Monday, December 20, 2010

Unintentionally in Istanbul

I am in Istanbul. I am not here on vacation. I am here by accident. I was supposed to be back in Japan three days ago. But, as lousy luck would have it, I was stranded by snow in Germany for more than 50 hours.

My original flight from Cologne to Amsterdam (and then onward to Osaka) was cancelled Saturday because of "snow chaos" that has made travelling in Europe a nightmare since Friday. I was rebooked on a flight to Istanbul the following day but that too was cancelled because of a snowstorm that pretty much crippled every airport in Germany. Although, let's be honest -- a Canadian snowstorm and a German snowstorm are two very different things. I doubt there was more than 10 cm of snow in Bonn. The mercury had barely dipped below zero. Wind speed was about 5 km an hour. But, unlike Canada, I guess they're not used to these kinds of conditions. Pretty much every major airport in Europe has been closed since Friday. Amsterdam, Frankfurt, Paris, London, you name it, they are all closed. No one is flying in and no one is flying out. Not fun!

After my flight was cancelled on Saturday, I lined up for four hours to be told by KLM that I was on my own. No hotel. No food. Weather is not our responsibility, they said. They rebooked me on a flight the next day to Istanbul and then washed their hands of me. It's a good thing my insurance covers this sort of thing (or at least I hope my insurance covers this sort of thing) so I treated myself to a night in a nice hotel in Bonn.

I returned to the airport on Sunday to attempt to fly to Turkey but an hour before takeoff, the snow started coming down. Harder and faster until you could see nothing but a wall of white outside the window. We sat on the tarmac for three hours, going nowhere fast. It wasn't a surprise to anyone when the pilot announced the flight had been cancelled and we'd have to try again tomorrow.

After cancelling our flight, Turkish Airlines agreed to put us up in a hotel for the night. However, this only came about after much complaining and yelling by my fellow Turkish passengers. They were great! I made a Turkish friend and she told me that Turkish people love to complain about everything. Complaining is their national sport and they are very good at it, she said. So even though the cancellation was an "act of God" and the airline had no legal responsibility to do anything for us, the Turkish passengers were not having it.

They yelled and complained and yelled some more, until police with machine guns strapped around their chests were called in to diffuse the situation. The sight of the machine guns seemed to have a calming effect on the mob. But they still swarmed around the ticket counter and continued to complain. The poor airline worker finally gave in and rented us all rooms in a nice hotel in downtown Cologne despite the fact that all of the other stranded passengers on all of the other flights were forced to sleep on the airport floor. They even chartered a fancy bus to take us to and from the hotel.

Of course, once we got to the hotel, the complaining didn't stop! Nope. Now the Turks were upset that there was no free food. My new Turkish friend said that even if they had provided us with free food, they would have still found something to complain about. I said maybe they'll get angry that there's no pool. No, she said, even if there was a pool, they would complain that the airline didn't provide us with free swimsuits. It was quite entertaining!

After arriving at the hotel at about 9:30 p.m., we were basically on standby until there was a break in the weather. Fortunately, it stopped snowing. Unfortunately, it stopped snowing at four in the morning. So we all got a wake-up call at 4:15 a.m. and were told to be in the lobby and on the bus no later than 5 a.m. We were driven back to the airport and checked back in and boarded the plane -- the very same plane we had been sitting on for three hours yesterday before they decided to cancel it. By 8 a.m. we were in the air and flying far away from the disaster that is Europe.

We arrived in Istanbul at about 1 p.m. with not a snowflake in sight. I was so happy I almost kissed the bare ground. Of course, there is chaos here too but only because of the people who are trying to get to London or Paris or Berlin for Christmas. Sorry folks, ain't going to happen. So glad I'm now far away from that mess.

I have about 12 hours to kill until my connecting flight to Osaka, so I decided to do some errands. First on my list was to see if I could sweet-talk my way on to a free upgrade to business class. It was a classic Pierre Marchildon situation and I think I performed well. Maybe not as good as my Dad but he has a lot more experience making friends with everyone he meets than I do. However, having watched the master at work my entire life, I think it's fair to say I am an apt and able charmer.

I sidled up to the ticket counter, smiled and make some Dad jokes and small talk about the weather. Asked if I could be upgraded to business class for the flight back to Osaka. The ticket agent made a phone call and then quietly and discretely printed off a new boarding pass -- in business class! For free! (Dad, how proud of me are you right now?!)

However, before I could enjoy the comforts of the Turkish Airline executive lounge, I had to replace the contents of my makeup bag. I lost it in Germany somewhere. I don't know if I left it at the hotel or at the airport or what had happened. But it was gone. I had stocked up on cosmetics in Germany because I can't find my beloved brands in Kyoto. I was pretty bummed because we're talking about losing about one hundred dollars worth of stuff. My mascara, eyeshadow, lipstick, eyelash curler, tweezers, MAC face powder, "virgin oil" lip-gloss (yes, that's really what it's called. I think they forgot the word "olive" in between "virgin" and "oil") and on and on. All gone. So I made a stop at duty free and bought the cheapest stuff I could find, which is not easy to do when the aisles are filled with the likes of Chanel and Givenchy. So I settled for Clinique. Also, I talked the saleslady into throwing in one of those free bags with all kinds of products that you're only supposed to get when you buy skin creams. Clinique Bonus indeed!

And that brings me to the present moment. I am typing this in the comfort of the Turkish Airways executive lounge. I am in a room with wood panelling and gold accents. There are crystal chandeliers hanging from the ceiling. There are European-style paintings on the wall (I suspect the theme the decorator was going for was "money"). The lounge is the size of about five departure gates put together. There are showers (so going to take advantage of that!) and free food (already took advantage of that!) and free drinks (going to hold off on that. I want to actually make it on the plane). I swear, I don't think I can ever fly economy again...and I haven't even set foot on the plane.

I am scheduled to depart at midnight and arrive in Osaka around 6 p.m. on Tuesday evening. Fingers crossed.

In the meantime, I went for a long walk around the terminal and bumped into another new friend of mine from the Bonn to Istanbul fiasco. He's an Iraqi journalist who writes about the benefits of Christianity. He's not too fond of Muslims and he decided to give me a long and loud lecture about the downsides of the Arab world in the middle of the terminal. In a Muslim country, mind you. Interesting? Yes. Smart? No.

He also told me he went to Japan in 1987, adding "but you probably weren't even born back then." (This is why I love chatting up senior citizens. In their eyes, I look young!) Then he gave me his business card and told me to keep in touch.

I got tired of walking around so now I'm back in the womb-like comfort of the executive lounge. Going to have Dinner Part III and then a long, hot shower. That should take up a good half hour leaving me with another large chunk of time to kill, which I will spend luxuriating in the classy atmosphere of the executive lounge. I wonder what my fellow elites would think if they knew I lived in a one-room apartment in Kyoto with a squat toilet and a coin-operated shower?

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Art for voyeurs

One of my favourite hobbies is spying on people. Not in a creepy restraining-order kind of way but in a harmless curious-about-how-other-people-live kind of way.

I like to walk along residential streets at night and look into people's windows. I don't jump the fence and press my face up against the glass (the last time I tried that I tripped and fell into a bed of stinging nettles). I just see what I can see from the street as I walk past. If the lights are on and the curtains are open, well, that's pretty much an invitation to peek inside.

I'm not looking to catch anyone in a compromising position. I'm more interested in the mundane details. The colour of the walls, the way the furniture is arranged, what's on TV, what's on the walls, the harshness or the softness of the lighting. This is the stuff that fascinates me. A room is a living canvas that we fill with things that reflect our personalities and preferences. We create nests that are pleasing to us because they are an extension of us.

My strong attachment to my own home probably explains why I'm so obsessed with seeing how other people live. I look inside their windows and ask myself a million little questions. Who are they? What do they do for a living? Are they happy? And what kind of person would hang a German flag on the wall and put a collection of empty whiskey bottles on top of a bookshelf and call it decorating?

When I see a really beautiful apartment -- one with high ceilings, big windows, and minimal, but tasteful, furniture -- I fantasize about what it would be like to live there. I imagine myself walking up the steps, pushing open the door, stepping into the living room and sinking into the down-filled couch. It's not late-night lurking. It's window shopping for an alternate reality.

Bonn is a voyeur's paradise. The houses butt right up against the sidewalk and the curtains on the floor-to-ceiling windows are rarely closed. My neighbourhood is full of elegant old houses and as much as I enjoy the occasional peek into the front room through parted curtains, it always leaves me wanting more.

So when my landlady Christine told me some local artists were opening up their homes to the public on the weekend, I was more excited about seeing the inside of their apartments than I was about seeing their art. Christine (pictured below) was the only participating artist whose work captured my full attention since I see the inside of her house on a daily basis.

The Offfene Ateliers in der Sudstadt has become something of a Bonn tradition. Once a year, a group of artists open their studios (which are usually located inside their apartments) to the public. The only way to find their homes is to follow a specially made map pinpointing their location. You walk up to the artist's apartment, ring the buzzer and are quietly let in. The event is open to the public but it feels secretive. Without the map, you wouldn't know where to go.

My friend Emily was my date for the afternoon. Together, we walked along the wealthy residential streets of Sudstadt, going from one apartment to the next. It felt a little bit like trick-or-treating but without the costumes or the candy (although I did notice a bowl filled with mini Snickers at one of the apartments we visited).

There were 18 participating artists and in a five-hour period we only managed to visit eight of them. The artists walked around their homes answering questions or chatting up potential buyers. I walked around the rooms drinking in the mundane details.

I checked out the colour of the walls (I was especially fond of the kitchen painted pink and the living room painted orange), I looked at the furniture (most of it was well-made, sturdy and practical), I glanced at the books on bookshelves (the titles were almost always in German), and paid attention to what was hanging on the walls (lots and lots of art).

I liked the event, I liked the art and I liked poking around people's homes. Especially because these were the very same homes I had walked past dozens of times before. These were the same windows I had peeked in and the same occupants I had wondered about.

I now know that inside one of these houses lives a guy who has never been to Canada and inside another lives a handsome architect with ashtrays in every room and a cat sleeping upstairs. I still walk past these houses at night but now I see a little bit more.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Roman holiday

I live in Bonn. Elena lives in Bucharest. For the first time in more than six months, we were both on the same continent. A reunion was in order. We decided to meet each other halfway between Bonn and Bucharest. A map of Europe and some unscientific head tilting, eye squinting and finger measuring determined our destination. It turns out all roads really do lead to Rome.

The last time I saw Elena was in March. She had finished her research program in Japan and was heading home to Romania. I first met Elena a year earlier at Kyoto University, where we found ourselves in the same five-day-a-week Japanese class. There were only nine of us in the class and we quickly became a tight-knit group both inside and outside of the classroom.

We were a veritable United Nations. Seema from India, Oneika from Jamaica, Nadia from Bosnia, Lani from the Philippines, Ricardo from Mexico, Fay from China, Luciana from Argentina, me from Canada. And, of course, Elena from Romania.

Elena was my constant traveling companion. We went to Hong Kong for spring break, rang in the New Year in the Philippines, and somehow managed to hike to the top of Mt. Fuji in freezing rain and driving wind.

When it comes to traveling, Elena and I are so similar you'd think we were separated at birth. We both agree the best way to see a new place is to walk 12 hours a day, several days in a row. We like to walk fast, weaving around the slow walkers clogging up the sidewalk. It's not that we're impatient or in a rush. We just like to walk fast. We also like to wake up early. We can be showered, dressed and ready to go in five minutes flat. We both hate shopping and refuse to spend time and money buying anything other than food and drinks while on vacation.

We are efficient and careful users of time, knowing we only have a limited amount of it. But we also like to stop for frequent snack breaks (okay, maybe that last one is just me).

Traveling on a tight budget is the biggest downside to being a student. Staying at a place with four stars, fluffy towels and free bathrobes was not an option. So we booked two beds in a hostel near the train station. My expectations were not high. When I think of hostels I think of a high school field trip gone haywire.

In my mind, hostels cater to the kind of clientele that likes to storm in and out of the room at all hours of the night, throw back vodka shots, chug beer through funnels, yell in the hallway, pee in the shower, vomit waterfalls from the top bunk, steal anything not nailed down, smoke in bed, throw garbage out the window, unleash bed bugs from dirty backpacks, and start violent fights that end with broken glass and smashed teeth.

This is what I steeled myself for en route to the hostel. Upon arrival, I took a deep breath, got ready to face my worst fears and pushed open the door to our shared room. But instead of being greeted by mayhem, I was greeted by silence. Elena, who arrived long before I did, was reading quietly on one of the beds. Two of our roommates were already fast asleep (it was just after 10 p.m. on Friday night). The third was wearing a long flannel nightgown buttoned up to her neck. She was sprawled out on one of the bottom bunks, scribbling furiously in her diary.

It was a pattern that would repeat itself every day for the next three days. Elena and I would leave the hostel before any of our roommates woke up and they were always asleep by the time we returned. Except for the woman in the flannel nightgown. All she did was write in her diary. Ironically, it turned out the person most likely to vomit waterfalls from the top bunk was me.

Elena was not only my travel companion but she was also my tour guide. Everywhere we went, she would read from a travel book on Rome written in Romanian. The book's accuracy was somewhat questionable. The book informed us that the Coliseum was built in the 1700s and it contained elevators that brought animals and gladiators up to the main stage. The book was also fond of stating the obvious. For example, there are a lot of Italian restaurants in Rome. Who knew?

We also learned that the locals don't drink cappuccinos after 10 a.m. If we tried to order one after lunch or dinner, we would expose ourselves as tourists. According to the Italians, a cappuccino is a morning drink and an espresso is an afternoon drink. According to me, a cappuccino is an any-time-of-day drink. The Italians and I will have to agree to disagree on this one.

We stood in line a lot. We lined up for three hours in the rain just to get inside the Vatican Museum. This was after spending one hour in the lineup we thought was for the museum but turned out to be for St. Peter's Basilica. It wasn't until we made it all the way to the front of the line that we realized our mistake.

We took a quick peek inside the basilica (if you've seen one Catholic church, you've seen them all. Although, admittedly, this one was a lot glitzier than the rest) and then headed back to the back of the line we should have been in in the first place. But by this time, the lineup for the Vatican Museum was two kilometers long. It stretched down the street, around the corner, down another street, around another corner, down yet another street and around yet another corner.

We also lined up for an hour to get inside the Coliseum. It was shorter than the Vatican lineup but it was much more annoying. Just as we were about to reach the ticket window, an older American couple appeared out of nowhere and cut in line ahead of us. A group of loud, obnoxious Spaniards started hurling insults and obscenities at the Americans trying to cut in line. I thought it was hypocritical of the Spaniards to harangue the Americans when they had spent the past hour chain smoking in line without giving a second thought to the people around them.

Elena and I decided let the Americans in line ahead of us. Partly because they were in their seventies. But mostly because letting the Americans jump the cue was a sneaky way to annoy the Spaniards who had been annoying us with their loud voices and cigarette smoke for the past hour.

Besides, I was happy enough to go along with the cultural stereotypes. If they were content to play the role of the arrogant Americans cheating their way to the front of the line then I was content to play the role of the passive Canadian letting them cut in line. Anything to avoid confrontation. Don't want to get into a fight, don't want to cause a scene, don't want to hurt anyone's feelings, don't want to take sides. You can take the girl out of Canada but you can't take the Canadian out of the girl.

Elena and I met a lot of Americans in Rome. Aside from the couple who cut in line, they were a very likable bunch. They were friendly, talkative and open. On the train back to the airport, I sat with three Americans from Kentucky -- a middle-aged mother, her teenage son and his 40-year-old uncle, Steve. Steve sat directly in from of me and introduced himself with a firm handshake and a hearty, "How ya doin'. Name's Steve. Where y'all from?"

I learned that they were a military family. Steve served in Desert Storm and his 19-year-old nephew -- a baby-faced boy with a buzz cut and a fuzzy blond mustache -- was shipping out to Afghanistan next week. A family trip across Europe was the boy's mom's idea. Their happiness made me sad. I couldn't stop thinking that this very alive, very young boy sitting right in front of me could be coming home in a coffin. For what?

It was the only sad note on a trip filled with so much laughter and fun. But this is the way it goes. People come and go. Friends move halfway around the world. Only the lucky ones get to see each other again.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

So many beautiful things (excluding public toilets)

Every weekend, I make a point of taking in at least one tourist attraction. So far, I've spent an afternoon in Cologne, visited Bonn's botanical garden, hiked to a hilltop castle, seen a modern dance performance, spent a day in Dusseldorf, strolled along the Rhine River, checked out the Beethoven Museum, and walked through Konigswinter's wine region.

It's good to do these things in small doses. Setting aside a few hours on a Saturday to see the sights is better than spending the entire weekend rushing from museum to castle. But this has nothing to do with a preference for quality over quantity. This is all about a lack of public toilets in Germany.

I would love to spend more than three hours wandering around Bonn on a Saturday afternoon but my bladder won't let me. There are no free public toilets anywhere.

There are public washrooms in the train stations but these usually come with a one-Euro cover charge. Unless you limit your sightseeing to a one-kilometre radius around the train station, you'll be nowhere near a public toilet when the urge strikes. And don't make the mistake of thinking McDonald's is a toilet safe haven -- the one place where you don't have to buy anything to use the bathroom.

I made that rookie mistake in Dusseldorf. I had been walking up and down the same street five times desperately looking for the "WC" marked on the map (this was before I realized the "WC" symbol dotted all over the map didn't refer to the location of a "water closet" but to "wheelchair" access).

So I ducked into a McDonald's, where I was surprised to see a toilet attendant stationed outside the stalls. She sat on a chair beside a table with a small pile of coins on it. There were no signs but the message was clear -- pay up if you want to use the toilet.

I mean, I probably didn't have to pay but this woman was a professional and she knew how to play the guilt card. I was washing my hands in the sink when she jumped up and handed me a paper towel. It was a strategic move. I couldn't get a paper towel with my hands still occupied under the running faucet. She had anticipated my needs and provided a service (albeit a service I didn't want or need). My conscience wouldn't let me walk out of there without adding a couple of coins to the pile.

This wasn't a five-star hotel. This was a McDonald's. A place where homeless people and non-paying customers should be able to use the bathroom for free. I'm not opposed to paying to using the bathroom in general. Just not at McDonald's. Multi-billion dollar corporations should give something back to the community. Free public toilets is the least they can do.

So I limit my sightseeing to a few hours on the weekend. But no matter where I go or what I do, there is always one common theme -- a desperate need to use a bathroom and an inability to find one.

Toilet troubles aside, I have seen so many beautiful things on these little sightseeing trips. Trees wrapped in misty morning fog along the Rhine River. Frank Gehry buildings sparkling and shining in the afternoon sun in Dusseldorf. Trees blazing in the throes of autumn beauty in Bonn's botanical garden. Grapes growing under rocky mountains in Konigswinter.

I only stayed a few hours in each of these places. I would have stayed longer but I had to use the bathroom and there were no toilets in sight. This is the story the photos don't tell.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Ausfahrts and dinkelpops

I am ashamed to admit that after more than one month in Germany, I still can't speak a single word of German. Unless you count the words that are already embedded in the English language. Kindergarten, hamburger, doppelganger, lederhosen, schadenfreude, sauerkraut and strudel. That's about the extent of my not-so-wunderbar vocabulary.

It's not something I'm proud of. I feel anxious and exposed when someone tries to strike up a conversation with me. I feel like I'm being rude if I reply to them in English when they ask me a question in German. I get self-conscious if I place an order at a restaurant without attempting to do it in German. It's like I'm saying, "Yeah. I'm living in your country but I can't be bothered to learn your language. So I'm going to force you to speak my language."

It's not that I don't want to learn German. It's just easy to survive without it. Pretty much everyone here can speak English. And no one seems to mind making the switch when they realize I have no clue what they're saying. There's not a lot of motivation to break out of the English-speaking bubble.

Except every time I leave my apartment, I get all stressed out when someone tries to talk to me in German. So I figured it was time to master a few uber-essential phrases to ease my angst. I came up with a list of expressions I wanted to learn:

1. "Sorry" (because I always seem to be bumping into people);

2. "Excuse me" (because I always seem to be trying to squeeze past people);

3. "I can't speak German" (because there's no excuse to keep saying it in English);

4. "Three buns, please" (because I'm tired of the mime routine. I always order three buns at the bakery and I feel like an idiot when the woman behind the counter asks what I want and I silently hold up three fingers and point at the buns instead of just asking for them like a normal person).

Learning how to say "sorry" was easy enough. It turns out the German word for "sorry" is "sorry." Learning how to say "excuse me" involved too many tongue-tripping consonants. So I decided to use "sorry" for "excuse me" like the way we do in Canada. Two birds, one stone.

As for the more meaty phrases, Google Translate taught me how to say, "Ich kann nicht Deutsch sprechen" (I can't speak German). But no matter how many times I nail it in practice, I can never remember how to say it in real life.

Like when I was in line at the grocery store and the guy ahead of me turned around and blurted out a few sentences in German. I smiled, thinking maybe he was just making a comment about how long it was taking to reach the cash register. But he repeated it again. And again. I stood there desperately trying to pull out the German words from the deepest recesses of my brain. But my neurons were taking a nap. I wasn't going to be able to fake my way through this one by smiling and nodding. He tried one more time before I broke down and told him I couldn't speak German (in English, of course).

And, so, in perfect English he told me he was waiting for a friend to add a few more things to his cart and I was free to jump ahead of him. I thanked him in German because, well, I've got to start somewhere.

My first real victory was learning how order three rolls at the bakery ("Drei spitz Brotchen bitte"). This was easy because it was strictly mechanical. I just had to memorize the phrase, repeat it in my head 100 times on the way to the bakery, stand in front of the counter and spit it out like a robot. It worked perfectly.

Although the second time I tried this, I asked for three buns and only got two. I felt defeated. Until I returned home and found out the numbers two (zwei) and three (drei) sound very similar, especially if your pronunciation is as embarrassingly bad as mine is. (I'm too self-conscious to attempt the back-of-the-throat gargling sounds.)

I'm slowly picking up other words here and there. Every time I see an interesting word, I make a note of it and look it up later. Like this one.

There are ausfahrt signs everywhere. And, yes, it's pronounced exactly the way you think it's pronounced. But it doesn't mean what you think it does (it means "exit"). I'm sure Germans are tired of their ausfahrts being the butt of juvenile jokes so I'm going to leave it at that.

Another one of my new favourite words is "dinkelpops."

How adorable is that? Puffed wheat is such an uninspired description of the world's most delicious cereal (after Grape-Nuts, that is). Dinkelpops is exactly what they are. Cute with a little touch of naughtiness.

Ausfahrts and dinkelpops. I'm making progress one word at a time. At this rate, I'll probably be able to string an entire sentence together before I leave Germany.

My German may be terrible but bad German is a whole lot better than no German.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Big cucumbers, small carrots

I feel like I'm looking at Germany through Japanese eyes. All the things that strike me as odd or awesome about Bonn are simply a collection of the things that clash with Kyoto.

Japan, not Canada, is the measuring stick against which I judge Germany.

When I moved to Japan, I remember being shocked by the size of the vegetables. The cucumbers were tiny and the carrots were huge. But I got used to it eventually. Tiny cucumbers and huge carrots became the new normal.

Two years later, I moved to Germany and found myself dealing with vegetable shock all over again. Only this time the cucumbers were huge and the carrots were tiny. Walking into a grocery store in Bonn was like walking into an alternate universe. The cucumbers weren't just big, they were obscenely big. Each one was longer than my forearm and thicker than a baguette.

I felt dizzy, as though the ground had suddenly shifted beneath my feet. Were cucumbers always this big? Had I become so accustomed to living in Japan that I had forgotten what cucumbers in the rest of the world were like? What was really real? And why do my existential crises always take place in grocery stores?

I've had a few other mildly discombobulating moments in Bonn. Like when my landlady Christine invited me into her apartment and insisted I keep my shoes on. Keep my shoes on? Inside the apartment? It felt wrong and dirty. Taking my shoes off in Japan is no longer just a custom I follow to be polite; it has become an ingrained habit. I actually flinch when I watch movies and see characters walking around indoors with their shoes on.

There are other things about Germany that I probably wouldn't have noticed if I hadn't come here directly from Japan. Like the bread, for example. I always thought the bread in Japan was terrible, I just didn't realize how awful it was until I arrived in Bonn. Japanese bread tastes like ground chicken feathers sealed in waxed paper compared to German bread.

The bread here is melt-in-your mouth good. It is crusty on the outside and fluffy on the inside. The butter tastes the way butter is supposed to taste -- rich, creamy, and smooth. And when you spread that butter on a freshly baked bun, the deliciousness of it all is enough to make your head explode.

Don't even get me started on the cheese. Cheese is non-existent in Japan and omnipresent in Germany. It's not all good, though. I bought some firm, yellowish cheese that looked tasty until I got home and opened it up. Its vile stench (a fragrant bouquet of hot vomit mixed with dirty socks and dead rats) made it impossible to eat without gagging.

And while we're on the topic of food, I might as well bring up one of the biggest cultural differences of all -- cafeteria food. The Kyoto University cafeteria and the UN cafeteria are like night and day. As far as I can tell, I am one of the only people who actually like the UN cafeteria. Most people prefer to either pack a lunch and eat at their desks or leave the compound in search of more palatable options. The general consensus is that the cafeteria food is too spicy, too heavy, and has too much sauce.

Which is exactly what I like about it. I've been eating lunch at the Kyoto University cafeteria for the past two years, and the food is never spicy, saucy, or heavy. Japanese food is great but a girl can only take so much cold fish, white rice, and miso soup.

My enthusiasm for the spicy, saucy cafeteria food is causing a few raised eyebrows. I ran into one coworker on my way back from the cafeteria the other day and she asked me how my lunch was.

"Delicious!" I told her.

She eyed me suspiciously.

"How long have you been here?" she asked.

"Two weeks," I said.

"Just wait," she laughed. "Your opinion will change."

I hope she's right. All of this gorging on heavy food is making it tough to fit into my jeans. But I don't feel bad about gaining a few pounds in a place where the vast majority of the population is tall and strapping. I could gain 10 pounds here and still be small by comparison. It's a nice change from Japan, where so many women are slaves to an unhealthy standard of skinniness. I feel like a sasquatch in Japan. Especially when shopping for clothes. Shoes stop at size 8 and pants stop at your ankles -- if you're lucky enough to get them up past your butt and hips in the first place. One of the first things I did in Bonn was buy a pair of pants. Hooray for Western sizes!

Of course, not all of the differences are positive. Public transit is so good in Japan that public transit anywhere else is insufferably bad by comparison. No one does public transit like Japan. It's fast, efficient, convenient, and reliable. There isn't a single corner of the country you can't get to by public transit, and you can guarantee the white-gloved driver will get you there on time. If a train is scheduled to arrive at 12:32 p.m. it will arrive at exactly 12:32 p.m. Bus drivers treat you with respect and courtesy. They'll go out of their way to help you and throw in a bow or two (or 10) while doing it. After all, you are the customer and the customer is king in Japan.

Not so much in Germany. I have taken the bus three times in Bonn. The first time the bus driver screamed at me after I didn't pay my fare properly. The second time the bus was 15 minutes late. The third time the bus was one hour late. There has not, and never will be, a fourth time. Walking is faster and less stressful.

Besides, walking gives me time to reflect on all the things that are odd or awesome about Bonn, and how incredibly lucky I am to be here.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Home sweet temporary home

It's hard to believe I've only been in Bonn for one week. It feels like I've been here for a year. I guess that's what happens when you step off the plane and into a whirling vortex of activity.

I arrived Thursday night and started working at the UN the next morning. The day after that, I looked for a place to live, found a place to live, and went to a dinner party. On Monday, I moved out of the hotel and into an apartment. Along the way, I got yelled at (in German) by a bus driver after attempting to put coins in the fare slot instead of placing them on the little tray (how was I supposed to know?). I guess I jammed up the machine pretty badly because the driver kept swearing and pounding on it with his fist every time someone needed change. He also made a point of turning around and throwing a few hostile stares in my direction during these frequent temper tantrums. I haven't taken the bus since.

On Tuesday, I got lost on my way to my landlady's art opening, missed the show, and discovered that my bankcard wasn't working. On Wednesday, the bank unblocked my card and I finally topped up my dwindling supply of cash. On Thursday, I went to my landlady's apartment to pay the rent and ended up staying for dinner.

I feel like I won the apartment lottery. I'm living in the basement of a beautiful old house built in 1886. The apartment is fully furnished and has free internet and its own private garden (all for 505 Euro a month, including heat, hot water, and electricity). It's quiet, clean, and cozy. The two other tenants -- a young Italian woman and an older Spanish man -- also work at the UN. The location is about as good as it gets. It's a 10-minute walk to the centre of town, a two-minute walk to the Rhine River, and a five-minute walk to pretty much everything else.

But what makes me happiest about the apartment is the people who rented it to me. I was just one person in a long line of people who were viewing the apartment on the weekend. But I had one advantage -- my Canadian passport. It turns out that Christine, the owner of the house, is also Canadian. Originally from Switzerland, she moved to Montreal at the age of 20 and loved it so much she stuck around for 10 years and became a citizen. She instantly warmed to me and I instantly warmed to her. She later confessed that my being Canadian was what made her decide to rent the apartment to me.

She and her German husband Eduard live in an airy, rambling apartment two floors above mine. Christine is an artist and Eduard is a music producer. They are fun and friendly and love cats just as much as I do. I went to their apartment to pay the rent on Thursday night and Christine invited me in and we ended up talking in her kitchen the whole night. Christine and Eduard insisted I stay for dinner and we feasted on tomatoes, bread, cheese, salad and red wine by candlelight. The three of us talked about everything -- music, marriage, cats, children, grandchildren, Eduard's adventures in Los Angeles, and Christine's adventures in Canada's wild spaces and beautiful places.

It has been no different at work. I have been warmly welcomed and made to feel like a part of the team. The work is challenging, interesting, and meaningful. The cafeteria food is delicious. I am exactly where I want to be, doing exactly what I want to do. Sometimes I just want to pinch myself. How did I get so lucky?

I don't think I will ever tire of walking around Bonn. I love the way the rows of old houses are seamlessly stitched together and stand right up against the sidewalk. I love their richly decorated facades, arched windows, heavy doors, and high ceilings. The houses remind me of towering wedding cakes -- all sugary swirls, etched edges, and gilded pillars. To me, these elaborate flourishes epitomize the romantic, idealized image of Europe -- a place with magnificent architecture and cobblestone streets.

It's strange, this adjusting to life in a new city. I thought I would feel lost or disoriented. But I don't. I haven't experienced any culture shock, other than getting yelled at by the bus driver and being blown away by the size of the cheese section at the grocery store.

Sharing a train with hundreds of drunken, rowdy football fans was also pretty shocking (and by "football" I really mean "soccer"). They were yelling, drinking, and smoking. Most of them were so muscular their necks were non-existent. Some of them were missing teeth. All of them seemed to be a hair-trigger away from throwing punches at each other, which probably explains why there were an equal number of police officers riding the train.

It's hard to believe I've only been in Bonn for one week.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Sayonara, Japan! Guten Tag, Germany!

My fans have been begging me to post an update for a while now (and by "fans" I really mean "two friends, plus my mom") so here goes. During the last few months, I:

1. Hiked and camped my way across southern Japan for three weeks during March break. It was so cold that the rain pelting the tent turned into ice overnight, and my water bottle froze solid.

2. Started a master's degree in environmental management at Kyoto University's Graduate School of Global Environmental Studies.

3. Wrote seven essays.

4. Made six presentations.

5. Started drinking coffee on a regular basis.

6. Went camping with three Slavic men. We hiked for four days on a trail that no longer existed. I don't know what was worse: dealing with the terrible trail conditions or the Eastern European egos. At least they argued in Russian, which made tuning them out easy.

7. Developed a crush on Paul the Octopus while following the FIFA World Cup.

8. Turned a good friend into a boyfriend.

9. Signed up for the Tokyo Marathon.

10. Went on a week-long field trip in the forest to cut down trees and dig holes.

11. Got 5 million mosquito bites.

12. Stepped on a snake. Didn't get bitten.

13. Was approached by Sofia Coppola to star in Lost in Translation II but had to turn it down due to a scheduling conflict (just kidding).

14. Camped on top of a mountain with three friends in a tent made for two. Watched from inside the tent as the food we had left outside was devoured by wild monkeys.

15. Developed an addiction to Futurama (10 years late).

16. Ate half my weight in ramen.

17. Was awarded a three-month internship with the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in Bonn, Germany. I fly out tomorrow and start working on Friday!

Sayonara, Japan! Guten Tag Germany!

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

A love letter to Canada

Dear Canada,

Happy 143rd birthday! Although, let's be honest, we both know you're much older than the 143 years the European settlers pretend you are. You may not have been a country in the legal sense of the word but people have called your land home for more than 20,000 years. Dinosaurs roamed across your plains long before we ever did.

The 143-year-old ruse reminds me of the way my mom continues to celebrate her 29th birthday 30 years running. But whatever. Today is not a day to point out your flaws. Today is a day to celebrate all of the wonderful and wacky things that make you so special.

You are so much more than maple syrup, hockey and poutine. You are not just snowshoes, canoes and barbeques. You are the rock beneath our feet. O Canada, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways . . .

1. Freedom: We are free to be whoever we want to be, say whatever we want to say, and wear whatever we want to wear. Other countries have burqas, bombs, and bullets. We have gay marriage, universal health care, and beer.

2. Diversity: We are a country of immigrants. We have different cultures, different religions, and different ideas but we all somehow manage to get along. We don't throw rocks at each other. We don't plant bombs outside busy markets. We don't believe in blowing each other up. We believe in human rights. We believe in tolerance. We believe a new citizen is every bit as Canadian as someone whose family has been here for five generations. Jamaican, Chinese, African, Indian, Australian . . . we are all Canadian.

3. Tim Hortons: A double-double and a chocolate dip to go, please.

4. Food: We can eat a burrito for breakfast, sushi for lunch, and souvlaki for dinner. A walk around the block is like a gastronomic trip around the world. But food from our own backyard is the best food of all. Blueberries, apples, pears, blackberries, corn, rhubarb, strawberries, potatoes, carrots, cherries, fiddleheads, and tomatoes. Just to name a few.

5. Wilderness: We have real wilderness in Canada. These vast, uninhabited areas are among the last remaining tracts of wilderness in the world. This is our national treasure and we should guard it with our lives. Canada does not just belong to us. It belongs to bears, moose, and caribou too.

6. The CBC: George Stroumboulopoulos, Claire Marin, Rick Mercer, Peter Mansbridge, Jian Ghomeshi, Anna Maria Tremonti, and good old Stuart McLean. The Hour, As it Happens, Definitely not the Opera, Vinyl Tap, A Propos, and The Current. The CBC is intelligent, funny, thoughtful, provincial, original, folksy, and fun. Sophisticated but not sleek. Polished but still a little amateurish. Just like us.

7. Manners: We are polite. We are friendly. We are humble. We are modest. We are unobtrusive. We say "sorry" a lot. We say sorry when you tell us to stop saying sorry all the time. (Sorry! We can’t help it.)

8. The four seasons: Lake swimming in summer, cross-country skiing in winter, walking under a canopy of red maple leaves in fall, and watching cherry trees bloom in spring.

9. Film and TV: FUBAR and Exotica. Degrassi and the Trailer Park Boys. We turn low budgets into brilliant art. Just giv'r!

10. Space: We are a big country with a small population. We can drive for days and still be in the same province. We can walk into the woods and not see another person for months. We live in towns so remote you can only get there by boat or plane. Our biggest cities aren't big at all. Thirty-four million people live in Canada. Thirty-four million people live in the Greater Tokyo Area.

Happy Birthday, Canada! You ancient, rocky, sexy hunk of land you!

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Homeless in Hokkaido: Part V

Part I | Part II | Part III | Part IV

Our last day in Hokkaido was a lot less interesting to us than it was to the people around us. Everywhere we went, Sergey and I were the main topic of conversation. I say this not out of paranoia or megalomania, but out of an ability to understand Japanese.

For example, our decision to eat a low-budget breakfast at the train station was a gossip-filled affair. We bought two bowls of instant ramen and sat on a bench in the waiting room. Three older Japanese women sitting on the bench directly behind us gave a running commentary on our every move.

"Look! Gaijin!"

"What are they doing?"

"They're eating ramen."

"It looks like they're enjoying it."

"It sure does."

"They're using chopsticks."

"They sure are."

Sergey and I pretended we couldn't understand them, bending our heads over our cups of ramen so they couldn't see us smiling. It was fun eavesdropping on the locals. They talked about us like we were monkeys in a zoo.

This was about as exciting as our last day in Hokkaido got. Not that I'm complaining. An uneventful day was exactly what we needed after the misadventure-plagued portion of the trip. We were determined not to repeat the same stupid mistakes that got us into trouble in the first place -- like not checking the ferry schedule and getting stuck in Hokkaido an extra day. We couldn't afford to miss the ferry again so instead of simply checking the schedule online, we walked three kilometres to the ferry terminal first thing in the morning to book our tickets for the sailing later that night.

It was our second trip to the ferry terminal but this time the lights were on and the doors were open. We had 12 hours to kill before the ferry left so we decided to head out for another hike in the hills. But we stopped so many times along the way that we didn't even make it to the base of the mountain.

Our first stop was to see if the snowman we built the day before was still standing. It wasn't. Someone had cruelly kicked the snowman in the stomach and its body laid in pieces on the ground. The one-yen coins that served as the snowman's eyes had been plucked out of his head and, presumably, tucked into the perpetrator's pocket. We were sad for a moment but realized there was no point mourning the loss of a few clumps of snow -- our cute little Mible was no more.

We continued on toward the mountain, and accidentally stumbled onto Otaru's main tourist strip. Despite covering most of the town on foot the day before, we had somehow missed Otaru's biggest attraction -- an intersection decorated with three different clock towers.

I don't know for a fact whether this is Otaru's biggest attraction or not, but there were at least 60 tourists taking pictures of the clock towers and we hadn't seen any tourists taking pictures of anything up until now so the odds were pretty good that this intersection was a big deal.

We joined the crowd and took our own pointless photos. We browsed through a massive store selling thousands of miniature clock towers and a few stuffed octopuses (whose relationship to the clock towers is still unclear).

We eventually left the clock towers behind and continued hiking toward the mountain but it wasn't long before we were sidetracked again. The glow of McDonald's golden arches caught Sergey's eye. But, sadly for Sergey, his beloved McPork wasn't on the menu.

It was starting to get dark and we were still nowhere near the mountain. We decided to give up on the hike and take the bus back into town. But we were too tired to figure out which bus to take or which bus stop to stand at so we simply walked back. Walking back required no brainpower. We didn't even need to look at the map. By this point, we had visited every tourist attraction and walked every square inch of every street -- twice. We could have written the Lonely Planet guide to Otaru.

Back in town, we had time for dinner and coffee before making our way to the ferry terminal for the long trip home. The ferry heading back to Honshu was much busier than the one that took us to Hokkaido. There were about 50 people on board. Although, technically speaking, 50 people on board a boat built for 1,000 doesn't make it "busy." It just felt busy compared to the grand total of eight passengers on the ferry on the way over.

Luckily, the ferry plowed through nothing but calm seas during the 20-hour sailing. I didn't have to deal with the roiling waves and low-grade seasickness that kept me flat on my back on the way to Hokkaido. This time around, I only felt like throwing up after eating "kimichi and cheese" instant ramen.

Aside from a poor choice in soup, the ferry ride was thoroughly enjoyable. The on-board entertainment was top notch. We were treated to a live concert by two restaurant workers who play in a jazz band in their spare time. They played such hits as "Sometimes When we Touch."

They chatted up the audience in between songs. They told us they perform on the ferry every day but they were especially happy today because normally only three people turn up to hear them play. Today they were playing for a record-breaking crowd of 16 (almost half of all the passengers on board).

The rest of the ferry ride was uneventful. The trip was ending on a calm note -- completely opposite to its chaotic start. We went to Hokkaido for the majestic mountains, the outdoor onsens, and the fabulous food. Except we took a wrong turn somewhere along the way and ended up on a tour of northern Japan that was more farce than fantasy.

Everything that could go wrong did go wrong. But that was part of the trip's charm. It may have gone sideways but it was never boring. Especially when we got kicked out of McDonald's at 4 a.m. with no other accommodation lined up for the night. To steal a line from Hunter S. Thompson, it never got weird enough for us.