With another awesome contract under my belt, working feverishly with the Apply Digital folks to build not one, not two, but three sites for their superstar client Moderna, I knew I had to step away from the computer and experience some beauty in real life to unwind and recharge. The goals – to get sunshine and heat (I had missed summer pretty much entirely), to give friends hugs (so much needed), and to see what travelling with a 70lb dog looks life (boarding a dog is way too expensive, the flight cost is infinitely cheaper).
I’ve been to California a handful of times now, and the geography of this state never fails to astound me. There’s just so much here, so much natural beauty. The oceans, the colours, the heat, the flora and the fauna is so different from home. The dryness, that desert earthy dustiness of it, and the smell of eucalyptus and cacti everywhere is wonderful. The state parks are out of this world. Each one is more beautiful than the last, and the people are just… well, they’re happy. And happiness makes you pleasant, and kind, and generous, and good to be around, and chatty and fun. So there’s that.
It’s also so insanely big, so filled with options and people and constant motion that it can be very overwhelming. You have to leave the ridiculous belief that you’ll see it all at the door – it’s just not possible. I saw a banner that read “California is for everyone” and it really is – whoever you are, wherever you come from, whatever you do, you’ll find it here. You’ll find your tribe.
Flying with a dog was shockingly easy. All we needed to do was find a crate (in our case it needed to be hardshelled, big enough so that he could stand comfortably in it, yet small enough that the collective weight of crate and pup did not exceed 100lbs. Once that was sorted, the rest was just the tasks of purchasing a spot for him (~CAD$100), getting documentation from the vet that he was vaccinated and in good health (~CAD$40) and shlepping over to the airport, keeping fingers crossed that he wouldn’t start barking the second we left him at the oversize luggage area. He held it together like a champ, and when we collected him in LA – his cute little face searching the crowds for us and that frenzied tail wagging, still silent – we knew taking him with us was completely the right way to go. We were also super lucky that we found an AirBnb host who loved dogs and shared with us all kinds of tips about where to go and what to do, and that LA in general seems to love dogs and didn’t really restrict his access anywhere. Because dining here is 95% outdoor, Remy was able to go with us everywhere, and friends offered to stay with him if we wanted a night on the town on our own. Plus, we stayed in an old part of Hollywood called Whitley Heights that was a hop and a skip from Runyon Canyon, where Remy could run off-leash to his hearts content.
The trip also presented some challenges, mainly for gimpy ol’ me. My first 3 minutes in the Pacific came to a screeching halt as a stingray angrily speared the base of my right foot. Convinced that I had stepped on a piece of glass and the whole throbbing painful ordeal would only last a minute, I sat on the beach and waited for the pain to subside. When it instead exponentially increased and spread up towards my pelvis, I hobbled over to the nearest lifeguard station and begged for a vial of secret potion that would make all this go away (amputation at that point was also something that I wasn’t completely against). The secret potion came in the form of a foil bag of near-boiling tap water in which I was to essentially cook my foot for 45 minutes. The relief was instant, and despite the pieces of stinger exoskeleton that were still lodged in my foot (and presumably would remain ad infinitum) that ordeal could be put behind me. Fuck you Pacific. I get it. You win.
Five days later, just as I was finally able to walk without thinking too much about the healing wound on my foot, a grown Dalmation (presumably in his absolute delight at running after a gorgeous intact Vizsla from a land to the North) forgot his surroundings and failed to maneuver around me as he ran full speed across Huntington Dog Beach. His body made full contact with my right knee, and I fell to the ground in miserable excruciating pain. It was like being hit in the leg with a golf club. As I do, I gave myself a minute for the pain of the impact to subside, convinced that deep breathing and comical wincing would make it all go away. Mostly, it did, but I couldn’t put weight on the leg. Given the direct impact it made sense to me that it should be painful for a while, but when the next morning my knee had swelled to triple its original size and I could put no weight on it without agony, I decided it was best to make sure that nothing was horribly wrong and went for some XRays at an Urgent Care Clinic. Spoiler alert – I survived, but it messed me up for a good two weeks, and those beautiful hikes in Runyon Canyon with Remy went out the window.
When I could walk again without crutches (and just after the US Open Surfing Championships), that’s when there was an oil spill across the California Coast that closed down the OC beaches. I won’t even pretend that this is a poor me moment – the whole thing was shocking for all Californians and pissed off everyone who loves their ocean, their wildlife, and their neighbourhoods. Cleanup efforts are continuing, and I was happy that we didn’t spend double the amount of money on accommodations to be close to the beach. On the flip side, if we had, we wouldn’t have been anywhere near an LAPD standoff a block from our place or a DTLA hostage situation near Central Market.
So I sit here, writing down what’s in my head, left to wonder what I really think of LA and if it’s somewhere I could be long term. I gravitated to San Francisco more but I straight up wouldn’t be able to afford it. John is much more in favour of LA.
Pros: California is incredibly beautiful and the heat and geography are absolutely intoxicating. Gawking at all the unique real estate would keep me busy for 10 years. People you encounter in LA are warm and kind, creativity abounds, and for a kid like me who grew up obsessed with television and movies, everything under the sun is here – the Mattel headquarters. Jim Henson studios. Paramount, Fox, Warner Brothers, Snow White’s house, everywhere you look there is some landmark, some reference to some piece of your childhood that made a serious impact. The food scene is incredible.
Cons: The sidewalks in the whole city are full of tents, with the homeless, addicts, young kids who ran away from home, and people who either can’t afford housing or simply cannot secure it living there. For someone who walks and does it more for pleasure than practicality, it sucks. You need a car for everything. Walking three blocks takes 10 years, and you’re dodging addicts, beggars and yellers. And don’t dream of just hailing a cab either, that doesn’t exist in LA. You need to explicitly book a rideshare, and there’s so much demand that most of them decline your request, so you either stand on the sidewalk of the restaurant you just got out of for an hour and wait (and pay USD$70 for a ten minute ride) or you take a scooter, if you can find one. For real.
A resident with whom I chatted noted that the last few years have been disturbingly difficult, first with the previous administration and then COVID. I’m not jaded enough yet to just ignore all the people in the streets – it affects me a lot to see people suffering, even in Toronto, so I’m not sure if I could build a callus fast enough to be able to just breeze past it all.
Want to know what I’ve been up to since April and why I have not kept the blog updated?
That about sums it up. Goodnight.
But seriously, there’s not that much to write about during a Canadian winter lockdown. I watch tv. I eat. I stare at my computer screen.
Instead of celebrating my 40th in the Maldives with a margarita, I celebrated it on Zoom. All day. I played Among Us with my kid brother and my sister-in-law on Zoom. I virtually ate German Chocolate Cake (which is American, FYI) with my folks on Zoom. I had a whole meal complete with sparklers and champagne on Zoom. I had a call with my Amsterdam buddies (who made me cry because clearly I am an emotional basketcase and miss them dearly) on Zoom. And you know what? Screw the Maldives, it was adorable.
I believe very strongly that everyone has to find their magic. You have to love something. Anything. If you hate Christmas and believe it to be a religious and capitalist brainwashing nightmare, maybe focus on the fact that seeing your family is fun. If your family makes you nuts, maybe relish in the fact that eggnog is available on the shelves. If eggnog gives you stomach aches, maybe the green and red decorations are grin-worthy. And if those make you want to vomit… well, there’s always theatre (if you hate the theatre I give up, you’re just not trying).
Theatre is magic. Even if you don’t love a show, you must admit that you still kinda like it, the ritual of it. I will never hate it because I applaud what it takes and stands for – the work, the energy, the collaboration, the discussion, the emotion, and often very little payoff other than the job itself. You can’t hate on that, it’s really like hating on snowflakes, and why would anyone hate on snowflakes?
It blows my mind when I understand that someone has rehearsed a play countless times and the energy and emotion with which they deliver the lines is as powerful and raw as if it were utterly spontaneous. How can you maintain that intensity night after night? Where does that come from? I met Ben Turner while I was in Brooklyn, I thought he was beautiful and awesome and completely adored him from second one, so I went to see his show, The Jungle. I think my utter ignorance to the fact that this show is a complete phenomenon taking over the theatre world was a plus, otherwise I might have been intimidated by the whole ordeal and not bothered. People were audibly sobbing during the show (my boyfriend nearly being one of them – he left the theatre looking like he was hit by a truck). Ben Turner was absolutely astounding. I couldn’t take my eyes off of him. Yes, it’s an ensemble cast and very poor form for me to not focus on the fact that everyone was great (which they absolutely were) but he’s undeniably the lead and he carried it like a champ. That’s a powerhouse performer right there, Toronto needs to experience this. I am now obsessed with what it would take for something like this to come to my city (and where? Crowsnest? I need to talk to someone about logistics).
So as happens always when I see something I love, I now am trying to convince everyone I know to see it. And I do have to thank Netflix for bringing theatre to my parents, who can no longer be dragged around by me to wait in rush lines and for whom simply running around downtown is becoming less and less feasible every day. They were able to enjoy, from the comfort of their coziness, Steve Martin and Martin Short, Bruce Springsteen, and several other Broadway goodies.
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.
I have a serious attachment to my bicycle. I’ve never been particularly aware of it, but I’ve been in London for a month now and I’ve finally understood what that pang in my heart is about. Have you ever seen a kid staring at you wide eyed and licking their lips absently as you eat an ice cream cone near them? That’s how I stare at cyclists. Like a desert hiker without water.
I have the same attachment to my bicycle that I think people have to their pets. I love it without reservation for it has never led me astray. It’s not like that boy that you love madly but he’s always let you down so you’ll never really trust him. It’s like the one who’s never let you down so you love him even more.
It’s a recurring symbol of my life. My mom’s husband taught me how to ride a bike when I was 6, it was pink and had one of those wooden sticks in the back so that he could control it and keep me from knocking my teeth in. He might as well have taught me how to fly. Once I mastered stickless tricks, I bolted over to my friend’s house and got the crap kicked out of me by grandma when I came home long after dark because I lost track of time.
When I met a boy at a young urban dinner party eight years ago, he asked me out for a bike ride. I was in my mid-twenties, and surrounded by peers who drove BMWs and drank martinis and wore really high Jimmy Choo’s and talked about investment and mortgages and were super serious and super mature. I was none of these things. When he checked my tires for air and filled them up without hesitation, I knew I had met a kindred spirit.
And then, well, Amsterdam. Then there’s that.
I’m a kid. I think I know now that I always will be. But that little shit who got her wings at 6 in a crummy concrete Gdansk playground learned how to breeze through the toughest of times on two wheels that day. And that stays.
Africa has such a strong romantic hold over so many people’s imaginations. This rich continent that is filled with sights, sounds, smells, textures so vastly different from what we are daily exposed to holds such a lure, such an appeal to many who grew up with something different. The liveliness of Africa, the bustle and energy and flow of it, so refreshing from the stiffness of Western society, the timidity of Western puritanism and the depravity of Western religions, wakes up all of the senses. It’s incredible how travel opens up your heart and your mind.
Now, I do realize that I’m making generalizations about the whole of Africa based on my experience of five days in Morocco, but gimme a break, I’m excited over here. It was a marvelous introduction to a continent that for me has largely seemed out of reach and out of budget.
Marrakech Airport is a lovely and modern marvel, and really close to the main city. Customs was quick and polite, and there were cute little stores at which to grab a bite and cash exchange stalls throughout. Once we arrived in the Medina, or “Old City”, which is enclosed by a six foot stone wall, the energy instantly amps up as ambitious shopkeepers and restauranteurs fight to lure you into their establishment. This is where you quickly begin finding the balance between rude, exasperated brush-offs and smiling, polite no-thank-yous. I found that if you acknowledge the seller but firmly say, “Thank you, No”, that that seemed to work best. Ignoring them outright not only does nothing, but seems to incense them and certainly leaves the impression of a rude Westerner. Saying “No” without smiling also seemed to result in conflict, with the seller defensively maintaining that he’s not looking for money and allowing you to look for free. Being overly friendly means you’ll be hanging out talking about Aunt Flo and her hip operation last year, and how your mother never thought you should waste your time in culinary school and your grandma was really pretty and looked a little bit like Marlene Dietrich and oh my is that the time?
The streets of Marrakech are, to me, a mix of the neverending windiness of Venice, the grittiness of Havana, the knick knacks of Mexico and the buzz of Istanbul. Getting lost is fun, when the sun is up. Once it’s set, the frustration of every street looking the same and local boys purposely trying to disorient you by giving you wrong directions becomes annoying pretty quickly. You can rest a little easier knowing that since the suicide bombing of the main square in 2011, and because right now the King happens to be away on business in the US, the city is swarming with plainclothes officers.
The main meeting place in the Medina is the Jamaa El Fna square, which sits surrounded by heaps of “souks”, or local shops. The square is a lot of fun during the day, crawling with snake charmers, henna artists, buskers, horse-drawn carriages and the omnipresent scooters and bicycles. The air is heavy with diesel fumes and smoke from cooking, and in the summer I’m sure that the heat doesn’t help. Going in November was a brilliant idea, as the days were a gorgeous 24° C with clear blue skies, and the nights were crisp and relaxing and encouraged much tea consumption without a fear of sweating your Djellabas off. At night, the market transforms into a plein air eatery, with 50 or so stalls offering local delicacies or tourist experiences. There are many repeats – there are about 6 stalls selling snails, another 6 selling hunja (spiced drink, made of ginger, anise, turmeric, cinnamon) and cake, about a million selling fresh squeezed orange juice, several selling brochettes and several carts with desserts, cactus fruit, avocados and dates, among others. What really sets them apart are the vendors. They cover the spectrum from aggressive and belligerent (Nr. 15) to shy and quiet (Nr. 69), loud and generous (Nr. 14) to grumpy and shady (Nr. 42). Of course we tried everything, but there were certainly standouts:
Nr. 14: the calamari guy (who also sells “bunkercrotch” – some kind of white fish?). These guys are amazing (say hi to Ali if you go!), are super generous with portions, salt everything well and throw in super-spicy peppers and limes with the orders. Loved this place. Avoid the sole, too many little bones, there are other things much more delicious.
Nr. 69: the hunja guy. This guy was my buddy. He rewarded us every time we came back with a little piece of cake here, a little sprinkling of Thymol crystals to clear our sinuses there, a little top-up everywhere. He smiled and tried to connect despite speaking zero English or French and shooed away anyone who pulled on our sleeves and whined at our backs.
Nr. 42: chicken brochettes, aubergine and fries. Yummy in my tummy.
I have to say however, that by far my favorite, most rewarding, delicious dining experience was when I approached a local stall off of one of the souk corridors. Clearly not meant for tourists, this literal hole-in-the-wall housed a young Moroccan man with a giant pot of chickpea soup and a milk crate full of day-old pitas. I watched for a moment as local Moroccan men walked up to him, sat at the little bench in front of his window, offered him a 5 dirham coin and received a small bowl of soup drizzled generously with olive oil, a sprinkling of cayenne pepper and a round pita. They ripped the pita apart, soaked it into the soup, and ate hungrily. I walked up to the man and asked if I could get one. He seemed confused, probably wondering if I was lost and asking for directions. I asked again in French. Same blank stare from him, but now one of the patrons in the corner perked up and said to me “Oui oui” and then instructed the man in Berber to pour me a soup while he quickly gobbled up what remained of his and offered up his seat at the teeny tiny bench. I thanked him and asked if the soup came with bread, and he smiled and said that it did. They watched with obvious fascination at my enjoyment of what is presumably a very modest local meal amidst what they must consider much more attractive tourist fare, and yet the soup was the most delicious of all. Seeing me finish my bowl, the owner signaled if I wanted a little more, and brushed my money away when I offered it to him. I wish I could tell you how to find him, but the best I can offer is to turn left when leaving the Photography Museum and then left again. He’s somewhere in there, in a blue and white tiled makeshift kitchen, keeping the neighbourhood happy.
After a couple of days of meandering around the Medina, we took off on a trek across the High Atlas mountains, through Ourzazate, countless Berber villages, and Zagora towards the Sahara desert and the Algerian border. We passed fields and fields of olive trees, orange trees, dates, ceramic shops, argan plantations and cactus plants. The roads were a flurry of donkeys, goats, children, women draped in bright-coloured kaftans and men in patterned gandoras, with the occasional nomad trekking along with all of his belongings atop some small animal. Once in Zagora, we left our vehicle and jumped atop a few camels and were led far out into the desert, where, just past sunset, we stopped at a tented Berber camp for some eating, drumming and singing around a fire pit. It warmed my heart that we were joined by a group of young University of Waterloo students who were working internships in Switzerland and visiting Morocco for the weekend, and it felt like by having those energetic, smiling young faces around, that my little brother was enjoying the experience with us. It was amazing. We caught a couple of hours of sleep, watched the sun rise over the gorgeous African landscape, and camel trekked back to Zagora where we proceeded to drive back to Marrakech.
All in all, I don’t know if we could have packed more into the timeframe. The trip was fantastic, and it feels a little surreal to be back in Amsterdam. Today I looked with some sadness at my creamed corn soup and mayo cucumber salad and wished that I could have some cactus fruit, chicken brochettes and mint tea. But I guess that’s how quickly you can develop traditions. In the shake of a donkey’s tail.
Istanbul is a gigantic town. I’m told that there are 13 million people living there, and what I notice right away is how light it is. For some reason, I was convinced that it was a city shrouded in darkness. I have no idea why, I just did, maybe because of the prejudices inherent in much of news and television, maybe because of my own biases, maybe because of pure ignorance, but it’s beautiful and sunny and light and warm. Mosques are airy, friendly and inviting, there are street vendors selling candies and mussels and nuts, people playing music and singing, trams and men with pushcarts scurrying by. There are seagulls everywhere, and the fish market is a bustling wonderland. Galata seems to have been adopted by many expats as their neighbourhood of choice, and little craft and art and candy stores line the whole stretch all the way to Taksim. Schoolboys mischievously hitch rides on the back of moving vehicles and poke passersby and giggle. The smell of baklava is everywhere and every street corner has a merchant with unique offerings. And people are very genuinely curious about tourists and not only engage in conversation, but keep it apolitical, respectful, friendly and light.
An enchanting experience, very humbling and very welcoming, amidst sophisticated, genuine and unbelievably warm people.