Saturday, December 6, 2014

Fall around the world

Fall started off with a short visit to Montreal in order to celebrate the marriage of my dear university friend, Rob, and his lovely, Canadian wife, Valerie. Rob has now also made the permanent move to Canada although is still working on the Quebecois lingo!

I made the most of my quick trip by stocking up on Montreal bagels and checking out the World Press Photo exhibit as well as taking in the amazing fall colours that had just reached their peak in the city.

Shortly thereafter, I set off on what was to be almost six weeks of travel, most of it business-related. My first stop was Kazakhstan and I spent a few days in both Almaty and Astana, both of which I have visited before. Here, I discovered a new meaning to having a cup of tea...this 'tea' was slightly more alcoholic in nature than that which I'm used to. Still, for some of my colleagues, it helped wash down the horsemeat entree.

Next stop was a fleeting visit to St Petersburg and a chance to catch up with a couple of friends who also happened to be in town on business. St Pete's is one of my favourite cities and I have seen it transition back from being a Soviet city to one of Europe's finest. I truly fall in love with it a little bit more every time I visit.

I left Russia and headed south to Barcelona where I got my fix of Gaudi, tapas and Spanish warmth. Again, I was only there a couple of days but it was lovely to have the chance to stroll around the Parc Guell and take in the rooftop views.

I left Barcelona and almost retraced my steps flying over Kazakhstan to Mongolia and the city of Ulaan Bataar. This was my second visit but I approached it somewhat cautiously having experienced my worst ever bout of food poisoning in the hotel I stayed in last year. This time, I decided to play it safe and stayed in a German-managed hotel which gave me more confidence that the kitchen would be spotless. Fortunately, I remained healthy throughout this visit and even managed to see a few of the sights.

Most impressive was the enormous Genghis Khan statue that has been built in the countryside about a half hour from the capital. Made of stainless steel the Mongol leader and his horse dominated the landscape.

My next pitstop was Istanbul for a working weekend so I didn't get to see much other than the inside of my hotel but did manage a quick wander down Istiklal Cadessi to get my mum and dad some baklava.

My parents seemed to appreciate the sweet Turkish delights when we met up the following week in Rome. I had a week off work and when I had suggested to my parents I could visit them in Leeds before my next stop in Rome, they replied that actually they'd prefer to join me in Rome. We therefore rented a very cute and compact apartment in the Trastevere area and enjoyed a wonderful week touring the ancient and modern sights. We even saw the Pope! I must admit we truly were blessed with incredible weather and Rome looked at its very best in the sunshine. We even managed to meet up with our friend, Lynn, and her sister. We were lucky that they were able to join us for one of the fabulous Italian dinners we inhaled that week.

My parents left me and I spent a few more days In Rome working before heading to Lisbon for my final business stop on the trip. I managed to squeeze in a quick cooking lesson from Cooking Lisbon learning how to make Portuguese custard tarts - delicious!

Eventually, though, it was time to head home although not for long.

The following week I flew south to Florida to escape the -18C temperatures that hit Toronto but, most importantly, to attend the wedding of my friends, Alix and Carlo, at DisneyWorld. Mickey Mouse was truly present throughout the weekend and we had a lot of fun at both the Disney-themed wedding and visiting a couple of Disney theme parks.

So, this fall/autumn really has been a whirlwind of non-stop travel and I will end the year in a similar way by using one of my two passports to visit the UK and spend Christmas and New Year in Leeds with family and friends. This will be my first Christmas as a true Canadian and I won't even be staying in Canada...ooops!

I wish you all a very Merry Christmas and a wonderful 2015!

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Canadian Summer

Summer finally arrived in Toronto and although it's not been as hot and steamy as usual, it's been a very pleasant one.

In May, I completed the Sporting Life 10k for the third time. Thanks to everyone who sponsored me.  I raised $775 in honour of my friend Sue, who died from cancer earlier this year.  The money raised will go towards helping kids with cancer benefit from a Camp Ooch experience.

Shortly after, I jumped on a plane and headed out west to Vancouver.  I had a few meetings there and then extended my stay over the
weekend.  Vancouver is a lovely city and you can smell the ocean and forests as you sit watching float planes come and go in the harbour with the mountains ahead of you.  My counterpart at UBC gave me a gourmet tour of the city and I had a lovely relaxing couple of days.

Not long after, I headed south to the beautiful city of San Diego for a conference.  Again, I added on a few days and had a super time exploring this border town.  I loved the laid-back California feel and had fun shopping, exploring the Mexican sites, seeing the animals at the world-famous zoo, visiting the Coranado Island Beach (where Some Like it Hot was filmed), reliving my Top Gun-obsessed youth on the USS Midway and checking out the seals along the shore.  I was also lucky enough to
be invited to join some Canadian government colleagues on an evening sail around San Diego harbour.  We sailed past the huge aircraft carriers, submarines and hospital ships stationed there whilst enjoying the perfect evening weather.

After the conference, I headed north by train to Los Angeles and spent a few days exploring this huge, sprawling city.  I particularly enjoyed Santa Monica, seeing the space shuttle Endeavour and having a VIP tour of Paramount Studios.  I didn't spot any famous movie stars but it was great to be walking in their footsteps almost everywhere I went in the city.  Having said that, walking is no easy task in really is car central!
Back in Toronto my summer has meant quite a lot of theatrical adventures.  I enjoyed a couple of plays at the Toronto Fringe although a few others was not so great!  I also discovered Stratford in southern Ontario - home to Justin Bieber and an excellent theatre festival.  Naturally, given the town's name, there is Shakespeare on tap and I thoroughly enjoyed seeing King Lear but also the musical, The Man of La Mancha.  Another highlight was seeing Cirque du Soleil again.  This time they were performing their new show, Kurios.

In early August, I had a super day watching the Rogers Cup tennis once again and was lucky enough to see my hero, Roger Federer, win in straight sets.

Later in August my friend, Janet, and I flew out to Newfoundland for a two-week road trip.  We landed in St John's amid a torrential downpour which set the tone for the next couple of weeks.  Despite the fact, Newfoundland had enjoyed a scorcher of a July, we had dreadful weather with cold temperatures, rain, fog and grey skies.  We tried to make the best of things and had a few enjoyable experiences but it really put a dampener on things and meant we didn't really see the island at its best.  We managed to see puffins, whales, a moose and icebergs though so not all was bad! Oh, and we ate A LOT of cod!

Just after my return from Newfoundland, I was called to attend my Canadian Citizenship Ceremony having passed the Citizenship test in July with flying colours.  The ceremony itself was lovely and along with about 95 others from all over the world I swore my oath to the Queen of Canada (in English and French, which sounded awful!), received my certificate from an Order of Canada recipient and sang O Canada.  I am now a proud Canadian and Brit - a good feeling!  My friends helped me celebrate in style at a Canadian-themed "Citizen Becky" party held in my honour.  Given the amount of travelling I do, I have to say it's quite useful having two passports!

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Emerging from the Ice

It's been a few months since I last wrote and what a busy few months it's been!

Just before Christmas, my parents arrived for a visit and Toronto greeted them in true Canadian style.  We experienced an ice storm.  None of us had ever seen anything like it.  Rain falls but freezes upon impact.  The result was that layer upon layer of ice built up on every surface.  The walkways and roads were treacherous, tree branches bent with the weight of the ice and many eventually cam crashing down onto power lines leaving vast areas of the city without power when it was 15 below.  We lost power for about 24 hours and we were the lucky ones as many friends didn't get it switched back on until after Christmas.  The Dunkirk spirit kicked in and it was quite fun hosting a small group of friends for a party by candlelight.

Breaking into the rental car through the ice that hard turned to what was almost thick sheets of glass, however, took over an hour and resulted in sore bleeding hands!  As I was doing this a huge tree came down just across the street from me.

A drive around the area later showed us what the real damage was - the streets looked like a hurricane had swept through with trees and tree branches down everywhere.  No wind though, just ice.  It is estimated 20% of Toronto's tree canopy was lost during the ice storm.  At night, the twinkling branches looked very pretty and Christmassy though!

Despite my mum having a nasty flu during Christmas week, we had a nice time and I cooked my first ever Christmas Dinner.  We also enjoyed watching festive movies such as It's a Wonderful Life, White Christmas and The Polar Express to get us more in the mood.  Afternoon tea at the Ritz and a visit to the new Ripleys Aquarium were other highlights.

In an effort to escape the polar vortex, we headed south to Mexico and spent the next two weeks in Tulum on the Riviera Maya.  We had a bit of a rental car nightmare initially but after that got sorted out and we eventually acquired some wheels, we enjoyed pootling back and forth to the beautiful beach as well as seeing some of the Mayan ruins.  We had a few days of rain but were just thankful to be away from the snow and ice!  It was a lovely break.

Not long after I was somewhat, although not entirely, incapacitated following a minor operation on my big toe.  I was not a happy bunny for a week as I trudged through the snow in my sandals as I couldn't get my shoes on properly without being in agony.  Still, I improved my bandage-tying techniques and it is on the mend now!

In February, I was supposed to be going to Ukraine on a three-city tour to Kiev, Donetsk and Odessa.  All three cities have been in the news over the past few weeks but at the time, the unrest was mainly centred on Kiev.  In the end, the Canadian Ambassador took the decision to call off our tour and, as a consequence, my follow-on trip to the UK also got cancelled.  Sometimes you have to play it safe and we were all relieved not to go in the end as the day we were due to arrive was the day many lost their lives in Kiev.  Protestors also sought refuge in the Canadian Embassy, where we had been due to have some of our events.  Fortunately, the staff I know there and other people I work with regularly in Ukraine are all safe.

My Plan B was instead to move house...again!  So, at the beginning of March, I moved from the East End of Toronto back to the centre and an area of the city called Little Italy.  It's about a 40 minute walk to work and right in the heart of the action.  My new apartment is on the top floor of a century-old house and has a fabulous view across the roof-tops to the CN Tower from my large balcony.  The move itself was quite entertaining as my rather large church pew had to be hauled up outside the house in the snow in order to get it in.  Thankfully, one of the movers was originally from the Netherlands so had experience of this type of thing! I love my new pad in the loft and am enjoying being surrounded by little Italian bakeries, delis and even a second-run cinema.  It's great to be able to walk places and when summer eventually arrives, I will break my bicycle out again.

Talking of transport (!), I was 'over the moon' to win tickets to see the Canadian astronaut and former Commander of the International Space Station, Chris Hadfield, give a talk at the University of Toronto.  He shared his amusing tales of life getting to, from and being in space as well as inspiring us all to 'reach for the stars' in our own lives.  He's an amazing guy who has done so much to educate and inspire a whole generation of fellow stargazers.

At the end of March, I was asked to fly down to Brazil on short notice and attend a very interesting conference in Sao Paulo on student mobility between Canada and Brazil.  I then went on to spend about a week in Rio in order to do a couple of education fairs and visit one of the universities there.  My hotel was overlooking Copacabana Beach and I enjoyed my free time sitting by the rooftop pool taking in the view when the sun shone.  Rio is gearing up for both the World Cup and Olympics although, like the IOC, I am not sure all will be ready in time.  There is a huge amount of construction going on and it is quite chaotic in some parts of the city. I hope I am proved wrong.  I flew south to Porto Alegre for another fair and then home.

I was back for just a week before jetting off again.  This time it was on holiday though rather than for work.  I went to Cuba with some of the ladies from my yoga studio.  We went on a yoga retreat...I say that in the loosest terms possible as it was more like a "girls week" with a bit of yoga thrown in in the early morning and evenings.  The weather was fabulous and I thoroughly enjoyed the yoga and beach.  The downside to a vacation in Cuba is that everything is a bit crumbly and the food is not great...but it's no surprise as to why with all the blockades they face.  The people are very friendly and our day trip to Havana was enlightening as there has been a lot of investment here since my last visit.  It's a beautiful city with a fascinating history.

The past month has seen the last of the snow melt as we emerge from the harshest winter in Toronto since the mid-1970s.  Summer is just around the corner but we've still got to get to spring yet!  I'm hopeful though as if you look carefully you can see the buds appearing on the trees and the odd daffodil sprouting.

Speaking of looking carefully, I've enjoyed taking part in a couple of scavenger hunts over the past few weeks.  The first one was organized in an area of the city known as Liberty Village.  Along with my two team-mates, we had two hours to solve clues and track down various treasures such as dogs in clothing as well as undertake a number of challenges such as singing nursery rhymes on street corners and going down a playground slide!  It was all good fun and ended in a brunch for all the participants.  The second hunt by Urban Capers took place at the Royal Ontario Museum.  Again, we had two hours but this time the clues helped us to solve a murder.  Our team, the Raiders of the Lost Artifact, came in second!

The past week, I've once again been enjoying my favourite Toronto film festival, the Hot Docs documentary film festival.  Highlights have been seeing the man behind Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch on Sesame Street as well as George Takei aka Captain Sulu from Star Trek and now a social media icon.

Next week, I will once again be taking part in the Sporting Life 10k along with my colleagues in order to raise funds for Camp Ooch, which provides a camp experience for children suffering from cancer.  This is the third year I have participated and holds special significance as once again I am running in honour of another friend to be taken away from us all too soon by cancer.  Sue Hicks was a fellow adventurer and we travelled to many wonderful places together.  Her cheery "Hallo" and wicked laugh will stay with me always.  Sadly, Sue died at the end of January from Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma.  On that note I shall finish and say that if you would like to support me in my 10k and raising funds for Camp Ooch, I would be very grateful: Thank you.