Authentic urban festivals- a tale of one city

We all love a festival, right?  We do–except when it feels as though the same event gets trotted out year after year, with the same displays and activities, just reinvented for a different theme.  My shorthand for this type of festival has become the grocery store tent festival- where the same small group of corporate sponsors has their flimsy set of tents and single staff person on hand to buoy up the proceedings.  And because the rest of the event is so thin, the grocery store tents seem all the more prominent (hence my label).

Of course, even when a festival is slicker, and has more going on, it doesn’t always make the event any more authentic.  I was reminded of this dilemma last weekend when we had a chance to experience two festival events: The Victoria Busker’s Festival and the Moss Street Paint-In, sponsored by the Art Gallery of Victoria.  Both events had been held in prior years, and both acted as a magnet for large crowds.  We left the car at home, and cycled to both.  While neither felt “perfectly” authentic, I felt that the Moss-Street Paint-In had far more of the right ingredients than the Busker’s Festival.  Why was that?  Especially since there were ways for people with little or no income to participate in both (buskers and the gallery asked for, but did not require, donations).

Pets were invited to get into the act of making art (fortunately a kiddie pool was around for clean-up). Photo by Laura Tate, July 2017

In sum, the paint-in felt more real because it was:

  • in a residential area, further aware from the city’s more overtly touristy district, and thus felt more like an event attended by, and catering to, locals (even though there still may have been a number of tourists there too);
  • quite varied, and yet far more laid-back, allowing people to drift in and out of displays, without being on a schedule, and without being urged to clap and cheer every five minutes to buoy up the buskers’ spirits;
  • trying hard to be participatory (full of happy volunteers, and complete with events for kids and dogs);
  • a place where people with a range of art budgets could find something to take home (lots of art cards from $2-$5 were on sale at most of the booths- a nice way to take home a memento of the larger art work if you couldn’t afford it);
  • directly linked to raising awareness of the gallery as a civic resource; and
  • physically linked to a weekly farmer’s market, that brought some of the same people, but also a few others who might not have otherwise attended the art event.
Some artists took advantage of the festival’s residential setting.  Photo by Laura Tate, July 2017

Where I was disappointed with the paint-in related mainly to the mainstream nature of the art displayed (and the fact that fewer than 10% of the artists seemed to be under age 50).  While I felt that all of the art was beautiful and took talent to produce, I didn’t feel particularly challenged by most of the art, even though the gallery itself is not shy about pushing the envelope.  Still, this event has been a staple of Victoria’s art calendar for several decades, and I hope it continues.  I have gone in past years, and this year’s felt like the most fun and diverse yet.  Click  here  for more detail.

One of several participatory features of the Paint-in. Photo by Laura Tate, July 2017

Interestingly, the Buskers festival was also anchored by another event – the market at Ship’s Point which sells arts and crafts, but of the variety one sees in a tourist attraction gift shop.  This market overtly caters to Cruise Ship passengers who typically get to spend no more than 24 or 32 hours in the city, tops.

While I’m glad that Victoria hosts both events, I would love to see more emphasis on the types of event that interest locals and more discerning tourists.  In fact, had cruise ship visitors been aware of the paint-in, they might have enjoyed it as much as the rest of us.



Counterculture and Authenticity

Summer has found me terribly lazy, and so today’s post is actually a link to another post I wrote for a blog on planning and authentic communities.  It addresses links between countercultural expressions and authenticity.  Enjoy, and happy June!


Marking territory -Part 1

Authentic travel includes getting to know the people living in your destination. Talking to locals is a start. But with only a few days or weeks in a place, building understanding can be a challenge. That said, other telling details that can help. Among the most fascinating: how people mark out (in an attempt to claim or conquer) their territory.

What territory says

Architectural details, public art, fencing, murals, landscaping details, signs, hedgerows separating out farmers’ fields – these items say many things.  They speak of what people value; what they fear; their sense of humour and/ or curiosity.  Marked territory can tell you about how locals lead their lives, and who benefits (or fails to benefit) from flows of power.  The photos below are all examples of local territory marking.  They speak to me of who (at least some of) the locals are and how they relate to each other.


Bank of Hawaii building, Honolulu.  Author photo, February 2016

The above photo shows how a bank operating in a multi-cultural city like Honolulu celebrates the locals who descended from Chinese settlers roughly a century ago. In my  part of the world, which has attracted more contemporary Chinese migration, the  features shown above tend to speak less about current migrants and what appeals to them.

I love how, in the photos below, the business operator is surreptitiously and temporarily claiming territory, without making the same type of investment as someone in a conventional store.  Perhaps rents are far too prohibitive- or maybe the owner just prefers this transient approach.  You see her/him trying to legitimize the mobile business as it takes up a parking space for just hours at a time. Judging from the quality of the sign, it seems to have been working.

Silver Lake neighbourhood of Los Angeles. Author photos, February 2016

Claiming space doesn’t just happen with businesses.  Parking is a big focus of space-claiming.  While on-street parking is typically public, North American city dwellers often view the space in front of their homes as their personal (private) property- particularly when parking becomes a more scarce resource.  Unknown cars parked in those locations may be told about their transgressions through windshield notes- or even more aggressive acts.  But driveways are less clear, and are sometimes used or blocked by others, resulting in conflict and a need for the homeowner to mark that territory as his or her own.  The example below is also from Los Angeles:

marking territory2_LA_claiming parking
Silver Lake neighbourhood of Los Angeles.  Author photo, February 2016

And, of course walls and gates are obvious territory markers. They can be beautiful or whimsical. Sometimes the beauty is offered as an apology for space claiming. It may also be an indicator of some shared neighbourhood territoriality- a contribution to the larger public realm even as the individual space is claimed.

Some of my own neighbours in Vic West achieve this by offering of floral bursts beside or through their fences:

claiming territory_Vic West fence_LTate photo
Victoria, British Columbia.  Author photo, June 2016
claiming territory_Vic West fence2_LTate photo
Victoria, British Columbia.  Author photo, March 2017

And here are some other examples of fence appeal, one by a business, and another by an art gallery/ centre:

Houston, Texas.  Author photo, November 2015
Mendocino, California.  Author photo, June 2016

So here is my challenge to you: on your next trip, try to find and photograph as many interesting or appealing territory markers as you can. I guarantee that it will get you thinking about your destination, and the relationships between inhabitants, in new ways. Territory markers are a rich topic for exploring further. Watch for another posting on this topic, and please suggest your own in the comments section of this blog.


On the cheap

Saving money

If you crave authentic travel experiences, chances are, you’re  often thinking about that next trip.  This also means reflecting on how to pay for it -and how to save money during the experience.  Here are nine ways to save money while travelling, that also bring you closer to the local lifestyle.

1.  Do lots of walking and transit vs taxis

This seems obvious, but it’s surprisingly easy to forget.  It’s comforting to fall into a taxi when you’re unsure of your route.  So instead, make the alternatives easier.  Prepare well, by downloading maps in advance.  And consider downloading an app that allows you to navigate offline.  While it still has some glitches,  the Navmii app is one example.  Finally, don’t be afraid to ask friendly locals for advice. Most people do like to be helpful.

2. Spend less on food

We often try to have at least one meal a day on the cheap.  Often this involves buying street food from a local vendor (see upcoming blog for more tips on this topic).  It can also mean buying fresh produce, cheese, and bread for an outdoor picnic, whether from a farmer’s market or local shop.  And, save costs by eating your main meal at lunch -many restaurants charge less at lunch and more for dinner.  Then have dinner in your room/apartment, freeing up funds for entertainment -or a future trip.

 3. Avoid the guided tour, but if you do one, choose a walking over bus or trolley tour.

We’ve come to love walking tours, both because they are less costly than bus tours, and because they provide a more interactive and immediate way of learning about the local history and current lifestyle.  Walking tours are often more amenable to creative touches, including story-telling and personal anecdotes.  Also, they tend to be smaller.

4. Go to a local sporting event -especially if it’s minor league or amateur.

While travelling in Granada, we stumbled on a local cricket game, which gave us fascinating insights into the local community.  Cricket is the slowest game imaginable (you can tell I’m not a fan).  But an hour watching people just hanging with each other, having a laugh, catching up, was worth the entry fee.

And in Mexico City we took a walking tour that culminated in going to a Lucha Libre match.   Definitely one of our trip highlights.

Lucha Libre. Author photo, January 31, 2017


5.  Use your own steam at local viewpoints

Try to walk up and down on your own steam -or at least walk on the way down.  It’s an antidote to any over-indulgences , and you may get to see some overlooked sites.  We paid to go up in the funicular in scenic Guanajuato, but enjoyed the walk down.  The photo  below is of one of the new friends we made in that process.

A new friend we made when we decided to walk down the hill, instead of taking the funicular
A new friend we made when we decided to walk down the hill, instead of taking the funicular

6.  Research local liquor laws

I can remember taking a picnic to a free summer concert in Florence, complete with wine.  Buying your own bottle is way cheaper, when local liquor laws allow it.  Unfortunately most Canadian provinces don’t, but a blind eye is often turned in Quebec cities like Montreal.  It helps if you’re discrete.

7. Check out the local parks and their programming

At least in summer, many North American and European cities often have free festivals, or free events linked to those festivals that charge admission.  Also, look for buskers.  I do believe in paying buskers, but do so according to what you can afford.  It will still be cheaper than attending a more formal event.

8. Use your social network.

If a friend, relative, or a friend of a friend lives in the spot you’re visiting, buy them lunch or dinner in exchange for a half-day tour.  They may lack the in-depth historical knowledge of a paid guide, but they are more likely to point out sites, features, and customs that will interest you personally.

9.  Learn the language

Or arm yourself with at least enough words/phrases plus Google translate to be comfortable reading basic text in the local language.  How will this save you money?  Any restaurant in a non-English speaking country that offers English menus is at higher risk of charging tourist prices.  Conversely, local hangouts will be more ŕeasonable.

When we stayed in an up-and-coming suburb in Prague, the local bar /restaurant had prices 1/3 the cost of those in tourist areas. We had taught ourselves just eight words in Czech, but using them on Day#1 as foreigners must have endeared us to the locals.  One man with a bit more English than my Czech helped translate a few items so we could order.  And so this helped me, as a vegetarian,  quickly learn to say -and spot Greek Salad on menus exclusively in Czech.  (In case you wanted to know -it’s recky (pronounced “retzky”) salat.)

These are just a few tips which could help you save money while travelling, while also putting you in more direct contact with locals and local experiences.  By saving money you’ll be able to extend your travel budget further, giving yourself room for more authentic travel experiences on your next trip, and others in the future.

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.

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

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,

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 .

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.


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


Urban Classical

In my teens and early twenties I was convinced I would become an opera singer.  Even after reality sank in and the melody of my career path changed, I remained a classical music fan.  This conditioning was no doubt strengthened by seeing too many Merchant Ivory films that matched vistas of pastoral countryside and intricately designed heritage buildings with soundscapes from Mozart, Bach and Beethoven.  And maybe, just maybe, Bugs Bunny had an influence in there somewhere.   Whatever the causes, I am inclined to want classical music whenever I encounter these landscapes.  If you also crave classical during trips with historic settings, read on for four ideas to access it, in places locals also frequent.

1.  Seek out major places of worship for secular concerts (i.e. -not associated with worship).

Often churches and other places of worship have a gorgeous accoustic-and they know it.  As a result, many  high-calibre professional and amateur groups will rent the space for Friday and /or Saturday night concerts.  Sometimes the church will even make this part of their community outreach agenda, like St. Martin-in-the Fields in London.  Connect with these events through local entertainment listings (e.g. Time Out Magazine), or the venue’s website.  An alternate approach is to google the city name plus the word “cathedrals” to get a list of prospective venues, and then visit the website for some of those cathedrals to see if it is posting any concert listings.  In many European cities, just walk by a few and, chances are, they’ll have a sandwich board advertising tonight’s (or an upcoming) concert.

2.  Check out local universities,  colleges, and conservatories  that have music programmes.

Many of us know the theory (popularized by Malcolm Gladwell) that you need 10,000 hours to become truly proficient. This is certainly true for musicians.  And so universities and conservatories do what they can to provide performance opportunities for their students,  knowing that performances require their own skill set.

By watching a student concert (usually but not always for a modest fee), you support the arts and get to hear some truly gifted young people perform.  Here again, the Internet is your friend, and you can access performance schedules just by searching for the music department page and looking for concert listings.  This is less of an option in Summer months, although depending on the city, there may still be some offerings on a more limited basis.

3.  Churches -music in that spiritual tradition.

Taking in a service can help you connect with the community you are visiting at a deeper level.  And some congregations even offer music-themed services.  For a few years when  I lived in Vancouver I sang in the Christ Church CathedralChoir.  I especially loved the Compline Service, now held at 8pm. It still happens every Sunday, January through November, consisting solely of prayers and (mostly) early music like Gregorian Chant .  Music Director Rupert Lang is an incredibly gifted Canadian-born, Cambridge-trained conductor.  This service is worth hearing, even if you aren’t Christian/ of that denomination.

4.  Music festivals -yes there are some focused on classical music.

Some ideas for finding these:

Find festivals through Bachtrack for classical music, opera, ballet and dance event reviews

Other ideas in North America:
Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival
St. Augustine’s in the Woods – Whidby Island Music Festival

Bannf BISC Festival

Carmel Bach Festival-July 15-29 in 2017

Whether you’re a died-in-the wool classical fan, or someone who just likes its atmospheric benefits, there are many ways to get a dose of it on your next trip, in settings that also appeal to locals.


Urban 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.

Czechia2_ 089
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.

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.