Sunday, December 15, 2013

Christmas Missive

Hard to believe that Christmas is almost upon us and as I look out of the window the first major snowstorm of the year has just dumped almost 20cm of snow on my back yard!  Needless to say both of these events have forced me to put finger to keypad and reflect on the last few months as I realized it's been quite a while since my last blog update.

I seem to have clocked up a fair few air miles since my last missive in August having hardly been in Toronto until the past month.

My first stop was Brazil, where I once again was promoting the University on a three-city tour organized by the Canadian embassy.  This time, however, due to the fact the University of Toronto is now the world's biggest receiver of Science without Borders scholars, I was no longer doing this alone and was accompanied by three other colleagues.  It was great to have company for a change although, to be honest, I know many of the other reps from the other institutions so am rarely short of company on these trips these days!  Somewhat dramatically, however, one of my fellow U of T colleagues had to be admitted to hospital and undergo an appendectomy due a burst appendix.  Fortunately, he was OK and received top notch care at one of Brazil's English-speaking hospitals, where the president gets treated no less.  Thankfully, he's now almost fully recovered having been flown home.

I came back without hospitalization but with a rather nasty respiratory illness and it was a bit touch and go as to whether my boss would allow me to go on the next business trip a few days later but I eventually did having got the all clear from the doctors back here in Toronto.  I flew on to Istanbul for a few days and stayed close to Taksim Square and Gezi Park, scene of the recent protests in Turkey.  All was peaceful during my stay but there was a heavy police presence and noticeable removal of Ataturk's image having been replaced by the Turkish flag.  I was literally only there a couple of days so hardly got chance to go beyond the hotel, where our meetings were being held, before we flew on to Almaty in Kazakhstan.

I've been to Almaty a couple of times before and although this was a very short trip of only a couple of days, I managed to spend one evening exploring the city a bit.  A small group of us ventured up the mountain to check out the view and try on a few crazy hats!

After a few weeks of non-stop work, it was great to be able to spend a few days with my family and friends in Leeds on my way back through to Toronto.  I always feel the time is too short but it was lovely to see former colleagues, some of my friends, the Yorkshire Dales and also squeeze in a trip to the Scottish borders to visit my Granny and aunts.

No sooner had I returned to Toronto than I was off again but in the opposite direction.  This time heading West to Asia and a new country on my checklist; Mongolia.  I arrived at night at Genghis Khan International Airport and so didn't see much on my way in to Ulaan Bataar other than the odd pile of snow and one yurt tent by the side of the road.  The city itself looked like many of the Chinese or Russian cities I've been to.  That's to say, quite plain and currently undergoing construction.  It was also very cold so my few short wanderings around town only scratched the surface.  The people I came across, however, were delightful.  Very warm, friendly and stunningly beautiful.  Sadly, though, my stay in Mongolia was somewhat marred by a very bad case of food poisoning that I contracted from something I ate in the hotel.  I experienced "the night from hell" that left me rather wiped out and totally off my food for the next few days prior to leaving the country.  I will just have to go back and see Mongolia another time!

I moved on to Thailand and a city I've visited many times; Bangkok.  It was a case of going from one extreme to the other in terms of the weather and here it was sweltering hot with high humidity.  I spent my first few days working but then took a few days off to enjoy the city and its sights.  I moved from my business hotel to a boutique hotel.  It was lovely to hang out, enjoy a Thai massage, sample some great cuisine, catch up with a friend (Kim), and check out some old haunts.  All too soon, work beckoned again and I jumped back on my flight home, narrowly avoiding Typhoon Haiyan as it passed through the region.

Since being back in Toronto, I've been trying to catch up with friends here that I haven't seen for a while and also get my feet back on the ground as I feel they've hardly been here for much of the past few months.  I had a fun night out the other week seeing Eddie Izzard, the British comedian planning to be Mayor of London.  Many of us here feel he could also apply for the job here in Toronto...he'd certainly do a better job than the current incumbent!

Anyway, I shall sign off here and wish you all the very best for Christmas and the New Year!  I'm looking forward to having my parents here over Christmas and then, hopefully, a bit of sunshine and relaxation in Mexico for New Year!

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Summery Antics

I seem to have been very busy since April with one thing another...mostly enjoyable!

One of my annual favourite festivals in Toronto, HotDocs kicked off in the spring celebrating its 25th anniversary.  I always find the documentaries screened to be interesting and engaging.  This year was no exception and I appeared to chose well with many of selections making it into the Top 10 audience picks.  One of my favourites was called "Good Ol' Freda" and told the hitherto unpublished story of Freda Kelly, who was plucked from the many screaming Beatles fans that used to hang out in The Cavern nightclub in Liverpool to become their fan club secretary.  I was lucky enough to be sitting next to Freda herself at the screening and her story was really delightful as she stayed with The Beatles throughout the band's lifespan and has remained loyal ever since.

The start of summer in Canada is traditionally what's known as the May Two-Four weekend.  Named because its a long weekend close to May 24th and also becuase a two-four is a crate of beer, often taken on a trip and drunk to celebrate the start of summer!

This year the sun came out to play on time and along with two friends, Darlene and Giulia, we embarked on something of a watery adventure along the Trent-Severn waterways here in Ontario.  We rented a houseboat for the weekend and had great fun sailing through the lakes, rivers, canals and locks of the water system.  I was appointed captain as I had some sailing background.  To be honest, being in charge of a boat full of fuel plus crew and knowing the hazards yet not feeling the most confident about my navigational techniques was quite stressful!  Still, we managed to avoid any major incidents and it was a lovely weekend full of sun, sailing and barbecues.

Not long after I headed south across the border to attend the NAFSA Conference in St.Louis.  This is the third time I've been to this conference and although St.Louis didn't grab me that much I was very impressed by the key-note speaker they chose this year, Kofi Annan.  He spoke about the importance of education globally and reflected on his time as Head of the UN.  I found him to be as inspirational in the flesh as I have always considered him to be and it was a real privilege to be in the same room as one of The Elders, an organization that I admire greatly for the work they do.

I had quite an interesting journey home from St.Louis, in the US mid-west.  This region, particularly Oklahoma, was hit quite badly by tornadoes this year and I narrowly escaped one as well.  I flew out of St.Louis Airport just twenty minutes before the airport was hit.  As we took off, we skirted around the incoming storm and you could see it was going to be bad.  Business associates I know who were still at the airport awaiting departure had to go into the tornado shelters and were stuck for a few days until the airport re-opened.

Not long after, Mother Nature decided to again show her full force and, just two days before my friend and I were due to depart for Alberta, inflicted the ravaging floods that caused such havoc on the region.  Darlene and I debated whether we should still attempt to go on our vacation amid the state of emergency but, in the end, having weighed up the risks we decided to go as a) we wanted our holiday but b) we didn't want the businesses we had made bookings with to suffer and they all seemed to be in areas that were not affected.  Luckily, as we landed in Calgary the roads we needed to travel on re-opened.  We drove around the centre of Calgary itself but still saw the raging river that had burst its banks and was flooding the zoo and numerous homes.  What was even scarier was, as we drove down the earily empty Highway 2, seeing the town of High River that had been completely inundated and where lives were lost.  Access to the town was blocked by military tanks  and as we drove past we saw TV crews llined up along the hard-shoulder.  You could see the devastation with water up to the second floor of homes and trucks submerged completely apart from their roofs.

Eventually, however, we arrived at our destination near the US border close to a place called Cardston, one of the original Mormon settlements outside the US.  We spent two wonderful days pretending to be cowgirls at Rangeview Ranch.  The ranch is a real working red angus cattle ranch and also manages land for the Nature Conservancy Council here in Canada.  I loved getting back in the saddle and we rode out twice with Roger, the ranch owner, to check up on the cattle and the many newly-born calves.  We got involved rounding the cattle up and driving them to new pasture, and watched as Roger lassoed and treated a sickly calf and mother.  A truly wonderful experience and a great introduction to Alberta.

Next, we headed to Waterton Lakes National Park, also part of the joint US-Canada International Peace Park.  We thoroughly enjoyed hiking in the mountains here, seeing the views from the lakes and observing the wildlife, including catching a glimpse of a mother bear and her cubs.

We followed the Mormon Trail and ended up in an area called the Badlands, where we got to see some great geological features called Hoodoos and checked out the Royal Tyrrell Museum and its amazing collection of dinosaur fossils in Drumheller.  Perhaps my favourite stop in this area, however, was in a tiny place called Torrington, which has set up a wonderful little museum called the Gopher Hole Museum featuring dioramas of taxidermied gophers.  This made a very quirky and entertaining pit-stop on our journey north-west towards the Rockies.

In a moment of madness, I had declared that I wanted to camp out in a teepee.  Unfortunately, the floods had washed the teepee we'd booked away pretty much so instead we opted to spend the night sleeping on a rather manky buffalo-skin mat in a trapper's tent at Rocky Mountain House National Historic Site.   Given the amount of stagnant water lying around, this was perhaps not one of my better ideas.  Put it this way, not much sleep was had as we spent most of the night fighting off mosquitoes before eventually retreating to the nearest Tim Horton's coffee shop at 6am!  Our campfire was fun though and we impressed ourselves with our ability to cook hot dogs, corn and s'mores in true Canadian-style.

We headed on to Jasper, which I loved, and stayed in the same cabins that Marilynn Monroe and Joe Di'maggio had frequented during her filming of River of No Return.  We had a super time driving through the mountains and past lakes as well as climbing to the top of one only to be beaten back by a hailstorm but then getting to see a spectacular rainbow in the Athabasca Valley below.


I thoroughly enjoyed the drive along the spectacular Icefields Parkway past the glaciers to Lake Louise and Moraine Lake.  We ended up in Banff and had a wonderful few days staying at the Fairmont Banff Springs hotel over the Canada Day national holiday period.

Our journey ended back in Calgary and we'd timed our visit to coincide with the Calgary Stampede.  After an enormous clean-up effort, the organizers had decided to go ahead with the Stampede despite the damage caused by the floods, which had totally inundated the Stampede grounds.  We had a fantastic few days in the city watching the parade, attending free Stampede Breakfasts, flirting with the cowboys and checking out the rodeo action.  I threw myself into the whole 'western' thing with my cowboy hat, checked shirt, jeans and cowboy boots - I even became a fan of country music!

Not long after returning back to Toronto, it seemed as if the Alberta floods followed us as on my first day back in the office, the heavens opened and Toronto was also submerged in floodwater with the biggest downpour in 50 years taking place in just a few short hours.  The valley close to my house flooded with commuters trapped on a train and needing the marine rescue service to help them get to safety, and all the classrooms in my department were flooded as pipes burst due to the sheer volume of water.  Being forced to shutdown due to flooding was not quite what we expected on the second  day of our busiest term!

Nevertheless, the sun eventually came out again and I've had a few very enjoyable weekends away since.  I headed up to Lake Simcoe in July for a very relaxing and fun yoga retreat and last weekend I spent a super few days in Montreal watching the Rogers Cup Men's Tennis Championship and exploring the city.

I came back to Toronto this week to attend and present a paper on MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) at the International Hybrid Learning Conference.  My colleague Min and I were delighted to have our first paper published in the conference proceedings book this week - it's a great feeling to have something you've written published in a real book!

On that note, I shall finish as I look forward to a busy autumn with many more travels and adventures to be had.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Winter Wanderings

Everyone asked when I first moved to Canada, "Ooh, how will you cope with the Canadian winters?" and, to be honest, up until this past year they've actually been pretty much the same as those experienced in Europe apart from the occasional sub-zero blast.  This year, however, was perhaps a taste of what Canada really can offer in terms of her full-force of winter harshness.

It started around Boxing Day with a full-on snow dump and so I hunkered down for much of the Christmas break catching up on past episodes of Downton Abbey and enjoying the cosy warmth of my sofa.  I also invited a bunch of friends over to finish off our matryoshka (Russian) dolls and we had a lovely afternoon painting outfits for "our gals".

Compared to last year when we had temperatures hitting the high 20s from March onwards, spring has felt very late coming this year and as I write this in late April I'm still seeing flutterings of snowflakes outside my window in what is, I hope, winter's last wave goodbye.  We had a couple of huge snowstorms making for a lot of 'fun', as a pedestrian cutting through six-foot high 'snowbanks' at the side of the road, and entertainment, as you see the odd cyclist nosedive straight into them.

My philosophy is, as much as possible, to embrace winter and just layer on the right clothing and get out there although I must admit there are days when the biting wind and cold does get to you and all you want to do is bury yourself under the covers!  My friends and I bit the bullet this year with a 'winter activity weekend' adventure to Arrowhead Provincial Park close to the town of Huntsville.  We had a great time learning how to cross-country ski in the beautiful forest and, although some of us may have ended up on our bums a few times, having a bit of difficulty switching downhill technique to cross-country skis it was a huge amount of fun and kept us very warm amid the -20 degree temperatures.

Inspired by some of the local creativity we saw, we also decided to have a bit of a snowlady building competition but sadly, our creations, Elizabeth and Frida, were destroyed overnight.  We were devastated and spent the next day hunting down 'Jack the Frost, snowlady murderer of Hunstville".

My friend Darlene and I enjoyed our cross-country skiing taster so much that we decided to head out again and joined up with the Trakkers ski club and had another superb day up at the Wasaga Nordic Centre skiing through the trails around the lakeside beach area a few weeks later.

Not long after, however, I was given a bit of a break from the winter cold when I headed over to Europe.  I was able to enjoy a long weekend in England en route to do some business in the Ukraine and Turkey.  This time I focused my visit in the south of England and stayed with my dear friend Annie and her family, including my godson Alex, in Windsor.  It was lovely to see the Bedford family and meet their latest addition, little Georgina.  We also enjoyed a delicious traditional pub meal of fish and chips at the rather delightful Belgian Arms pub in Holyport owned by Nick Parkinson, son of the celebrity TV chat show host, Michael Parkinson.

I also ventured to Brighton to catch up with another dear friend, Jo, and her family.  We had a fun 24 hours enjoying the sunshine, seaside and all things British!

I went back to Windsor and my parents then came down to join me for a couple of days.  We had a lovely time doing the tourist thing and exploring Windsor Castle, watching the changing of the guard, checking out the Queen's own farm shop, enjoying the sunset across the playing fields of Eton and spending a bit of quality time together.

We also went to the Cotswolds area to see my granny just before she moved out of her house in the village of Bishop's Cleeve into a residential home in the north of England close to my aunt in Alnwick.  She will be celebrating her 92nd birthday this coming week and was in remarkably good form all things considered.

I headed on to the Ukraine, which was a new country for me to check off on my list of countries visited, and started a hectic schedule of meetings and education fairs for the next few weeks.  I started off in Kiev where I was thrilled to sample real Chicken Kiev although, I have to say, we were actually very impressed by all the food offered up in Ukraine and I now understand why it was known as the former USSR's bread-basket.

We had a somewhat hilarious Saturday night train journey travelling on the new high-speed trains brought from Korea for the Euro 2012 soccer championships to Kharkiv.  It all started after a long day doing a fair in Kiev and then trundling 100 heavy bags up and down various flights of stairs at Kiev's railway station.  Having packed 30 Canadian recruiters and 20 diplomats and support staff into a first-class carriage the waiter came through with the beer trolley.  That's when things started to go downhill!  A number of the male members of the party decided to hit the Baltika beer quite hard and eventually were asked to move into the restaurant car for being a tad 'light-hearted'.  What ensued was a most entertaining evening of friendly inter-continental competitive arm-wrestling in the restaurant car between the Canucks and the Ukrainians.  The Ukrainians won.  And there were a lot of sore heads and arms among the male members of the Canadian party the next morning!  After Kharkiv, we moved on to Dnipropetrovsk where we stayed and held the education fair in the world's largest Jewish centre, at the Menorah Centre. Built in the shape of a menorah candelabrum, the centre was huge and had recently opened.

After a few days back in Kiev running between meetings on the world's deepest underground system, I then flew onto Turkey and joined a second tour, also organized by the Canadian government.  This five city tour took in Ankara, Izmir, Adana (near the Syrian border), Bursa and Istanbul.  It really was a bit of a whistle-stop tour and again I hardly had time to see much other than the inside of the hotels as I was attending meetings and the education fairs most of the time but I did manage to go for a bit of a wander in Bursa, where I was also staying in the rather lovely Celik Palas Spa Hotel that had been built on the orders of Kemal Ataturk and has been recently renovated.

Bursa is really the heart of the Ottoman Empire and although it was only very brief I was fascinated to wander around the old 'hans' or caravansaries, specialist markets where traders would come to exchange goods.  Possibly my favourite was Koza Han, the silk han.  Of course, I couldn't resist making some purchases of the local silk scarves and sampling a cup of traditional Turkish tea in the courtyard.  I also loved the nearby mosque, which had some amazing caligraphy samples decorating its interior.

I didn't have much time to explore my old haunts in Istanbul this time but I did manage to enjoy a cup
of tea in the famed Pera Palace Hotel, where Agatha Christie stayed when she wrote Murder on the Orient Express.  It, too, has been recently renovated and is really rather splendid compared to the dusty old relic I recall from the days when I lived in Istanbul.

As mentioned, this trip to Europe was really very busy with little time for sightseeing and, on top of that, I had a few disasters.  I managed to lose one of my credit cards and drop my smartphone down the loo, wiping out its functionality along with all my stored data (calendar and many of my contacts) so if you haven't updated me with your contact details, please do.

Unfortunately, on top of my mishaps (or perhaps it should be factoring towards them?), just before I set off for the UK, I had contracted a rather nasty ear infection that stayed with me throughout my European travels and meant that I actually lost my hearing completely in my right ear.  It was very frustrating but also quite worrying as well as uncomfortable and exhausting.  I was obviously anxious about flying but was deemed OK to fly by the doctors and dosed up on antibiotics but it turned out that this did not really sort the problem out.  It wasn't until after I got back to Toronto and had the medication adjusted after almost five weeks since the onset of the problem that it finally got resolved and my hearing returned.  Fortunately, everything seems to be OK now but I am still awaiting some test results to check that there has been no permanent damage.

So, all in all, although this trip was productive and enjoyable in many ways, it was also a bit of a trying one at times!

Since getting back, I have put my energies into recovering and sorting things out as well as working on my first ever academic conference paper, which has now been submitted.  Produced jointly with my colleague, we have looked into the topic of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) and how they are impacting continuing education.  I undertook my first ever MOOC in February via Coursera so used this experience as a basis for my research.  It's been interesting and whether or not the paper is accepted and published, I've found the whole process a great 'brain stretch'.

Coming up soon, I will again be stretching myself but in a physical way by tackling the Toronto Sporting Life 10k in aid of Camp Ooch.  Along with my colleagues at the University of Toronto School of Continuing Studies we shall be raising funds to send kids suffering from cancer to camp this summer.  Last year, we were able to send two kids.  If we could top that this year, it would be amazing.  If you would like to help us in whatever way you can, we would love your support.  Please see: Many thanks!