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?

Paris: How a Croissant is Made and Other Cuisine Secrets.

4 people sitting at a table in a wine shop

Paris has a reputation of having great food and wine. And what better way to sample both than on a local walking food tour?

When Craig and I were in Kolkata, India, we went on a fabulous street food walking tour, which we found through Airbnb Experiences. I wrote about my impressions of the tour in my article Kolkata: The Road less Traveled, published on 24 May 2019.

So it wasn’t surprising that we decided to find a similar food tour in Paris. And there are lots, believe me!

We finally decided on a food tour of Belleville, run by Paris a Dream. And it was a great decision!

Belleville was originally a small town on the outskirts of Paris – a little like Montmartre in ambiance. Both were integrated into Paris proper as the city expanded. The host of the tour, Isabelle, told us a little of the history of Belleville as we sipped coffee at our first stop…. Along with a delicious pastry.

From there we moved onto what I would have thought was the high point of the tour – getting to see how baguette and croissants are made at a local boulangerie. Isabelle told us about the different grades of flour used in France, and we watched in awe as one of the bakers worked with the dough that would eventually become tomorrow’s croissants. Yes, making croissants really should take two days. No wonder they taste so good in France…. Well, and because of the oodles of butter in the dough.

We also got to taste a baguette that had just come out of the boulangerie’s ovens. And I can honestly say I’ve never tasted a better baguette – direct from the oven is definitely the way to do it, if you have the chance!

Our next stop was a local delicatessen, where we sampled various handmade dips and spreads. And had a chance to shop, as well. At one point I was a little worried that we might have to pay for the whole bottle of preserved garlic since Craig was clearly enjoying sampling it so often. But no, it was all part of the tour.

After walking off our initial tastings, which were surprisingly filling, by wandering through the streets of this fascinating and little-known historic suburb, we arrived at what I took to be our final stop – a wine and cheesery.

Well, actually, it was a wine-shop that offered wine and cheese tastings, which is what our group had. We continued to chat and share travel stories as we sampled 5 delicious French cheeses along with a glass of crisp white wine. Those of you who know me will be amazed to hear that I even tasted a blue cheese… and enjoyed it, much to my own amazement!

By now I’d have been quite satisfied to sit back and relax after a morning of wonderful tastings of food and drink. But it seemed we still had more to learn about the area, as well as a final local delicacy to try – a vegetable and apple digestive juice that rounded out the morning perfectly. Both Craig and I thought we could taste either paprika or chilli in the juice, but we could be wrong. Though we doubt it.

From there we took a slow walk back to our starting point at the local Metro station, said our final goodbyes to the American ladies who had joined us on the tour, and to our charming and vivacious host, Isabelle, and returned to our apartment, ready for our next fun Paris adventure.

But you’ll have to wait till next time to hear about that.

Paws for Thought on a Human Idiosyncrasy

The image shows the head of a blonde Labrador, wearing a white collar.
I really don’t understand humans sometimes. Like when mom and I go to a shop or a bank and we see lots and lots of people standing behind one another. Mom calls this queueing.

Dogs don’t queue. Nor do most other animals, though I’ve seen young ducks following their mothers in something a bit like a queue. But at least they’re moving. Unlike humans in shops – they simply stand there doing nothing for what seems like a long time before moving forward a single step and then doing nothing again.

For me, it seems far more reasonable to simply take mom to the front of the line of people. I mean, doesn’t that make sense to you? But mom always laughs, pats me and says we have to wait our turn.

Like I’ve said, it doesn’t make sense to me. But I do it because mom asks me to and I love my mom lots. Besides, as a well-trained guide dog I’m meant to do what she says, even if I don’t understand why.

Sometimes the shops are clever and don’t make me and mom stand in a queue – they send someone to assist mom and we wait by the counter until they help us. Now, that makes more sense to me.

Yet, even at our local shop, where they do this, I often see other people standing in those peculiar lines. But at least mom and I don’t have to do it.

I’ve long become accustomed to the reality that I won’t always understand the way humans behave. They’re not dogs, after all. And that’s okay, because I also don’t understand the way cats, birds or children behave. But it would be nice if someone could explain things to me every now and then.

Paris – The World of the Dead

The image shows a dark-haired woman walking in a well-lit tunnel using a white cane.

It may sound macabre to willingly take time to wander through a subterranean mausoleum containing the bones of more than 6 million people. In some ways I guess it was. But that was what Craig and I did when we toured the Catacombs of Paris, France.

Here’s a brief historical note to give you a little context: Paris started as a Roman town – Lutetia for those who, like me, was an avid reader of the Asterix books written by Goscinny and Underzo. In time, as Paris continued to grow, the existing cemeteries became overcrowded. During the 1780’s it was decided to use part of the abandoned network of limestone mines beneath Paris to store the remains.

At first, the bones were simply dropped down a mineshaft and left. Until 1810, when the Minister of Mine Inspections, Louis-Étienne Héricart de Thury began to organise the bones and create a more respectful resting place for the centuries of Paris’s dead. As an aside, the ossuary takes up only a small fraction of the network of mines under Paris.

Admittedly, I wasn’t really interested in the ossuary itself. I certainly had no wish to explore the collections of bones using the sense of touch which is how I’d have to have done it due to my blindness – if I’d been allowed to, which I most definitely wasn’t! Rather, what interested me was the history behind the creation of the limestone mines, and the process through which these old abandoned mines had been renovated and became the ossuary that is now a popular tourist site in Paris.

As the story unfolded on the audio guide that was provided as part of the tour, I was enthralled to learn of different events that had taken place in the ossuary and nearby network of mine tunnels. Once the ossuary was open to the public from 1874, it became a popular party and concert venue. The mines were used by the French Resistance during WWII to smuggle information and people, and as a meeting place. In turn, the Nazi’s located a subterranean bunker in the mines. They’ve been used for several movies across the years and Airbnb invited people to spend a night in the mines as part of a marketing campaign. But my favourite has to be the discovery of an illicit movie theatre, complete with large screen, seating, sound rig, a fully stocked bar and restaurant, that was discovered by police in 2004 – they even discovered film reels of recent movies and noir film classics!

It was that history that kept me enthralled during the 90-minute tour of the ossuary.

So, if you still think Craig and I were weird to spend 90 minutes in a subterranean mausoleum for 6 million people, just remember that the Catacombs were visited by 480 000 people during 2018 alone… which means we are by no means the only weird people in the world!

The photo shows me navigating my way through the Catacombs using my white cane.

Paris – From Royal Palace to Revolutionary Prison

The image shows a small room with keys hanging from hooks on the wall.

I wasn’t certain what to expect as I entered the door of the Conciergerie in Paris, France – the grandeur of a medieval royal palace, or the grime of a revolutionary prison. And, of course, the truth is that I found both and neither of these.

The Conciergerie was originally built as a medieval royal residence You can find elements of the original building in the vast hall used by the men-at-arms and the kitchens that still exist and can be explored by visitors. Obviously, they look very different now. Yet I found myself imagining the walls of the great hall covered with colourful tapestry wall hangings, the floor strewn with rushes, and men at arms sitting at tables or clustered near the five vast fireplaces in the room. Yet, of course, none of this remains now.

The Conciergerie took on a judicial role in the 14th Century and was partially converted into a prison. Later, during the French Revolution, which began in 1789, it was used as a revolutionary prison and court of justice. Marie Antoinette, the wife of King Louis XVI, was amongst those who were held here, and it was from here that she took her final journey to the Place de la Revolution, where Madame Guillotine stood.

Having read a few books describing the fate of Marie Antoinette, I could easily imagine her prison being small, dark, dank and miserable. But, of course, this isn’t what you see of the building now. Certainly, the corridors feel narrow and the guard room, with keys hanging from hooks on the wall (seen in the photograph) are a reminder of the use to which this part of the Conciergerie was put. But few signs of my imagined horrors of a revolutionary prison are in evidence.

The walls of one room are covered with plaques listing the names of the thousands of people who died during the French Revolution, including the deposed King and Marie Antoinette. Also listed are several leaders of the Reign of Terror, the first phase of the French Revolution, who fell from favour and were themselves guillotined, including Robespierre who died in 1794.

I’ve often been told that I have an overactive imagination. And perhaps that may be true. Yet it is that ability to create a mental image of a time and place in history that helps me to enjoy visiting historic tourist sites despite my blindness by enriching the way I experience the places I visit.

And so it was that I left the Conciergerie and returned to modern Paris, shaking off the remnants of the ghosts of former times and returning to the here and now.

The Chateau at Versailles – Such a Disappointment

The image shows a crowded roomWe didn’t get to go to the Palace of Versailles, the opulent chateau built by Louis XIV, on our last trip to Paris. I was determined not to miss it a second time.

It would be something of a nostalgic trip for me. I went there on a family trip when I was 14 years old and have clear memories of touring the Chateau with my mom in a wheelchair. Somewhere there is a photograph of us in the Hall of Mirrors in the palace. It would turn out to be my mom’s final overseas trip before her Multiple Sclerosis made it too hard for her to travel.

How bitterly disappointed I was when we retraced the footsteps of my younger self. There were so many sightseers that it was impossible to experience the grandeur of the palace. It was more like trying to make my way through a vast crowd at a rock concert – I was jostled from all sides and it was impossible for me to gain a sense of the rooms because I was powerless to stem the unstoppable horde of tourists pushing from the preceding rooms. That certainly wasn’t how I’d remembered it from my previous visit.

The photo was taken in the Hall of Mirrors, at a moment when the crowd around us thinned out a little – and I’m not kidding. I wish I could find the photo from my previous trip to illustrate the difference of my two visits, but sadly it’s long gone.

After about 45 minutes, we managed to escape the crowded palace and fled outside into the chateau gardens.

The image showa the Versailles gardens

I will say that the gardens were beautiful. And I’m not just saying that because so few people bothered to explore them once exiting the chateau. We spent a very pleasant hour wandering around the glades and arbors of the gardens past beautifully sculptured trees and classical statues, listening to the sound of bird song… and the inevitable squeals of young children playing happily on the grass.

Maybe my expectations of the palace were coloured by the nostalgic memories of my previous visit. And maybe the mists of time have left me with a kinder impression of what it was like when I was there before. Maybe the chateau wasn’t as quiet and as grand as I remembered. But I found myself climbing onto the train back to Paris with a heavy heart and a feeling of intense disappointment.

Oh well, at least the gardens were beautiful so it wasn’t a completely wasted trip.

What to Do in Paris?

Eiffel Tower, Paris, France

Having decided to travel to Paris and Normandy, we then settled down to research what we wanted to do in each destination. As you can imagine, we landed up with an impressive list of things to do and places to see.

Here’s a few of the items on our list for Paris:

• Visit the Chateau at Versailles,
• A boat ride on the River Seine
• Visit the Paris Catacombs
• Return to the Louvre
• Visit Les Invalides
• Explore the left bank of the Seine
• Visit the Conciergerie
• Get a night photo of the Eiffel Tower
• Visit Sainte- Chapelle
• Go on a street food tour of Belleville, a suburb of Paris
• Visit the Arc de Triumph
• Go on a Paris city walking tour

Over the next few weeks I’ll share a few of the highlights of our time in Paris and some of the places we got to visit. Then I’m going to move on to our time in Normandy.

Where will we be off to first?

You’ll have to wait till next week to find out!

Deciding on a Destination

Selection of flags hanging on a wall

Craig and I have a tradition. When we travel to a new country, we buy a small flag of whatever country we’ve been to. These flags are displayed in our indoor braai room –barbeque, for those who aren’t South African. So far, we’ve collected around 20 flags.

This begs the question of why our recent trip was to France, since we’ve already been there and have a flag.

The decision came out of a marathon that Craig wanted to do. It was a marathon through the winelands of Bordeaux, with an amazing array of food and wine at the various water tables. If I’m honest, it sounded almost good enough for me to consider taking up running as well. Almost, but not quite! Anyway, Craig didn’t manage to get an entry for that race, but by then we’d already started chatting about what else we could do when we were in France.

Another factor that played a role in the decision was that both Craig and I are fascinated by history. Granted, my interests focus more on ancient history while Craig tends to enjoy both ancient and modern history. As such, it seemed like Normandy would satisfy both of us – the ancient history being that of William the Conqueror, who became king of England in 1066, and the more recent history of the Allied landings in Normandy towards the end of WWII.

Okay, we also wanted a slightly smaller French flag than the one we had, since our collection – shown in the photographs – is becoming quite full. But that was only a secondary consideration.

And so it was that we spent time in France – a week in Paris and 10 days in Normandy. Over the next few weeks I’ll share a few highlights… and lowlights… of our wonderful trip with you.

Hopefully, we’ll be able to add another new flag to our collection next time we travel. But that remains to be seen – we haven’t started planning our next trip yet.

PS: How many of the flags can you identify? Sorry, no prizes for correct answers.

Paws for Thought on My Story

Fiji puppy

A Few days ago mom and I were wandering through Facebook and found this image from five years ago, when me and my brothers and sisters started puppy walking. The photo was originally posted by the SA Guide-Dog Association and was shared by my sister Faith’s mom.

From left to right, my litter siblings are Friday (black), Flanagan (black), Faron (black). Next is me (yellow, of course), and my sister Faith (yellow). On the extreme right is Finley (black).

I’m very proud of my sisters Faith and Finley, both of whom are moms of more guide dog puppies. I’m not sure why my brother Fenton and my sister Fia aren’t in the picture but know Fenton and Faith hang out together at puppy class, where they go to teach the puppies all about being a good guide dog.

So much has happened since that photo was taken – I spent a year in Johannesburg being puppy walked, moved to Cape Town and had lots of adventures during training before finally meeting my forever mom and teaching her all about being more independent.

As I stared at the picture of those happy, wide-eyed youngsters of a mere 8 weeks old, I wondered what advice I’d give to my younger self. And realized I’d simply tell her that everything was going to turn out wonderfully and not to worry about anything, to have fun and just welcome all that life was going to offer her.

Oh, and that noisy trucks and busses aren’t actually all that scary – provided you watch them carefully to make sure they behave like they ought to!

Mom asked me to tell you she’ll start posting about her recent trip to France soon.

With wags from a slightly older guide dog Fiji than the one in the photo.

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