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?

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.

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