Friday, 31 August 2007


Yes, I'm finally back from my travels with Jenny in Western Canada. Mainly we were in Vancouver, which is every bit as spectacular as people told us. Definitely the equal of Sydney in terms of the setting - on a huge river estuary with four massive mountain ridges directly opposite. Not only that but the city has an enormous wooded park (Stanley Park) the size of the city centre on a peninsular jutting out into the estuary. We were just stunned by the unbelievable beauty of it all.

Of course there were one or two flies in the ointment - no city's that perfect - so here are the pros and cons. The pros: the sensational setting; a city centre small enough to walk around; the cultural diversity (a lot of Asians and gays in particular); a great sense of vitality and creativity; Starbucks' unbeatable coffee and pastries; a superb mega-bookstore, Chapters; Stanley Park; and the vertiginous cable car ride up Grouse Mountain.

The cons: limited eating-out possibilities - a complete lack of vegetarian or Italian restaurants, but plenty of junk food like hot dog stalls; a slight frostiness from the locals towards non-locals - maybe because we English are associated with the often detested Americans; and the way so many beautiful old traditional houses had been cleared for skyscrapers and apartment blocks. But that's not much to complain about.

We also spent a few days in Victoria on Vancouver Island, which we definitely wouldn't recommend - completely overwhelmed by tourists and decrepit oldies who could hardly stagger down the streets. A sort of giant old folks home with a seaview. The one unexpected highlight was a brilliant exhibition on (of all things!) the sinking of the Titanic at the British Columbia Museum.

To wind up, we spent two days on the train that goes right through the Rocky Mountains from Vancouver to Calgary. Another amazing experience. But more about that in the next instalment....

PS: My suitcase got lost somewhere between Calgary and Belfast. Will I ever see it again? And it contained some lovely clothes Jenny bought in Calgary!! Fingers crossed it's not too far away....

Tuesday, 14 August 2007

The Life of Riley

It so often seems that other people have much better lives than yourself, that they're gliding through everything effortlessly while you're struggling against the odds and meeting one obstacle after another.

Parents think couples without children have got it easy, workers think the bosses have got it easy, and Joe and Joanna Public think celebs have got it easy.

But what do we really know about other people's lives when usually all we see is the carefully crafted facade they present to the world? People go to amazing lengths to conceal the awkward truth and pretend they're coping brilliantly with life's difficulties.

They don't reveal the panic attacks or the mortgage arrears or the husband's porn stash or the son's pyromania. They don't reveal their constant fear that their job is beyond their abilities or their social skills are lacking or they're totally incompetent parents.

What's really tragic though is when someone is so convinced that other people have far superior lifestyles they go to desperate lengths to imitate them.

Like the bank clerk who embezzles thousands of pounds to get a swish house and a flashy car, or parents who bankrupt themselves in the belief that a £20,000 wedding outdoes a £2,000 one. Or teenage girls who spend meagre wages on extortionate designer clothes to feel like jetsetting supermodels.

And even when people know full well that the imagined Life of Riley is more like Dead End Gulch, they still pursue the dream regardless. We all know by now that many supermodels are on a gruelling treadmill of dieting, purging, exercising and plastic surgery, yet there are plenty of young girls aching to be in their shoes and hating what they see as the mediocrity and pointlessness of their existing lives. The golden images have a life of their own.

Saturday, 11 August 2007

Bumptious tourists

In principle tourism is a good thing - visit new countries, find out how other people live, broaden our horizons. Unhappily some tourists behave so badly they just give tourism a bad name.

The boom in low-cost flights is a double-edged sword here. It means we can all travel around more easily, but it also means rowdy yobs descending on unsuspecting cities.

Places like Prague are being beseiged by out-of-control hen and stag parties that take over the streets and terrify the residents, leaving a trail of bottles, vomit and vandalism.

Too many tourists are blithely insensitive to the locals, ignoring their customs and culture, expecting everything to be just the way it is in Sheffield or Swansea and demanding instant service and attention.

They commonly regard the indigenous cuisine as repulsive and insist loudly on fish and chips or beefsteak, all the while making snide remarks about foreign tastes.

Then there are the giant coaches manoeuvring painfully down tiny streets to disgorge packs of edgy sightseers, frantically snapping everything in sight before rushing off to the next fashionable destination.

Personally when I'm a tourist somewhere I do my best to blend in with my new surroundings and be as unobtrusive as possible, rather than sticking out like a sore thumb, throwing my weight around and making absurd demands.

I also try to absorb as much of the local culture as I can - buying newspapers, watching TV, talking to residents, trying to understand what the big issues are, what preoccupies people, the typical lifestyles and aspirations.

If you're just going to breeze in and indulge yourself every which way, taking no interest at all in the place itself, why go there to begin with? You might as well have gone to Brighton. Or booked a fortnight at the travel agent's office. A bit more respect and a bit less arrogance wouldn't go amiss.

(Note for those of you who read wisewebwoman's excellent two posts on pornography - she has just posted the third part, which is deeply sad and sobering)

Tuesday, 7 August 2007

The coy of sex

We like to think we're so sexually liberated nowadays, happy to talk about anything without a murmur. Gone is the old prudery of our strait-laced parents.

Well, not quite. A new report says over a third of Britons find talking with a new partner about condoms so embarrassing it puts them off using one. And over 40 per cent think mentioning them is a sexual turn-off.

The Family Planning Association, which did the research, is surprised at this reticence in the midst of a 'highly sexualised society'. It's also surprised that the young are just as inhibited as the old.

But there's a world of difference between the public flaunting of sex, with salacious stories and images in newspapers and on TV screens, and people's private lives, where dealing with anything outside the romantic norm of spontaneous orgasmic bliss can be perplexing and awkward.

Who wants to discuss their imperfect bodies or sexual infections or impotence? We feel like the party pooper at the sparkling soiree, sabotaging something precious. Easier just to get on with it, swallow our doubts and hope for the best.

We think that if we mention too many negatives, it might even frighten the other person away and snuff out the relationship before it started. Even if we feel bold enough to handle the stumbling blocks, can our partner do the same?

This sexual coyness is something we have to solve though. Among other things, it's feeding the rapid spread of sexual infections which blight so many lives. That lingering stiff upper lip needs to be loosened fast.

Saturday, 4 August 2007

Holiday fibs

Holidays are now such a status symbol that people invariably lie about how things went, making out they were dream-perfect even if they were actually the holiday from hell.

Those typical conversations about what it was like are not all they seem. Sometimes you need a special phrase book to decode the rose-tinted accounts. For example:

"So how was the flight?"

"Brilliant. We only paid a fiver each and then we got an upgrade." (Diabolical. We had to pay £50 for excess baggage, we took off four hours late and my suitcase was stolen)

"So what was the hotel like?"

"Brilliant. Massive room overlooking the Bay of Whatsit. Cordon bleu food. Complimentary room service." (Appalling. They were still building it. The room was hamster-size. We had food poisoning for three days)

"Good weather?"

"Brilliant. Sunshine all the way. Almost too hot for comfort. And the week before it was torrential rain. Luck of the devil." (Horrendous. Permanent downpour. Whole area was flooded. We had to hire a boat. My new camera fell overboard)

Jenny and I are actually quite frank about our holidays. If they're disappointing, it's not our fault, after all, it's down to other people's cock-ups. And we don't see holidays as status symbols, just as a bit of fun and novelty. We happily admit to being let down by Verona, underwhelmed by Connemara and unimpressed by Amsterdam.

Other people are amazed by our honesty, as if it's a breach of etiquette or a mental aberration. But who are they fooling with their glittering fibs? They forget we've all been on the same boat, or should I say unhygienic cruise ship. Why not come clean?