Solidarity Sunday: Technology

Now there are times when a whole generation is caught in this way between two ages, two modes of life, with the consequence that it loses all power to understand itself and has no standard, no security, no simple acquiescence.”

Hermann Hesse, Steppenwolf

I’m posting this one day late for a very good reason, which is that I got my second dose of the COVID-19 vaccine on Saturday! As a result, yesterday was a bit of a write-off with my immune system trying to figure out how to handle this new intruder but I’m feeling much better today. And so, Solidarity Monday it is!

Thus, without further ado, lets talk about technology in the pandemic, shall we?

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The Beaches: Part Three

He wrapped himself in the cloak of his remembered world, hoping he would be safe in it where no shells or bullets could reach him.

Sebastian Faulks, Birdsong

Memory is a funny thing, isn’t it?

Sometimes it can be a safe place, somewhere to escape to when happiness and comfort seem unavailable in the present and the past instead offers a chance to relive a familiar feeling of peace.

At other times, what is meant to be a stroll down memory lane can turn into a desperate effort to get out of the swirling, churning undertow of past pain and back into the serene hindsight of the present.

Reading through my memories of our trip to Juno Beach in November of 2015 was an example of the latter.

Fair warning, this is a long one.

Continue reading “The Beaches: Part Three”

Numbers VS Individual Stories

Without individuals we see only numbers: a thousand dead, a hundred thousand dead, ‘casualties may rise to a million.’ With individual stories, the statistics become people – but even that is a lie, for the people continue to suffer in numbers that themselves are numbing and meaningless.”

Neil Gaiman, American Gods

Fair warning – this post is long, gets a little dark at times and there are no visuals – besides the unrelated cover photo – but, if you’ll see it to the end, I hope you’ll enjoy it nonetheless.

After the shock of our first Canadian WWII cemetery, Dad and I were headed to Caen for what we hoped would be a welcome respite from all the doom and gloom of the innumerable graves, memorials, and listed dead. Unfortunately, even a visit to one of France’s large cities was not to be without its sorrowful moments.

Upon arriving in Caen we realized that it was, well, enormous compared to the places we had visited thus far. With a population over 117,000, it was almost overwhelming in its size after all the quaint villages and towns we had frequented during the trip thus far. Rather than enticing us, however, the clamouring and never-ceasing din of the city made it unlikely that our stay would be a very long one, especially after the emotional toil of the morning.

We parked as close to the center as we could get without getting lost, in the Place de la Resistance (or was it Republique? Or both? Are these interchangeable? Same thing, different Era?) by the enormous golden statue of Joan of Arc.

A few wrong turns on foot later (story of our largely mapless trip…) we stumbled unexpectedly upon the Abbaye aux Dames which happened to be, luckily, one of the two places I really wanted to see in this city.

I know, I know, another old church. But this one was commissioned by Queen Matilda herself! William the Conqueror’s wife, and a formidable woman in her own right of course. Not only that but she was also buried in this fortress of a holy place making it hallowed ground on which I very much wished to walk.

I can see the grounds and the magnificent building in my minds eye even if I cannot find my photos of the place. The spires reached towards the sky climbing to dizzying heights while the high ceilings and cool stone walls inside made for a calming, if a bit ostentatious, atmosphere. There is something about walking through an old stone church and running your hands along the always slightly damp-feeling walls which makes one contemplate who else might have once walked a similar path, or rested a feverish forehead against these same stones in prayer. I know I for one feel my breath begin to slow the moment I step under the archway into these places – the air hangs heavy with both time and incense, inviting me to quiet reflexion. It really is a most beautiful experience.

Tearing ourselves away from this place of rest, we made our way over to a building that would prove to be, quite literally, the complete opposite: the castle. Walking across the bridge towards the towering walls of stone, we could only imagine how intimidating this would have looked close to 1000 years ago when barely any of the city as we saw it existed. Majestic and awe- or dread-inspiring, I would bet, depending on the reason for your visit.

As we got closer to the impressively tall walls, I couldn’t help but notice the damage they had sustained at some point in time. Now, some of it may have been age…granted. Much of the castle was afterall over a thousand years old. But it didn’t look like that to me. It looked somehow more sinister…deliberate. I tried to shake these thoughts and focus instead on the visit ahead but they remained foremost in my mind throughout our exploration – and with good reason, I would soon learn.

Once we had entered through the strategically claustrophobic front gate, the inner courtyard of the castle was actually quite expansive. We looked around a little and realised there were two exhibitions on that required payment in two of the castle’s interior buildings (including the keep) but that, other than these, it was completely free to walk around. Since one of the exhibitions was on art and the other, rather randomly, on Neanderthals, we chose instead to just look around. We were also running out of time if we wanted to avoid looking for our next B&B in the dark…

One of the most incredible discoveries made, as per our M.O., entirely by accident was that of a plaque commemorating the Canadians who fought to liberate the city of Caen during the incredibly bloody Battle of Normandy. It was both unexpected and moving to find such a heartfelt thank you to our countrymen in the heart of this historical city. I’m always surprised to find any mention of our relatively young county in the midst of such ancient settlements.

After spending a moment or two (not longer since we were largely emotionally spent by this point) thinking of all the men who had to die in order for this memory to be made in the first place, we moved on to the oldest part of the castle at the back.

We were rather disappointed that the one building we wanted to explore was completely locked. It was the oldest building on the grounds and the only complete example of a medieval reception hall in France. I’m not even sure of what we would have found inside but, damnit, we wanted to explore it so badly. The exterior of this historic building, however, would have to do.

Moving past this there was a walled-in area which had been excavated by some university archaeologists in the past 5 years or so. We could see the crumbling knee-high remains of the castle’s ancient fortifications (dungeon, castle, keep, etc…) pushing through the dirt. It was fascinating to see such obviously levelled ruins inside another structure that was so much more intact.

It was only upon reading the panel accompanying the ruins that I realized not all of them were as old as they looked. Though all of the fortifications uncovered were built by William the Conqueror’s nephew (side-note: my goodness that man and his family really left their mark on this city), they were not all destroyed at the same time. Many of them had been destroyed periodically starting hundreds of years ago but the last, the chapel, had only been raised during the bombardments of WWII.

This discovery also explained the more recent scars I had also noticed in the outer walls – no wonder they had caught my eye. And yet, they had resulted from even more sinister a purpose than I could have guessed.

You see, this 1000-year-old chapel that had survived years and years of warfare, rebellions and goodness knows what else, did indeed succumb to the heavy bombardment of the 20th century’s industrial warfare. However, despite what you might be thinking, it wasn’t the Nazis who committed this crime against history and humanity (though I’m sure they committed plenty such crimes over the course of the occupation). No, this historic landmark was not felled by ‘enemy fire’, but instead by the heavy-handed shelling perpetrated by the allies in preparation for their storming of Caen during the Battle of Normandy.

For me, this ruined chapel starkly represented what must have been at least hundreds if not thousands of civilian casualties in the ‘martyred city’ before its…liberation? I think it is an amazing indication of the resilience of the French people that they welcomed the allies in at all after the chaos and trauma that rained down on them courtesy of their ostensible liberators.

All these years later, I have done a bit more digging into the civilian experience of the Battle for Caen that led to the destruction of much of the city – not to mention wreaked havoc on the lives of so many innocents, if it didn’t end them outright. Finally, after several weeks where I barely had the energy to recall my emotions from this trip let alone come up with even a remotely fascinating obscure historical fact, I have somewhat of a gem for you.

In the days leading up to the allied bombardment of Caen, leaflets were dropped on the city to warn the residents of the carnage that was to come. Apparently these leaflets read something along the lines of, “The vital objective near which you find yourself will be continuously attacked. . . . Leave now! You don’t have a minute to lose.” How terrified must these people have been waking up to such a dire warning? Can you imagine walking out your front door and having a paper drop into your hand telling you to leave as soon as possible so as to escape your otherwise inevitable demise? Even if you were able to leave quickly and safely, you would have most assuredly been leaving behind the majority of your belongings, among them far more sentimental items then you could possibly carry with you. And yet, this is what so many of Caen’s citizens were expected to do days before their city would be almost blown from existence. 

And leave many of them did. Leading me to my long-awaited (you await these, right?)…

Random Historical Fact #19

While I am sure there is so much more I could learn about this exodus, I found this Los Angeles Time article from 2008 which detailed at least one part of this harrowing experience. Apparently, since they had so little time to get to safety (not to mention – where was safe from fighting in Normandy after D-Day?), many people fled to the limestone quarries just outside the city to hunker down and, hopefully, survive this stage of the war. After witnessing the horrific occupation of their country by the Nazis, I can only imagine what they must have been thinking when their saviors made their grand entrance by laying their homes to waste. Some liberation – which is better? I assume most would answer freedom…but at what cost? I won’t recount the whole article here but it does tell the story of one young boy, only 7 at the time, who hid in a deep hole with his family for weeks while his home was subjected to an unknown fate. The boy, Gerard Mangnan, survived but his 18-year-old brother died. Having ventured out to steal some German ammunition, he had missed the entry rope and fallen to his death in his haste to escape the wrath of German bullets. Most of the boy’s memories, however, seem to center not on suffering (the blessing of childhood innocence?) but on the odd organized society that emerged as thousands of families waited out the war in their sunless shetler. Mangnan particularly recalls the Canadian troops that once visited bringing peace offerings of gum and biscuits. On a slightly darker note, however, he also recalled that the only way some of them knew that another day had passed was when the small patch of blue sky at the entrance to their refuge turned dark. Yet another young life turned upside-down (though, thankfully, at least not snuffed out) by that awful conflict.

The amount of people who took shelter in these caves is astounding – roughly one third of Caen’s pre-war population of 60,000. The only image I can conjure to try and comprehend the sheer number of refugees crammed into the quarry’s network of tunnels is the scene in The Two Towers when the people of Rohan huddle in the caves behind Helms Deep while their men defend them from an army of ruthless Uruk-hai – completely unaware if the next beings to walk through the doors to the caves would be friend (and therefore safety) or foe (and therefore certain death). I imagine that Caen’s citizens huddled similarly in their family units, shuddering as bomb after bomb fell outside, wondering if the cave ceilings would hold…and, if they did, what kind of world might greet them once they finally emerged from what was both a sanctuary and a prison.

Knowing that, despite the successful evacuation of one third of the population, the allied bombardment of Caen was to nonetheless exact a heavy human toll on the people of that once beautiful city, I feel it is important to learn as much as we can about the individuals who were there – both the victims and the survivors. This is the only way to turn the dry and ultimately incomprehensible statistics of military history into something human beings can understand and therefore empathize with. If we do not make an effort to do so, as Mr. Gaiman said (I’m paraphrasing a little), these individual stories will be washed away by the tsunami of suffering still experienced by so many souls…becoming numbing and meaningless statistics once more.

I have more to say about Caen and then Bayeux-by-night but I think I should really leave this post there. I know that without photos this was a long one to read and, if you have made it this far, I thank you sincerely for trusting that this was worth your while.

I’ll be back next week for Travel Tuesdays, I promise.

Until then, despite how hard these days are, remember…Life is Beautiful

xo Erin

Great Deeds and Noble Sorrows

“Not a day passes on over this earth but men and women of no great note do great deeds, speak great words, and suffer noble sorrows.”Charles Reade, The Cloister and the Hearth

Last week I took a very necessary break from blogging for the sake of my mental health. Though my husband, daughter and I, along with our entire family, are thankfully healthy, this COVID-19 business has been more than a little trying on my emotions. I think it would be a different story if I wasn’t a new mom (although I know it is difficult for nearly everyone for wildly different reasons) but being separated from our extended family while still adjusting to parenthood, well, let me tell you it has not been easy. They are our support system, our replacement rockers, our “take a breather and some time for just the two of you” superheroes. We are making sure to take turns soothing our little daughter but sometimes having a third party come in and take a shift can be the most rejuvenating gift. Our strategy while self-isolation is the name of the game is just to take it one day at a time and to allow ourselves to choose how we spend each day based on what we need most each moment – no to-do lists or goals set in stone. Last week, I needed to just relax and read as much as possible, so that is what I did. I hope, dear reader, that you’ll forgive me.

So. Back to France.

Continue reading “Great Deeds and Noble Sorrows”

Tantalizing Histories

“In town, there was silence bled into by whispered talk” – Elizabeth Hay, Alone in the Classroom

Today is the day I finally return to my retelling of the trip I took to France with my Dad back in 2015. Fingers crossed I can actually finish this story in a timely fashion! The last travelogue took me, what, a few years? In an attempt to get this done in a timely manner…this post is a long one. Fair warning.

Recommitting to writing for what feels like the 1000th time isn’t easy but, hey, it’s bound to stick sometime. At least that’s what I keep telling myself every time I miss a day of writing for whatever reason. One of my resolutions this year was to try to put less pressure on myself when it comes to achieving non-essential goals. My husband will tell you I consistently keep a daily to-do list of more than 10 things I want to achieve, which would be fine if I didn’t get anxious, stressed and incredibly emotional when I don’t achieve each and every one of these goals. Since these negative feelings are often accompanied with a whole heck of a lot of self-criticism, I’m trying to make it easier for me to achieve my goals as a way to feel more accomplished and less self-critical. And if I don’t achieve one or more of the things on my list one day, or even several days in a row, so be it! I mean, I am a new mom and only human, for goodness sake.

All this to say, this is me attempting to return to a weekly post on here at a minimum. I can’t promise I’ll achieve this every week, but you better believe I’m going to try. And if it doesn’t happen? I’m not going to beat myself up. I hope you, dear reader, won’t be too disappointed either.

So, back to France, then.

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Strange Jewels

“The universe buries strange jewels deep within us all, and then stands back to see if we can find them.”  – Elizabeth Gilbert, Big Magic

This post is going to be briefer than most but as it is serving as the intro to my next grouping of travel tales, I think this is appropriate.

I wasn’t quite sure how to start this particular piece so I started where I always do when my access to the creative recesses of my mind is blocked: I started going through my quote book and my journal to see if anything sparks inspiration.

In flipping through both tomes, I came across both the quote that began this blog (side note: if you see yourself as a creative, or aspire to be a creative, or are curious about the untapped potential of your own creativity, do yourself a favour and read that brilliant book) as well as a couple of journal entries from the months leading up to this trip. As per usual, I was immediately struck at how well these two sources fit together – it really feels as if some unknown force is guiding me towards the exact inspiration I need to read sometimes.

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A Tale Worth Telling

“One describes a tale best by telling the tale. You see? The way one describes a story, to oneself or to the world, is by telling the story.”

– Neil Gaiman, American Gods

I can’t believe I have finally reached this point in my tale – the end. It has been a long time coming, much longer than I had envisioned, but I am truly proud of myself that I have made it this far! I suppose it also helps that I already know what I will be writing about next: my trip to France around Remembrance Day 2015. And this time around, I actually kept a pretty devoted journal during the trip itself so I shouldn’t be relying entirely on memory. However, I must warn you, my trip to France was fraught with emotions – and not always easy ones. But for now, let’s finish the telling of this adventure up, shall we?

Though technically the trip my sister and I took ended in Dublin, the last place we spent any significant amount of time was Wicklow Town in County Wicklow. And this destination was another one which made an appearance in my travelogue entirely by accident…

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A view of not New Ross as we had hoped, but Wicklow Town

Originally, Kristen and I had been hoping to make it to New Ross, not far geographically from Wicklow but certainly farther when you consider that we did not have the luxury of taking our own car around the Emerald Isle. If you have never been to Ireland (or the U.K., or Europe in general for that matter) and you happen to hail from North America, here is a free bit of gentle advice: do NOT expect the road systems to be like ours. Ever. Don’t do it. You will find yourself thinking a hundred kilometer trip is going to take an hour on a fairly straight highway and will find yourself still on some winding (though beautiful) road 3 hours later wondering if you might have taken a wrong turn somewhere, desperately moving afternoon plans around to try and still fit all your desired destinations in.

I don’t say this to imply that their roads are not as well-designed as ours, goodness knows I have my issues with the 401 (and don’t get me started on the haphazard muddle of on- and off- and a-little-bit-of-column-A-a-little-bit-of-column-B ramps we have going on in Ottawa), but they are certainly different and take some getting used to. I’ll get into this more in my posts about my trip to France – that time we did rent a car – but suffice it to say that the majority of the roads in Europe were built long after cities and towns and farmland had sprouted all over the terrain whereas those in North America were built across large swaths of as-of-then undeveloped (read: not unoccupied) lands. The result in North America is long stretches of largely well-groomed highways allowing one to travel at a pretty consistent speed and reach far destinations in a decently short span of time. And thank the stars for this because otherwise we would be an isolated people indeed – everything is far away! Don’t ask me to take you to both Halifax and Vancouver in one trip – it ain’t happening. Would you take me to Moscow and Paris in the same one-week sojourn? I didn’t think so. But, I digress.

In Europe, while there are some main highways on which you can drive rather fast from one end of the country to the other, in order to get to most of the smaller towns and villages, you are forced to skip these oft-controversial paved thoroughfares in favour of smaller and less straight-forward country roads. Often, these country roads are barely wide enough for one car, let alone two, and good luck to you if you come across a truck while passing through one of the particularly narrow channels graced by stone walls on either side. Again, this is not to disparage the roadways across the pond. This is just to warn potential North American travelers that the driving conditions over there can take some getting used to.

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You can’t reach views like this on the highway.

Now, what was the point of this diatribe you might ask? Simply that the route from Doolin to New Ross would have been decently long and confusing (though filled with stunning vistas) should we have rented a car to make the journey. As it stood, we were quickly running out of both cash and time and as such were forced with choosing between a long and multi-stop bus trip between the two villages or instead choosing a different destination for our Irish swan song.

This should have been an easy decision for us, and I do think we made the right one considering our circumstances, but it wasn’t one we were pleased to have to make. The reason New Ross had been on our list in the first place, as random as a destination as it might seem to most, was personal. You see, according to our family lore, this was where the Walsh clan (our ancestors on our maternal grandfather’s side) bid adieu to their island home in the hopes of finding prosperity in the New (read: new to Europeans) World. They left during one of the several famines that struck Ireland in the 19th century and, as far as we know, never looked back.

Random Historical Fact #16

New Ross is one of the key destinations in Ireland when looking to learn about the Famine Ships that carried so many out of (and, unfortunately, through) dire conditions to distant shores filled with the promise of a new life. It is the home of the Dunbrody Famine Ship, a replica of one of the “passenger” ships that actually ferried Irish emigrants away from their home shores towards North America and a fresh start. Commissioned by the Graves family, the original ship was actually built in Quebec, Canada and was first launched in 1845 – the same year that the Great Famine (though by that point it was thought to be a bad blight on that year’s potato crop) began in Ireland. When the blight continued to get worse without an end in sight, hundreds of thousands of people started to make plans to leave the Island to try and ensure their survival and that of their families. The exodus was so large, in fact, that there simply weren’t enough passenger ships to carry everyone across the Atlantic. Enter the Graves family who saw a business (and, one would hope, humanitarian) opportunity and decided to outfit their cargo ships with bunks in order to sell tickets to ferry desperate families across the water. Though ships like the Dunbrody may have been stuffed with anywhere from 160 to 300 people in one voyage, as regulations were exceptionally lax during this dire time, it still managed to carry thousands of people across the ocean – mostly to Quebec – and even to keep its fairly good reputation as far as newly-converted passenger ships were concerned. I can’t help but wonder if some of my close or distant relatives may have been passengers on this very ship – doing their best to remain calm and hopeful as they pitched about in their cramped quarters on the rough sees. It must have taken incredible courage… 

Now, our ancestors not only left from those very shores but that they also hailed from the green hills of Wicklow County – we were hoping to spend some time there to try and wrap our minds around what kind of life our family must have led back then and how they found the nerve to strike out to find a new life. Perhaps it was not nerve at all but rather a leap of faith knowing that if they stayed, they likely wouldn’t see many more winters.

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Was this what our ancestors’ last views of their homeland might have been like?

I am still a little heartbroken that this part of our trip did not pan out as we had hoped but I must add that Wicklow Town was more than just a consolation prize. Though not our intended destination, the town might have been just what we needed at that point in our trip – a calm respite before the exhausting whirlwind trip back home to Canada and full-time work. I can’t honestly tell you much about the history of the town or its many attractions but I can tell you this:

It is truly a wonderful place to slow your pace and enjoy leisurely walks to nowhere in particular. We spent much of our time on the coast there, rambling about and breathing in the fresh air and quiet calm of the local parks. I am sure we could have packed our day with historical and cultural fare, and I promise I will be back one day to explore its charm more thoroughly, but the long walks we took complete with a barefoot stroll (OK, 30 second toe-dip) in the frigid water was just what the doctor ordered. 

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Taking in the breeze, and the peace and quiet.

It wasn’t New Ross, no, nor a town particularly tied to my family in any way that I know of; but it was a refuge from the madness of our 3-week trip and the adulting we knew we had to do once we got home. And, truthfully? I’m not sure I could have handled the inevitable emotional turmoil I would have experienced stepping on the same ground my family last felt before fleeing their home forever.

Though this last post was a bit more aimless than others, and I do hope you will forgive me for this, my one wish is that this very long travelogue has been an at least somewhat entertaining tale for you to read. At times it wasn’t easy to write, at times inspiration evaded me for months on end as life got hard or exceptionally busy, but I always knew it was a story worth telling. Maybe one day I will put all of these thoughts and stories into a book, perhaps I won’t. But at the very least, I have gotten them down on the page and shared them with at least a few souls around the planet who thought them worth their time.

So, for those who have followed me throughout this journey, or even those who dropped in now and then for a laugh or a ponder, thank you for bearing with me as I fought my way through the writing of this adventure. I can’t promise I will always be the most consistent blogger, though I am trying, but I can promise that I am not nearly out of stories yet. After all, as Neil Gaiman so wisely wrote, the best way one can describe a story, whether it is to oneself or the world (or a few hundred readers), is by telling the story.

I hope you’ll stick around for the next chapter.

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A fitting photo to close this chapter, methinks.

And, remember, Life is beautiful.

Xo Erin

Kindred Spirits Everywhere

“Kindred spirits are not so scarce as I used to think. It’s splendid to find out there are so many of them in the world.”L.M. Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables

My re-telling of the Gurski Grad trip 2014 has gone on for so long that I am actually dreading the end of the tale. Though it is bound to come eventually, and it shall in the next post, I thought I would pause here to reflect on a phenomenon I have experienced on almost every adventure I have had since my teens: Kindred Spirits.

Continue reading “Kindred Spirits Everywhere”

Familiar Ways

“Yet as he walked up the familiar ways, the streets remembered themselves in his mind.” – Sebastian Faulks, Birdsong

As much as I truly do love travelling alone, every single time I have fallen in love with somewhere on one of my solo trips, I have almost immediately felt an intense desire to share it with not any one person in particular but with every person in my life. This is different from the feeling I have when dreaming up a new trip – usually these visions involve a specific person or set of people (ex: I would love to visit the South of France with my Mom and Sister – Mum was an au pair there at one time). But once I have gone past the dream and really fallen for a place, I just want everyone and their dog to see it, experience it, and (hopefully) love it… as I did.

I could go on and on about the many (and I mean an absurd amount) of places I think everyone should see, and perhaps this blog will get to all those places eventually. But for now, in keeping with the narrative already established, I’ll settle with talking about one little village that has found a distinctly dear place in my heart.

Nestled at the base of the famous (infamous?) Cliffs of Moher on Ireland’s rough western coast is a teeny tiny village called Doolin. And it is one of the most heartwarmingly lovely places I have ever visited.

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A view of the main road in Doolin from the path to the Cliffs of Moher.

  Continue reading “Familiar Ways”

A Pause Within Time

“This pause in time, within time…When did I first experience the exquisite sense of surrender that is possible only with another person? The peace of mind one experiences on one’s own, one’s certainty of self in the serenity of solitude, are nothing in comparison to the release and openness and fluency one shares with another in close companionship. – Muriel BarberyThe Elegance of the Hedgehog

There really is nothing sweeter while traveling than taking a day to relax near the end of a long trip. I know what you’re thinking: but that doesn’t make any sense, Erin! At the end of a trip you only have a finite number of days to see everything before heading back to comfortable, familiar (and, by extension, apparently less exciting) home. Right?

Well, bear with me here. In my experience, choosing to take a day’s rest in the final week of a trip is extraordinarily beneficial. Now, by a day of rest, I do not mean that you stay in your pajamas in bed curled up with a good book and bottomless tea (although, if that is your main definition of rest – by all means, indulge). For me, a restful day means one during which we do not write anything at all on the agenda. We choose instead to mosey around the village we have alighted on at a completely unhurried pace and simply enjoy each other’s company and the delightful fresh air.

Note: I can confirm that this method of relaxing works just as well if you’re travelling alone – who says you can’t enjoy your own company in the fresh air?

Continue reading “A Pause Within Time”