Downtime

I’m particularly busy right now. It’s traditionally my busiest time of the year anyway, but it also seems like every project I’m working on is at a stage where it could easily become a full time job. I’m very conscious of this though, and I try and make sure that when I do get a whole day off then I do as little as possible to ensure I recharge my batteries.

As people who know me well will attest, I’m terrible at doing nothing. And so when I have one of these days where my calendar is empty then the best I can hope for is to spend my time doing things I wouldn’t normally have time for.

So far today I’ve watched a football match on TV (Everton’s demolition of Chelsea), read two books (Paul Auster’s Invisible and Neil Gaiman’s script for Day of the Dead), started a third book (Neil Gaiman’s Adventures in the Dream Trade), and eaten some very tasty Indian food. I’ve also listened a a few records, as well as Beirut’s new album on Spotify. I’ve also done a little editing on a very long blog post that will be going out soon, and am now sitting in my study writing this before I settle down in front of the TV with a large G&T and a small dog.

This is probably the least I’ve done in a single day for a few weeks, and it’s certainly the least I’ll do for a few weeks following this weekend. But I know that September is generally a month where I have to pretend to be an extrovert more often than usual, and so when I do get some downtime then I need to make sure I’m sensible about spending my time doing things that actually make me feel better.

Adventures in Egypt

16th May

I remember the first time I was in Egypt. I was thirteen years old, and was taken to see the pyramids at Giza. Then (as now) it was really hot there, and I’d probably not taken too much notice about staying hydrated. So when I was handed a bottle of Coca-Cola (one of the glass bottles) I downed it in one. Now, I’ve never been much a fan of fizzy drinks and I’ve always found them quite hard to drink. They don’t go down easily and they leave a really odd feeling in my stomach that makes me not want to eat for a while. This time was no exception, and as soon as the last drop hit my stomach I threw the whole lot back up in front of dozens of people on the Giza Plateau.

That was my first trip to Egypt, and I’ve not been back since. Tomorrow, that is all going to change. I’m going on a one week holiday to Sharm el-Sheik, and I don’t plan on drinking fizzy drinks, seeing pyramids or being sick.

I have no other real expectations for this trip. The plan is to have a nice relaxing holiday somewhere hot, and that fact that it happens to be Egypt is secondary. But I can’t forget that this is the country where my Grandparents met and married, and the country which I read so many books about during my ancient history phase.

I think it will be easy to forget though. I expect this trip to be high on relaxation and low on history and mythology, but at the same time I am looking forward to returning to a country that has changed so much politically and economically since the last time I was there.

17th May

The journey starts today, after a very strange day rattling around the house with no dog and no cats. I’m not sure what feels worse – sending the animals to their temporary home for a week or powering down my computer and network. I miss them both, but in very different ways.

I am also glad that Birmingham International Airport now has decent free wifi. Although I’m less glad that all the news stories seem to be about Egyptian unrest and people hacking the controls of aeroplanes.

18th May

The journey to Egypt was fairly uneventful. Sharm airport was basic, but perfectly functional, and there wasn’t too much evidence of the heightened security that is a feature of most of Egypt right now. It took a while for our bags to arrive, but once they did we were herded into a small bus, and within half an hour or so we were checking in to our hotel.

The hotel is lovely. It’s probably the nicest all-inclusive hotel I’ve ever stayed in, and very much feels like Egypt (specifically the Asian part of Egypt). The room is spacious and air conditioned, and there is plenty of storage space (including a safe and a fridge). I’ve taken a lot of photographs of the hotel and the room, both high-quality colour pictures, and a series of black and white art shots taken on my old iPhone (which I use as a watch, camera and music player when I’m travelling). I suspect a selection of these pictures will make it to somewhere on the internet at some point in the next couple of weeks.

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I’m also really impressed that we were able to get dinner and drinks despite turning up at the exact minute the restaurant was meant to close. I have no idea what I actually ate (some sort of fish, some sort of bird and white rice I think), but it was delicious, and after 5 hours on a plane with nothing more than snack food it was very welcome.

One thing that did strike me about this room is that it’s not really geared for people travelling with multiple electrical devices (so people like us). We’re not just here for sand and sun – we’re here to take photographs, write, study, and do all the things we usually do but in a different physical location. The room didn’t have any spare plug sockets at all, but after realising that we can turn plug sockets on and off with the light switch, we managed to throw together a charging station that could deal with 4 USB powered devices and a laptop. Of course, we then switched the whole thing off again with the lights, but we won’t be making that mistake again.

After a few hours of sleep, the resort looked very different in the light, and is easily the largest such complex we have ever visited (with our hotel being one of three in the general vicinity). Exploring it is going to take a couple of days, and will result in many photographs. This is the day I took lot of black and white photographs as well, and it took me back to the days I would shoot everything in black and white because it looked more artistic. I’m now not sure it does look more artistic, but it is quite interesting to have a second set of pictures that capture the trip from a slightly different (and more blurry) angle.

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We also got to experience more of the hotel food. I wasn’t as convinced by breakfast as the dinner last night, but I did really enjoy the coffee and cakes I had afterwards. It’s very hot here, and bottled water has also featured quite highly in my diet so far. I suspect this will be the case throughout the trip, although it amuses me that they serve the red wine at a much lower temperature than the bottled water. The wine isn’t actually bad, and is served in modest enough portions that a glass or two with lunch might just be an option.

When planning this trip I wasn’t sure if I had ever encountered a place this hot before. Now we’re here it doesn’t feel much hotter than Italy in the summer, but we have not encountered the heat at the middle of the day yet. Thankfully there is always an air conditioned room to retreat to, and I think that I will be spending the middle hours of the day reading, writing, and staying in the shade. I suspect that makes me a bad tourist, but I don’t really get too much satisfaction from lying in the sun and turning my skin an unattractive shade of red. Maybe I’ll feel differently by the end of the week, but for now I plan on using the good parts of this resort to the full and barely paying lip service to the rest.

One thing we did do today was to make reservations at three local restaurants that we get to eat at once each as part of our booking. So at some point this week there will be seafood, Lebanese and Japanese. We have spaced these out throughout the trip so that we get a night of hotel food and then a night of something nicer. This may be our only concession to things organised by the hotel or the tour guide, as generally we like to be left to our own devices.

19th May

Last night we spent a couple of hours in an outdoor bar, enjoying the slight drop in temperature after the sun had set. Don’t get me wrong, I love the sun, but it’s also pushing 40 degrees here and I’m really not used to that sort of heat for sustained periods of time. We also took many more photographs, including quite a few artistic ones. I suspect we may visit this bar again, as it was very pleasant.

Today has largely involved lounging around, reading, and drinking endless bottles of mineral water (and the occasional cup of coffee, although far less than in the UK). The area around the pool isn’t too crowded, and people seem to be fairly sensible about the sun, although they might also be avoiding the locals trying to sell various services that we’ve been warned not to accept. Everyone is pleasant enough, but it’s very obvious that they are here to sell things that we just don’t want to buy. None of this is a surprise though, as Egypt is notorious for this sort of thing.

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I downloaded a lot of books before I left. I’m getting through them at about 2 a day, but even at that rate I won’t run out. I may very well make a decent dent in my list of things to read though. I may also start to make a dent in the cocktail menu, although some of them sound quite odd. I will try and remember to take a picture of the menu before I head home.

We are not doing any day trips this year (they are all quite expensive, and none of them appeal), but I don’t feel I’m missing anything, and I’m very glad of the chance to stay in and around this beautiful resort for a week and catch up on reading, writing, and everything I do that isn’t part of my day job and doesn’t require the internet.

Which reminds me, last night we did check out the free wifi room at the resort. The connection was really slow, but I was online long enough to catch up on the news and read my personal email. I have no burning desire to spend lots of time on the internet, but it is good to know that the facility exists in case of emergencies. I think that’s one of the big things about those of us who spend every waking minute online – when we’re disconnected from the internet we feel disconnected from everything, as if the world is going to crash and burn without us to monitor and record every event that occurs.

One further thing that strikes me about this resort is the total lack of cats. I don’t think I’ve ever been anywhere before where I’ve not seen at least one cat, and I really do think our cats would love it here, as there is plenty of sun, a wide array of interesting looking birds (who are very tame, and therefore very trusting) and an endless supply of other food that doesn’t need killing before consumption. I wonder if it’s the climate that drives them away, or if the resort owners have just scared them off. I know other parts of Egypt have cats, and I’m mildly curious as to why I’ve not seen any so far.

We’re going to a seafood restaurant tonight. That’s something else the cats would love.

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20th May

And as if by magic we saw a cat last night.

I also have a wonderful new cat figurine (only my 4th in over 20 years, but I do love them). Cats in Egypt are meant to bring luck, but the one we saw just bought us the first bit of bad customer service of the whole trip, and a distinct lack of understanding of what did and didn’t count as nuts (for the record, almonds are nuts, always). Thankfully it was also followed by some very good customer service, a large plate of fruit and a booking in a posh French restaurant for a complementary meal.

Last night’s movie was Gone Girl. I really enjoyed it, although I suspect it bled into a rather restless night.

21st May

Yesterday we spent a large part of the day on the beach. As a result I’m a little more brown (and red) than I was, but we do have many wonderful photographs of fish, snakes, crabs and assorted other sea life. When the tide is low it’s possible to wander in the shallow water and see a wide variety of wildlife, and when the tide is high there are even more things to see with the aid of a snorkel.

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We also discovered that the large “rock” we can see from the beach was actually a grounded ship. You can’t see it with the naked eye, but with the zoom on the camera it’s possible to see it quite well. I have a few good pictures of it, plus a few of other ships and helicopters (some of which may have been military) that passed us as we sat there.

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In the evening we went out for drinks and dinner. By the time we ate I wasn’t too hungry, but what I did eat was lovely (as was the wine, which was far better than the local bars), and they let us take a big plate of fruit back to our room.

Today saw another trip to the beach for more photography, followed by coffee, lunch and a brief siesta. Dinner tonight will involve a short trip to a Lebanese restaurant which is part of the next hotel across from ours, and tonight’s movie will be either Black Swan or The Brothers Grimm.

Tomorrow is Friday, and therefore a day of rest in Egypt. I suspect there will be no resting here though, as the guests at the hotel are a mix of German, Russian, Ukrainian and British people – most of whom probably don’t observe the Muslim day of rest.

22nd May

Last night we had our first truly great meal of the holiday. I’ve not tried Lebanese food before, but found it to be delicious, and to contain a lot of meat and a lot of salads and dips that remind me of both Greek and Turkish food. The service was great too, and we ended up leaving them a tip (in US dollars, like all our tips have been). What struck me about this place is that the staff obviously had a great deal of pride in their establishment and the food they served there. That came across in both the quality of the food and the service, and it’s certainly something that the fish restaurant from earlier in the week could have learned.

Today we saw our first camel of the trip, as well as a lot more fish. The camel was on the beach, having a snooze, and it was very odd seeing a creature I associate wih dry desert conditions so close to the sea. I suspect seeing a camel ticks a box somewhere, although we still don’t intend on seeing any pyramids.

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We also received two bits of mail – an invitation to cocktails tonight (which turned out to be a photo opportunity for the holiday company) and details of our departure, which is the day after tomorrow. In some ways I’m looking forward to being home again, but at the same time I’m going to miss this place and could very much get used to both the weather and the very relaxed lifestyle.

One more full day to go, after which comes my least favourite part of any trip – packing, checking out and the return flight. I generally see the journey to a place as part of the adventure, but the return journey always feels like going over old ground, and it can never end soon enough for me.

23rd May

I spent most of yesterday feeling a bit rough, and last night I didn’t really want to do much more than lie in bed and drink water. This is something that happens to a lot of people in Egypt, and I’m glad it’s come near the end of the trip when I’ve already seen and done most things I wanted to. I suspect today is going to be a quiet day on the beach (or by the pool), but I am hopefully I’ll have regained some of my appetite in time for dinner tonight (which should be Japanese, a cuisine I’ve always loved).

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One thing that strikes me today is that the shift to digital film has made it much easier to document holidays. 20 years ago I would have to buy reels of film, and could not see my pictures until a week or so after I got home. Now I have a camera, laptop and memory stick with copies of the same 734 photographs, and can look through them this morning to check if there is anything we have not recorded. I dread to think what it would cost to take and develop 734 photos now, but I suspect it is more than the price of my camera.

24th May

Time to go home. I will miss being here, but I am looking forward to seeing my dog and my cats.

 

Why I’m bad at being on holiday

I am on holiday this week. This is largely because I still had 100% of my annual leave left (it resets in September), but also because I’m going to be in Egypt for a week starting on Sunday, and I wanted to make sure I was rested and relaxed enough to enjoy the trip rather than needing to spend half the week recovering from a fairly long stretch without a proper holiday. It strikes me that I’m quite bad at being on holiday though, because I don’t really know what to do with myself without some sort of structure and routine to keep me focused on the here and now, so I decided this time that I would actually write down what I planned to achieve, and tick things off when I’d done them. So in other words, exactly how I approach the day job and anything else that requires me to exert effort towards achieving predefined goals.

The first thing on my list was to prepare for my week away. I listed clothes I wanted to take, worked out if I needed to buy anything, and then assembled everything in my suitcase ready for sanity checking before I pack properly on Saturday. I’ve also been trying to reduce the amount of cables, adaptors and chargers I take with me, as well as removing anything from my everyday carry that looks dubious or won’t play nicely with airport security.

The second list of tasks revolved around technology. I’ve just bought a new hard drive for my NAS, which needed fitting. I wasn’t sure how long it would take, but actually due to the wonder of Synology it only took a few minutes, after which the NAS was back on line while the two drives started talking to each other and ensuring they were in sync. Again, I’m very impressed with this product, and would highly recommend it. I’ve also updated my 5 year plan for technology buying, and purchased a few other bits and pieces that I was holding off on buying until I was going to be at home for a decent stretch of time. I may write more about this later.

The final list of tasks was not a list of tasks as such, but an attempt to find a way of doing things to reduce the anxiety that comes from having a lot more time, and therefore a lot more choice about how I spend that time. This was dealt with by maintaining my usual routine of sleep, planning my meals and clothes in advance, and pretty much doing everything I normally do except work. I find that routine relaxes me, and that anything that can be automated should be, so that I don’t end up with decision fatigue. I also made sure I kept up my exercise regime, although I’m not quite hitting my usual targets because I’ve spent more time at home and less time walking between places. That said 6km a day is still fairly respectable.

That’s me done for now, although I’m hoping to schedule a few posts while I’m away, and also plan on keeping a travel journal (both text and photographs) so I have a proper record of this trip.

Social media notifications

I thought it might be useful to mention that I turned off all email notifications on social media sites a few months ago. I do still get banner notifications on my phone, but I found myself ignoring the emails on the whole, and thought I’d remove a bit of noise from my inbox. I still regard myself as active on (in this order) Twitter, G+, Facebook and LinkedIn, but I also still very much regard email as my primary method of contact for anything urgent/important, be it personal or professional.

I suppose it’s also useful to mention that I’ve started scheduling a few posts, both to my blog and to my social networks. I very much try and keep content relevant to my (perceived) audience, but if you do see me posting things when you know I’m at work or in a meeting with you, then scheduling is probably the answer (I use Buffer for scheduling, and may write more about this soon).

How to be a morning person

I didn’t used to be a morning person, but now I am. I had to learn, because in 2004 I very quickly went from starting work at 2pm, to starting work well before 8. I have a few things that I think help, although I’m not always as good as I should be with some of them.

1. Go to bed early enough to get the amount of sleep you need.

2. Declutter your mind, in whatever way works for you (meditation, music, tea, gin, all of the above). The plan being that when you go to bed you’re not mulling over things from the day before.

3. Set an alarm for the time you need to get up, and get up straight away when it goes off. Snooze buttons do really contribute a lot to being groggy in the morning, and actually lead to less good quality sleep as well.

4. Only give yourself enough time at home in the morning to do the essentials. So if your morning routine takes 20 minutes, then set your alarm for 20 minutes before you need to leave. Any other time you have will probably be wasted, and working to a strict deadline may kick start your brain into heightened activity.

5. Eat breakfast. Breakfast is important. I generally eat two breakfasts – one as part of my morning routine, and another one when I actually get to work.

6. Use all your commuting time productively – to read, listen to music, work though things that are bothering you, or just to mentally prepare for the day.

7. Work out what sort of tasks you do best at certain times of the day, and try and plan your working day accordingly. For instance, I write best in the early morning, so schedule all my report writing, funding bids and that sort of thing into a morning slot. I brainstorm best around mid-morning (or late evening), and so make sure anything that involves ideas generation or collaborative work is scheduled into those slots. I’m groggy in the afternoons, so I use that time for meetings where I don’t need to contribute ideas, or anything mindless. I accept that I am lucky in this respect in that I have a lot of control over what my working day looks like, but it’s at least worth trying to map task types to times of the day.

Bulgaria – part 3

Yesterday we went on an excursion to the ancient town of Nessibar, which is full of old churches, historic buildings, and the kind of commercialism that reminds me of Venice at its worst. There was a lot to look at, but if we looked too closely or too long then there was the inevitable sales pitch, reeled out a hundred times a day, and as insincere as it was ineffective. I enjoyed looking around the churches, and took lots of photographs, but I do wish I could see places like this as they were in their prime.

The weather has largely continued to cycle between sunshine and rain, although there was no thunderstorm last night. I watched a local football match from the balcony of the hotel, and then drank wine and apricot liqueur until it was time for bed.

There is very little else to do here during the evenings. The days are a frenzy of activity (and purposeful inactivity), but after dark there is little to do but drink, talk, read, and enjoy the warmth and the feeling of calm.

It’s been a good holiday, but I am also quite looking forward to getting home, where I can hopefully reap the benefit of a relaxing week away.

Bulgaria – part 2

Last night there was a heavy thunderstorm and a short power cut. We took photographs of darkened skies that erupted into occasional brightness, and drank wine and cocktails until it was time for bed. This morning there is still a coolness in the air, but it is dry again now, and the sand on the beach is firm enough for walking on.

I am starting to see the patterns of weather now. The days are generally bright and sunny, with the storms only arriving once the sun has gone in and the warm and cool air meet over the Balkans. I suspect the power cut was unusual, although I doubt the storms are, which makes me envious for this climate where such beautiful and extreme weather is so commonplace. In the UK we curse the rain, but here I think it is possibly welcomed as a respite from the heat.

I am starting to feel disconnected from the lives of other people, but without the expected levels of anxiety that are usually associated with these feelings. Having this time away has given me a change to evaluate where I fit I the world and which interactions and connections are valuable to me. I am unsure as to whether this will change anything when I get home, but I thought the feeling was worth articulating.

Despite this feeling of disconnection, I have not missed being online anywhere near as much as I thought I would. I am sure there are things of interest that I have missed, but there are even more things of interest that I have been able to fully absorb myself in. I think there is probably a lesson there.

I also watched Factory Girl tonight. I need to write more about this soon.

Bulgaria – part 1

I am writing this from a table on a sunny balcony in Bulgaria. The journey here was about as good as economy flying gets, which is to say it was draining and tiring without anything in particular going wrong. We arrived at our hotel in the early hours of the morning, which was a lot better than the people flying from other UK airports who had still not arrived 24 hours later.

It wasn’t really possible to make a judgement on the hotel at that time of night, but after more than 24 hours I must say that I am very impressed. The rooms are spacious and comfortable, the food is excellent, and there is a wide array of drinks to choose from. The longer we spend here the more thankful I am that we ended up getting a very good deal on a good hotel rather than settling for the cheapest holiday we could find.

The weather yesterday was perfect, at least until the evening, and we spent most of the day lounging by the pool, walking on the beach, and doing the sort of things people do when they are on holiday. We have two trips booked (an evening out tonight, and a day trip to look at pretty buildings on Saturday), but will otherwise we staying fairly local, and exploring as much of this beautiful area as we can.

Last night there was the mother of all thunder storms which was really pretty to watch, and which took the heat out of the air nicely. We sheltered from the rain in the bar, and sampled the hotel entertainment (including a bingo game which we both came fairly close to winning). I’m not sure the entertainment was to everyone’s taste, but the bar itself was pleasant, and the bar staff were friendly enough. I think we may try and grab a small balcony table next time though, especially if the weather is as good as it is right now.

Also during the last two days I have been reading The Kills by Richard House. I had been meaning to start this for a while, but it is a fairly large time investment so I was saving it for this trip. So far I am enjoying it, although I think I have enjoyed each book a little less than the one before it. Here’s hoping that book 4 bucks that trend. I also have a variety of other things to read, as well as the usual array of music and films if I get bored. But so far I am not getting bored, which is a good sign that I might possibly be starting to relax.

More than just a little bit sad

I wrote this post for G+ to raise awareness of Depression Awareness Week in April, and as I’m planning a second post on the same subject then I thought it was worth putting the first one in the public domain so I can reference it. 

I have been aware of depression from a fairly young age, although I didn’t call it depression then. Both of my parents suffered from it for years, although it wasn’t until I was in my early teens that I really understood what the word meant and how it affected their behaviour and their relationship with each other. I have always known I have a generic propensity towards depression, and so I’ve always been very self aware and very clued up as to what signs to look for in my own psyche and my own behaviour. But of course, it is never that easy, and very often the times I am the least self aware are the times that there is something there that I should have noticed.

But this isn’t really about me. I’ve suffered from mild depression a few times, with each one linked to a particular situation that my mind had difficulties processing. Generally it goes away with time, medication, and a whole load of talking to people and writing things down, and I feel I have been fairly lucky with my mental health over the last few years.

But I am still aware of depression on a day to day basis in most areas of my life. I lose count of the number of friends and loved ones who have fallen prey to this illness, and who fight a daily battle to do those things that the rest of us take for granted. Every day I see positive examples of people clawing themselves back from the abyss, but sometimes I also see the times when people do not feel they are winning and need a helping hand to see how worthwhile they are as people and how much good they contribute to other people’s lives.

I know so many people who I am extraordinarily proud of in this respect. It is not my place to name them, but they probably know who they are, and that I have their back.

But that’s not all I want to say. I wrote earlier that this isn’t about me, but I suppose it is in a way. On some levels I’ve not been doing too well these last few months, and whilst I would not say I’ve been suffering from full-blown depression, I think my stress and anxiety levels have been extremely unhealthy, and at times off the scale.

Most of the time I hide it well, but I have spent a lot of time this year trying to untangle some of my longstanding fears and anxieties so I can move forward and actually be more use to the people around me. This has taken a lot of time, a lot of mental energy, and a lot of long conversations with people who have let me talk but also provided a safely net during those times where I may have uncovered memories and thoughts that were unexpected or somewhat disturbing. Again, these people probably know who they are, and  how highly I regard them. But I can’t really write about this subject without acknowledging them again.

I think I am winning now though, but I needed help. I don’t find asking for help easy, but I do strongly recommend it. Showing vulnerability and weakness is not something any of us find easy, but sometimes it is the first stage in the healing process and one that I cannot recommend strongly enough.

I also recommend talking. And writing things like this. And using this week to raise everyone’s awareness of exactly how many people are touched by this illness in some way.

A tale of two cities

Yesterday we did all the walking in the world, or if not all the walking then enough to result in a huge purple line drawn around several major chunks of the city. We explored beaches and parks, main streets and backstreets, and saw everything from the most opulent parts of the city to the areas which demonstrate a level of deprivation I have not seen for a good while. I always say that when I visit cities I want to experience everything they have to offer, and to try and discover what it would be like to live in them. There are plenty of places here that I would happily live in, but also areas that made me feel very conscious of how privileged I am to be in this city and to have the opportunity to briefly explore areas that the people who reside in them would probably give anything to escape from.

That was just one observation of many, but it is the one that sticks most firmly in my mind.

Other things I noticed were far more positive, and are further evidence that this is the sort of city I feel at home in. I think the main one is probably how environmentally aware everyone is. There are recycling bins everywhere, and sustainability seems ingrained into the culture here. The whole city is very cycle friendly, and I think if I ever return here then I would definitely look at hiring a bike. There is also a decent amount of good public transport, with fuel-efficient bus/tram hybrids, and the sky bus, which is like a cross between London  Underground and a monorail system.

There is also food of every type available, and we have already sampled several delightful cafes, as well as the restaurant at the Four Seasons hotel which was pricy, but worth it for the delicious food and perfect service. Another thing I like to do when I visit a place is to try and eat how the locals do, and I hope to do much more of that over the next couple of days, starting with breakfast as soon as I have finished writing this blog post.

Talking of which, my soundtrack to writing these words has been “Kaputt” by Destroyer. It’s a record I’ve long loved, and one which very much sums up Vancouver to me. I like to soundtrack my travel appropriately, and hearing Dan Bejar singing about Chinatown and Downtown and knowing that I walked those streets only yesterday makes me feel closer to the music in some way, and I am sure that listening to the music in the future will make me feel closer to the city too.