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!