Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Yo, Canada!

It's nice to be back in the motherland. It's a little weird, too. There have been a lot of changes in the last 14 months.

For example, phone calls from public pay phones in Toronto now cost 50 cents. Fifty cents! Talk about reverse culture shock!

Also, there is a Japanese exchange student living in my old bedroom. Her name is Noriko and she's the 22-year-old daughter of one of my Japanese coworkers. She's been living with my parents for about a month and she takes the subway to school every morning to study English. She also eats a lot of marshmallows (she won't eat corn-on-the-cob, though. She tried it once and said gnawing on the cob made her feel like a wild animal).

My parents love Noriko. She's always doing helpful things around the house like loading the dishwasher or wiping down the kitchen counters. She's quiet and respectful and has had a huge influence on my parents. They now drink sake instead of wine. They drink green tea instead of coffee. They shop for groceries at T&T instead of Loblaws. All I hear is "Noriko this" and "Noriko that." I've got to get rid of this kid. She's making me look bad.

What else is new? Oh, right. My friends Laura and Craig are moving to Abu Dhabi. I went to their going-away party, which turned into a surprise wedding. About halfway through the night some woman in a black robe showed up and everyone was ushered out onto the bowling green (the party was held at a lawn bowling club and, no, my Toronto friends are not in their '70s). And then, surprise! Laura and Craig got married right then and there. It was one of the best weddings I've ever been to.

There have been other big changes. My oldest friend in the world (and by old, I don't mean that she's old. I've just known her for a really, really long time. Which, now that I think about it, makes us old) had a baby while I was living in Japan. I got to see the baby for the first time this week, which was good and bad. Good because he's the cutest kid alive. And bad because now I want one too.

It's good to be back. I still haven't gotten over the novelty of walking into a store and being able to speak with the person behind the counter. They speak English and I speak English and we actually understand each other. It's amazing, really.

I am also getting reacquainted with Canadian culture. I drink coffee at Tim Hortons and watch the Trailer Park Boys. I read the Toronto Star every morning (okay, I skim through the Toronto Star to get to the page with the crossword puzzle and sudoku). And, uh, I guess that's about it for Canadian culture.

Still, it's tough to be back, too. I miss Japan terribly. I feel like I'm in mourning. I know that I'll be my old self in a year from now but I also know that my time in Japan will fade into a distant memory and that makes me sad too (let me paint a mental picture of how I am spending most of my time in Toronto: I am staring out the window, cupping my chin in my hand, thinking wistfully of Japan and sighing a lot).

It's not all bad. There have been moments of euphoria. My friends invited me to join their Sunday night poker group. By the time the last hand was dealt out, I was down to my last $3. I had lousy cards (a six and a four) but decided to gamble because that's what you do when you're gambling. I raised the stakes and went all in. Thanks to the luck of the draw, I ended up winning all my money back plus $2. Two dollars! That's enough money to make four pay phone calls in Toronto!

At that exact moment, Loverboy's Turn Me Loose came over the radio. I had just won $2 and Loverboy was on the radio. For that brief moment in time, I was so excited I forgot all about Japan.

So that's it. It's good to be back in the motherland. It also kind of sucks, too. I have a few more days of freedom in Toronto before I fly to Vancouver on Sunday and go back to work on Monday. That's when reality is really going to hit.

Sunday, September 16, 2007


What I am about to say has probably been said 1,000 times before but I'll say it again anyway. Paris is quite possibly the most perfect city on the planet.

It's not just beautiful, it's ridiculously beautiful. The streets, the river, the bridges, the buildings, the markets, the parks. All of it is simply intoxicating.

Paris is my kind of city. A city where bread, wine and cheese form the holy trinity of a meal. A city where each neighbourhood has its own personality. A city where you can dance in the streets in the middle of the afternoon.

Yes, Paris has the Louvre, the Seine and the Eiffel Tower. But did you know it also has the Techno Parade? I discovered this fact by accident when I went for a walk on Saturday morning and found myself in the middle of a crowd of tens of thousands of ravers twirling their arms and dancing on top of bus shelters as the annual Techno Parade wound its way through the city.

The Techno Parade was a spectacle unlike anything I've ever seen before. It was a giant, writhing, moving dance floor. Each float had a DJ playing house, techno or trance with the volume cranked up so high and the bass set so deep your ribcage expanded and contracted with each beat.

Tens of thousands of people flooded the streets and danced behind, beside and in front of each float. The floats were spaced about 100 metres apart so that you could hear each DJ in turn. The whole thing was moving so slowly that the parade took eight hours to complete a small loop of the city. It was absolutely incredible. The music was amazing and the crowds were mind blowing.

Check out the kids jumping over the fence and dancing on top of the Colonne de Juillet in the middle of the Bastille.

Another highlight of the trip is the neighbourhood I'm staying in. I knew nothing about the Marais other than the fact that it's the gay area. I figured it would be the safest place to stay as a single, female traveller. Also, the gay area of any city usually has good food, good shops and good people.

Upon arrival, I discovered that the Marais is also home to the historic Jewish quarter. My apartment is next door to a synagogue and there are always men dressed in black suits with long beards and big hats milling around. I love the contrast of seeing these deeply religious men standing on the street as gay couples walking hand in hand pass by on the sidewalk. This kind of diversity is one of the things I missed most when I was living in Japan.

I was a little nervous about renting an apartment over the Internet but it's turned out to be amazing (the photo at the top of this post was taken out of the kitchen window). It's a tiny studio on the top floor of a six-story heritage building. It's owned by a sweet older woman named Monique who lives underneath the studio (she also runs a teddy bear shop nearby, which probably explains why she's so sweet).

Speaking of nice people, I don't understand why Parisians have a reputation for being rude and bitchy. I have been here for just over a week and I haven't met one rude person yet. In fact, I'll go out on a limb and say that people in Paris are friendly and welcoming. People in the shops seem happy to strike up a conversation and no one seems to mind my rusty French. I even had one waiter go out of his way to compliment me on my French (or maybe he was just after a big tip).

Unfortunately, the stereotypical French male who aggressively woos the ladies with proclamations of love and beauty has been very elusive. I admit that I came to Paris thinking I would be chased down the street by men who would decide they couldn't live without me five minutes after meeting me. Nope. I'm just as invisible here as I was in Japan.

So instead of meeting French men, I am hanging out with Japanese tourists. I hope I'm not going to turn into some creepy Japanese groupie when I get back home (note to Japanese people in Vancouver: Let's hang out!). I met my new friends, Yoichi and Takaaki on top of the Eiffel Tower. I noticed them flashing the peace sign when they were posing for pictures and I instinctively knew they were Japanese.

In a move that was uncharacteristically smooth, I walked over to where they were standing and asked them in Japanese if they would mind taking a picture for me.

It was the perfect icebreaker. They complimented me on my Japanese, we started talking and the floodgates opened. We ended up spending the entire day together. They insisted that we pose for pictures together, which is why I have a whole series of photographs of me at various Paris landmarks sandwiched between two Japanese guys flashing the peace sign.

Spending the day with Yoichi and Takaaki was fun but it made me realize how much I miss Japan. This has been an incredible trip but it has also been tinged with sadness. I still think about Japan and the people I've left behind every single day.

At least I've got bread, wine and cheese to ease the pain. And some of the most beautiful sunsets I've ever seen.

Monday, September 10, 2007


I made it! Exactly 27 days after leaving Sakawa, Japan, I finally arrived in Moscow, Russia. Of course, the trip was all about the journey not the destination.

The plan was to travel almost halfway around the globe by sea and land. From Japan to China by boat and from China to Russia by train.

Some of the highlights of the trip included hiking along an empty stretch of the Great Wall of China, cycling through the back alleys of Beijing, horseback riding through the spectacular Mongolian countryside and drinking vodka with the locals on the Trans-Siberian Railway.

Some of the lowlights of the trip included sailing through a typhoon on the China Sea, getting stranded in Siberia after missing the train and dealing with the locked toilets during the epic border crossings.

Still, the Trans-Siberian Railway remains my favourite part of the whole adventure. Maybe because of the history of the places the train passed through, or maybe because of the friendliness of the Russians on board, or maybe because of the delicious meat pies and potato dumplings sold by smiling old ladies on the platforms along the way, or maybe just because there's something inherently romantic about travelling such a long distance through such a vast country by train.

Part of me wants to keep going. To take the train to London, sail across the Atlantic and ride the rails from Newfoundland to British Columbia. Unfortunately, I have to be back at work on October 1st so it will have to be another dream for another day.

In the meantime, I've been enjoying Moscow. There's so much to see and do here and I'm trying to cram it all in. I have one last train trip that will take me to St. Petersburg and then on to Paris for my final two weeks of freedom. A la prochain . . .

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

The Trans-Siberian Railway

Meet Andre, Vasily and Sergei. My new Russian boyfriends. I spent three nights and four days on the Trans-Siberian Railway with these guys. By the end of the trip, I had drank half my weight in vodka, fended off two marriage proposals and been stalked (yet again) by a man named Vladimir (what is it with me and men named Vladimir anyway?).

I knew I was in for a fun ride when dozens of loud Russian men boarded the train hauling beer, vodka, televisions, DVD players and trophies. They were all railway workers and were on their way home after competing in the "Railway Olympics" (a massive sporting event for railway workers from all across Russia). The guys in my car were the stars of the games, having swept five events -- soccer, arm wrestling, volleyball, darts and table tennis.

Most of them were big, burly men and they had a habit of walking around with their shirts off. A few of them could speak basic English and they introduced themselves as "sportsmen." They were extremely friendly and a lot of fun. I spent most of the four-day train ride in their cabins drinking vodka with them.

My anxiety over the whole toilet situation on the train (the general rule seemed to be that the toilets were always locked when you needed them most) evaporated when Vasily produced a key and told me I could go to the bathroom any time I liked. I asked him how he got a key and he just winked and said, "I am a railway worker."

The sportsmen also helped me fight off unwanted attention from a man named Vladimir. Barely two hours into the four-day train trip, I was taking pictures out the window when an older man decided to strike up a conversation with me. He said he was a computer programmer on his way back home to Moscow. He was 50 years old with thick gold chains around his neck, a massive beer belly, greasy hair and huge glasses that took up half his face.

His eyes kept drifting down to my chest when he spoke to me. There was something very sleazy about Vladimir. I made an excuse to go back to my cabin but he blocked me and tried to convince me to go to his room for some vodka. I told him that I didn't hang out with married men. He said his wife was nice "but when I look at you, I have different feelings."

I asked if his wife was on the train and he said she wasn't.

"I am freedom!" he said.

I kept shaking my head and saying, "Nyet! Nyet!"

He eventually got the hint and left me alone (for a few minutes anyway). I went back to my cabin and Vladimir suddenly appeared at the door and stood there staring at me. He asked if I wanted to join him for dinner in the dining car. I said no thank you. But instead of leaving, he just stood there staring at me until I closed the door.

But he kept reappearing at my door, sticking his head in and whispering, "Sarah. Sarah" and staring at me. I pretended I didn't hear him. When I wasn't in my room, he'd walk around to everyone else's rooms asking where I was. My cabin mates nicknamed him "Mr. Creepy."

An older Australian man in the cabin next door looked up the Russian word for "daughter" and Vladimir scuttled away. Vladimir eventually noticed that I was spending most of my time on the train with the sportsmen and decided to step up his game.

As I was walking down the hallway, I saw Vladimir heading towards me with a huge box of chocolates in his hand.

"Sarah, for you," he said.

I tried to refuse but he thrust them into my hands. I ran into Vasily, Andre, Sergei and Alexei's cabin and told them that Vladimir was annoying me and could they please say something to him in Russian because he wasn't listening to me.

"I will kill him," said Vasily in all seriousness.

"No, no. Don't kill him," I said.

"Okay. I will injure him a little," he relented.

I asked him to tell Vladimir he was my boyfriend and to maybe just threaten him with violence instead. I have no idea what Vasily said to Vladimir but he steered clear of me for the rest of the trip.

However, Vasily took his new role as my pretend boyfriend a little too seriously. He always slung his arm around me or held my hand. Not to be outdone by Vladimir, he bought me an ice cream at the next stop. He wrapped blankets around me when I was cold. He placed pillows behind my back when I was stiff from sitting. He told all of the other sportsmen on the train that he was moving to Canada to marry me.

After walking me back to my cabin and tucking me into bed on the second night on the train, Vasily motioned for me to lean forward and whispered, "Tomorrow I will kiss you."

Vasily had protected me from Vladimir but who was going to protect me from Vasily?

The next morning, I joined my Russian friends for tea and cookies in their cabin, which disintegrated into beer and vodka by noon. Vasily kept asking me how much flights to Canada cost and if I could help him get a job working on the railway in B.C. He was intent on keeping his promise from the night before and tried to charm me into kissing him.

"I have never kissed Canada girl," he said. "You could be first!"

The testosterone in my car was a little overpowering so I escaped to the next car to hang out with John Carlo, a Brazilian I had met the day before. He had a whole cabin to himself and I sought refuge there. I really enjoyed spending time with John Carlo, especially because I thought he was gay.

We were chatting away in his cabin when he told me he was planning on going to Whistler in February. He asked if I wanted to join him.

I told him it would be fun, especially since a lot of my friends would be up at Whistler at the same time for Gay Ski Week. I winked and said I could introduce him to some cute, single guys.

"I'm not gay," he said. "I'd like to spend time in Whistler with you."

Good lord. My brain was short circuiting from all of the male attention. How is it that I spent an entire year in Japan completely ignored by the opposite sex and then all of a sudden I'm trapped on a train with men throwing themselves at me everywhere I turn?

Not that I'm complaining. It was a great train ride. The four days I spent on the Trans Siberian Railway was a highlight of the trip so far. I got choked up when I got off the train in Vladimir and said goodbye to my new Russian friends who were continuing on to Moscow. They carried my bags off the train for me and stood on the platform to wave goodbye. I didn't want to leave. But more adventures await in the rest of Russia . . .