Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Happy New Year!

I hope you have all had a super Christmas and managed to squeeze in some relaxation and fun in between munching on the turkey and its remains. I finished work the Friday before Christmas having spent the week leading up to that saying farewell to both my students and colleagues. We had a fun party on the last day of term, which involved some 'staff participation'. In other words, our poor students were subjected to hearing their teachers sing...here's a few samples so that you can judge for yourselves just how bad it was/we were (I'm lurking somewhere on the back row!):

Christmas week itself was spent sunbathing on the beach in Cuba with my friend and fellow Brit, Sasha. It was a very relaxing week of doing absolutely nothing! It's rare for me to go on a 'flop' holiday but it was very enjoyable and we lapped up the mojitos and attentions of the smooth-talking Cuban waiters whilst successfully avoiding the jellyfish and cigar-smoking mafioso types.

I was actually pleased to escape Toronto's winter weather for a bit as it had been bitterly cold and I'd been feeling a bit poorly with a sinus bug. We had a HUGE snowstorm in the middle of December and I was literally housebound for a day as I did not dare venture out into the blizzard. I spent the day making scones instead. How British am I? It seems to have warm ed up a bit now that I'm back and the huge piles of snow cleared by the snowploughs are starting to thaw. I'm pleased as I have quite a lot of dashing about (read: drinking!) to do before I fly home on Wednesday. It seems crazy to think my seven months here are up - the time has just flown by.

As is customary when I come to the end of one of my overseas sojourns, here are a few of my Top Ten lists about my experiences (please note the Top Ten items are in no particular order of priority):

My Top Ten Most Memorable Canadian Experiences

1. Polar bear watching in Churchill
2. Volunteering at the Toronto International Film Festival (and, in particular, being six inches away from George Clooney!)
3. Whale watching off the coast of Vancouver Island with my dad
4. Bear watching in Tofino on Vancouver Island with my parents
5. Participating in the Wolf Weekend at Haliburton Forest with Fair & Janet

6. Listening to Enzo Avitabile & Bottari (twice!) play at the Montreal International Jazz Festival
7. Getting soaked on the Maid of the Mist
boat ride with Rach and Min (& the Shunyi students) at Niagara Falls
8. Watching my godson, Alex, eat strawberries and caviar for afternoon tea at the Windsor Arms in Toronto
9. Giggling with my colleagues at the University of
10. Being gobsmacked by Cirque du Soleil's acrobatics as they performed

My Top Ten Favourite Hangouts in Toronto

1. Tim Hortons Coffee Shop next to OISE on Bloor
2. The Beaches

3. The Harbourfront
4. University of Toronto
5. The Bedford Academy pub

6. St. Lawrence Market
7. The Distillery District
8. Queen Street West
9. The Elgin & Winter Garden Theatre Complex
10. The CN Tower

My Top Ten Restaura
nts in Canada
1. Terroni (Adelaide St E, Toronto)

2. Sunset Grill at the Beaches (Queen St E, Toronto)
3. The Windsor Arms in Toronto for afternoon tea
4. Messis (Harbord St, Toronto)
5. The Wickaninish Inn, Tofino, Vancouver Island

6. Fresh! (Bloor St, Toronto)

7. The CN Tower in Toronto
8. Pure Spirits in the Distillery District (Toronto)
9. Cardero in Vancouver
10. Il Terrazzo in Victoria, Vancouver Island

The Top Ten Things I Won't Miss about Toronto

1. Germophobia
2. Being teased relentlessly because of my 'funny' Englis
h (by Scott, Steve & Ian - just you wait until you come across the pond!)
3. Being hit on a daily basis 'for being British' (by Ian - I'll get my own back one day)
4. Having to remember to say 'washroom' instead of 'toilet'
5. Having to ask for 'coffee with milk' instead of a 'white coffee'
6. Toilet cubicles that have gaps around the doors
7. Not being able to get a decent Sunday paper and having to buy it on a Saturday instead
8. Not being able to buy booze
in the supermarket
9. Snowbanks and slush
10. Taxes and 15% tips (You'd never guess I'm from Yorkshire!)

The Top Ten Things I'll Miss a
bout Toronto

1. My friends, colleagues (including the aforementioned abusers!) and students
2. Walking around the city at all hours and in al l seasons
3. Tim Horton's coffee
, muffins and cookies
4. The social life
5. Torontonians
6. Steam Whistle beer
7. The TTC (public transport)
8. Summer festivals
9. The multi-cultural 'mosaic'
10. The Canadian 'Eh?'

New Year itself was spent out with friends and as well as enjoying a meal with a few drinks and watching the skating (note 'watching' rather than actually 'skating') we also attended a Japanese ceremony of 'ringing in the New Year'. Amid the snow we gathered on a small hill in the middle of Ontario Place, a theme park, to ring the temple bell 108 times before midnight as is Japanese tradition. This is done to cleanse people of their 108 passions or sins. It was a very different way to celebrate New Year for me but I now feel cleansed and ready for the year ahead.

With a heavy heart I'm going to sign off from my amazing Canadian adventure here
- it's been a fantastic experience and I've met some truly wonderful people who I will miss hugely and hope to see again in the not too distant future. However, home beckons and with it the chance to catch up with those of you I haven't seen for a while (or even at all in the case of baby Eva!) which I'm looking forward to greatly. I'll leave you with a poem by Dr Seuss and with it wish all my fellow travellers through life a fantastic 2008 full of your own adventures...whatever they may be.

Oh, the Places You'll Go!

Today is your day.

You're off to Great Places!
You're off and away!

You have brains in your head.

You have feet in your shoes

You can steer yourself
any direction you choose.
You're on your own. And you know what you know.

And YOU are the guy who'll decide where to go.

You'll look up and down streets. Look 'em over with care.
About some you will say, "I don't choose to go there."
With your head full of brains and your shoes full of feet,
you're too smart to go down any not-so-good street.

And you may not find any
you'll want to go down.
In that case, of course,
you'll head straight out of town.

It's opener there
in the wide open air.

Out there things can happen
and frequently do
to people as brainy
and footsy as you.

And when things start to happen,
don't worry. Don't stew.
Just go right along.
You'll start happening too.


You'll be on your way up!
You'll be seeing great sights!
You'll join the high fliers
who soar to high heights.

You won't lag behind, because you'll have the speed.
You'll pass the whole gang and you'll soon take the lead.
Wherever you fly, you'll be the best of the best.
Wherever you go, you will top all the rest.

Except when you don' t
Because, sometimes, you won't.

I'm sorry to say so
but, sadly, it's true
and Hang-ups
can happen to you.

You can get all hung up
in a prickle-ly perch.
And your gang will fly on.
You'll be left in a Lurch.

You'll come down from the Lurch
with an unpleasant bump.
And the chances are, then,
that you'll be in a Slump.

And when you're in a Slump,
you're not in for much fun.
Un-slumping yourself
is not easily done.

You will come to a place where the streets are not marked.
Some windows are lighted. But mostly they're darked.
A place you could sprain both you elbow and chin!
Do you dare to stay out? Do you dare to go in?
How much can you lose? How much can you win?

And IF you go in, should you turn left or right...
or right-and-three-quarters? Or, maybe, not quite?
Or go around back and sneak in from behind?
Simple it's not, I'm afraid you will find,
for a mind-maker-upper to make up his mind.

You can get so confused
that you'll start in to race
down long wiggled roads at a break-necking pace
and grind on for miles across weirdish wild space,
headed, I fear, toward a most useless place.

The Waiting Place...

...for people just waiting.
Waiting for a train to go
or a bus to come, or a plane to go
or the mail to come, or the rain to go
or the phone to ring, or the snow to snow
or waiting around for a Yes or a No
or waiting for their hair to grow.
Everyone is just waiting.

Waiting for the fish to bite
or waiting for wind to fly a kite
or waiting around for Friday night
or waiting, perhaps, for their Uncle Jake
or a pot to boil, or a Better Break
or a sting of pearls, or a pair of pants
or a wig with curls, or Another Chance.
Everyone is just waiting.

That's not for you!

Somehow you'll escape
all that waiting and staying.
You'll find the bright places
where Boom Bands are playing.

With banner flip-flapping,
once more you'll ride high!
Ready for anything under the sky.
Ready because you're that kind of a guy!

Oh, the places you'll go! There is fun to be done!
There are points to be scored. There are games to be won.
And the magical things you can do with that ball
will make you the winning-est winner of all.
Fame! You'll be famous as famous can be,
with the whole wide world watching you win on TV.

Except when they don't.
Because, sometimes, they won't.

I'm afraid that sometimes
you'll play lonely games too.
Games you can't win
'cause you'll play against you.

All Alone!
Whether you like it or not,
Alone will be something
you'll be quite a lot.

And when you're alone, there's a very good chance
you'll meet things that scare you right out of your pants.
There are some, down the road between hither and yon,
that can scare you so much you won't want to go on.

But on you will go
though the weather be foul
On you will go
though your enemies prowl
On you will go
though the Hakken-Kraks howl
Onward up many
a frightening creek,
though your arms may get sore
and your sneakers may leak.

On and on you will hike
and I know you'll hike far
and face up to your problems
whatever they are.

You'll get mixed up, of course,
as you already know.
You'll get mixed up
with many strange birds as you go.
So be sure when you step.
Step with care and great tact
and remember that Life's
a Great Balancing Act.
Just never forget to be dexterous and deft.
And never mix up your right foot with your left.

And will you succeed?
Yes! You will, indeed!
(98 and 3/4 percent guaranteed.)


be your name Buxbaum or Bixby or Bray
or Mordecai Ali Van Allen O'Shea,
you're off to Great Places!
Today is your day!
Your mountain is waiting.
So...get on your way!


P.S Sorry Toronto but I'm taking home a little souvenir:

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Well, it's now officially cold! Cheek-pinchingly so. We've had the first snowfalls and sub-zero temperatures are becoming the norm as is the sight of me in a silly hat. It's starting to feel very Christmasy everywhere although I've not had a mince pie yet - I haven't actually seen any pies or mincemeat on sale here - and I'm actually thinking of Caribbean beaches instead. I'm heading to Cuba for Christmas week itself before I head home the first week of January. I'll be very sad to leave Canada and particularly Toronto but have a feeling it won't be my last trip here.

Last weekend I welcomed my final set of visitors: Guy and Zoe Hollis. They are both now living in Connecticut in the good ole US of A and flew up for a long weekend break. After they had spent a day at Niagara, we practically froze as we 'did' the sights and shops of Toronto. It felt sooooooo cold at minus 10 and added windchill. We defrosted later in my favourite Italian restaurant, Terroni, with some good food and warming wine. That night it snowed heavily (10cm) and the next day we woke up to a winter wonderland. I had the bright idea that we should go for a walk to the Distillery District for lunch. Half way there as we hit pavements covered in black ice I realised this was not one of my best suggestions. Nevertheless, we skidded into the place and gave ourselves a reward of steaming hot chocolate and a much-coveted pasty for Guy before venturing forth again. It was nice to see some familiar faces and I certainly enjoyed hearing Yorkshire accents again!

I've had a great penultimate month although feeling cold seems to have also featured highly. In mid-November I was lucky enough to undertake my much longed for arctic adventure as I headed north to the town of Churchill on the edge of Hudson Bay. There are no roads in or out of Churchill. The only way to get there is by plane or train (a 40 hour trip from Winnipeg). The crazy thing is this only half way 'up' Canada. Needless to say as you step off the plane and are hit by the arctic winds and minus 20-30 degree temperatures you know you are in 'the North'.

I stayed at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre, located on an old atmospheric-rocket launch site about 12 miles from Churchill itself. The place was basically a research station and a bit like a military base but it served me and my 33 companions well. Our group was made up of mainly Canucks, Yanks and Brits of all ages and backgrounds - a good bunch. We were all there with one thing in mind though: to see polar bears.

Over the five days we had lectures and presentations about the polar bears, their habitat and the threat of global warming. At all times we were escorted as the whole area is 'polar bear territory' and going for a walk alone outside the building was banned. October and early November is 'polar bear season' when the bears congregate on the edge of Hudson Bay waiting for it to freeze so that they can go out on the ice to fish for seals and continue their trek northwards.

We spent two days on giant tundra vehicles - a cross between a bus and an aircraft crash truck - watching the polar bears as they loitered by the shore. It was an incredible experience. We saw over 50 bears, including lots of mothers with their cubs, and males sparring.

The bears are inquisitive and came to look at the funny creatures in the stationary vehicles. Absolute silence was order of the day when they came near and feeding or any interference with the bears results in the individuals being put straight on a plane home. Polar bears are massive and although they look cute, when they come close and sniff at you as you stand on the back deck of the tundra vehicle, you can sense the fact that you wouldn't stand a chance against such a powerful predator. Some bears stood right against the vehicle, including the one in the video below (taken by one of our group, Michael Coleman) who pressed his nose to the driver's (half-open!) window and stood about 11 feet tall.

We were fortunate to squeeze in a helicopter flight before the heavy snow fell. We saw the amazing tundra landscape stretching out below us and could clearly see the ice starting to form as well as polar bears in the distance.

Later in the trip we also saw what is known as the 'polar bear jail' where bears that come too close to the town of 900 people are taken. They wait here in 'cells' before being flown in nets suspended below helicopters to a release area north of the town. I should clarify that they are not sentenced by polar bear judges...they simply sit and wait until a time when it is suitable to fly them out. One pilot told how the cubs are too fragile to be flown in the nets so they go in the cabs. The previous week he'd flown a mother (in a net) and her two cubs (in the cab) out. The vet monitoring the cubs was sitting in the front seat alongside the pilot and the two cubs were in the back. The pilot noticed the vet started smiling and so asked him why? The cubs had woken up and were playing happily together in the back!

Other highlights included seeing an arctic fox, going dog-sledding and watching the northern lights dance across the sky. All in all a wonderful trip and I really feel privileged to have had such an experience. I learnt so much about the polar bears and how important it is we work to preserve their environment.

On our last night in Churchill the bay froze and the bears were gone. Their presence, however, will stay with me for many years to come.

Wishing you all a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

Please support Polar Bears International and offset your carbon emissions via Climate Care.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Brrrrr...the cooler weather has finally arrived! It's starting to feel rather nippy outside at night and I've even started to dust off my winter boots and coat this week. It's not stopping the exploration though and I've had a lovely month full of fun and 'fall' colour.

Earlier this month, I was treated to a visit from my godson, Alex. His mummy and daddy tagged along for the ride as well and it was lovely to see them all here in Toronto. They spent a week with me and managed to squeeze in some sights such as England winning the World Cup semi-final, Niagara Falls and the CN Tower before heading off to Chicago for a further week's holiday with some of their other friends. Alex seemed to particularly enjoy his salmon and caviar sandwiches followed by strawberries and cream at the Windsor Arms where we went for afternoon tea. He's such a cheery boy with a sunny smile and I loved every minute of having him and Annie & Jon to stay.

Another highlight was when I headed out of the city into the Haliburton highlands, a three-hour drive north east of Toronto. It was lovely to see some of the spectacular fall colours on the trees as we drove up there. Along with two friends, Janet and Fair, I took part in a wolf weekend at the Haliburton Wolf Centre. It was a fantastic couple of days and along with six others plus our two group leaders, we learnt so much about these amazing creatures which have a bit of a bad rep generally. The Centre has a captive pack who live in a large enclosure on site and apart from having food thrown in on a weekly basis are not socialised. The Centre conducts research on the wild packs that roam in Haliburton Forest. We took part in the research by analysing some wolf scat (poo) which we collected on our field trip. It contained evidence of beaver en croute. On our field trip, we also saw moose and bear tracks as well as a live beaver and a number of beaver lodges, dams and slides. The only moose I saw was dismembered and I'm quite relieved we didn't encounter a bear or wild wolf.

As well as learning about the wolves and spending some time watching the captive pack, including the new wolf pup, we also learnt about the problems posed by cross-breeding wolves and dogs. We were told how dangerous these animals can be due to their unpredictable nature and how, sadly, people think it's cool to keep these animals in domestic environments where they can be a potential danger to those around them.

Disappointingly, our attempts at encouraging the wolves to howl failed as they don't tend to howl in windy conditions. This was a pity as hearing them howl when it was a full moon would have been quite something. We were, however, able to watch them being fed and it was fascinating to watch the pack hierarchy come into play at feeding time. We saw first hand what the phrase ' a tail between his legs' means.

This week was Halloween and the Canadians go to town when it comes to celebrating this particular festival. Gardens are turned into graveyards and houses emit spooky sounds.

I celebrated with friends and the festivities were kicked off when the local bagpipers (!) paraded up and down the streets. Shortly thereafter the knock, knocks started and the local children played trick or treat. Over 150 children came to the door and the costumes were amazing. Not only were their the traditional ghosts and witches but also various ninjas, firemen, superheroes, chickens and cross dressers!

I dressed up as a cat (minus whiskers) and took part in the pumpkin carving and 'candy-giving' but this was not enough to keep the evil-doers from the door. My pumpkin was stolen! What has become of it? I don't know...pumpkin pie perhaps?

Monday, October 08, 2007

It's October 8th and still hot enough (25 degrees) to spend a day sunbathing on the beach - marvellous! Today is Canadian Thanksgiving and I've been enjoying the day off by relaxing at the Beaches in Toronto and giving thanks in my own way for such a beautiful day to top off what has been a lovely month.

For most of September my parents were over here and I believe thoroughly enjoyed their travels across Canada and back. They had a few days here with me before heading west to Calgary and Banff where they hired a car and seemed to have a great time chasing goats that they thought were bears.

After my rather hectic week volunteering at the Film Festival, I jumped on a plane and joined them in Vancouver. We had a good couple of days exploring the city and staying by the harbour watching all the seaplanes fly in and out. Dad and I managed to get over our vertigo to walk across the Capilano Suspension Bridge and take the tree top walk in the forest canopy. All three of us enjoyed seeing the totem poles at the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia and exploring Granville Island Market. We had a lovely meal in the city's historic Gastown opposite the famous steam clock as it pumped out steam every few minutes.

On what was the foggiest day of our trip we boarded the Whistler Mountaineer and had a rather spectacular train ride along the coast and into the mountains until we arrived at the all-year mountain resort of Whistler. For some strange reason, I decided it would be a great idea to go for a ride on the gondola cable car to the top of the mountain. We could hardly see anything on the ride up but can at least now say we've stood at the top of the 2010 Winter Olympics downhill run! Our return journey was made even more pleasurable as we were served a rather delicious afternoon tea.

After a couple of days on the mainland, we headed across the water to the capital of British Columbia, Victoria, on Vancouver Island. We could look across the water and wave at the good ole US of A and the folks residing in Washington state.

We hired a car here and visited the Butchart Gardens in a disused quarry and then headed north the next day to Tofino on the Pacific coast. We stopped off at a place called Cathedral Grove on the way where we saw giant cedars and douglas fir trees towering above us.

In Tofino we stayed at a gorgeous hotel called the Wickanninish Inn located right on Chesterman Beach. You could lie in the bath and look out over the beach which seemed to change almost by the minute as the light, tide and weather altered. It was nice to have a couple of days to chill out and observe the natural beauty of the Pacific Rim National Park. We spotted a whale from Long Beach and spent an afternoon watching bears from a boat along the inland shoreline. We saw six black bears altogether, including one cub. It was incredible to see and hear them so close as they searched for crabs hiding under rocks at low tide. They really are magnificent creatures but I wouldn't like to get quite as close without the water between us!

Later in the week we worked our way back towards Victoria and spent a few nights perched high on top of the Malahat mountain at the Aerie Resort along with a few eagles. Dad and I had a super afternoon whalewatching. The sea was absolutely calm and we were incredibly lucky to see a humpback whale along with around ten orcas (killer whales), including another baby. We also saw stellar sea lions and seals as an added bonus. The extreme nature adventure was over all too soon and it was time to head back to the city once more.

Our five-hour flight back to Toronto was smooth and the last few days of my parents' visit saw them go to Niagara Falls and all of us spend a fabulous night watching the spectacle that is Cirque du Soleil. We saw the new show, Kooza, and couldn't help but gasp at the acrobatic daredevils who practically made our hearts stop as they performed various tricks on the wheel of death and suspended on the high wire. If you've never seen a Cirque du Soleil show, I can't recommend it highly enough. Go! It really is worth it.

My parents left a week last Friday and I returned to work. I've secured a further contract at the University of Toronto until Christmas so that's keeping the wolf from my door.

Life continues to be very busy still and I've just started a new evening course in travel writing so hopefully you'll see some improvement over the next few entries!

Last weekend was something called Nuit Blanche and I had a great time joining about 450,000 Torontonians as we stayed up most of the night to take part in an all night 'contemporary art thing'. The city came alive with lots of modern and outdoor art exhibits, many involving performance. I was quite tickled by the spoof alien spaceship crash landing in the middle of the university.

This weekend has been my first Thanksgiving. Canadians celebrate it a month and a bit earlier than their American neighbours. I thoroughly enjoyed partaking of the turkey and trimmings yesterday along with some friends. Peter did a grand job in the end despite phone calls earlier in the afternoon trying to determine which way was up on the turkey!

Happy Thanksgiving!