I love Paris. I have visited it many times in my life and it holds a lot of special memories. When I lived in the UK for six years, it was easy to access; and as I have friends and family living in the city, I have experienced it through the eyes of a resident. I have attended weddings and family gatherings. I even became engaged in the garden behind Cathèdrale Notre Dame over twenty years ago. It is for all of these reasons that Paris will always live in my heart.
The focus of this sabbatical visit was to visit family and introduce my daughter to Paris for the first time. As I had not been back for fifteen years, it was a treat for me to return. We arrived during a school break, so her cousin, uncle and aunt were able to join us for many of our adventures.
You cannot really go to Paris without experiencing the rich variety of cultural sites. Throughout the week, I took the girls to visit a variety of museums: Musée D’Orsay, Musée du Louvre, Musée de l’Orangerie, and Musée Rodin. A highlight for me was showing my daughter Degas’ statue of Little Dancer Aged Fourteen. This was the first piece of artwork that I can remember deeply moving me when I was close to her age; and it was the beginning of my appreciation for art.
My daughter and I took a day-trip out to the Château de Versailles. I booked us a bike trip through Boutique Bike Tours, which included a visit to the royal chambers of the palace, a ride through the expansive grounds, and a picnic in the park. It was a beautiful, sunny day, and at the start of the tourist season so it was not too busy. If you ever visit Paris, I highly recommend it as an experience not to miss.
We had a wonderful time during our week in the city. This included enjoying many good meals. My daughter was adventurous and tried her first escargot! She also took a special trip with her aunt, uncle and cousin to Montmartre, where they visited Sacré Coeur and the Moulin Rouge, and had a caricature sketched by an artist. Before we knew it, our time was up and we needed to catch our train down south to Provence. It is always hard to say goodbye but we knew that we would be back soon.
“Now. That’s the key. Now, now, now. Mindfulness trains you to be awake and alive, fully curious, about what? Well, about now, right? You sit in meditation and the out-breath is now and waking up from your fantasies is now and even the fantasies are now, although they seem to take you into the past and into the future. The more you can be completely now, the more you realize that you’re in the center of the world, standing in the middle of a sacred circle.”
Today I watched my daughter swimming in the pool for hours. She did summersaults and flips, handstands and back walk-overs. She disappeared underneath the azure waters in a ripple of movement, and reappeared at the other end, with a slight gasp of air. I reminded myself that this is the same the child that used to require entertainment at all times, as she could not manage self-led activities. I watched her beautiful, graceful movements as she lost herself in the joy of play, and I felt so proud of the independent woman that she is growing up to be. When she was not in the pool, she read her book beside me on her sun chair, or she quietly journaled. The air was hot and dry. The cicadas sang in the olive and pine trees surrounding us. It was a truly beautiful afternoon.
After our time in England and Scotland, it was a natural choice to make Ireland the next stop on our sabbatical trip. My family is Irish on both sides and I am fortunate to have visited Ireland many times over the years. Every time I return to the Emerald Isle, it feels like I am returning home. The people are incredibly kind and generous, the culture is rich, and the landscape is diverse and breathtaking. Ireland also possesses a very special, mystical energy, as evidenced by the many neolithic structures that can be found across the countryside.
We flew into Dublin from Glasgow and I rented us a car at the airport. Be warned. Renting a car in Ireland is very expensive as the cost of insurance is astronomically high. That being said, I do not think that you can fully experience the country without a car; so much of its beauty is found in remote and rural areas, so I took the plunge. In both the Republic of Ireland and in the north, they drive on the left side of the road. In addition to this, the driver’s side of the car is located on the opposite side to Canada…AND they primarily drive standard…so it took me an hour or on the highway before I settled in and my heart stopped pounding with panic. It is not so bad once you get the hang of it.
Our first stop was in in Connemara: the western region of County Galway. Twenty years ago, I stayed at the Delphi Lodge with my mother and I have always wanted to return. Delphi is an 1830s country house surrounded by the tallest mountains in Connemara and it overlooks the lakes and rivers of the Delphi Valley: famous for salmon and seatrout fishing. It is a remarkably beautiful place.
Rather than stay in the lodge, I rented us one of the cottages on their property, so we could cook for ourselves and enjoy privacy. Located right on the river, our place was well appointed and comfortable.
It was quite rainy during our time in Connemara, which is not unusual for Ireland; and this gave us an excuse to stay in with a good book and a cup of tea by the fire. My daughter also discovered some old DVDs of Desperate Housewives, which soon became a favourite. When we did venture out, some highlights of the local area included visiting Kylemore Abbey, horseback-riding in the grounds of Ashford Castle, and discovering places to go wild swimming.
The second part of our time in Ireland was spent in County Antrim. My great-grandfather and his brother lived in a little hamlet just outside of Bushmills, a town located on the northern coast of Ireland, very near to the UNESCO world-heritage site, the Giant’s Causeway. Although they immigrated to California over a hundred years ago, the property remains with our family, and we are lucky enough to have close relationships with the people who still live there.
I have visited the northern Antrim Coast many times but it never fails to take my breath away with its majesty and beauty. We spent much of our time catching up with friends: enjoying some lovely home-made meals, as well as going out to local restaurants, such as Tartine and the Causeway Hotel. One morning, I walked from the Giant’s Causeway to Dunseverick Castle, a two-hour hike that takes you right along the coastline; and I was also introduced to a lovely group of ladies who go wild swimming every morning in Dunseverick Harbour. We swam in large deep pool, called ‘the Slough‘, which is filled with ocean water and protected from the strong ocean currents. This was a particularly memorable experience.
I loved being able to introduce my daughter to Ireland during this trip. We had a great time both exploring on our own and spending time with the people we love. It was a fantastic visit and we will definitely be back!
Today we took an electric bike trip with Aix Bike & Go out into the Réserve naturelle nationale de Sainte-Victorie. It is the national park located just outside of Aix where the artist, Cézanne, spent countless hours painting in nature throughout his career. It was wonderful to get out of the city and explore the local countryside with a knowledgeable guide; and we were able to cover a lot of ground due to the electric bikes. One of my favourite moments is captured in the video below: when we stopped moment to enjoy the view. It was warm and the air was fragrant with wild rosemary, thyme and sage. I could hear the chirping of cicadas and see the majesty of Mont Saint-Victoire in the distance. It was a very peaceful and special experience.
The weather in Provence is beautiful. Most mornings, when I step outside of my door to walk my daughter to school, I am welcomed by a clear blue sky and a warm breeze that envelops me. As the day moves into the afternoon, it can become quite hot, which is less pleasant. Living in the city, it is a wonderful to discover quiet places to cool off. Aix is a city known as the city of a thousand fountains. Although this is not quite accurate, there are many beautiful fountains to be found here. Today I sat by this contemporary one located next to the Palais de Justice. Children, dogs and pigeons waded in its cool waters. I pulled off my shoes and dipped my feet in. The sound is very relaxing and it is a great place to read a book and watch the world go by. I truly enjoyed this little slice of heaven.
“Can you learn to surf the chaos and uncertainty that real life includes without falling into a trance of unworthiness? You can. A surfer is powerless to change the towering wave rushing toward her. But she doesn’t want to change it. She wants to surf it and she learns to feel safe in the immense ocean of being even when she falls. She confidently gets right back up to meet the next wave.”
Excerpted from: Zen in the Age of Anxiety: Wisdom for Navigating Our Modern Lives, by Tim Burkett, page 31
When I started planning my sabbatical, I knew I wanted to include a long distance walk in the United Kingdom. Walking provides a unique perspective of the landscape that you cannot gain any other way; and long distance walking is an integral part of the culture in the UK, especially in England and Scotland. The freedom to roam, or “everyman’s right”, is the right to access publicly and privately owned land, lakes, and rivers for recreation and exercise. Due to this legal right, people having been exploring the land here for hundreds of years; and there is a significant tourism industry built up around it.
A few friends recommended walking a portion of the West Highland Way with my daughter. As she is thirteen, I needed to pick something suitable for her age and ability, so I booked us a three-day trek through a local travel company, Macs Adventure. They coordinate the B&Bs and luggage transportation, as well as provide guidance and support. I love to walk, and I also prefer to end a long day with a hot meal, a warm shower, and a comfortable bed. This company specializes in coordinating the details so you can have both.
The West Highland Way was originally created by the British to move troops around the interior of Scotland in order to suppress rebellion. After the Jacobite uprisings, the British government significantly invested in building roads and bridges over the length and breadth of the Highlands: over 1200 miles of military roads and 700 bridges were built between 1725 and 1767. Until then, routes had existed to move cattle to the lowland markets, but most travel took place by boat, and settlements hugged coasts or major rivers.
On our first day, we arrived in late afternoon by train from Glasgow to the Bridge of Orchy. When we pulled into the station, I did a double take to ensure that we were in the right place, as the station consists only of a solitary gravel platform dominated by rolling tan and green hills. A handful of houses cluster around the lone business in town, the Bridge of Orchy Hotel, where we were staying. There is no where else to go. We checked in and enjoyed a quiet evening, but as the wind blew forcefully against our hotel window that night, and the rain lashed outside, I started to wonder if I had gotten us in over our heads.
The next morning we set out early to embark on the 19.5 km walk from the Bridge of Orchy to Kingshouse. The travel company provided me with an interactive map for my cel phone. It estimated a walk time of six hours. Although my daughter and I regularly walk for two to three hours at home with friends, six hours suddenly started to feel very ambitious, but there was no turning back now. Thankfully the weather was decent. It was cool and overcast but there was no wind or rain. We followed a steep climb as we left the Bridge of Orchy and it provided us with stunning views over Loch Tulla and the Black Mount hills.
As we passed by the isolated Inveroran Hotel, we joined the military road as it crossed Rannoch Moor: a beautiful and lonely place. It was once covered in a giant icecap and today it is covered in a bog. It takes a few hours to traverse, and provides no shelter, so it is very exposed in bad weather. I was concerned that we would get caught out, but thankfully it remained mild throughout the day, and we were able to focus our attention on enjoying the experience.
The hours spent walking with my daughter provided me with a unique opportunity to connect more deeply with her. Our conversations ebbed and flowed and it was wonderful to learn new things about her life. My daughter linked arms with me most of the way and it brought a physical closeness to the journey. We also had time to be silly, and sing fun songs, like Lady Gaga’s Bad Romance, as well as eat lots of chocolate to keep our energy levels up. We kept up a decent pace, and made good time, at 4.5 hours: arriving at the 17th century Kingshouse Hotel in Glencoe by late afternoon.
The Kingshouse Hotel is a lovely and comfortable hotel, with a decent on-site bar and restaurant. Situated in a remote valley, it provides unrivalled views of Buchaille Etive Mor, Scotland’s most photographed mountain. There are stunning vistas in every direction. Although our feet were sore, and we we tired from a full day, we were happy with its success, and we slept well that evening.
Day two started off with a celebration of my daughter’s thirteenth birthday. She opened some small gifts and ate breakfast in bed. Once she enjoyed the festivities, we set out walking. Our planned route took us from Kingshouse to Kinlochlevan. At 14.4 km, it was our shortest walk of the trip, at an estimated five hours. We began by following the old military road to Altnafeadh, which provided views of the famous ‘weeping glen’ and site of the Glencoe Massacre in 1692. This led us to the Devil’s Staircase, a highpoint of the West Highland Way at 548m. It was a challenge to climb, and it took us an hour or so to complete, but it was well worth the effort. We were rewarded with stunning views of Ben Nevis: the highest mountain in the British Isles.
Although our packed lunch was a bust, as the hotel mixed it up with another order (check out the haggis crisps), we made do with water and chocolate. To pass the time, we sang silly birthday songs, and took turns making up stories and jokes. I do not think I have laughed as much in a long while. A leisurely few hours were spent winding our way down towards the picturesque village of Kinlochleven. Situated at the eastern end of a sea loch, Loch Leven, it is surrounded by imposing mountains, and it acts as a centre for outdoor tourism and mountain sports in the region. Our walk time for the day was once again shorter than anticipated, and we checked into the lovely Allt-na-Leevan B&B by early afternoon. I cannot recommend this accommodation more highly; it was very comfortable, clean and the hosts were welcoming. Our day was topped off with a birthday dinner at a local pub, with sticky toffee pudding for dessert, a family favourite.
Our final day took us from Kinlochleven to Fort William; with 24.2 km, and an estimated walk time of seven hours, it was our longest day. The steep climb out of Kinlochlevan brought us into a remote valley and past deserted shielings historically used for tending sheep. The tenor of our day was less upbeat, as my daughter’s knee was starting to feel sore. This portion of the walk is also more desolate. We walked for a long stretch of time through flat land and grazing sheep until we eventually entered the forests of Glen Nevis with views of Ben Nevis. The Cut Wood lies around 5 km south of Fort William at the foot of the Mamore mountain range close to Lundavra. The trees were felled between 2003-2008 by a private owner and the current landscape value of the woodland is poor. It is difficult to walk through the area without feeling a deep sense of sadness due to the distressing impacts of clear-cutting.
Our final day of walking was long and we finished our descent into Fort William at close to seven hours. We were both tired and relieved to arrive into our B&B that afternoon. It felt great to successfully finish our journey. We were contented to take hot showers, order in Chinese food, and watch silly television for the rest of the evening. The next morning, we caught our train back to Glasgow, where we headed to the airport, to catch our plane to Ireland. Our Scottish adventure was filled with great memories and we will definitely be back to explore other routes.
“Few will have the greatness to bend history itself, but each of us can work to change a small portion of events. It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.” ~ Robert F. Kennedy
I previously posted about my social media project, #JoyBlogging, in which I visually capture little moments throughout the day that give me joy. For the last few years, I have also been privately keeping a joy journal that captures more in depth personal experiences, big and small, that are particularly special to me.
I find it really useful to have a record to look back upon, and it is amazing how many of these experiences I would forget about, if I did not write them down. Every entry reflects a lovely moment, and together, they form a powerful tool; it fills me with happiness every time that I read through them.
I would like to start sharing some of these entries with you, with the hope that it will inspire you to start your own joy journal. Here is my first one:
Joy Journal #1: May 9, 2022
My dear friend Elise arrived in to Aix yesterday. We met almost twenty-eight years ago when we attended art school in Lacoste together. Provence will always be an important part of our friendship, as this is where we met, and we both maintain a special connection with the region. Elise is a painter and I am a writer.Part of our commitment on this visit is to spend time each day being creative and making work.
Today, we wandered in the old part of the city, where we came upon a little café in Place Richleme, and found a table in the shade. It sounds funny but I had never thought to go to a café to work; and I have been staying in the apartment most of the day to write.It turns out the French have a lovely caféculture. You can order a coffee, and stay put for several hours, watching people, enjoying the sun on your face, and working. We had a really nice waiter who brought us each a “décaf allongé” with a little almond cookie on the side. We worked quietly, across from one another, for some time. It was a really lovely experience.It is definitely going to become a part of my daily practice from now on.