Wednesday, April 25, 2012

snapshots of ottawa

1. April 20 was 420, the infamous designated day for celebrating certain plants. I do not have anything to say about it, because obviously I would not partake in such an event, but I will note that the haze of smoke that rests above all the tokers gathering at Parliament Hill under the watchful eye of the RCMP and government snipers is about as Ottawa as Beavertails itself. Another thing about 420 that I find very Ottawa, or at least very Canada, are these posters that the Young Liberals have been posting all around downtown for 420, attacking NDP leader Thomas Mulcair for his views against decriminalizing pot.

2. PROMdemonium was the next day, Saturday. I think all cities have something similar - Vancouver has the People's Prom, Toronto has Fake Prom, and Ottawa has its "radical, community-oriented, gender-bending, bike-loving, enviro-humping, queer-diggin, slow dancing, big dress wearing prom that you never had!" I think it started off as an event to allow all the LGBTI folks to have a prom that they actually enjoyed, and then it eventually snowballed into, in my opinion, one of the most fun events for all the young cool people in Ottawa.
My own high school prom was not wonderful or terrible, and surprising only in its unremarkable mundane nature. We rented a limo. We had dinner. We danced. We took photos. We went to some night club in Bells Corners, back when it had night clubs. The only mildly exciting event of the night was when my high school boyfriend and i fought, which, really, was not that unusual for us at that point either.
Luckily, by the time you come around to your third or fourth adult prom, you know how to finally handle high school again, and how do to prom right. You've been drinking long enough to know how to not ruin a fun night out by being sick (although somebody in the gender neutral washroom didn't that night). You stop caring about what everyone thinks, you stop wanting to be like everyone else, and you finally feel like you can wear whatever the heck you want. You dance however you want. You dance with whoever you want. Girls don't have to dance with boys, boys don't have to dance with girls, and girls and boys can dance alone. It's kind of nice.
3. And then there was Monday morning, like a slap to the face. Here is my final snapshot of Ottawa:
my backyard. in APRIL.
Which is precisely why I'm leaving for Toronto for a little while. Toronto has no snow in its forecast for the week. Stay tuned for updates on Toronto adventures!

Friday, April 20, 2012

charter party flash mob!

Last Tuesday, April 17, Canada celebrated the 30th anniversary of our Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Some of us (lawyers, mostly) celebrated with a flash mob. Who doesn't love flash mobs? Even lawyers love flash mobs!

I reported on this event for a couple news publications. You can read about the event in one of the publications here:

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

New Country Rehab at the Black Sheep Inn, Wakefield, Quebec

one of my favourite bands in high school was a Canadian instrumental post-rock band called Do Make Say Think. Just after I graduated, they released an album called Winter Hymn Country Hymn Secret Hymn (long titles were all in the rage for indie music back then). One of the tracks on the record is called Auberge Le Mouton Noir, named for the place where they had recorded the song, in beautiful Wakefield, Quebec, about forty minutes outside of Ottawa. It's a haunting tune that turns into a hopeful waltz that remains in your head for years after you've first heard it. For some reason, when I listen to the track, it reminds me of snow, of long drives in the winter, of the strange sensation of having cold fingertips but a warm chest because you're with your best friends.

do make say think, auberge le mouton noir

Driving to the Black Sheep Inn reminds me of my high school days, when my friends and I would pile into Tim's car and drive to indie shows in Wakefield. We would drive and drive, listening to bands like godspeed you black emporer or Broken Social Scene, out of the city and into the middle of nowhere Quebec, past the Jean Burger, past the highest bungee jumping spot in North America, and into the quiet little village. Wakefield seemed to be so very far away for a daydreamy teenager excited to spend time away from the suburbs of Kanata.

I was hit with this nostalgia again when I drove down to Wakefield this Sunday with Meg to catch the matinee performance of New Country Rehab, whom Meg was interviewing for her radio show on CBC.

While Meg talked to the boys in the band, I took a walk down the main strip of the village. Wakefield is this weird pocket of vibrant arts culture and slight hipsterdom nestled in the middle of the Gatineau wilderness. With a population of, what, maybe 2000 residents, it has a disproportionate number of trendy cafes, restaurants, pubs and galleries. Seventeen-year-old Gloria loved it, and twenty-seven-year-old Gloria still does.

I stopped by Aries Coffeeshop, which had just opened a month earlier and by its apperance seemed in the process of converting into a furniture store. The sign read, in pure defiance of Quebec's language laws, ANTIQUE, PATIO, WICKER, LEATHER, WIFI. The Wifi was a myth, but there certainly were plenty of wicker furnitures lying around the store with price tags. The patio also seemed to be a myth, but the cafe worker, a sweet Irish lady, let me sit on a chair outside the cafe by the road so I could look at the lake. The Irish lady gave me a hot cup of cappucino and a cold nanaimo bar. It was very good.

Eventually I made my way back to the Black Sheep Inn in time for the matinee show. I was impressed with New Country Rehab, with each of their fiddle, upright bass, drum, and guitar players showing highly skilled proficiency at the instruments and flowing together quite well. The guitarist in particular seemed to have all sorts of tricks up his sleeves, putting his steel bodied resonator through all these guitar effects that I've never seen tried before.

I'm convinced that the Black Sheep Inn is one of the best venues "in" (near) Ottawa. These matinee shows in particular are quite unique, with its relaxed atmosphere where a little pug dog wanders around from bar patron to bar patron, and babies bounce on their fathers' laps in time the music's beat. The Inn is situated such that the audience has a beautiful view of the lake behind the stage. I ordered a glass of Quebec's St Ambroise beer, which I had missed dearly while in Africa, and a plate of poutine, which I had also missed while in Africa. Upon my return to Canada, I had sworn that I was not going to order poutine at some chain restaurant or a trendy place in the Market, but in Quebec, where they properly knew how to prepare a cheese curd poutine. So I was glad to have my first poutine here at the Black Sheep Inn, with a friendly crowd, a lovely band, a little dog ready to eat my leftovers, and an afternoon of nostalgic memories.

Monday, April 16, 2012

kid koala in space

Canadian deejay Kid Koala put on a series of special performances this weekend at the Aviation and Space Museum in support of his Space Cadet Headphone tour. There is actually nothing about that sentence that I don't like. I like space. I like headphones. I also really like Kid Koala, who stands out from other deejays with his creative and interactive shows that often involve audience participation - last time I saw him in Montreal, we played bingo during the show. Also, he's just such a great guy, really a big fun kid at heart. Kid Koala recently put out a new graphic novel called Space Cadet, which follows a robot after its astronaut leaves on a mission. I like robots. The book is available along with its soundtrack, which features Kid Koala on turntables and a beautiful Wurlitzer organ. I like Wurlitzers (readers should feel free to buy me one).

To get to the Aviation and Space Museum in Ottawa, you have to drive past at least one graveyard and along the Aviation Parkway which suddenly spits you out into the parking lot of the museum like a spaceship shooting you out on to a planet.

The Saturday matinee show was a particularly special one, as it was clearly designed to be kid-friendly. It seemed like every young trendy bearded dad sporting a black-framed glasses and a hip Asian wife in Ottawa was there with their biracial babies in adorable tutus. Although I was at the show with Meg, we did not bring our babies to the show (mainly because we don`t have any).

There were some cool exhibits set up outside the museum theatre, including an analog disc recorder where you could record your voice on to a record and scratch the recording on a turntable. There was also a photo station where you could put your face on an astroid. Obviously the kids loved it.

The set up inside the theatre was even more magical. Instead of regular seats, there are mats spread out on the ground with space cushions laid out strategically so the audience could lounge while listening. Each audience member got their own headphones to listen to the music, which was pure genius in a baby-filled crowd. I had some surreal moments where I took my headphones off to stop listening to the music for a moment, and marvelled at the sound of empty space and nothing but babies crying.

Every time the background screen changed colours, kids would call out "blue!" "red!" Smart kids.

As usual, Kid Koala had a lot of audience participation, getting kids to come up on stage to play various percussive instruments, including one adorable boy in a bunny costume. It was definitely one of the most unique special shows I've been to, a lovely way to spend my Saturday afternoon.

opener winchester warm.

audience participation

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

eating meat in Montreal

old montreal. don't know why rob looks so angry.

"three hundred pounds of hongry
down to her house every Sunday
boil them taters and butter them buns
licking that grease right off the thumbs
three hundred pounds
tall as she round
and every pound of that body's so fine
i can hardly believe that it's mine.."

-Tony Joe White, "Three Hundred Pounds of Hongry"

On Wednesday morning, about 150 university students at Victoria Square in Montreal, and marched to the Eaton Centre in protest of the Quebec government's decision to increase tuition fees. According to news sources, when some demonstrators began throwing fire crackers at the police and vandalizing mall property, the police swooped in to declare the protest illegal and arrested over fifty students.

While this classic clash between political dissent and authority unfolded, I was about 800 metres away, getting fat. As much as I love freedom, I had gone to Montreal to indulge in the city`s dangerously delicious culinary scene.

Anthony Bourdain has a food show called the Layover. In his episode covering Montreal, he is the happiest that you will ever see him on TV. Every respected chef, my fiance included, knows that Montreal does food right. And after seven months in southern Africa, I was excited to get in on this.

(Don`t get me wrong. Despite what my vegetarian friends claim, Namibia has great food, including the best game steaks you`ll ever have, and juicy biltong that you just find in (or bring to) Canada. But most days, to save costs I just cooked for myself, and after a while, one gets really sick of one`s own cooking, especially since I lived mostly on vegetables and cheese...and biltong.)

The first place that Rob wants to hit up is Joe Beef, which features prominently on the Montreal episode of the Layover. This is exactly the kind of restaurants we like: less stuffy pretentious attitude, more genuinely good food. The servers wore jeans and hipster beards. The dinner music played was Hank Williams and other great country gods. The menu is scrawled in chalk above the bar. The menu, by the way, is as creative and fascinating to read as a novel:

we like that.

With such an amazing menu, it was hard to pick what we wanted for dinner. We knew what we were getting as appetizers though. Four beautiful words: foie gras double down.

yes. yes. yes.

Two pieces of chicken-fried foie gras sandwiching cheddar cheese and bacon, drowned in maple syrup. Forget KFC. There was literally no ingredient in that concoction that I did not like.

As my main course, I decided on the smoked meat duck. No, it's not smoked duck meat. It is a giant pile of duck breast, sprinkled with smoked meat.

holy Atkins

That was the entire meal. Yes, it was on a very thin bed of rye and garnished with pickles, but the entire meal was more or less a pile of savoury tender meat from two different animals. I couldn't have felt happier.

Rob had the monsieur-size steak, which was a monstrous size. This also made him happy.

all washed down with locally brewed beer. I love Montreal's microbreweries.

For dessert, our server did shots of yummy scotch with us. This is why I like this place. The restaurant was packed, a testament to its no-nonsense-just-good-meat reputation. We were lucky to get a table in the first place. And now, stumbling out of the restaurant feeling like we needed a wheelbarrow to push our tummies in, it was time to meet up with my girlfriends Kerianne and Genevieve in the trendy Mont-Royal Plateau area.

We went for tapas at Baracca, although realistically at this point, I was so full I didn't have much room for food. The place had a great ambience though, and I particularly enjoyed the sign on the patio outside which said something along the lines of:

BIENVENUE SUR LA TERRASSE (welcome to the patio)
Les R├Ęgles: (the rules)
NE PAS CHANTER (do not sing)
NE PAS RIRE (do not laugh)

The rules also forbade gathering in groups of more than five.

Still, it was a fun place nevertheless, and it was great to catch up with my girls.

The next morning, we finally had room for breakfast. I had been to Beauty's, and a number of other breakfast places in the Bagel District, so Kerianne suggested we go for breakfast at Le Gros Jambon in old Montreal. This was a cute, old timey diner that seemed unlikely in the oldest part of Montreal, only a few blocks away from where the Quebec student protests had started. The diner did not seem to be really open, although nobody stopped us from going in. The server behind the counter told us that they only served one thing for breakfast: fried egg and bacon sandwiches. That suited me fine, especially since I haven't eaten North American-style bacon in seven months.

We sat at the counter while we ate, which gave us a good view of the kitchen staff busily preparing onion rings and donuts for the day. It was a lovely breakfast, and a great way to conclude our quick zip trip to foodie Montreal. But not before we stopped by Fairmount Bagels and Schwartz's to bring home bagels and smoked meat, of course. It may be cliche and touristy, but it still remains a Montreal-must.

rob trying to make his way through chinatown

Monday, April 9, 2012

re-entry into my hometown...and the Junos

now main streets whitewashed windows and vacant stores
seems like there aint nobody wants to come down here no more
they're closing down the textile mill across the railroad tracks
foreman says these jobs are going boys and they aint coming back to
your hometown
your hometown
your hometown
your hometown

-Bruce Springsteen, "My Hometown"

The training program provided by the Canadian International Development Agency always warns of the reverse culture shock that international development workers might experience when returning to their hometown after working overseas, and realizing that they are going to have to reconcile all of the amazing/shocking things they've seen in a developing country with life as usual back home.

But what has struck me about returning to my hometown Ottawa is that life goes on and things change at home too. In the seven months I've been gone, Farmer Hope has sold the last farm to the developers and the cornfield behind my house is marked to be developed for townhomes, the trees nearby torn down. The old Ikea has been torn down and replaced by an even larger Ikea, the largest one in the country, resembling a gigantic blue Lego block. Blockbusters and the ol' local Flicks & Flavoues have gone out of business and now there is no longer any place to rent videos in my neighbourhood. And the KFC in Hintonburg has been bought out by the Hintonburger, which has hung a makeshift sign under the giant red-and-white KFC bucket.

My hometown is not a happy place right now. The new national budget calls for the cutting of almost 20 000 jobs in the public sector. Since the federal government is the largest employer in town, Ottawa is particularly affected and it seems like everyone is worried.

On the other hand, I came back home in time for the JUNO Awards.

For non-Canadian readers, the JUNO Awards are the Canadian equivalent of the Grammys, one of the most important distinctions in Canadian music. This year, the JUNOs were being held in Ottawa, and more specifically, in Kanata, the neighbourhood where my parents live.

I did not attend the JUNO Awards. I was busy fighting jetlag, and with the very good intention of catching up on Canadian affairs by reading the budget, I found myself falling asleep, fully clothed, on my bed at 9PM. At 10PM, my friend Meg called me to pick her up from the JUNO Awards. She's the host of a CBC radio show, so she gets to go to these things are part of her job. I look forward to the day that my law firm pays me to go to shows.

The streets of Kanata had become a parking lot, with everyone making an exodus from the Scotiabank Place (formerly known as the Corel Centre, formerly known as the Palladium) at the same time. Folks were dressed in all sorts of varieties, from t-shirts and jeans to ball gowns, and walked between the cars idling on the road. Pedestrians were definitely making better time than the cars.

Eventually Meg found my car at the side of the road. I was also giving a ride to radio celeb Vish Khanna, who was sick with a cold. He had just finished interviewing Feist (and also presumably passing on his sickness to the Juno winner) and now looking forward to getting back to his hotel to crash. We dropped him off at his Queen Street hotel, and then hit up the JUNO after parties. Despite having fallen asleep the previous hour, I was wide awake now, partly thanks to the Tim Hortons coffee I'd picked up on the way.

The Canadian music company Entertainment One was throwing a by-invite-only party at the Mercury Lounge in the Market. I got in as Meg's plus one. Deejays were spinning music loudly and everyone was very well dressed, in suits and designer dresses. More importantly, it was open bar. I wished I'd known this before volunteering to drive for the night. Instead, I took advantage of the free pretzels.

Eventually we left the party to wander around downtown in search of other parties. It was kind of interesting. On one hand, it was one of the biggest party events in Canada. On the other hand, it was Ottawa on a Sunday night - all the civil servants had to work the next day (for now, anyway). This more or less translated into mostly quiet empty streets in the Market, with scattered pockets of loud bustling parties at various high-end bars that weren't letting anyone unimportant in. And the occasional celebrity sighting. It all felt sort of like a dream, partly because half of my jetlagged mind was in sleep mode and the other half still stuck in Namibia, where I had also been partying with the country's stars. But now I was here, back at what I call home, feeling like an astronaut coming in from outer space and re-entering the atmosphere feeling very, very sleepy.

last night me and kate we laid in bed talking about getting out
packing up our bags, maybe heading south
i'm thirty-five, we got a boy of our own now
last night i sat him up behind the wheel and said son take a good
look around
this is your hometown

-Bruce Springsteen

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

last days in Durban

the city of Durban

Allie and Ellie's place in Durban once appeared in the film Blue Crush 2. You may remember the first Blue Crush movie. It involves a lot of girls in bikinis, surfing. Blue Crush 2 is set in Durban and is also about girls in bikinis, surfing.

This is what my colleague Sean has to say about Blue Crush 2, which went straight to video:

"Don't ever watch it. It was one of the worst movies I've ever seen.
Not in the way a movie can be so bad it's good either. Just horrible
on all fronts."

I had gotten my fill of surfing in Chintsa on the Wild Coast, so I didn't re-create any scenes from Blue Crush 2 when I went to visit Allie and Ellie during my last days in Africa. Instead I woke up with my body already feeling battered from days of surfing, and decided to treat my body to sunrise yoga at 6AM on the beach, which happens to be in front of Allie and Ellie's place.

Yoga on the beach was, I must say, pretty magical. The yoga instructor had a unique taste in yoga music, so I found myself doing my sun salutations on the shore listening to Radiohead, Feist, and the Black Keys, while facing the waves, and the kayakers and surfers maneouvring their way around the waves. At one point, dolphins swam by. Dolphins. We concluded our yoga session doing savasana while listening to the sounds of waves hitting the shore and ibis birds flapping their wings over my head. Pretty magical.

Then Ellie and I went for a 10k run along the beachfront.

our jogging route

It was, in reality, just what my body needed after the long drive from Chintsa to Durban. This is one of the most dangerous roads in South Africa, with plenty of heart-stopping moments. Drivers treat this two-lane undivided highway like it's a four-lane divided highway, so it's pretty common to be staring at headlights of oncoming cars driving at you in your lane. Not only do you have to learn to swerve away from these cars, but you must also learn to swerve away from the cows and goats wandering all over the road.

It was still a neat drive though, and I was glad to be able to drive through South Africa and see a part of it that was very different from its urban cores. It's sometimes very easy to forget you're in Africa and not some other North American city when you're in Cape Town or Johannesburg, but the rural areas are completely different, with the sprawling informal settlements dotting the rolling hill landscapes, boys playing barefoot soccer in the fields nearby, and hitch hikers crowding alongside the road. South Africa is also a lot greener than Namibia, and it's nice to see forests of trees for once. Still, it was an eight hour drive and I was glad to finally make it to Durban, the land of beautiful beaches.

the view from the balcony

swimmers swimming in the no-swimming zone. gloria, being gloria.

Durban is humid. It is also, despite anything Blue Crush 2 tells you, a big busy city. It's the third largest city in South Africa, and home to the largest population of Indians outside of India. It's a big change from Namibia, which has hardly any Indians at all.

We meet with other interns for lunch at the Corner Cafe in trendy Glenwood, and then go shop for crafts that we can bring back to Canada. For some reason, Allie and Ellie's favourite craft stand is located in a dimly lit parking garage next to the neighbourhood Spar grocery store. Talk about underground art. I haven't done any souvenir shopping during my 7 months in Africa, so I have a lot to buy.

goofing off at the craft stands

the corner cafe


In the evening, we meet up with Durban residents Kathleen and Shawn for drinks at Moyo, a restaurant located at the end of the jetty on the beachfront with a majestic view of the ocean. It's got "Africanized" cocktails with names like Robben Island Iced Tea. I order the African Tequila Sunrise, because I like Africa, tequila, and sunrises.

this was another restaurant on the beachfront. I call it the Rusy Ship Restaurant, which looks cool but doesn't seem particularly appetizing.

Moyo, where we actually ended up at for drinks.

Back on the shore, the fishermen are bringing in their gigantic nets, a long process that takes half an hour. I watch with excitement, hoping to catch a glimpse or something cool in the net before they throw it back to thesea, maybe a shark...or a mermaid. But all I see the kids throwing back are small fish. Maybe they saved a mermaid.

We grab dinner at Spiga. It's a lovely end to a lovely stay in Durban, and Africa in general. We bring our own wine, Ellie's favourite bottle of odd bin 714. One of the things I'm going to miss the most in Canada is delicious but cheap South African wine.

Monday, April 2, 2012

surfing on the Wild Coast

photos courtesy of allie and ellie

Mathieu is swearing up and down the longest streak of French Canadian religious terms I've heard in a while. All of the curses are being directed at the rental car, which has suddenly decided to stop working, right there in the middle of the dark gravel road.

It seems like everything that could have gone wrong on our journey to the Wild Coast has gone wrong. Mathieu and Carolyn, while driving from Grahamstown to East London to pick me up, were caught first behind a slow car and then the thickest fog you'd ever see, so dense you couldn't see metres ahead of you. Meanwhile, while waiting for them to pick me up at the East London airport, I went to the bathroom, and discovered when I got back out that I had been inadvertently locked in the airport. This is not the first time I've been locked in an unusual place.

Eventually though, we stop off at a McDonalds in East London, which has real ketchup, unlike the rest of southern Africa, and everything seems to be a bit better. Especially once we arrive at the cottage.

Our cottage faces the Indian Ocean. All I really wanted for my final days in Africa was to have a relaxing vacation, preferably involving the ocean, and preferably involving beaches and me lying on them. Renting a cottage with my friends in Chintsa on the Wild Coast in South Africa seemed like the perfect solution.

view of the beach from the cottage

Ellie and I start our day going for a run in the morning down the winding dirt path that connects our cottage to the rest of Chintsa. And by "the rest of Chintsa" I mean the paved road. Chintsa is a tiny village (population 400) in Xhosa country of South Africa. You don't go there for the crazy night life. You go there for nature.

houses in chintsa

horses on the beach

ellie on the beach

And surfing.

It's more or less my first time trying my hand at surfing. This is because I am somewhat afraid of water, which is kind of a big deal when you're surfing. Also, before I came to Africa, I watched Shark Week on the Discovery Channel, and the basic theme seemed to be that sharks have a refined taste for surfers on the South African coast.

everybody's gone surfin',
surfin' in S.A.

But, gosh darn it, I'm not going to spend my day sitting on the shore watching my friends being cool, so I slip on an extremely flattering wetsuit and hit the waves.



trying to look like i know what i'm doing

It's not too bad for my first time surfing, although I also wasn't too good. I may or may not have swallowed half the Indian Ocean. But whatever - I was surfing! Like the Beach Boys! Who also didn't know how to surf!

me not falling

me falling

friends laughing at me falling

i'm better at posing

The next day, Mathieu and I went back to try to tackle the waves again, but were disappointed to find the waves were too small. Trying to surf on a small wave kind of reminds me of an Etta James song called "Wet Match":

your love is like trying to light a fire with a wet match
you won't even get a spark like that
your love is like trying to light a fire with a wet match
you won't even get a spark like that

waiting, and waiting, and waiting

eventually I had to give up surfing, not because I was tired of wet match metaphors, but because Allie and Ellie started noticing bluebottles in the sea. At first I thought they were talking about dolphins, but as it turns out they were talking about Portuguese man-of-wars....the venomous jellyfish things.

I too read "Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself" by Judy Blume and therefore have a healthy fear of man-of-wars

In the evening, we head for the bar nearby for a delicious braai that the staff is cooking. This is South Africa, so dinner means the most minimal serving of salad and at least three cuts of meat. I love it. afterwards we play poker with a young gay couple from East London, and then shoot some pool. One guy tried to teach me to speak Khosa.

At that point there is a power outage, and Chintsa is engulfed in complete pitch blackness. I've been in tons of power outages before, but I have never been this far out of the city in this much complete darkness. There is no moon, no city lights nearby, just clouds blocking the whole sky, and darkness. You literally cannot see your hand in front of your face, or your friend (or stranger or psycho killer) standing next to you. The residents make do, though, and soon we have a guitar and conga singalong. I'm handed a guitar and luckily I can feel my way around the fretboard with my fingers in the dark. We sing typical bar standards like Mr Jones, Hallelujah, and also the South African national anthem. Once in a while there's lightning and the whole world is lit up in a freaky streak of whiteness. It's quite the lightning show across the bay over the mountains. It makes the night feels like magic.