Set yourself free and create!

Want to revitilize your spirit? Then try something creative.

You don't have to be a Michelangelo or an Einstein. You just have to be you. Leave your worries at the door and let your mind play with the world a little bit.

Remember the character of Caractacus Potts, played by Dick Van Dyke in the movie "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang"? He locks himself up in his barn with an old wreck of a car and, after much clanging and banging, emerges days later with an amazing vehicle that can drive, float and fly.

Yes, it was a children's movie, but the process of creating something original is really about letting go of some our mental blocks, prejudices and adult concerns. Being more like children is a great way to tap into our hidden potential.

We don't all have to be great inventors, but deep down we all have creative talents that are just waiting to be discovered. The satisfaction that results is a reminder that there's something quite natural about creating. It's one of the things that make us human.

Incidentally, did you know that the "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" story was written by Ian Fleming, the very same writer who created the James Bond stories? Talk about versatility.

If you want to get YOUR creative juices flowing, the web has some useful sites.

Here are some of them:

Planning a Christmas trip? Consider warm-hearted Munich

As autumn approaches for those living in the northern hemisphere, now may be the time to think about booking winter holiday travel.

You might wish to consider a Christmas visit to Germany.

Here's a travel diary from a trip to Munich that I wrote and posted on

"I had a feeling this was going to be a good business trip when in the crowded cab one of our co-workers told the driver, with a wink to the rest of us, that our female colleague had just been released from prison. Nodding at me, he added, "And the guy in the back there is enjoying his second day of wearing men's clothes."

Through the laughter, we were taking in the sights of Munich at Christmas time.

Lying close to the Bavarian Alps on the Isar River, Munich is an enchanting city in December. Our destination was the Marienplatz, in the center of town; a venerable old square. In a tradition that dates back to the 14th century, people come from all over to shop in the unique Christmas market in the square. If you want to get in the festive spirit and are looking for a few stocking stuffers, this is the place to do it. Under a gigantic Christmas tree, vendors sell hand-crafted nativity figures, Christmas candles and painted wooden decorations. At night the stalls are brightly-lit and the atmosphere is so friendly one almost forgets it's wintertime. People stroll around with mugs of mulled wine to ward off any remaining chill.

The square is a gigantic salon, a meeting place for teenagers, business people and lovers. Anyone, really. Think of it as an elegant outdoor mall, with the gothic town hall (the "Rathaus") as the main focal point. The square has hosted markets for hundreds of years (although the Munich food market has since relocated to another square). Tournaments were often held there during medieval times. So were executions and other less severe public punishments. For a long time, the Marienplatz used to be known by another name (Schrannenplatz), but the townsfolk renamed it to thank the Virgin Mary for protecting the town from a cholera epidemic (in English, it would be called "St. Mary's Square" ).

Fortunately, thoughts of plagues and diseases are safely buried in the past. If you meet a friend in the square today, you can go for a long stroll along an extensive pedestrian zone, flanked by stately old buildings. Cars are completely absent and the wide space beckons with an invitation to take life's moments slowly, one at a time.

So that is what my colleagues and I were doing. On a side street, we stopped for a casual dinner at the Franziskaner Restaurant, a traditional beer house with good, old-fashioned cooking. We hung up our coats on the many hooks on the wall, sat on the simple wooden benches and savored "Weissbier," or wheat beer, a smooth, silky brew, a local specialty.

Later, I continued exploring the area on my own, and discovered an outdoor ice skating rink, where people were enjoying themselves under Christmas decorations and colorful stage lights. That night, skaters were gliding over a palette of colors that seemed to be held in the hand of a giant who was mixing them at will: yellows, greens, reds and blues. (No, it wasn't a beer buzz.) Music played; more mulled wine for the spectators; church bells occasionally rang out in the distance.

On the way back to the Marienplatz, I watched a couple of happy-go-lucky musical comedians entertaining the last strollers of the night with jokes and improvised versions of popular songs. Guitars under the portico and laughter; a place where people connected with each other in the spirit of the season.

I'd go back in an instant. Even in women's clothes. "

Photos: rz


On August 25th...

In 1718, colonists from France arrived in Louisiana and founded New Orleans. The settlement was named after the Duke of Orleans.

In 1875, after swimming for 22 hours, Captain Matthew Webb became the first person to swim the English Channel.

In 1944, Allied forces entered Paris, liberating the city after four years of occupation by German troops.

In 1978, the Shroud of Turin was displayed to the public for the first time in 45 years. Many believe it's the burial cloth of Jesus Christ.

See more facts at: and at

"TED" - The idea factory

Few things are as inspiring as a great speaker who finds a way to hold your attention and then sparks your inner genius.

The world of ideas is full of potential, especially when those ideas are shared in a vast arena, where millions of people can evaluate them, modify them or apply them.

This is the mission of the organization known as TED. Have you heard of it?

TED is an acronym that stands for Technology, Entertainment and Design. It began as a conference in Monterey, California, about 20 years ago. The conference was organized to bring people together from those three areas of human activity, but became so successful that it branched out into a much wider sphere.

At the conference each year, some of the world's most original thinkers are invited to give their best talk in under 18 minutes.

Bill Clinton, Richard Branson, Bono, Jane Goodall, Al Gore, Bill Gates, and Burt Rutan are just some of the speakers who have showcased their talents at the TED conference.

What's amazing about TED is that it makes the best performances available to the public for free through its web site

You can literally sit for hours and listen to these innovative leaders in their respective fields.

TED is owned by a non-profit foundation, The Sapling Foundation, whose purpose is to foster the spread of ideas to challenge some of the most important global issues and to find ways to create a better future.

The site is organized by themes like "Tales of Invention", "What's Next in Tech?", "A Greener Future", "How the Mind Works" and "What Makes Us Happy?"

TED believes powerful ideas can change the world.

As the web site says...


* An idea can be created out of nothing except an inspired imagination.

* An idea weighs nothing.

* It can be transferred across the world at the speed of light for virtually zero cost.

* And yet an idea, when received by a prepared mind, can have extraordinary impact.

* It can reshape that mind's view of the world.

* It can dramatically alter the behavior of the mind's owner.

* It can cause the mind to pass on the idea to others. "

If you're looking for inspiration, TED is one of the best places to start.

Photo credit:

Reflection on the universe

Further to yesterday's post...
Some interesting words from English astronomer Sir Arthur Eddington (1882-1944), who said,"Not only is the universe stranger than we imagine, it is stranger than we can imagine."

A little closer to home, Eddington said this about planet Earth: "We are bits of stellar matter that got cold by accident, bits of a star gone wrong."
Lucky for us.

Are parallel universes real?

Scientists around the world are debating the merits of competing theories regarding one very astounding possibility: the existence of parallel universes.

We can't see this clearly yet, but it may be that this universe may not be the only universe; this life may not be the only life we have. There may be another “you”, another “me” somewhere out there in a different space-time.

It all comes from continuing explorations in the area of quantum mechanics and quantum theory.

At the turn of the century, when physicists were grappling with that thorny problem of whether light acts as a particle beam or as a wave, it became evident that the only solution is that light exhibits both qualities. It behaves either as a beam or as a wave, depending on the circumstances.

In came quantum theory, suggesting that all matter exists in a state of pure potential. Only when measured, does matter take a specific form. At the basic level of atoms and particles, things can be in two places at once, and also move instantly somewhere else, seemingly defying the laws of physics as we know them.

It’s all very heady, but here’s a great demonstration in this video posted on YouTube, showing the now classic double split experiment.

Quantum theory isn’t new; it has been around for at least 80 years. Physicists have since moved on to working on elaborate mathematical models and experimentation. Now they no longer question the existence of other dimensions than the ones we can measure in this world. Their equations show many more dimensions are mathematically possible. The debate, then, revolves around which vision of these unseen dimensions is the most likely to be accurate. Some even wonder if our universe might one day collide with another. (!)

Scientists also are asking what the properties of these additional planes of existence might be and whether it may be possible to cross over from one to the other.

Recently, physicists conducted an experiment they claim shows sub-atomic particles doing just that – crossing over a barrier instantly, faster than the speed of light, something considered impossible.

Physicists and mathematicians continue to study these intriguing possibilities of matter and energy, with the aid of increasingly more powerful computers.

We may eventually witness what was once science fiction becoming scientific reality.
For more information, see:
Scientists find a way to measure multiple dimensions:

Special report on the quantum world:


AIDS: grandmothers helping grandmothers

In the face of a daunting challenge, it helps to look to your friends and neighbors. Start small and tackle the problem a little bit at a time.

This is one of the few philosophies that seem to yield results when it comes to the AIDS pandemic in Africa. The challenge is so massive, many are easily discouraged in the face of it.

The statistics are staggering. Millions of people in the Sub-Sahara region are infected with HIV/AIDS. Entire generations are being wiped out by the ravages of the illness. 13 million children have lost their parents to AIDS. 13 million.

In many cases, orphans can only turn to their grandmothers for help. These same grandmothers, who have had to bury their own children, are taking up the challenge of trying to raise their grandchildren in some of the most deprived areas of the world. These are the silent, unknown heroes of the continent.

Stephen Lewis, the former UN Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa, is one of the few who champions their selfless work. Drawing on the principle of people helping each other, the Stephen Lewis Foundation launched the "Grandmothers to Grandmothers Campaign" last year.
Its goals are simple: raise awareness, build solidarity and mobilize support for Africa's grandmothers.

Today more than 150 grandmother groups in Canada have connected with an equal number of groups in Africa.

Canadian grandmothers have raised more than $1 million to help the Foundation bring financial support to grandmothers in 14 African countries. According to the Foundation website, the money goes to food, schools, income-generating projects like communal gardens, counseling, and "coffins and dignified burials for their loved ones."

The grandmothers initiative has become a movement. The movement has become an example of successful grassroots activism. So successful, in fact, that it is now sparking hope for a similar campaign to bring together the world's youth.

According to the Foundation, young people between the ages of 15 and 24 represent half of the new infections. Stephen Lewis and his team now see the possibility of high schools, colleges and universities working together to support the young people of Africa. It's still an idea in its infancy, but any campaign that works at a grassroots level provides hope. And hope is essential to keep up the fight against AIDS.

For more information on the Grandmothers to Grandmothers Campaign, see:

For an overview of the Youth Making a Difference idea:

For United Nations information on world AIDS:

Language: how some phrases date themselves

Here’s a little something for those who enjoy observing the sometimes strange and sometimes curious evolution of language.

In a delightful piece in last week’s edition of The Economist, the magazine probes how clichés fall out of sync with the times.
And yet they survive.

Some examples:
Do you burn the midnight oil?
Do you know anyone still trying to jump on the bandwagon?
Do others get the riot act read to them?
Do you check if the coast clear?
In the age of nanotechnology, are some things still as complicated as rocket science?

Clichés are truly markers of society and language in transition.
Read all about it in the article here.

Sailing the high seas to commemorate the abolition of the slave trade

For some, it's the experience of a lifetime.

Small groups of American and British college students are marking the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade by participating in a unique seafaring project.

They are spending time aboard Freedom Schooner Amistad, a reconstruction of the ship that made headlines in 1839 when about 50 slaves rebelled and took over the vessel.

The near-replica of La Amistad left New Haven, Connecticut in June for a round-trip of the northern Atlantic. Over a period of about 18 months, it's sailing to Nova Scotia, Britain, Portugal and the Azores; then down to Senegal and Sierra Leone on the west coast of Africa, where the Amistad captives originated. It will then traverse the ocean again to the Caribbean, will sail up to Bermuda and then along the east coast of the United States.

The students, who board the ship at different ports-of-call, are participating in a number of special events and also posting accounts of their experiences on-line. Freedom Schooner Amistad will be dropping anchor in Liverpool for the opening of the International Slavery Museum on August 23rd.

In 1839 the slaves were being transported to Cuba when they took over the ship. They eventually landed on Long Island, New York. They were captured and jailed in New Haven. However, with the help of local abolitionists, the surviving Africans won their freedom after a legal battle that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. The captives attracted high-profile talent to defend them: they were represented by former President John Quincy Adams.

In our time, Steven Spielberg was also attracted to the story and directed the "Amistad" movie.

If you'd like to follow the voyage of Freedom Schooner Amistad, visit:
For more background, see:
The museum link in Liverpool is:
Photos credit:

Interesting world stories coming your way

In the days ahead look here for items on:

* a university project that brings students together for a unique experience in the Atlantic Ocean on a replica slave ship;
*winter exploration of Munich's "Marienplatz" square;
*an ambitious African AIDS project;
*astounding studies in physics that seem to indicate the existence of parallel universes.

Quote for today

"Blessed is he who has learned to admire but not envy, to follow but not imitate, to praise but not flatter, and to lead but not manipulate."

-William A. Ward


Notebooks are hot

While we live in exciting times of ever-growing digital media and the invention of new electronic applications almost daily, some people still prefer older tools for certain tasks.

A case in point is the tried-and-true use of pen, paper and notebook. There’s nothing like the feel of a pen flowing freely, or the light friction of a pencil scratching on a piece of paper, recording one’s thoughts or designs.

And nothing beats the portability of a good, sturdy notebook.

Ideas and feelings are captured, projects are sketched out, experiences recorded in the most personal way, with no need to worry about the power supply.

One of the most popular notebooks is the Moleskine (shown in the photo), originally made by French bookbinders for stationary shops that sold to writers and artists. The last manufacturer, a company in Tours, closed up shop in 1986. But now the pocket-size Moleskine has made a strong comeback, after a company from Milan resurrected it and began to market it worldwide.

It’s fans share ideas on Moleskinerie a fun and creative web site. It's a great place to see what people are working on and how they use their Moleskines.

If you’re energized by the creativity of others, explore Notebookism, another interesting site for people whose notebooks have become an extension of their minds.

Considering the tradition, from Leonardo da Vinci to Picasso to countless other luminaries of today, you can safely bet that notebooks are here to stay.

A great way to get around

As the price of gasoline has risen, people have been shopping around for alternative forms of transportation, particularly environmentally-friendly ones.

In North America, this summer's big success story has been the growing popularity of the Italian scooter, commonly known as the "Vespa." A lot of people (particularly women, in some markets) are buying the scooter to reduce expenses, limit harmful emissions and generally improve their commuting experience.

It's excellent on fuel consumption...and improvements keep coming. The manufacturer, Piaggio, has just introduced a gasoline-electric hybrid prototype that promises 60 kilometres on a single litre of fuel. (!)

The Vespa won acclaim right from its introduction in Italy in the late 1940s as a sturdy utility motorcycle, and then it became fashionable a decade later when Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn were featured riding together in the film "Roman Holiday."

According to company literature, the Vespa got it's name when company president Enrico Piaggio first saw a finished model, and said, "Sembra una vespa!" ("It looks like a wasp.")

For more information, try these sites:

Vespa photo from

Diversity: a toolkit for journalists

For some time, the association that brings together Canada's broadcast news directors, has been working on a number of initiatives to improve the reflection of Canada's diversity in news operations, both in front of the camera and behind the scenes.

One of these was the creation of a "Diversity Toolkit."

Presented by top Canadian journalists, it consists of a video guide for news managers, with features that review such things as the history of diversity in Canada, why diversity is good for business and how to make news content more reflective of Canada's communities.

An accompanying booklet adds material on the country's Aboriginal people, guidelines for better hiring practices and recommendations related to people with disabilities.

The Diversity Toolkit offers an interesting insight into Canada's rich demographic reality.

You can view the videos or read the booklet at this web site:

More Hemingway material...did he deplete valuable fish stocks?

A very strange question. What's this all about?

In the New York Times' weekly Book Review, Paul Greenberg examines the writer's passion for fishing, particularly for catching big fish like marlin and bluefin tuna. Nothing unusual about this; we've heard this before.

But here's the surprise: Greenberg seriously wonders whether Hemingway's hobby may have been responsible for declining fish stocks today.

The idea is not as far-fetched as it seems at first glance.

By ingenious caclulation based on photographs and historical data, Greenberg figures that Hemingway alone may have caught more than 500 marlin during his years in Cuba.

These fish, you see, never lived to reproduce; and therein lies the tale.

It's an intriguing essay, an environmental perspective with an underlying fondness for the man known as "Papa."
(Illustration is from the US Fish and Wildlife Service)

Hemingway lives on in Cuba

If you like good travel stories, if you’re interested in Cuba and if you happen to be a fan of Ernest Hemingway, you should read the article in the latest issue of Smithsonian Magazine.

Fix your favourite beverage and savour the experience.

Entitled Hemingway’s Cuba, Cuba’s Hemingway, it’s a vivid account written by his last personal assistant, who in 1960, after Fidel Castro’s communist rebels came to power, helped the novelist and his wife, Mary, reluctantly pack up and leave the country that had become so much a part of the writer’s being. Hemingway had lived on the island or maintained contacts there for thirty years.

The assistant, who was a young woman at the time, later married Hemingway’s son, Gregory.

Now, Valerie Hemingway has returned to Cuba to visit Hemingway’s farm home and his favourite places in and around Havana. She meets some of the people who knew him in their youth and discovers that, even forty-five years after his death, Hemingway is very much alive in Cuba. The people and places that inspired The Old Man and The Sea and Islands in the Stream seem to be keeping him from fading into the mists of time. His presence is palpable.

Valerie’s account is a fascinating look at an American who attained mythical status in Cuba.

And if you’re a baseball fan, there are a couple of amazing stories in this article for you, too!

Click here to read Hemingway’s Cuba, Cuba’s Hemingway. Photographs in the Smithsonian article are by Robert Wallis.

Hemingway photo in this article is a public domain picture from

If you've visited some of the Hemingway locations in Cuba, let us know what you thought of the experience. Post a comment.

Hotel in space?

Interesting story today about space tourism.

A company in Barcelona is proposing to build a hotel in space that they hope to open in 2012. Guests at the "Galactic Suite" would go around the world in 80 minutes and over the course of a three-day stay would see the sun rise many times.

Bathroom details in a weightless environment pose a serious challenge. And the cost for a weekend getaway will truly be out of this world: guests will need to have at least four million dollars available.

More details here.

A senior shows us how to think positively

They say having the right attitude is everything.

My grandmother is a case in point. At the age of 102 she's still going strong and living in a little town in Italy called Colmurano.

She still walks to the town's coffee shop/bar for a drink and a little socializing. Her health is quite good, although her short-term memory occasionally slips. She still goes to the hairdresser. The mayor frequently asks her to attend ribbon-cuttings and special events.

She loves nature and being around children and has a great faith in a higher power watching over us. During the Second World War, she was a single mom with eight children to take care of. But throughout her life, she's looked at the bright side of things. She never sees the glass as half-empty; for her, it's always half-full.

Her positive attitude is reflected in her wit. She recently made an appointment to see her doctor because she "wanted to see how he was doing." (!)

The Olympics will push change on China

Demonstrations against China's control of Tibet and other human rights concerns have contrasted this week's celebrations of the offical countdown to the 2008 Olympic Games.

With one year to go before the big event, China's communist leaders are facing criticism from dissidents and some foreign observers about the country's level of commitment to the shared humanitarian ideals of the Olympic movement. Some critics say China should not have been awarded the games in the first place, citing concerns about its authoritarian rule and the growing issue of environmental pollution.

Reasons to play and support soccer

I'm a big fan of soccer, more from the point-of-view of a player than as an observer. Here's an item I wrote for on why people should consider playing or supporting soccer:

It's not called "the beautiful game" for nothing, you know.

Soccer is a sport that combines so many positive attributes into one activity that it's hard to list them all.

Here are just a few reasons why the game deserves our support:

First, it's accessible, regardless of the players' status in society. As organized sports go, it's relatively cheap, and many of the game's brightest stars have risen from very humble roots. Think of Pele. Think of Zinedine Zidane. Unlike American football or ice hockey, for example, the equipment required is very basic and registration costs are low. Some professional players actually started out as children kicking around balls of rags on dusty village squares. It's a game that can be played by everyone.

Second, it's a simple sport to learn and play. Youngsters play soccer naturally, with very little initial instruction. One of the beautiful aspects of the game is that, as the players' skills rise, so does the strategic level of the game, until one reaches the professional level, where the sport exhibits tightly balanced moves and counter moves, and the game becomes like a spectacular form of chess, played in a vast arena. Players must think creatively and strategically and adapt to rapidly changing conditions; but at the heart of it, it's still a very simple game.

Third, soccer is a perfect combination of individual activity and team strategy in which players hone their skills and find ways to exhibit personal style, while at the same time, work closely as a team if they hope to achieve any measure of success.

Fourth, soccer is a game where scoring is not the only thing that matters. Smart, creative, heads-up play is just as important to coaches, players and spectators. In South America, for example, spectators cheer innovation and grace under pressure, qualities we can all appreciate in life.

Fifth, it requires and produces exceptional player fitness. It's a game in which players move constantly at various speeds and in various directions for ninety minutes, with very few interruptions. Players accelerate forward and move laterally all the time.

Soccer is a game that was born well before the age of television, and as such, is a game of fluidity and constantly changing pace. It's a game that is a pleasure to watch because it does not require constant huddles, consultations on the sidelines or time-outs for commercial breaks.

These are just some of the reasons to play and support soccer. Soccer is fun and exciting. It's accessible to all, develops a high level of aerobic endurance and muscular ability and requires good strategic thinking.

Oh, and kids take to it with the same innate sense of joy as playing tag in fields of wheat on a windy day.

Public transportation in Paris

Further to my note in favour of better public transportation, read the item below that appeared in the New York Times in July.

Editorial writer Serge Schmemann describes how the city of Paris is providing incentives for people to use public transportation and bicycles in an effort to reduce automobile congestion and pollution.

The French have adopted novel solutions to problems before, and gridlock is another problem that is attracting special attention.

City officials have made tens of thousands of bicycles available to commuters and have built special lanes for public transit.

These are bold moves that should inspire other municipalities around the world.

Click here to read Schmemann's article called "I Love Paris on a Bus, a Bike, a Train and in Anything but a Car."
Here's a link to Technorati that you might like to try:

Add to Technorati Favorites

Vancouver's Stanley Park

The first time you venture inland from the seawall that borders Vancouver's Stanley Park you realize instantly that you're treading on hallowed ground: one thousand acres of centuries-old, sky-reaching trees that quite simply take your breath away. These monuments of nature tower around you and overpower you with the scents of cedar and fir. If you wanted to wrap your arms around one of their trunks, you'd need three friends to do it. And as you step into the forest, the sounds of Vancouver's busy West End mysteriously fade away and you are enveloped in tranquility. Walking along the park's trails, you are drawn to the mystical; the combined stillness and energy of the place seeps into your being and awakens your senses in a way that must be experienced to be understood.

What city in the world can claim to have a park of this size, home to approximately half a million trees, within easy reach of its downtown? Little wonder, then, that Vancouver's citizens take such pride in it and were so moved by the effects of a devastating wind storm in December of 2006 that they pledged more than three million dollars to a special fund to restore the damaged areas of this unique urban forest.

Larger than New York's Central Park and jutting into the channel that leads to Vancouver's harbor, the park was opened in 1888 and dedicated to Lord Stanley, Canada's Governor General, in 1889. More than a park, this natural playground, bordered by mountains and the Pacific Ocean, is a testament to environmentalists who were well ahead of their time.

In 1886, the citizens of Vancouver, working through their city council, approached the Canadian government in Ottawa asking to lease what was then a logging peninsula in order to convert it for park and recreational purposes. The city council set up an elected committee to govern all parks in Vancouver, and today the Vancouver Board of Parks and Recreation is said to be the only elected body of its kind in the country.

Stanley Park is separated from the ocean by a seawall that is more than five miles, or eight kilometers, long; a paved ribbon that attracts walkers, cyclists and skateboarders who take in the sea air and admire the Lions Gate Bridge that connects downtown Vancouver to the North Shore of Burrard Inlet. In the summer months, enormous cruise ships pass underneath the suspension bridge on their way up the coast to Alaska's glaciers. Walking at a steady pace, it takes about two hours to complete the seawall circuit, so be sure to wear appropriate footwear.

On a recent early evening, I was walking along the western seawall at low tide when, no more than fifty paces away, a pair of bald eagles suddenly swooped down from the trees and, talons outstretched, stole a fish from a seagull that was perched on a large rock in the water. Unperturbed by either the angry seagull that dive-bombed them and cried vehemently, or by the human onlookers that had stopped to watch, the pair of large eagles had their meal. Once close to extinction, bald eagles have made a remarkable comeback on the West Coast.

Further along, at Second Beach, three swimmers swam lengths in the park's public pool, quiet now and relatively still as dusk approached. The wide facility, with a connected wading area for children, is an elegantly designed infinity pool, with its edge matching the horizon and creating the optical illusion of the ocean and the pool being one and the same.

It was a splendid evening, with Vancouverites gathering on the beach at English Bay. People with guitars emerged, couples held hands and sat on logs laid out on the sand, seniors and children alike were talking amiably -- all there to enjoy the sunset. A little off to the side of the path, by the tennis courts and behind the building that houses the Board of Parks and Recreation, rose a cacophony of cries, a curious sound like turkeys gobbling and cats fighting. Looking up into the height of the trees, you could see many families of blue herons nesting. A wooden rail had been erected to keep people on the sidewalk; a raccoon combed the ground at the base of the trees. Droppings covered the leaves.

Overlooking the beach, diners at the Boathouse Restaurant sat on the open deck and talked quietly as the sun slid down behind Stanley Park and the distant mountains on Vancouver Island; watched freighters in the bay turn on their lights as the flat sea turned a silvery gray. Two kayakers paddled softly home and glasses and cutlery tinkled over the boardwalk.

A visitor senses that Vancouver's people know full well they've been entrusted with a gift of nature; something worth preserving, just as the park's founders intended more than one hundred years ago.

(This item is also posted on )

My pitch for free transportation

I wrote this item for an on-line debate on

If we can agree that government has some role to play in our lives, then let's at least make it a positive one.

Consider the benefits of free, fully-subsidized public transportation: first, it will motivate more people to leave their cars at home. Think of the reduction in pollution and traffic congestion and insurance costs due to accidents. Greener cities, safer cities, more livable cities. More room for parks and trees. Think of the money we'll all save by consuming less gas, spending less frequently on car repairs, and so on. That money will stay in our wallets and we could then turn around and give the economy a boost by spending it on other consumer goods or services. More jobs.

Secondly, we must consider the health benefits. We'll all walk a little more. This will reduce visits to doctors' offices and hospitals because we'll be healthier. We'll have improved blood pressure, lower stress and possibly a better complexion.

In addition, free transportation will encourage us to enjoy the company of our friends and family. It will become much more feasible to safely drink another glass of wine at the restaurant or have that extra beer at the family gathering. We'll avoid the worry of getting behind the wheel with a blood-alcohol level that's above the legal limit. Fewer accidents, fewer tragedies, lower costs of policing and reduced court backlogs. The increased public expense in transportation should pay off in the form of reduced health care costs and a safer society.

Then think about some of the other social benefits: imagine how much we'll learn from each other when we share rides instead of sitting in isolation in our cars. Talking to the neighbors might come back into fashion. More people will meet and talk and maybe even help each other. What a concept!

Having someone else drive us will also give us more time for reading books and newspapers. We'll be more informed and perhaps make better decisions come election time.

So.. park your car and use it for your dream vacation.

No more fumbling for change...just hop on and off the streetcar or bus wherever and whenever you like. What a great idea, especially for those who live in congested, polluted cities. It will renew life on our streets.

So I can't agree more with this proposition. Let's go for it!

Summer experiences as a teenager in Italy

The 1970s in Italy were known as the "Years of Lead," because of a series of shootings and assassinations related to the Red Brigades terrorist group. But despite that climate of uncertainty and fear, the 70s were for me a time of exploration and personal growth. I was a visitor there in the summers of my youth, rediscovering the city of my birth, Torino (Turin), and I have fond memories of that period.

I was in my early teens and everything held interest for me. The city was in fact an enormous stage. Torino was, and still is, a place of wide, tree-lined avenues, pedestrian areas, and piazzas set among buildings of typical northern Italian architecture. Early in its history, the Romans came and built up an existing settlement, transforming it into a walled town. It sits on the banks of the Po River that flows down from the nearby Alps, and its location on the fluvial plain offers majestic views of the mountains.

My family would visit my grandfather in the summer. He lived on Via Luca della Robbia, a street of apartment buildings and small businesses that faced onto a small triangular park covered in gravel, with benches and a children's play area. My family would visit him in the summer. He was in his late sixties, a widower, and he shared a home with his sister. The house backed onto a small tool and die factory that rented the space from him. My early memories of that place were of my brothers and me playing in the dusty courtyard that also served as the driveway for the factory. The machines ran pretty much all day, but neither they nor the daily deliveries ever stopped us from a good soccer game with a beach ball.

I visited many relatives, during those summer vacations, in various parts of town. The best way to get around was on the Number 6 tram that started its run from in front of a discount shoe store around the corner. I still remember the smell of new leather wafting around the transit stop. I would usually travel with my parents or with my grandfather. My "nonno" was an elegant dresser who never went anywhere without his Borsalino fedora or a jacket, no matter how warm the weather. He was a dignified man and we all admired him.

The streetcar would roll down Corso Francia to Piazza Statuto and on to the center of town near Piazza Castello. Each trip opened up new experiences for me, as I had grown up outside of the country and wasn't used to the way of life there. Most mornings we'd stop at the market, where under tent-like canopies, we'd catch up on the neighborhood news, surrounded by the smells of fresh produce and the sounds of vendors shouting the specials of the day. My grandfather would tell us stories about many of the people we'd meet and I soaked it all up.

The undercurrents of life in Torino would flow through these trips. The proud locals, known as "Piemontesi," would grumble about the influx of laborers from Southern Italy, drawn to the city by the many manufacturing jobs generated by the auto giant FIAT, whose factories were located in and around the city. These working families from Calabria and Sicily would bring their own traditions and lifestyle to Torino, and the Piemontesi didn't always like it. The city had, for a short period in the 1860s, been the capital of Italy, and the residents clung to a certain collective sense of decorum . They were shocked by the number of migrants who shared apartments in poverty. One story that made the rounds was that some families even filled their bathtubs with soil and apparently tried to grow tomato plants in them, instead of using them for regular washing. I have no idea whether this was true or not, but it left an impression on me, more because I became aware of the divisions between people than the alleged facts of the story.

Torino's downtown, in contrast to some of those large affordable housing developments, is still a place of stately promenades. Fancy storefronts are set back from the street under some of the longest porticoed pedestrian areas in the world. Its coffee houses rival those of Paris or Rome and the espresso and chocolates sold in them are among the best in the world.

But the 1970s in Italy, as we said earlier, were turbulent years. The Red Brigades, a Marxist-Leninist terrorist group, were conducting a bloody campaign to topple the government and force the country to abandon its membership in NATO. Several prominent officials were assassinated. Terrorists kidnapped wealthy industrialists for ransom money. Banks and jewelry stores were also common targets for robberies. As a result, many of these public buildings were turned into fortresses, with bullet-proof windows and guards standing watch with automatic weapons in hand. I was fascinated by police activity on the roads, with officers driving very fast through traffic in their Alfa Romeos, sirens wailing. It was somewhat disconcerting as a young teenager to see all of this, but also somewhat thrilling, to tell the truth.

In my quieter moments, I enjoyed walking the avenues with their large trees, the roads radiating out in Roman fashion from the center of town in all directions. In the autumn, I relished the unique smell of charred leaves, burned when the trolley poles from the streetcars sparked on the wires near the tree branches. The fall also brought out street vendors selling roasted chestnuts, a delicacy in the region.

But the summer brought the most pleasant experiences for me. And while the whole city was fascinating, it was my grandfather's neighborhood that brought it into focus for me. The time with him was special. He was a retired foreman who had worked at a custom vehicle body shop, overseeing the transformation of standard production cars into ambulances, hearses and other special-purpose vehicles. He enjoyed our visits greatly, and would sit at his worn, wooden table in the kitchen, holding on to his glass mug filled with his favorite red Barbera wine; a pose that on that large table sometimes made him look like a shipwrecked sailor who had developed a fond attachment to the lifesaver that kept him above the waves. He would look at us over his rosy cheeks and we would talk about everything.

He was a rotund man with an impish sense of humor and was a joy to be around. At the age of 67, he once joined my brothers and me, suit and all, in a maniacal sprint along more than sixty meters of sidewalk to see who'd make it home first. He was astoundingly fast and I can testify he did not come in last. We might've killed him that day; but he had a source of inner strength that came from somewhere deep and mysterious.

In the mornings, I'd accompany him to buy milk, eggs and a newspaper at the dairy on the corner. I still remember the shop owner vividly; a tall, bald man in his sixties with a dramatic horseshoe-shaped indentation in his forehead that was said to have been caused by a horse or donkey kicking him when he was young. I never found out how accurate that was, because I was far too embarrassed to ask him myself, just as today I would be reluctant to ask someone in a wheelchair what dreadful accident led to their legs being paralyzed. By looking at him, I could certainly believe the story, but I couldn't get my tongue to move.

Just a few doors down from the dairy, people would go in and out of the local bar, a typical Italian place that served coffee of all types in the morning and then started serving alcoholic drinks at around noon. Most nights after dinner, my brothers and I would accompany my grandfather for a stroll and he would buy us gelato and then stay and chat with the barista and the clientele over a "caffe' corretto," coffee bolstered with a shot of cognac or grappa. While he talked, hat on the counter, we'd compete against each other on the pinball machine. Those were magical summer nights. The entire neighborhood seemed to step outside after 9 PM, as adults and children alike descended on the little park. People walked their dogs, children played and couples sat on the benches and talked and talked; sometimes until after midnight. A watermelon concession, set up on one end of the parkette, lit up with fluorescent lights, offered lawn chairs and attracted customers until the early hours of the morning.

I remember sitting at the window of my grandfather's house watching the girls come and go, stealing furtive glances at them and they at me in a kind of unspoken game. I had a particular crush on a tall girl with black hair, who used to walk up and down in a short dress and high-heeled sandals, always in the company of friends, joking and laughing. She was a bit awkward, too. Flat-footed, she walked with a slight limp because for some reason one leg was shorter than the other, but that never seemed to bother her. We had a connection going, and she warmed my young heart. Then, one night, I felt my feelings plunge into my stomach like dishwater going down the kitchen drain as I watched her stretch her long legs and straddle the back of a green Kawasaki, wrap her arms around the waist of a twenty-something guy from across town, who then powered away to somewhere or something far more exciting.

My Torino is tied to that neighborhood and that period of my life. As I grew older, I learned and appreciated other aspects of the city and its people. Over time, I changed and the city changed; but in my mind the memories of that corner of Torino, at that particular time, won't.
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