Best Places to Travel In Spring
Spring has always been the smoothest operator in the room. It is the best-dressed season, the only one that conquers the cold, yet is not about to let things get uncomfortably warm. Spring offers us hope and victory. It smells like a warm fragrant breeze, with just enough chill in the air to keep things cosy. It’s also shoulder season, propping up a summer of high prices and big crowds. The Spring Traveller knows this is the best time of year to travel, and here are some choice picks for places to travel to.
Besides the Keukenhof Gardens, featuring its famous tulips and lilies, the canals of Amsterdam blossom with life in the spring. The outdoor patios fill up, music starts floating down from the terraces, and the city parks get busy. Much like other Northern Hemisphere cities, residents break out of their winter shell to enjoy the first real breaths of warm sunshine. Attractions, prices and accommodations get tougher with each passing week, until summer kicks in and the Spring Traveller must move on.
The weather’s always great in Cuba. A little hot perhaps, but there’s always a beach nearby. With direct flights from Toronto to Havana, Canada is the number one tourist market with the largest island in the Caribbean, with over a million Canadians landing every year. Many of us are happy to laze away in an all-inclusive bubble, but popping it for a couple days will reveal a country in transition with itself and its history. Old Havana is being restored, excellent musicians seem to never stop playing Guantanamera, the rum is first rate, and the food is improving. Cuba is on the verge of a complete transformation, and if you've never been, now's the time to go. Cigar in hand, of course.
Paris in Spring Time. Three words, and you can smell the warm baguette, taste the Bordeaux, see a mime’s heartbreak on the banks of the Seine. Cole Porter and Nina Hagen musical tributes notwithstanding, the Capital of Romance is most alive in spring, when new relationships find their mark and old passions are reawakened. Unfortunately, spring is such a popular time of year, it signals the start of high season, and all the costs that come with it. The Spring Traveller never puts a price on love. But the Spring Traveller doesn’t have to stick around too long to get his or her fix either.
Yosemite National Park
What I love most about Yosemite National Park is that there are geologists who believe the oldest national park in the United States is in fact a super volcano getting ready to explode and obliterate half the country with it. So the Spring Traveller best strap on the hiking boots and get a move on, while the waterfalls are at their finest and the summer crowds are still at bay. With ice and snow melting, the rivers and creeks are flush as the forest reawakens. There’s magic to see at Yosemite Falls and Cook’s Meadow, but if it’s still a little too chilly, the Spring Traveller can always head south for warmer climes. Who knows, one day the super volcano might blow. But rest assured, the Spring Traveller will be well out of harms way.
Our national capital flaunts the gifts of a Dutch princess each spring with its own world renowned Tulip Festival. 600,000 visitors swing by the “Tulip Capital of North America”, as the Big Freeze relinquishes its hold on a grateful population. The best places to see the tulips each year are from Parliament Hill, Commissioners Park or along the paths of the Rideau Canal. In early spring Ottawa also hosts a Maple Sugar Festival, for those who like their spring sweet. While the Spring Traveller is not averse to chasing beaver tail, the next destination looks even further to towards the north.
The Baltic States of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia are sweet discoveries for the Spring Traveller. The capital cities of Riga, Vilnius and Tallinn have medieval old towns to rival any in Western Europe, and beautiful countryside to explore too. Shops and boutiques sell fantastic art, clothing and unique knick-knacks, while each country boasts a nightlife with everything from old school drinking holes to the latest in club warfare. The Spring Traveller is not afraid to trip off the beaten path, for true beauty and adventure has a habit of showing itself in the unlikeliest of places.
Victorians are very proud of their Butchart Gardens, as well they should be. Gardening is a tasteful affair, and spring is the ticket. With summer crowds yet to arrive, the Spring Traveller can enjoy the best of the gardens, followed by high tea in one of the city’s excellent teahouses. Keeping within the genteel nature of the visit, roam amongst the Butterfly Gardens, or wander down Antique Row or Mile Zero. The Spring Traveller enjoys distinctive elegance, and the allure of old world charm. As for the not too distant cousin Spring Breaker, well, he’s chugging buckets of beer with the rest of the kids in Cancun.
Why Vancouver Sucks
For all its hype as one of the world’s best cities, you don’t have to chat to Vancouverites for very long to hear frustration bubbling underneath. This past week, the topic of Vancouver’s shortfalls has come up five times, which inspired me to write this piece. Nobody denies the city’s beauty and quality of life, and while we’re mostly in the realm of “First World Problems”, it’s worth recognizing the issues that hold this city back. Having previously explored what makes Vancouver great, I asked myself one simple question: What should change for Vancouver to truly be the world’s best city? Here’s what I came up with.
Nobody can just relax in this city, because everywhere you go, the clock is ticking, and the dollars add up. Parking rates are outrageous, as is the fact that parking meters run to 10pm, even on many streets that are mostly empty. Good luck finding street parking in the West End or Kits (goodbye dinner parties) and confusing Residents Only signs in the suburbs inhibits social visits. Sure, a lack of parking encourages public transit, but buses and the Skytrain are not convenient when you have kids, multiple destinations and chores. Meanwhile, Easypark and Impark gouge our wallets with malicious glee. Paying by phone is super convenient, especially for Vancouver City Hall, which double dips when 2 or 3 cars pay for the same space in an hour.
Solution: Lower street parking rates, more lots at transit hubs, return parking metres to 8pm. Increase 2 hour limits to 3 or 4 hours. Hey, I can dream.
Look, compared to many other cities in the world, it’s not too bad…until you get stuck in it. The condo explosion brings with it a traffic mess. Marine Drive and Cambie was already a nightmare before they decided to build a new city above the intersection. Roads are choked, which means people drive like maniacs, and who can admire the cherry blossoms with stress burning the eyeballs? There also needs to be more left-turn signals. I’ve never understood the high-risk gamble of turning left with a car opposite (also turning left) blocking oncoming traffic.
Solution: Better street planning to accompany new condo developments. Better transit options. More left turning arrows. More incentives for ride share.
The biggest issue on the list, especially for those priced out of the city’s obscene housing market. A glut of overpriced one and two bedroom condos sold off to international buyers who don’t live in them; million-dollar tear downs (also driven up by international buyers) and a real estate boom that benefits the few at the expense of the many. I want to raise my kids, not lust for overpriced real estate while watching real estate agents tear each other’s throats out. Vancouver homes are more expensive than New York, but we don’t earn what people in New York do. This city’s unquenchable real estate boom is squeezing out its citizens, and suffocating its culture.
Solution: Make Vancouver a city for the people who actually live in it. Tax the hell out of non-resident owners, which will fund subsidies and new infrastructure while cooling off the market to something approaching reality.
$1200 a month x 2 = $2400. Monthly salary after deductions and taxes: $2600. How the hell is this supposed to encourage dual income households, women in the workforce, and a positive birth rate? Raising kids is tough and expensive as it is. There are not enough daycare spots (we waited 18 months to get my daughter in the nearest daycare) and what’s available is still the most expensive in the country. This became a political issue in the last issue and rightly so.
Solution: Subsidized daycare, with more community daycare programs.
A major issue in this city, the political hot potato, one that burns across the spectrum of mental health, underfunded community programs, social security, and crime. As someone who travels around the world, you should know this: Vancouver is often compared to Melbourne, Vienna, Perth, Auckland, Geneva – and none of those cities have anything close to the homeless crisis in Vancouver. Hastings and Main is NOT normal. Finding the solution involves more than just building new homes - it’s about looking at the issue holistically – the economy, healthcare, social programs, drug laws. There are smarter people tackling these issues, but for all the millions of dollars spent, it does not appear to be improving.
Solution: Improve mental health facilities, manage public housing efficiently, subsidize public education programs, create jobs, update drugs policy, your solution here.
Despite what cruise ship tourists think, just because someone told them the time outside Pacific Centre does not make Vancouver a friendly city. It is polite. Vancouverites are as mild as the weather – blowing neither hot nor cold. Not returning emails or phone calls, not inviting people to houses, bailing on plans at the last minute – this is a cultural norm in the city, acutely felt by immigrants from countries where such behaviour is deemed rude. Vancouverites (myself included) are self absorbed, busy with our lives, trying to keep our heads above water. There’s a perception here that making and maintaining friendships requires intense effort and sacrifice, and isn’t worth it. Garbage, but nevertheless entrenched in Vancouver culture, despite what tourists think.
Solution: Teach your kids that it’s not OK to keep options open so they can cancel plans at the last moment. Teach your kids that it is OK to invite friends over. It will take a couple generations to burn off the sludge of Vancouver’s social disinterest, but it can be done.
OK, it rains. Not much we can do about this one. Comes with the package. Certainly it appears that Vancouver is #winning as the world adjusts to climate change. The best thing we can do about the weather is to stop whining about it. We don’t live in Arizona, but Arizona doesn’t have coastal rainforest.
Solution: Get over it.
LIQUOR PRICES & LAWS
The current mayor has improved things considerably, but this is still a city that would rather chop down the tree than risk one bad apple. Our liquor laws are pathetically archaic. We have “medicinal” marijuana shops blossoming on every block, you can smoke your vaporizer walking down the street, but it’s illegal to open a bottle of wine on the beach. Big changes are underway, but we’re years away from what you might see in Montreal or Europe. There’s still too much red tape to set up an event, which is why public events are so few and far between. I admit it’s getting better (fifteen years ago this city was alarmingly dull) but Vancouver needs to be culturally progressive as well as environmentally progressive.
Solution: Streamlined application processes, alcohol in grocery stores, alcohol consumption in public (the sky won’t fall), investment in more community events.
COST OF GOING OUT
What a great lifestyle Vancouverites have, and boy do we pay for it! This is a city that wants you to kick the crap out of your credit card so you can go out for dinner, see a show, visit a museum, or take a yoga class. Admission is pricey all round, and don’t forget the parking! We have fantastic community centres and dine-out festivals, and I know that things today aren’t cheap. But the increasingly high cost of everything benefits a minority of the city’s wealthier population, shooting everyone else in the foot.
Solution: Heavily discounted, subsidized museum entrances for locals (or free altogether). Discount days for theatre, opera, ballet etc, encouraging family visits. Crackdown on price gouging for events, (aka TicketMaster). Extending nightclub hours, more all ages events.
Proud Vancouverites will scream: If you don’t like it, don’t live here! But that’s like telling someone to eat cold soup in front of a microwave. We know it’s good, but that doesn’t mean we should stop trying to make it better.
It feels increasingly obvious that Vancouver is transforming into a Have/Have Not City, ironic given that its greatest asset is the free-as-air nature that encompasses it.
Ironic that Traffic is an issue, and so is parking. That homelessness is an issue, juxtaposed against the inflated value of homes. That it rains so much, and yet that rain gives us our gorgeous coastal rainforests.
Maybe I just need to accept the fact that unless I earn significantly more income, Vancouver is no longer an ideal place to live. The average two-household income is a struggle, as it is for not-so-average incomes. Maybe I should forego a view of the mountains for a big enough house to raise a family, without the stress of intense debt. Maybe I should be the change I want to see in the world. Maybe I should just shut up.
And that’s why I wrote this, to start a debate, to get the bitching out in the open. Vancouver doesn’t suck. It just needs a few tweaks. What do you think ?
ps: I know I should have titled this: "How Vancouver Can Be Better?" but clickbait is clickbait.
Hand Signs Around the World
Thumbs up for the post that sets out to understand the origins of the signs and symbols we use on our hands, and how they might differ from country to country. Inspired by my visit to Portugal, where people wear necklaces telling you to $#% off. Or do they?
I grew up in South Africa, and if anyone ever placed their thumb between their index and middle finger, they were telling you, in no uncertain terms, what you should go do with yourself. It was even worse than the bird (which I’ll get to later). So imagine my surprise to see the figa, or fig, worn around necks, painted on walls, and hanging from walls in Portugal! It turns out that the figa is an ancient Roman symbol used for good luck, and to ward away evil spirits. It’s also, coincidentally, the letter T in American Sign Language. Yet because of its physical appearance, resembling a sexualized vagina, some countries including Indians, Italians, Turks, Russians, and certainly South Africans take it as a definitive insult. So while you may want to wish your Portuguese friends good luck with a figa ornament, you might want to make sure it’s not for those at a South African wedding.
“Hail Satan!” Or perhaps: “Rock on, Dude!” Or maybe just: “Go University of Texas!” A clenched fist with the index and fifth finger pointing skywards, you’ll see the Corna at most heavy metal and hard rock concerts, an almost universal sign to rock! Growing up, I remember a certain taboo with the sign since it definitely had some sort of Satanic connotations, appearing as it does in the Satanic Bible. However in Austin, at the University of Texas, the Corna is known as “hook-em horns”, used to cheer on the Longhorns, resembling their mascot, a longhorn steer.
The V Sign
V is for Victory! V is for peace, man! Or, if your palm is inwards, V is for something else entirely, depending on where you are, of course. In the UK, or other English speaking countries, the palm inwards is an insult not unlike the bird (which we’ll get too soon enough). Confusion was caused by Winston Churchill, who used both front and back V’s during the war before he was told of their correct and appropriate usage. Stick your nose between the fingers, and Italians will get your point too. Also, expect something to be lost in translation should a Canadian deaf person order two drinks at an English pub.
According to sources, here’s a hand sign that is particularly sensitive to culture and location. We know it as “go for it!” or “awesome!” or “hey buddy, can I grab a ride somewhere?” In the Middle East, Latin America and West Africa however, you’re basically flipping the bird (which I’ll get to I promise). We probably developed its western connotation from pilots during World War II, and surprisingly it appears there is no evidence it was used during gladiator fights in Ancient Rome. But it’s best to avoid using the thumbs up in countries like Afghanistan or Nigeria, where it is used, you guessed it, as a substitute for the middle finger.
The Five Finger Scrunch
Israelis use it for just about everything, but other cultures along the Med are familiar with it as well. Scrunch your fingers together, turn your palm upwards, and you get a hand signal that means, well, anything you want it to mean. “Wait a minute.” “Hurry up!” “Relax!” There’s an element of frustration in the gesture, but like many of the others mentioned, it manages to transcend language, communicating with fingers what words do not.
Palm down, point four fingers at a Korean, and you get a hand symbol steeped in inter-cultural warfare and hatred. The Japanese were known to use this symbol to regard their Korean enemies as “animals”. No word if Koreans responded with the forearm jerk.
The Forearm Jerk
Leaving the middle finger closed for a change, this insult simply requires the left hand on the folded right arm, and the right fist extended skywards. Slapping the hand down adds to the insult, which is perfectly understandable the world over, regardless of what language is spoken.
The Bird. The Flip Sign. The Zap. The unholy middle finger! There are various theories as to its origins, but the one I like best dates back to the 100 Year War in Europe. See, archers were quite deadly in those days, using their middle fingers to release arrows from their long bows. If captured, it was practice for the English (or French, depending on who you believe) to chop off the middle finger of the archer, unloading their weapon if you will. Archers that escaped, or just felt cocky, would raise their middle finger to taunt and insult their enemies, and today we follow their lead. There’s also a theory that it evolved form Ancient Greece, relating as it does to the phallus (much like most hand insults). Regardless of its origins, the bird is probably the most universally understood hand sign, although in some Arab and Mediterranean countries the index finger is used instead.
The Vulcan Salute
OK, this isn’t really a hand sign (for this planet anyway), but its origins are interesting enough. Palm forward, fingers split between the middle and ring fingers, thumb out. Leonard Nimoy, the late actor who played Dr. Spock (RIP), is credited as inventing the Vulcan Salute, although he actually saw it used as a boy one day in his grandfather’s synagogue. It is used by the Jewish priestly class, the Kohanim, the symbolize the Hebrew letter shin in a way that symbolizes the name of God. A good enough reason as any I should think to live long and prosper.
Please come in. Mahalo for removing your shoes.
After many years running a behemoth of a blog called Modern Gonzo, I've decided to a: publish a book or eight, and b: make my stories more digestible, relevant, and deserving of your battered attention.
Here you will find some of my adventures to over 100 countries, travel tips and advice, rantings, ravings, commentary, observations and ongoing adventures.