Monday, July 13, 2015

Today's important decision

I'm going to wear short shorts until I'm 40. At that point, I will re-evaluate, but may continue to wear short shorts after that point.


Gotta bust out those legs!

Thursday, June 25, 2015

We're in black belt school

A couple of years ago, before turning 30, I wrote a blog post about what I wanted to achieve in my fourth decade of life. The list has many good things on it, and it was nice to revisit those goals while writing this post. One of the things on my list was doing a PhD, which I have started, and (haha!) I said I wanted to travel more (be careful what you wish for, eh, Birmingham?). Another of those things was making a decision about getting my black belt. I have decided. Black belt journey begins now.

After my red-belt grading, with some broken lumber
Technically, that journey began long ago at the Kinmount Martial Arts club, and then began again a year and a half ago at DeSantos Martial Arts, but as of yesterday I have a red belt. I am one year of hard work away from achieving black. This is as scary as it is exciting.

The year ahead is going to be really tough. The physical challenges will be many. I can’t even imagine being able to do 50 consecutive full-body push-ups, or 30 triceps push-ups. I think I can maybe do one full-body triceps push-up before the knees have to go down. I have a long way to go, push-up-wise. Four classes a week, conditioning and perfecting technique, will take up a lot of my non-work time, and I will be doing extra conditioning outside of these classes, as per the weekly requirements. I’m thankful that my cardio is already quite strong, but I’m still scared.

I’m scared about making the investment of time an energy that committing to this requires. I’m worried about the sacrifices I’ll have to make. I’m dreading the weekly running – I really, deeply dislike running. I’m anxious about how my time in England will impact my training, and what I’ll need to do before, during, and after going away to make sure I’m on-track with my other black-belt candidate friends. I hate the idea of getting up early – I am not a morning person, and it’s not that I’m lazy or get 10 hours of sleep a night. On the contrary, I go to bed around midnight or one a.m., and I get up around 7:30 or 8. Waking up at 5:45 for training is really awful for me, and going to bed at 10 is basically impossible. I can’t remember the last time I was asleep before 11:30. All of these things give me fear, specifically, fear of failing.

I’ve wanted to get my black belt for so many years now, that I would be devastated if I failed this close to achieving it. That should motivate me to succeed, but it wavers between urging me on and chipping away at my resolution.

Drew, with his new green belt on,
pretending that I'm really scary
I’m really excited to be on this path with some really great people. The other candidates for black belt, some of whom just got their red belts with me last night, are awesome, and I think we’ll have a lot of fun going through the worst parts of this process together. I’m also so glad that Drew got into tae kwon do with me, because it’s immeasurably helpful to have his support, practicing, and getting up early, and going for runs (Drew is a superior runner, so I don’t think he likes having me drag along behind him, but TOO BAD).

So, friends and family, this is my declaration and my apology. For the next year, when I’m not writing my dissertation, I’ll be training for my black belt. I will not be very much fun. I won’t be able to party very often. I fear I won’t be a very good friend. Weekends will be spent in the city. I hope that you’ll forgive me my absence, and that you’ll still help me when I need you. I hope that you’ll come next June, if I don’t fail along the way, to cheer loud and watch me and the other candidates achieve this great big thing. It’s been 18 years in the making for me, and I just can’t wait. I'm motivated. I'm dedicated. I'm on a quest to be my best.

Friday, June 5, 2015

Falling down a hill in Edinburgh

The year was 2006. iPhones didn't exist and Google Maps was only one year old. Exploring was still fun, and offered a hint of danger.

My gran, me, and Evelyn: supper at the Living Room,
Edinburgh (now closed)
I was in Edinburgh with my gran, visiting my grandpa's cousin, Evelyn. Evelyn lived in a kind of small leafy subdivision near a golf course on the outskirts of the city, called Kingsknowe. Gran and I were staying with her for a couple of nights; my gran didn't get back to Scotland often, and Evelyn and my grandpa had been close growing up, so while Gran and I were there, we made a point of going to see her.

Evelyn was good fun (may her memory be illuminated). She laughed easily and told great stories. She enjoyed a glass of wine, and habitually drank the most god-awful homemade sauvignon blanc that she kept in demijohns in her kitchen. It tasted like celery salt and tinned asparagus, and she would pour giant goblets of it for all of us. Drinking this wine made me feel like Sisyphus with his boulder; every time the glass had less than 1/3 left in it, Evelyn would appear with a bottle - a smaller bottle, siphoned from the demijohn - at my elbow to top me up. Finishing the glass and politely declining another was out of the question, though it took me a few brave attempts to realize this. To this day I have a hard time enjoying sauvignon blanc, and this may have something to do with it.

On the second day that we were staying with Evelyn, I needed a break from the wine and the house. We'd been out a bit, but Evelyn and my gran were happy to chat and laugh together in Evelyn's comfy living room, and I was feeling some cabin fever. I decided to go for a walk around the neighbourhood.

This was when I discovered how small this subdivision actually was. After a couple of laps on the same streets and cul-de-sacs, I ran out of places to walk. Crossing the main street wasn't an option, because the golf course was on the other side with a high stone wall, and I didn't want to wander too far, else get lost. I was resigned to head back to the eternal well of sauvignon sadness.

Just as I approached the house, I heard a small noise. It sounded like the babbling of a stream; a faint gurgling of a brook. Since I had nothing else to do, and it was a pleasant late summer day in September, I decided that I would follow the sound of the water and see what I could find.

The beginning of the path, taken on a later visit
I crossed over into a green and shaded strip of land across the street from Evelyn's house. I noticed that there was a dirt trail worn into the grass, slanting off through the trees to the right. It all felt very secret-garden, like I was the little girl searching for clues within strange British landscaping. I began to follow the path.

The earth was wet and slick with mud and a build-up of fallen leaves. It must have rained the night or day before (or both - it was Scotland, after all), and I thought to myself 'Kate, be careful here and don't go too fast, or else you're going to slide on this mud. Just follow the sound of the water.' So reasonable. But the path was slanting downwards, on an easy perpendicular grade on the side of a hill. I found my feet sliding a little bit, so I started to walk with longer strides.

Then the path got a bit steeper, and more slippery, and my strides got longer. My strides got longer and longer, and I found myself starting into a light jog. 'Kate,' I thought again, 'don't go too fast. This is good. Don't lose control.' My brain was like, 'no problem, bro.' But my body was in the trenches, and things were different there. The hill was steeper now, and muddier. My momentum was growing and the slide under my shoes made slowing down impossible; running was clearly the only reasonable solution. So I started to run, but not just run, leap-run, tearing down the hill, still believing myself to be in control. Every stride made me go faster, and every landing foot slid and leapt off again. There was no other way.

The path turned.

I did not.

I crashed through the underbrush, straight down the hill now, unable to change my course, as the abandoned path veered away behind me. Stopping now was out of the question. I was leap-running through the green, leaves and twigs smacking my face and legs, a streak of blue and white creating a tremendous racket flying uncontrollably down the hill.

Then I saw, to my dismay, another path below me. This path wasn't a part of the hill; it was the bottom of the hill. A smooth, broad path.


I knew I had to slow myself down. How was I going to negotiate the transition to path? I briefly thought of taking one smooth leap from hill and landing neatly, ninja-style, on the path. With grace and dignity.

Instead, I started desperately grasping at undergrowth, tearing leaves and small branches off of unsuspecting saplings.

The path was looming up ahead, only a few leaps away. Finally, at the almost-last moment, a fairly sizeable tree appeared in my path! I reached my hands out! I grabbed the tree! And instead of stopping, gaining my balance and stepping out, I was flung sideways at speed! My hands slipped off the bark, and I was air-borne through the last bit of brush, splattering onto the path like a complete maniac.

I landed on the entire left side of my body, in a mud puddle. With neither grace, nor dignity.

Dying of complete mortification, I picked myself up and examined the damage. All of my clothes were dirty, and my hands and face as well. That f*cking stream I'd been looking for was just on the other side of the path, so I crossed over to wash my hands and try to get some of the dirt off me before picking up the fragments of my pride and hauling myself back up to the street.

When I got back to Evelyn's house, I went upstairs without a word. I changed my clothes (ripped jeans! nooooo!) and made sure there was no mud on my face or leaves in my hair. Gran and Evelyn would suspect nothing, until I told them, and so I went downstairs to take a long, healing drink of crap wine.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Finally London

The view of the London Eye and Westminster, over the Thames from Waterloo bridge

It's been two months since I was last in London, and I haven't written about the city. I've been thinking about it, but lots of writing-related questions kept cropping up, such as: what do I write about London that is interesting to people, and new? What can one say about a city that has been written about millions of times? And, how can I be honest about this city and all its contradictions without sounding negative about it? I've puzzled over these questions, and I'm not sure I've solved them, but I decided that it's time to blaze ahead anyway.

So first, what's good about London? History. In your face. Every day, at every corner. I've you've ever read a book or watched a movie, you will see things that you recognize. In this way, London has reached a level of culture-saturation that far surpasses other oft-cited cities, like New York and Paris. It's interesting to walk around a city that at once seems brand new and familiar; there's a kind of dissonance to it, like you can't fully accept that you're in a new city because you've seen the places and read the street names a hundred thousand times before. It's also fun, when walking in London, to come around a corner and have something famous instantly pop into view. The city is so dense that landmarks - which might have been visually breathtaking given more space - peek out from in between other buildings, and pounce upon you as you pass a tube station. The effect is that of a city built upon itself in layers, with no wasted space, like a pop-up book.

Replica of Sir Francis Drake's ship,
the Golden Hind - an example of
history hiding between buildings
I loved the vibe of London - the electric buzz of things happening, and the hum of activity. Birmingham, being a much smaller city, didn't have that same feeling, and I found that I missed it. There is an air of expectation and excitement in London, and since there's always something to do and see, it's easy to understand why. The food and drink is also good. There is all the variety that one would expect in a city of its size. The neighbourhoods are jammed with cafes and bars, and even though I wasn't going to the highest-rated establishments in London, none of the spots I went to disappointed. Floridita especially stood out for the awesome live band and delicious sidecars they served up, as did Waxy O'Connor's, a tree pub which must be seen to be believed.

And now, what's not so good about London? Well, the cost of everything, to be honest. I was lucky to stay with friends on my visits, so avoided having to pay for accommodation. Food and drink is pricey, and the tube is also pricey. When one considers that the exchange rate of one British pound is nearly two Canadian dollars ($1.90 at the time of writing, and $1.55 American dollars), it becomes clear that the UK is an expensive destination. Living in Birmingham for the winter, I was used to the prices, and yet even then I found London to be dear.

London is also heaving with people, both locals and tourists. It's quite amazing how packed the city is. I've rarely seen crowds as heavy when not condensed into a music-festival-like venue. It would be best to visit in the off-season (i.e. winter) if one has any reservations about crowds, germs, pickpockets, and other things that happen when humans are thick on the ground.

Kingly Court, in Soho. Charming, to say the least
The tube is crammed, as well, and very small. As North Americans, many things in the UK seem small - cars, buildings, shoes, etc. - and the tube is smaaaaall. Imagine a Toronto or New York subway car, then make it narrow, so that there is one row of seats for people to sit facing the middle on each side of the train, and room enough for one person to stand in between their knees, and a person about six-feet tall could stand upright only if in the very middle of the train, and that the roof slants down on both sides. That's a tube train. No wonder the tube is always super busy and awful! In comparison, North American subways are monster trucks rumbling under the earth.

It's totally understandable, therefore, that people get really grumpy about suitcases on the tube. Handy for the traveller, all London train stations and airports are accessible using public transit. Surely someone at some time anticipated that there would be suitcases on the tube, but the luggage-tube reality is an ugly one. Not only will you inevitably feel like a monster not fit for civilization for taking your luggage on the tube - unless you travel at the off-peakest of all off-peak times - you may even have to man-handle your suitcases up various flights of stairs to get out of some stations. Not every tube station has escalators. This happened to me at Oxford Circus, which is one of the busiest stations and also somehow fails to have escalators. I had my giant suitcase (since I'd been in England for 3 months) and was doing my best to get myself and it quickly and efficiently into and out of the tube. It was an impossible task. Between the awkwardness of hefting a 45lb suitcase up three staircases, the exhaustion of same, and the jostling of hundreds of grumpy Londoners, I was sweaty, red-faced, and frustrated before I'd topped the last stair. Imagine my chagrin upon arriving at my friend's 3-storey walk-up.

The moral of this story, friends, is that London is a wonderful fantasy town. If one has gobs of money and no baggage, I can't imagine a single reason why one wouldn't love it unreservedly. For the rest of the wallet-watching, luggage-festooned masses, I think it will continue to be a complicated relationship.

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.