Archive for the ‘europe’ Category

Two moms, two boys, two scooters, three weeks – Europe 2018
June 24, 2018

If I could have hung a sign on my life for the month of May, it would have read “gone exploring”.

I’m not a fan on the word vacation, given the implied meaning that I have things in my life from which I need to vacate. I don’t. Not to say there aren’t challenges, there are. But in my estimation at least, I was overdue for an exploration.

So when my youngest and his friend suggested it might be fun to go backpacking in Europe, I got straight to work. As our kids get older, our chance to spend time and have fun with them diminishes. My days of racing down double-black diamond ski runs are long over. And I’m not very good on a skateboard. While I appreciate rap, hip hop and the strange humour of youtube, my appetite for it is waining. So I felt this was an opportunity I needed to make happen. Luckily for me, my son’s best friend’s mom happens to be my best friend so, with happy travel companions on board, we set off on our journey.

It’s a trip I’ve done before, with my high school class, as a young university grad, as a suddenly single thirty something and again as fearlessly new forty year old. I even had plans to move to London at one time. But then life changed, love happened, babies happened and life took shape. And I’m so glad it took the shape that it has. But for May of this year, it took shape in Barcelona, Arles, Florence, Paris, Lille and London.

So, couple things right off the bat. Europe is expensive (and I am not wealthy). Yes, but it’s less out of reach than it once was. Flights are cheaper than they have ever been. I spent less flying to London than I have flying back east to see my family. Hotels are expensive. Yes. But Air BnB has opened up a whole new supply of accommodation. They are priced competitively, and offer a variety and diversity you simply cannot get in a standard double occupancy room. We stayed in an abbey, a stone house, a five-storey walk up,  and on a wooden boat in an historic harbour. And it was awesome. Transportation is expensive. Sort of. European flights are cheaper than regional flights within Canada and non EU nationals qualify for reduced price train passes if you order them from Canada. Local transit is on par (well except for Salmon Arm which is the best deal going). Restaurants are expensive. Yes. But grocery shopping is not. It’s competitive to prices here. And, to my mind at least, I’d have to eat anyway. We weren’t there to tick off boxes of expensive attractions to visit. We did normal things such as visiting markets, hanging out in squares, going for long walks, and checking out different neighbourhoods. For our boys, the added bonus was that they brought their scooters so we scoped out our fair share of skateparks on the way. Which they loved. Because, they too were awesome. Even from a mom’s point of view.

And all that walking and scootering, (our app told us we walked over 300 kms in 23 days) taught me a few things. We are so spoiled for space. Canada is the world’s second largest country and has one of the lowest population densities on the globe. Scarcity teaches us to be better at using space. At least in my view. And at least in Europe.

Our apartments were modest and practical and mostly quite small. But they were well appointed, well designed and smart from energy efficient appliances, on demand hot water showers to drying racks and electrical plugs that you turn on and off rather than draw ghost power. The transportation was smart too. Electric cars and trams, high occupancy lanes in the centre of town to de-incentivize the one per vehicle addiction we are so fond of here in North America. And bikes, everywhere, shareable and with their own lanes to boot. London even has a high speed cycle way. It’s fun to watch from the top of a double decker bus. Like a commuter version of the Tour de France. Fascinating. And it works. For everyone.

And now the fun part, at least for me, was the design of public space. Every neighbourhood, every alley, every train station, every square, every garden featured an obvious attention to community engagement. We know we behave better when we feel connected to our public spaces. Europe has had its share of challenges. On previous trips, I remember armed guards with machine guns at various posts. I saw less of that this time. I am persuaded that all of Europe has taken an intensive class in crime prevention through environmental design (CPED – a field of study widely recognized for reducing crime – also look up broken window theory if you want to learn more about it). There was a presence of police and security no doubt, and CCTV cameras everywhere but the emphasis was less on militaristic security measures and more on safety and inclusion.

A couple of examples that come to mind include a swing at a tube station in London. What better way to wait for your ride home. Indoor playgrounds at the train station to keep the kids busy and happy before the trip. Pianos, just to play. A stationery bike to charge your phone so as to keep fit and in touch. Concrete ping pong tables in parks, skate park ramps in alleys between buildings, story machines that print very short stories for you to enjoy if you need a break. Chairs – everywhere moveable chairs – to sit and better enjoy your day at the park. Music in the Metro. Even a fellow willing to type (yes, on a typewriter) a poem for whatever you could pay. Coffee shops hidden under bridges. Public art, just to play on and around. Plaques to remind you of those who came before you and statues and fountains and, even a giant indoor slide in the courtyard of an art gallery. Space is at a premium in European cities and they really do make the most of it. But mostly, it was about people, lots of helpful people, residents, transit workers, security guards, merchants, who are there to help, not to hurt or hinder. Private space is limited and at a premium, obviously. But public space makes up for it in its accessibility, its welcome and its possibilities.

So all that to say, I’m home now. And I’ve kept up the walking. I take to the Park Hill trails in Canoe on a daily basis now and I continue to explore. I explore questions like where shall we put the swing, where shall we put the stationery bike, what about the story machine. And the piano. We need a piano. We need to explore how to ensure, with an over abundance of space, we still recognize the need to continue to make them, at least the public bits, as accessible and as welcoming as possible. We are all explorers, but sometimes we get stuck. So find a trail, or a bike, or a piano, and get started again. Put that sign on your life that reads “keep exploring”. That’s where I’ll find you.

Happy travels.

Barcelona

Arles

Italy

Paris

Lille

London