Why Visit Normandy?

the image shows a large old gothic style cathedral

So, now that we’ve arrived in Normandy, I guess the next important question is what we’re going to do while we’re there?

For my husband Craig, the obvious answer was to visit the sites of the WWII Normandy landings – not just the beaches themselves, although Omaha and Utah were easily within driving distance from where we were based. But the story of the allied landings encompasses far more than just the beach landings – the forces still had to move from the beaches and penetrate into the countryside to open the way to Paris. Normandy is an area that is rich in WWII history, as we discovered while were there, and we spent many fascinating hours tracing the history through several villages, museums, memorials and sites, accompanied by an informative audio tour of the area.

While I was also interested to visit the WWII sites, I’ll admit my main area of interest was in the earlier history of Normandy. I wanted to learn about the Normandy of William the Conqueror, who successfully invaded England in 1066. And the magnificent Bayeux tapestry that tells the story of that invasion.

And, of course, we both wanted to sample some of the local specialties that Normandy is known for – salted caramel, camembert cheese, and the delicious apple brandy known as Calvados.

In the coming articles I’ll be sharing some of those experiences with you. But first, I want to tell you about an inspiring gentleman I had the privilege to interview on my travel podcast, A Different Way of Travelling.

A Fear of Train Stations

Normandy map

After a week in Paris our next destination was a town called Bayeux, in Normandy. Before I tell you all about it, I’d like to tell you a little about how we got there.

By far the most logical way to make the journey was by train. Except, you see, I’m terrified of train travel. Well, that’s not quite true. I’m fine once I’m on the train. What I’m actually scared of is navigating through noisy, busy train stations.

Navigating through a train station with trains screaming past me as they fly in and out of platforms, with the noise masking the sounds I would normally use to help me find my way, makes me extremely anxious. Even when I’m accompanied by a sighted guide who will prevent me from doing something crazy like hopping onto the wrong train, or falling off the platform,

On this trip, my anxiety was worse because we had two suitcases with us. Which Craig had to manage as we navigated our way from our Paris apartment, through two metro stations, a shopping centre, a train station, another train station, and finally to our apartment in Bayeux. All the time having to keep an eye on his nerve-wracked, blind wife, to make sure she didn’t do something stupid.

There were two things that helped me keep the anxiety under control. The first was to focus on just the next step of the trip, rather than being overwhelmed by the entire journey. That helped a lot, since I only had to deal with what was happening in the immediate future and then catch my breath before tackling the next stage. The other factor that made it easier was that I was more confident in how to use my white cane to help me get around, thanks to the mobility lessons I’d taken earlier in the year. And that made Craig’s task a little easier, since I was able to move around a lot more independently.

I don’t know if I’ll ever become totally comfortable navigating noisy train stations. But at least I know in future I’ll be able to manage my anxiety with my increased cane skills and by taking it one step at a time.

Where Did Last Year Go???

Lois sitting on a chair

Is it just me, or does it feel like the year 2019 went by very fast?

It feels like it was yesterday that I sat down to write my annual post setting my intentions for the year 2019. Yet, here we are, already more than a week into 2020 and it’s time for me to do the same for the coming year.

As I sit here, pondering what I’d like to achieve in 2020, I find myself reflecting on all that happened last year.

I managed to take my speaking beyond the disability sector and spoke at a number of events on the topic of overcoming challenges. Since much of my focus last year was on building strategic relationships to support the work I’m doing, it’s hard to say whether I achieved that – it’s an ongoing task, as any entrepreneur will know. I consolidated my social media profiles to better show the work I’m doing. And, though I haven’t completely finished the writing project I was busy with, I have only a few steps to go – but more on that in my intentions for 2020.

  • Talking about that, here they are: 
  • Writing: I plan to publish my first audio book this year. Most of the work on this was done in 2019. I just need to complete the final tasks. 
  • Podcasts: I plan to continue publishing 2 podcasts on accessible travel each month, and have a few exciting other possibilities in the pipeline for the coming year – watch this space for news! 
  • Speaking: I’d like to build on the speaking I did last year, and grow this aspect of my business. If you’d like to motivate your teams while giving them practical techniques to help them overcome their challenges, I’m the speaker for you!
  • Website: Last year I updated my Facebook page, and my Twitter and LinkedIn profiles. My website is next on the list, and I hope to get that done in the next few months. 
  • Music: I know, I know. This is on my list every year. Hopefully, sharing some of my lyrics and writing on my blog each month will help me make my music more of a priority in 2020. 
  • Travel: I’m not sure where my travels will take me this year, but I’d like to include a trip to Durban amongst my travels – I have family and friends I’d really like to visit.

What would you like to achieve in 2020? Have you thought about your own intentions for the year ahead?

You know, the strange thing is that I don’t really check back to what I’ve written in this annual blog post during the year. And yet, I seem to achieve them. I think creating this post each year is enough for me to understand the strategic areas I want to work on. So I don’t need to be constantly checking up on my progress.

I’d like to challenge you to think about your intentions for 2020. And write them down. Whether you check them on a regular basis to see how you’re doing, or simply use them as a guide for the coming year as I do, is not the point. I truly believe that the simple act of determining my strategic areas helps shape my actions and my plans for the coming year. And perhaps it’ll be the same for you.

May I wish you all a productive and impactful 2020 – I look forward to connecting with you in the year to come.

Paws for Thought on Water

Fiji and Emily in the water

I’ve always thought water was kind of fun. I don’t mean drinking water, though that’s also quite important when I’m thirsty or have just got back from a walk or a run. And I’m also not talking about bathing – that’s definitely not fun. But this Christmas break reminded me of how much fun playing in water can be.

First, when I went to spend Christmas Day with my doggy cousins Huey and Bailey, I was given a bone. I decided to hide away on the other side of the garden, so that neither the humans nor my doggy cousins would be tempted to steal it. Then it started pouring with rain. And I decided to stay there and eat my bone.

Boy, was I wet! Luckily, mom just shook her head and laughed when she saw me.

Then, on Boxing Day, I accidentally fell into a swimming pool. I know some of you may be thinking that I jumped in, but I really didn’t. I was running past the pool and suddenly the ground wasn’t there. Dad says he saw the look on my face as I disappeared into the pool and he could tell I was surprised. Luckily, there were humans around who came and fished me out. But, boy was I wet! Again.

Even though it was quite fun, I decided that discretion might be the better part of valour, and stayed a safe distance from the evil pool. Instead, I had lots of fun playing with all the humans who were there, and with my 8-week old doggy nephew – a Golden Retriever puppy named Bear.

Finally, when dad let me and my doggy sister Allie free-run on Zandvlei a few days ago, I dived into the estuary to cool off. I had great fun swimming and paddling, then getting out and running a bit before diving back into the vlei to cool off. It was such fun! And, boy, was I wet. Yet again.

If I were to tell you my resolutions for 2020, I’d have to include playing in water on the list. Along with lots of walks, runs, plays with my doggy sisters and family, lots of yummy food, and helping mom with everything I can. Then I’ll be a happy guide dog for sure

Meadow Blue – My Very First Song

Lois singing

Over the years I’ve built up quite a library of writings. I’m going to share some of these with you on the first day of each month. Starting today.

“Meadow Blue” is the first song I ever wrote. I performed it on stage with the band, Phrank for a Moment, in Durban. It was written a few months after losing my sight – but that’s not what the song’s about!

Meadow Blue – by Lois Strachan.

You landed in my life, like a light on the horizon.
A star that fell from heaven, and landed in my hands.
Meadow Blue and ocean green
A perfect vision from within my dreams

I traveled down the pathways that brought me close to you.
But I found space had deceived me, and masked the real you.
Meadow blue, and ocean green
Distorted colours that confused my dreams.

You caught my eye, and spun me round.
You stole my light, and tore me down.
You tore me down.

Meadow blue and ocean green
Are no more than colours that betrayed my dreams.
Meadow green and ocean blue
Have finally let me see the real you.
They finally let me see the real.

You landed in my life, like a light on the horizon.
A star thrown down from heaven.

I haven’t decided what to share with you next month – maybe another song, maybe some poetry, or maybe some of my fiction and short stories.

Feel free to let me know what you’d like me to share.

What Didn’t We Do in Paris?

The image shows a line of stalls with books displayed for sale.

As I was packing my bags on our last morning in Paris, I thought back to the list we drew up before our trip. Surprisingly, we managed to do quite a few of them. Not all, but I think that’s often the case with travel, don’t you?

We’d been to Versailles, seen a number of historic sites like the Conciergerie and Sainte- Chapelle, walked along the left bank of the Seine, got stunning night shots of the Eifle Tower, done both a walking tour and a food tour, visited the Catacombs, and overindulged in the glorious food that Paris has to offer, including a yummy pistachio pastry somewhere in the depths of the Latin Quarter. And those are just the things that spring to mind – I’m sure I’ve left a few out!

In case you’re wondering what we didn’t manage to do, here’s the list:

  • A Boat ride on the Seine River
  • A hot-air balloon trip over Paris
  • Visit the Arc de Triumph
  • Return to the Louvre
  • Visit Les Invalides 

Which only means there’s some great reasons to go back to Paris. Which we’ll do at some stage, I’m sure.

So, that brings us to the end of my trip to Paris, and to the end of my final post for 2019. When I return in January 2020, we’ll be heading off to Normandy for more adventures.

Till then, have a fun and peaceful holiday season and thank you for sharing my journey with me over the past year. I wish you all the best for 2020!

See you next year!

Do the French Hate the English?

the image is of a French flag and a UK flag

There’s a commonly held opinion that the French people actively dislike the English, and that this often affects English-language speakers from other countries. This general dislike is said to be especially so of the Parisiennes.

At least, that’s what I’d been told.

Yet, in the three weeks I was in France, that simply wasn’t my experience.

You don’t believe me? Let me share a few examples with you.

When we arrived at Charles de Gaulle Airport and were trying to find the commuter train to Paris, several people helped us, including a railway official. You might argue that, since he deals with lots of confused tourists, that his job requires him to be helpful. But a friend of mine had the opposite experience in the same environment.

Then, as we negotiated our way through a maze-like station to catch the Metro that would take us to the place we were staying, a young guy offered to carry our luggage so Craig could assist me. As South Africans we were naturally hesitant. So, with a typically Gallic shrug, he offered to assist me instead, leaving Craig to carry the bags. Which is what we did.

It seemed like there were always people willing to assist me off a train or a Metro. Serving staff in restaurants were hospitable and friendly. And the people we met as we visited the various tourist sites on our list were approachable and willing to assist. In fact, I can’t think of a single person on the trip who was less than friendly.

On one occasion we were helped by an elderly gentleman who couldn’t speak a word of English. He guided me through a Metro station onto a train, climbed on and travelled with us. He assisted me to the next train and again travelled with us for a few stops. Then he said goodbye in French, climbed off the train and headed back the way we’d come.

I don’t know whether it helped that Craig and I are able to say a few words in French – we try to do so for any country we visit. Or whether my blindness played a role in making people feel more welcoming and willing to assist.

But, whatever the reason, I certainly found the French people to be charming and hospitable – nothing like what we’d been led to believe. And I’ll be happy to say so anytime I hear someone mentioning how unfriendly the French people are.

Navigating Paris with a Disability

The image shows a diagram of the Paris Metro map.

Spending more than a week in Paris, travelling round extensively on the Metro and train service, I got the feeling that a traveller using a wheelchair might encounter some problems using the Metro. Luckily, I was travelling with my sighted husband, so didn’t have to find my way around unfamiliar Metro stations on my own, especially as not all trains had audio announcements to let me know which station we were approaching.

Physical access is seldom a problem for a traveller with a visual impairment, but I was very aware there appeared to be few elevators, that many of the trains had steps up from the station platform into the carriage and that there was often a gap between the platform and the carriage. The only Metro line that seemed to have a good level of wheelchair accessibility was the 14th, which is a newer line – it even has a barrier to stop people falling onto the tracks, either by accident or design.

When I got back to Cape Town I wanted to discover if my observations were true. And, if they were, I wanted to learn how those using wheelchairs are able to navigate their way around Paris. So, as almost anyone would do, I turned to Google.

In my exploration, I found this fantastic article on the accessibility of Paris, and not just the rail services. I think it’s a great article for someone with a disability to read before heading off to Paris for a visit.

https://www.tripsavvy.com/paris-accessibility-to-disabled-travelers-1618436

I know most of the Metro and rail infrastructure in Paris was built before the needs of persons with disabilities were really considered, but I was startled to find that so little accommodation has yet been done.

Still, it’s good to know that persons with disabilities who do visit Paris are able to get out and see this beautiful and historic city.

You Want Me to Talk about What?

several people sitting around a table, including Lois Strachan

It’s not often I feel nervous when going to facilitate a session on disability at an organisation. Yet that was definitely the way I was feeling as I climbed out of the Uber to run a recent day-long training at the Cape Town Society for the Blind (CTSB).

I wasn’t nervous about facilitating a daylong session, nor for presenting to students at CTSB – facilitation is one of the things I do on a regular basis and my relationship with CTSB over the past two years has meant I’ve spoken for them at a number of events, including presenting a keynote at their AGM, and another at a fundraising dinner, and I presented the commencement address at their graduation in 2018. So neither of those aspects made me anxious.

Rather, it was the topic that had my nerves working overtime – they’d asked me to speak about romantic relationships. And that topic is definitely out of my comfort zone.

Here’s the thing – I’m happy to tell the story of how Craig and I met (it was my guide dog, Leila’s fault). I’m equally willing to talk about how we accommodate my visual impairment with things like household chores. But going any deeper than that is just too personal for me. So, what made me nervous was how I’d reply if the conversation drifted into areas where I wasn’t comfortable.

In the end, the session proved to be both easier and harder than I’d anticipated. I described what I thought a good relationship might look like, and some signs that might indicate a relationship isn’t healthy. I shared stories from my life to illustrate what I meant in each case. Then the group spent a few hours asking questions and sharing their own experiences about relationships.

What made it easier than I’d initially feared was the fact that the group respected the boundaries that I wasn’t really comfortable talking about. What made it harder was to listen to some of the stories of what the students had experienced, and were still experiencing.

I left the CTSB with a profound sense of gratitude for all that I have in my life. Not to mention a sense of respect and awe for the strength, resilience and determination of the students I’d been privileged to spend the day with.

PS: Fiji also had loads of fun, since she got to meet two other guide dogs, which happens only rarely when I speak at organisations.
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Paris – A Story of Love

Cds IMG 1238

Paris is said to be the city of love. And so it proved to be on the evening Craig and I went to photograph the Eiffel Tower in Paris. And what you’re thinking is probably wrong.

Taking photos of the Eiffel Tower at night was one of the items Craig and I had on our To-Do-List for our time in Paris. One evening, after supper we caught a metro to the tower so we could do just that.

While we were there we noticed a young American couple struggling in vain to take a selfie. They simply couldn’t figure out how to get the shot to include their smiling faces as well as their clasped hands – with a bright, shiny engagement ring prominently displayed on her finger.

Craig went over and offered to take the shot for them, which they eagerly accepted.

Bubbling with happiness, they told us their story. They had been in UK for a trip for her business and he had arranged a sneak weekend away in Paris. On their first night, he suggested they go to see the Eiffel Tower. Only it had been pouring with rain. Which didn’t deter him in the least – he got down on one knee in a patch of mud, and proposed. And, she, who had been totally unaware that this was the reason for the trip to Paris, accepted with alacrity.

Only problem was that the weather was so bad that they couldn’t take any photos to share the happy announcement with their families and friends. So they returned to the Eiffel Tower the following evening, which was their last night in France, in order to get some photos.

And that was where Craig and I met them.

Yes, it was a chilly evening. And yes, a soft rain was falling –a soft yet soaking rain. Nonetheless, the love and joy that flowed from Adam and Jenn as they celebrated their engagement lit up the space beneath the iconic tower that is such a symbol of Paris.

So yes, Paris indeed is the city of love. And even if we never connect with Adam and Jenn again, it was wonderful that we could play a small part in helping them celebrate their love.

The image is a night shot of the Eifel Tower dramatically lit up, which I took on that evening. I don’t think it would have been appropriate for me to share a photo of the blissfully happy couple, do you?

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