The Pyrenees, Pints and Paella: A Taste of the Camino

You have to be hungry to walk the Camino de Santiago. Flexible, hungry and adaptable to an all-or-nothing menu. Caloric output allows for daily indulgences of all sorts as the average pilgrim sweats out several gallons of wine, pastries and wheels of cheese in the span of 30km.

However, when the population of a sleepy Basque village is 51 (including cows), dinner options can be slim. Sometimes dinner becomes an impromptu affair of stale, broken crackers; warm beer, some peanuts and a questionable hard-boiled egg that has been bounced around a backpack for 72 hours.

On luckier days, refueling is a celebrated event with savoury venison stew, pillowy, still-warm baguette and wedge of moist almond cake, bright with lemon zest. Sometimes it’s a rich paella, an unforgettable traditional dish that one blindly devours after crossing the daunting Pyrenees into Spain. It was the dish that quickly became synonymous with The Way and for 34 days after our first encounter, it was the menu item that we searched and longed for night after night from the Navarra region to Finisterre.

It made sense to ask my former food editor at Harrowsmith to try and duplicate our coveted experience. I knew Signe Langford (writer, chef, recipe developer and bon viveur) would be able to create an unconventional take and twist on the paella, reminiscent of our edible adventures on the Camino. And this is where I hand it over to the expert…

A More Authentic Paella Canadiana

By Signe Langford

Paella is one of those dishes many make but few make well. Admittedly, I’ve not eaten paella in Spain, but I have eaten it – made to varying degrees of deliciousness – in Spanish restaurants. Also, as a kid of the 1970’s my mother would trot out her very own version for company. She even had a special pan for the occasion: a gorgeous, red and white Danske number, which she would then load with Uncle Ben’s rice, canned shrimp, chicken legs, frozen peas, and a few tragically old threads of saffron. I was scolded for picking through the Minute Rice for the tiny pink cocktail shrimp and her guests were always terribly impressed. Father was very free with the booze; my parents and their friends were cocktails-not-wine-with-dinner people, and that may have helped the paella. A lot. 

With this recipe, I’m hoping to achieve two things: redemption for the memory of my mother’s Paella Canadiana, and to honour the memory of Jules’ transformative trip. And yes, I still have my mother’s gorgeous Dansk paella pan.

This variation is based on Paella Iberian Tipica. Purists will tell you, you must use rice from Valencia. I could not find rice from Valencia. As long as it’s a short grain rice, it’ll be fine. You do need a wide pan otherwise you’ll really be making a kind of gummy, over-garnished risotto. Don’t cover the pan; the water needs to evaporate as it cooks. Another thing purists will tell you is once the rice has been added to the pan, there may be no more stirring. Good luck with that. I stirred just a few times, to prevent too much sticking. Also, this is not a casserole. Do not bung it in the oven and forget about it. Make it on the stovetop or go all in and build a fire or fire up the grill. And pour yourself a glass of Rioja; you’re going to be here a while.

First make the Sofrito…

1/4 cup olive oil

3 onions, chopped medium-fine

3 cloves garlic, minced

1 green pepper, diced medium-fine

2 tomatoes, coarsely chopped

Into a large pan over medium to medium-low heat add the oil and all of the ingredients. Stirring often, cook until everything is soft and the onions are translucent. Do not brown. About 15 minutes. Makes about 4 cups.

Then, for the Paella…

4 cups chicken stock

8 saffron threads; or a good pinch

1/4 cup olive oil

sea salt to taste

black pepper to taste

2 chicken legs with back attached; broken down into 4 – 6 pieces

2 chorizo sausages, sliced into large pieces

4 small squid with whole tentacles; cleaned, sliced into rings about 1/4 inch thick

1/2 teaspoon Spanish paprika; I like smoked Spanish paprika

1-1/2 cups Spanish paella rice; or any short-grained rice

1 can artichoke hearts, quartered, drained

20 clams, scrubbed

20 mussels, scrubbed and de-bearded

1/2 cup peas, frozen or fresh

2 roasted red peppers, peeled, seeded and cut in strips; jarred is fine

lemon wedges to garnish

Into a small saucepan over medium-low heat, add chicken stock and saffron; simmer.

Season the chicken pieces with sea salt and pepper to taste.

Add oil to paella pan set over medium heat; brown chicken pieces on all sides. Add the chorizo to brown. After about 10 minutes, add the squid.

After about 5 minutes, add the sofrito and paprika; stir to combine.

Sprinkle the rice over the top and shake the pan to even it out. Add about 3-1/2 cups of the chicken stock and saffron to the pan, and bring to a gentle boil.

Reduce heat to a low and allow rice mixture to simmer. Add clams and nestle them down into the simmering rice.

If using fresh peas sprinkle them in now; frozen peas can go in at the last minute.

When the clams begin to open, nestle in the mussels too.

Cook uncovered until the liquid has been absorbed and the mussels and clams have opened. Discard any that did not open.

If the rice isn’t quite done yet, add more broth and bring back up to a simmer.

When the paella is looking dry (done), remove from heat, and allow to rest, covered with foil for about 10 minutes.

Right before serving, garnish with the strips of roasted pepper and lemon wedges.

Serves 6 (or possibly two, if you’ve crossed the Pyrenees.

To trigger further cravings, Jules Torti’s memoir, Trail Mix: 920km on the Camino de Santiago (Rocky Mountain Books), is now available wherever you buy your books! If you’re not moved to walk the historic pilgrimage route, be forewarned that you might mysteriously find yourself longing for Iberian ham, tarte de Santiago and lazy nights of delicate tapas with a generous pour of Rioja red. And paella, of course.

For visual learners, come tag along on the Camino with us!

The video is 6 minutes, not 35 days long! And be sure to check out our recent experience walking the lunar landscape and olive plantations of the 150km Camino Krk, in Croatia.

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The Bathtub Book Club: Life is Good–The Book

The book: Life is Good: The Book by Bert and John Jacobs (National Geographic, 2015)

The beer: The Little Things by Port Perry’s Old Flame Brewing Co. This Hefeweizen is pure sunshine in a pint glass. The seasonal German Wheat beer “celebrates the little things that we’ve missed over the past tumultuous year, and what we can begin to look forward to.” It’s a reminder that life is good and beer is good too.

The who: For entrepreneurs, anyone in the gig economy, dreamers, optimists, those who look for the perfect (and find the perfect) gift for friends and family, for jeans + t-shirt kinda people and anyone who is seeking a summerlicious read that is as light as Cool Whip and a whippet.

The part you’ve been waiting for: Everyone has owned and loved a Life is Good something-or-other—a t-shirt or go-to coffee mug or hat that has gone tramping and been trampled. Here’s what you might not know: the socially-conscious tee company began evolving back in 1989 by two bros, Bert and John. They made tracks (in both senses) in “The Enterprise” (a mini-van) and committed to “boldly go where not t-shirt had gone before.” Under the guise of “Jacobs Gallery” the twentysomethings (then age 22 and 25) sold t-shirts door-to-door at every uni dorm that would let them in and in 1994 adopted the Life is Good moniker.

Jake and Rocket (Jake’s sidekick dog) now have the same universal brand recognition as the Nike swoosh and Wendy’s pigtails. In six years, the boys saw their revenue catapult from seventy-eight bucks to three million annually.

They wanted to build a biz together that required no experience, no professional skills and no money. Check, check, check! Bert had a communications degree which earned him a steady pizza delivery job in a Colorado ski town. John, admittedly, majored in English and Wiffle ball at Cali State.

Their mother insisted that they be “free-range humans” and encouraged floundering. “There’s no place like roam,” became the modus operandi as Bert and John embraced street hawking long enough to land some needed warehouse space. It was a golden era and not-so-HR-friendly. Signage in the warehouse indicated directions to the “Band and Bar” and “Pong and Make-Out Room.” Civilized, really.

Their well-loved designs continue to be derived from a carefree, boho workplace. Inspired by Dr. Seuss, Bert and John wanted to unlock dormant imaginations and release fun. They established a non-profit (The Playmakers) and organized Life is Good festivals that sometimes revolved around pumpkin carving (in 2006, attendees carved 30,128 pumpkins).

Within the book, their sweet success story is infused with “Fuel” letters from devotees like Doug and his Life is Good hat. He described his hat like a best friend—it had been run over by a semi, set on fire, put out a fire, lost, found, frozen, blown off in the Grand Canyon, dropped in a Porta-a-John and had been to 19 states. The impact of their clever designs is far-reaching, ageless, genderless and timeless.

It’s a mash-up of feel-good, Boston childhood memories and superpowers (they’re easily attained—they include the likes of creativity, fun and simplicity!). There are sidebars of song lists, necessary movies and trivia like the April Fool’s joke they duped fans on. They promoted a Peanut Butter and Jelly cologne and its “sweet smell of optimism.” Everyone bit! It was all a nutty lark but the guys know how to pull a guaranteed punk.

Life is Good is now a $100 million company. They donate 10% of their profits to kids (The Life is Good Kids Foundation). They offer more than the shirt off your back! The company has expanded to include Life is Good Adventures to help you “find your happy place” in Montana, Utah, Alberta and Costa Rica. Here, or there, your mobile device will be a bike or kayak and your reality TV is the forest.

Their bone-deep motto of “do what you love, love what you do” reverberates on their company Careers page.
“Truth be told, we’re a motley crew (not the band, but we do love a good jam) of talented optimists who like to play as hard as we work. Interests include: tails & paws, bad singing, beer, endless snacks, spreading positivity however we can, and YOU.” (*Workplace perks include a free gym, onsite tavern and in-house band).

The guys who once hawked t-shirts out of their dumpy van now have an inventory list that includes tire covers, socks, beach umbrellas, “Seas the Day” Adirondack chairs, throw pillows, totes made out of recycled sails, flip flops, dog toys and paddle boards for crying out loud.

It’s a story of one van, two brother and three words: Life is Good.

Here’s your homework: Pop a piece of watermelon Hubba Bubba in your mouth, kick back and blow bubbles with a wet dog at your feet and the sun on your shoulders. This book will make you think “what next?” What could I hawk out of a van? And my god, if you have an idea to do something unexpected and possibly incredible, do it. Bert and Jacob did.

If you love Life is Good, read this:

Only Two Seats Left: The Incredible Contiki Story by John Anderson. This memoir is a remarkable recount of the no-looking-back risk New Zealander Anderson took in 1962 when he boldly (and blindly) established the renowned tour company Contiki Holidays. The ending will break your heart but there’s probably a Life is Good t-shirt for that.

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The Bathtub Book Club: Diary of a Young Naturalist

The book: Diary of a Young Naturalist by Dara McAnulty (Greystone Books)

The beer: Whiskeyjack Beer Company Cold Front Cream Ale (*the liquid air-conditioning equivalent of a -40C Northern Ontario winter day) or Climate Change Summer Wheat by London, Ontario’s playful Toboggan Brewing.

The who: For anyone who is solar-powered and prefers more hours outside than inside. For those who come home from an aimless walk with acorns in their pockets and a tiny goldfinch feather in their grip. For nature photographers, birdwatchers and those stuck in the city with a few herbs and pigeons on their balcony. For those who were shut out of the Ontario Parks system, disenchanted that they couldn’t book a campsite back in February because everything was reserved. For anyone missing something intangible.

The part you’ve been waiting for: It wasn’t premeditated, the pattern emerged after the fact. Six of the books I’ve read this year have revolved around inward and outward journeys. Three have chronicled the seasons and the syrupy passage of time, deeply steeped in nature and its comforting rhythms (The Earth Almanac, Seed to Dust, this very book). Three involved daunting commitments to the road and elements, on foot or bike saddle (No Thanks, I Want to Walk; Dude Making a Difference, Bicycling with Butterflies). All of the books centered on nature’s bull’s eye in an obvious or surreptitious way. Collectively, the authors wanted readers to notice it, immerse in it, become aware of it, lean into it. Grow it. These books have been a lifeline to normalcy. The pandemic swallowed wonder and awe in one gulp and replaced it with anxious days and a barrage of questionable info and stats. Diary of a Young Naturalist is reassuring, hopeful, and astonishingly necessary introspective.

I wanted an escape from our landlocked travel restrictions and a big dose of natural wonder. Dara McAnulty’s memoir offers both in one satisfying swoop. The wilds of McAnulty’s Northern Ireland surrounds are the trailhead to a joyous year-long romp. His diary is far from the usual teen blabber about Bieber, TikTok whatever teens talk or don’t talk about these days. I have no idea, but he is the breed of 16-year-old I’d chum with.

Peppered with incredible knowledge about bird behavior, curious insect habits and the shifting seasons, McAnulty’s acute awareness and sensitivity is startling. There’s an undercurrent of annoyance with the flat-footed response of adults to the climate emergency at our doorstep. He’s awed by the life-affirming natural world found in resilient seabirds and dirt-deep beetles—you will be too.

McAnulty gently integrates the isolation he experiences from bullying and shares his difficulties in knitting friendships. His younger brother, sister and mother are all on the autism spectrum. He yearns for acceptance and shies from it, all the while insisting, almost more importantly, that we can’t accept the earth’s demise as fate.

It’s far from preachy (think Greta Lite). It’s a trigger read to be more observant, always. You’ll learn so much—about the tympanal membrane of grasshoppers, goshawk banding, curlew bill mechanics, swallow migration and magical spots like Tollymore forest (oak from Tollymore was used in the interior of the Titanic).

Decompress with the grounding imagery and vitality of Diary of a Young Naturalist and take note. Go for a long walk. Ready, reset. Go.

If you love this book:

Read Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim At Tinker Creek, stat!

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The Bathtub Book Club: Bicycling with Butterflies

The book: Bicycling with Butterflies—My 10,201-Mile Journey Following the Monarch Migration by Sara Dykman (Timber Press, 2021)

The beer: Everyday Magic Hazy IPA by Sawdust Brewing Company. It’s lush, hazy and a perfect partnership for the lazy, hazy days of summer. Plus, there’s a Monarch on the can art.

The who: For everyone who has planted or encouraged a pollinator-friendly garden, for citizen scientists and those who love crazy long bike rides with the wind in their hair. For readers who are hungry for a motivational memoir that’s a beautiful balance of adrenalin, biology, whimsy and intelligent writing.

The part you’ve been waiting for: When Sara Dykman decides to follow the migration route of the Monarch butterfly from Mexico northeast to Ontario, it’s not fancy. Her vehicle is a 1989 Specialized Hardrock bike. In a statement against consumerism (and theft), the tried-and-true Hardrock is wholly reliable with some DIY additions. She comically and practically uses cat litter containers as panniers to keep her rain gear, homemade stove and watercolour set safe. It’s an ambitious load and route—70 pounds of gear! In contrast, the weight of four Monarchs is the equivalent to a dime.

At age 32, she’s lean and mean and okay with washing her underwear in a cooking pot. For many butterfly-less days, it’s bike, camp, repeat. Dykman soon proves to be a genuine wingwoman for the Monarch’s well-being and future and her MO is to bridge the long-distance relationship between people and the butterflies.

Dark shadows loom over the wintering grounds of the Monarchs in Mexico. In 2020, the deaths of two Monarch conservationists were reported. While tourism is being fostered, the logging industry is synonymous with wealth, not canopy tours. The illegal deforestation leaves “stumps like headstones” and coupled with climate change, the Monarchs need all the attention they can get.

In January 2002, a severe storm decimated the colonies with an estimated 200 to 275 million killed. Mass graves were reportedly 13” deep in places. It’s not all heartbreak–but it’s a necessary evil. There is triumph and change. There are road signs in some areas indicating Monarch crossings, with a request for motorists to reduce speed from 90 to 60km during migration.

Dykman delivers a concise mobile ground zero report with education about the species, right down to their Kama Sutra 16-hour long paraglider sex sessions. You’ll learn an enormous amount about milkweeds (100 species!), instars, frass (caterpillar crap), butterfly tagging, exoskeletons in the closet, pupa and the dramatic chrysalis.

Her street cred is impressive: she has studied sea turtles in Hawaii, reptiles in Wyoming, toads in California, frogs in Montana and Nevada tortoises. Her patience, curiosity, dedication and ability to share her sometimes topsy-turvy journey in a humorous way generates the true butterfly effect. As she follows the migratory Central Flyway and Eastern Flyway (that is shared by birds as well) it’s a from-the-trenches report on the effects of GMO crops, Roundup and the collateral damage suffered by milkweeds and Monarchs.

Dykman’s transformation as she follows the kaleidoscope of butterflies is a wonder to observe as it unfolds. In between the miles, there’s introspection and exhausted dinners of sunflowers seeds and salad dressing on bread. Or, sometimes, cereal and honey butter sandwiches. Her writing is frank, uplifting, informative and gorgeous. She describes the Monarchs as they should be—as “nature’s stained glass.”

She is the first person to follow the entire migratory route—a daunting, windblown commitment of 255 days on the road (with a few sleepovers in culverts). Bicycling with Butterflies is an optimistic, empowering memoir that will make your heart skip and follow every precious Monarch that crosses your future path. Yes, you’ll be changed.

If you loved Bicycling with Butterflies, you’ll love this one: Dude Making a Difference—Bamboo Bikes, Dumpster Dives and Other Extreme Adventures Across the USA by Rob Greenfield (New Society Publishers, 2016)

Rob Greenfield’s ride is equally enormous and inspiring. Hop on his handlebars and cruise across the United States as he jams out 4,700 miles on a bamboo bike in 104 days. His mission isn’t about Monarchs but it certainly helps their cause. Greenfield’s journey revolves around near-zero-impact travel. He chooses to drink water that would be wasted from faulty fire hydrants, discarded cups of ice in convenience store trash cans, ice melting in fountain soda machine trays, dripping AC units and dehumidifiers. His menu is ever-changing as he relies on the discards found in dumpsters. In 104 days, Greenfield doesn’t take a single shower or buy one bottle of water. And, to the benefit of the butterflies and Dykman’s cause, he distributed ‘seed bombs’ in ditches along his route leaving only a legacy behind.

Cheers to the Everyday Magic of seed bombs and Monarchs….

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The Bathtub Book Club: Open House–A Life in Thirty-Two Moves

The book: Open House: A Life in Thirty-Two Moves by Jane Christmas (Harper Collins Canada, 2020)

The beer: Stratford, Ontario’s Jobsite Brewing Co.’s 2×4 Cream Ale, dedicated to the most common size of lumber used in the construction industry. Some crunchy facts: Founders Dave Oldenburger and Phil Buhler worked together in construction for nearly a decade. They hatched their brewery plan during a coffee break, bought an old lumber yard, demo’d and reno’d it and moved from sawing logs to lagers.

The who: HGTV junkies, anyone who has built an IKEA bookcase, everyone who has moved more than once, those who comb MLS listings like Tinder and especially those who feel out of sorts if they haven’t been to a Home Depot or Home Hardware twice a week. For those who hear the word “bear” and think “Behr” and debate the merit of Shoelace over White Flour white paint.

The part you’ve been waiting for: My wife and I have moved 32 times–combined. Jane Christmas has achieved the same feat independently and still can’t shake the momentum. I found instant kinship. While Christmas looked at 60 homes in England’s “stonking-hot” 2017 market, Kim and I prowled through 88 (as told in run-on sentence detail in my memoir, Free to a Good Home: With Room for Improvement) in the equally stonking Canadian real estate trenches. But who’s counting? We were. Jane was.

Christmas candidly admits that her affection for property shows is a “gateway drug to a full-on renovation.” Along for the ride without control of the steering wheel is the “The Husband” of seven years (who she serendipitously met on the Camino de Santiago. *It should be Alanis-Morissette-ironic noted that The Husband is the sole driver in England as Christmas will have no part of the crazed, hamster tunnel roadways). Though they “arrived late in life to one another’s orbit,” their cosmic connection seems necessary in that yin and yang (gin and yang?) kind of way. Christmas is energized when their home looks like sacs of flour have been detonated. She finds hypnotic comfort in wallpaper removal. Her husband finds solace in making tea and waiting for the drywall dust to settle.

Of course, this memoir goes many wallpaper layers deep in true Jane Christmas style. The veneer is removed early on and there’s admission that the chronic restoration she seeks in houses is also an essential tool in the redesign of her emotional scaffolding.

The throwbacks to her childhood are difficult to read. They’ll sit sideways in your throat. Her mother is far from the cuddly sort, eager to bake cookies and play in the sandbox. Instead, she wonders aloud why her daughter is so ugly and awkward. Her father attempts suicide on a few occasions—and disclosures like this, void of whitewashing or paint thinner, demonstrate how Christmas was responsible for building her very own foundation long ago.

It’s fitting that her sense of a “private homecoming” was felt on her first visit to England at age 16. The future Husband coincidentally resided there and when push came to love-shove, Christmas was happy to pack up her Canadian chapter and have a go at it in Bristol. Quasi Under the Tuscan Sun but more like, Under the Bristol Brelly. She is well-versed in disruption, rebuilding and drywall dust. The Husband, on the flip side, nervously makes tea as his wife transforms their Victorian terrace into something more invigorating (for now).

The undercurrent is subtle but undeniable. Open House is all about belonging and how that fluid concept really has no fixed address. Christmas believes there is an alchemical formula to the homes that speak to us. In her case, she has a lot of homes speaking to her.

Her memoir is about much more than moving. It pauses at the important bits between the movement. Like, The Friendly Giant (yes, the REAL Friendly Giant) read her a bedtime story as a kid—in her own bed! There are unnerving ghost stories that will send prickles of goosebumps across your skin. The British real estate playbook will make your eyeballs fall out their sockets. Readers will learn a good dose of Brit lexicon too: sparkies, chippies and brickies are not types of candy that you buy at the corner store (they are pet names for the tradesfolk). There are historical bites and not-so-historical surprises like this: In 2010, there were 40,000 homes that still had outdoor loos in Britain.

Christmas blends Dynasty references, gritty relationship dynamics, not-so-fuzzy childhood memories, Meg Ryan’s brownstone in You’ve Got Mail and bitchings about space-hog radiators in one smooth-as-Yorkshire-pudding go. Her turns of phrase will bring several smiles, like the shower that “has all the pressure of a royal handshake.”

You’ll either be inspired to move—or completely daunted and forever terrified by Open House. I fall on the inspired side of her fence. Even if the only cardboard box in your future midst contains a pizza, this memoir dazzles with spunk and resilience. I’ll bet you a pizza that you drift off and consider life somewhere else.

If you love Open House, check these moving books:

I Dreamed of Africa by Kuki Gallmann

Driving Over Lemons: An Optimist in Spain by Chris Stewart

Open House by Elizabeth Berg

More shameless promotion: Jane Christmas wrote the foreword for my upcoming memoir, Trail Mix: 920km on the Camino de Santiago (insert thrills and chills here). Her account, What the Psychic Told the Pilgrim: A Midlife Misadventure on Spain’s Camino de Santiago de Compostela is about moving in a different sense but a must if you love her voice (which you will). You should also read The Pelee Project: One Woman’s Escape from Urban Madness. If you’ve entertained fantasies of island life, her sabbatical on Pelee Island will act like an intravenous.

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The Bathtub Book Club: No Thanks, I Want to Walk

The book: No Thanks, I Want to Walk: Two months on foot around New Brunswick and the Gaspe by Emily Taylor Smith (Pottersfield Press, 2021)

The beer: A Muddy Big Stout or Sassy Ginger from Wayfarers’ Ale Craft Brewery in Port Williams, Nova Scotia. The signature ale is a nod to medieval custom in England where ‘wayfarers’ (travellers) would rap the door of a local church and be issued a small horn of ale and a piece of bread. Much like the vino and ‘angel’s share’ offerings to pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago, the sips and bites were intended to help the wayfarers on their way. The brewery revolves around this tradition: “please ask for the ‘dole’ if you’re on a journey and somewhere along life’s path!”

The who: For those who daydream about quitting their jobs and simply walking somewhere (anywhere!) new every single day. For those who walk the walk, walk the talk, walk this way. For the travel-starved, hungry for another landscape.

The part you’ve been waiting for: Emily Taylor Smith’s memoir is an easy one to slip into. The visuals are an immediate transport to the Maritimes—you can almost taste the briny spray of the Atlantic on your face. From the viridescent sea to brackish estuaries, fields of swaying timothy, butter yellow hollyhocks and purple fireweed, you’ll fall in step with Smith. There’s playful folk art along the way too—telephone poles hugged in knitted yarn art installations, human-sized seahorses and mischievous scarecrows. She takes note of a billboard that suggests: Get High on Milk—Our Cows Are on Grass! It’s the kind of humour that can be missed at too many miles per hour.

On foot, Smith’s observations on her daunting 2,400km journey (in just two months) from St. Stephen, New Brunswick to Quebec City are peppered with reality, anxiousness, introspection, gratitude, epiphanies and the hot salvation of Tim Hortons coffee. Despite her summer timeline, the eastern provinces deliver with their typical blasts of sideways rain and wind—but Smith is seasoned and resilient after hiking the coastlines of both Nova Scotia and PEI—but that’s another book.

She battles with sitting still—especially after recent years of so much momentum. A daily routine that revolves around “walking, walking, walking, eating, setting up the tent, sleeping” is a difficult one to disrupt. Careful to catch herself in the old patterns of thinking that clotted her previous walks, Smith dials in on the source of her unease and identifies it before the good ol’ ego sinks it teeth into it.  Sometimes it’s as simple as the annoyance of above-mentioned sideways rainfall or the weariness of drying tent gear slick with dew yet again. At 43, Smith has smartly recognized her psyche’s desire to create a crisis at any time, even if it’s irrational. Yes, there are vital takeaways here, if you take notice.

She remembers her late father with every footfall and his own pull to experience it all with open arms. Smith embraces his spirit and takes great comfort in being outside all day. She also walks with Jack Kerouac’s words on her shoulders. It’s a scene I remember from The Dharma Bums as well: “Come on, Ray, everything comes to an end.”

Relying on Google Maps, Mr. Noodles, Nutella and the kindness of strangers (*the Maritimes is the ideal place to embark on such a walkabout), Smith also finds respite in recovery meetings along the way and in her daily lessons learned. Her monumental walk is never about the mileage—it keeps returning to perspective.

Perspective reminds her to not walk as she did around Nova Scotia, weighted down by expectations and frustration. Smith reflects on how she would mentally dive into the suffering, how she “fed it and watered it.” But, walking 61km in one day? One should be entitled to feeding and watering! She stops checking the current forecast online. “Walking forty-five kilometers each day had me outwalking forecasted weather systems before they arrived.”

There are lovely vignettes of the colourful cast she meets along the way—right down to the arrival of Monsieur the cat. We meet her steadfast beau Darren and doting family who scoop her up at points along the way for proper sit-down meals and a real bed to collapse into.

I couldn’t help but compare the experience Kim and I had in walking 920km on the Camino de Santiago with 10-pound packs, flopping into hostel beds each night. Smith walked an average 45km a day with 30-pounds driving into her collarbones, tenting on church properties or in the yards of locals in awe of her brave mission.

Friends intermittently tagged along (but not for long!), as did a few random supporters and one curious grasshopper. Largely, her walk was solitary– a sharp contrast to my Camino experience in tight tandem with Kim. Smith walked with a phone, updating her Facebook page nightly—Kim and I walked without a map or phone or social media to contend with. Smith slept restlessly in a sleeping bag (as we did), carried an umbrella (which we did not). The stress of where she was sleeping each night was a familiar one—as was the language barrier (Quebecois French for her, France French and Spain Spanish for us). She didn’t have the instant camaraderie of the Camino—or the nonchalance of Spain’s residents knowing full well that anyone with a backpack was a pilgrim en route to Santiago. For Smith, the questions came daily: “Where are you going? Do you want a ride? Are you hitchhiking? Why are you walking?”

What Smith did have on her side was the unexpected goodwill and gentility of Maritimers. Could the same walk be accomplished in Ontario or any westward province? I’m generalizing, but I believe there’s a deeper hesitancy and suspicion of strangers in our parts. The bone-deep east coast nature is to share a yarn and invite any smiling face in for blueberry pie and pot of tea in the spirt of bonheur (happiness). Everyone waves to each other in the east (*I’ve witnessed this, and waved, a lot)—whether you are on a tractor a mile off in the field, or in a plane five miles above. You wave.

I liked how Smith focussed on a lesson learned for each day—I’m going to adopt that. Even if you have no intention of walking further than your nearest Tim Hortons’ for a Salted Caramel Iced Capp, there’s inspiration to be found in Smith’s desire to be better. And we can all do with a little more of that, right?

If you love No Thanks, I Want to Walk, check these out:

This is where I shamelessly promote my own upcoming book. Trail Mix: 920km on the Camino de Santiago will be published by Rocky Mountain Books this fall. Until then, to fill the hunger gap, Jane Christmas’ What the Psychic Told the Pilgrim: A Midlife Misadventure on Spain’s Camino de Santiago will put you in the soggy sock walking groove. Or, skip over to Australia and tag along with Robyn Davidson in Tracks. Often referred to as the “camel-lady,” Davidson set off on a 1,700-mile trek from Alice Springs to the Indian Ocean with a few humps (four camels actually) along the way.

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The Bathtub Book Club: The Love Lives of Birds

The book: The Love Lives of Birds: Courting and Mating Rituals by Laura Erickson (Storey Publishing)

The beer: How about an Early Bird Breakfast Barley Wine from Cameron’s Brewing? The boozy brew is a marriage of two unlikely but totally compatible independents: Ontario maple syrup and cold-steeped coffee. This “barley wine” (aka STRONG beer in disguise) registers at 11.4% alcohol, so, enjoy with a stack of pancakes or you’ll be as flat as a pancake in no time.

The who: This one goes out to all the romantics, bird nerds, twitchers, listers, lifers and newbies. For fans of all things Attenborough, Peterson, Sibley and David Suzuki’s The Nature of Things. If blue-footed boobies excite you like boobies excite teen boys (and just as many girls, to be fair), this one is for you.

The part you’ve been waiting for: Laura Erickson is an ornithologist and former science editor at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, so there’s no goofing around here. She showcases 35 species of birds and their quirky mating habits. They are often an embarrassing mirror to human (mis)behavior.

Birds have identical Twitter feeds that blow-up over messy divorces, non-committal partners, dead-beat dads and homewreckers. On the flip side, there are stories of monogamy that will warm the cockles and cockle-doodle-doo’s of your heart.

Really, this is one sex-ed class that you won’t want to skip! There are R-rated slow dances involving mallards that would make Dr. Ruth blush and excuse herself. For example: the male mallard has a corkscrew-shaped penis-like organ that “can be shockingly long: up to 8 inches, or more than a third of their body length. Now I understand the warning, “Duck, get out of the way!”

Red-winged blackbirds are the Hugh Hefner’s of the avian world, establishing harems of up to 15 females. The gals are wise to this and are “no more faithful to one mate than the males are.” Here’s the reality TV scandal: “About half of all red-wing nests contain at least one chick fathered by a male other than the mother’s mate.”

Florida Scrub-Jays represent the millennials without the laundry. They never leave home! They will wander no more than a mile or two from their original territory, making it impossible for the parents to Netflix and chill.

Erickson describes bird antics with awesome comedic beat from the pogo stick dance of the Whooping Crane to the nest trashing that’s synonymous with cowbirds. Known for their lazy parenting skills, cowbirds will lay their eggs in the nests of foster moms. If the unwilling foster parent kicks the egg out, the cowbird will trash the nest and destroy the other eggs in a dramatic hissy-fit suitable for TMZ coverage.

There’s so much to learn and snicker about in The Love Lives of Birds. It’s a lesson in love with feathered characters like boobies who are known to whistle at other females flying overhead like a construction crew. Male terns are equally deceptive and are known to pretend to be females during mating season. Duped male terns will present the great pretenders with fresh fish to woo them. Yeah, the catch of the day comes with a catch!

The accounts of murderous loons lynching competitors (male or female) are cutthroat! Actually, it’s usually a fatal stabbing that comes from a defensive loon’s attack from underwater. I was also amazed to learn that screech owls will sleep separately to protect their multi-roost real estate in the forest. Yeah, nature is cool.

Even if you’re not totally bird crazy, you can’t help but marvel at the wonders of nature and the parallels to human kind. Cedar Waxwings and hawks will show their age in the development of more red wing markings (for waxwings) or deeper orange-red eyes (for hawks). Scientists have dubbed this “assortative mating: older birds specifically choose to match with older mates—like Elite Singles vs. Tinder.

Peppered with pop culture nods, references to Austen, Bond, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Shakespeare and the Beatles, this book is a rich romp and spy cam on the sky-high romances that surround us with gorgeous watercolours by Swedish illustrator Veronica Ballart Lilja. Her talent can be found in Vogue Japan, Harper’s Bazaar and tropical Simon Col 70% cocoa + sea salt chocolate bar wrappers–among a bazillion other creds. Pour another beer and have a Scandi interlude via her Peppercookies gallery or crawl through Lilja’s arresting Food & Nature portfolio.

It’s a one-two punch of crunchy bird IQ and sensational, whimsical bird portraits.

If you have spring fever, this is the balm.

If you loved The Love Lives of Birds, check this one out next:

Field Notes from an Unintentional Birder by Julia Zarankin. If you’re just figuring out which end of the binoculars to look out of, this book will be the perfect companion.

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The Bathtub Book Club: Apron Strings

The book: Apron Strings—Navigating food and family in France, Italy, and China by Jan Wong

(Goose Lane Editions)

The beer: When in Rome (or in this case, Repergo, Italy)—Peroni Nostro Azzuro (pale lager). Ironically, Peroni’s headquarters are in Rome. When in Allex, France: Kronenbourg 1664 blanc is recommended, in the signature bleu bottle. When in Shanghai, China: Tsingtao (青岛啤酒), which is brewed with rice, barley, Laoshan mineral water and hops. Saluti, à votre santé and 干杯.

The who: For everyone who is feeling travel-starved due to the pandemic. For those who identify as food curious and are magnetically drawn to the stories behind the plate. For anyone who has visited Italy, France and/or China! For Anthony Bourdain loyals, ardent Food Network viewers and those who love memoirs interrupted only by recipes for Two-stir Risotto Al Porro and Tagine with Preserved Lemons.

The part you’ve been waiting for: Jan Wong goes where no mother has gone before by boldly asking her 22-year-old son, Sam, to tag along with her on an edible journey through France, Italy and China with no strings attached (aside from those pesky apron strings).

From Grenache to Gorgonzola, polenta to cannoli to choux pastry (pâte à choux), Wong guides hungry readers through the pantries, paddocks and woks behind iconic dishes like panna cotta and Carbonara. Her market crawls serve as closed captioning for those of us abiding by stay-at-home orders. The horns, the spitting oil, the exacting textures! For example: “the chef had sliced the fish crosswise, right through the bones, so each mouthful was like eating a pin cushion.” Her visuals sing out when describing the likes of Xiao long bao (“little basket buns”) that resemble “the onion dome on a Russian orthodox church.” Wong takes readers on an immersive shotgun sensory ride of eating river snails with darning needles and eyebrow-raisers like sweet and sour squirrel fish (I won’t spoil this one!).

There is such vital knowledge in this memoir that goes far beyond poached pears in red wine sauce and securing pigeons for a recipe (despite the mistral that carries away all enthusiasm and sunshine with it). Apron Strings is dense in food history, customs, traditions and all the contrasts in between from school systems, familial roles and even water consumption.

Sam and Jan immediately startle their hosts by the enormous amounts of water they drink. French, Italians and Chinese have historically eschewed water consumption due to the taxing sterilization process requiring precious and scarce firewood. Instead, wine or tea was de rigueur. Fuel shortages (due to deforestation linked to rising population numbers from the Ming Dynasty onward) meant that most Chinese didn’t have ovens. A simple stir fry conserved energy and was economical for the tiny cuts of meat it required.

In Italy, prior to World War II, community ovens and the local panetteria (bakery) allowed for lasagna and bread to be baked in a shared space. Flash forward to present day Bologna and sidewalk automat machines that dispense everything from dried penne to cat food.

Wong and her son quickly learn that eating elsewhere is about taste, not volume—regardless, they had to steel themselves for six courses in 70 minutes. Helpfully, she has included “Food Rules” for each country (ie. don’t expect bread with pasta or, worse, those tiny saucers pooled with oil and balsamic to swirl your bread ends in!).

Seamlessly, Wong integrates the paradox of famine to fasting in China. Why are the rich now afraid to eat? She explains the backward result of the Industrial Revolution plan in 1958. Peasants had to surrender and melt down their woks for steel. In fact, they also had to turn in their rice, bowls, kitchen tables, firewood, poultry and livestock and join the similarly stripped rural families in mess halls. “They” (but not them) called it progress. She handles the head-shaking concepts of communism, capitalism, Mao’s one-child policy, the nouveau riche of Shanghai and the migrant worker maids (who serve the nouveau riche) who see their own families but twice a year with grace.

On the flip side, in France, intergenerational relations were forever changed by French law, forcing parents to leave their estates to their children, regardless of their relationship. Not so strangely, French residents over the age of 65 account for a third of the suicides in France. Remember the 2003 heat wave when 15,000 people died in France? Bodies were unclaimed for weeks by younger holidaying family members quite confident in what the family wills dictated.

Apron Strings could hold its ground as the only required reading necessary for history, geography, or sociology class. Really, I’ve never learned so much—from what the heck the “Pope’s nose” is on a duck to growing specs for Barolo grapes to the early preservation methods of jarring fowl, fish and fruit in champagne bottles. I nodded along with the descriptions of Sichuan numbing dishes (yep, couldn’t feel my tongue for 20 startling minutes) and the seemingly mandatory and PAINFUL jade factory visits in China. There is so much to take away here, beyond a craving for soy-braised pork belly and firecracker chicken laced with red chilies.

The most fascinating bits include the endurance eating required in Italy (five-hour long lunches!) and the united worship and public praise of Ferrero Rocher’s founder. The most shocking is found in the confining license-issuing process in Shanghai (*If you steal a car here, above all else, make sure it has a plate that permits you to drive on the major highways at any time!).

The North American excess if evident throughout (without mention)—but Wong is sure to include the hilarity of the Milan bar owner who attends a conference in Colorado. Each morning, he and seven colleagues from Italy would order a single cup of Starbucks. “There was coffee enough for eight people!”

The lost in translation moments are peppered throughout in snappy dialogue. Wong’s relationship with Sam sees some hairpin turns as the pressures of travel and being a guest for so many months frays their nerves and balance, as we should all expect.

In the end, Apron Strings is a satiating, gorgeous buffet that you need to pull up a chair to. Don’t forget to put your sweatpants on first.

If you loved Apron Strings, put these on your NEXT list:

Chop Suey Nation by Ann Hui (Douglas McIntyre). Talk about the ultimate road trip! Hui and her husband squish into a Fiat and drive from Victoria, BC to Fogo Island, NL, braking for all the Chinese restos along the way. Hui chats with the enterprising families that opened them and explores the sweet and sour history of chop suey and ginger beef in Canada’s smallest towns.

How to Eat Fried Worms by Thomas Rockwell (Scholastic Books). First published in 1973 and now a major motion picture, this book was my childhood fave and still holds its weight. I just re-read it. Did you know that Rockwell is the son of illustrator Norman Rockwell? Yes, that guy! The worm recipes within make a night crawler dredged in cornmeal and pan-fried with a squirt of lemon almost tempting.

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The Bathtub Book Club: Eat a Peach

Let’s move away from impeachment talk for a moment. But, in the theme of peach, Chef David Chang’s memoir is just as sweet and satisfying.

If you’re of a certain age group (mine, age 47), you probably grew up on a steady feed of Just Like Mom. The Canadian television game show ran for five seasons on CTV (1980-85). It was hosted by a husband and wife and the premise was a spin-off formula of The Newlywed Show. Except, how well did children and mothers know each other? After a round of tell-tale questions, the kids did battle in the kitchen, baking chocolate chip cookies with wieners and Coca Cola, marshmallows and mustard. The kids had a full arsenal of barf-inducing ingredients that they could utilize and then dear ol’ mom had to guess which cookie their lovely little child made. It was seriously great, addictive TV. The kids walked away with big swag from Chuck E. Cheese, Playmobil, Robin Hood flour and for the luckiest grand prize winners: a trip to Walt Disney World! For chocolate chip wiener cookies!

Nowadays, food television is a simmering 24/7 monster. Martha, Nigella, the Barefoot Contessa. We love them so, don’t we? Their voices are like whipped frosting and as soothing as a simmering soup. Even if that soup is simmering on a burner on their TV studio. It’s just as easy to name 10 chefs as it is to call-out 10 actors. The kitchen has come a long way since the Bam! of Emeril and the *$#^%$## of Chef Ramsay.

From the cutthroat Kids Baking Championship to Top Chef Canada to Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations, the fascination with food is real and insatiable. Maybe your introduction to David Chang was through his Ugly Delicious docuseries on Netflix. Or the PBS series, Mind of a Chef (which was narrated by Bourdain). If you want another big, selfish serving of him, Eat a Peach delivers.

The book: Eat a Peach by David Chang with Gabe Ulla (Clarkson Potter/Penguin Random House, 2020)

The beer: This one’s easy: Chang! Chang (ช้าง)is the Thai word for elephant, and the beer that is synonymous with Thailand will involve a 19-hour flight to access it. In lieu: Stanley Park Brewing’s Sunsetter Peach Wheat Ale. As a reasonable facsimile: McAuslan’s Apricot Wheat Ale.

The who: Foodie evangelists, rabid fans of Momofuku, chefs in the wings, galley staff, entrepreneurs of all sorts, Food Network devotees

The part you’ve been waiting for:

Chang is the first to admit that he’s an “egomaniac with low self-confidence.” He signed a daunting 10-year lease on his first restaurant at age 26. The control and numbing repetition found in cooking was his North Star, though his kitchen climate was often fuelled with rage and conflict.

He found easy company in kitchens full of the typical misfits, ex-cons, alcoholics and new immigrants. The stress was constant and with zero work/life balance, Chang’s mental health was in a pressure cooker.

He grew up in northern Virginia under the watchful eye of classic tiger parents, waterboarded by religion. Embarrassed by the foreign smell of his mother’s Korean cooking, he found solace in Hungry Man dinners, microwave burritos and ramen.

Many will be surprised to learn that Chang was destined to be a golf pro. He won back-to-back Virginia State championships at age 9 but then slowly unraveled by high school. He attended Jesuit boarding school—a likely path as his sister had become a missionary in Mongolia and most of his extended family sold Bibles or worked in Bible-adjacent businesses.

After a flop attempt at a corporate job Chang became a reservationist at Craft restaurant. His first glamorous kitchen job was prepping mirepoix (finely, uniformly diced celery, carrots and onions), learning his chops from PBS cooking shows in his rare downtime, and later, the French Culinary Institute in New York. In 2004, mirepoix nailed, he opened Momofuku (“lucky peach”) Noodle Bar in New York City and the foodie world scrambled and pulled hair to get a reservation.

There’s no spoiler here. Chang was suicidal and teetering. His recklessness took on many forms: downhill skiing through trees (on purpose), stepping off curbs into live traffic and finally, collapsing into a giant glass table on New Year’s Eve 2000 after a potent intake of booze, drugs and self-doubt.

Chang’s journey is monumental. Some might crinkle their nose and think he’s too cocky, too dude. But—his accolades and resume! He deserves to be a braggy blowhard! At one point, early in his career trajectory, his totally monthly responsibility between rent and loan payments alone was $47,000US. With every new restaurant opening under his brand (there are 14 now, in Australia, Las Vegas, LA, New York and Toronto), success was countered by bouts with shingles, panic attacks and paranoia.

It came from all fronts—the scrutiny and evaluation of performance. His goal was to introduce Asia’s “classless dining” concept to mainstream America—but he had to battle the bloggers, inspectors and fussy palates of cross-armed diners every step of the way. He wooed them with casual pork buns and poularde en vessie (a whole chicken stuffed with foie gras and truffles placed inside a pig’s bladder).

Christina Tosi, founder and owner of Milk Bar, Momofuku’s sister bakery, ate up every headline with her cereal milk panna cotta. It tastes “exactly like the milk that’s left at the bottom of the bowl when you finish all the cornflakes.” Tosi’s “compost cookies” became a legend. (*Note to my mom: Can you make these when we are permitted to visit again?? See what I did there? I put the “Mom” in Momofuku.)

If you’re expecting to have uncontrollable snack urges while reading this, you probably won’t. There’s actually very little food talk. Yes, everything surrounds food and the building of Chang’s empire but it’s a memoir that let’s you hang onto the tails of the chef’s whites and be rather glad to be on the receiving end of the kitchen.

For anyone who has entertained thoughts of having a go at it, this industry is designed to kill you, slowly. Cribbing a format established by Jerry Saltz’s How to be an Artist, Chang provides his own sage 33 guiding principles to be a good chef.

Love him or loathe him, you can’t deny the monumental success of the Momofuku brand and Chang’s personal resilience. His story is wholly empowering and will underdogs and visionaries. Chang confessed to a “99% failure rate” in his life because he was defeated and unsuccessful so many times. However, when you’re that unsuccessful, what do you have to lose?

If you love Eat a Peach, put these books on your NEXT list:

Anything and everything by Anthony Bourdain, especially Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly

Tender at the Bone by Ruth Reichl

I Hear She’s a Real Bitch by Jenn Agg. She’s the force behind Toronto’s Black Hoof, Cocktail Bar, Rhum Corner and Agrikol. It’s a saucy and authentic tell-all for the Toronto set.

I can go on: Comfort Food for Break-ups: The Memoir of a Hungry Girl by Marusya Bociurkiw, An Embarrassment of Mangoes by Ann Vanderhoof

Okay. I’ll stop.

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2021: Spirit Restoration (and I’m not talking about gin)

Author Sarah Selecky recently wrote about what satiated her soul and restored her spirit after a year of chronic sucker punches and pin-pricked balloons of hope. She shared her list of what nourished her and suggested that it was a good time for all of us to craft our own list to ensure that we’re getting enough of what we need. This is the day when this sort of stuff resonates. The last day of this blow-out year is closing in on the iconic apple drop. I think we’re all ready to be brand new people when we wake up on January 1st.

Now is the time to establish your word of the year and to wrap a pinky around that dried out turkey wishbone and crack its marrow. Sarah’s list is a clever and balanced list of sundries from energizing podcasts to beet smoothies. Her followers have added DIY prescriptions of their own too. Here’s mine and you should definitely do yours before you pop the cork tonight. It’s the perfect homework assignment for the 365th day of the year. Deadline: Midnight! Or, if you are a thoroughbred procrastinator, well, you have until December 31st, 2021.

Here’s my list of what saw me through a sustainable 2020, in no particular order:

Kim (especially her head + jaw massages to temper my new found love of clenching my teeth at night)

February in the Seychelles

Reading obits (Really. They’re like wonderful mini memoirs.)

Nashville fried chicken sandwiches from anywhere

Fantasy trip planning: Yukon, Camino Portuguese, Madagascar, _____________.

The Sketchbook Project: Order one, fill it will colour + doodles. You’ll feel remarkably better.

Site #441 in the dunes at Long Point Provincial Park

Supporting the Ontario Turtle Conservation Centre and senior rescue animals at SAINTS

Following the antics and expressions of Pockets Warhol, the painting capuchin monkey at Story Book Farm Primate Sanctuary

I Dreamed of Africa by Kuki Gallmann (*Warning: you’ll dream of it too.)

The Perseids meteor showers of August + campfires below them

Our front row molten unsets on West Little Lake

Kitten’s cover of Blondie’s One Way or Another

My never-changing but ever-changing running route across the Ferndale Flats

Revisiting and self-publishing my fromage fest diary circa 1985 “Dear Diary: I was a 10-year-old dork!”

(*Free Kindle edition for those who are so inclined!!)

Scarlet tanager sightings in our woods

Learning about bonsai

A DW HOME Warm Tobacco Pipe-scented hand-poured candle

My coveted Toronto Life mag subscription

@whiskedbyalicia: Irresistible eye candy by a Toronto cookie artist

@worldbykriss: A Prague artist (+ dancer) who turns the ordinary into the extraordinary. Even broccoli.

Prowling for drop-dead-gorgeous homes

Tanqueray Rangpur gin

Hazy IPA beach days and egg salad picnics at Black Creek

Animal Kingdom—both interpretations—especially the one starring stone/Botox-faced Ellen Barkin

My library card! Overnight oats! Trying to out-GIF my parents on emails. Darn Tough socks + long johns.

I could go on. I’m great at stimulating myself and should probably pick BREVITY as my word for 2021 but I won’t.

My word for 2021: ELEMENTAL (Or, Emmental cheese. Either will do in a pinch.)

My wish(es): That the world tilts upright again so we can see the other side of it.

And how about the return of thirtysomething?

Here’s to a vibrant 2021. Thank you for following me here (and there) for all these years!

And thank you to my sister for the flying pig.

x Jules

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