Poetic Landscapes

 

I decided to write this posting when the camellias on the bushes outside my house just started shedding their blooms.  They were still at what I call the “poetic stage”, meaning that the dying blooms on the grass looked both beautiful and tragic at the same time.

Looking at the camellias gave me a sense of enchantment, and regular followers may recall some of my past writings on the link between authenticity and enchantment  .  Following in that vein, this post looks at three sources of enchantment found in poetic landscapes -landscapes that combine beauty with a thread of tragedy.

1.  Giardini di Ninfa, just outside Rome

I visited these secret gardens when visiting friends in Rome, and was lucky enough to see them in May when the roses had just peaked.  The gardens are built on the ruins of an papal estate, which was itself taken over by the Caetani family in the 14th c.   By the 16th c. its castle was no longer habitable; but a Caetani family member commissioned creation of a garden on site, which also fell into ruin, until 1921.  At that time, another  family descendant initiated garden restorations.  The last living descendant, Leila Caetani died in the 1970s.   Upon her death, the garden became an Italian National monument.  For more information on this amazing spot, a New York Times article from 2002 fills in some wonderful details.

Photo by Turismo Italiano

I love these gardens for their beauty, tranquility, and spirit of reinvention.  Of course, there is something poetic for me about the various incarnations this garden has had -and the fact that it belonged to a powerful family whose direct descendants died out.  Its relatively reclusive nature adds to the poetry.  The garden is only accessible 2-3 times per month to the general public.  More information on when and how to get there is available from turismoroma .

2.New York’s High Line Park

This park was created from an abandoned elevated rail corridor in the heart of downtown Manhattan, beginning in what was once the city’s meat packing district.  While heavily gentrified now, and starting to be a bit of a tourist attraction, this park still brings me enchantment (I’ve visited twice).

 

The Highline. Author photo, February 2012

So many wonderful intimate spaces along this park:

 Author photo, February 2012.

For me three things make this a poetic, enchanting landscape.First, its origin story, which was a highly engaged and activist-led approach that began as a very uphill battle to save the elevated structure (it had fallen into disrepair, and was seen by many as an eyesore).  From my perspective- the languishing structure itself is what gives the park its element of tragedy.  Fortunately, the new park into which it has evolved adds so much beauty, while honouring its origins.  Second, I love the God’s Eye view that you get of the city when you walk above the streets for a stretch of this many blocks.  Third, it always has some sort of surprise in store for you, and this brings out something new in everyone who walks along it- either for the first time, or as a regular park user.

3. Olsany Cemetery, Prague

This lovely historic cemetery got its start with the Plague, as a burial place in what was at the time the outer edges of town.  Today it has become a large and yet beautiful burial site, accommodating the remains of many famous writers and politicians.

Olsany Cemetery, Prague. Author photo, July 2015

We visited in the Summer with friends, and found it beautiful and humbling to walk through.  Perhaps the most tragic of the graves we saw belonged to Jan Palatch, who set himself on fire to protest the invasion of his country in 1968.  Prague does cemeteries with just the right amount of poetry.  There is also an amazing Jewish cemetery there (which we only viewed from a distance).  For more information on the site and why you might want to visit, Wikipedia has a great overview.

Landscapes are a rich source of poetry and enchantment, and these three spots are just the tip of the iceberg.  This topic is one that I could write scores of posts on (so be forewarned).  And it’s always wonderful when other bloggers alert us to other examples of these authentic places.

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Enchantment, Part 2.5

Enchantment is such an   important ingredient of authentic travel.  Besides visits to spaces that are themselves enchanting, how else can we encounter the lush joys of enchantment?  Here are three quick ideas for your next trip.

1. Take something beautiful home with you as a memento

Obtain a beautiful object, and treasure it in your daily life.  It could be an attractive pebble you keep in your pocket to remind you of the wonderful day you spent at the beach with your family.  It might be a piece of art for your home, a hand-made journal, or a piece of jewellery.  But it should be something that will ground, or re-ground you to the place that you visited- far into the future.

Here’s what I mean.

I lived and studied in Montréal  for three years, at a really pivotal time in my life in my twenties, in the late 1980s.  (Yes, I am that old.)  My experiences there were life-changing.  But after moving back to British Columbia (on the opposite side of my country), it took several decades before I would eventually return.  When I finally did go back, I felt an incredibly strong mix of joy and nostalgia.  I can even recall one day, standing in the streets of Vieux Montréal (the city’s historic district), when I felt a wave of anguish about having absented myself from that place for so long.  And, later in the day while in that very district, I bought some ornate silver earrings with the city’s symbol-an abstract flower.  Something about that felt very right- I knew on the spot that the earrings would be an important memento of my earlier life there as well as of my return.  Whenever I wear them now, I re-live my love for Montréal, with fond memories of all my times there.  I also get ideas about my next trip back.

My Montreal earrings! Worn while writing this post. Author photo, March 2017

2. Do something that scares you but that others enjoy 

I’m not talking about taking crazy, unsafe risks.  Think of this as a prompt for a micro-risk.  We all have irrational fears that hold us back.  Is yours a fear of heights?  Of looking foolish?  Of certain animals or reptiles?  Of boating?  A holiday is the best time to try one of these things, because you typically have fewer stresses on vacation.  Go for that hot air balloon ride, that jungle excursion, or that silent meditation retreat.  (Note that I have listed that as a scary thing to do, because the idea of not talking for three days frightens me.)  I am slightly afraid of heights, and so whenever my mountain goat of a husband wants to climb up an historic tower to get a better view of the city below, I gulp a few times, agree, and then feel exhilarated once I’ve climbed back down.

Tower in the Czech republic that I had to climb. Author photo, July 2015.

3.  Be generous

Everything your parents told you about being kind, and how generosity ultimately makes the giver feel incredible is true.  We all know how to be generous- the one thing I would add is that generosity is about ensuring that what you give will be helpful (rather) than harmful to the recipient.  This means thinking about the cultural context and, sometimes, about where the need is greatest.  While travelling in Mexico recently, we certainly ran into many people with low incomes, whose daily lives contained a lot of struggle.  But we also knew that we weren’t sufficiently grounded in the community to know who best to help, or in what way.  And so, we did not give to anyone begging for money on our trip, but on our return home made a donation (much larger than what we would have given in aggregate to the individuals in need who we met—and yes, we did follow through!) to a charity whose work we had learned about while in the community.  The key thing here is that the charity was directly linked with local people who knew best what their community needed.

This post has suggested three active ways that might help you achieve a sense of enchantment on your next holiday.  It is certainly not the last word on this topic, as there are many more ways that you can do this.  Please feel free to suggest your ideas as well!

Lush

Connecting by Giving Back

While recently in San Miguel de Allende, I learned of two wonderful, and inter-connected charities.  What does this have to do with authentic travel?  Essentially, while both organizations serve the local population, they also enable North Americans, who make extended stays in that city, to have a more genuine, mutually-beneficial connection to the local people.  We first heard of them when we signed up for a three hour walking tour through the historic city, which has had a long history of ex-pat influence.

 

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One of the stops on the walking tour led by Patronato. Author photo, February 2017
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Mural at the Centro cultura bellas artes, which we visited on the tour. Author photo, February 2017.
Courtyard of the Centro cultura bellas artes. Author photo, February 2017.
Courtyard of the Centro cultura bellas artes. Author photo, February 2017.
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Our tour guide from Patronato por los ninos. Author photo, February 2017

Founded nearly fifty years ago, Patronato por los ninos provides dental care, and medical services not covered through the social safety net, to children in the hundreds of villages which surround the city.  While the staff delivering the care are all Mexican, the ex-pats do their part through fundraising.  Walking tours are probably the largest mechanism for this.  Patronato is an American organization, which gives tax receipts to all American donors.  A parallel Canadian organization, Amistad has also begun partnering with Patronato in giving care.  This is not a duplication-  it is only by donating through Amistad that Canadians can get a tax receipt, plus Amistad offers other non-medical programs.  For example, Amistad supports the local library and related reading programs, and offers art classes to local children.

This example builds on an earlier post.  It spoke about the role of self-transcendence – accepting that we are all part of a larger universe- in personal authenticity.  The same post also suggested four criteria for authentic travel that would flow from that understanding of authenticity -finding experiences that allow a person to:

  • lose track of her or himself in the experience;
  • become more curious about (and kinder to) others who initially seem quite different;
  • build his or her courage muscles; or
  • enhance an ability to be generous.

From my perspective, even just taking a walking tour with Patronato por los ninos hits at least three of the four criteria.  And, for those ex-pats who volunteer with these, or any other locally-serving charities (particularly ones which have local staff and/or partners), probably all four criteria are kicking in at high gear.  I’d love to her about other volunteer groups that provide this type of mutually beneficial ex-pat and local exchange.

Indigenous cultures and museums

As someone of Celtic, German and French ancestry, I am not truly in touch with my own Indigenous roots.  Visiting Mexico City’s Anthropological Museum, I was struck by the richness and diversity of the Indigenous cultures there that pre-dated the Spanish.  It was  also wonderful to see many Mexican people (perhaps also tourists from other regions) spending time and engaging with their heritage. 

In our forthcoming book, my co-editor and I have done our best to invite other contributors who are able to bring in some Indigenous perspectives on planning for authentic communities.  Without this knowledge personally, I hesitate to say more at this point in my blog.  But it is an important perspective.  Instead, I offer a few photos that illustrate the beauty and importance of Indigenous Mexican heritage.  All come from the Museo Antropologico in Mexico City.

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Author photo, January 31, 2017
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Author photo, January 31, 2017
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Author photo, January 31, 2017
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Author photo, January 31, 2017
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Author photo, January 31, 2017
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Author photo, January 31, 2017
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Author photo, January 31, 2017
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Author photo, January 31, 2017
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Author photo, January 31, 2017

A postscript on Enchantment


I talked about enchantment and authenticity in an earlier post, and included forest bathing as one possible source of enchantment.  It’s been a long January, with enchantment in short supply.  The weather has warmed up a lot this week, to a balmy 9 degrees Celsius (48 Fahrenheit), making it much easier to spend time outside.  And so here, for your inspiration, are photos of my forest bathing sojourn at Thetis Lake.

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Photo by author, January 2017

 

Photo by author, January 2017
Photo by author, January 2017

 

Photo by author, January 2017
Photo by author, January 2017

 

Photo by author, 201
Photo by author, 2017

 

Photo by author, 2017
Photo by author, 2017

 

Mist on the lake. Photo by author, January 2017
Mist on the lake. Photo by author, January 2017

 

And Gromette, the canine instigator for many of the author's forest bathing experiences. January 2017
And Gromette, the canine instigator for many of the author’s forest bathing experiences. January 2017

 

 

Authenticity and Enchantment – Part 1

Living in the modern world can sometimes feel too real.  Many of us long for simpler times in our own lives when we believed in magic, fairy tales, and other enchanted things.   In this post, we discuss the link between enchantment and authenticity, and where you might find some enchanting and ultimately renewing- experiences while travelling.

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Children aren’t the only ones who need enchantment. Photo by Author

In an earlier post, I talked about the  philosophical aspect of authenticity.  One philosopher cited (Charles Taylor) has spoken at length of the value of enchantment in an authentic life.  To support all those seeking enchantment in their travel experiences, read on for five enchanting places and events that authentic travelers may wish to experience.

Five Enchanting Places and Events -Winter to Early Spring

1. Northern Lights

Who wouldn’t feel a sense of awe and wonder when gazing at this eerie natural display.  Places to view the Northern Lights include Norway,

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Photo from Visit Norway website

Finland (just outside of Inari seems to be the most reliable), and of course, in Canada:  Yukon Territory  and  the Northwest Territories .

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Northern lights in the Yukon. Photo from Tourism Yukon website

2. Outdoor Evening Events in Winter

Just because it’s cold doesn’t mean you have to spend your nights indoors.  Many cities program their public parks to make them friendly and inviting for citizens to spend evenings there in Fall and Winter as well.  New York City’s Bryant Park, with its  Winter Village  is one of these destinations.  Vancouver hosts an annual Christmas Market, and for 2016 the market included a lighted outdoor maze . Selected other cities offering outdoor evening events include: London, England, which just opened up a new outdoor ice rink that is lit in the dark,  Luminosity ; and the  Christmas Market on the Champs Elysees in Paris .  While these are commercial events, you can still enjoy the friendly crowd ambience in most of these by walking around, without actually spending money.

3. Spooky, but spiritual music in the dark

On Sunday nights from January through November, if you are in Vancouver at 9:30pm and like your enchantment to have a musical dimension, check out the Compline Service at the downtown Christ Church Cathedral (see photos of the service ).  Full disclosure- I used to sing with this Choir many years ago when I still lived in Vancouver.  I still love the stillness and peace of this service as a visitor.  You don’t have to be religious to get something out of the peaceful, undemanding meditation it offers.

4. Spectacular Seacoast vistas

There are a range of beautiful seacoast vistas that can make us feel enchanted- especially when the surf is pounding and the wind is making you feel super-charged with kinetic energy. Some of my favourite seacoast destinations include: the Oregon Coast; Tofino, British Columbia; the stretch of Highway 101 that runs north from San Francisco; and Italy’s Amalfi Coast.

Glass Beach at Fort Bragg, California
Glass Beach at Fort Bragg, California

5. A Daytime walk in the forest

There is something wonderful about walking in a beautiful forest, even when the weather is bad.  As someone with a dog in my life, I am often compelled to seek out these places in the rain, and am almost always the better for it.  To learn more about why forests make people feel so much better, see this previous post on forest bathing.

Finding enchantment in a new place opens up a realm of possibilities for travellers seeking authentic experiences, as well as a sense of personal renewal. This blog post has covered five that are accessible and powerful during winter time.  A future post will also explore spring and summer opportunities for enchantment.  I’m also eager to hear others’ experiences with enchanting places and events.

Renewal

To Thine own self be true

You’re more likely to have an authentic travel experience if you’re clear on what it means for something or someone to be authentic- period.  It’s also fitting to think about authenticity at the start of a new year.  This post explores what authenticity means at a deeper level, before suggesting some ways this definition might help inform our travel choices and experiences.

What it means: to the dictionary and to philosophers

If you look up the word “authentic” in the dictionary you’ll find lots of references to origins, roots, and being genuine.  Being one’s true self also factors into the mix.  But what does this type of truth mean?

French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau believed that the way we lead our life should be directed by our inner thoughts and values, rather than just external social norms.  And Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor spoke a great deal about the distinction between one’s inner and one’s public self.  In this way, any effort to become more authentic involves:

  • reflecting about what motivates and constrains us at a very primal, individual level; and
  • appreciating the similarities and differences between what is best for us as individuals compared with what society says we should do.

Of course, an important argument against searching for the authentic self is that it can encourage people to be, well… selfish1. But Taylor suggests that we could have our cake and eat it too.  He says that a quest for understanding the true self can come without resulting in selfishness- the key is in embracing self-transcendent values and experiences.   Self-transcendence means a person consciously accepts s/he is one small part of a larger universe.  And Taylor argues that we must also recognize how even our authentic individual self isn’t static or constant.  Instead, our authentic self is something both enabled and constrained by the broader social values and culture that surrounds us, even though our authentic self is also much more than that2.  We don’t exist in isolation, but as part of a larger whole that shapes us, and which we in turn shape.  So authenticity involves a search for what is good, true, and transcendent.  And it’s fluid, meaning what worked last time won’t necessarily work the next time. This search for authenticity may, but does not have to, involve religion and/or spirituality.  For Taylor, even time spent with beautiful music, art, or poetry, can help us achieve a certain level of self-transcendence3.

Then what does this mean for authentic travel?  If we follow Taylor’s suggestions for leading more personally authentic lives, then authentic travel can involve a quest for (at least) two broad strands of authenticity.  One is about finding experiences that help one embrace what is good, true, and transcendent in oneself.  And another is about spending one’s travel dollars to reinforce or support, those places that have embraced what is good, true, and transcendent in their citizens and public institutions.  We’ll talk about the first strand here, and examine the second in a future blog post.

Travel experiences that boost personal authenticity

What type of travel helps a person find their truest self?  Following Taylor’s lines, this type of travel might involve experiences that help us set aside (at least while travelling) some or even all conventions and habits in our own lives that keep us from being good and integral people, or as good and integral as we believe that we could be.  For example, an authentic traveller might seek travel experiences that propel him or her to:

  • lose track of her or himself in the experience;
  • become more curious about (and kinder to) others who initially seem quite different;
  • build his or her courage muscles; or
  • enhance an ability to be generous.
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Some find self-transcendence in settings close to nature

An authentic traveller could even choose experiences that help us do all three at once.  (And, of course, these are not the only self-transcendent virtues around.)  Also, depending on who you are and what your starting point is on any of these things, that might take a range of forms.  For the inexperienced traveller, building one’s courage muscles might simply involve travelling alone for the first time, and learning how to talk to strangers from another culture.  For others, it might involve connecting with a place in ways that cause other forms of personal growth- strengthening one’s navigation skills; being deprived of certain daily luxuries that we suspect may not be great for us.  In his guest article  for this blog, Allan Herle undertook a long overland journey by motorcycle where he felt he had more immediate contact with people living in towns in ways that were quite different from his own lifestyle.  This experience helped him grow as a person.  Self-transcendent travel could include volunteer experience, such as helping to build housing in another country; restore a wildlife conservation area; or teach schoolchildren English. It could help us interact with another group to learn more about other ways of being human.

The idea of authentic travel as seeking self-transcendent moments opens up a range of exciting possibilities.  I’d love to hear about how other people have gained these experiences.  And watch for a future post discussing places that have embraced what is good, true, and transcendent in their citizens and public institutions.

  1. Christopher Lasch (1979) cautioned that the emphasis on exploring the authentic self in fact sounded dangerously similar to the diagnosis for narcissistic personality disorder. Lasch, C., 1979, The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations, New York: Norton.
  2. For a more fulsome discussion please see the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on authenticity .
  3. For a clear, concise discussion of Taylor based on extensive familiarity with his works, see Bernard Braman’s (2008). Meaning and Authenticity. Toronto, Buffalo and London: University of Toronto Press.

Heritage Preservation by and for Locals

In previous posts (Exploring Authenticity  and The Urban Imaginary ) I’ve distinguished between cultural preservation and consumption designed mainly for tourists vs.  mainly for locals.  Here is a wonderful example of locally-generated heritage preservation that has spanned half a century, focussed on Appalachian culture.  Enjoy!

 

In The Mountains of Georgia

http://www.npr.org/2016/11/03/500279267/in-the-mountains-of-georgia-foxfire-students-keep-appalachian-culture-alive?utm_source=facebook.com&utm_medium=social&utm_campaign=npr&utm_term=nprnews&utm_content=202703

 

Urban Sanctuary

Sanctuary

Authentic travel experiences enable one to be present in the moment, and can include time spent in urban sanctuaries.  Sanctuaries provide a time-out for us to reflect, undisturbed by the pressures of life and needs of others.  Read on for  five ways to find sanctuary -while travelling or at home.

1 Places of worship

In some respects, these may be obvious; but for a novel experience, consider also looking to a sanctuary from another tradition.   Sometimes this can be more powerful, where you gain sanctity without becoming enmeshed in any personal baggage you might have with your own tradition.  Just ensure that your use of the sanctuary is respectful and aligns with the norms of that space.  My own tradition is as a liberal Christian; and to date I have had meaningful experiences in churches, synagogues, and Buddhist temples.  One of my favourite churches ever was Santa Maria in Trastevere (Rome).

2. Graveyards

In addition to being interesting historic sites, graveyards often have beautiful qualities which add to their sense of sanctuary.  The photo below shows a gorgeous Prague cemetery where leafy plants are encouraged to grow over many of the grave sites.  I found it particularly moving to be there late on a July afternoon, where the greenery cooled down the temperature by several degrees on what was otherwise a very hot day.  All the lush vegetation suggested that life and death are intimately intertwined.

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Prague cemetery.  Author photo, July 2015

3. Natural spaces

Nature has cleansing and healing power for many of us. An earlier posting explained why, giving tips on different ways to experience the benefits of something called forest bathing (to read, click here). Beaches and rivers can also be a source of sanctuary.  The key is to find a landscape that resonates with you, and to carve out time to be in it.

4. Musical performances

Look for opportunities to hear live music that you will enjoy, and let yourself be transported into stillness. Many cities make these easy to find, from Time Out listings, to more local entertainment magazines (New York’s The Village Voice, Seattle’s The Stranger, Vancouver’s Georgia Straight). A future post will also discuss how to access classical music while travelling.

5. Look to Time, Rather Than Place

I have been a morning person my entire life. It never ceases to amaze me how few people actually revel in the stillness of an early morning walk through a part of town that, just a few hours later, is bustling. The light on summer mornings is especially captivating. Consider getting up earlier than usual at least one day on your holiday to get a fresh perspective on your destination- and carve out a small sanctuary for yourself. Alternately, sometimes late at night you can also enjoy a certain stillness. The key is to look for it at a time outside the typical hours of human activity.

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The calm of morning light.  Author photo, July 2016

These are just a few examples of ways to find sanctuary and stillness while travelling. Sanctuary is a highly individual concept, and can have powerful benefits for us as human beings. Please feel free to comment with some of your ideas for finding sanctuary while on the road or at home – I really would love to hear from you.