- Deck Space.
I live with my husband and a cat in roughly 700 square feet of space. So when spring rolls around and I can dust off the Adirondack chairs and roll out the BBQ it’s like I’ve gained an extra room. Now what to do with all the stuff we’ve been storing out there…can/should the oven double as a cupboard?
This time of year marks a literal emergence from the depths and darkness of winter. And though I’m not ecstatic when the sun shines in my eyes at 7am on a Saturday morning, I just can’t bring myself to buy blackout drapes. Vitamin D, in this northern region we call Canada, is a precious commodity so I’ll take it when I can get it, 7am or otherwise.
- Winter Layers.
I’ve bundled myself in grey and black sweaters, coats and boots all winter. And, as a result of sitting on my butt for several months straight, I’ve also got this layer around my hips and thighs that makes my pants fit a little tighter. Spring requires action to remove the layers: I put my sweaters in a Rubbermaid bin and took to the great outdoors in a fit of activity: soccer, tennis, and a bike ride.
The imposters masquerading as fruits and vegetables over the winter are exposed as illegal aliens, replaced by berries, and carrots, and broccoli that actually smell like real food. Soon those BC fruit trucks will be parked along the road side offering the season’s best and freshest at prices that don’t scream “we were shipped from Argentina!”. Also, time to fire up the BBQ for burgers, grilled salmon, and roasted asparagus. Mouth = watering.
There’s something to be said about living in a country with four distinct seasons, each with their own distinct sights and smells. I used to crinkle my nose when the snow melted and the smell of brown leaves and soggy grass would settle in my nostrils. Now, I’m more likely to take a big breath and exhale with a sigh of satisfaction: the smell of rotting foliage, often laced with the scent of year-old soggy dog poo, is truly the smell of spring.
I heard a stat this week that went something like this: Take all of the content that has ever been produced from the beginning of time until 2003 (pictographs on cave walls, books written, songs recorded, paintings in the alcoves of gothic churches, etc.). Take ALL OF THAT CONTENT and fast forward to today. Every 48 hours, the world generates as much content as has been generated from the beginning of time up to the year 2003. Take it as a sensationalist stat. Take it as twisted and skewed and chewed up and digested figure. Then spit it out and recognize that today, people are constantly churning out words and images – content.
Which leads me to the million dollar question: how does a brand cut through the clutter of this hyper-informed, super-connected, content generating society? Even with the answer, action must follow. Recently, I’ve had the opportunity to listen to some smart people that seem to be taking action in ways and with efforts that have blossomed into success. Here are five takeaways that I’ve been pondering:
1. How To Stand Out: This past Thursday, I attended a Speakers’ Spotlight event where one of the featured speakers was a gentleman named Ron Tite. He said this: There are three ways to stand out:
1. What you say (content of your message)
2. How you say it (unique way of delivering a common message)
3. Say something that’s relatable.
I feel this is so applicable – both in my career and in my personal life: how I present myself, how I market my company, how I have a conversation. Here’s K-Mart delivering a common message: “we can ship your purchase” in a unique (and hilarious) way:
2. Your Stories are More Powerful Than Your Data: Also from Ron Tite’s talk, which ties in to being relatable with your message. What it means to me is this: I can tell you about how great my product is. I can repeat a tagline or regurgitate a slogan. I can show you my best photos or cool product features or great prices. But without sharing the stories, without relating the excellent customer service experiences of our customers, without delivering a message that people can relate to, connect with, and share, my “tell” won’t translate into a “sell”.
Ron claims that the ad campaign of the year came from McDonald’s with the “Our Food Your Questions” campaign. Have a look and judge for yourself:
3. “People will forget what you said. People will forget what you did. But people will never forget how you made them feel.” – Maya Angelou
I once worked for a call centre where I took booking requests for vacation packages. I thought I had it all figured out: a professional phone manner, a pre-determined script that would smooth the way for seamless package bookings, a light and cheery flight attendant voice that would perk up any 50 year old golfer. One day I had a phone call that started like this:
Me: “Thank you for calling Kimberley Vacations”
Caller: “Hello? Hello!?”
Me: “Hello Ma’am, what can I do for you today?”
Caller: “Oh, I thought you were a recording!”
As unflattering as it was to be equated with a tele-robot, the main message for me was this: You can be professional and perfect and do your job exactly as the job description is written. But at the end of the day, if you live your life in an ordinary way, you’ll achieve ordinary results. Because people will forget what you do and they’ll forget what you say, but they won’t forget how you made them feel.
Love it or hate it, Dove’s Campaign for Real beauty definitely attempts to create a feeling. You may remember these:
4. Travelling is not about things. It’s about discovering the places that have meaning and meeting the people that shape those places.
This one came from a gal by the name of Judi Samuels who discussed what it means to “humanize your brand”. She related this quote to Target’s first Canadian commercial. Instead of showing the iconic rocky mountains, mounties in their funny brown hats and red coats, beavers and maple syrup, the commercial shows familiar, yet unique Canadian places and spaces and, most importantly, people. It’s filmed in a way as if to ask Canadians “hey, we want to get to know you better than your stereotypes, wanna be neighbors?”
Target Canada Commercial
And finally, the common bond that I believe links all of these nuggets of wisdom:
5. Be human. Judi Samuels summed it up in a few words: “Don’t think ‘what’ is your brand. Think ‘who’ is your brand”. With brand standards and public relations policies, and social media guidelines and automated customer service centers, this can be the toughest nut to crack. Asking “who is your brand” doesn’t necessarily lead to a clear and easy answer. And just because you might be able to answer that question, doesn’t mean you have a clear idea of what to do with it. One thing that is clear is that those companies that allow themselves to be human, those that show their imperfections, their sense of humor, their quirky sides, those brands are most often the ones that cut through the clutter.
Now, can you handle just a little more cheese? This one is pretty good:
“Keep your face to the sunshine and you cannot see a shadow”
– Helen Keller
When I was 11, we took a family road trip to the West Kootenays of BC, five of us camping in my mom’s friend’s camper trailer, venturing out during the day to seek out whatever activities were free or cheap. Which is why we ended up at the trail head for Kokanee Glacier.
“It’s only a half hour hike,” my Mom explained as my younger sister and I sat, arms crossed, sneakers untied. We hated hiking. In our minds it was the poor man’s alternative to amusement parks and shopping trips. What people without speed boats or ATVs did to pass the time. The only redeeming aspect of hiking was the fact that my Mom would stuff her fanny pack full of M&Ms and essentially leave a trail of them for us to follow as we walked along. And so, with a few sweet morsels, some reluctant photos, and a bit of Motherly encouragement, we walked. We walked for the full half hour with minimal complaint. When we stated that fact my mom, having the only watch of the bunch of us, checked the time and argued back “It’s only been twenty minutes!” She bribed, argued, yelled, and finally left us on the trail when we refused to go on. Finally after a rather dramatic foot stamping, dirt kicking, eye rolling episode, we followed, just far enough behind that we could still hear the singsong of her voice, but out of visual range so that she couldn’t actually see that we had followed. Maybe she’d worry.
20 kilometers and what felt like centuries later, we emerged from the dusk shadowed trail into the parking lot like a pack of rabid dogs. Ours was the only vehicle left. We’d run out of M&Ms. We’d run out of patience. My feet and back and arms and legs ached. My once-new Nike sneakers were scuffed and dirty. I was starting to shiver as my sweat soaked skin responded to the cooling effect of the setting sun. It was at that moment that I hated the outdoors as much as I ever have. I vowed to never again let my Mother lure me down a trail with promises of sweets and 30 minute walks. I promised myself that I’d never EVER let myself be excited, enthused, or entertained by something as mundane as walking in the woods. Never. Ever.
Just as a mother-daughter relationship transforms slowly and steadily into a sort of friendship, so too did my appreciation for nature. It started when I moved to Calgary in 2004. Suddenly, I couldn’t step out my back door and smell pine and grass and crisp autumn air. Aside from freakishly huge jackrabbits bounding around the university campus, there weren’t any other animals – no deer, no bears, just squawking crows and rabbits that seemed to multiply. Nature was a car ride or a bus ride away. And faster than I ever thought possible, I missed it.
These days, one of my favorite places to be is outside. Whether snowshoeing, skiing, camping, backpacking, or just walking, the putrid smell of mud and dung and the sight of a million mercilessly boring trees and rocks, has been replaced by gratitude. Whether my Mother knew it or not, when she pushed me up the mountains, across the meadows, through the rocks and dirt and mud, she was leading me towards a gift worth far more than anything money could buy. And so I find myself, many weekends in the summer and winter, exploring mountain vistas and rolling meadows of this beautiful country that is home, my pockets full of M&Ms.
After a month-long hiatus, I’ve decided that the blogging thing is something I quite enjoy. They say it takes a month of doing something repeatedly to make a habit out of it. And after four months of writing, this blog seems to be a habit I just can’t quit. I’m perpetually thinking to myself: “I should write about this!” The problem though, is that the subject matter of previous blog posts vanished the instant I set foot on Canadian soil. Travelling is such an obvious thing to talk about. It’s the source of ongoing adventure, mishap, challenge, and hilarity. It’s something most people can relate to – a common ground many stand on by nature of the fact that they’ve travelled too.
Now, when I watch episodes of Rick Steves, I’m scanning a mental check-list. Eiffel tower: check. Canals of Venice: check. Eating foie gras with a glass of the region’s best bordeaux in hand: check and check. “Loire Vallye: dang, missed that one!” When I hear of other people’s adventures in the same places I’ve been, the stories are no longer abstractions of things I’ve seen on postcards, but instead their words cast a familiar glow on my own memories. Which is perhaps why I enjoyed writing while travelling – someone always has their own story to tell in contrast or comparison to my own version of the telling.
Meeting fellow travellers often reminds me of weekend backpacking trips, where I occasionally stumble onto that person. The one who wants to talk about how many ounces my cook stove weighs, what brand of freeze dried meals I prefer, or how many lifesaving, bear scaring, gear carrying, water repelling features came with my choice of backpack. Just like any MEC obsessed “gear head”, my experience has been that many travellers are perpetual one-uppers. “Oh that’s nice you saw some sharks at Seaworld in San Diego. I lost my arm to a great white during a free diving expedition in the Mariana Trench.” So there.
So, my apologies for the abrupt change in subject matter – but the well of travel stories has dried up rather abruptly along with the remaining travel funds. In the anti-spirit of one-upmanship, I switch now to the storytelling of everyday life – the stuff that happens between the bright spots of vacations, weddings, and family drama. The real question remains: is the everyday musings of a 5’4″, twenty something, middle class, nine to five office worker exciting enough to blog about? Probably not. But I’m gonna do it anyway…
On the last evening of the last month of our four month adventure, I roll glass jars of homemade preserves in what’s left of my clean pants and shirts and stuff them in my backpack with the satisfaction of a would-be fruit smuggler. I smile as I tuck each jar in its own pant leg. They are filled with a bevy of exotic ingredients like star fruit and guava and hand made chocolate – all reminders of a wonderful month in the bountiful land of Costa Rica. As I stuff the remaining jar of mango chutney in and buckle the clips on my pack, I exhale with such finality that it comes out as a wayward sigh. It’s a sigh that describes my mindset better than words probably could. It’s a sigh of happy endings that says, “it was a good, good adventure, and I’m ready to return home to family, friends, and familiar places”. It’s a sigh of satisfaction and content, wrapped in a transparent parchment of sadness; three years of saving, four months of spending, a great adventure around the world coming to an end.
I thought I would catch the travel bug in a bad, bad way – a way that would cause me to dread going back to the routine nine to five, working for the weekend life in the city. I thought I would feel sick to my stomach at the prospect of going from a hot, humid land of perpetual summer to a country of ice and snow. In reality though, I’m returning feeling full of gratitude for the life I have and lofty aspirations to make it even better. Call them goals, New Year’s resolutions, fresh starts. Call these aspirations what you will. To write them down has me feeling apprehensive, as if someone will hold me to them or point a finger when I’m clearly not living up to my newly self-professed ambitions. But as I set out a warm jacket, socks, and pants (pants!), in anticipation of a chilly homecoming in Calgary, I resolve that this is the time to be brave.
- Be more fashion adventurous. From day one, Paris had me feeling dowdy, under dressed, and boring in terms of my day-to-day accoutrement. Women sped around the city on mopeds, beautifully patterned scarves waving in their wake, looking as if they’d just stepped off the cover of Vogue. Heels, red lipstick, a beautiful handbag nestled in the crook of her arm. As cliché as it sounds, the French are just so chic. It didn’t help that I brought with me a rather uninspiring assortment of practical, quick dry lightweight items of grey and black that could also probably pass as workout wear. The rod in my closet at home is bowed in the middle with the weight of all my clothes, the dresser drawers threatening not to close each time I do laundry, shoes are stuffed in every spare crevice and nook – some hidden on Tyler’s side where he’s sure not to look. Despite this, I still cycle through the same five or six outfits week after week. Every once in a while, I’ll wake up with a spark of creativity and put on something a little crazy – maybe toss my hair around in a different way. Inevitably though, I’ll chicken out and straighten my hair and quickly change out of my “radical” outfit before rushing out the door. What was I thinking!? This is a pre-emptive apology to any friends, colleagues, or acquaintances that I may offend by my future fashion choices which are hopefully more chic than shameful.
- Hablo Espanol. I am completely inspired by the countless people we’ve come across that speak two, three, four (or more) languages. Throughout this trip, language barriers have been an ongoing source of learning, humour, embarrassment, and stress. I can’t count the number of times I’ve attempted to begin a basic meal order in Spanish only to have the server babble back something completely unexpected and incomprehensible to my ears. Embarrassed at my own ignorance I will either ask, “Despacio por favor” (slower please), or if I really don’t have a hope of understanding, “No entiendo, habla ingles?” (I don’t understand, do you speak English?). After such incidents, Tyler and I will furiously thumb through our ill equipped phrasebook trying to figure out what he or she just said. While our phrasebook is well thumbed and dog-eared with use, I still find myself repeating the phrase “no hablo espanol” far too often. I hope to make the acquaintance of the wise and multilingual Rosetta Stone when I return.
- Stress less. Stressful situations will arise while travelling. It’s not a matter of if things will go wrong, but when. And when things head south and stress levels fly north, I’ve learned that I can certainly work on how I handle myself. As we drove from the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica yesterday afternoon, we resolved to avoid the city centre of San Jose on our way to the airport. No one has said good things about this city – in fact, it’s been a common theme amongst locals and travellers alike to “avoid it like the plague”. Despite best efforts to drive around San Jose rather than through it, we soon found ourselves in a city stew of pedestrians, honking vehicles, and confusing traffic directives (what do you do when there’s a green light overhead and a stop sign to your right??). “Lock the doors!” I hissed at Tyler as a shirtless vagrant approached the driver’s side with a menacing toothless smile. My stress level continued to rise as I tried to man a map, phone GPS, ipod, and look out for helpful road signs while Tyler maneuvered around pedestrians, stray dogs, pot holes, and psychotic drivers. Instead of calmly suggesting that we pull over and attempt to pinpoint our locale, I literally pounded my fists into the map like a petulant child and wailed, “I have no idea where we are!” Sometimes I wish I could videotape myself so I can see how ridiculous I look. Other times, I’m so ashamed that I can barely bring myself to relive the situation in my mind. I’m forever thankful for Tyler, my travel partner. Not only does he forgive me for such outbursts with surprising haste, he’s also able to lighten the mood and ensure that we can continue on our way in relative peace and tranquility. In the meantime, this is my vow to work on how I handle stressful situations so that I don’t come off as a moaning crybaby.
- Home is where the heart is. If there’s one thing Tyler and I have both learned from travelling it’s that the people in our lives are important to us. Even to my ears this sounds like mushy love stuff, but it’s true. Four months away is not a long time to be gone, but it’s been long enough to reinforce the fact that Christmas and birthdays and Thanksgiving and Halloween, even day to day interactions like texting my sisters or gossiping with coworkers, they are all things that make my world turn. People would probably say I’m not the most social person. Not the most talkative at the lunch table. Not the first one to initiate weekend plans or telephone conversations. But I’m learning that sharing day to day experiences with other people is part of what makes life fun and interesting and enjoyable. It’s what makes good stories for years to come and what keeps us looking forward to the days and weeks ahead. I hope that I can take a piece of the love for home and family that I have in this moment and carry it with me so as to appreciate every occasion that brings us together.
- Life is good. One last notable thing I will bring home with me is gratitude. I like my life. I like that I have underground heated parking. I like my job. I like the people I work with. I like that I am within driving distance to everyone I love. I like my cat. I like my car. I love my husband (I’m also in love with him). My bed is comfortable and warm and has a perfect indent where I sleep. I have good friends that are fun and happy and hilarious and kind. I have good family. I like that the water pressure and temperature in my shower is always consistent. I love peanut butter toast with loose-leaf tea on Saturday mornings. I appreciate the distinct four seasons of the country I live in. I have sushi within walking distance from where I live and where I work. I enjoy a multitude of conveniences at my fingertips. I am grateful for all of these silly and serious things and so much more. I’m happy to be returning to my good life and excited to start a new year.
Each day has taught me something new about myself and the world around me. Travelling has not made me feel more worldly. If anything, it’s caused me to realize how little I know, how big this world is, and how much there is to learn and see and do. I’m not sure where the blog will go from here, but thank you, thank you, thank you (a hundred times thank you) for following along on this adventure. Bon voyage!