Jean had so much business travel this fall that it was pointless to sign up for ballroom dance classes—we would have missed too many. I decided to scan the city recreational guide for alternatives.
Have fun and work up a sweat with songs from the 80s, 90s, and 00s. Start with a warm up to get footloose and ready to bust a move, and enjoy a new routine each week. Styles of dance include hip hop, jazz funk, and chair dance. Beginners are always welcome. Let’s dance!
After the warm-up, we were to get in touch with our inner Britney… Spears, that is, circa “Oops I Did It Again.” With each round of running through the choreograhy, we were instructed to try to up the sass level. “This move is straight from the video,” noted instructor Julie, at one point.
Huh, I thought, I don’t think I’ve ever seen this video. Still, I felt pleased that I didn’t get hopelessly lost. And I realized that the idea of the class was that each week we’d learn video-inspired steps to a not-so-current song.
Some weeks later, I finally watched this
Missed class because I was in Portugal.
Slightly jet-lagged on the first day back from Portugal. The song was “That’s What I Like About You.”. The choreography was very lively and quite aerobic but, fortunately, not overly complex. I realize that while I know this song, of course, I have no idea who sings it or even what era it’s from, quite.
Turns out it’s The Romantics, in the 1980s, and they don’t really dance in this video…
But coming up is Halloween, and we have a decision to make. Which song should we do on Halloween week versus the week before: Michael Jackson “Thriller” or Backstreet Boys? I vote for “Thriller”, having no idea Backstreet Boys even had a Halloween song.
Week before Halloween, and we warm up to “The Time Warp”. I feel like I know this choreography already, but she throws in some twists to keep me on my toes.
Then it’s Backstreet Boys Halloween song (?). Which turns out to be that one Backstreet Boys song I do know, “Everybody (Backstreet’s Back)”? Whose lyrics don’t seem very Halloween-y to me. “Who’s never seen this video?” Julie asks, and I’m the only one who raises my hand. (So, apparently, I’m the oldest in the class, but at least I’m keeping up with the whipper-snappers.) (Also, in ballroom class, I’m usually one of the youngest.)
The choreography’s fun, with the bunny hands and what-not, though I have to ignore all the “This is the part that everybody knows!” comments.
Basically, it’s the video that’s Halloween-y, not the song
Day after Halloween, and it’s Thriller-time! (After another round of “Time Warp” warm-up.)
This is the first time I’m actually familiar with the video in question. Julie’s had to simplify it somewhat so that we get through more than a stanza. (But it’s a long song, so we still only get up to the first round of the chorus, basically.) Crotch-grabbing is a key feature. Yay to this class not being videotaped.
Instead of maximum sass, we’re aiming for maximum zombie decay.
Been a stressful day, but it’s good to go be distracted by having to focus on learning dance steps. This week’s is “Hips Don’t Lie” by Shakira. I’ve seen the video before, but I finally got the sense to re-watch it before the class. Major hip isolations required. First time something here might be useful for ballroom dance (at least the Latin dances).
Next week, we’re doing Usher “Yeah.” Oh great, I think, a song I don’t even know.
I look up Usher “Yeah” ahead of time, and I totally do know that song, I just didn’t know that it was by Usher or that it was called “Yeah.” (Details.)
It’s the first hip hop, and that’s a bit of a mind-bender for a middle-aged white lady like me. I’m so focused on trying to remember all the fiddly steps (we’re learning the men’s steps, since the girls are mainly just twerking) my timing is all off. It finally occurs to me that it might work better to follow the beat of the music! Hey! Secrets of dance success!
At Jean’s company Christmas party, I keep threatening to break out my hip-hop moves. Fortunately for Jean (and probably me), they never do play “Yeah”.
Week 8 and 9
Have not happened yet, but I know they will feature “Jump for my Love” by the Pointer Sisters (know that song, not that video; must look up video) and “Bootylicious” by Destiny’s Child (ditto, except I don’t know that song as well).
In the winter, we might be able to sign up for ballroom dance again. Which is good, but I think I will miss working out to some crazy video-inspired choreography each week.
The Christmas vacation post is coming, but Jean hasn’t had a chance to select and process the Christmas photos yet. So in the meantime, here’s a list of items that brightened the per-Christmas period for me this year.
I’m a makeup girl. (Woman. Whatever.) I never wear perfume, I rarely bother with nail polish, and I don’t like spending much time styling my hair. But makeup, I find fun. It seems worth than 10 or so minutes lalmost every day.
But eyeliner has always been tricky. Liquid eyeliner is too dramatic for day use. And hard to apply corectly for night use. Pencil eyeliners are easy to apply but often result in a rather pale line that usually smudges during the day, producing that terrific raccoon eyes effect.
Fortunately it rarely got this bad, but still… (photo from the Huffington Post)
I don’t know why I’m only learning this now, but makeup artists prefer gel or cream eyeliners—the kind that comes in a little pot. Having a good brush is vital, but with that, these eyeliners are pretty easy to apply. And they don’t set immediately, so if you don’t get it quite right, it’s easy to fix. And best of all, once you are happy with the results, it will set and stay with no smudging for the whole day. The line is distinct, but not as harsh as with liquid eyeliners. I love this stuff.
The brand I got was Estée Lauder Double Wear Stay-in-Place Gel Eyeliner in Stay Coffee colour. From The Bay. The brush that comes with it is fairly useless, but with a better one (that I already owned), the product itself is excellent.
The ThirdLove bra company advertised fairly heavily in the Washington Post this year, til I finally got intrigued. “Discover your best-fitting bra in 60 seconds.” No tape measure required. You just had to answer a series of questions about your breast shape and current bra-fitting issues.
Maybe other people have better mental self-image, but for me this took more than 60 seconds because I kept having to run from PC to the bathroom mirror to see which little breast diagram best reflected my shape and whether my current bra rode up or gapped. But it’s true I didn’t have to use a tape measure.
Nor, fortunately, were any of these sorts of calisthenics required
Having completed the questions, I tried to take ThirdLove up on their “try free for 30 days” offer, but it didn’t apply to Canada, so I abandoned the effort. Only to then be emailed me and offered a discount. I then went ahead with an order, that was promptly charged to my card.
Some days later I realized I had yet to receive a shipping notification, which seemed odd. Some days more after that, they did email again say there was some issue with my order, but that it would come eventually. And also here’s another discount for my next order. Then there was more radio silence, with the added small aggravation that every time I visited their website to try to figure out what was going on, they’d email trying to get me to buy another bra!
So I was a bit predisposed to be skeptical of their product when it finally did arrive, but damn if it isn’t the best-fitting, most comfortable bra I’ve ever had.
BBC Live Aid documentary
Lo these many years later, I retain fond memories of the 1985 Live Aid concert. It was organized by a singer I really liked (Bob Geldof); my favourite band, Queen, were the stars of the day; and it featured so many other artists I also like (The Who, U2, George Michael, David Bowie, Elvis Costello, The Boomtown Rats…). And all for a good cause!
So I was pretty excited when YouTube coughed up this recommendation:
I also found this buried in a drawer!
Though produced in 2011 or so, I had never heard of this Live Aid: Against All Odds documentary—a hazard of not living in the UK, I suppose. Being 3 hours long (there’s a Part 2 as well), I had to wait a bit to start it—because once I did, I predictably didn’t want to stop.
I’ve watched other documentaries on Live Aid, I’ve read books and magazines, but still, I learned more from this one. Like just how demented and troublesome a figure Bill Graham was. And that the hosts on the BBC side had never done anything on this scale before and were petrified. There’s also considerable time spent on the degree to which Midge Ure (co-writer of “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”) was overshadowed by Bob Geldof—though Midge refuses to go into an all-out rant about it. (“That’s just Bob.”)
Definitely recommended viewing to anyone else who looks back on that day fondly.
Yoga mat and blender parts
These things are so prosaic, but still…
My old yoga mat was basically disintegrating. I was looking to add an item to an online order to get free shipping. I saw they sold yoga mats at what seemed a reasonable price, so I threw that in.
I guess I hadn’t particularly realized that, like anything else, some yoga mats are better than others. This yoga mat is just better than any I’ve had before (though admittedly, the “before” are all cheapie Canadian Tire ones). It’s thicker. It’s “stickier”. It just feels better to stand on. It’s the Halfmoon Studio yoga mat.
(Also, did you know you can clean yoga mats in the washing machine? Cold water, delicate cycle, hang to dry. Works great, no manual scrubbing.)
As for the blender parts, I was just glad those were so easy to buy. I used to have Cuisinart blenders. The units worked great, but eventually the bowl or the lid would break, crack, chip—somehow become unusable. And Cuisinart just made it really difficult to buy replacements (at least at the time). Hard to find, expensive… Once I bought a whole new unit just to be able to use the parts with my previous unit.
Now I have a Breville. For which I needed a new small bowl and lid before the cracks spread to the point of making them unusable. Remarkably, all I had to do was go to their website and order those two parts, which were then shipped to my house. Imagine!
This Netflix series has been out for a while, but it was December viewing for us. Set in the 1980s, it’s about a group of women cast as wrestlers for a television series. Ruth Wilder (Alison Brie) is the main character we follow through, but all the women get some time in the spotlight. Marc Maron plays the failed B movie director Sam Silvia, hired by rich-boy wrestling fan Chris Lowell to direct the show. All the actors are really strong.
I’m no kind of wrestling fan, but I still enjoyed the pace, drama, and humour of this women-focused series (as did Jean). I even gained some appreciation of wrestling. And as a bonus, it also has a great 80s soundtrack.
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 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.)
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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
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.
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.
This was an extra dessert, not on the menu, of custard, macaroon, and chocolate beignet
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 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.
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:
These are the main cities (or towns) there:
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.
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.
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, there 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).
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.
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
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.
On the border between Spain and France, as marked by the stone
But after lunch (for lunch, by the way, we each had 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, and we did see some interesting things on that stretch of trail.
A former hunting lodge (vulture hunting) now used by some hikers
A pottock who wasn’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.
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).
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.
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 had 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
This is about all I manage to do in the early morning (before 9 A.M.):
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.
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
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.
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?
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).
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.
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.
The 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.
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…)
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 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.
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 (I think)
Things will be great when you’re downtown
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.
The truffle oil on these was nice. The garlic chip looked cool, but didn’t cohere as a taste. Better on its own…
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.
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.