Monday, November 14, 2011

Fall Frolics

The past few weeks have seen the temperatures start to fall and the leaves disappear as the autumn/fall weather moved us ever closer to the cold, winter months. Fortunately, Toronto tends to be crisp, dry and sunny most days so it's actually a pleasure to crunch through the fallen leaves on the pavements/sidewalks.

I got a bit of a fright in October though as, in the lead up to Halloween, I came across the living dead as they emerged from their graves and took to the streets of downtown Toronto on their annual Zombie Walk. There was even a zombie wedding and certainly lots of blood and gory scenes including the odd zombie attack.

Halloween is a much bigger occasion in North America than in Europe. Some people turn their front yards into graveyards complete with gravestones, cobwebs and the odd skeleton. Most of the kids dress up and the costumes aren't necessarily scary - there are many superhero costumes, animals and pink princesses. I even saw one little girl dressed as a cupcake. In fact, it's all about the sweets/candy and the number of 'trick or treaters' is unbelievable. I reckon I handed out sweets to around 100 callers this year!

The Day of the Dead is also increasingly celebrated here and I enjoyed partaking in the festivities as one of the local farmer's markets hosted in the old Brickworks. I'd actually been there the week earlier as well to participate in the Toronto Underground Market (TUM), which was a great night out. Pop-up restaurants set up their stalls, music played and the booze flowed creating a very enjoyable atmosphere. You line up to try taster-size samples of each dish for a few dollars and then move on to the next stall - there's everything from Mexican to Indian and popcorn to popovers (filled Yorkshire Puddings).

For me, much of the past month has seen me unpacking and sorting my belongings and furniture that finally arrived after a number of weeks at sea. It was quite exciting to venture out to the customs depot, have it all released and then see it arrive. However, despite having organized everything in labelled boxes before I left England, when it all arrived it had all been opened, repacked and mixed up so it took a long time to sort everything out and find a home for it in my small apartment, which is now looking a lot fuller than it did before. However, it's nice to have familiar things around me although I must admit I did question why I had bothered to ship certain things I found as I unpacked. Two years ago I thought I'd pruned and de-cluttered but I guess living without 'stuff' for nearly two years makes you realize how little we actually need!

I've also acquired some new neighbours this month as the Occupy Toronto protestors have moved into the park close to my apartment. The camp is now at bursting point. I admire their determination, especially as the nights get colder but I have to admit I am struggling to get my head around what the aim of the protest chap was waving a banner saying 'Free Nelson Mandela' the other day!

However, I understood very clearly the cause when I attended a charity event organized by friends the other week. Two of my friends, Darlene and Giulia, volunteer for Project 417, which provides support to the city's homeless via regular cross-city sandwich runs and community dinners. Their achievements are impressive and impact the lives of those who really are living below the poverty line in a practical and supportive way. Most touching of all was to see people who formerly lived on the streets for whatever reason but who now have turned their lives around and are also giving back via the project's work.

I was also privileged to attend a wonderful environmental event, the first of four lectures, hosted by National Geographic. Mattias Klum, a wildlife photographer originally from Sweden, spoke with great humour and passion about his work whilst telling the stories behind the amazing photographs and video images he'd shot. I cannot imagine sitting up a tree in a sling for four months amid a rainforest with your body literally going moldy in order to capture a shot of a rare nocturnal badger only to have it pee on you from above as you finally see it! He also spoke about the devastation and destruction he has witnessed on his travels and how important he feels it is we protect this planet we live on.

Finally, this month has seen the culmination of a big project I've been working on come to fruition. I've loved getting my teeth into the complete rewrite and redesign of the English Language Program's website and the launch date has finally arrived. There's still work to do but I'm pleased with the initial result. As I said to my boss, I adore doing this kind of thing and I think if I'd been born 10 years later, web development may well have been my chosen career path. It all started with blogging though!



Saturday, October 15, 2011

Samba-ing into September

Well, this month has seen me hitting the road...or rather the skies...again.

I flew south to Brazil on a business trip to promote the English Language Program at a Canadian education fair in Sao Paulo. Although I've been to Brazil once before, it was my first visit to Sao Paulo and I couldn't get over the size of the city. It's ranked as the eighth largest city in the world by population and certainly the view from the airplane suggested it went on and on forever.

I was staying in the city centre and didn't really see far beyond the places I had to go for work but I did manage to squeeze in one treat by enjoying a meal with colleagues from other institutions at a Churrascaria.

Vento Haragano Churrascaria has been voted one of the best Brazilian steakhouses in Sao Paulo. It certainly lived up to its reputation although it wasn't cheap...but then nothing in Brazil is these days! I couldn't get over how expensive the country has become. The restaurant had huge racks of ribs rotating around a fire-pit in the window - it looked liked dinner at the Flintstone's! Inside, there was a huge salad bar and then servers dressed as gauchos circled the tables offering to carve various cuts of meat at your table. Depending on how ready you are to have more, you have a little card on the table to flip as a method of requesting more or taking a pass. I was in beef heaven but a little taken aback when one chap sliced through my beer glass as he was cutting a piece of meat off for me. I was somewhat relieved not to be at the end of that knife.

I moved on to Rio mid-week in order to attend an event for educational agents - the best way to describe it is speed-dating for agents and institutions. I saw around 50 agents for 30 minutes a piece.

Disappointingly, the weather in both Sao Paulo and Rio was not brilliant. Brazil is coming out of its winter and so although the sun did make the odd appearance and inspired me to buy a pair of new Havaianas flip flops, I was generally shivering most of the time.

I managed to pop down to Leblon beach for a five-minute stroll but other than viewing the odd glimpse of the Corcovado (Christ the Redeemer statue) from behind the cloud, I didn't manage to see much of Rio.

A highlight of the working week, which caused much excitement among the Canadian males at the event, in particular, was seeing a live samba band play. I have to say the samba dancers in Brazil, both male and female, really do wear very little and know how to shake what they have!

The Rock in Rio festival was also on at the time I was there and some of the acts were staying in the hotel. I saw Jay Kay of Jamiroquai wandering through the lobby, caught sight of Lenny Kravitz and his band heading out to their gig and ran into some of the Guns N' Roses band members as they arrived to stay at the hotel. I gather Shakira was also in the hotel but didn't catch this other booty-shaking queen.

As a bonus on this trip I managed to tack on a few days vacation. On the recommendation of my good friend and Brazil expert, Julian, I jumped on a bus and headed south to a little seaside town called Paraty on the Costa Verde. Paraty was a key port used by the Portuguese for shipping out gold and coffee. The old town is car free and made up of pretty white buildings, many of which are covered in Masonic symbols. The streets are cobbled and built on a dip so that when the high-tides come the roads turn into canals. I have to say navigating the cobbles was rather taxing sober let alone after a few drinks.

Again the weather was a bit mixed but I had a relaxing few days pottering round the town and managed to take a boat ride out to some of the beaches and bays nearby. I was staying at a gorgeous bed and breakfast, Pousada Vivenda, about 15 minutes walk from the old town. It was a delightful place to hang out in and I bonded with the owner, John, a fellow Yorkshireman who used to teach English and has lived in Brazil for nearly 25 years.

After my four days in Paraty I headed back to Toronto and then managed to squeeze in another few days away before returning to work. Canadian Thanksgiving weekend was again spent on the edge of Algonquin Park about four hours drive north of Toronto. This time I went with my friend Darlene and we hired a basic but comfortable 'cottage' (a cabin to those non-Canadians). Situated on Clear Lake, which was indeed clear, we had a spectacular couple of days with incredible, almost record-breaking, weather. The trees were amazing in their fall/autumn colours and the sun shone the entire weekend. I got sunburnt as we paddled our way round the lake in a canoe. I also temporarily adopted a chipmunk and all Canadian chipmunks are now incarnations of my furry friend, "Chippy".

As in the US, where they celebrate Thanksgiving in November, it is traditional to cook a turkey dinner. This was quite a feat in our rather basic cabin kitchen but I was very proud of my very first effort at making pumpkin pie. The results were delicious and despite our turkey only having one leg, it has kept me fed all week with turkey curry and other creations being cooked up. I now don't want to see any more turkey until Christmas thank you very much!

Sunday, September 18, 2011

A Bit O' Culcha

August was a bit of a stressful month for me and my family as I had some problems with my house in Leeds. I hope things are now on their way to being sorted out but would like to start this month's blog by thanking my parents for their ongoing support and assistance as well as Chris for his sound counsel. Anne, Charlotte, Janet, Jess, Jude, Peter and Rose have also been great in offering both practical help and emotional support - thank you. It has been greatly appreciated. Note to self - being an overseas landlord is not the easiest when things don't go quite as smoothly as you'd hope. Anyway, I really hope this particular drama will be fully resolved soon although I suspect the efforts to recoup my financial losses may drag on somewhat. You would not believe what chaos can ensue all because of a little puddy cat!

Anyway, September has proven to be a better month all round. The tail end of summer appears to be petering out and the days are becoming crisper and chillier - I'm back in socks once more! Before the autumn weather descended, however, I was able to enjoy a couple of foodie treats. The first being a day at Supperworks, a kind of communal kitchen whereby you pay a fixed amount, all the ingredients and recipes are provided and you batch cook your meals for the month. I had got a coupon to try this out and had great fun cooking away knowing that I had zero cleaning up to do!

I'm not sure if the North American trend for food trucks has hit the rest of the world yet but it's the latest gastro-trend on this side of the pond. We're not talking the local chip or ice cream van parking on the corner but rather gourmet catering delivered out of the back of a truck. Many of the trucks have something of a cult following and people track the trucks' whereabouts using social media tools such as Facebook and Twitter. A few weeks ago the trucks decided to get together and had a foodie pow wow at the Distillery District, close to my building. The lines of people queuing up for bison burgers, cupcakes and various types of tacos were huge. I settled on a quinoa salad made with lime, avocado, black beans, tomatoes and chili - it was delicious!

Also in my local area was one of my favorite Toronto festivals, Buskerfest. Buskers from all over the world attend the event in aid of Epilepsy Toronto and perform there acts over three days. This year there were skateboarders jumping through hoops, contortionists, clowns and acrobats to entertain. For a few donated bucks, it really is a fun event...and the face painting's pretty good, too.
The Distillery District borders an area of Toronto called the Portlands, which is currently sparking something of a controversy here in Toronto due to the plans proposed by our current mayor and his brother (aka Tweedledum and Tweedledee). However, I trundled off to this part of town, currently occupied by film studios, docks and the city dump to see one of the most spectacular theatrical events I've ever seen. Cirque du Soleil is one of Canada's gifts to the world of entertainment and I was delighted to see Totem, their new production, along with two of my friends. The company combine the very best of circus performance with the most amazing sets, costumes, lighting and music. I loved every second.

Culture has been high on the agenda of late as September is the month that TIFF hits Toronto. TIFF is the Toronto International Film Festival and a highlight of many movie makers' and movie stars' year. The city goes crazy with celebrities, red carpet premieres and paparazzi everywhere. This year I decided not to volunteer due to work commitments and because I had a visitor, Jude, here. However, we saw a number of films - my favourite being Salmon Fishing in the Yemen starring Ewan McGregor, Emily Blunt and Kristin Scott Thomas although The Lady about Aung San Suu Kyi was excellent, too.

We also managed to catch a few celebrities as they opened their various movies. I swooned over George Clooney and, for the second time in my life, found myself two feet away from one of my movie-star pin ups. I'm sure he smiled when I yelled out in a very high-pitched voice, "George, I love you!"

On that note, I shall sign off. With thoughts of Gorgeous George lingering I'm sure to have sweet dreams tonight!

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Hot, hot, hot!

July is my birthday month and I had a nice celebratory evening out taking advantage of Toronto's Summerlicious event whereby local restaurants offer reduced price meals to entice diners to try their offerings. I also had an enjoyable day later that week as my department celebrated our achievements together with a day out to the Toronto Islands. The sun shone and we had a lovely Mexican barbecue at the Ward's Island Clubhouse.

My Web Marketing course also came to an end this month and culminated in an first in years! I won't know the results for a while but have thoroughly enjoyed the course learning more about Social Media and using the online environment for business. It was enjoyable being a student again and a very stimulating course.

The weather has been great over the past month and was in fact, too hot, for a few days. Some of the highest temperatures for fifty years were reached and we all melted as the humidity peaked. It was so hot that my air conditioning struggled to cope and eventually packed in! Fortunately, the heatwave has now broken and although it's still hot, it's not quite so unbearable...and my air con is now fixed.

The hot weather has, however, made for great opportunities to enjoy the summer outdoor events in the city and surrounding areas such as a picnic in High Park followed by a performance of Shakespeare's A Winter's Tale in the outdoor amphitheatre.

Some friends and I also headed out of the city to a place called Grand River, about two hours west of Toronto. We ended up on the Six Nations Reserve, home to the local Native community. We had a super day watching a Pow Wow celebration with Native American dancers from all over the continent. It was such a colourful event but how they coped with their heavy costumes in the heat, I have no idea!

Last weekend was a long weekend here in Canada so given the weak US dollar, my friend and I decided to go on a roadtrip into the States. We set off before dawn and headed for the border. Ten hours driving later we arrived in Philladelphia, the city of brotherly love. We hopped on a quick sightseeing tour of the city taking in the Liberty Bell, and then decided we need sustenance in the form of cocktails and a Philly Cheesesteak. I have to say this particular local delicacy was not the most sophisticated I've had in terms of regional cuisine but it tasted pretty good!

The next day, we had a super morning at the very impressive Philladelphia Museum of Art, which had both some super collections and stunning architecture. Perhaps you might know it as it is where the steps Sylvester Stallone ran up for exercise in the movie Rocky are? There is even a statue commemorating old Sly at the base of the steps!

In the afternoon, we headed West towards the Pennsylvania Dutch country and ended up in a town called Intercourse, which amused me highly! Intercourse was actually used as a location for the film Witness, starring Harrison Ford. Being a Sunday, it was fairly quiet as the local Amish stores were all closed but we saw a large group of their youth enjoying a very wholesome volleyball competition as we entered the town. Their horses and buggies were all lined up alongside the road. We went out for a ride in the fields ourselves and learned more about the Amish way of life before enjoying a shared-table traditional Amish meal, which was very tasty. I particularly liked the Shoo-fly Pie!

Later in the evening we went from one extreme to another when we hit the town of Hershey, named after the factory located there. Hershey is dubbed 'The Sweetest Place on Earth' and is now overrun by families with kids on a sugar-high who are going crazy for the chocolate Kisses and Hershey's Chocolate World theme park located there. It was sheer insanity but pure genius in terms of mass merchandising. We were there at 9:30pm at night so goodness knows what it's like in the middle of the day!

On our last day we hit the outlet centres to take advantage of the low US dollar and then headed north through the middle of Pennsylvania and the state of New York before hitting the rather long line of traffic waiting to get back into Canada.

This weekend, I was lucky enough to get out on the water. I had a really enjoyable afternoon sailing on Lake Ontario. I feel summer is not complete unless I get at least one day's sailing in. I'd love to be out there more often. Hopefully, next year finances and time will permit this more.

Anyway, in honour of Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher (aka Princess Leia), who I also saw in her one-woman show, Wishful Drinking, this month: "May the force be with you!"

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Summer in the City!

Earlier this month Toronto had a taste of my homeland. No, it wasn't Will and Kate - they snubbed Toronto on their recent visit to Canada but it was a slice of Yorkshire playing at a specially built theatre across the railway tracks downtown. E. Nesbit's The Railway Children, set in Yorkshire, was staged as a play and I had the pleasure of seeing this very innovative and enjoyable show. I've always loved the story of the three children forced to move 'up North' out of family shame at their father's imprisonment and their subsequent antics along the railway line. I know kids shouldn't play along railway lines but I've always enjoyed the tales of Bobby and her siblings escapades and heroism. This production was very well staged with a real railway track being used to create a moving stage. The highlight, however, was when a real steam train pulled in to theatre!

Toronto's summer festival season kicked off in style this year with the Luminato festival and I was delighted to be able to see my favourite Canadian songstress for free one gorgeous Friday evening. K.D.Lang played an excellent set including many old favourites re-worked with a new twist. However, the show-stopper was her magical performance of Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah. The guy next to me went to pieces and there was hardly a dry eye to be had around me. That girl sure can sing!

Hallelujah from Becky Smith on Vimeo.

A girl that sure can cook is Wanda Beaver - yes, that is her real name! Somewhat appropriate for a Canadian. Wanda is a pie-maker and runs a Toronto institution, Wanda's Pie in the Sky bakery and cafe. My foodie friend and contributor, Giulia, and I went along one evening to learn Wanda's secrets to the perfect pie. Wanda showed us how to make sour cherry pie and instructed us on the need to have all the ingredients cold, to work quickly but, most importantly, to savour the results. This, we happily did, and my favourite pie of the three we sampled was the pecan and maple syrup pie...truly scrumptious!

Also this month, I had to go on another business trip. This time I jetted across the Pacific to South Korea for a week. This was my fourth visit to the Korean peninsula but the first time I've been beyond the South Korean capital, Seoul. My first few days were spent in Seoul but then I headed south the city of Jeonju in Jelloabuk-do province. My trip included various meetings with staff at the Offices of Education in Seoul and Jeonju, meetings with educational agents, a couple of university visits, presentations to prospective students and meetings with former staff and students of the English Language Program. It was a hectic week but I managed to grab an hour or so in soggy Jeonju (it's rainy season in Korea at present) to explore the traditional Hanok village behind my Korean-style Fawlty Towers hotel. This village has been preserved and houses a very ornately decorated temple as well as traditional craft museums. I enjoyed watching the traditional Hanji paper being made.

Jelloabuk-do is well known for its special food dish, bibimbap. The word means 'mixed meal'. It's basically a metal bowl filled with warm rice and topped with a multitude of vegetable ingredients, seaweed, some meat (usually ground beef), chilli paste and topped off with an egg. Just before eating you mix all the ingredients together and kind of mash it up. My mum always used to tell me off for playing with my food so I think I get a kick out of being able to do this and it being 'the done thing'! I enjoyed the various versions of the dish I sampled during my stay and was also treated to a family-style barbecue night in the countryside. This was very enjoyable apart from the dastardly mosquitoes that decided to attack me. I hate, hate, hate mosquitoes with a passion!

It's been good to escape the evil critters and get back to Toronto which is now dry and very hot. The newly developed man-made beach close to my home is now my favourite local hang-out and I suspect I shall be spending quite a bit of time at Sugar Beach (next to the Redpath sugar refinery) this summer watching the boats go by. I love this time of year in Toronto!

Saturday, June 11, 2011

North American Musings and Meanderings

It feels like quite some time since I last updated my blog but I guess I've been rather busy with one thing or another!

May began with the Hot Docs documentary film festival, which I enjoyed very much. Documentary film-makers from all over the world submit their films to play before the public but also industry execs in the hope of getting picked up for wider release. This year I saw a wide range of films from one about being a single woman 'Lovable' to one about Donald Trump's golf course on the coast of Scotland, 'You've Been Trumped'. Then there was there one about the racist British National Party, 'Battle for Barking' and the gender reassignment of Chastity Bono in 'Becoming Chaz'. However, my favourite was 'Being Elmo' about the puppeteer behind Elmo from Sesame Street - it was a delightful film about a fascinating journey and it, quite simply, made you smile!

A week later I also saw Leonard Bernstein's 'Candide' as part of the Toronto Jewish Film Festival. Toronto is not short on film festivals. There are 55 annually.

In May, I started a new course. I'm studying Web Marketing part-time in the evenings at the University of Toronto and am finding it very interesting so far, in a nerdy kind of way. I'm now tweeting more and have launched my first Google ads campaign at work. It's also feeding in to the website re-development work I'm currently involved in so most of the things I'm learning about are being applied.

Towards the end of May, a couple of friends and I decided to take advantage of the Victoria Day long weekend and head south across the border. We embarked on a rather epic 12 hour Megabus trip to Washington DC, although the way back was longer at 15 hours due to border delays. At $80 round-trip we didn't complain too much though! We also managed to get a great deal on the very conveniently-located JW Marriott hotel and then spent three gloriously sunny and hot days exploring the US capital.

Our first, and indeed final, stop of the weekend was a hangout of many a politico, the Old Ebbitt Grill, where apparently President Obama sometimes sneaks in via the kitchens. It was certainly packed and served fare that satisfied us let alone global leaders. They were too busy hanging out on the lawn of The White House next door, and although we missed the press call, we did see Prime Minister Netanyahu's motorcade being swept under shielding marquees outside the Israeli embassy. I'm sure I also saw Marine One fly overhead to pick up the O'bamas (sic) as they embarked on their tour of Ireland. Unfortunately, Michelle wasn't to be seen tending her vegetable patch but we were impressed by her bee hives.

Our weekend was packed full of museum visits as Washington really does have a wonderful collection, many of which are free. The Smithsonian National Museum of American History was our first stop and I particularly enjoyed seeing the First Ladies' dresses, Dorothy's Red Slippers, Jacko's Hat and, of course, an original Kermit the Frog! We also enjoyed a delicious and interesting Native American meal at the Mitsitam Cafe in the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian. My favourite museum we visited, however, was the Newseum and we spent a good few hours here looking at all the fascinating exhibits on the Berlin Wall, photojournalism, Hurricane Katrina, 9/11 and historic front pages.

On the Saturday, Giulia, Darlene and myself indulged ourselves by having a delicious chocolate-themed brunch at Coco Sala - it really was a chocolate lover's delight! We felt obliged to walk off our excesses though and took a couple of excellent walking tours - one around the Washington monuments at night and another around the rather lovely Georgetown area, where we saw the homes of such notables as the Kennedy's and the cookery writer, Julia Childs. All in all, we had a super time and, yet again, the US cities have scored highly with me!

The week before last I had another trip. This time for work. I attended the NAFSA conference for international educators in Vancouver. It was a huge conference of 10,000 people from all over the world. The exhibition hall alone took me two days to walk round. Many universities from all over the world have stands and it's basically an opportunity for them to meet their partners and potential partners. I was kept busy with meetings, seminars and various evening receptions to attend. The conference was held at the new Vancouver Convention Centre, which was built for the Winter Olympics last year. It's a huge eco-friendly building with a green roof and I was very impressed by its design.

Vancouver was heaving with both conference attendees and ice hockey fans. For those of you who may not know the significance of the Stanley Cup play-offs that were taking place between the Vancouver Canucks and the Boston Bruins that week, it's kind of like the World Cup is to the rest of the world, except for ice hockey. When the Canucks won the second match of the series, I thought I'd go deaf with the noise that erupted!

Mind you, I'd rather that than something worse as I so nearly encountered on my arrival in the city. As I came out of a subway station, I saw that the area was cordoned off by police and there were crowds of people looking towards a gentleman who appeared to be waving a long stick close to an abandoned bus. It turns out this was a sword and just as I turned the corner, he came running in my direction shouting "I hate you all!" The next thing I knew, I heard gun shots. I just turned and ran into the nearest building. I was quite shocked by how many people ran towards the shooting with their smartphones taking pictures! Gradually, I think people realized the seriousness and also started to retreat. A few moments later, we heard the police had got the chap. They'd tried to shoot him with rubber bullets and taser him but both methods had failed. As I emerged from the building I just saw about 20 police officers on top of him. I'm thankful no-one was hurt but it did make the evening news. A bit of a shocker all round but the Vancouver police did an excellent job.

My fright did not affect the rest of the week and I was staying on the North Vancover shore so travelled by sea bus to work everyday - it was a lovely way to commute. Vancouver is famous for its tendency to be grey and rainy but, luckily, only a couple of days were like that as the city is in a very beautiful setting. I stayed an extra day after the conference finished and had a super time sightseeing in the sunshine. I managed to see Stanley Park, the Vancouver Aquarium and its amazing beluga whales, Klahowya Village, Granville Island market, the Capilano Suspension Bridge and cliff walk plus the stunningly beautiful view from Grouse Mountain, where the grizzly bears were snoozing and the kids were still June.

Summer is now here and we hit 40 degrees with humidity one day in Toronto last week. There've been a lot of storms and a few tornadoes have touched down north and west of the city but, thankfully, nothing like the devastation this season has wreaked south of the border. The view of lightening hitting the CN Tower has been quite a spectacular sight though.

Life continues to be action-packed and exciting here in North America!

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Made in England

It seems spring may finally have arrived in Toronto although I keep being warned to expect one final wintry blast to hit unexpectedly. The trees are beginning to green up and I can even see some daffodils poking out in the community garden below my window. It looks like April showers may indeed lead to May flowers.

We are a bit behind the glorious blooming I saw on my recent trip back to the country of my birth where spring showing her glory in full force with blossom, greenery and flowers abound all basking in glorious sunshine. Britain was experiencing something of a heatwave and during my 10-day visit, I was lucky enough to experience almost constant sunshine and temperatures in the 20s. I even got sunburnt (with factor 30 suncream on) and ended up peeling...not even the Caribbean at Christmas did that to me!!

I had a super visit back to Leeds and stayed with my parents in their house/construction zone. As you may recall, my parent's home was flooded at Christmas and they are now emerging from four months of building and decorating work as the entire house has had to be renovated and put right. It's not quite there yet but the signs are certainly there that it is nearing completion with some rooms almost complete. Tiles and wallpaper are now going up on the walls. It's going to be great when it's all finished and I certainly loved my new guest room sleeping soundly in the new bed.

Unfortunately, my parents were both quite ill with a nasty cough/cold, probably not aided by the dust, but they were in good spirits and it was lovely to spend some quality time with them. Mum and I had a couple of good days out shopping and lunching in Leeds and Harrogate. We enjoyed our homage to Bettys Tea Rooms and spent a lovely afternoon at the Turkish baths in Harrogate Spa.

I also went along with my dad to his Photographic Society evening about China and, together, we all enjoyed a family night out at Jamie Oliver's Italian restaurant that has now opened in Leeds.

During the week, it was great to also catch up with various friends as we sampled the pubs, restaurants and fishy manicure parlours of Leeds and Tewkesbury. A highlight for me was spending an afternoon in the sunshine with my gorgeous godson and his family - he, along with all my friend's kids, is growing up fast! [Tip: Turn speakers on]

The main reason for heading back to England this Easter was to be there to celebrate my granny's 90th birthday. We had a really nice meal at a hotel in Ilkley, on the moor overlooking the Yorkshire countryside. The sun shone and is was nice to be able to share in this special occasion.

I headed back to Toronto with bulging suitcases, mainly due to the large quantity of clothes and shoes that I'd purchased. I got charged fifty pounds excess but I like to think I'd been doing my bit to aid the British economy!

The Brit-themed month has continued to reign large with Friday's Royal Wedding being broadcast in almost every form of media. I have to admit to rolling out of bed at 5:30am to watch the proceedings...kind of like an annoying scratch I had to itch! Here 'in the colonies', we had to go to work though - no public holiday for us, which I think is most unfair as we also pay taxes towards the royal family's upkeep. Canadians seemed to be on a par for the level of excitement (or not) about the whole event and I was amused by a colleague who turned up to work in a full wedding outfit complete with fascinator!

I used the event as an excuse to have a tongue-in-cheek Royal Aftermath Tea Party for my female friends (ladies-in-waiting). It was a lot of fun and we all ate and drank for Canada and the UK! The food was all royal themed with Coronation chicken, Welsh cakes, Prince William's chocolate biscuit cakes, red velvet cupcakes, lady's (ring) finger tiramisu, jewel salad, BuckingHAM sandwiches, Eton Mess and Duchy shortbread all on the menu. There was a game of pin-the-tail-on-the-corgi and my ladies-in-waiting were all presented with gold crowns to wear. Stella, our honorary corgi, even came with her pearls and hat on! As my friend Darlene commented, there were "more union jacks than a crumpet factory has crumpets," and, all in all, it was a right royal knees up! [Tip: Turn speakers on]

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Not so grim oop norf!

After a lovely break in Mexico at the start of this month, it was time to return to the Great White North (Canada) and start my new job. I'm back at the University of Toronto and have a new role as International Marketing Manager for the English Language Program at the School of Continuing Studies. It's great to be working at one of the world's top 20 universities alongside my former colleagues again and I'm really enjoying my new role as I have some interesting projects on the go. I also love the fact I can be home in under 30 minutes and can go out on week nights once more without being completely exhausted. Three hours a day spent on public transport in my previous job was not good for my social life! My only complaint is that, yet again, I have an office with no windows. What is it with these architects of education buildings who thought it was a good idea to build in concrete with no windows above ground level?

My former boss from the University of Leeds, Rosemary, was in town this month, along with her partner, David. They spend half the year in Canada and half the year in the UK so popped in while staying in Toronto for a few days. We had a lovely afternoon catching up and sharing our experiences on how to keep warm during a Canadian winter.

Another familiar face from Leeds visited me this month. My friend and former colleague, Judith, came to stay for the second time in the past year. It was nice to see her and she appeared to have a good time as she hit the ice rink and toured the city sights. One highlight was that we entered a lottery draw to get last minute tickets for the second night of Elton John's musical, Billy Elliot, and won. Although we missed seeing Elton in his tutu on the first night, we really enjoyed the second night. The show was superb and the child actors were really impressive. I particularly enjoyed the feel of northern England even if it sent me back to darker days in the North's history. The Canadian actors managed to give the Geordie accent a reasonable stab although, in my non-expert opinion, I did detect that there were a few slips. I actually had a twinge of homesickness...just a little one.

Later in the week, we headed north ourselves, although it was just three hours north of the city. Along with some of my other friends, we spent a wonderful weekend on the edge of Algonquin Provincial Park at the same log cabin I visited for Canadian Thanksgiving last October. We spent three days there this time and the place had a totally different feel given the change in seasons.

Heavy snow fell over the weekend and Surprise Lake was completely frozen. We took the opportunity to explore the lake and surrounding hills by snow shoes and cross-country skis. This was a whole new experience for me. Whilst I've done plenty of downhill skiing, I'd never tried either of these sports before. I enjoyed the snow-shoeing very much but think next time I'll stick to the flat and gentle slopes. Our guides took us up an almost vertical hill climb, which was no easy feat, particularly for one of our party, who had a wrist in plaster. I struggled with the deeper powder as a broken snow-shoe meant I was sinking in up to my thigh. I think I may have pulled out a few trees as I tried to extricate myself. Much laughter was also had as we all descended a rather steep slope. Put it this way, I certainly had snow and ice in places that there really shouldn't be snow and ice!

Unfortunately, I'd also developed a nasty chest infection and laryngitis so this limited me for the rest of the weekend. I did take part in a quick ski across the lake and a bit of inukshuk building at night, but enjoying the cozy warmth of the cabin and sauna was where I wanted to be most of the very relaxing weekend.

We had a bit of trouble leaving on the Sunday as we were snowed in and although we made an attempt to dig ourselves out, we were eventually forced to call in a private snow-plough to clear a path out to the main road. The drive out, however, was very picturesque (no need for speakers with this one - in fact, it's better without!):

Winter Wonderland from Becky Smith on Vimeo.

Canada at its best!

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Skate, Battle and Sol

As winter set in and the temperatures plummeted to -30 degrees centigrade (i.e. very, very cold), I decided that I had to make an effort to embrace traditional Canadian winter sports. My friend Liezel and I decided we both fancied ice skating. In our efforts to become the next Jayne Torvil (British Olympic figure skater) and Joannie Rochette (Canadian Olympic figure skater) we thought it would be a good idea to take some lessons given that neither of us had been on the ice much in our lifetimes and Canadians seem to be born with an inherent ability to skate (although I've since been told that is completely false!).

We booked ourselves on to a Sunday morning course at the Harbourfront and were blessed with glorious sunshine at the rink, which overlooks Lake Ontario. I was very anxious as the rink had no sides and started to panic about what I could hold on to. This was before the "battle of the boots" began. As some of you know, I have rather large feet...but they are a woman's feet, not a man's...and there is a difference in shape. This means that when it comes to ice skates, it was a struggle to find any to fit and, when they eventually did, I was hobbling around in pain before I'd even got on the ice due to my high arches having no support. It didn't help that I'd taken 15 minutes to try and pull them as tight as possible but was still flailing around with 'flappy' ankles feeling very unstable as soon as I ventured out onto the frozen stuff. Fortunately, my instructor took pity on me and I felt like a toddler again as I sat on the side of the children's 'pond' having my boots tied.

Sheer terror does not begin to describe the hour-long lesson - my whole body became rigid with fear of coming face to face with the ice. However, I survived without falling and was quite proud of the fact I was able to do the hokeycokey dance without wobbling over! I certainly wasn't the best but wasn't the worst either with one of my fellow non-Canadian classmates doing a very good 'baby giraffe trying to walk for the first time'impression for the whole hour.

The next week Liezel and I both ventured out again watched from the fire-pit by Liezel's chap, who seemed to find our ice-capades quite amusing. Our instructors decided we were all looking at our skates too much so after a pretty abysmal attempt at trying to make us skate backwards (!), decided we had to play a game of moving catch. We did quite well at this and for the first time, I felt myself relax. Bad move! I attempted a rather flashy stop move and the next thing I knew was crashing towards the floor with a rather large thud. My head hit the ice and my helmet (they made us wear them - quite sensibly) shot forward crunching on to my nose. Ow!! The instructors raced over and were asking me my name to check I wasn't concussed...fortunately, I got that right...but then they started asking me their names. I hadn't got a clue! It was at that point I realized that perhaps learning to skate at the ripe old age of 38 surrounded by 3-year-olds that bounce and can remember names, may not be the most sensible thing! Thankfully, despite a lot of aching, nothing was seriously damaged and I avoided the black eyes we all anticipated might appear.

As I was slightly black and blue on my rear end, I decided that adding a bit of colour to my life was a good plan. Along with a couple of friends, I went along to an event called Art Battle.

I had no idea what to expect but it turned out to be a fun and interesting night out. The basic premise is that people turn up at a venue. Some of the audience are artists and some are not. All are invited to participate. Four names are drawn at random and these people are give an easel, a canvas, some oil paint, tools and brushes as well as an apron. The 'painters' have twenty minutes to create a masterpiece. During this time the audience, most of whom had beers in hand, circulates to the sounds of a DJ. The audience has no idea who is a 'real' artist although in some cases it became clear. At the end of the round, the audience votes for their favourite painting and the winner is announced. Another round ensues followed by the final. The paintings are later auctioned off. It was really interesting to see the different ideas, approaches and skill of each artist.

January was a month of change for me as I decided to quit my job as I had landed myself a new one back at the University of Toronto. I left my position at York University and, to be honest, was not sorry to say goodbye to the 3 hours spent on public transport each day. My lovely team gave me a nice send off though and they will be missed. As an unexpected bonus, I had accrued some vacation so was 'forced' to take another holiday!

I booked myself a week in Mexico and headed south to warmer climes once more. I flew to the Yucatan and had a nice week in the sunshine and +30 degree temperatures pootling around some places I'd previously visited in my student days when my friend Jo was living in Merida.

I took a great one-day cooking class at Los Dos Cooking School and learned a lot about Yucatecan food, making my own tortillas and tasting the chili of all chili's - the habenero! The course was held in a beautifully renovated house and one of the highlights was our trip to the colourful market.

I also spent a couple of days visiting the splendid Mayan ruins at Uxmal and Chichen Itza, or, as I like to call it, Chicken Pizza! Most of the pyramids are no longer climbable but I was impressed by how much restoration had gone on in the last few years to rebuild some of the destroyed temples.

The end of the week was spent hanging out on the coast at Playa del Carmen and on the island of Cozumel. The beaches were great and the sea was the most amazing colour. All in all, a lovely break and nice to be outdoors in the warm sunshine before heading home to that feeling of walking down the street wondering if your eyeballs might start to freeze soon!

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Cruising the Strip

As the big freeze set in across the northern hemisphere, it seemed time to set off to warmer climes again. I headed south to the city of Miami and was delighted to meet up with my parents, who I hadn't seen since saying farewell to them at Manchester Airport a year ago. It was lovely to see them and we spent almost two and a half weeks together.

We met up at the Angler's Resort Hotel in Miami South Beach, which had been recommended by my good friend Dave, who works for Trailfinders in Dublin. We were not disappointed by the boutique-style hotel and enjoyed its location just set back from the main strip of Miami Beach's front.

Despite one day of torrential rain, we really enjoyed Miami and its summer-fun atmosphere. I particularly loved the art deco architecture that abounds. We also had an interesting tour of the city and saw many homes of the rich and famous such as Madonna, Elizabeth Taylor and Ricky Martin. We also came across the cemetery used to film Michael Jackson's 'Thriller'...I had an strange feeling I'd seen it before when we looked through the gates.

One highlight for all of us was dinner at Joe's Stone Crab restaurant. The restaurant has been open almost 100 years and we enjoyed a truly terrific meal in this busy Miami institution. We also had dinner at Gloria Estefan's beachfront Cuban restaurant, Lario's, as well as a great breakfast at the popular News Cafe, where we watched the interesting sights of bikini-clad roller-bladers and body-builders go by.

After three days acclimatizing, we headed north to Fort Lauderdale, where we joined our cruise ship, the Silver Spirit. Compared to many of the cruise ships we saw, she was quite titchy but she was a very lovely and luxurious home for two weeks. We gorged ourselves on the delicious food and enjoyed the amenities, particularly our favourite 'clams' at the back of the ship.

Our voyage took in a number of the Caribbean islands including Grand Turk (Turks & Caicos), St Lucia, Antigua, Bequia (St Vincent & the Grenadines), Barbados, St. Kitts, Tortola (British Virgin Islands) and Key West (Florida). We had a couple of days sailing on catamarans which we all enjoyed and seeing turtles swim in their natural habitat was great. Rough seas meant a few changes to the itinerary and the 'bad facelift brigade' as we nicknamed them were up in arms that we couldn't dock in St Barts for them to go designer shopping! Ho hum!

We had a great time overall and, as this video shows, my dad even let loose on the dancefloor, possibly as a result of the rum he'd consumed on the distillery tour earlier in the day?? (stick with this to the end - it's worth it, I promise!):

Disco Dad from Becky Smith on Vimeo.

Sadly, my parents returned home to the UK to find an awful mess awaiting them. As a result of burst pipes and an imploded water tank, their house has been flooded from top to bottom. We are all very grateful to our friends, Rose and Chris, as well as our neighbours, who did a superb job rescuing what they could and bringing in plumbers and driers. It will be a big job to sort it all out but we are thankful to our friends for lessening the damage.

I am now back in snowy Toronto. It's a bit of a contrast to the sunny south but, nevertheless, pretty in its own way. I was highly amused yesterday as I saw the firefighters at the fire station next door having a minus 15 degree temperatures!!

Happy New Year all!