Blogging Headaches – Moving to My Own Site

The good news is that I finally figured out how to enter my own domain – something had stumped me since October. Actually I didn’t figure it out exactly … more like I emailed my boyfriend’s techie brother Fred at sartech.ca and he told me how to get into my web applications page and then into settings. When I went to settings, it turns out I had never set the blog up with a password (who knew I had to?) and once I did that, I could  access my very own wordpress blog at my very own domain. Only ….

Only it’s never as easy as it’s supposed to be. Once I was at my new wordpress blog at wanderingcarol.com, and about to set it up, I was informed that I’d somehow set up an old version of wordpress.

The message went:

“The latest stable release of WordPress (Version 2.8.6) is available in two formats from the links to your right. If you have no idea what to do with this download, we recommend signing up with one of our web hosting partners that offers a one click install of WordPress or getting a free account on WordPress.com.”

Well of course I have no idea what to do with this download. Who am I? Einstein? (Actually, I did go to a free lecture on Quantum Mechanics yesterday at the University of Toronto, but you know that old saying … you can lead a whore to water, but you can’t make her think.) Only, wait a minute! I thought I had signed up with a web host that offered a one click install of WordPress. That’s why I went with Cirrushosting.com.

So, I’ve contacted Cirrus and have left them with it. Let’s see how much help I get. I’m hoping they’ll just magically set it up for me, but as I pay them something like $6 a month, it’s possible that this isn’t going to happen. In that case, I know who to call. Fred? Oh, Fred!

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December’s Resolutions – Why Wait for the New Year?

Since it looks as if I’ve managed to score an entire month at home – I should be in Toronto all December – I’ll use the time to get my writing life in order – and if some housework happens to get done at the same time all the better, but no promises there.

1) One big goal is to develop my blog into a serious mix of blog and webpage with loads of articles all neatly (ha, in my dreams) categorized, mainly in the areas of spa, solo travel, scandalous women and outdoor adventure. So far, I have managed to get my own website, wanderingcarol.com, and get wordpress up on it, but the thing is, I can’t figure out how to actually get in there to blog anything. As soon as I get over the embarrassment of admitting this (oh, wait, I think I just have) I’ll figure out who to ask for help.

2) By January my friend Michele Peterson, who is also working on a book, and I have pledged to hand over everything we have written so far of our manuscripts, including scattered chapters, vague outlines, etc, to each other so we can help each other with structure. Hopefully this will motivate me to fix my first chapter, which takes place in Paris and involves the Buddha Bar, the Hotel Crillon, too much wine and (as it stands) too much whining. Either I need to drastically cut it into a prologue or draw it out into full scenes. Right now it’s a sad hybrid, but I’m not ready to kill it totally.

3) Get my winter columns and articles planned out. My problem is that there are too many stories I want to write and ideas are flying around my head like banshees. I need to focus, pare down and um, well there’s always room for improvement, write funnier, faster, be more profound, more entertaining, and stop using ‘I’ so much. This, like housework, is not likely to happen, but maybe in 2010!

Writing on the Road – Switzerland

Sleepy and Dull? I don't think so!

This is what my Rick Steves guidebook says about Geneva. “Skip the big, dull city of Geneva: instead, sleep in fun, breezy Lausanne.” Well! I loved Geneva, even if I was there less than 24 hours. I loved the view from my window at Hotel le Richemond that overlooks Lake Geneva, though it seemed particularly poignant since the Empress Sisi, the Hapsburg Lady Di of yore, who I am fascinated by (and, as an aside, used to spend up to 3 hours a day having her long hair combed and festooned with stars) was assassinated as she climbed aboard a boat here. A plaque marks the spot. Except I couldn’t find it. But still …

My biggest regret is that the Museum of the Reformation was closed because it was a Monday. Is that weird? Not that it’s closed on Monday, but because that was my number one pick for a tourist site to visit. I suppose I could have gone to the Museum of the Red Cross, but I wanted to learn about Calvinism. I think I liked the challenge of trying to make the reformation a fun and breezy travel article.

This isn't a bad view either!

Then on to Montreux.  I didn’t know Montreux existed until Swiss Tourism sent me here, and now I can’t figure out why I don’t live here. It is stunning, with the hills behind, Lake Geneva in front and a holiday turn of the century atmosphere. I stayed at the Montreux Palace which is one of those hotels that you just can’t believe still exists. The difference is that now conferences are held in the ballrooms and the old Belle Époque roller skating rink is a convention centre.

Montreux and nearby Vevey are spa central and I did my best to see as many as possible. The American woman who showed me around the famous La Prairie clinic said she ended up living here when she came to Switzerland for a holiday and went to a hockey game one night, saw a good-looking man there and thought, I’m going to marry him. And she did. Now that is positive thinking. Hey, wait a minute. I’m going to a hockey game in Zürich. Oh, oh.

I just arrived in Lausanne, and we’ll see if Rick Steves is right after all. It better be fun and breezy or he’ll have steered me wrong. Whether it could possibly be as fun and breezy as the Reformation, though, remains to be seen.

A Travel Writer’s Lament – I’m Tired of Being Poor!

Yah, so I’m heading to the Bahamas on Monday and to Switzerland next month. My life is all icing, but at some point I want a salad. As in green. As in money to pay the rent. Is this punishment for working in a creative field, the no actual spending money thing? How did Carrie from Sex in the City manage to buy all those Manolo Blahniks on a columnist’s pay? Was she freelance? Right now I’m trying to branch out careerwise, even though the only things I really want to do, besides travel are:

a) write a book

b) write travel essays to go in said book and

c) write my column, which gives me ideas for said book.

Okay, I also want to drink the occasional glass of Veuve Cliquot. And buy a lot of new pairs of black boots and read the National Enquirer but careerwise, here are the things I’m branching out into.

a) This blog. People have been telling me for the last two years I must blog, get a Facebook page and twitter. With this blog I’m finally trying one of them. Not sure why, but everyone says it’s important.

b) Applied for two grants to give myself book writing time – One was a Canada Council grant (chances of that, zero) and an Ontario Arts Council Grant (chances of that 10%). I also applied to go to the Banff Centre of the Arts for a writing program but got turned down. Actually I’ve been turned down 4 times, although once I got a nice letter saying I was close and to try again. I tried again and got turned down. (chances of ever getting into the Banff Centre for writing. Nil.)

c) TV Series. I’ve been having meetings with a producer and director for the last 6 months about pitching a travel TV series. Won’t go into details about the exciting never-been-done idea because then you might STEAL IT. As if you CARE. Anyway, normally I wouldn’t even mention it because that might jinx it, but as the chances of me ever having a TV show are at best, at their really really best, 1 in 10, it’s probably jinxed anyways. At least this way I can talk about, you know, my TV project in the works. It sounds so much better than, you know, my failed TV project that was in the works but is now in the toilet. Where’s the joy in talking about that?

Six Reasons I Love Press Trips: The Debate on Free Travel Continues

Free trips! Free trips! It’s still a hot topic (see post below). I just came across a post on Gadling.com by Tom Johansmeyer called Free press travel: necessary … and certainly not evil, a well-thought out – if slightly exhaustive – piece in support of free travel. I like the sounds of this guy, he cares about getting his story and will break off from the group if he has to. That’s the hardest part about a press trip, being herded around like sheep, because I’ve never been good in a pack, or, um, I mean a flock.

Shell Dog

High end swag?

I agree 100% that the best press trips are the ones with the loosest agendas, and where the public relations people are there to help us get our articles rather than to make sure we Do! Not! Deviate! from the itinerary.

Herd or Flock?

Everyone Stay Together!

Wait, I take it back. That’s not the hardest part of a press trip. The hardest thing is that we never get enough sleep. Why? Why? When did 8 hours of sack time become a forbidden luxury?

But I digress. What are the best things about press trips?

1) The destinations, of course. Spain! Italy! The Yukon! How great is that?

2) Seeing things I would never see otherwise. While I always think I know best when it comes to finding what I need for an article, often an itinerary forces me to do something that sound boring … and then it’s the coolest thing ever. Like touring a ginseng store. Now I love ginseng.

3) Getting to know some of the PR people and the other journalists. After two days together, it’s gone way beyond cocktail party talk and we’re dishing deep. So fun. Except, of course, for the people you don’t like. Or even worse, the people who don’t like you. Not, um, that that’s happened. Nope. No sirree.

4) Breaking out of my self-made box. For some reason, I’m scared of almost everything, except travelling and heights, and often when I’m on a press trip there will be something I don’t want to do, and then I do it and feel like Rocky. I have snorkelled (What? So I’m scared of the sea), gone dog-sledding, gone skiing for the first time in 10 years, ridden an elephant, eaten chicken anus … oh, no wait, that wasn’t a press trip, that was in a bar in Korea with friends. Anyway you get the idea.

5) Itineraries that include facials. What can I say? I love them.

6) The free part. Free trips! Free trips! How could I see the world and write about it otherwise?

Travelling Free! Ethical or Scam City?

A couple of years ago I was walking  around the Annex in Toronto and ran into a man I’d met on a beach in Thailand – what are the odds?

Just happened to meet a guy

Just happened to meet a guy

The first thing he did, after finding out I was now travel writing, was to launch into an attack on my integrity. The gist of the conversation was, “If you take the free trips, of course you’re going to write good things. Travel writing is a sham.”

My response was, “Have you read any of my stuff?”

That kind of glowing PR-ish writing he was talking about bores me and I can only assume it bores readers, too. For the most part I tend to shy away from making sweeping judgements about places. My approach is just to tell my story, to write about the people I meet and the trouble I get into. (And trust me, I can get into trouble whether a trip is paid for or not.)

My goal is to create a sense of the place without using superlatives, as in,”This is the best facial I’ve ever had!” Unless of course, it really is the most amazing facial and I suddenly look seven years younger … then I probably would write a report that’s as glowing as my freshly-peeled skin.

Unless they’re masochists, travel writers love to travel so whether a trip is free or not, they’re probably going to find something they like. And if they don’t, it’s still going to be great material which is why, when you get a group of travel writers together the conversation may go something like this, “Wow! You fell off your bike and landed on your face and broke your camera in Barcelona? What a great story that’s going to be!” (Hey, that actually happened, and yup, I wrote about it.)

BUT. I’d be crazy to deny that there is pressure to write positive things. What’s the point of pretending that a hotel or a tourist board is going to shell out thousands of bucks to fly me somewhere and put me up and feed me so that I can tell everyone how much the place sucked? This is where the integrity thing could get tricky, except it usually doesn’t because … because of a few reasons:

1) If a hotel or a cruise company really sucked, they’d probably be aware that they sucked and wouldn’t bother forking out money to get a journalist there to verify this.

2) Rather than point out how something SUCKS in an article as in saying, “XXX Restaurant is a hellish hole of canned ham,” I might simply describe the canned ham on my plate and leave it to the intelligence of the readers to glean that this is, indeed, canned ham rather than peppercorn roasted pork with vermouth pan sauce. And just the description alone of canned ham on a plate somehow strikes me as humourous, almost Dr Seuss-ish, and when things are funny I tend to enjoy myself, so I may actually end up liking the canned ham just for being the canned ham that it is and giving me something funny to write about. Is that unethical?

3) If something is truly awful, leave it out. I think many writers take this approach. It’s easy to do because on a press trip to say, Aruba, we’re not spending (wahhh!) hours on the beach. Instead, we’re seeing every tourist sight, eating at a million restaurants, doing more hummer tours, snorkel trips and city tours than we want to and generally seeing so much stuff that only our favourites will make it into an article anyway.

That said, there are many papers and mags who won’t accept any free travel, most notoriously the New York Times and the LA Times. And that’s why the recent revelation of a couple of Newsweek and New York Times writers accepting a free trip to Jamaica prompted a host of Internet buzz  like the article in Daily Finance, Ethics takes a holiday: Newsweek, New York Times writers in swag orgy.

Considering I take free trips all the time (though I still spend all my spare cash on travel) I hate to see these poor slobs slammed, yet I think the Times’ high and mighty philosophy of accepting nothing from a journalist who has had anything subsidized could use a poke or two. Then again, it might just be sour grapes on my part, because when I was just starting out, the LA Times called me, interested in publishing a story I’d sent them on Glastonbury.

“Was this trip subsidized in any way?” the editor asked.

No really, I paid my way!

No really, I paid my way!

I was so proud I could say no. On a 3-week trip around Britain I’d paid my airfare, my train fare, my food and room. “The only thing I got,” I said, “was that Visit Britain said they’d reimburse me for four nights hotel, but that wasn’t in Glastonbury.”

“Sorry,” said the editor. “If anything was free we can’t accept it.”

That was a blow. I could have just left that free part out, I suppose, as it wasn’t relevant to Glastonbury, but on the other hand it saved me a lot of guilt down the line. What if it came back to haunt me somehow? And anyway, how could I tell anything but the truth? Because, as you know, a journalist, especially a travel journalist, would never lie.

Nice view. Shame about the subsidy.

Nice view. Shame about the subsidy.

Travel Writers Don’t Get No Respect

I wish I could remember the exact words of the writing teacher at a workshop I took a couple of years ago. It was something like “I guess as a travel writer, you wouldn’t be used to writing narratives.” As if travel writers can’t write a story, but only know how to write flowery descriptions and glowing praise of hotels that have hooked them up with a free room. At the other end are those ‘real’ journalists who consider travel writing a joke because it’s not hard news. Really, we can’t win.

Even in the travel industry we’re marginalized. About a year ago, I went to a memoir writing conference in Mississippi where an editor from Conde Nast (Conde was Nasty) told the audience he makes it a policy to not hire travel writers. If it’s an art piece he wants in Florence, for example, he’ll send an art historian, or, for a piece on Tuscan food, he’ll send a food writer. I liked the editor, and while I can see his point, I’m less thrilled about the implication that travel writers are ‘experts in nothing.’ Isn’t travel writing an art? Is it easy balancing history, dialogue, description and travel information, all the while trying to create a sense of ‘place’? Just because we consider ourselves travel writers, we don’t know anything about art, food (okay, I don’t know that much about food), history or architecture? Finally, I have a career my mother can be proud of … and now I have to tell her it’s shameful? I knew I shouldn’t have quit H&R Block (yes, I did taxes for a season).  But I don’t need to win the debate about whether travel writers are valid or not, I’ll just go ahead and ride that elephant in Thailand, have that gemstone facial in Miami or take that river cruise down the Yukon (oh, wait, I’ve already done those) while crying into my chardonnay because no one takes me seriously.

I'm so sad! No one takes me seriously!

Look at me! I'm so sad!

Actually, there is a reason for this tirade. It’s because I’m trying to get my application in for an Ontario Arts Council Writers’ Works in Progress grant. (The deadline is Oct 15 so for any wannabe writers out there, hurry it up.) You need to submit 40 pages from your current project – I’ve been working on a travel book forever – and I’m already anticipating the rejection and getting ready to blame it, not on my crappy writing, but because travel writers just don’t get respect.