We Wish We Were There

For the first twenty-plus years of our life together, the Christmas holidays involved kids, extended family and friends, hosting parties and dinners, baking, tree cutting, decorating, making and selling greeting cards as part of our design and letterpress printing business. It also included stress, overindulgence, consumerism, family tension, a sense of duty and lots of driving from one corner of Ontario to the other and back. As much as we enjoyed almost all of that, we were ready to escape the holidays by 2011. 

Paris, France

And so we booked last-minute flights to Paris and an Airbnb in the fifth Arrondissement. We celebrated the way most Parisians do; we lined up for oysters, cheese, Bûche de Noël, wine and champagne. We also cathedral hopped on the Left Bank on Christmas Eve, went out for lunch, rented bicycles on Christmas Day, and rode to the Eiffel Tower, where our arrival coincided with dusk, and we witnessed all of Paris lit up like a vast carpet of light. We visited the Champs-Élysées Christmas Market, where we feasted on hot, roasted chestnuts. We watched, laughed and cheered the young men who played a fast-paced game of tag on the Hôtel de Ville ice rink. We saw a Diane Arbus retrospective and did what we love best, spending our days and nights wandering through the streets in the city of light. It remains one of our favourite holidays ever. It also set the stage for all of the holidays down the line spent in other places, changing up the established traditions, foods and even people with whom we would celebrate.

We decided to dedicate this series of postcards to all the places we’ve celebrated Christmas and the New Year other than ‘home,’ many of which we wish we were now.

California, Mexico, Arizona

The first Christmas after selling our home in Toronto and moving into the Volkswagen, we were in California. Our friends, Nancy and Doug, invited us to join their family at her parent’s place in Palm Desert. Leading up to that visit, we experienced festive celebrations from Tijuana, Mexico, to San Diego, Laguna Beach, Joshua Tree and Old Palm Springs. On Boxing Day, we headed for the Salton Sea, Bombay Beach, Slab City and Salvation Mountain. Having decided to hit Mexico in the new year, we continued east to Picacho Peak, Arizona, where we rang in the New Year. 

We arrived at this park a couple of days before the end of 2014. We had planned to cook over a fire on New Year’s Eve and pop open a bottle of bubbly. Mother Nature had other plans. It rained cats and dogs for 24 hours, finally stopping mid-morning on January 1st. And so we spent a very cozy 24 hours huddled in the VW, taking stock of the previous year and reflecting on all we had seen and experienced in our first seven months on the road and deciding where we might want to travel the months to come. Picacho Peak is a massive park boasting a 1,500-foot peak, incredible hiking trails and excellent bathing facilities, located about an hour west of Tucson. We were also able to purchase very affordable daily high-speed internet. This remains one of our fondest New Year’s Eve to date.

Victoria, British Columbia

During the second year in the van, we rented an Airbnb in Victoria, British Columbia, for November and December. Our apartment was close to Beacon Hill, Dallas Road and the ocean and a short walk to downtown Victoria. We hiked and explored local parks like Gowlland Tod, saw the salmon spawn at Goldstream, explored Sooke’s parks and potholes, and visited Duncan and the Cowichan Valley. The Christmas Market on Salt Spring Island was a highlight. While there, we enjoyed lunch with our friend, Michael Abelman from Foxglove Farm, met his family and stocked up on all of their yummy produce and baking. Spending time with extended family and new and old friends was the best part of our residency in Victoria, including watching the annual Truck Parade with the cousins. We hosted our friends, Jen and Mike, for dinner on Christmas Eve. Christian’s cousins, Ian and Nicole, hosted us for Christmas dinner. Our plan that year was to head south through Washington, Oregon, and California to Baja, California, in Mexico, at the start of January. 

Victoria, BC, to Amherstburg, Ontario

However (déjà vu)… a family health situation in Ontario prevailed, and we left Victoria on December 27th, travelling through Washington, Idaho, Montana, South Dakota, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana and Michigan to Ontario through the most wintery of conditions in a record (for us) twelve days. We spent New Year’s Eve in Billings, Montana. We arrived in Rapid City, South Dakota, just south of Mount Rushmore, on New Year’s Day 2016. If you’re wondering, it is the perfect time to visit this national monument if crowds are something you wish to avoid. Afterwards, unable to ignore the signs imploring us to do so, we stopped at Wall Drugs, a cowboy-themed town of sorts appealing to tourists and the curious. From there, we drove through the Badlands National Park, wondering if we would make it to the other end. The van was not a fan of winter driving, particularly at our travel pace. We ended up limping to the outskirts of Chicago, where the van underwent two days of transformation in the hands of overpriced mechanics. There were silver linings, though. We had long wanted to visit the windy city and the Chicago Institute of Art. We arrived at the garage, adjacent to the commuter stop, in time for the last train into the city. We were even given the deal of the century on our accommodations, booked while on said train, at the Freehand Hotel because of our 2015 Saskatchewan blog post, specifically Julie’s Serbian heritage. Our visit to Chicago felt like a reward for making it that far in such a short time. Those twelve days, though unplanned, hurried and unwished for, are some of our most memorable days on the road.

Venice Beach to West Palm Beach, Florida

In November 2016, after putting down a deposit on a co-op apartment in Toronto, we decided warmth was what we needed most, so we headed south to the Sunshine State. Before Christmas, we met a couple from Pass-a-Grille while camping at Myakka River State Park. They gave us their phone number and said if we were ever near St. Petersburg, we should give them a call. And so we did. We were camping at Fort  De Soto at the time. They insisted on picking us up so that we could leave the van set up. Though we had only met them once and spoke for about fifteen minutes before they left Myakka, they invited us to their home for dinner. Dinner was preceded by drinks at a local rooftop patio which offered a great platform to enjoy the Gulf sunset. After dinner, they took us to a neighbourhood in St. Pete’s with over-the-top light and music holiday displays before finally chauffeuring us back to Fort De Soto. This is just one example of the kindness of strangers we have experienced while travelling by van. We spent Christmas and the days before at Oscar Scherer State Park near Venice Beach. We enjoyed warm, sunshiny days on the beach, swimming, walking, collecting shark’s teeth and shells, and returning to camp for dinners that included stone crab, lobster and oysters. Florida campgrounds are always full over the holidays.

In addition to sun-seeking snowbirds, many locals like to spend time with their families camping at that time of year. Between Christmas and New Year’s, we spent time in Big Cypress Preserve and the Everglades, where we skimmed the Miccosukee wet prairie in an airboat, hiked among alligators and delighted in pods of dolphins that followed the National Park boat through park waters off of Everglades City. Next, we joined our friends Mike and Graidhne from Toronto in Naples to celebrate New Year’s Eve. After watching the sunset from Naples Beach, we rang in the new year by sharing stone crab and champagne. On New Year’s Day, we drove to Jupiter, stopping in Miami to visit one of our favourite neighbourhoods, Wynwood Walls Design District. We explored the changing murals and chatted with like-minded visitors before continuing to Jonathan Dickinson State Park, where we camped for one night. On January 2nd, we picked up Julie’s Dad, aunt, uncle and MacDuff at Palm Beach Airport and spent ten wonderful days together at an Airbnb rental in West Palm Beach.

Tequesta, Florida

In December 2017, we fled Toronto with MacDuff having just listed our recently renovated 1950s apartment / pied-à-Terre for sale. We’ll quickly bring you up to speed if you’ve just joined our Folksblogen journey. We inherited Julie’s Dad’s dog, MacDuff, in October 2017 after he became extremely ill while living in the Memory Unit with Bill. Since dogs were not allowed in our apartment building, we had to choose between the apartment and the dog. This was the beginning of Duff’s vanventures, and he was once again a happy and healthy dog. We were delighted to show him our favourite spots between Ontario and Florida.

We spent the first night at Kentucky Horse Park, where we walked through the elaborate 12 Days of Christmas light displays. We introduced him to Asheville, our favourite barbeque spot, and the wonderful owners, Angela and Bryan. We hiked in the Blue Ridge Mountains, explored Edisto Island in South Carolina and cooked wild cluster oysters over a wood fire. We wandered the streets of Savannah, met friends in St. Augustine and found a favourite hangout on a beach off the causeway to Sanibel Island. We spent time with our nephew, who was golfing near Orlando. And finally, we spent all of the Christmas holidays at a rented house in Tequesta, where Julie’s Dad, aunt and uncle again joined us on January 3rd.

We have no idea how we will celebrate the coming holidays in this city we called home for most of our lives. We certainly didn’t expect to be spending it here in Toronto. With Christian’s diminishing immunity, we need to extend the ways of Covid just a little longer, so our celebrations will likely be limited to just the two of us. We are currently imagining all of the different places and ways we might celebrate this time next year, which is very exciting. Whichever holidays you celebrate, we hope you are happy, eating the foods you love with people who bring you joy. We wish you all a really wonderful new year and, most of all, good health.

Ps – Most of the postcards were assembled, addressed and written while waiting in chairs in one of three Toronto hospitals over an uncounted number of hours. We posted them yesterday, December 10th. Which one will you receive?!

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