Wednesday, December 23, 2015

2015: year of the awesome woman lead?

I don't know, maybe it's just me, but I have the distinct impression that things are changing. I think I see a sea change happening around me. It's been coming, but now I feel like I'm on top of the cresting wave, able to look behind and ahead, and what I'm seeing is a shit-ton of truly awesome women leads in movies and T.V. shows for what feels like the first time ever.

Rey is pretty darn good
with that bo staff
Obviously there have been women leads in the past, and there is nary a bigger fan of A League of Their Own or Sex and The City than me to be found. But even the SATC women weren't leads like I'm talking about here, because they were all focused on men. They existed in the world of men, and for men, and men were what shaped their lives and gave them meaning. What I think I'm seeing now is a remarkable swing toward seeing women leads that talk to each other as people and give their own lives meaning. Leads like Jessica Jones, Carol (and Therese), Imperator Furiosa, and Rey, to name a few. We even got a badass woman engineer-spy in Gaby in The Man from U.N.C.L.E.

Finally women are playing multidimensional characters! These women are SURVIVORS, and they're RESISTERS. They're smart, self-willed and independent, experts in the STEM fields, physically able to defend themselves, crack shots with rifles, emotionally wary and unavailable... Though maybe that last one isn't something we should encourage in our characters of either gender since it's a little too much like playing traditional masculinity, which really isn't necessary. And being able to recognize and talk about one's emotions is an important part of relationships and self-care. But really, fuck it, if men characters are allowed to be emotionally stunted fuckwads, then so are women. You do you, Jones. Just watch the drinking. And maybe the best part? None of these women characters are trying to be sexy, to fall in love, or to be saved by the Knight in Shining Armour. They've got sports bras on underneath their own armour, thank you very much.

BIG CAVEAT HERE THOUGH: all of these women are (appear to be) white. Especially in the Hollywood blockbusters, the badass women leads of 2015 are white.

Furiosa can and will
use your shoulder
as a rifle stand
So here I am, feeling visible and vindicated and voiceful as a white woman, but what about women of colour? I honestly left the theatre after watching Star Wars last night feeling good about myself, because Rey was such a cool character. I didn't feel like I'd just sat through a two-hour long attack on my personhood, consisting of hundreds of tiny sexist moments on-screen, and that has certainly happened before. I felt seen, and recognized. The next step is for WoC to have that feeling, and that means that WoC need to get those leads and play those roles, so that it's not just white women leaving the theatre feeling seen, but all women, and not just white women who get to be mechanics and crack shots, but all women.

2015 is just the start of getting women into amazing and powerful roles, and it's a good one. I'm really amazed that it's taken so long but also that it's happening at all, when patriarchal systems and institutional sexism are still so very strong. I feel the change, I see it happening, and I'm eager to see it keep going, to see women of all colours in amazing roles in the future, so that we can all be recognized as the multidimensional people that we are.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Black Stripe: One step closer

Drew got his brown belt, too!
This week in Taekwondo, I got my black stripe belt. It's one step closer to the main event. Because I'm right in the middle of training for my black belt, and I have five more months of super hard work ahead, it almost doesn't feel like getting my black stripe is a big accomplishment. But it is an accomplishment, and it's the official nod of the head that sets me on track for black belt in the new year. So, I felt I should acknowledge it here, even just to remind myself that this is really cool.

This week's grading ceremony required me and my co-red-belts to perform two forms (patterns/katas) for the audience, break three boards in different ways, do some three-on-one self-defence, and do kicking demonstrations. It was really fun, and I felt really prepared for it, so I wasn't too nervous.

Tomorrow's classes are the last ones for 2015, and we have a two-week break over the holidays. Then we will be ramped back up to total-dedication-six-days-per-week training. I'm so grateful for the break! I will do some light training I think, but I really need my shins to heal! I've been plagued by shin splints all autumn - and I still haven't figured out what the British term for this ailment is. Rest assured, I'll be saving some birthday/yuletide gift money for new running shoes.

Friday, December 4, 2015

Self-Worth and Fuckwithability

One of my former professors and Facebook friends recently posted an image with a word and a definition. The word was 'unfuckwithable,' defined (loosely - I'm paraphrasing) as not being in any way affected by the opinions or thoughts of others about one's self. I understand the sentiment, and think it's awesome that some people reach unfuckwithability in most areas of their lives. I have an element of unfuckwithability in my life; if someone makes some dumb comment about my appearance these days I'm not going to give it a moment's notice. I did enough noticing of other people's opinions in my 20s. However, when it comes to my PhD, and my future career prospects, I am utterly, despairingly fuckwithable.

I've been pondering this idea lately, wondering about how people can push on, even when they feel fuckwithed. How do people pursue new challenges, even when they think they might fail? What makes someone think that they and their ideas are worthwhile even when they do fail? My quarterly bout of PhD-related panic about the future and about failing at publishing things, not becoming an academic, or ever being employed again (though according to the Current, 1 in 5 Canadian PhDs will get a tenure track position - thanks CBC, I feel weirdly optimistic about my odds now), dovetailed nicely with some reading I've been doing and some conversations with friends.

Another Facebook friend, someone who I was friends with in elementary school but hadn't seen or spoken with for over a decade until we saw each other at a mutual friend's funeral a couple of years ago, sent me a message after reading my recent post about black belt training. With her permission, here is an excerpt of her message and our ensuing conversation. Remarking on the things other than money that our parents can give to us when we're growing up, she commented:

It was an interesting conversation, because even though neither of us came from affluent backgrounds, we had very different experiences growing up. My family placed a lot of value on education, and my sister and I were raised into the idea that we would attend post-secondary schools of some kind, even though no one in my family (minus my grandfather, who died before I was born) had gone to university. I say 'raised into' because there is no moment that I can recall being told that I would go, or I should go, to university; there was just a kind of assumption in the air around us that after high school we would do more school, like a natural next step.

We were expected to do well in school, so good grades were met with approval and some praise, and not-so-good grades (for me, OAC physics.... ouch) were met with questioning looks - because my parents thought that, fundamentally, we were capable of success in all things. My friend said that she was not raised with these expectations, nor the idea that she was capable of success in whatever she was doing. Rather than just leave her without the motivation to push herself forward, she took the lack of these positive attitudes into herself and believed herself to be lacking.

People like Natalie Stojar, Carolyn McLeod, and Paul Benson do a lot of thinking and writing about how a person's self-esteem is influenced by others. Self-esteem, and feelings that we're valuable and worthwhile, does not come from inside us - at least, not originally. We get our self-esteem from other people throughout our childhood, and maybe even into our 20s. We have to learn from other people that we are valuable just because of who we are, and others show us that we are valuable through the ways in which they speak to us, listen to us, and expect certain things of us. This, to simplify, is why some people can gain systematic power over other people - tell them (individually or in groups) that they aren't worthwhile from a young age or over many generations, and they could largely come to believe it's true, even though I suspect that each person always carries deep within them a nugget of positive self-regard. Large parts of humanity live in a constant state of ultrafuckwithability, but we can resist being fuckwithed, we can protest the messages that undermine us, and we can redefine who we are.

It seems to me that my family's belief that I was capable of success in things, even when I wasn't showing success, shaped my sense of who I am and what I can do. At this point in life, failures sting my pride and poke my insecurity, but can't cut into my feeling of overall competence deeply. After a few days of wound-licking, I tend to realize that I'm a worthwhile person, that I know how to work hard and not get lazy, that I'm interested in my work, and because of that I realize I'm driven, and deep down I think that I'm capable; I near unfuckwithability. These self-regarding feelings start with other people, and if it wasn't for my family teaching that I am a valuable person, no amount of skills training could have gotten me where I am at this moment, having done all the things I've done.

One line from my friend's message stands out to me: no one encouraged her to go to school, or to do anything, really. So she thought she wasn't good enough. As she says, imagine growing up with that. Why would you even try something? Why would you even risk showing that you were interested in trying something? Just expressing interest can be enough to get you made fun of by people who don't think you're capable. Those kinds of comments about one's abilities and aptitudes sink in deep, and shape a person's sense of self.

However, my friend is also at a point in her life where she's becoming unfuckwithable. The nugget of self-regard that has always lived deep inside has woken up, and her sense that she really is capable of things - things she didn't previously think were possible - is newly alive. She's taking new risks, she's finding her passions, and she's got a lot to give. She's valuable, she's capable, she's worthy.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Black belt training is... well... it's something

If I could accurately capture the sound of my aching muscles in text, that would be the title of this post. Something like, 'aaaaaaagggggcchchchchchchaaa!' every time I try to walk. This is black belt training, it would seem, and it is hard. There is never a time that some muscle in my body isn't aching. At the moment I'm walking like I've got a peg leg.

Master Donnelley, far left, instructs
a group of kids before the seminar
My peg leg situation is the combined result of a seminar on Sunday and my regular Monday class, both of which happened to involve a lot of kicking. The Sunday seminar was really interesting. It was taught by Master Paul Donnelley, 8th degree black belt (9th is the highest possible), and though it was short, it was intense. Apparently it was nowhere near as intense as his classes used to be - physically demanding and rigorously disciplined. Now in his 70s, Master Donnelley is still quicker on his feet than any of the younger of us were. It's amazing to me how physical skills can get sharper and more refined through life - age is no barrier.

My fancy Taekwondo Association
of Great Britain dobok
Besides a couple of classes per week while I'm in Birmingham, the rest of my current training regime is independent - three runs a week (for a total of 15km), skipping 1200 times, 50 push-ups, etc. No one is watching over my shoulder to make sure I do it. I have to keep a weekly journal of what I'm doing, but it would be easy to lie, saying that I'm doing things that I'm not. Even on days when this is extremely tempting, when I would really rather not go for a run (which is every day I'm supposed to go for a run), I do the work instead.

Look at that forced pre-run
smile -at least it's sunny
for once in Brum!
I know that if I don't do the work, no one but me will suffer. If I didn't do all the things I am supposed to do, and didn't lie about it, then I would get my butt kicked in class with crazy hard work-outs when my Master (Veronica Desantos, also known affectionately as Kwon Jan Nim, or KJN) saw that I hadn't done it. If I don't do the work but pretend that I have, and then make it evident that I was lying when I really don't have the endurance to do the same things during our black belt grading - also known as power weekend - I will also get my butt kicked. I'm going to get my butt kicked anyway, on power weekend, and that's the final reason for doing all this training: if I don't do it, I'll have no one to blame but myself for having the most hellacious experience in grading. I have no idea what happens during the weekend because it's all veiled in ritual, but I get the impression that it starts on Friday night, allows little sleep, involves being pushed to one's physical and mental limits and being made to do a wholly unethical number of burpees, and that it finishes with an eight o'clock 5km run on Sunday morning. Power weekend is not a joke.

If I can run 5km now, three times a week, without stopping, crying, or hyperventilating, then maybe - just maybe - I will be able to run 5km on the boardwalk with no sleep, an aching body, and a murderous desire for coffee.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Hot, Humid, Happy Hong Kong

At this point it's been almost two months since Drew and I touched down in Hong Kong, and a month since we left it the second and final time. Our time in Hong Kong was so great that it's hard to know where to even start. I *loved* this city. To recap, some of the things we wanted to do while we were in Hong Kong included:

- climbing up to Victoria Peak
- going to the Temple Street Night Market, among others
- going to Lamma by ferry, and eating at the Rainbow Seafood Restaurant
- going to Macau for a day

The first day we were in Hong Kong was Thursday Sept. 3rd 2015, and it had been rather suddenly announced that this day was a national holiday, marking the Chinese victory over Japan 70 years previous, in 1945. This was the first time that this national holiday would be observed, and the last time. While Beijing had parades and fireworks and all kinds of celebrations, in Hong Kong, which wasn't even a part of China until 1997, it was just a normal day off.

Drew and Melissa check out
the fish at Rainbow Seafood
Because people had the day off, families were out and about together, and the 'helpers' - domestic staff - that Hong Kongers have were all sitting together outdoors, on pieces of cardboard, in their designated gathering areas. These were all women, and almost exclusively Filipina. My friend, Melissa, who lives in Hong Kong and let us stay with her (wonderful person!), also had the day off, which was amazing luck for all of us, and we decided to head out to Lamma together to hike over the island and check out the restaurant. The food was amazing everywhere we ate, and Rainbow was definitely worth the trip. Live fish were arranged in tanks, and everything was fresh and cooked to order. It was a recommendation from another friend, Christina, who had been to Hong Kong last year on her honeymoon, and it was a great call. I definitely recommend it to anyone going. The ferry ride to Lamma is also great, and gave us a chance to see some cool architecture, such as a collection of buildings that all have Feng Shui holes in them, so that the 'dragon energy' of the mountain behind them can escape to the sea.

Feng Shui spaces, for energy flow
Hong Kong was *super hot* - I can't even describe how hot it was. Mostly, it was incredibly humid, and though I'm sure that the real temperature wasn't outrageous - maybe in the low-to-mid 30's C - the air was smotheringly, inescapably, mind-destroyingly damp. It was like wearing a hot, wet duvet at all times. Drew and I were constantly sweating, and I envied the people around us who still looked crisp and comfortable in their clothes. This was another great thing about being on the ferry: artificial breeze and the illusion of coolness.

Spotting the Buddha from the gondola
Drew and I decided not to go to Macau after all, instead opting to take a trip out to Landau, a nearby island that one can get to by train, to visit the world's largest seated Buddha. Apparently, if you're flying into the city on a clear day you can see it from the air. We didn't get that view, but amazing views of it were possible from the gondola (!!) that you have to take from the train station, over the mountainous island to the Buddha. It turns out that Drew does not enjoy gondola rides, so he found it a bit scary. I was mostly impressed at the few people who I could see down below us crossing the island on a pathway that snaked up and down the mountains, with staircases here and there.

We climbed these stairs,
it was hard.
Again, this day was insanely hot, and Drew and I were dripping sweat just by climbing all the stairs up to the Buddha itself, so I can't imagine traversing the island on foot. The view from the Buddha was worth the shaking legs and soaked shirt, at least. After walking around the grounds and the statue, we grabbed some noodles and water at a vegetarian canteen run by the monks who live beside and take care of the Buddha, and then made our way back, utterly exhausted. Many showers were required in Hong Kong.

The following day, Melissa took us around to the various markets of Kowloon (the mainland part of Hong Kong). We started at the flower market, which was a long street entirely composed of flower shops, then went to the bird market, which was a square garden-like area full of people selling birds of different kinds.

A little bird in its
fancy cage
It's a sign of prosperity in China to own a bird, and we occasionally saw people walking down the street with birds in decorative cages. I can only hope that the birds had larger cages at home, and that the small decorative ones were just for showy walks down the street. They were super ornate, with tiny painted porcelain dishes for water and seeds.

From the bird market, we went to the Ladies' Market, which used to be where women would go to buy fabric and other materials for sewing and dressmaking, but which is now just a kind of regular clothes and gadgets market. We stopped in a few places, warming up our haggling skills, and picking up souvenirs for friends.

Just a fun picture of a parrot getting a
shower in the bird market.
She loved it; I was jealous.
From there, we next went to Sneaker Street, which is an entire city block of shoe - specifically, sneaker - stores. All of the stores were busy. Rather, all of the markets we went to this day were packed with people. Some of the sneaker stores even repeated, with multiple Nike stores and Adidas stores set up just a block from each other, and all doing a hefty trade. Then we stopped by the smaller jade market, which was more of a tent-based structure, with stalls inside. It was hard to tell good/real jade from non-jade stone, though it's easy to tell real stone from plastic or glass. We did some reading on what to look for in jade, because I wanted to buy a bangle, and we found some quite useful websites about it. I believe that I purchased a real jade bangle, and I think I haggled down to a reasonable price for it, but I doubt that I'll ever really know if it's real or not. In truth, it doesn't much matter - I like it, and didn't feel ripped off.

Waiting for yummy food at the
Temple Street Nigh Market
Finally, after this stop we went to the Temple Street Night Market. At this point we were heavily marketed out. We'd spent money along the way at the various markets (with the exception of flower and bird), and kind of just needed to sit and watch the crowd. Fortunately, the Night Market is packed with restaurants serving delicious food at outdoor tables. We went to a spicy crab place, and had a number of dishes, including some seriously good crispy duck on noodles. Hong Kong is really a food-lovers paradise.

After being in Hong Kong for a few days, I felt like we had adapted a bit to the heat. My feet and hands had stopped doubling in size with heat-edema the instant I walked outside (Drew and I both had this - Drew had to have a silver ring that he bought at the markets sized down significantly when we returned to Canada and his hands went back to normal). I thought that maybe we could handle hiking up to Victoria Peak.

We set out to take the bus to the bottom of the path that leads up the mountain, with plans to walk to the top and maybe take a bus or the tram back down to the bottom. We got off the bus at the spot where the map kind of showed a street or lane-way leading up into the park, and promptly got very lost. We weren't lost in the sense that we didn't know where we were, but we were lost in the sense that we had no idea how to get where we wanted to go. We started walking vaguely in the direction of 'up the mountain', following paths that looked to be going the right way. We finally thought we were on the right pathway when it abruptly ended at, on the left, a building complex, and on the right, a gate, slightly open, that seemed to lead into some kind of garden. We saw a man watering plants through the gate, so we went through to ask for some directions. We were disconcerted to find that he was unable to locate us on a map, so we just asked if he could tell us where we could get a taxi. He pointed through an archway, up some stairs, and told us to take a right at the top. As we walked through the archway, and up the stairs, we realized we were passing a pool and tennis courts, and a restaurant, and everyone at the tables and around the facilities looked fresh and neat compared to our sweaty and panting state. Finally we walked into a lobby, took a right into a larger lobby, and walked past a lovely reception desk where people were checking in for tennis fours and making dinner reservations. We smiled warmly at the reception people and the door man, and exited swiftly into the open door of a waiting taxi. And that's how Drew and I accidentally broke in through the back way of the Ladies' Recreational Club, Hong Kong.

Hong Kong from the Peak!
The taxi was a life-saver. There was no way we could have walked up to Victoria Peak that day, sunny and humid as it was. We made it to the top, wandered around with green tea ice cream cones from McDonald's, took a bunch of great photos of Hong Kong harbour, and laughed at our misadventure. We took the bus back down to the Wan Chai neighbourhood for lunch, and (after I recovered from car-sickness - Gravol is recommended for Hong Kong bus adventures) wandered the streets and ate delicious food from vendor stalls.

Me at the peak, admiring the city
There's still more that I could tell about our visit in Hong Kong. It was a great city that I could easily have spent more time in. We managed to see and do a lot, and Melissa was a wonderful and very generous host and tour guide, and yet there is so much more that we could have done if we'd had more time. Hong Kong is so accessible to the Westerner, because everything is in English (road signs, restaurant menus, subway signs) and pretty much everyone speaks English, including in the markets. It was easy to haggle, with the help of a calculator to display the amount you were offering, and people were friendly. There were also big cultural differences between Hong Kongers and Chinese people (mainlanders), which was interesting to see and experience. Hong Kongers, because of the British influence, I assume, have many more Brit customs and cultural expectations (table manners, for example), which also made it a pretty comfortable place for us to visit, and interesting to contrast this with mainland Chinese culture and how their customs and expectations were so different. I really hope to get back to Hong Kong, and I can't recommend it enough. I'd also like to see much more of China, now that I feel like I'm a bit prepared and it feels less intimidating.

Drinks at the top of the ICC!
Drew and I can't express enough tanks to Melissa, for showing us around and making excellent recommendations about what to see, where to go, and how to get there! From her many umbrellas to her expertise on top-of-the-world cocktails and soup dumplings, Melissa really made our time in Hong Kong the excellent experience that it was. Thank you so much, Melissa. You are so generous, and so willing to give your time and space and energy to friends! We love you!

Monday, October 12, 2015

Singapore: Totally Underrated.

I've just finished an afternoon of teaching, and find myself too tired to do more PhD reading at the moment. What's up on my to-do list? Singapore!

When I was writing about Singapore in a pre-trip post, I had said that my goals while visiting the city were as follows:
- eat a lot
- experience a hawker market
- check out the night safari at the zoo
- maybe spend a day in Malaysia for more delicious food, and
- don't break any laws.

I think my current state of non-incarceration suffices to demonstrate that the last goal was (to my and the authorities'  knowledge) met. It wasn't difficult to avoid breaking laws in Singapore, despite the jokes and no chewing gum (a real law). The government does love rules, but as a tourist, many of them didn't affect my behaviour. The rules did curb my alcohol consumption a wee bit, because alcohol taxes are incredibly high, but I could hardly claim that I suffered or enjoyed the trip less for that.
Drew purchases yummy victuals
at a hawker market

Happily, my other goals for Singapore were quite easy to meet. The first goal of eating a lot was satisfied by pursuing the second goal, to check out some hawker markets. Hawker markets are covered outdoor areas lined with rows of small food stalls and picnic-table-style seating. Instead of having street food vendors willy nilly around the city, Singapore decided to put them all together in a few organized places. I think that there's a lot of competition to get a stall, and so the quality of the food sold - though extremely cheap! - is very good. Drew and I checked out a few hawker markets and ate tons of food from different places - Malaysian, Chinese, Indian, Thai, Vietnamese, etc. I was rarely hungry because we were always eating.

We also went to the famous Raffles
Hotel, and tried the Singapore Sling,
invented here and still very good!
We patronized some stand-out restaurants, as well. One Indian restaurant, called Lagnaa (reservations recommended), will stay in my memory forever, because the food is super delicious, they take the heat levels of their dishes very seriously, and our friend, Zac, was interested in their chili challenge. The heat of their dishes ranges from 1 (mild) to 6 (extreme heat). This is not a numeric scale, but more like an exponential scale, so 2 is not medium; 2 is spicy, and Drew, Anna and I, who all enjoy spicy food, ate dishes at level 2 and were happy with our choice. Zac has an uncommon love of heat in his food, and so he tried a level 4 dish. It was good, he said, but he could have had a hotter one. If a person eats an entire level 6 dish at this restaurant, with no yoghurt-drinks or bread (to cut the heat), then that person will be invited to attend a Full Moon party, when the chef will spend all afternoon carefully preparing a level 7 dish that the attendees will share. If they succeed in eating the level 7 dish, their names go up on the wall in everlasting glory. Zac recently returned to the restaurant and had a level 6 dish all to himself. He said, though, that the heat was more than he enjoys in his food. I'm unclear about whether he'll attempt level 7.

The night safari at the Singapore Zoo is absolutely worth doing. It's touristy, yes, but it seems to me that many touristy things are popular because they're great. The Singapore Zoo is apparently one of the best in the world in terms of animal environment and care-taking, and their night safari gives visitors the chance to see a lot of animals that would normally be lazing about in the day up, eating, and running around. One of my favourites was the Fisher Cat, and we watched her pacing along the bank of a river that ran through her enclosure, carefully watching the water for fish. Part of the night safari can be explored on foot, but another part, with the larger animals, can only be seen by going on a guided tour. The tour was informative, of course, telling visitors about the animals, but was also really focused on conservation, and telling visitors about animals that were threatened or endangered because of careless human activity. The guide was very firm in telling us that Rhino horn has no medicinal value, for example, and that some of the animals we were seeing in the zoo were extinct in the wild from over-hunting and habitat loss. I really appreciated that message from this safari, which could otherwise have been a kind of empty voyerism. So check it out, get a bit sad, and then go look at the Slow Loris and be cheered! He's so cute, and so slow!!

Drew beside some
towering wax palms
Finally, rather than go to Malaysia for a day (knowing that a great spot for food, Malacca, was really too far away for a day-trip and we were getting to eat some awesome Malaysian food in Singapore), we decided to spend a day on one of Singapore's outlying islands. We went to one called Pulau Ubin, which is quite easy to get to by taking a bus to a small ferry port, and then catching a bum-boat across. Pulau Ubin has one tiny village, a bunch of friendly street dogs, bike rentals, and a protected mangrove. The day we went, the sky seemed to be threatening rain, but because Singapore was *super hot* we did not care about rain. We were already sweaty and couldn't see how it could be any more humid, so we went to the island anyway. Shortly after we arrived on the island, the heavens opened and dumped an absolute lashing of rain, but we took cover in a little refreshment stand and waited, with our rented bikes, for the worst of it to pass.

Wild piglets!
Once it had mostly stopped, we set off on one of the paths around the island. We saw some of the island's wild pigs, and the beautiful palms and mangrove, and biked up an appetite before heading back to sample the fare at the ferry terminal hawker market. Again, I recommend doing this. There is a ton of interesting wildlife that you can learn about (and potentially see), and you can take a shorter or longer time to tour the island, as you like. There were walking paths that we didn't do, preferring to cycle instead. It was really a lush, pristine jungle, with all the heat and humidity that one imagines when using that word, and was one of my favourite days in Singapore.

It's Jane Goodall if she
was a flower!
Another spot not to miss is the botanical gardens, with the national orchid gallery. The entire park is stunning. Drew found his spiritual centre in the ginger garden, and the orchid gallery is incredible - you can look at orchids named after visiting dignitaries and stars, as well. My favourite was Jane Goodall. Tip: students get in free! Make sure to take food and water with you (take water everywhere in Singapore, to stay hydrated!) because once in the park you're on your own; there aren't any restaurants inside.

I'm really happy that we decided to stop in Singapore. In deciding to go, it clearly helped that we had friends there who we wanted to see, but it was a really fun and interesting city, and there is lots that we didn't have time to do. Many people met the news that we would visit Singapore with derision - of all the places in Asia to visit, all the cool places, why go to Singapore! It's so sterile, they would tell us. Having been there, I have to disagree. Singapore is an incredibly unique place, unlike any other I've been to, with distinct architecture, history, and cultural influences. I'd have liked to visit the municipal planning museum (does sound boring, but Zac highly recommended it and he knows what's up) to get a greater sense of all the thought and organization that has gone into Singapore, making it the phenomenon that it is. I think it's terribly underrated as a place to visit, and I really think it's worth checking out when one is in that part of the world.

Drew and I would like to extend a huge thank you to Zac and Anna, our friends who live in Singapore, for their hospitality and for showing us such a great time! They really knew all the great spots to check out, including micro-breweries, bespoke cocktail bars, awesome food, and of course, the best way to see the Super Trees. Thanks, you two! You're excellent tour guides! 

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Beach Bums in Bali

The name 'Bali' usually brings visions of tropical landscapes and long beaches stretching into the distance. I didn't have much of a concept in mind when we decided to go there, but I think something like this was what I expected, along with some temples, and some rice paddies. We decided to split our time between Ubud, in the central part of Bali, and Uluwatu, in the southern tip of the island.

Our accommodations: The Studios Ubud,
looking toward rice paddies
When writing about our up-coming trip, I had a few objectives for each place we were visiting. For Bali, I said that I wanted to:
- check out some art and Balinese theatre
- see the monkey temple, and not get bitten
- visit the cliffside temple at Uluwatu
- learn to surf
- appreciate paradise

Things went well, goal-wise, in Ubud. We stayed in a gorgeous compound with a stunning view and a pool that was always the perfect temperature for swimming.

We went to see a 'kecak' dance one night, which had 100 men sitting in a circle and providing rhythm with their voices, while a story unfolded in front of us with different characters. The story was told by one man, and the dancers set the mood with their facial expressions and movements. I had no idea what the man was saying, since he told the story in Indonesian, but I could tell what was happening by watching the dancers (love! betrayal! anger! battle!). We also watched a man dance in a 'fire trance' and he actually walked through and around and over a pile of hot coals, that were smoking and sparking and flying around, and we could feel the heat from our seats. That, my friends, was one of the coolest things I've ever seen.

The next night, we went to a restaurant that also had Balinese dancing, but of a different kind. This time, we listened to 'gamelan' music, which is played on wooden or bronze xylophone-type instruments that are struck with little hammers, while women danced. The outfits they wore were so beautiful, and their movements were absolutely precise and sometimes subtle - like moving the eyes and chin only, or wiggling two fingers. I was enthralled.

This one wanted to hold my hand,
so I went with it.
We checked out the monkey forest in Ubud, and yes, there were many monkeys. The monkeys were very accustomed to people, so there wasn't really any worry about them biting or doing aggressive things to humans. They were more focused on the others of their own kind, having mum-and-baby parties or fighting over territory. People, to their credit, also weren't trying to take weird photos with the monkeys, or to pick them up or pat them. We checked out an exhibit of paintings by Ubud artists that was inside the monkey forest, and that was also very interesting. The paintings were often on a similar theme - gods fighting humans/monkeys, gods being nice to humans, humans and monkeys making offerings to gods, humans going about their business while gods sneakily watched. That sort of thing.

One of many temples, this one
behind Cafe Lotus
Ubud was quite busy, but is a small town, so it felt like the busyness was really concentrated in a two-block radius right in the centre, and once you got away from that it was far less busy. Walking on the sidewalks was difficult because they were narrow, broken in places, criss-crossed by tree roots, uneven (sometimes by a foot or two), and just generally treacherous, so it was much easier to walk around in areas that weren't very busy. Bali is not a very accessible place for people with impairments to walking.

Looking north-west from a cafe in Uluwatu. There are shops
above us and below us on the cliff.

Goal-wise, things went less well in Uluwatu. I think I focused too much on the last goal - enjoy paradise - and forgot about the other things I wanted to do. Drew and I rented a scooter for our time in Uluwatu, which was the most fun thing ever. We just scooted around wherever we wanted to go, and didn't have to worry about getting taxis (or being asked, constantly, if we wanted a taxi when we were quite happy to walk). Uluwatu is extremely small, and at first glance it felt a bit like the middle of nowhere. From the road, only a few buildings are visible. The wily adventurer, however, quickly discovers that there are restaurants, shops, and cafes built on top of each other all the way down the west-facing cliff, connected by ramshackle stairways and sloping sidewalks.

Our hotel in Uluwatu was between this pile of spots, at Uluwatu beach (or break, or point), and a beach called Padang-Padang. Uluwatu beach is not the place to learn to surf. It is for intermediate to expert surfers. It is also accessed by a staircase through a cave! Padang-Padang, however, is a place where first-timers can get lessons. September is also toward the end of the surf season, so that makes it a good time of year to go and try it out.

That said, we did not end up surfing at all. We went to Padang-Padang and saw the lessons happening, but just never got it together to go and ask about them and get signed up. We observed from our beach-towels, Bintang beers in hand, as people went out on boards and learned the ropes, and yet just didn't budge. We went swimming a bunch there, floating in the warm salt water like manatees. I think that's the right way to think of us on that beach: chilled-out slow-moving water mammals. I can't explain why we didn't surf - I still really want to do it. It just didn't happen.

Bintang and a frosty glass
Likewise, visiting Uluwatu temple on the cliff didn't happen, but this time I know why. There is one road that takes one between Uluwatu beach and Uluwatu temple. It is 2.5 km, or a 10 minute scoot. This road was closed. The bridge in one part of the road was being repaired, and so the road was impassible. That meant having to hire a taxi to drive for one hour each way to see the temple (Google maps says 25 minutes, because it's actually only 11 km, but once you're in Indonesia you quickly learn to double all estimates of time, even from locals). I'm sure that the temple is beautiful, and the scenery looks breath-taking, but by this time in the trip we had seen many, many temples. We opted for Bintangs, manatee-ism, and inertia. I don't regret it.

The weather in Bali was *amazing*. We were prepared for some rain in all of our stops, but it never came. Bali was blazing hot, but not too humid. We could comfortably sit in the shade of a cafe without feeling sweat trickle down our backs. Most Balinese buildings we saw do not have full walls or windows - they're mostly open-air and breezy. The exception is a few newer hotels where tourists go to stay, and which would have air conditioning (which is definitely a comfort at night).

A perfect Bali sunset
Tourism is a big industry (perhaps the main industry?) in Bali, and many people have their own businesses that operate in the 'informal' economy - that is, we paid cash to most people, and haggled over prices, and it seems clear that the folks who have shops and restaurants are just trying to make a living and avoid the tax man (for better or worse). Some bigger restaurants, chain stores (e.g. Quicksilver) and the hotels have credit card machines, but everywhere else is cash-only, including our scooter-rental place ($10 CAD for two days) and side-of-the-road scooter-gas purchases (a man with a cart, selling gasoline in old Absolut vodka bottles).

I would recommend Bali to anyone looking for an awesome and varied tropical vacation, with a definite local presence. The Balinese people we met were very friendly, and seemed genuinely pleased to have visitors on the island. We were thanked many times for coming to Bali, and asked if we would come back in the hopes that we would say yes, and indeed, we would.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Three weeks in Asia, a preview

Two weeks today, Drew and I will be arriving in Hong Kong to begin a three-week vacation in south-east Asia. Neither of us have ever been, and our decision to go was aided by a few things. First, Drew will be officially done physiotherapy school next Friday (yaaaaaay!!!), so it's a good time for him to take the kind of big trip that gets more difficult to do when one has a full-time job. Second, my good friend Melissa has been living in Asia for years, first in Indonesia and now in Hong Kong, and I've wanted to visit her all that time but didn't have the resources. With our other friends, Zac and Anna, moving to Singapore, and Drew and I both having the ability to travel right now, it seemed like the perfect time.

This also helps make sense of how we decided where to go. South-east Asia is a big place, with so many countries that I want to visit. We decided to pick three so that we could do a week in each place. Hong Kong and Singapore were already on the list.

Though visiting Melissa is the primary motivation for visiting Hong Kong, I'm also really excited to see this city. It has an interesting history; having been a British colony since the 1800s, it only became a part of China in 1997, and it remains somewhat separate from China as an 'autonomous region.'  Hong Kongers don't consider themselves to be Chinese, and there is a deep cultural distinction between being a Hong Konger and a 'mainlander.' English is one of the official languages of Hong Kong, and many streets and areas still have their names from colonial times, like Victoria Peak (the highest mountain on Hong Kong island) and Aberdeen Harbour. The food in Hong Kong is supposed to be amazing (dim sum! hot pot!), and so is the shopping. I'm going to need to practice haggling for this trip. The weather is going to be hot, humid, and rainy. I will be in permanent hair-up mode.

Some goals for our time in Hong Kong:
- climb up to Victoria Peak (maybe take the trolley down)
- check out the Temple Street Night Market, and others
- take the ferry to Lamma island to eat at Rainbow Restaurant
- visit former Portuguese colony of Macau - Las Vegas of Asia (only much, much wealthier)

Singapore is mostly on our travel list because we want to visit Anna and Zac, but after researching it and hearing about it from them, I'm really pumped to check it out. Not only is Singapore going to be the cleanest and most well-organized city in the region/on this planet, apparently the food is going to be amazing. We're spending the first two nights in a basic hotel in Little India, and then the next few nights in Anna and Zac's tiny apartment. Rental accommodations in Singapore are unbelievably pricey, so our friends don't have a lot of spare room. No big deal - we will be happy just to be there. Like Hong Kong, Singapore was also once a British colony, and became independent from Britain in 1963 to join Malaysia, from which it gained independence two years later, in 1965. This year is their 50th anniversary of independence, so I hope that we get to check out some festivities. Since becoming independent, Singapore has become a powerful and wealthy city-state, with incredibly low levels of poverty and illiteracy. It's pretty hardcore. It's also hot and humid, but apparently air conditioning is everywhere and constantly blasting, so I'm going to try to remember to pack a sweater (!) just for climate controlled places. There are a lot of rules in Singapore, but as tourists we should be OK. We'll just have to try to blend in and not do anything stupid.

Some goals for Singapore:
- eat. a lot.
- experience a hawker market
- check out the night safari at the zoo
- maybe spend a day in Malaysia for more delicious food
- don't break any laws (!!)

Finally, our third place. There are tons of countries in Asia that I want to go to, but we couldn't do all of it. I've always wanted to check out Vietnam and Cambodia, and Thailand, but how to choose? There's so much to do. Finally, because we were having a hard time deciding, and because Drew and I have never taken a beach vacation, we chose Bali.

Bali is a small island of Indonesia, and a traveller's paradise. Bali has everything: volcanoes, jungles, coral reefs, beaches, temples, markets, and more. We decided to split our time, to try to get a taste of some of the different parts of the island. After flying into Denpasar, we'll spend the first couple of days in Ubud, a town towards the interior, where there are mountains and rice paddies all around. Bali is home to much of the Hindu population of Indonesia, while the majority of the country is Muslim, and there are lots of Hindu temples on the island. Monkeys are sacred (the monkey-god Hanuman might have something to do with that?) and I'd like to check out the sacred monkey temple in Ubud, and maybe see some Balinese theatre. After that, we'll travel to the southern tip of the island to a place called Uluwatu, and stay there. We'll spend the rest of our time learning to surf on some of Bali's smaller breaks, and sipping beverages when we need a rest. Many have told me that Bali is to Australians what the Dominican Republic is to Canadians (and Mallorca is to Brits). As someone who hasn't been to the Dominican (or Mallorca) but has heard about the co-ed all-inclusives, this seems unsettling. I get what they're saying: Bali is heavy on drunk Australian youths. Fortunately, we'll be there just before a break in Australian semesters, and we're also avoiding the most touristy places (Kuta, especially), so I think our exposure will be limited. Bali is going to be hot and humid, with maybe a bit of rain. You'll find me on the beach, no matter what.

Some goals for Bali:
- check out some art and Balinese theatre
- see the monkey temple in Ubud (do not get bitten by monkey)
- visit the cliffside temple at Uluwatu
- learn to surf
- appreciate paradise

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Three Haikus about my day

Staring at the screen,
the cursor flashes, WRITE! WRITE!
then head hits table.

Meows around my legs,
small paws upon my keyboard.
My cat is hungry.

Dishes in the sink
and big piles of laundry, too - 
anything but work.

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.