Figure 12 The Allards in Porto, Portugal
Professor and Head
Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine
University of British Columbia
Administrative leave provides a break from day to day administrative duties allowing dedicated time to focus on learning new things, developing ideas, and pursuing research interests and approaches. It is also a chance for relaxation, reflection, and rejuvenation (R3). It is fair to say I’ve taken advantage of both these opportunities during my recent 6-month administrative leave. Since returning I’m consistently asked, where I was, what I did, and what was the highlight? So, I thought it would be a good idea to sumarize my time away in an attempt to answer those questions. What follows is a partial answer because I will focus on the R3 part of the leave.

We spent the first three months in Europe. Remembrances of that time are numerous, varied and vivid and it is very hard to nail down a specific highlight or even two. Because of this, I thought I would share some, but not all, of the many memorable times to provide a sense of what we did, saw, and experienced.

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Our first stop was Edinburgh where we visited our son Matt. He was doing an exchange term at the University of Edinburgh as part of his final year in UBC Law. Weather cooperated so we were able to enjoy this very walkable historic city, including a short trek to the top of Calton Hill for a fine panoramic view of Edinburgh (Figure 1) and the many spires and chimney pots across the city prominently on display. It was always easy to reward and refresh ourselves with a pint at any number of local establishments (Figure 2).

We then flew to Madrid, our first stop in Continental Europe. Madrid is a vibrant city and a joy to explore on foot. Madrid is blessed with a triumvirate of amazing museums (the Prado, the Thyssen Bornemisza, and the Reina Sofia) all within very close proximity, where one can view masterpieces such as Picasso’s Guernica and Hieronymus Bosch’s triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights. A particular memory was stumbling unexpectedly on traditional flamenco being performed in a small neighbourhood bar (Figure 3). Matt joined us in Madrid and together we toured Santiago Bernabéu Stadium, home of Real Madrid, and attended a Champions League Quarter Final match between Atletico Madrid and Leicester. The home team was victorious and, perhaps needless to say, some Leicester fans were true to form, battling police in plazas filled with tear gas at night.

Madrid was the starting point of a three-month, >9000km road trip in a small boxlike car, the Citroen C3 Picasso (think Kia Soul). Our journey took us across southern Spain, a good chunk of Portugal, northern Spain, southern France, and portions of Germany. Ever winding country roads and maze-like urban streets, all seemingly too narrow for two cars to pass at the same time, seemed to be the norm. I was very thankful all countries we visited drove on the same side of the road as here in Canada. We found ourselves reliant upon (or dare I say at the mercy of) always friendly female voices from the car’s GPS or our iPad’s Google Maps whose instructions were frustratingly often wrong. We headed south from Madrid toward Andalusia first passing through the Plains of La Mancha, the land of Don Quixote with its windmills (Figure 4) that he so gallantly “tilted” at. Andalusia is a place of sun, fiestas, flamenco, and bullfights. It is also a place where Islam and Christianity collided; the results of which can be seen in Cordoba with its Mezquita, a former mosque now a cathedral, and Granada with the Alhambra, an impressive Moorish palace and fort complex, as well as the many white villages in the region.

An unplanned yet remarkable experience was Semana Santa. This roughly translates to Holy Week, an event that occurs every year throughout Spain the week before Easter and is celebrated with particular fervor in Andalusia. Each day there is a prominent and different procession with two large floats, one depicting different scenes related to the final days of Jesus’ life and the other demonstrating the Sorrows of Virgin Mary. The processions can last for hours making movement through towns and cities a challenge. The floats (or pasos) carried on the shoulders of thirty to forty individuals are accompanied by marching bands and numerous (sometimes 1000 or more) Nazarenos (or penitents), often in bare feet, who walk along with them. The garb worn by Nazarenos (Figure 5) has a shockingly strong resemblance to that of Klansmen in the Southern US. There is apparently no relationship.

Our time spent in Las Alpujarras is vividly remembered. Las Alpujarras is located on the south side of the Sierra Nevada Mountains in southern Spain. It is an area of deep gorges and valleys, and tiny white picturesque hamlets and villages sprinkled about (Figure 6). We stayed in a small B+B in a hamlet that was so tiny it had no café, bar, regular food store, restaurant, or gas station. So, we walked 30min to a village nearby for dinner. Daily hikes were typically from hamlet to hamlet and observing life here was like stepping back in time with flocks of sheep roaming about and old school farming techniques (Figure 7). It was here that we first experienced the phenomenon of “walking dead” villages. For those who’ve watched the television show you’ll likely know what I mean by this; the villages had nobody in them. It was an eerie experience that was to be repeated all along our journey and is apparently global in scope.

Storks were our constant companions. The White European Stork (Ciconia ciconia), which is a large majestic bird with a standing height of about 100cm and a wingspan of 200cm, was seen everywhere, especially in Portugal. April is nesting time for storks and they seemed to build nests on every power pole, chimney, steeple, or tree stump (Figure 8). Storks are typically migratory in nature, but many now spend the entire year in Portugal.

The coast in Spain and Portugal was wonderful. Not the masses of hotels and party-like atmosphere of stags and stagettes found in Albufeira, for instance, but places like Ohlao in the eastern Algarve and Odeceixe in the northwestern part of the Algarve (Figure 9). We were fortunate to have my brother-in-law and his wife join us on much our journey through Portugal. Visual treats were plentiful: ranging from cliff top oceanside walks surrounded by abundant colorful spring flowers amid sounds of pounding surf and nesting storks (of course) to long seemingly endless stretches of sand with picturesque seaside towns (Figure 10) and sheltered coves surrounded by cliffs. It doesn’t get much better than stopping at a simple beachside café and managing to order sardines and a beer (or two) using barely passable “1cerveza Spanish” (Figure 11).

Matt and Lauren (our daughter) joined us in Portugal which was a special treat. Together we visited Porto (Figure 12), the Duoro Valley, and Coimbra. While we have many wonderful memories of our time with them, a few things stand out. In Porto, I remember we constantly sought and found good food, and we particularly enjoyed a very pleasant, sunny afternoon at the seaside in nearby Foz do Douro and relaxed in the park adjacent to Clerigos Tower, the bell (and clock) tower of Clerigos Church in central Porto. We also crossed the Rio Duoro to sample port in the port houses of Vila Nova de Gaia and gaze back at this beautiful city (Figure 13). And, then there is Coimbra, a place we actually visited twice. Coimbra (Figure 14) is home to one of the oldest universities in the world (founded in 1290) whose campus has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site. A particular highlight was the extraordinary Baroque Library that was built by King John V between 1717 and 1728 and is recognized as one the most beautiful libraries in the world (no photos allowed). Preservation of books is a major design focus; outer stone walls >2 m. thick to maintain temperature and humidity, dim light, and two small colonies of bats help preserve the books by minimizing the insect population! Fortunately, one can only visit during daylight hours.

In southern France, we pretty much kept to the countryside or small towns. We stopped for a week in Alpes de Hautes Provence, a land of high plains and mountains in southeastern France, where we stayed in a cottage at Le Vieil Aiglun, a restored very small 15th century village. The village sits atop a nearly 800m high hill that made it a great spot to enjoy a rosé while taking in expansive views of the region (Figure 15). We explored the region by car experiencing traffic jams of a local variety (Figure 16) and on foot where it’s possible to find remote hideouts used by the French Resistance during WWII. Needless to say, we often lost our way (Figure 17). Although not yet in full bloom, the vast fields of lavender in the high plains (Figure 18) attracted many photographers.

Heading north into Germany, we stayed briefly in Freiberg, a lovely university town that sits adjacent to the Black Forest, and Dresden. In Dresden, we spent a wonderful evening gazing with others across the River Elbe at its beautiful skyline (the city has been completely restored after being flattened during WWII), while listening to Sting perform live at an adjacent outdoor venue, all while downing a beer and enjoying a smoked fish sandwich (Figure 19).

Berlin was our home for a week, although we could have stayed much longer. High on the list of memories here is rain! As native Vancouverites we are used to rain, but what we experienced on arrival was something else; it was a deluge of once in a century, biblical proportions! Berlin is a city of remembering and acknowledgement of a flawed past: with its abundant collection of excellent museums, the Holocaust Memorial (Figure 20), small bronze plaques outside homes of holocaust victims, the Reichstag, and remnants of the Berlin Wall to name some. The East Side Gallery, a more than 1km length of the Wall with at least 100 paintings (Figure 21), is the largest and longest outdoor art gallery in the world and a fitting memorial to freedom. As a pathologist, no trip to Berlin would be complete without a visit to the Virchow Museum; very much like our own David Hardwick Pathology Learning Centre. After Berlin, we headed to Frankfurt for our flight home in early July.

As for the R3 aspect of the leave, I would definitely say, “mission accomplished”.

It was an amazing three months, and I feel very privileged to be able to have had such an opportunity. As for the R3 aspect of the leave, I would definitely say, “mission accomplished”. While away and especially upon our return to Vancouver, I was able to read and learn a fair bit and also develop some new ideas; you will definitely be hearing about this side of the leave in the days ahead. I would say the transition of my return to work is now pretty much complete (I only have to look at my inbox to know for sure!). The best part about returning is the opportunity of reconnecting with everyone in the department and beyond.

1Meaning enough Spanish to order beer but also to greet someone, say thanks, get a table, order drinks, food (often not sure what’s actually coming however), get the check, and find a toilet. The basics in other words.