Monday, February 18, 2013

How NOT to Get Mugged on the Paris Metro (By an 8-Year-Old)

In any encounter with a die-hard traveler, amidst a plethora of hearty descriptions of nature hikes, temples, and monuments, you will inevitably hear a tale of theft or disaster. It is a rare occasion indeed when a traveler worth their salt lacks a story about themselves or a member of their group being mugged or burglarized. It can happen anywhere, in any country, at any time. And me telling you to 'be aware' of it doesn't mean it will happen any less either.

Saint Michel district Paris, Paris city walk
Who hasn't experienced some sort of theft while on the road?

My story goes back to my Europe 2010 trip (yup, gonna beat on that dead horse again). I was with my 23 junior high students, 10 parent chaperones, and our fearless Explorica tour guide - and a partridge in a pear tree. Or so it seemed. Navigating that massive group through the streets of Paris without losing anyone had already proven to be a challenge, but not impossible. Now we were headed for the underground Metro system, moving from the Eiffel Tower to our restaurant for dinner.

view of Eiffel Tower from below, Paris France
The Eiffel Tower in Paris from below

Lisa, our tour director, had warned us that the Metro system at dinnertime was swamped, cramped, and full of pickpockets. Our parent chaperones were instructed to closely guard their young charges, and their purses and wallets were to be gripped tightly in front of them, with one hand preferably covering the zipper or button access. I myself had a gigantic backpack - being the group leader I was responsible for carrying around this hefty binder full of emergency info lest one of my students get injured or go missing. I buried my valuables down to the bottom of the bag, then covered them with my hoodie and the aforementioned gargantuan binder. Satisfied that we were properly guarded, we entered the Metro.

Paris city transportation, Paris Metropolitian
Our group lined up for an easy Metro entrance - there's the big, black backpack!

Lisa had not been exaggerating - the Metro at that time of day was bustling! People coming home from work, tourists headed out to dinner, kids meandering home from whatever after-school activities they'd been up to: it was full. My group lined up along the back wall of the Metro and tried to make ourselves as small as possible until the proper train arrived. When it did, we attempted to fit our substantial group all into the same train without leaving anyone behind.

The flow of people exiting the train at that moment made this a very difficult procedure. Members of my group kept getting shoved back out of the train. Parents were literally hauling children aboard using sweater collars and arms. In the midst of this madness, I saw one of my parent chaperones squeezing between her own kids and two that were trying to leave. The two children trying to leave were getting crushed by the movement of passengers in the train car, and I wanted to call to one of my parent chaperones to mind them, but she was busy trying to make sure her students were safe and sound. Eventually, the two strange children made it out, and my chaperone's made it in, so I let it go.

Paris France, Paris Metro railway lines
Headed to the Paris Metro at dinner time? Not a good idea!

Once our train had made a few stops, the car emptied somewhat, and my group was able to relax. Some of us found seats, and the kids stretched their cramped arms. Then my parent chaperone said, in a dismayed voice, "My wallet is gone!" She had been mugged during our entry onto the train. Her credit cards, travel money, ID (except for her passport, thank goodness), and other important cards for life back home had all gone missing.

Hashing out the order of events, we came to the conclusion that she had been robbed by none other than the two children - the ones whom I'd been so concerned for their safety! They were the only people who had stood next to that particular chaperone for any duration of time, and since they'd been kids, she'd given them no mind. We were flabbergasted, but Lisa the tour director lamented that it was all-too-common, and it was known that kids worked in small gangs in the Paris Metro and were usually directed by an adult who coordinated them. My mind drifted to stories of a modern day Oliver Twist.

Eiffel Tower from the plaza, things to see in Paris France
The Eiffel Tower - a busy tourist attraction that also 'attracts' pickpockets...

Lisa and the parent chaperone headed directly to the police station to report the mugging and to get the chaperone issued some travel papers in replacement of her missing ID cards, while the rest of us enjoyed a sombre dinner. In the end, it did work out - the parent chaperone was able to gather some spending money, the cards were all replaceable, and the rest of the trip was grand.

Paris Metro, Saint Michel Paris Metro
Be smart and guard your stuff on the Metro - even from children!

So here is my advice on how to NOT get mugged on the Paris Metro by an 8-year-old thief:
1. Keep your valuables at the bottom of your bag. Chances are if a pickpocket has to dig, he or she will abort the mission, or you'll feel the digging.
2. Keep your hands on your bag at all times and don't let your attention drift. That is what they are looking for.
3. Just because they are kids, doesn't mean they can't be suave and sophisticated swindlers! Take nothing for granted.
4. Mind the times you ride the Metro - certain times of day are much busier and more convenient for thieves to be out. Plan your schedule accordingly.
5. Big groups are easy targets. Sometimes it can't be helped, but if possible, travel in smaller groups that don't attract as much attention.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Ride in a Helicopter Over the Canadian Rocky Mountains

This weekend I got to ride in a helicopter for the first time ever, and what a ride it was!  I didn't just hop into a helicopter and flit about over top of a city or prairie landscape - I flew over the Rocky Mountains of Alberta!  How spectacular is that?  If you don't have any idea just how spectacular, keep on reading!

helicopter ride over the Rocky Mountains, things to do in Alberta
Flying over Barrier Lake in the Alberta Rocky Mountains

I bought the helicopter flight tickets for my husband as his Christmas present.  We weren't going to get each other a gift this year, since our plan was to spend our money on renovating the bathroom, but old habits die hard.  A few days before the 25th of December, I poked about online and found this amazing 50% off Groupon (think online-coupon) for a Kananaskis Helicopter Tour over the Rocky Mountains.  The price was right, and so I went for it.  (Good thing too, since my husband broke the rule and bought me a gift as well.  I would have felt horrible if I had ended up not buying anything for him!)

Our flight company was called 'Kananaskis Heli Tours'

Long story short, we found ourselves buckling into a helicopter last Sunday morning, ready for the adventure of a lifetime.  We'd driven down to Calgary the night before, since our flight was bright and early at 9:30 a.m.  The tour company is called Kananaskis Heli Tours and it is located right beside the Stoney Nakoda Resort and Casino just off the Trans Canada highway, about 35 minutes out of Calgary.  There are a variety of flight packages and add-ons to choose from: ours was the "Romantic" package.  I won't talk prices here - you'll have to visit their website for more info.  It is on the expensive side, I will warn you, but for a "once in a lifetime" experience you might not mind spending the cash.  You have the option to go for a flight, or a flight and a set-down experience with activities ranging from mountain-vista yoga to dog-sledding.  Our particular package included a wilderness hike and a 'romantic' picnic with a glass of champagne and some chocolate.

helicopter ride over the Rocky Mountains, things to do in Alberta
One of my favorite mountain formations in the Rocky Mountains

The romance of our helicopter tour was subdued slightly when we learned we were teamed with two other couples, but as Joey jokingly pointed out, romance with us usually ends in bickering and squabbling, so we were probably better off.  Besides, the two couples we were grouped with were unbelievably friendly and funny, and we all got along splendidly.  We got to know each other in the tour office as we listened to the safety spiel and prepared ourselves for the flight tour.

helicopter ride over the Rocky Mountains, things to do in Alberta
The Rockies are simply stunning

Rules for being near a helicopter: 
1. Keep your head down!  I can guess the gory reason for this.  The trick our tour lady suggested was to keep one hand on the knee at all times, as this automatically bends your body to the right height.
2. Stay on the path.  No one wants to get hit by a wayward helicopter.
3. Let the pilots buckle you in.  No one wants to fall out of a helicopter either.

Rocky Mountains Alberta, things to do in Alberta, Kananaskis
What a wonderful way to spend a Sunday morning!

We all jammed into the helicopter like sardines.  I got to sit in the front for the first portion of the flight, and was lucky enough to have an amazing view.  The sides of the helicopter were clear plastic, as well as the entire front portion and a little clear plastic hole down by my feet.  A photographer / videographer's dream!  The pilot checked our headsets, and with a slight tilt that you could barely notice, we were up in the air.

helicopter ride over the Rocky Mountains, things to do in Alberta
Our helicopter!

In my newfound opinion, a helicopter is much smoother than any plane I've ever traveled on, and even smoother than driving down the highway in our SUV.  You can barely feel the craft moving through the air, other than the vibrations of the rotors.  It was quite relaxing.

helicopter ride over the Rocky Mountains, things to do in Alberta, Kananaskis
The red "Mayday" button.  The word 'mayday' derives from the French term "M'aidez" which means "Help me!"

I won't even begin to describe to you in words the majesty of the Rocky Mountains from above.  This experience was much different than flying over the mountains way up high in a jet - this was up-close and personal, with every tree distinct and clear, every shadow on the rocks visible in high definition.  Instead of trying to verbalize this, I put together a video on our experience.  (It's at the end of this post - watch it last and it will make more sense!)

helicopter ride over the Rocky Mountains, things to do in Alberta
Starting our wilderness hike around Broken Leg Lake

After 15 minutes of flying, we set down in the middle of nowhere on the edge of a frozen lake called 'Broken Leg Lake'.  Our pilot shut down the craft and we all disembarked for a one-hour wilderness trek around and across the solid lake.  Our pilot pointed out frozen bubbles inside the meter or more thick ice - very neat!

helicopter ride over the Rocky Mountains, things to do in Alberta
Cool frozen bubbles inside the ice

I also had a fun time making snow angels on the frozen lake - sadly, no one joined me.

helicopter ride over the Rocky Mountains, things to do in Alberta
Making a snow angel, by my lonesome, on a snowy frozen lake

Once our trek around the lake was complete, we sat down on little red blankets and enjoyed a frosty glass of champagne and a single chocolate - a nice sweet treat in the middle of Mother Nature's finest creations.  All too soon, it was time to get back into the helicopter for one last go-round over top the Rockies.  This time I sat in the back, but even tucked in behind the pilot I still had a great view (especially when we banked very deeply to the right and I found myself pressed up against the little plastic door).

Rocky Mountains Alberta Canada, things to do in Alberta
One teensy glass of bubbly on a snowy mountainside!

Our trip lasted for about 1 1/2 hours.  Back at the base, we all gushed about how beautiful the experience had been.  I would certainly recommend it to others - and tell them to pack their hiking shoes!

Watch our amazing flight in the helicopter here!

Thursday, February 7, 2013

If You Can't Go There, At Least You Can Read About It: Books on Italy

I have decided to begin a new series of 'thematic' posts on my blog (as if I didn't have enough already).  Currently I have my main "Travel Bucket List" articles, my "Backyard Bucket List" posts about traveling around my home province of Alberta, and my "Foodie Bucket List", which currently consists of one post about eating haggis in Scotland.  (I need to write about food more, but it makes me hungry and then I get distracted - hence why only one of those posts has been published...)

My new series will be entitled "If You Can't Go There, At Least You Can Read About It", and in it I will share some of my favorite travel-themed novels.  I am an English teacher after all - I need to pass on some of my day-job wisdom to you!

This post is based on some of my favorite stories with a distinct Italian flavor - Italy is one of my favorite all-time destinations, so of course, I own a ton of books on the topic.  I will present to you my top 5, and hopefully one of them will call to you! They are mainly fictional stories: they hold vibrant and visual descriptions that will engage all of your senses much more effectively than traditional travel books.  Enjoy!

#5: A Time of Angels by Patricia Schonstein

A Time of Angels by Patricia Schonstein

A book with an interesting blend of characters, philosophies, and even recipes, "A Time of Angels" was a hit for me. It had a strange look on the Christian faith, but if you can overlook or even embrace that, you will love the plot twists and turns.  Basically, it is a love story at heart - two best friends fall for the same woman.  Primo marries his friend Pasquale's ex-girlfriend, Beatrice, who eventually goes back to her first love. Primo is devastated, and tries to come up with a fitting revenge that involves invoking the Devil (accidentally, but as it turns out, fortuitously for the readers as he is one engaging character). Chaos inevitably ensues.

I selected this book for its wonderful spin on Italian culture.  Pasquale is the owner of a delicatessen and is basically a butcher.  His segments in the book come with rich and colorful descriptions of the foods in his shops, and other traditional Italian dishes. He is also a Holocaust survivor, which brings to the novel some depth and history.  I learned a few great Italian phrases from this book as well - there is an entire glossary in the back to help you memorize your favorite expressions.

Buy it here! (Amazon affiliate link): 

#4: The Glassblower of Murano by Marina Fiorato

The Glassblower of Murano by Marina Fiorato

Whatever you wanted to know about the history of Venice, you can glean from Marina Fiorato's novel on the city, which is set in 1681 at the height of the Republic. Venetian glass is famed throughout the world and valued more than gold, and the glassblowers responsible for making it coveted immensely.  They are virtually held captive on the small island tucked inside Venice's lagoon.

The story follows a headstrong Corradino Manin from the 1600s, and his descendant, Leonora Manin from present-day. As Leonora strives to learn more about her ancestry, she discovers some of Corradino's dark entanglements with ancient royalties - entanglements that could still affect her today.

I loved this story for the amazing descriptions of Venice - even Leonora's dinky rental apartment held glamor for me.  As she scoured the city looking for clues about Corradino's life, I longed to be there beside her. I wasn't quite as taken with the descriptions of the 17th century city, but all-in-all it was still an amazing read.

Buy it here! (Amazon affiliate link):

#3: Ardor by Lily Prior

Ardor by Lily Prior

This book is sheer madness, but I couldn't put it down. It is a love story, a "novel of enchantment", and a total riot, all tucked into a beautiful Italian countryside setting full of rolling hills and olive groves.

Let's see - how shall I begin to describe to you the fun that is "Ardor"? For starters, there is magic fruit that causes the consumer to fall in love with the first person he or she lays eyes on, a donkey smitten with his own owner (guess how that happened), a talking baby angel, and a murderous butcher with a cleaver. All of this is written with that Italian gusto that we know and love. It is also narrated from the donkey's point of view, which seems odd, but luckily the donkey is quite witty.

This is an easy read, charming, and whimsical. Don't expect to learn much about life - just enjoy the fanciful ride!

Buy it here! (Amazon affiliate link):

#2: The Botticelli Secret by Marina Fiorato

The Botticelli Secret by Marina Fiorato

Yup, I know it is not 'proper' to choose the same author in a top 5 book list, but I simply could not stop myself.  Ms. Fiorato nailed it for me in this book. I love Italy.  I love beautiful descriptions of fascinating places.  I love mysteries.  I love romances.  And I REALLY love Sandro Botticelli - so this book had it all for me.

I won't even presume to think that I can outline the entire complicated plot of this novel for you in one paragraph.  This book had too many twists and turns, and I would hate to give any of it away for you, because I just know you are going to head straight to the library after reading this and check "The Botticelli Secret" out.  I will give you the movie trailer version: a "Da Vinci Code"-esque mystery involving a stolen painting by Sandro Botticelli, a prostitute redeemed, a church in upheaval, and a medieval forbidden love story - what more could you ask for?  Top it off with a sassy and fun main heroine (who just happens to be the aforementioned 'lady of the night') and you've got yourself a total page turner!  Highly, highly recommended!

Buy it here! (Amazon affiliate link):

#1: A Vineyard in Tuscany by Ferenc Mate

A Vineyard in Tuscany by Ferenc Mate

This is the only book on my list that is not a work of fiction.  It is a memoir written by an expat-New Yorker who is living my dream.  He and his wife moved to Italy, purchased an abandoned thirteenth-century friary, and transformed 70 acres of woods and fields into a successful vineyard, all with no problems or hiccups along the way.

Just kidding.  There were loads of problems, but Ferenc and his wife Candace slogged through all of them, often with hilarious or heart-warming results. Think "Under the Tuscan Sun" but less girlie.  With the help of many new Italian friends, the couple manages to restore the ancient friary into a beautiful home, and get the Mate vineyard up and running into a successful business.

I loved this book so much that I spent at least three months after reading it scouring Italian real estate web pages, determined to purchase an old castle or monastery and make it my own.  I am serious.  My husband was considering putting a hold on my bank account, just in case I started buying properties. My Facebook page was full of pictures of old, decrepit, tumble-down buildings and the captions "This is the one" or "The price is just right!".  That's what this book does to you.

Buy it here! (Amazon affiliate link):

So there. Those are my Italian-themed picks. Let me know what you think - have you read any of them?  Do you have suggestions for me? Do you like this book-themed travel series? I'd love to hear your thoughts!