My home is frequently filled with the Blues. Perhaps paradoxically, it is one of the things that brings me the most joy – listening to John play his guitar, his own noodling reflecting a distinct blend of the Fado of this heritage, his deep love of Muddy Waters and BB King, his fascination with Buddy Guy and Robert Johnson. He loves the legends, he loves the stories, and he lives for the sound. Heading down south to see where it all began has been something he’s wanted to do for a long time now, and the pact we made when we came back from Amsterdam was pretty simple – he’d finally get his license and we’d hit the road and see all the Canadiana and Americana that kids like us come to this continent dreaming of.
We touched on a total of nine states on this trip – driving down through Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, back up through Mississippi, Arkansas, Missouri, Illinois, Indiana. We heard country and bluegrass in Nashville, rock and roll and blues in Memphis and delta blues in Clarksdale. We saw miles and miles of cotton fields, dragonflies and marshes in sizzling 40 degree afternoon sun, sipping sun-steeped unsweetened iced tea from impossibly large Sonic styrofoam cups. We heard stories of Johnny Cash and June Carter, walked around Elvis’ house, made our silent deals with the devil at the Crossroads. We saw the Grand Ol’ Opry (and the absolutely crazy hotel next to it), The Bluebird Cafe, Margaritaville Bar. We sat and listened intently as Ralph Stanley II brought the crowd to their feet at the Station Inn, the Memphis Jazz Orchestra serenaded dancing couples on Beale Street, Sean Appel hilariously nicknamed himself “the giant bedazzled blueberry” before charming us to pieces at Club 152.
It’s incredible to think that three powerhouses of music all died on the same day – Robert Johnson, Elvis, Aretha Franklin. I can’t imagine a world without their songs. Can you?
Portugal is changing, and it’s changing quickly! The last time I was there in 2011, it was much more run down than it is today. Tourism is booming, there’s construction everywhere and prices are skyrocketing. I don’t remember seeing expat-centric spots in Lisbon like the TimeOut Market, Heim Cafe or Comoba back then. Most food was very cheap, traditional and it was mostly seafood and potatoes. Now, it’s everything under the sun, and a lot of crappy overpriced tourist traps like you’d see in Paris or Rome, but also a lot of fancy joints that surprised me and are very glass-and-steel in tile-and-brick Lisboa. The neighbourhoods have completely changed (or maybe it’s just me that’s grown up!) and Bairro Alto, which used to seem so hip, now just seemed dodgy. I instead gravitated entirely to Principe Real – with their incredibly cool spots such as the Embaixada, Pavilhão Chinês and A Cevicheria – and Sao Bento, with it’s beautiful parks and cafes, blooming jacarandas and orange and lemon trees everywhere you look and smells of happiness. I also spent a ton of time at LXFactory, which is like Amsterdam-Noord, Christiania and Parkdale all rolled up into a nice little art bomb.
With travel, of course, comes the food fiesta. It made me laugh to see kogel mogel, a childhood treat that I got when there was no candy around (ahem. communism.) and I was permitted to swirl sugar and yolk together, being reincarnated as a luxury boutique delicacy. Sampling the foods of the different regions made me think about the hierarchy that we place on certain cuisines. Italian and French food equals fancy and upscale, and the majority of high-priced restaurants in downtown Toronto serve foods typically from there. Vietnamese and Mexican food is casual and cheaper, and Portuguese, Polish, Ethiopian, Greek, etcetera is super casual. There are of course exceptions here and there, but this is typically the drill here. So my brain exploded when I found myself sampling Presunto ham, Azeitao cheese and wine from Alentejo and realizing that Prosciutto, Roquefort and Chianti didn’t really hold a candle to these delights. Don’t get me wrong, I fully understand the pride of a region in its products and the need to distinguish them from others, but I had that “Chinese dumplings are Polish pierogies are Japanese gyoza are Ukrainian varenyky” moment and for that second, the world seemed a little smaller. I also felt like I had unearthed a great secret, a Cava of Champagne proportions, and I felt enlightened. Sue me.
The wine regions of Portugal are devastatingly gorgeous. I have this fantasy that I’ll get a field job with UNESCO visiting their locales to make sure they still… I dunno… use the proper brass in their doorknobs or something, and get a chance to see every place in the world deemed a heritage site. The Douro Valley nearly brought me to tears with it’s gentle beauty, and the Algarve Atlantic coast stunned me with its raw, untamed and completely different topography than the rest of the country. I see why those clever surfers gravitate there. Those beaches will absolutely make you melt.
For my fellow Torontonians looking for a little romance (having already watched The Age of Adaline) in the form of a wee road trip, you really need to look no further than Quebec City. It’s a little bit of old stony heaven that’s a 9 hour drive away, with accommodations way cheaper than you’d think and lots and lots of really good food.
I haven’t been there since I first arrived in Canada when I was 7. Basically all I remember is our car being broken into at a St. Hubert’s (which is like Quebec’s Swiss Chalet) and my mom crying, and as a sensitive little kid if you see your mom crying then you just cry too, and there ya go, that’s my memory of Quebec. Misery. Wailing. Broken windows. So for me it was reason enough to want to go to just rewire my association to it.
In the car I did a rough Google search of the food that we could get in Quebec, and right away adored Buvette Scott. It’s teeny tiny, super non-fussy, packed solid with people, the cutlery is all mismatched and as soon as you open the door it smells like heaven. They’re geeky as can be about the plates that they bring to you, and talk with genuine enthusiasm about blood sausage and deer bacon and all those Quebecois cheeses! and the funk music playing overhead. There’s minimal decor in the room, the majority of the light comes from candles, and there’s that hushed whispery blanket of chatter that exists in places where people are conversational, excited, engaged, but maturely aware that they are sharing a space with others and not screaming SHOTS SHOTS SHOTS at the tops of their lungs and just being annoying. They also insisted that while we’re in town we check out their favourites.
Such as Chez Biceps BBQ. John was absolutely in heaven here (and all the SHOTS folks are here ;)) and said that it was the perfect fusion of his favourite Austin joints, his general adoration of Southern food, and Quebecois hospitality and trademarks – such as maple syrup pork ribs and poutine. Chef Vincent and Jason-Mamoa-look-alike Jean-Simon Pouliot, who are warm and friendly and brawly, constantly chat to their clientele and tease their staff, and everyone seems to be having a genuinely fantastic time. Oh, and the place looks like this.
Then there’s Kraken Cru. Daaaaaaaamn that’s some good seafood.
For the athletic crew, there’s skiing, sledding and tubing all over Quebec, and if you’re into the older sights like the Citadel or the Parliament buildings, there’s that. There’s an amazing little street called Sault-au-Matelot that’s packed with galleries and opens into a square that has tilework on the ground like Rossio Square in Lisbon. I’m boring as dirt so I like to walk around and eat, maybe listen to some live music, go for a whirl on the slide from 1884 just to see if I fall off, gawk at what’s happening at La Bordee, take in the art and architecture. There’s always one artist that blows my mind to absolute smithereens, and this time it was Virginie Schroeder. At first glance looks like just another optical illusion celebrity painting, right? The white space is just done by sgraffito scrape-and-reveal, whatever right? Nope. Look closer. Her technique is crazy. I don’t know if she uses software to plan it out and then dabs plaster on and then paints over the plaster and cuts it and splatters over it or what. Mind blown.
I will definitely be back in the warmer months, I know that buried under all that snow that Quebec has lots of spots for mushroom picking and maple syrup tapping, and you know… girl’s gotta eat.
Factory Theatre commissioned a terrific work by Kat Sandler, great aerobics for the brain, who somehow managed to pull off the near impossible task of making an audience laugh – guffaw, even! – while watching a piece about gun violence. In Canada. In 2018. In downtown Toronto. She’s basically a genius. Take a listen to some of the opening bits here.
Oh!, and I basically danced home after listening to Musica Nuda yesterday. This woman is a rock star. They both are. I hope to see more of this kind of magic. And this kind, too. It’s good shit. Like Farrah Fawcett hair.
I was coming back from a meeting last week and passed by the flagship Greenhouse Juice Co. just off of Yonge street, and got their recipe for Gingerbread cookies. Now my home smells like heaven and I have treats to share with my friends.
The holidays are a tricky time for many people. Not everyone has somewhere to be when the carollers are singing and the lights are twinkling, or where they do spend their holidays isn’t particularly peaceful. I missed my old friend Gray yesterday (having watched the beautiful Heisenberg at CanStage, which made me wholly reevaluate my minimalist-set-thumbs-down stance of yore), and remembered how crappy the holidays were always for him. I hope whatever you all do, and whomever you’re with, that you feel content. Much love to you all.
What do you do when you love theatre and you have four nights alone in New York City?
You binge. Oh baby, you binge, on theatre and on food (and it’s also partly a trick question, because you’re never really alone in New York City).
Night 1: Grabbed a great last-minute ticket to 1984, and since we’re in a dystopia and times are tight, 99¢ pizza. My interest in seeing this show was mainly to see Tom Sturridge (whom I loved in American Buffalo), Olivia Wilde (whom I’ve met in person at Artists for Peace and Justice events and really like, so I wanted to applaud her in her Broadway debut), and the fact that I loved the book. I quite enjoyed the play, but it was really violent and had tons of strobe effects, which distracted me from the story.
Night 2: Despite everyone telling me I didn’t stand a snowball’s chance in hell of getting any kind of rush seats to it, I actually got a fantastic last-minute ticket to see Hamilton, and in the process met the two sweetest Puerto Rican ladies in line that couldn’t have been prouder of Lin-Manuel Miranda. This show truly is everything that everyone says it is – I’ve never seen the public this happy and energetic at the theatre (ok, maybe Book of Mormon was a bit like that). Choreography was mild-blowing. Performances were astounding. There was no weak link. For me, Brian d’Arcy James as King George and Gregory Treco as Burr totally floored me, James for his comedic delivery and Treco for his vocals. Afterwards, starving and singing, I had trainwreck fries at Virgil’s because it’s a medley of everything from everywhere and well… it seemed fitting!
Night 3: Sweeney Todd at Barrow Theatre was fantastic, again, chatted to the box office before showtime and they had “secret seats that they rarely use” that were the only ones not sold, and gave them to me pretty cheap. The play came as a recommendation from the staff at Joseph Leonard, where I popped in for dinner, and darling Drew (who let me sit there way past my welcome and offered tips on great NYC spots) found out for me what the hot ticket in the area was.
Night 4: I thought that perhaps with the luck that I’ve been having grabbing tickets to difficult-to-snag shows that maybe I could see Oscar Isaac in Hamlet at the Public Theatre in Noho. Alas, it was an invite-only opening night event, and not even with my charm could I schmooze my way in. “Don’t you know who my father is?” I joked to the staff. They smiled that smile where you like someone but you’re not 100% sure that they’re not insane. I did see John Turturro in the lobby, and smiled broadly, hoping that it would translate into “you’re fantastic, I love you” without disturbing him during his private time.
I have much respect for Apple, by the way, for adding a theatre mode to the Apple Watch that minimizes disturbance during performances. I need to talk myself out of a snarky remark whenever I see a theatregoer activating their phone screen when the house lights are dimmed, so this is at least a nice gesture (although fifty bucks says no one ever remembers to actually enable it).
A small lobster meal at Lobster Place at Chelsea Market. Have been eyeing these babies every time I’ve been there, and resisted the urge. This time I treated myself, and as I sucked every last morsel out of every foot, crevice, and antenna, passersby looked at me with genuine amusement.
My flight home was interesting. Trump had shut down the airspace around NYC to fly to a golf game in the afternoon, so flights were completed messed up. Mostly cancelled, though some delayed, but basically no airline could recover afterwards, since once a chunk of day goes, delays just cascade down and it all falls apart. Newark International was complete chaos, filled to the brim with seething, self-important travellers, and in my calmness I did manage to somehow get hooked-up as a standby passenger on the last flight out (at 23:30, landing in Hamilton, which had me home at 3am). In all the screaming and threatening and customer service calls and apologetic service personnel that madly swirled about what I noticed was this: the way people come together and connect in times of disruption can be awesome. Completely overlooking the jerks, the remainder of folks kind of laughed it off, knew there was little that was in their control, sat together at the airport restaurant, had some drinks, met strangers, compared notes on where they were going, where they had been, where they were from. Typically, it’s such a cold, solitary environment – everyone in their world, on their phones, having somewhere to be, in their bubble. In this situation, there was nothing to do but wait and see, so people put their phones down (which contained wholly inaccurate information anyway) and chatted, met each other, commiserated. What stood out to me was people helping each other, comparing notes on what information they had, which flight was cancelled and which wasn’t, where to get some food, where they could charge their phones, where free coffee and water was, what remaining flights still had seats. Years and years ago, I met a man with his wife in a pizzeria in Tuscany, and without my asking for advice on life or anything, he looked at me and said “remember this one thing: always talk to people”.
That’s always stayed with me.
It has been a whole month and I haven’t written at all about New Orleans! The whole purpose of this blog was to note down my adventures so that I don’t forget, and I’m forgetting to not forget! So let me see here, what can I tell you about this beautiful and musical town?
Well, no surprise here, but there’s music everywhere. No need to reserve at places to go listen to music live, there were Big Bands all over the streets, so the music is inescapable, even when you step away from the French Quarter. Frenchman Street (which I actually liked better than Bourbon) was just littered with musicians. We did manage to see a fantastic show at Snug Harbour that was worth every penny, and John almost choked on his Skittles when he recognized the trumpet player that was playing the SNL Sturgill Simpson show recently. From the brunch time band playing at the parkette beside the French Market, to Ackroyd’s House of Blues, the Musical Legends Park, and Irvin Mayfield’s playhouse (sans Irvin himself – he’s moved on, folks!), this town does not fail to deliver the tunes. It’s uplifting and glorious.
As is the food. If you want fancy, this town’s got plenty fancy, but we kind of opted mostly to eat at the comfort local food joints instead. Cafe du Monde, naturally, for the beignets, ACME oyster house for the ridiculous baked oysters and various po’ boys, Cochon for everything (especially the Bourbon, oh lawd!), Superior Seafood for the raw oyster bar, Willa Jean and Ruby Slipper for breakfast, the Roosevelt for the Sazerac (ok, maybe we’re a little fance), Arnaud’s for a night cap, and all the food markets for snacks in between.
As for fun things to do, it was our first trip, so we had to do the cheesy stuff – Anne Rice’s house on First Street, all the Streetcar Named Desire / Tennessee Williams stops, Audubon Zoo, the Lafayette Cemetery, Natchez Steamboat, the St. Charles Old Streetcar Lines and of course the French Quarter with Bourbon street, Louis Armstrong Park, St. Louis’ Cathedral, all the Marie Laveau (the voodoo Queen of New Orleans) Shops (there are many!). New Orleans architecture is incredible, it’s got those very particular columns and iron exteriors, and the homes in the Garden District are something out of this world. It’s enough to just wander and gawk.
I have to gawk back. Go bawk. Whatever. You get it.
Playing now until March 13th at the Factory, this beautifully uncluttered production of David French’s play left me in tears. Kawa Ada (whom I’ve already encountered this season in Bombay Black) is just breathtaking, as is his partner, the wonderful Mayko Nguyen, plus a remarkable supporting musical role by Ania Soul. Run folks. Run. The Globe and Mail reviewer loved it so much he bought himself a second ticket.
I’m flying back to Iceland en route to London. I finished up a contract at SapientNitro – performing a delta analysis on the content management group of a Canadian giant – and having failed to find an equally stimulating immediate next foray, I instead did the only thing I know how when my brain lacks challenge – I got on a plane.
Icelandair is quickly becoming my favourite airline. The staff exude a kind of calm pleasantness and sincerity that I realize now is characteristic of their countrymen. The food is good. Their earbuds are cool. They offer wifi on flights.
A Polish girl (I say girl, though upon initial conversation she reveals many life milestones that make her arguably more adult than I) is sitting next to me, and she’s terrified of flying. It takes a mere moment to figure out that she’s not a nutty drama queen but genuinely handicapped in this phobia. She whimpers quietly beside me with her sympathetic nervous system in overdrive, eyes darting around madly and sweat collecting between her brows. She asks if I mind that we talk a bit, because it calms her. I don’t mind, I tell her. My mom has always had bad anxiety and there were nights that I stayed awake massaging her legs to try to get her warm and blood circulating around her body. I offer up my hand to hold, should it soothe her, and she grips it instantly, clutching at me with cold, soggy fingers. She apologizes for the grossness of it all, almost releases me from my duty, but I smile that it’s no bother. It’s an intimacy that I tend to avoid like the plague. It embarrasses me to witness other people’s personal pain. In this teeny space, however, it’s unavoidable, and completely in my best interest to keep her from melting down.
We sat like that for four hours. The plane landed, and she gave me a quick hug before frantically dashing out the barely opened hatch and disappearing into the terminal.
Arguably THE most difficult part of living in Holland for me has been the absence of quality English theatre. I still choose to believe that it is here and I just don’t know how to find it, but what I have seen has not been good. I remember reading an article in a Dutch online theatre publication that quoted director Ivo van Hove saying essentially the same thing, and nodding vigorously in agreement. I went to see an experimental play called Recovery by Florentina Holzinger at the Frescati theatre, and definitely didn’t get it. I went to see Angels in America at Stadsschouwburg Amsterdam, excited that it was content that I was familiar with and maybe I would enjoy it. I didn’t. Ditto for English-speaking productions at Ostadetheater and Badhuistheater. Of course, there is always some fan base for any type of production, but generally speaking the “experimental” and “minimalist” shows so adored by Amsterdammers is just not my thing. I guess I’m too conservative. Or closed-minded. Whatever. What it has made me appreciate is the wealth of beautifully, creatively and passionately crafted productions that Toronto boasts, even at the “amateur” level, but I think I’ve said that before. I think Toronto theatre is top-notch.
What is super cool about living here, however, is that it’s thisclose to London, so basically whenever the opportunity presents itself for me to snag some kind of rush seats to a play (and a ride with a friend), I do it!
April has been an exceptional month for theatre for me, and makes me miss my alma mater Claude Watson – and its theatre program – immensely. First, Juliette Binoche led a spectacular cast in the Barbican/Stadsschouwburg Amsterdam production of Antigone (standouts were absolutely Kirsty Bushell, Finbar Lynch and Samuel Edward-Cook). And tonight, Damian Lewis, John Goodman, and Tom Sturridge performed David Mamet’s American Buffalo. It was Press Night, and we were quite lucky to snag the last two tickets available. The always amazing Rowan Atkinson was in the audience, as were Sienna Miller and Kit Harington, and it was great to see actors supporting each other’s work.
Lewis’ physicality and voice stunned me – I actually couldn’t quite believe it was him at the start, and Sturridge was heartbreaking as a young sidekick to John Goodman’s dreamer pawn shop owner. The thing that struck me most about both productions, however, was the set design, and I cannot stress how integral this component is to the world that theatre is meant to create for the audience. I have never fully enjoyed any production that omits set design and opts solely to put to use the audience’s imagination. Great set design doesn’t have to break the bank, some great sets were done using creative tactics on a shoestring budget (I vaguely recall one production where the set was made of toilet paper symbolizing cedar trees and it was great). The “American Buffalo” set was absolutely killer, and as much a character as any one of the men.
Theater is my drug. I don’t think I could live in London or New York, I wouldn’t be able to control myself. Or, I just have to get a job as an usher or an assistant to a theatre critic. Anyone got any leads?