An adventuresome holiday

I have had some pretty adventuresome vacations: Banff, where I had my closest encounter with a grizzly bear; whitewater canoeing in Ontario and Quebec; and last year, when we got uncomfortably close to the wine country wildfires.

And last month, I encountered a different kind of adventure in Portugal. It’s a wonderful place, and my lovely wife and I fully enjoyed it—with one exception.

My pocket got half-picked. More on that in a little.

Today’s hot travel destination

When we arrived in Lisbon, we were immediately surprised by how crowded everything was: streets, shops, restaurants, hotels. We usually travel in September, to avoid the summer crowds, but as the locals explained, busy season lasts almost year round now.

Roxanne’s new friend: Gallo, the rooster who came back to life to save a falsely condemned man.

We were also struck by the number of very tall people we saw. I’m 183 cm tall (6 feet—I lost an inch. Aging sucks.) Men and women towered over us. And they seemed to come from all over: the U.K., Germany, Scandinavia, North America, France, eastern Europe. I know that Brits and Scandinavians are often tall, but I was starting to feel that there was a convention for tall people in Lisbon that I was not invited to (I told you I had shrunk nearly an inch from my younger days).

The next thing we found is that the locals are almost uniformly friendly and happy to help. And the food is fantastic. Great seafood and pastries. The local favourite is a custard tart, and they are fantastic.

Prices are more reasonable than in France, Italy or California, but more expensive than the Czech Republic. The currency is the Euro, so you also have to be aware of the exchange factor—which is pretty steep for Canadians.

An exciting and beautiful city

The Elevador Santa Justa: minimum half-hour lineup.

There’s plenty to see and do in Lisbon. There is lots of beautiful architecture, lots of history. We started in the Baixa (lower) district, the centre of Lisbon rebuilt after a huge earthquake in 1755 according to Enlightenment ideas: streets laid out in a grid pattern, grand squares, graceful buildings. Many of the sidewalks and pedestrian streets are paved with mosaic-like, shiny, slippery tile that apparently has cooling properties. Portuguese pavement, or calçada portuguesa is often made into beautiful, intricate and often playful patterns.

One of my favourite parts was the Elevador de Santa Justa. Built in the 19th century, it’s really an elevator that takes pedestrians from the lower Baixa to the Alta neighbourhood.

The guidebooks warn you that Lisbon is hilly, but really, the whole country seems hilly. We did a lot of climbing. Hence elevators and funiculars in various spots.

Castelo de Sao Jorge, Alfama.

We then went to Lisbon’s oldest district, the Alfama, whose name derives from the Moorish period. It’s on a hill crowned by the Castelo Castelo de Sao Jorge. If you go, don’t miss the display of the camera obscura, the periscope built into the keep from which you can see, in real time, the city around you.

A close call near the monastery

Take the metro to the western Belem neighbourhood. Don’t bother with the coastal train. The station is inconvenient, the line-ups long and the schedule restricting. But do go to see the Padrão dos Descobrimentos, or Monument to the Discoveries. It’s 52 metres high, shaped like a caravel, the vessel used by the storied Portuguese explorers in the 15th and 16th centuries.

Not far from it is the 16th-century Torre de Belem, built to protect the city and the Mosteiro dos Jeronimos or Jeronimos Monastery.

As my wife and I crossed the foot bridge over the highway between the Tagus River and the Mosterio, I felt something on my backside. I reached back and found my wallet halfway out of my pocket. That pocket, by the way, was buttoned, but the button was gone by the time I interrupted the theft.

I turned quickly to see a young woman and a man very close behind me.

I confronted her, announcing in a loud voice to any other tourists that she had just tried to pick my pocket. She and the man with her both vehemently denied doing so. I blocked their way on the stairway down from the bridge, hoping a cop would happen by, but of course none did. Eventually, I had to let them go on their way—which was down off the staircase, and around to the stairs on the other side of the bridge to go up again.

Eventually, I did find two police officers near the Monastery, and reported the incident to them. They thanked me, warned me about crowded areas, and said they would look into it. Takeaway: don’t keep your wallet in your back pocket in areas crowded with tourists, beacause they’re a draw for thieves.

The main takeaway: if you can, do visit Portugal. Lots to see, lots to do, very warm and friendly people, lots of great food, and reasonable prices.

Niqabs and niqab bans: Both are wrong

You know the phrase “fashion statement.” The clothes we wear can be as much an attempt to draw attention, to attempt anonymity or to fit into a tribe.

Most men my age, at least in Canada, are attempting that anonymous-member-of-the-tribe look with our golf shirts and jeans. We’re saying “We’re regular guys, just give us what we want without wasting time trying to connect with us.”

Niqabs, the traditional face veils worn by some Muslim women, do all three jobs: call attention to the wearer, identify their membership in a group and produce anonymity.

In Canada and in most of the West, they also have another effect: they make most other people deeply uncomfortable. Hence the restrictions imposed on them in several jurisdictions, most recently Quebec.

The Quebec National Assembly just passed Bill 62, banning public workers as well as anyone receiving services from provincial or municipal officials from wearing any kind of face covering. That means that a woman wearing a niqab will not be able to borrow a library book or get on a bus or metro.

It’s a controversial decision. Its supporters say it enforces Quebec’s secular culture and it is not aimed at any particular religious group.

That’s transparently false. It’s anti-religious for the simple reason that there is one particular, if small group of Muslims who believe that wearing a face veil is a religious practice.

And as for not allowing ostentatious religious symbols on public property, when will those who want to enforce Quebec’s secular nature take down the giant crosses in the National Assembly or on Mont Royal?

I’m opposed to both sides

Personally, I don’t think anyone should wear a face-covering except for protection from the environment. Have you ever waited for a bus in Montreal in February?

Wikimedia Commons

I’m not a Muslim, and I will not pretend to understand the faith. At the same time, I do not believe that any piece of cloth can bring a person closer to God. Not a niqab nor a hijab, the head scarf, nor a kippa nor a plain black suit nor a beard nor a turban.

“It’s a sign of my faith.” Exactly: an outward signal that you choose to display. To the women who say not being allowed to wear a niqab in public means they won’t be able to go out at all, I say: That’s your choice. Don’t expect me to cry about it.

I’ve heard the arguments by women who choose to cover up that doing so forces men not to look at them as sexual objects, but to focus on their words, behavior and character. That’s the same argument that women are to blame for sexual harassment and rape. No. It’s up to men to respect women and treat women as people. It’s not women’s responsibility to hide part of themselves in order to force men to respect them.

Some countries that have banned face-coverings have done so because they are part of a culture of oppression of women. And there are countries that force women to cover their faces in public. It’s an oppressive, hateful practice that dresses itself up as “religion.” I reject that idea.

This is the double-edged sword of this debate: the niqab is a symptom of an oppressive society. Even women who choose to wear them have to acknowledge this.

And it’s unequal. Men don’t have to wear them. And we in Canada believe in the equality of men and women. If you don’t believe in that, you’re out of step with Canadian society.

What problem does this law solve?

Quebec’s law was not written to prevent people from wearing balaclavas or scarves. It’s intended to prevent women from wearing the niqab. The language about any face-covering and support of the secular culture is spin, designed to dance past the issues that blocked previous attempts to legislate the niqab out of existence.

Is this what we want? Image from Pinterest

Less than a century ago, cops would patrol public beaches to measure the length of women’s swimwear, to make sure they weren’t offending public decency. Is that where we want to go back to?

No. This law is about the niqab, and it will probably be struck down by the Supreme Court in a couple of years.

The bottom line

Women, if you want to wear a face covering for whatever religious reasons you have, I believe you should go for it. I reject your justification and reasoning, and you’re going to have to accept the criticism and judgement of the rest of society.

I support your right to wear, or not to wear, whatever you want. But I don’t have to respect what you wear, nor do I have to agree with your reasons for wearing it.

And if any government truly wants to be secular, they’ll take down all religious symbols, including giant crosses.

There. I think I’ve offended everyone.

Travel, beauty and writing

Tyn Church in Prague

The Gothic-era Tyn Church in Prague’s Old Square, fronted by newer buildings that now make up its entrance.

People often say travel broadens you. It opens your mind and your heart to new ideas, exposes you to different cultures and people, and tends to make you more accepting of differences.

For me, travel is also inspiring—literally. When I travel, I often get new ideas for stories and novels. These can be sparked by people I see and meet, buildings, streets, forests, coastlines—just about anything.

I recently returned from a visit to Prague and the Czech Republic. If you have been, you’ll know how beautiful that capital city is. If you haven’t been, you should put it on your list of places to visit.

The Astronomical Clock in Prague’s Old Square, built in 1410.

Prague itself is an arrangement of architecture that, for at least 700 years, has intended to embrace the current styles, yet fit in with the established buildings. As one of the travel guides points out, you can stand in the Old Square and see architecture of the Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque and Art Deco periods. And you don’t have to walk far to find later examples — the Cubist house of the Black Madonna is just steps from the square.

At least in the centre of the city, it’s hard to find a building that’s strictly functional—almost all are beautiful in some way.

The Municipal Hall is too prosaic a name for this Art Nouveau building on the National Square, home of two concert halls, including Smetana Hall.


Walking through a city that’s new to me gets my imagination going. It’s easy to think of the beginnings of stories, more like dramatic situations. But in Prague, I came up with more of a feeling or a theme than a plotline. The juxtaposition of buildings from every era of the past 700 years points to a Prague characteristic: its continual embracing of the modern while honouring, and making full use of tradition.

It brought to mind a kind of story of two people in a relationship, who are both trying to solve the same problem: one from a 21st-century approach, based in science and technology; and the other taking an older, more traditional perspective informed by psychology and religion.

This building is the home of the Hotel Paris in central Prague.

Prague has always been known as a music-loving city. Mozart loved Prague, and Prague loved him back. Today, you can find street performers at almost any time, any place—and theyre really good. These guys called themselves the De Facto String Quartet, and played a version of Stairway to Heaven that sounded terrific.

I don’t know what the problem will be, yet, nor what the plot points are. But I have the characters worked out. And it will definitely be set in Prague.

As if the architecture, art and music arent inspiring enough, Prague has immortalized its favourite native-born author, Franz Kafka, with this metallic scupture of his head. The sections rotate independently, according to some program that occasionally lines them up to reveal the writer’s likeness.

Prague really likes Kafka! This statue is in the Josefov area, the old Jewish Quarter. Maybe the head was taken for the sculpture in the previous picture.

I’ll keep you informed.

In the meantime, why not leave a comment sharing places that inspire you, and why?

What to do when the Internet goes down





No oysters for the Queen: A Victoria Day reflection

KneeBraceVictoriaDayIt’s Victoria Day in Canada, a national holiday. As comedy troupe The Irrelevant Show said, it’s “Canadians’ favourite holiday devoted to Victorian oppression and yard work.”

For those readers in warmer climes, the Victoria Day long weekend is traditionally the time to plant your garden. It’s the earliest time in the year in most of the country when we can be reasonably sure that frost won’t kill our new plants overnight.

But this year is different, at least for me, in a couple of respects.

First, we’re not really sure that we’re out of the frost season yet.

Second, I personally am not doing any yard work this spring. As readers of last week’s blog will remember, I completely tore my quadriceps tendon out of my knee last week. So I won’t be able to do any yard work. (I do not recommend this as a strategy for getting out of any work, yard or otherwise. It hurts, and with the painkillers I am on, I can’t drink any alcohol.) No digging in the soil. No spreading topsoil. No fussing over unreasonably demanding flowers. No shovelling manure.

Instead, I watched my two mighty sons, Evan the Blond Ravin’ and Super Nicolas do the work I normally do: shlepping bags of topsoil and manure, turning over soil, cutting back that bush with the purple flowers that spreads every season and transplanting parts of it to other areas in the yard, digging holes, planting annuals, etc, all under the wise supervision of my wife. I sat on a lawn chair, injured leg propped up, drinking water (remember, no booze) and watching, offering the occasional tip on best use of a spade or something highly technical like that. I’m good with that kind of specialized knowledge.

So, what do to do to mark this special Victoria Day Long Weekend? I thought it would be interesting to share something else royal with you.

A couple of years ago, when I was cleaning out my parents-in-laws’ old house, I found a clipping from the old Weekend magazine. Remember the Saturday supplement delivered with so many different newspapers across Canada? Most of the time it was pretty bland, but it did occasionally print some interesting and even controversial articles.

This isn’t controversial, but it is ironic and funny. And on a day special even for being named for a dead royal, Day, I thought you might enjoy an advice column from another time.

No Oysters For The Queen

Image by Jules Morgan, Montreal. Licensed under Creative Commons.

Weekend Magazine, February 10, 1973

After reading Robert McKeown’s article, I quietly gave thanks that I live a simple life.

Not hat I didn’t enjoy the article. I did. I love reading about the high and the mighty and how they complicate their lives with all kinds of rules and traditions.

And that is what the article is all about. Protocol. Who sits next to whom. Who gets first crack at the cold lobster and why the wife of a junior diplomat is not allowed to sit on the right hand side of a sofa.

I’m not kidding. Protocol, as played in the nations’ capitals, specifically states, “The right side of the sofa is considered the seat of honour and should not be occupied by a junior wife . . . unless specifically invited to do so.”

This handbook for the striped-pants set does have its aids, however. For instance, if you have ever considered inviting a man from a country where polygamy is practiced, but were hesitating because you aren’t sure you can put up a husband and a half-dozen wives, rest easy.

It is perfectly proper, or so says international protocol, to invite this man with the proviso that he bring only one wife.

Once he and his one wife arrive, however, I guess you are on your own. Nowhere can I find instructions as to how you are supposed to ask after the health and well-being of his other wives. I mean, does one just smile brightly and say, “So nice to see Lois again — but tell me, how are Joan and Anita and Susan and Valerie and Patricia?”

Another useful bit of information I would like to pass along is that Queen Elizabeth does not like shellfish. So the next time you are considering having the Queen in for an informal Saturday night dinner, just prior to watching Hockey Night in Canada, don’t listen to your husband.

Remember, no oysters.

All these things, and hundreds of others, have to be considered by our protocol experts in Ottawa [or Washington, Paris or any other capital–blogger] each time a formal party is tossed in swinging Bytown.

The going gets even more complicated when said party includes visiting heads of state. I mean, it wouldn’t do to get upset, or think you were being snubbed, if you were at such a party and your partner — a high ecclesiastical dignitary — did not offer you his arm when you went into dinner.

High ecclesiastical dignitaries, you understand, are not supposed to offer their arm to the lady they accompany.

I trust you feel better now that you know this.

Anyway, while I found the article fun to read, I did give fervent thanks that I was not mixed up in this kind of thing.

The protocol at my home may leave a lot to be desired — I mean, my wife still winces when I say to a guest, “You know where it is, go pour your own drink” — but life is much less complicated.

And any time a pretty girl, even if she is a junior, wants to sit on the right side of my sofa (that’s the side closest to my easy chair) she will be perfectly welcome.

After all, I do not believe in class distinction. Not at a time like that.

— Frank Lowe, Editor, Weekend Magazine (in 1973)

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What do your favourite authors like about writing? Russell Blake and Bob Nailor tell all

Why do writers write? I asked a whole whack of writers what aspect of writing do they like best, and what do they wish they could do less of? Today, two very different writers offer their responses, Russell Blake and Bob Nailor.

Photo by Wilson Afonso via Creative Commons/Wikimedia

Which element of fiction is most important to you as a writer:

Russell Blake: It’s probably equal parts plot, characterization, and action. No one of the three is superior to the other.

Bob Nailor: I find plot critical but if the characterization is bland, the plot won’t carry the story. The same holds true for setting and details. Action is necessary and sex, in my book, is an iffy thing. If you’re writing romance or erotica, yes, sex is important, but for science fiction or action novels, I find it distracting to have an “interlude” of gratuitous sex. As I see it, if you’re on the run from the antagonists, you don’t need to stop at the nearest motel for a little action there – get your butts out of town and away from the bad guys.  At that point, it is lack of true characterization.  I think it takes all the above PLUS good dialog to make a story complete with all the elements of fiction. Skimp on one aspect and you, as an author, lose a marketable story. Therefore, it takes all aspects—plot, characterization, setting, details, action, maybe sex, and dialog – for an author to blend into a tale worth reading.  Like the Three Musketeers—All for one, one for all.

What part of writing do you spend the most time on: research, writing, editing, making coffee or cleaning your work space?

Russell Blake: Writing, by far. I spend about 80 percent of my time writing.

Bob Nailor: In the beginning of a new novel, I’d say research. Writing takes some time but then the editing takes over. I don’t write the perfect story in the first pass. In fact, most of my stories take at least five to ten edit passes to get most of the kinks and errors out of them. Then it goes to a professional. I’d say that a lot of time is spent in research making sure all my story facts are lined up properly. Editing is the next biggie. As to coffee—my wife handles that hurtle and as to cleaning my work space? Don’t you dare touch a shred of paper on my desk or attempt to find something. Ask me—I know exactly where the item is located in what you assume to be total and utter chaos. It’s my filing system.

Which of these do you enjoy most?

Russell Blake: I hate cleaning, I don’t make coffee, my research is usually cursory, and as much as editing (specifically, second draft rewrite) makes a novel, I frigging hate it. That leaves what I spend 80 percent of my time doing: writing.

Bob Nailor: Uh, that would be making coffee, it’s the easiest. But, really, I’d have to admit that I enjoy writing, especially when the so-called Muse hits me and the story takes off on its own and at that point I’m just tagging along to find out what is going to happen next. Some of my most creative writing has happened during this time. I have a basic outline of what the story is supposed to be, but when it takes off on a tangent, I give it full rein and let it go. Of course, as the author, I do have the right to edit and/or delete it. Research gets a little difficult since I will find a tangent and follow it to another tangent ad nauseam. Three hours pass and I am so lost in what I was originally researching. When I started to write Three Steps: The Journeys of Ayrold I got so involved in research, I had three 4-inch binders of printed material. My research overwhelmed my story. If I had included all my research, the novel would have been over 1,000 pages.

What do you wish you had to do less?

Russell Blake: Promo.

Bob Nailor: What I hate the most is marketing. Today’s authors not only have to write the story and then edit them but also be heavily involved in the marketing of the novel. Back in the 40s and 50s, the author squirreled away in the attic and wrote. When done, he would send it to the editor at the publishing company who would correct and make suggestions. The publishing company would handle all the marketing—all you had to do was show up and sign copies. Those days are gone.

What part of writing or publishing do you think you could help other writers with?

Russell Blake: Wow. Depends on their skill level. I could do a seminar on plotting and character arcs. Ditto for how to create a compelling action, or any other kind of, scene. Discipline would be the third seminar. Branding, a fourth. Sounds like I should quite writing novels and go into the selling picks and shovels to the miners business, eh?

Bob Nailor: I like to think I am helping other authors at the current time when I do edits of their work. I try to work with new writers and show them the ropes and tricks I’ve gleaned over the years. Plus, I write a weekly writing tip—for free—to help today’s writers keep up with the changing methods of writing, editing and marketing. If you join my mailing list, it is sent to you each Monday morning to hopefully help invigorate your desire to write and get the week off to a good start.

Which of your books or other works are you personally happiest with? Why?

Russell Blake: With 45+ novels in the can, they honestly all sort of blur together. I like the first JET, and Blood of the Assassin, and the first BLACK. But I also really am fond of The Geronimo Breach and Fatal Exchange, even though they were quite early in my career, and are stand-alones. So it kind of depends on my mood. A lot of readers love the first R.E. Blake novel, Less Than Nothing. To really know, I’d need to read them all, and frankly I don’t have the time—plus, I’d probably generate a year’s worth of rewrites and edits, which would mostly only matter to me. That said, it’s rather like being asked which of your kids is the most beautiful. They all are in different ways.

Bob Nailor: I am truly thrilled with The Secret Voice for several reasons. First, the cover, a professional photograph of an Amish lad and one that I feel best exemplifies my protagonist, Daniel. Two, the story has several “true” events and some made up.  Three, I have to keep ordering more copies to cover my book signings. The Amazon details and status don’t reflect the sales I have had with this book. Of course, my non-fiction book, 52 Weeks of Writing Tips made it to #2 on Amazon’s books on editing.  My novel, Pangaea, Eden Lost has done well at book signings, too. I believe its popularity is due to the fact that like several of my books, I’ve woven facts and fiction together. I think the readers like trying to figure out which is truth and when I am blue-skying them.

Thanks, Bob and Russell, for your answers.

52a50-russell3smallFeatured in The Wall Street Journal, The Times, and The Chicago Tribune, Russell Blake is the USA Today bestselling author of over 45 books, including Fatal Exchange, The Geronimo Breach, Zero Sum, the Assassin series, The Delphi Chronicle trilogy, the JET series, the BLACK series and many others.

His non-fiction work includes the internationally bestselling animal biography An Angel With Fur and How To Sell A Gazillion eBooks In No Time (even if drunk, high or incarcerated), a parody of all things writing-related.

Blake co-authored action/adventure novels, The Solomon Curse and The Eye of Heaven, with legendary adventure author Clive Cussler, published by Penguin.

Blake lives in Mexico and enjoys his dogs, fishing, boating, tequila and writing, while battling world domination by clowns.

Russell is a proud member of RABMAD – Read A Book, Make A difference.

Visit Russell’s

And follow him on Twitter @BlakeBooks

Bob Nailor PhotosmallBob Nailor resides in NW Ohio with his wife on a small, quaint country acre. When not traveling in his RV rig for research or fun, he can be found writing or reading. In the summer there is the yard work with garden and flowers. In the cold of winter he enjoys feeding the wildlife and watching it from inside the warmth of his home.

He is an EPPIE award winner and has several books published including The Secret Voice, Pangea, Eden Lost, Ancient Blood: The Amazon, Three Steps: The Journeys of Ayrold, and 2012: Timeline Apocalypse. He is also in numerous anthologies and had short stories published spanning several genres including horror, fantasy, science fiction, romance and adventure.  You can visit his website at for a list of books and short stories, many with sample reads.

Visit Bob’s: