Saturday, March 28, 2015

Paris: the City of Hazy Lights

Ah, Paris. A city I love completely. When you love something or someone completely, you love the good things and the bad things. In the case of Paris, the good things are everywhere: wonderful architecture, history around every corner and in graveyards, great style, delicious food, cheap and tasty wine, brilliant shows! The bad things include constant crowds of tourists in places where you wish you could be alone, an utterly baffling metro system, and abysmal table service in restaurants. On this trip, I found a new addition to the 'bad' list that I wasn't expecting: really bad air quality.

It seems, dear readers, that the beautiful City of Lights has an air pollution problem. Paris sits in a topographical basin, and it seems like usually there is enough of a prevailing wind to take the fumes and exhaust from the millions of vehicles away from the city. Lately, for whatever reason, the wind hasn't been prevailing, so the pollution has been hanging over Paris. The mayor has taken steps like instituting restrictions on when vehicles can be used - even numbered license plates one day, odd numbered plates the next - to try to curb the problem.

An important tip for tourists of the current day: the mayor also, with permission from the government, makes public transit free for everyone for a few days at a time, to encourage people to take transit instead of driving cars. On my most recent trip, transit was free on three out of four days, and my friend and I roamed around the city hopping on and off of buses as much as we pleased. It was a real money-saver, for certain. Though complicated, the transit system in Paris is excellent; metro stations are all over the place, and bus service is fast and frequent. I encourage visitors to take advantage of the system, and to watch out for days when you might be able to use it free of charge.

On this trip, I also visited Versailles for the first time. As a big fan of history, art, architecture, and the story of Marie Antoinette, I was really excited to go. Though Versailles is one of those places that is busy all year 'round, and when you want to be alone in a room to really take in the size and grandeur you will inevitably be smacked on the back of the head with a selfie stick, this great palace does not disappoint.

The Hall of Mirrors - where height is an advantage
It was amazing to walk around the grounds and see all the meticulous work that was put into the landscape architecture. No one really does that anymore, on such an enormous scale. I really liked walking through the royal apartments and the different halls as well. I would love to be allowed to roam free around Versailles, though I know that's not possible. I just want to see the kitchen, and the closets. I mean, at the time of Louis XIV - possibly France's wisest and most insane king - there were around 1000 people living at Versailles at any given time. Louis XIV required the court to be moved to Versailles and for all the nobility and various courtesans (and, therefore, their serving men and women) to live at the palace on a full-time basis. He even made the palace bigger in order to accommodate this. So I really had to wonder when walking around the limited area that tourists are allowed into, 'where did they cook for everyone? did they eat in shifts? where are the closets?' Those puffy dresses that the ladies wore at the time, with the big pannier things on the hips must have taken up some serious real estate, storage-wise. It would have been a fascinating place to be anytime during the reign of Louis XIV or XV, and maybe for the first half of XVI.

Looking over the Grand Canal from
the rear courtyard, Versailles
Versailles takes about 30 minutes to get to on a train from Paris. Even if a visitor doesn't feel like dealing with crowds and selfie sticks in the Hall of Mirrors, the grounds are worth the trip. On a nice day, one can walk around the lakes and through the woods, take a row boat out on the Grand Canal, and have coffee in little cafes that were once out-buildings. Outstandingly beautiful, all of it, and even worth paying for the transit ride.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Verona: Probably Paradise

When people think of paradise, or put photos of it as their desktop background on their work computers, or as inspirational images on their walls, it usually looks like this: white sand, blue water, blue sky, palm trees; thatched-roof hut optional (on stilts, also optional). When I see those images, I don't think 'paradise.' I think, 'totally, that would be sweet for a week... 10 days, tops.' After the 10 day tropical island cut-off, I start to think about isolation, sand lice, hurricanes, spotty Wi-Fi, and what happens if you need to see a doctor?

A view over Verona from the Santuario Maddona di Lourdes
For me, paradise looks more like this: a warm urban environment, big enough to have lots of things happening but small enough to get out of easily into nature; fashion, style, food, music, cocktails and wines; people on bikes, being happy, having fun; people meeting up in parks and public spaces, talking, laughing; people walking dogs and riding scooters in fun colours. It turns out that for me, paradise looks a lot like Verona.

Romeo and Juliet, yes. Their houses are there - did you know they were basically neighbours? Shakespeare doesn't say much about this, but Leo and Claire made me think that there was at least a train track separating them. There's basically one medieval alley-way between their houses. (Some people, clearly, also think that they were real humans, and not just characters in a play.)

Roman ruins, yes. There are ruins and Roman colosseums all over Italy, but it never stops being amazing to me to gaze upon structures built 2000 years ago and still standing. I hope that I never get nonchalant about such things. Do we build anything today that could last that long? Certainly not our glass towers. Verona has been occupied for millennia, and the Roman city walls, the colosseum, and a number of other amazing super-old things remain for our digital-photo-taking pleasure.

Dante, yes. Dante Alighieri lived in Verona and began his work on the Divine Comedy there. There's a square dedicated to him, near Romeo's house, and a magnificent statue. He talks about the Montagues and Capulets in the Divine Comedy and about their feud, which is part of why some people think that Romeo and Juliet were real.

The view down Corso Sant'Anastasia
However, these things, as wonderful as they are, do not make Verona a paradise. What makes the city feel that way is the people, the sun, the verve - the living and breathing parts. My first trip to Italy - to Tuscany and Veneto - happened before I started to write this blog, and so my reflections on those places were only aired to friends and family who read my emails (talking about travel is always hard, isn't it?). The overwhelming sense I got then and on this most recent trip is one of calm enjoyment of life. Italians really know what living is about.
A nun climbs the hill to the Santuario

Verona is aesthetically gorgeous, sunny and warm. It is currently 'winter' and people (bless their hearts) were wearing light down parkas and even some toques, but it was 17 degrees Celsius, so let's not joke. I was wandering about with a light sweater on and was obliged to remove it on some of the sunny climbs to various spots overlooking the city. Verona sits at the foot of the Alps and just east of clear blue Lake Garda. It's equidistant between Milan and Venice. The Adriatic sea is close by. The city seems to always be draped in a soft white mist, which may be air pollution, or may be due to the cooler mountain air meeting the warmer air from the plains and the sea.

The bottega del vino
The super-stylish residents of Verona walked and rode their bicycles through the streets, with nary a hair out of place. The bikes were mostly sturdy, festooned with baskets and panniers, with tires wide enough to manage the old cobbles without getting stuck or popping. Gentlemen in jaunty hats, Nuns in their habits, women wearing heels and smart jackets - all popped their purchases into their panniers and coasted away, stopping to greet people, to see friends on foot or to have a glass of wine in the piazza (not the sisters, though). As a cyclist, it's hard for me to describe the intense feeling of joy, wonder, and hope that seeing people like this inspires in me. "We could be like this!" I think to myself, "Toronto could be like this! We could do this!" I think some politicians should go spend time in Italy (and other countries with lots of cycling) to see how it's done.

I met my friend, Elaine, who had been in Italy on a work-related trip, in Verona - our idea was to spend a few days exploring the city together before she travelled home to California. But she was really sick the whole time, and that was really a bummer. Fortunately, we were staying in a gorgeous apartment I found on HomeAway, which was right in the centre of all the beautiful and fun things. Elaine decided she should marry the apartment, and I wish them all happiness! With the incredible location, which we didn't fully appreciate when booking, it was easy for me to go out for walks around the city and come back with food or fizzy water and to see how she was doing. We made it out the first night to a wonderful old wine bar - Antica Bottega del Vino - which was highly recommended and I recommend in turn, and shared Champagne, cheese, and some Veronese specialties. Unfortunatley, that was the longest that Elaine spent outdoors until the day we were leaving. A doctor came to the house (so, this is what happens if you need a doctor in Paradise) and said that Elaine was OK to fly, with the aid of four different kinds of bronchitis-related potions.

There is so much more that we could have done and seen, especially for poor Elaine, who hardly got to see the city at all, that Verona definitely warrants another trip. I think I'll add it to my list of places to live in for a while - I don't think I could ever get tired of this paradise.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

A Day in Bristol

A couple of weeks ago, my Latvian roomie and I decided to spend a day in Bristol. It's less than two hours from Birmingham by train or bus. It's a small maritime city, though it doesn't sit on the coast; it's on the Avon river, which leads to the Bristol Channel and then to the Atlantic, but the city is almost 20 km inland from the channel as the crow flies. Its protected location was probably a real advantage when it came to battles-by-sea. The character of the city has been built around its access to the ocean, shipbuilding, and exploration.

There are long riverside walks that lead out of downtown Bristol, and walking to the west takes the wanderer past some impressive historic shipyards. On our way to the harbour, we passed beautiful buildings and great statues of Queen Victoria - Empress, you know - and John Cabot, local hero. John Cabot sailed from Bristol for Henry VII, "discovering" Newfoundland in the 15th century. It's an impressive journey to have successfully undertaken considering people in Europe didn't even have indoor plumbing or clean drinking water.

The graffiti art in Bristol is impressive. I enjoyed a series of panels, one of which is above, showing graffiti pirates being shipwrecked in a storm. There were lots of high-quality pieces around the harbour, and just off Park St, almost within eye-shot of Queen V, Banksy has left his famous mark.

When all the history and culture got to be too much, we pulled up a table in the Grain Barge - a ship refitted to be a wonderful little restaurant with excellent locally-brewed beers on tap - and admired the impressively large SS Great Britain and the Great Western Dockyards with pint in hand. You can also watch rowing teams practice in the river while ferry boats, fire boats, and leisure craft navigate around them. One gets a real sense of the river as lifeblood of Bristol.

A little further west and up a steep hill, tourists gather to admire Bristol's famous Clifton suspension bridge. It spans a gorge through which the Avon continues on its way to the sea. Opened for use in 1864, one can easily see it as a kind of test-run for the (much, much larger) Golden Gate in San Fransisco. The bridges use identical engineering, on wildly differing scales. That isn't to undermine the feat of the Clifton bridge; it's always difficult for me to imagine how people could build anything larger than a house with only the help of scaffolding, steam, and horses. One side of the bridge sits on a natural outcropping of rock, while the other side rests on a footing that had to be built up to match the other. With the sun setting in the background, it was quite beautiful.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Update: Killin' it February

the Heavenly Choir sings in background!
I received tons of encouraging messages after writing about 'Unproductive January,' so I wanted to give all of you lovely readers a very quick update to say that this month has been dubbed 'Killin' it February.'

After faffing about for five or six weeks (also known as 'reading,' which does, I must stress, have considerable value for my project) I finally hit the point last Wednesday when I suddenly realised that I was ready to start writing. I was reading a really enlightening and brilliant book entitled 'Unbearable Weight' when I got the itch to write - the thoughts were fully baked, they were ready to come out of my head. Since then, I've written about 10,000 words, and they're good ones, too. I've got about 20K more for this chapter, but it's not a race. It just feels nice to have sliced through the miasma of ideas with a sword of coherent thought.

While I certainly won't be sitting around and waiting for the perfect conditions, as EB White warned against, I have realised that even when I'm in a reading stage and feel like I'm really not getting much done, I'm accomplishing more than it seems. It's good to recognise that, so that I can go a little easier on myself (but not much) at those times.

I'll have some fun travel-related posts coming up, with trips to London, Paris, and Verona planned over the next few weeks. Stay tuned, and if you're in Canada, keep warm!

Saturday, January 31, 2015

A Study in Bubbles

Since I'm in England and have heard much about the creation of sparking wine in this nation, I decided to track some down and give it a try. Why sparkling wine in England? The land in England's south-east corner, Kent in particular, is made of the same kimmeridgian chalk that Champagne sits upon. This vein of chalk is responsible for the famous sparkling wines of France and the white cliffs of Dover. The climates in Champagne and Kent are similar, but not the same. Kent is on the English Channel, 180km north of Champagne as the crow flies, and subject to very different environmental influences. However, it's not a totally inhospitable growing area, and so people decided to give winemaking a shot.

English wine is not widely available in Canada (or really anywhere outside of England), so this seemed like a chance to try something new and fun. Off to Selfridges I went, to browse their wine cellar. There's all kinds of stuff there that we don't see much of in Canada, and I had to exert significant self-control to stop myself from buying many bottles. I settled on two bottles of English sparkling wine in different price ranges, one brut rose, and one brut blanc des blancs.

First, the blanc des blancs. This is Gusbourne Estate's 2010 sparkling wine. The estate itself is in Kent, a bit inland from the English Channel, about equidistant from Hastings and Dover, though the winery's website states that grapes are sourced from vineyards in Kent and nearby West Sussex.

The top of the box states that the wine is 'methode anglaise.' Suspecting that this probably meant that it was a traditional-method sparkling wine - that is, the Champagne method of letting the second fermentation to produce bubbles happen inside the wine bottle - it took me FOREVER to confirm this. In fact, I can only claim to have mostly confirmed it, because the winery website never actually clarifies what is meant by methode anglaise. The description they give is clearly that of a traditional method of production, and since Champagne successfully lobbied the European Union to not permit wine from any other region to use the term 'methode Champegnoise' on wines, wineries have had to come up with a new way to state that they've used this production method. Typically, people use the term 'traditional method' in English or French to convey this message. Seeing 'English method' on the bottle made me wonder if the winemaker had done something different from the traditional way. It seems that they didn't, so maybe using the name 'anglaise' is just a political move to irritate the French, but regardless of intentions I found it unclear.

After the first sip, my Latvian roomie, Mady, said, "I like." I had to agree; I liked it. It was crisp, clean, yeasty and green-appley. A very fine wine, indeed. But... it wasn't overly remarkable, besides being a good champagne-style sparkling wine. There was nothing about it that spoke to me of England. That was a bit disappointing. I was hoping for a little bit of the English countryside in the glass, but I got a textbook French champagne. I have a feeling that's what the winemaker was aiming for, but it seems unfortunate. If traditional-method sparkling wine can demonstrate terroir, this one doesn't do it.

The rose brut sparkling is from Chapel Down winery, in Tenterden, Kent. It's just a 20 minute drive from Gusbourne Estate. Chapel Down has their own vineyard, and they also source fruit from other vineyards from as far away as Essex to the north and Hampshire to the west. Though they say that they grow chardonnay in their own vineyards, it's unclear whether the grapes in the rose brut come from the Chapel Down vineyards or a combination of their own and other vineyards.  

This wine smelled yeasty-verging-upon-cheese-rind when first poured, and was fruity though coarse on the first sip. It settled down in the glass after a few minutes, and presented a dry, fruity, easy-going character. It was cheerful in its simplicity and eagerness to please. Mady observed that it tasted like the seaside, which was conceptually a lot closer to Dover than the Gusbourne wine tasted. I thought it was like a sunny day, having a picnic in an orchard. Even though this wasn't as fine a wine as Gusbourne, I thought I could taste more of England in it.

I wonder if this was a result of the winemaking, as this wine was in a lower price class from Gusbourne. I would expect that the winemaker at Chapel Down would go for a finer style of wine with the greatest grapes of the pick, and preserve the second-level grapes for the brut rose. It's interesting that perhaps this lesser style of wine shows more of England than the finer, more stylish level of sparkling wine.

In sum, both of these were good wines. The Chapel Down had a little England in it, and the Gusbourne was very fine sparkling wine. I give them each two thumbs up, and for very different reasons.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Unproductive January.

It's the end of January, and I've been reflecting on the past month. It feels singularly unproductive. Granted, I moved to England (temporarily) and have had a number of fairly legitimate interruptions to my work on my dissertation - like taking a one-week class in public health ethics - but the train feels like it's come to an unceremonious stop on the side-line.

I'm having a hard time finding a good space in which to work. In Toronto, I did a lot of work at home. During the writing of my MA thesis, I also wrote mostly at home. I have no trouble getting into the work headspace in my own apartment, with cats and coffee and sunlight and my computer. I find leaving the house allows all kinds of distractions and unproductivity, and prefer to get right to it without delay.

But here in England, the house is not a good space to work in. Like many English houses and apartments of a certain era, every room is separate and each has a closing door, and the house is essentially a collection of small cells. My room is bright but has no desk or table in it. The kitchen has a table but no radiator, and thus gets very cold. The living room has a radiator but not much light, and a bank of dark green couches along the wall that feels oppressive unless occupied. My 'office' is likewise uninspiring. My desk is at the back of a room that feels like a factory floor, facing a whitewashed windowless corner. No distractions, but no natural light either.

"A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper." - EB White
However, I'm probably just making excuses. As White points out, you can't just sit around and wait for everything to look or feel just right. You have to throw yourself into the non-ideal conditions and be productive anyway.
air and light and time and space
have nothing to do with it
and don’t create anything
except maybe a longer life to find
new excuses
- Charles Bukowski
Ouch, Charles Bukowski.

A while ago, I read a post on Brain Pickings about the daily routines of great writers. It was interesting, because many of them, though on different daily timelines vis-a-vis waking up and going to sleep, had similar patterns in their work process. Jack Kerouac and Joan Didion both liked to have a drink at the end of the day to reflect on the writing they had done. Didion would sleep in the same room as the book she was working on, and Kerouac recommends having a desk in the bedroom, at home or wherever you happen to be. Working at home is a consistent theme; focusing energy in one space, and then taking time to leave the house to socialize or to get physical activity is something that almost all of the writers in the post mention directly.

"The desk in the room, near the bed, with a good light, midnight till dawn, a drink when you get tired, preferably at home, but if you have no home, make a home out of your hotel room or motel room or pad: peace." - Jack Kerouac

Susan Sontag sets out rules for herself, to get into a schedule. Not only does it look like a good way to get motivated for working, but it also looks like a great way to keep to a budget.

I will get up every morning no later than eight. (Can break this rule once a week.) 
I will have lunch only with Roger [Straus]. (‘No, I don’t go out for lunch.’ Can break this rule once every two weeks.) 
I will tell people not to call in the morning, or not answer the phone. 
I will try to confine my reading to the evening. (I read too much — as an escape from writing.) 
  - Susan Sontag
I think Henry Miller is onto something with his flexible schedule for himself, too. If you're not feeling overly 'up and at 'em', you can give yourself a break by typing notes and allocating. However, in the afternoon it's time to get serious, following a plan and allowing no intrusions or distractions.

If groggy, type notes and allocate, as stimulus.
If in fine fettle, write.

Work of section in hand, following plan of section scrupulously. No intrusions, no diversions. Write to finish one section at a time, for good and all.
See friends. Read in cafés.
Explore unfamiliar sections — on foot if wet, on bicycle if dry.
Write, if in mood, but only on Minor program.
Paint if empty or tired.
Make Notes. Make Charts, Plans. Make corrections of MS.
Note: Allow sufficient time during daylight to make an occasional visit to museums or an occasional sketch or an occasional bike ride. Sketch in cafés and trains and streets. Cut the movies! Library for references once a week. - Henry Miller
Like Sontag, I try to get up at 8 a.m. every day. She and Miller have a similar kind of rule in restricting distractions from outside. Sontag restricts the use of the phone in the mornings, as Miller says 'no intrusions, no diversions' in the afternoon. A rule about not answering the phone would be challenging for me; I think that in the current day, this would need to extend to text messages and all other forms of immediate communication as well. Beside the temptation to look at the phone every time I hear it ding or vibrate, these messages make me feel connected to all the people I miss right now. However, could a few hours each day of not looking at my phone really harm me or my relationships? No, clearly. I use it as a distraction from what I ought to be doing.

I like Miller's schedule overall, though I write best in the morning and edit best in the afternoon, with time allotted for reading in cafes, exploring the city on bike or by foot, and allowing time during the day to visit museums. I couldn't ever cut the movies, but I never go to the library, so I think he and I can compromise there. 
Schedules are good, but what I really need to do is settle into a work space. I really want this to be a place in the apartment I'm living in, because I waste too much time getting ready to go out and then settling in once I get to where I was going. I may need to just buck up and deal with the green couches. I may need to find a table to put in my room. Whatever the solution, I need to get working at home, and to only leave the house in the afternoon or whenever I get tired, and go out and pretend to be sane, as Maya Angelou said, before continuing work in the evenings.
I write in the morning and then go home about midday and take a shower, because writing, as you know, is very hard work, so you have to do a double ablution. Then I go out and shop — I’m a serious cook — and pretend to be normal. I play sane — Good morning! Fine, thank you. And you? And I go home. I prepare dinner for myself and if I have houseguests, I do the candles and the pretty music and all that. Then after all the dishes are moved away I read what I wrote that morning. And more often than not if I’ve done nine pages I may be able to save two and a half or three. That’s the cruelest time you know, to really admit that it doesn’t work.  - Maya Angelou

Sunday, January 18, 2015

A Riverboat Fantasy kind of Town

As I said in the last post, I did so little research into the city that was going to become my home-away for the next three years, that Birmingham's most obvious features are a delightful surprise to me.

A canal and one of the bridges
on my ride to the university - so low
I worry about scraping my helmet
Take the canals, for example. Locals do not seem be excited about the canals (unless they're just being English about them) and they were mentioned to me with a sort of bored ho-hum attitude, but I find the idea of a city that is far from the ocean and any noticeable lakes that has a complex system of canals to rival Venice quixotic at the least. To rival VENICE?! The city that's famous for its canals! Though not as old or legendary, at least Birmingham's canals share one very clear feature with those in Venice: one should never, ever touch the 'water.'   

Canals in the downtown
area near the Gas
Street basin
Birmingham's canals sprung up in the middle of the 18th century, and at the full development and use of the system, there were almost 260km of waterway. Currently, there is about 160km of navigable canal. I take it that the main purpose of these canals was moving goods, particularly coal from the Black Country (so named for the collieries), to Birmingham and Wolverhampton. They were so busy at one point that gas lighting was installed along the waterway to keep traffic moving at all times of day.

The canals are pretty narrow, and seem fairly shallow. The boats that ply their waters are similarly narrow and shallow. Every time I see one, David Wilcox plays in my head. It seems that there are some tourist companies that provide river cruises, but there are also some residential river boats. I find the idea of living on a river boat totally romantic, and I'm curious about how people solve problems like water and toilets, and cooking, and refrigeration. I don't think these riverboats share much of the glamour that the Mississippi riverboats have, but it's a neat idea anyway.

This is my Birmingham bike! It needed a little TLC,
but it's in great shape. Now to get used to riding on the left.
January! Ha! 
Yesterday was gloriously sunny, and I walked to the Bull Ring with two housemates. The Bull Ring is the historic market centre of Birmingham. Trading started there in the 12th century with textiles and spices, and then moved into produce, corn, and, of course, cattle. The name comes from a ring which was inside part of the market, where bulls were tied up before slaughter or sale. The ledge that part of the city sits upon ends at the market, and there's a 15m drop between the old high street and the rest of the Bull Ring. Now, there is still a market on the low-graded area, beside a church called St. Martin in the Bull Ring, and two big shopping malls have taken over the ledge overlooking this. 

St. Martin's from the open pedestrian
walkway in the Bull Ring - you can see
how low the church is in comparison
St. Martin has been sitting in the middle of all the action since the 13th century. The original church survived until the end of the 1800's, when it was purposely demolished and rebuilt, saving the tower and spire. It's coated in green... lichen? Something organic. I've never seen so much growth on the outside of a building. There is another church in the Jewellery Quarter that is similarly coated. Let this be an indication of the dampness of the city, when the outside of buildings look like the inside of a fish tank in need of cleaning. 

The manor house which would have been the residence of the person 'in charge' of Birmingham, way back in the day when lordships (etc) actually had a bureaucratic purpose, used to sit beside St. Martin, and the market took place within or beside the manor's yard. This house was torn down in the 1800's as well - apparently there was a time when no one cared about preserving these things - but, in a nice touch of historical continuity, the foundations are still underneath the current market building.

Totally mossy over here.
Birmingham's a small city, and I've seen a lot of it in one week, but I'm still looking forward to getting to know it better. There's a lot of interesting history here, and it's quite a photogenic place. Seeing my Cowichan sweater and fingerless gloves, my housemates ask me every time we go out, "aren't you cold!?" No. No, I am not cold. Did you see the flowers blooming? Can you believe that blue sky? Besides being incredibly windy, the weather is nice. I do wish that it really would get cold, so that we could skate on the canals around the city.