Posts in Category: Musings

Fight or Flight

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.

Winterlicious

One of my favourite Toronto events is right around the corner! Winterlicious will be starting on Jan 29th and running for two weeks, packing restaurants during that maddening annual lull after the holidays and before Valentine’s.

Now, I know many chefs hate this tradition and bare their teeth at the cheap and classless clientele that they feel come in droves to their beautiful, carefully crafted establishments. I get that.

But I also remember how magical it was when my girlfriends and I (as we’re paying off loans, working six jobs at the same time, and anxiously putting aside our money) got this opportunity to fantasize about wining and dining in style. Not because our parents took us, not because a date could afford it, not because we were blowing off rent payments. It made us feel sophisticated, classy, and empowered, and motivated us to not only keep working hard, but exposed us to the incredible offerings of Toronto dining that would otherwise be completely inaccessible to us during that time.

I’m grabbing my ladies and making some reservations.

New Years Escape

I’ve always been a big fan of escape games, and when the first live-action escape rooms started popping up in Amsterdam, I was beside myself. The opportunity to immerse myself in the creepy and crafty world of these puzzle games was impossible to turn down. I’m delighted, then, that Toronto seems to have a whole bucketload of these downtown. Some more legit than others, and several that appear to be full fledged theatrical productions.  The one at Casa Loma, for example, looks amazing.

Now I must dash off, for I have been informed by those who love me well that there is a miniseries remake of Agatha Christie’s “And Then There Were None” with Charles Day and Noah Taylor, and knowing this does not allow me to sit here any longer. Love to you all in this new year – may it bring you as much intrigue and mystery as it already has brought me!

Domesticated

Saw Paul Gross, Martha Burns and the entire fantastic cast of Canadian Stage’s new play Domesticated last night. Was floored by Tori Higginson, whose command of the stage and confidence in voice and physicality were just outstanding.

Next up at CanStage – Hedda Gabler. I have the screenplay sitting by me, and have loved this play for ever. I’m so excited to see what they’ll do with it!

Toronto Traditions

It’s been a beautiful time in Toronto, with the unseasonably warm temperatures and the gorgeous, sparkly sun. I’ve been enjoying indulging in old traditions – Saturday morning hoagies at St. Lawrence Market, green apple, rapini and squash hunting at Kensington, watching plays at Factory and Berkeley, and remembering fun times in Germany whilst perusing the offerings at the Distillery Districts’ Christmas Market.

CanStage’s beloved volunteer coordinator, Julie Cloutier, is moving over to the City of Toronto (huge score for municipal government) and I’m excited to see someone with her passion and dedication power-housing behind upcoming cultural events. It’s going to be a great winter!

Theatre Thrills

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 grab 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?

Twilight

World Press Photo

One of the absolute best things about living in the Netherlands is being is such close proximity to the World Press Photo exhibition, the single most prestigious photography contest in the world. Not only is the exhibit humbling, inspiring and breathtakingly beautiful every year, it also is held in either the Oude Kerk in Nieuwmarkt or the Nieuwe Kerk in Dam Square, both of which are adequately majestic for a show of this gravity and bring ones attention to Amsterdam’s abundant architectural marvels.

There really is no shortage of gorgeous photography in this town, and I feel incredibly lucky to be able to take it all in. Reflex Gallery, Huis Marseille, Fontana and of course the one and only FOAM, just to name a few. Keep it up, Amsterdam. Keep it up.

Morocco

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.

My Little Parov Dancing Feet