Sunday, December 16, 2012

Fall Round Up

The last few months have been busy and you know when "Fall' starts in Toronto as the celebs all roll into town for the Toronto International Film Festival.  This year I wasn't as wowed by TIFF as I have been in the past.  I feel the divide between the audience and the industry may be widening, but that's just my opinion.  I still saw a few good movies although, to be honest, some of them left me wanting to crawl out from under the seat as well.  There were no major star sightings this year...George Clooney let me down...but I heard some good Q&A sessions with directors, which I always enjoy.

The Fall also signals the start of the travel season for those of us who work in international student recruitment so it was time to pack my bags again and hit the road.  My first stop was Brazil in September and I visited a few different cities this time.  We began our tour in Brasilia, which I had studied in A-level geography and was desperately trying to spot from the plane as I flew in over the jungle to see if it really was still in the shape of an aeroplane.  The recently-deceased architect Oscar Niemeyer designed most of the city and although it's not really my taste, I spent what little free time I had, trying to see some of the sights, such as the cathedral.  It's a strange city, as I often find planned cities are, that is not really built for pedestrians and I found it quite soulless compare to other Brazilian cities.

We went on to Recife for another education exhibition.  I was very disappointed not to be able to swim in the sea, which was just over the road from our hotel, as the beach was gorgeous but there were huge signs everywhere warning of shark attacks.  Apparently, they've recently built a new port in the city and, in so doing, the reef has been damaged causing the sharks to have easier access to shore and to human snacks!  I didn't fancy being one of them so decided not to tempt fate.

I spent a few days in Sao Paulo and then headed into the countryside to visit a university I was hoping to work with.  I had an interesting time there being shown their prize-winning cows worth over ten million dollars each (!) and a number of cloned calves who, to my surprise, all looked slightly different.  Although they were genetically the same, because they had been bred in the wombs of different mothers they had each developed slightly differently.  It's amazing what I learn on these trips!

I came back to Canada for a few weeks and then was off again.  This time to Europe.

I started in Berlin, attending a big industry conference.  It was also a nice opportunity for me to connect with my cousin, Fran, who lives there. We had a lovely evening out and I also managed to spend a few hours exploring the German capital, which I hadn't seen since reunification.  It felt slightly strange but at the same time wonderful to attend an event in the Canadian Embassy that now stands on what had been when I was previously there no man's land.

From Berlin, I flew on to Istanbul, where I used to live, for a week of meetings and visits.  It was great to be back in the city I know so well and to see it looking so vibrant in the sunshine.    I was part of a group of Canadian language education institutions that were there.  It was a great crowd and I enjoyed being able to share the joys of Turkish cuisine with others.  Whilst there I was also sent on a rescue mission for my friend, Giulia, who had lost a ring in a hostel she had been staying a few weeks previously.  I am pleased to report the ring was found and has now been returned to her owner.  The whole process meant I got to enjoy a great night out in Isty on the way so I was quite happy!

Prior to my European trip, my friend Diana and I went on a one-day Russian art workshop in Toronto to learn all about matryoshka dolls.  These little Russian dolls are something of a favourite of mine, probably ever since my grandparents used to bring me a traditionally-dressed dolls back from their various world travels when I was a child.  Anyway, it was lovely to find out more and hear that they are actually a Japanese import upon which traditional Russian folklore art was transposed.  We heard about the different art styles and then were let loose and given a couple of hours to decorate our own matryoshka doll.  I chose to follow a very traditional style and my little doll, Olga, was born.  However, I felt Olga would never be truly a Russian doll until she had been taken to her homeland so on my recent visit to Moscow, immediately after Istanbul, she came with me in my suitcase.

I had another busy week in Moscow with various meetings, university visits and embassy functions but then was able to take Olga out on the Saturday and show her the main city sights.  She is now truly a Russian doll!

The other highlight of my most recent trip to Moscow was that I booked myself a ticket to see the Bolshoi Ballet perform Ivan the Terrible set to Prokofiev's music.  The Bolshoi Theatre has recently been reopened following a complete renovation.  The ticket was not exactly cheap but was well worth it for the experience.  I was told off by the ushers at first for not having been to hang my coat in the cloakroom but once that was sorted and they showed me to my seat, I was almost moved to tears again and again.  The auditorium was simply breathtaking with its chandeliers and gold decoration, the dancing was amazing and the music was just beautiful...and I'm not a huge ballet or classical music that's saying something!

As I was in Europe, I felt it would be wrong not to pop by my own homeland on my way back to Canada so I stopped by Leeds for a week on my way back to Toronto.  It was great to spend some quality time with my parents and catch up with friends and family as well as a spot of Christmas shopping.  My folks even used me as an excuse to throw an early festive party.  It was a lovely way to see so many people although it's never long enough!

On that note, I shall take this opportunity to wish you and yours all the very best for the festive season. As the Canadians say, Happy Holidays. I hope to see you in 2013 and remember, guests are always welcome here in Toronto.  Here's to a wonderful year ahead full of adventures in whatever form they take!

Monday, September 3, 2012

Summer Lovin'

Today, Labour Day in Canada, marks the official end of summer and what an enjoyable summer it's been!

The beautiful weather arrived in June and summer was kicked off in style on a very hot and humid afternoon at the University of Toronto President's Garden Party, which I was invited to attend by my friend, Richard.  The hats and canapes were all on display as we sweltered in the evening sun and it was fun to nose around the big boss's house as well as check out the tennis court!

July was quite a big month for me as I reached something of a milestone in the age department...hitting the big four oh!  Being me, I couldn't just make do with a small celebration on my actual birthday but had to stretch the occasion out for over a month with various different and highly enjoyable celebratory events.

My colleagues joined me on my actual birthday for post-work drinks at our local pub and the next evening I had a wonderful meal at my favourite Toronto restaurant, Terroni, with friends.  All the fun and cocktails certainly helped to ease the pain of entering my fifth decade and I have to say that so far my forties and proving to be fab!

That weekend, my friend Peter drove me across the border to Buffalo and we had a lovely weekend checking out Buffalo's excellent Albright-Knox Gallery and some of the houses designed by one of my favourite architects, Frank Lloyd Wright.  We also visited East Aurora, home of the Arts and Crafts Movement.

The following week, I was delighted to welcome a very special couple, who have known me since birth, Rose and Chris, to stay.  I had a super time showing them Toronto in the sunshine before setting them free to explore the city and wider country for the next few weeks.

Also in July, my dear friend Rachel returned for her third visit to spend a month digging deeper below Toronto's upper surface.  It was great to have Rach around for a bit longer and be able to take in the various sights and experiences together.  Among others, we enjoyed the Dusk Dances, Shakespeare in High Park, Beaches Jazz Fest, the Toronto Zoo and Canadian National Exhibition, where we sampled deep-fried Mars Bars and Oreos!

At the beginning of August, amid hosting all my visitors, I moved house.  Despite my rather crazy planning, it actually went quite smoothly and I have now moved out of the heart of the downtown core to an area in the east of the city known as The Beaches.  I'm no longer in a condo building but have rented a ground-floor apartment in a house which gives me access to a garden, which I've really missed.  It's a lovely place and, after a month,  I'm starting to feel sorted and settled.  It's a nice area and although I enjoyed my downtown pad very much as it had a lot of energy and was very convenient, it's nice to be away from some of the traffic and noise that comes with living in the heart of the city centre.  I also love being able to get to the beach in fifteen minutes and enjoy walking along the boardwalk.

Just after my move, my parents arrived to start their three and a half week visit.  It was great to see them.  My dad and I enjoyed a lovely afternoon on Lake Ontario pootling about the harbour in a mini speedboat.  I wasn't allowed to go as fast as I'd have liked!  We also took advantage of having a rental car to explore a bit beyond the city limits.  For example, we had a lovely day with Rachel at the McMichael Art Gallery, which showcases the art of Canada's 'Group of Seven'.

My aunt, Christine, was due to arrive that day, but was delayed so instead flew in the next day.  We were due to be watching the tennis at the Rogers Cup tournament along with my friends Janet, Jude, Bibian and Monica, but, unfortunately, due to torrential rain, no matches were played.  It was a bit of a damp squib and I was gutted not see some of my tennis heroes but, hopefully, we can get a refund and see some of the matches next year.

The rain continued and although it did not spoil things, meant the special '40th birthday' weekend I'd planned to get together with everyone and spend at the Voyageur Quest log cabin near Algonquin Park was a bit damper than anticipated.  Nevertheless, it was a lovely weekend and we had fun enjoying a Canadian afternoon tea, walks, an art competition, jigsaw-making, chilling on the dock, canoeing, fishing, swimming, cooking, star-gazing and singing beside the campfire.  A real taste of Canadian nature for my Brit visitors!

The following week, after my family returned from their adventures in Ottawa, Quebec City and Montreal and I'd said good by to the rest of my visitors, my parents and I flew south to Las Vegas.  Again, we were greeted by torrential rain but, despite our initial fears, the rain did stop eventually and we had a wonderful week of sunshine exploring Nevada, Utah and Arizona.

Our first stop was the Hoover Dam, a giant construction project built in the Great Depression to harness the power of Lake Mead and now supply light to the rather excessively-lit city of Las Vegas, among other places.

After exploring the dam's construction, we drove north to the small village of Springdale, where we stayed in the lovely Cliffrose Lodge, and used it as our base to explore the magnificent Zion National Park.  The national parks in the US are very well set up and we enjoyed our day travelling by shuttle bus and walking through the spectacular high-sided canyon.  The rock colours and formations were amazing.

Later, we drove east across the plains and through a myriad of landscapes from desert to meadows to reach the Grand Canyon itself.  Wow! No matter how many times you've seen photographs of the canyon, nothing compares to the first time you set your own eyes on this, as one of the US immigration officers my mum spoke to called it, "hole in the ground".  We stayed in a cabin at the North Rim Lodge and saw the sun set over the canyon, which was an amazing sight.  The next morning, my dad and I ventured out along the side of the rim to see the early morning light shift and change how the canyon appears.

We moved on and drove around the eastern side of the Grand Canyon via the Vermillion Cliffs Highway across the lands belonging to the Navajo Nation.  The journey to the South Rim Lodge took five hours and was about 212 miles all in.  It seemed kind of crazy as the lodge is just 12 miles south  of where we'd stayed the night before as the crow flies across the canyon.  Nevertheless, the views en route were spectacular and, once at the South Rim, we were treated to yet another superb sunset along with the sights of a rare Californian Condor, which, in my opinion, has to be one of the ugliest birds there is, as well as a foraging stag on the hotel lawn.

Having taken in one of nature's greatest sights we headed west towards the man-made pleasure ground of Las Vegas.  I felt somewhat overwhelmed by the place in terms of all the glitz, glam, casino hubbub and sheer over-the-top fakery but was delighted to see the smile on my mum's face as she watched the gondoliers float past in our grandiose hotel, The Venetian.  Vegas is fun in an insane kind of way and I was blown away by the scale of the hotels as well as the attractions.  We enjoyed watching the volcano erupt at The Mirage and I insisted on watching the fountain show at The Bellagio three times to see the different displays.  We all really enjoyed the water-based Cirque du Soleil show "O" and our evening bus tour of the Strip and Fremont Street.  I also enjoyed a visit to the Neon Boneyard, where we learnt about the history of Vegas through its, now redundant, neon signage.

We returned to Toronto and my more-than-a-month birthday celebrations drew to a close as I said farewell to my folks and sent them on their way back to England.  It has been truly wonderful seeing all my visitors over the past few weeks and we've shared some wonderful times, which in turn have created fantastic memories.  Thank you all for making it so special.  I very much hope the next decade will continue to be as fun-filled and enjoyable as it has been so far.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

On the Go

Well,  it's been a couple of months since I last wrote and they've certainly been busy ones!

At the start of April, I had a great week zipping between Toronto's various cinemas to see a variety of documentary movies.  HotDocs is now officially my favourite film festival here in Toronto, even knocking the Toronto International Film Festival out of the water.  I really enjoy the snapshots I see into different lives and alternative ways of thinking.  This year my favourites were Radioman about a formerly homeless guy who wears a radio around his neck and crashes movie sets in the US.  He's been in over 100 films as an extra and has befriended many of the top movie stars.  I also enjoyed Ping Pong, about a group of pensioners taking part in the over-80s world table-tennis championships.  Dreams of a Life about a young woman who died alone and whose skeleton was discovered in her flat still watching TV made me cry and Meet the Fokkens, about seventy-year old Dutch twin sisters, Louise and Martine Fokken, who had worked as prostitutes for 50 years, was hilarious.

Shortly thereafter I was off on my travels again for work.  A rather fleeting, spur of the moment and  busy trip to South America to attend some education exhibitions and meet with various government and university contacts.  First stop was Quito in Ecuador.  A new country for me and although I only had a couple of days there, I really liked what I saw.  I hope to go back for a holiday at some point.  A deeper exploration and trip to the Galapagos Islands is calling!

Quito is high up in the Andes and you certainly feel the altitude for the first few days.  I stayed in a really traditional and reasonably-priced bed and breakfast called Hotel Boutique Portal de Cantuna in the old town, which was a nice change from the standard Hilton-type business hotels.  It also meant I actually saw some of the charms Quito has to offer in its squares, churches and steep streets as I meandered back and forth between meetings and events.  The views were amazing and food delicious!

After Quito, I headed even further south to yet another new country for me, Chile.  The view from the plane as we flew down the length of the Andes mountain chain was amazing but I have to be honest and say I wasn't bowled over by Santiago itself.  Again, I was only there a couple of days and just scratched the surface but it didn't grab me as a city I have a strong desire to return to.  There were a lot of wild dogs roaming the streets, non-artistic graffiti everywhere and it felt as if many years of muck had been left to build up everywhere.  I found a couple of nice restaurants, one in an old barber shop and a Peruvian one that my former student, Juan-Carlos, took me to.  The Chilean wine, of course, was delicious!  The trip was, however, productive work-wise and it was interesting to check out the city in the spare time I had.

It was heading into Autumn in South America so coming back to a full blast of summer heat in the North was quite welcome, especially as we had a long weekend here.

I spent a lovely, hot, sunny day out in the wine region of Niagara at Peller Estates with my friend Leslie.  The estate was hosting a Food Truck event and we spent the day lining up to try various dishes, drink the wine and bask in the sun - not a bad way to spend a Sunday!

The next day, I was able to kick summer off in another of my favourite ways by taking to the water on Victoria Day itself.  I joined some friends for an evening sail out to Ashbridge's Bay on Lake Ontario to watch the fireworks.  It was a lovely evening and on the way we were taken aback by the sight of boatloads of marines and harbour police racing towards us as they escorted a coastguard boat out.  We were a bit miffed to be pushed out of the way by them so as they past gave our best two-fingered 'royal' wave only to discover later that Prince Charles and Camilla were actually on board - ooops!

The following week, I headed south of the border again to attend the NAFSA conference in Houston, Texas.  A busy week and it was incredibly hot and humid when wandering outside.  I found Houston to be quite a strange place with very few people to be seen in the downtown area.  It's definitely a car city.  However, I enjoyed the many receptions that took place and, in particular, the one at the Houston Space Center, where I got to see various bits of space mission memorabilia, real rockets and even touched a piece of the moon!

Following the conference, I decided to take advantage of being in the US deep south and headed east to New Orleans for the weekend.  I had a fantastic weekend and thoroughly enjoyed exploring this fascinating city.  I stayed in a gorgeous mansion house B&B, the Avenue Inn,  on St Charles Avenue so took the rickety old streetcar (named Desire?) downtown each day.  I enjoyed exploring the French Quarter, learnt about Louisiana's history, tried southern-style cuisine and listened to some amazing jazz at the Preservation Hall.  I saw Brad Pitt's house and also heard about and saw the results of his foundation that is building new homes for the people who lost everything in Ward 6 when the levee wall broke during Hurricane Katrina.  He's building 150 homes and is half way there having hired many different architects to create homes that suit each family's demographics, are eco-friendly and built to withstand the forces of nature as much as possible.  Each home must also have an escape hatch in the roof in case the flooding happens again as this is where many of those who died were found as they were unable to break through their roofs.  The legacy of the flooding remains and many houses still bear the Katrina tattoo used by rescuers to search for survivors but there was an overwhelming feeling from people in New Orleans that the city is now well on its way to recovery and is, in many ways, more vibrant than it was before.

I also spent a very hot and humid day out in the countryside visiting two plantations, Laura and Oak Alley.  Two contrasting but fascinating plantations.  It was really interesting to see where Louisiana's sorrow, the slave trade, had existed and learn about the lives of the people at the time.  It certainly wasn't all mint juleps and hoop skirts!

I came back to Toronto and am looking forward to a few months of being in one place although I thoroughly enjoyed all my travels.  Unfortunately, due to my South American trip, I'd missed taking part in the Sporting Life 10K alongside my teammates so was delighted when last weekend, a couple of them joined me so that I could complete my challenge in memory of my dear friend Helen.  I'm proud to say I did it and would like to thank everyone who supported me in raising over $950 for children with cancer to enjoy some fun time at Camp Oochigeas.  My team raised over $8,000 in total and I'm hugely proud of our overall achievement.  Next year, we're all planning to do it again and beat our times!  Thank you so much for your support.  Here's me with my lovely U of T English Language Program colleagues, Bibian and Barb (who did the 10k route for a second time!), at our finishing point:

Monday, April 30, 2012

Spring's Downs & Ups

It's been a while since I've put finger to keypad and I guess that's mainly be due to general busy-ness, both in real terms or where my head has been.

Before I begin, I want to dedicate this blog to my dear friend, Helen Greenaway (nee Cocking), who died at Bradford's Marie Curie Hospice in March. Words cannot describe how sad I was to learn that the cancer that Helen fought with such determination for over two and a half years had finally overwhelmed her. Helen brought sunshine into the lives of all those who knew her and she will be missed terribly by her husband, family and friends. In her honour, I will be taking part in the Sporting Life 10k here in Toronto on May 13. My colleagues and I are raising funds to send children with cancer to Camp Oochigeas so that they can experience a fun time this summer. If you would like to donate to show your support, please visit: Thank you for your generosity.

As well as doing some training for the 10k, I undertook a short photography course in March to learn more about photographing animals. I had a super day at the Toronto Zoo and spent the entire day there from the time the gates opened until they closed. It's so huge, I still didn't get to see everything but I did enjoy the opportunity to explore and capture the animals.

I really enjoyed the opportunity to get out as I'd been a bit fed up with being cooped up inside. I had an awful bout of the flu following my return from Russia and on top of that my apartment was flooded due to a neighbour's washing machine leak. My floors and walls were damaged and had to be ripped out with huge drying machines brought in which created a large amount of dust and dry air. All has now been repaired but just those few days dealing with the fall-out of my little flood made me appreciate what my parent's went through with their whole house being flooded and reconstructed.

Life of late has had a few happy moments and, indeed, a few laughs. I spent a very amusing night out with friends seeing the Scottish comedian, Danny Bhoy, live in concert. He's very popular here and my Canadian friends were quite shocked I'd not heard of him before. I also enjoyed seeing the National Theatre's production of War Horse on stage. The puppetry was amazing.

Probably the highlight of all the entertainment I've seen recently was seeing Oprah Winfrey in person. Along with a few of my colleagues, I managed to get tickets to see Oprah's Lifeclass being filmed here in Toronto. We left work a bit early thinking we'd get there ahead of the rush and get our seats. How wrong we were! When we arrived, the line stretched for 2km already. It took us two hours before we finally got to our seats at the back of the hall. There were 8,500 people seated in front of us! Before the show was broadcast live, we listened to four short, but thought-provoking, lectures by Deepak Chopra, Iyanla Vanzant, Tony Robbins and Bishop T.D.Jakes. The theme was on forgiveness.

Eventually, the queen of chat shows came out on stage. Some of the audience were hysterical.  I mean, I like Oprah but I thought the screaming, wailing and shaking was a bit OTT. Oprah, herself, was very professional although, to be honest, from where we sitting she looked a bit like a green pea on the stage. Thank goodness for giant video screens. All in all, it was a fun experience...although I'm still wondering how come I didn't come away with a new food processor, car or trip to Australia. Oh well...I know it was only an oversight and forgive you Oprah!

Last week, I flew up to Montreal to attend a three-day work conference. I decided to stay over and managed to avoid the rioting students to enjoy a day exploring the city. It was my second trip to Montreal as I'd previously visited during the Jazz Festival a few years ago. This time I was able to to see some different areas. I walked down Mont Royal, did a bagel taste-test comparison in the Plateau, shopped on Rue St Catharine and sniffed French cheeses at Atwater Market. Montreal's a lovely city and the French-ness makes it feel like you're getting a taste of Europe while still be in North America.

So, as you can see, it's been a couple of months of ups and downs but that's life - we take the rough with the smooth and life rolls on in it's merry way. I'm doing a meditation course at the moment, which I'm finding quite...erm...challenging. However, I keep being reminded of how important it is to focus on this moment, as it is the only one we truly know we have. With that in mind, here's to living in the moment!

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Winter's Full Force

Winter is not real winter without snow and ice so in the absence of much this year in Toronto, I've spent the last few weeks going in search of it elsewhere.

In January, a friend and I flew up to Quebec City for a long weekend. We had booked ourselves in for a night at the Hotel de Glace, or Ice Hotel as it's known in English. Unknowingly, we scheduled our visit to coincide with the hotel's opening night, which turned out to be great. Each year the hotel is rebuilt entirely from scratch. This year, architecture students from across Canada have assisted in the design and construction.

When we arrived, it was -27 degrees centigrade so the thought of spending a night in a giant igloo filled us with some trepidation. On arrival, we placed our suitcases in lockers and were welcomed in the Celsius building, which is not made of ice, is heated and contains the showers and toilet facilities. After a few Ice Ciders, which I can highly recommend, and canapes, we made our way outside to see a wonderful fireworks display light up the ice structure.

We were also able to stroll around the hotel, enjoy a cocktail in a glass made of ice at the Ice Bar and peak into all the rooms. We were lucky enough to have been given a suite so rather than a bare, cell-like room, ours featured carved images of native designs on the walls as well as furniture, including a bed, made from ice.

Before braving the cold for a night on an icy bed, we were given a mandatory briefing session on how to go to bed and sleep without freezing. We were told there would be a sleeping bag awaiting each of us on the bed but before we did anything, it was important we warmed our core body temperature by spending some time in the hot tubs and sauna. We then had to ensure we were completely dry before putting on our sleepwear. This had to be not too warm, completely clean and made of man-made fabrics. The reason for this was to avoid sweat or sweat residue as this could freeze and then cool the body.

We were instructed to take a clean, dry pair of socks with us and that on arrival in the bedroom, we were told to take off our boots and switch into the clean socks on the bed itself before unwrapping the sleeping bag. The next step was to get inside the inner sleeping bag and then the outer bag. We were also told to ensure we did not breathe anywhere inside the bag that was closed tightly around our necks to ensure moisture did not penetrate the fabric and then freeze.

I was particularly anxious about the potential for needing the loo in the night. We were advised that you simply did the getting into bed routine in reverse and then went through it all again when you came back having traipsed the 100 or so metres to the bathroom. This seemed like an awful lot of bother to me so I decided to stop drinking and attempted to drain my bladder as much as I could before going to bed!

I have to say, I followed all the rules but despite the guide telling us many people reported their best night's sleep ever, I found I got quite cold and by 6:30am after a number of hours of fitful sleep, nature was calling so I decided enough was enough. Sleeping in a room made of ice was certainly an experience but not one I would necessarily feel the need to repeat! However, the hotel is itself an amazing piece of art and I would highly recommend a visit if you're ever in Quebec City in the winter.

After our somewhat chilly night, we were able to warm up at the rather magnificent Chateau Frontenac Hotel where we stayed on the second night. The luxurious and warm bed was bliss!

Quebec City is a lovely town full of history and charm. We once more braved the cold to wander around and also treated ourselves to some spa treatments. I particularly enjoyed our horse-drawn carriage tour, watching the toboggans on the old toboggan run, riding on the ferry across the frozen St Lawrence River as well as the trip on the funicular railway down to the old part of town, La Petit Champlain.

We saw some crazy guys practising for the canoe races to be held as part of the Quebec Carnival the following weekend. These guys were actually canoeing a bit and then jumping out to drag their canoe across the ice bergs in the river before jumping back in again. Dangerous stuff...and they must have been so cold!

In February, as if experiencing -27 in Quebec City wasn't cold enough for me, I headed to Central Asia and the country of Kazakhstan. My trip was for work and I spent just over a week visiting four cities in the country to attend education fairs and various meetings. I had got rather concerned the week before I left when I see the temperature in Astana dip to -50 degrees centigrade. Fortunately, it was -30 by the time I got there although that does not factor in the wind-chill. Much of Kazakhstan is very, very flat and, trust me, the winds roar across those plains!

I'd like to rave about Kazakhstan, but I'm afraid I find it a very odd place. This is my second visit and although Almaty has some character to it, Astana is just a collection of very weird futuristic architecture plonked in the middle of nowhere. Atyrau and Aktau are both rather bland oil towns on the Caspian Sea with Aktau's only real redeeming features being that they no longer mine uranium there and that I saw camels in the snow.

So it was with pleasure that I moved on to Russia and its capital Moscow for a further week of work. I love walking around Moscow and so travelling between meetings was fun for me as I passed by some of its famous attractions such as Red Square, the Kremlin and various golden-domed churches. I also managed to sneak in a couple of hours to visit the Pushkin Art Gallery which houses some amazing artworks by the world's greatest artists. However, one of my favourite things, which makes it a joy to commute around Moscow, is the Moscow underground. The Metro stations really are works of art in their own right. The mosaics, chandeliers, statues and marble are incredible - one of Stalin's better decisions.

I returned to Moscow again after a quick trip to Kazan, where I'm afraid I didn't really see anything beyond the hotel and offices although I gather it it, too, has a splendid kremlin. After another day and fair in Moscow, I flew up to St. Petersburg, my last stop.

St. Petersburg is a joy of a city. The architecture is amazing and just seems to go on and on. It's more elegant than Moscow with its canals and wide boulevards. Unfortunately, I hardly had time to see anything on this trip but did squeeze in an early morning walk as the sun rose. Seeing Russia in the winter has been something I've long wanted to do. I've always been in the summer before and in my head Russia 'is' winter. It was interesting to see how the Russians cope.

I was fascinated by the way the snow is cleared - it's brushed or shoveled then loaded onto lorries and taken away. The road surfaces are plowed but then big roller brushes go over the top to churn up the icy residue. Of course, the people also bundle up well and the buildings are very warm so it's a constant battle to adjust your own body heat. The amount of fur being worn in both Kazakhstan and Russia was quite incredible. Apart from its warmth, fur is most definitely used as a sign of status.

Anyway, I'm now back in the relative warmth of Toronto - it feels almost spring-like in comparison to the wintry east!

Sunday, January 8, 2012

New Year, New Post!

Happy New Year!

I cannot believe it's been two months since my last post but I guess things have been pretty busy and I've been 'outta town' for a large chunk of time.

The run up to Christmas was really very enjoyable with a number of special treats and enjoyable get togethers. I had a great night out at the theatre and sang my heart out to the tunes of Mary Poppins. My favourite bit of Disney magic was when Bert the chimney sweep tap-danced his way around the proscenium arch. If you haven't had chance to see this musical, I recommend it highly!

I also spent a lot of time experimenting on the baking front as I'd been invited to my first ever cookie exchange. Whereas in the UK mince pies are the baked treat offered at Christmas, in Canada cookies are the treat of the season. How a cookie exchange works is that each invited guest bakes a large quantity (in my case it was 6 dozen) of one type of cookie. You then take your cookies along to a party and share your cookies with others who in turn give you theirs. The nice thing is that you come away with a huge tin full of delicious and varied homemade cookies. We also shared the recipes and so next year my cookie repertoire may well be broader than it was before! I made Double Maple Walnut Cookies and they were OK but top marks went to Alicja, Visnja, Ortensia, Jesse, Liza and Tina for their tasty delights!

Mid-December I flew back to the UK and my feet had hardly touched the ground long enough to admire the renovations at my parent's house post-flood before I was off again for a quick Euro-city break to Madrid in Spain.

Five friends and I hit the Spanish capital for a few days exploring. Although we did take in some sights including the Prado and Thyssen-Bornemisza galleries, our exploring mainly centred around touring the many tapas bars Madrid has to offer. Booze o'clock came early and we quickly learnt the pleasures of sampling the cañas or "Kanye's", as we nicknamed the small glasses of beer, along with the various tapas bites we were offered free of charge. We never had the same tapas twice and they varied from manchego cheese to olives to cured ham to the most divine chicken cooked in pesto. Some of my favorite moments though were drinking beer in a butcher's shop, seeing Billy tackle the pint of rum and coke he was served, watching Phil experience the heaven that is 'churros y chocolate' for the first time, trying to work out the rationale behind the Christmas Goat, and being served a cocktail on the top of a bin as we walked down the street!

Although I've been to Spain many times, I'd never experienced a true Spanish night out before i.e. where the party only starts after midnight. We were lucky and had an excellent local guide in the form of Jaime, who took us on a few, true Madrileños nights out. I can now testify to the fact that there are more Madrileños on the street at 4:30am than at 4:30pm! The Spanish really do know how to have a good time.

I went back to England and promptly caught an awful cold, no doubt a result of burning the candle at both ends and lack of sleep due partly to the partying but also to the jet-lag! It was nice to have some of my mum's home-cooking though and be able to lie in and chill out over the Christmas break. Having said that it was really quite a busy time and I didn't really stop as I tried to catch up with both family and friends.

It was great to see: Mum, Dad, Charlotte, Phil, Simon, Kirsty, Billy, Granny, Bee, Edie, Fred, Helen C, Anne, Lynne, Graham Br, Lou, Jess, Nick, Sean, Richard, Chris D, Jo, Ian, Eva, Felix, Val F, Mike, Savi, Stephen, Mandy, Pat, Bill, Jack, Annie, Jon, Alex, Olly, Rose, Chris W, Kate, Christine, Helen J, Paul, Rhiannon, Simon, Sophie, Freddie, Milly, George, Bertie, Dave, Ais, Sam H, Amber, Deborah, Darren, Isaac, Lexie, Ethel, Elkan, Judith H, Helen S, Joanne, Judith G, Guy, Zoe, Mabel, Jason, Kate, Stephie, Frankie, Mark, Alex, David R, Ruth, Graham Bo, David B, Jo, Leo, Seth, Sam B, Daniel, Val S and Graham S. To everyone I wasn't able to catch up with, apologies and I hope we can meet up next time.

The weather in England was remarkably mild and I was amazed to see cherry blossom on the December! Despite the weather being grey and rainy much of the time, I had a lovely time and enjoyed a few trips to the theatre and around my home county of Yorkshire as well as the Cotswolds. The musical 'Annie' was a highlight and brought back memories of my childhood when I tormented my mother with the phrase "I love you Miss Hannigan!" I also ventured to the new Hepworth Gallery in Wakefield along with my favourite Yorkshire cafe, Bettys, in Harrogate.

Polar Bear from Nomad on Vimeo.

In my former home village of Saltaire, I checked out Salt's Mill and fell in love with the sleeping polar bear they had in the bookshop. I was also interested to see the Living Advent Calendar the village was exhibiting. Saltaire is a World Heritage Site and volunteers who live and work in the listed properties had decorated windows which gradually lit up during the advent period.

I returned to Toronto just after New Year and although winter had been very mild here up to that point was rather shocked to be faced with -27 degrees centigrade on my first day back at work. Yesterday, we had a balmy +8 degrees so it's kind of hard to predict whether it's going to be a mild or harsh winter this year. Whatever happens, I wish you all the very best for a happy and prosperous 2012!