kegel exercises—“We can’t really demonstrate these”) to your toes (mine are not terribly agile).

But if the rest are less wholly original, I still like the style. Jessica’s persona is very much the warm, encouraging coach, not the stern drill sergeant. And though each workout has a particular focus on cardio, strength, or flexibility, it’s not an exclusive. The strength workouts includes sequences where you’re moving fast enough to raise your heart rate. The aerobics will include some resistance. So the whole program feels very well-rounded.

YouTube promo for the program gives a good sense of what it’s like

Each workout is 30 minutes, which is manageable for fitting in to most days. And they all include a countdown clock, which is the greatest thing! Jessica is joined in each workout by two others: Beth (55) who does the advanced moves, and her mom Debbie (59) who does the beginner moves. The women look great, but like real women.

The equipment required is fairly basic:

  • Yoga mat (unless you have very plushy carpet to work on)
  • Sturdy high-backed chair
  • Hand weights (I use 5 lbs and 8 or 10 lbs—might get to 12)
  • Towel (or yoga strap in one case)

These are the other programs:

  • Cardio Party! Steady-state aerobics with focus on fun
  • Total Body Training—Total-body strength training
  • Barefoot Fusion Sculpt—Cardio and strength to build balance, endurance, and flexibility
  • 360 Abs—Cardio core training
  • Dynamic Stretch—Stretch out muscles and build flexibility
  • Upper Body Strength—Upper body strength training
  • Interval Mix—High-intensity interval training
  • Lower Body Strength—L0wer body strength training

I have gone through the whole 42-day sequence, in somewhat more than 42 days (some days I do other types of exercise, some days don’t leave time for exercise). I don’t know that I’ve “transformed”, whatever that means, but I am meeting the goal of working out more often and it has boosted my strength, as I think that’s the area I’d been getting more lax on.

My plan now is to start over again, but to sometimes sub in other workouts I have of a similar genre for that day. I therefore hope to keep the boredom at bay a while longer. (Of course, Jessica also has other fitness programs available…)


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Croatian vacation: Wherein Jean and Cathy learn to relax (sort of)

Why did we go to Croatia, of all places?

  • Jean had heard good things about it.
  • He’d found a small-ship cruise that fit into one of the few periods this spring where we could fit in a 10-day vacation.

And that’s about it, really. Jean did all the booking of this trip: the cruise, the flights (not that easy to arrange), the hotel in Dubrovnik, where we stayed a before and after getting on the ship. I bought a couple Croatia travel guides and flipped through them, but overall, this was one of the trips I’d prepped for the least.

Reading the cruise itinerary, we both had similar thoughts: Wow, that sounds really relaxing.

We weren’t entirely sure this was a good thing. Normally we keep pretty busy on vacation, packing in museums and hikes up mountains and the constant hunt for the best restaurant within budget.

But generally, the cruise schedule was as follows::

  • Breakfast somewhere between 7-9, during which, the boat departs.
  • Travel on the boat til the next stop. Sometimes we had a stop around 11:00, then another in the afternoon. Sometimes it was just the one afternoon stop.
  • Lunch on boat around 1:00.
  • Visit the new place we’d arrived at starting around 2:00 or 3:00. Sometimes we had a city tour. We would have supper in the town in in island, and sleep on the boat. (It never traveled overnight.)

You might notice that’s a lot of time just “being on the boat” each day. We frankly had some concerns we’d get bored.

Fortunately, after a short adjustment period, we managed to get into the rhythm of being leisurely. Ultimately, I found this one of the most relaxing, stress-free vacations I’ve ever been on. A few factors, some of which were just luck, helped contribute to that.

The weather couldn’t have been better

Except for one brief thunderstorm on our last day, we encountered no rain. It was just a mix of partly sunny and fully sunny, every day. The highs were comfortable: maybe a max of 26? And the lows were comfortable—throw on a sweater and you’re all good.

That, of course, made visiting each town very pleasant.

Korkula sunset

Korkula: Didn’t suck to be here

The boat also had lovely sundeck.

MS Splendid sun deck

If I hadn’t been so diligent with the sunscreen, I would have come home with a nice tan.

 Croatia is very safe

The rate of theft in Croatia is very low. One tour guide mentioned that people don’t bother to lock their doors. We saw no homeless people, no beggars. That all really reduced the usual paranoia one has, while traveling, about keeping wallets and purses safe.

Dubrovnik market

Me not worrying about getting my purse stolen

The Dalmatian towns are beautiful

New day, new charming location. It’s hard not to feel good when surrounded by sea and sand (well, pebbles really, but…), lovely ancient buildings, mountains, greenery, boats…

Pomena harbour

Pretty Pomena harbour

Hvar cathedral

Cathedral in Hvar

We did a lot of walking

Not while on the boat, obviously, but we did have the daily stops. Jean has a little GPS gizmo he uses with his camera that allows you to geo-tag where each photo is taken. It also happens to tell you how much you’ve traveled each day. Early on Jean started remarking on how much we’d actually walked that day (15 K in Dubrovnik!), and then it became a game to try attain at least 10 K every day.

As an added challenge, we also tried to gain some elevation daily by availing ourselves of whatever viewpoints were on offer.

Hvar viewpoint

Looking down at Hvar

You might be thinking, that doesn’t sound that relaxing, but walking is really good for you. It helped us sleep well. And it was leisurely walking—we often had no particular goal or destination or deadline. We just wanted to see and get immersed in the place we were in. (For at least 10 K.)

Our rooms were well-designed

Both at our hotel and, to our surprise, on the boat, we had rooms with comfortable beds, good lighting, adequate storage, lots of plugins (for our many e-devices), and enough mirrors. Though not that large, the space was used very well. It’s surprising how often that isn’t the case.

Hotel Lapad

Hotel Lapad, our home away from home. Didn’t suck to be here, either.

Good wifi

What can I say. 🙂 The boat had a wifi room whose signal was much better than we were expecting. (Our hotel’s wifi signal was also excellent.) And, I bought a Croatian SIM card for my phone that granted me 3 GB of data for $10! That could serve as a wifi hotspot.

We had our usual absurd number of devices—tablets, phones, ereaders, laptop—so if boredom ever did threaten, it was pretty easy to entertain ourselves.

It wasn’t all Facebook and Twitter, though. Jean also did a lot of his photo processing and posting while enroute (which is good, as he hasn’t had much time since he got back), and I got a lot of reading done (not all on devices; I did bring some dead tree editions as well) and kept up with the travel diary.

Nice people

Tourism is very important to this area, and we generally found we got great service. For example, when we mentioned an early checkout at our hotel, they offered us a bag breakfast (no charge). A lot of the waiters were very friendly and enthusiastic about the restaurant’s food offerings. And yes, the food was quite good! And it was almost always patio dining.

Jean eating salmon tacos

Jean enjoying his salmon tacos

Our cruise director was a little lacklustre, but otherwise the ship staff were good. Our shipmates (only 27 of us onboard) were an international bunch—Australia, New Zealand, Scotland, UK, Norway, Belgium, Switzerland… We were the only North Americans. Obviously you hit it off more with some than others, but generally it was a good group—though Jean correctly pointed out that we weren’t the best at mingling. (The wifi might have contributed to that…)

Swim stop off the MS Splendid

Swim stop off the MS Splendid. Jean is in the water. I am not.


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Things we did in Toronto when not at a rock concert

Queen + Adam Lambert capped off our Toronto weekend, but before that, we….

1. Learned about sake

The Distillery District was our first destination (after checking into the hotel), where I happily shopped while Jean felt uncomfortable due to the crowds. (For a people person, he can be surprisingly squeamish about people.)

But we both enjoyed the one-hour sake tasting and tour we signed up for, at Ontario Spring Water Sake.

We had much to learn. I wasn’t even sure I remembered that it was made from rice, let alone what the other three ingredients were—one of which is Ontario water, though not from Toronto! And bacteria also plays an important role in the production, and since bacterial mix is always changing, so no two sake batches are ever quite the same.

We learned about the types of sake, notably pasteurized and unpasteurized, and “first press”, and about sake etiquette and its place in Japanese life. We were even treated to a beat boxing session at the end, as our guide does that on the side. He was very good!

We got to taste five samples, all notably different from one another for all being sake by the same company. Jean and I agree on our two favorites and bought a bottle of each.

2. Walked. A lot!

We were car-less in Toronto. We took the bus in, which itself involved a walk from our chosen parking lot to the Kitchener bus station. But except for some rain Sunday morning, it was nice weekend, so we just walked wherever we wanted to go rather than take transit. Jean figures we got in about 30 K in two days.

Roy Thompson Hall

Roy Thompson Hall (I think)

Buildings in Toronto

Things will be great when you’re downtown

Mall interior, Toronto

The malls are quiet at night

3. Visited the AGO

We spent a few hours there. We didn’t see the feature exhibit, on Francis Bacon and Henry Moore, but did see “Fan the Flames: Queer Positions in Photography.” That was installed, I assume, in coordination with the recent World Pride. It was an interesting collection, with combinations of video, collage collections, commercial photography, and work by artists such as Robert Mapplethorpe.

We also saw most of the “Art as Therapy”, where they gathered various pieces of the permanent collection under themes such as love, money, and politics. That made for some interesting juxtapositions as well.

4. Ate out

We had no bad meals in Toronto, but none were particularly spectacular, either. We decided to try Blowfish Sushi and Sake Bar based on a list that rated it the best sushi restaurant in downtown Toronto. While it was good, we didn’t agree that it was better than Ki, the supposed second-best one. But they did have some creativity in combinations and presentations.

Sushi platter

The truffle oil on these was nice. The garlic chip looked cool, but didn’t cohere as a taste. Better on its own…

Foamy sushi dish

Foamy!

Though we went here after the sake tasting, it was actually no help in picking one from the menu. (Not like they had any from Ontario Spring Water Sake company.) Fortunately the waitress was able to guide us toward one we enjoyed.

Breakfast, though very fine, is just breakfast, and was mainly notable for our managing to get a table just before the lineup for a table started, a feat we had also achieved on Saturday at Balzac’s coffee shop in The Distillery District.

Lunch was at Bangkok Garden, which was featuring a $15 three-course Summerlicious menu. It was very tasty, and a good deal, but mainly about the company, as we met up with my sister and brother-in-law there.

Dinner was another Summerlicious event, at Toula’s on Harbourfront, selected largely for being near the Air Canada Centre. It is a very cool room, though, on the 23rd floor, with windows all around.

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It’s an Italian place, and we liked the food. Jean had lobster ravioli as his main; I had gnocchi in tomato sauce. The service was also quite friendly and professional. But the room itself was the highlight.

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On sitting less

So back in June were another spat of articles, like this one at CNN.com, saying that sitting for many hours a day was bad for you. Even if you exercise.

It is somewhat amazing how non-helpful these articles are.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration recommends mixing noncomputer-related tasks into the workday…

The article says. As if that was actually possible in every job.

Like mine, for instance. What’s a break from my computer work? Well, meetings. The vast majority of which are, in fact, sit-down and not stand-up meetings. Also, I do like to sometimes be retro and work with pen and paper instead of monitor and keyboard. But you can’t write on paper while walking around, either. It pretty much also requires sitting at a desk.

Basically, if I’m not working at a computer, attending a meeting, or writing on paper, I’m not doing my job.

So 2 or 3 years ago now, I implemented the only solution I could see other than changing careers: I bought equipment to raise both my monitors and my keyboard off my desk, so I can work at the computer, standing up.

It was completely weird at first, but I’m used to it now, as is everyone I work with—none of whom have followed my lead, mind you. I did get a lot of queries about in the first few months. But my company won’t pay for it unless you have a doctor’s note that you need it, and I’m not sure doctors write those based on CNN articles stating that sitting 6+ hours a day reduces your life span by 20%.

And it wasn’t cheap. I needed three pieces of equipment, all of which I acquired from http://www.ergocanada.com: An LCD arm to hold two monitors (yes, I get two 21″ monitors at work), an arm extender to make the monitors high enough, and another arm to raise the keyboard tray. All together, that cost around $750—more than people typically want to spend on equipment for their work desks.

(Also, though, I think a lot of people really enjoy sitting down.)

So, I was no trendsetter.

But once I had invested in sufficient pairs of comfy (yet cute) shoes to avoid foot pain, I did find some health benefits that I didn’t have to wait decades for: reduced hip pain, reduced lower back pain, and a slight loosening of my clothes, which might be due to the fact that you burn more calories standing than sitting.

Woman at stand-up desk

Completely impractical shoes for working at a stand-up desk. Also, I think her monitor is too low.

In fact, I liked it enough that I decided to go for the same with the home computer. Well, not exactly the same. I wasn’t about to spend another $750. But my husband found this Visidec dual-monitor arm for more like $120. Like my one at work, this monitor arm was also too short on its own, but he was handy enough to just mount it in a solid piece of wood sitting on my desk, raising the monitors to standing height.

For the keyboard and mouse? Raised via a cardboard box, with a board on it that allows the mouse to slide easily. Hey, it’s home. Doesn’t have to look “professional”.

Another advantage my fancy work monitor arm has—besides looking good—is that it is extremely easy to lower and raise (as is the keyboard tray). So I can, in fact, still sit down to work at the computer, which I do for a bit each day. (I aim for 6.5 hours standing of the 8-hour work day.)

The home Visidec is possible to lower and raise, but not nearly as easily. It takes two people. So instead I intend to just leave that one in the standing position. I have replaced my desk chair with a bar stool, so I can sit on that should I weary of standing.

So, guess I’m OK now, til they come out with the unhelpful articles about the health hazards of standing for too long each day…