Monday, December 24, 2012

Merry Christmas (or "Frohe Weihnachten" as it's called in these parts)

I won't be home for Christmas. I'm spending the holidays in Bonn. This is my first Western-style Christmas in four years (Christmas in Japan is all about eating fried chicken and having sex).

Christmas in Germany is almost exactly like Christmas in Canada. There are lights and trees and tinsel and caroling. There are cheesy ads on TV and seasonal songs in all the stores. All that's missing is freezing temperatures and heavy snow. But what rainy Bonn lacks in wintery atmosphere, it makes up for in Glühwein.

Every December, Christmas markets spring up in city centres across Germany for three full weeks. The markets are composed of dozens of wooden huts selling various things. There are a few stalls selling things that could be wrapped and put under a Christmas tree but most of the stalls are geared toward the more hedonistic side of the season -- selling Glühwein (hot, mulled wine) and wurst (I'm not a fan but people here seem to like it. Back home, they'd also sell tofu-dogs alongside the meat variety but that's a trend that hasn't yet caught on in Germany.)

Judging by the amount of vomit on the sidewalks and on the tram, people seem to really enjoy the Glühwein. I had my first taste of Glühwein last weekend and I have to say there is something intensely satisfying about a hot cup of spiced wine on a cold winter night.

Anyway, wishing you a merry Christmas (and a very happy whatever it is you do or don't celebrate this time of year)!

Sunday, November 04, 2012

Weekend in Prague

It takes time to really get to know a place. To peel back layer after layer to get to the core of what makes it tick. You have to live there, work there, learn the language and make friends in order to really understand it. Travelling through a place only gives you enough time to explore its first layer -- what the buildings look like, what the food tastes like and what the general atmosphere feels like. But if you only have time to skim the surface then you might as well do it in a place like Prague with its awe-inspiring skyline of castles, cathedrals, towers and domes.

Three days in Prague is exactly enough time to soak in the atmosphere. Simply walking through the city's narrow lanes is a magical experience. There's something inherently romantic about a narrow street with cobblestones underfoot and church spires overhead. A narrow street is cozy and intimate, built for people rather than cars. That it snowed while we were there only served to make an already beautiful city even more beautiful.

Snow makes everything beautiful

Snow on the Charles Bridge

Inside the castle

My feet were warm and dry all weekend thanks to the plastic bags

Of course, Prague also has a sinister side. I came prepared to get ripped off after a Slovakian colleague who lived in Prague for 18 years filled my head with stories about criminals who took over the city after the fall of communism. The switch to a market economy gave rise to an enterprising new industry that existed solely to rip off tourists. Cab drivers, hotel owners, restaurant owners and pickpockets were all in on the scam. (I'm told it's not nearly as bad today as it used to be.)

I'm happy to report that Sergey and I didn't get robbed or ripped off. The only halfway shady thing that happened was when a guy appeared out of thin air, sidled up next to us and asked, "Change?" (Meaning, did we want to exchange our money on the street? We did not.) And we were taken for a bit of a ride when we arrived in Prague to find our hotel reservation had been mysteriously cancelled, forcing us to find last-minute accommodations. We spent our first hour in Prague at an internet cafe where we booked another hotel room online. But when we went to the hotel to check in, we were told it was fully booked. They kept the money and sent us to another hotel under the same management, assuring us the rooms were the same price (they weren't). That was as bad as it got, which wasn't bad at all.

Still, it's easy to see how con artists can thrive in a place like Prague. The city was packed with tourists. We heard people speaking Russian, German, Japanese, Korean, Italian, Spanish and English. Every language except Czech. In the historic centre, it seemed every second shop was selling tacky souvenirs (hats stitched with the word Prague, t-shirts stamped with idiotic sayings like "Czech me out!" and all sorts of useless crap). There were so many tour groups that you could join one for a few minutes to listen to the tour guide explain a few interesting facts and then move on. Sometimes you found yourself tacked on to the back end of a tour group whether or not you wanted to be. Although simply following the stream of tourists proved to be helpful in the absence of a guidebook.

Tourists as far as the eye can see

One more tourist in the crowd

Taking the overnight train to Prague was an adventure in itself. It takes about 12 hours to get from Bonn to Prague by overnight train. Much slower than flying but way more glamorous. I love the idea of long-distance train travel. It harkens back to a bygone era of rail travel -- gourmet meals in the wood-paneled dining car, piano music in the gold-trimmed lounge car and white-gloved crew members serving up champagne in plush, private cabins. (I've never actually experienced this kind of train travel but I'm nostalgic for it nonetheless.)

Our train ride was the opposite of that. There was no dining car, no white-glove treatment and the only music we heard was the snoring of other passengers. I was looking forward to being rocked to sleep by the rhythm of the rails in my cozy berth but was kept up all night by people getting off and on the train at different stops.

We booked the second-class couchette car on the City Night Line train. Each compartment on the couchette car is the size of a closet with six bunks stacked three deep on each side.

Our hot and sweaty (but not in a good way) compartment

The train attendants bang on your compartment door 20 minutes before your stop, which is a great way to avoid missing your stop but not so great when you're sharing a compartment with travelers getting off the train at 4 a.m. The compartments were hot and stuffy. The train attendant told us to keep the door to our compartment closed because of the bandits who jump on the train at different stops, steal bags, pull the emergency brake and jump out the window.

Still, it was nice to see the sunrise from inside the train and to arrive in Prague as the city was waking up.

Watching the sun rise from inside the train

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Living in Germany: The good, the bad and the weird

Cyclists in Bonn get their own little traffic lights. How cute is that?

There are many things about living in Germany that strike me as weird or wonderful. Here are a few of them.

Naked swimming
Public swimming pools in Bonn are pretty much like public swimming pools in the rest of the world. Except that public swimming pools in Bonn have naked days. The first Sunday of every month is known as Adam and Eve day and wearing a swimsuit is not an option. Go nude or go home.

Panic shopping on Saturday evening
Nothing is open in Bonn on Sunday. All of the shops and all of the supermarkets shut down on Saturday evening and don't open again until Monday morning. So every Saturday evening, just before the stores close, a mad rush of people charge into the supermarkets to stock up on food and drinks for the rest of the weekend. Most supermarkets only have three check-out counters so the lines are long and the aisles are crowded and if you don't get there early enough all of the fresh stuff is long gone by 7 p.m.

White asparagus. What's the point?
White asparagus is mysteriously popular in Germany. When it's in season, grocery stores, restaurants and markets are bursting at the seams with white asparagus. Green asparagus is nowhere to be found. I have no idea why white asparagus is so popular and green asparagus so elusive. White asparagus doesn't taste as good as green asparagus and it's less nutritious (white asparagus is grown under thick mulch. Deprived of sunlight, it can't produce chlorophyll, which is why it is white not green).

Padded coffee
Just like white asparagus, coffee pads are mysteriously popular in Germany. Germans class up their coffee by putting in into a pad and selling a machine whose sole purpose is to brew said pad. I had never heard of coffee pads until I moved to Germany. My apartment came with a coffee-pad machine and my German landlord (a huge, raving fan of coffee pads) taught me how to use it, telling me I'd never go back to freshly ground coffee again. Coffee pads aren't as delicious as fresh coffee but they get the job done quickly and the coffee isn't as bad as you'd think it would be.

Brewing up some coffee pads in my funky coffee-pad machine

Waiting for the little green man
Jaywalking is verboten. People wait for the lights to change, even in the middle of the night with no cars around for miles. If you must jaywalk, make sure there is no one watching you. Otherwise, prepare to get a nasty look or publicly scolded in German. Which, based on personal experience, is way scarier than getting yelled at in English.

Clarity-frei street signs
I don't understand this sign. What does "frei" mean? Does it mean you can bike freely down this street even though it's a one-way street? Or does it mean this street is free of bikes because it's a one-way street? Adding to my confusion is the fact that I got scolded (twice) by a police officer for riding my bike the wrong way down a one-way street. The street in question wasn't marked with a bike-frei sign, which I had originally interpreted to mean no biking (like lactose-frei milk, I assumed the "frei" in bike frei meant "without"). So I figured cyclists were free to ride down any street without a bike-frei sign. But now that I've gotten into trouble with the law for riding freely down a street without a bike-frei sign, I'm having second thoughts. Now I'm starting to think bike frei means to bike freely in any direction. But I'm still not sure. Feel "frei" to clarify in the comments section.

Free of bikes or bike freely? Your guess is as good as mine

Cheese overload
I am officially sick of cheese. I don't want to eat it. I don't want to smell it. I don't want to see it. Even writing about it is making me feel queasy. Eating out in Germany usually means ordering something baked with cheese, covered with cheese, sprinkled with cheese or carved out of cheese. What's with all the cheese? (The bread, on the other hand remains melt-in-your-mouth delicious. I will never get sick of German bread.)

Tap water is taboo
I have never seen so many people guzzle so much sparkling water in my life. Forget beer. Sparking water and Apfelschorle are what everyone really drinks here. If you order water at a restaurant, the waiter will ask if you want sparkling or flat. Flat water does not mean tap water, it means bottled water that isn't bubbly. Don't even bother asking for tap water. No one drinks it, no one orders it and the waiter will probably fight you on it. It's not worth the hassle.

The multi-person beer-drinking bicycle-riding machine
I don't know what the German word is for this contraption. Let's just call it the multi-person beer-drinking bicycle-riding machine. These things are all over the road in Dusseldorf and Berlin. As far as I can tell, a driver (presumably sober but who knows?) steers the thing through traffic while everyone else drinks beer and pedals. It's just like drinking at a bar but with way more people checking you out. (It's illegal for me to ride my bike the wrong way down a one-way street but it's legal for these guys to block traffic with their giant, boozy, 10-seater bicycle?)

Calorie-neutral drinking

Telling time the old-fashioned way
I live across the street from a church that rings its bells four times an hour. They ring on the hour and they ring at a quarter past. They ring on the half-hour mark and again at a quarter to. Sometimes all the bells ring at once in a loud, clanging frenzy for several minutes straight. This happens absurdly early on Sunday morning and carries on most of the afternoon. Is all of this bell ringing really necessary? What's the point? Especially the time-telling function. Is there anyone out there who actually relies on church bells to know what time it is?

Thirty-one flavours of yogurt
Germany has more flavours of yogurt than ice cream. They have the usual flavours, like blueberry, strawberry and mixed berry. But they also have funky flavours, like pear chunks and chocolate flakes, mixed grains, coconut and figs. If you can think of a flavour, there's a yogurt for that.

Huge pillows
Why are the pillows so big? Germans don't have extra-big heads so why do they need extra-big pillows that take up one-third of the bed? These aren't decorative pillows. These are the pillows you're supposed to lay your head on when you go to sleep.

A Canadian-sized pillow on top of a German-sized pillow

Doners: not just a snack after binge drinking
There are doner shops everywhere in Germany. In Canada, I've only seen people eating doners on the street at 3 a.m. after stumbling out of a bar. Here, people eat them for lunch and dinner while sober.

Sidewalk rage is the new road rage
It's not easy being a pedestrian in Bonn. Especially when the sidewalks are overrun with cars. The roads are narrow and the sidewalks are wide, which probably explains why it is perfectly legal for drivers to park their cars all over the sidewalk. This is great for drivers but not so great for the pedestrians and cyclists who have to maneuver around these monstrosities. Cars and sidewalks go together like alcohol and rollercoasters.

Kind of like plaque constricting the flow of blood through an artery

Doors that lock automatically
Here's a lesson I learned the hard way: apartment doors lock automatically when you close them. I'm not talking about the front door of the building but the door to each individual apartment (like a hotel room). This is something the landlord doesn't tell you. Why would he? Everybody knows the doors lock automatically. Except for those of us who come from countries where the doors only lock if you put the key in the hole and turn the deadbolt yourself. Anyway, I found out the door locked automatically when I closed it with my keys still inside the apartment. It was bad enough that I locked myself out, it was even worse that it happened on a long weekend when my landlord was on vacation in the south of France. (It took a few hours but I managed to reach my landlord, who then coerced an intern to go to his office, get his spare key and drive out to my apartment and unlock the door. I have been paranoid about locking myself out ever since.)

Trains that run on time? Not in Germany
Contrary to popular belief, trains in Germany do not run on time all the time. They run on time maybe half the time. The other half of the time, the trains are delayed anywhere from five to 45 minutes (or cancelled altogether). I'm not sure why Germany has a reputation for fast and efficient public transit. 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.

Vibrator vending machines
Vending machines that sell tampons and condoms in public washrooms are par for the course. But in Germany, the washroom vending machines go one step further by adding vibrators to the menu. I wonder what they sell in the men's room?

Everything you need for a fun night out

Sunday, October 14, 2012

My morning commute

As someone who has never owned a car, the distance between work and home has always been my biggest priority when hunting for an apartment. The commute is the deal-breaker or the deal-maker.

I need to live in a place where I can walk to work. Walking to where I need to go is something I've done since childhood. I walked to elementary school. I walked to high school. I walked to university. And I walked to every job I've ever had since then. The reason is as simple as the act of walking itself: it makes me feel good.

Walking helps me wake up before I get to work and decompress before I get home. It gives me time to think about things or to turn off my brain and not think about anything at all. It's a way to lighten my footprint on the planet. And it's a guarantee that, no matter how busy I am or how late I have to stay at the office, I will get a little bit of exercise every single day.

Ideally, it should take me somewhere between 45 minutes and one hour to walk to work. Less than 45 minutes and it's too short. More than one hour and it's too long. The commute should also contain a good amount of beauty, something to make me feel inspired on a daily basis. The length of the commute is important but so too is the scenery along the way. The fewer busy roads the better.

That's how I picked my apartment here in Bonn. I looked at a dozen different apartments before settling on one. It wasn't the nicest apartment of the bunch. But it had the best commute. It takes about one hour to walk to work and I can get there several ways. I can walk along the Rhine River. I can walk through the park. Or I can walk along quiet side streets.

I can't imagine living in the suburbs and sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic for two hours each day. I couldn't do it. I also can't imagine living in a country where it's extremely dangerous for women to walk alone at night. I'm lucky to be free and healthy enough to choose a car-free lifestyle and it's something I try not to take for granted. So I walk because I can.

I always keep my camera in my backpack just in case there is something worth photographing. These are some of my favourite photos from my commute to work in Bonn.

Sunrise on the Rhine River in winter

Early morning on the Rhine River in summer

Fall fog in the Rhine park

As it gets cooler the morning walks get foggier

Lone tree in the fog

Winter in the Rhine park close to the office

Boat in the fog

Cherry blossoms this spring in the Rhine park

Sunset on my way home last Friday

View of the Japanese garden on my way home

Short cut through the train station to avoid waiting at the lights

Down and up

Waiting for the train to go by before crossing the tracks

My neighbourhood

The corner near where I live (for now)

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

George Stroumboulopoulos and his distractingly tight pants

Every fall, a new season of George Stroumboulopoulos Tonight begins. And with each new season comes big changes -- name changes, time changes, studio changes, channel changes -- but no changes have been as radical as the ones introduced this fall.

The length of the show has been chopped in half, the studio has been completely redesigned, the time slot has been moved to primetime, the news segment is out and a new three-person comedy panel is in. Also, George now wears skinny jeans that are distractingly tight in the crotch region (not that I'm complaining).

Here's how George explains the new format: "We used to go to bed together. Now we're having dinner together -- and maybe just that."

Cutting the show to 30 minutes and moving it from 11 p.m. to primetime may be good for ratings but it's bad for those of us who liked the freedom late-night television gave George to be George. Gone from the primetime show are George's musings on religion, politics and the environment. George was always impartial but he was never neutral. You never knew what party he voted for but you always knew what issues he cared about. His show was often a platform for his activism (he's an ambassador for the United Nations World Food Programme and he's traveled to the Arctic for a special on literacy, youth culture, and the loss of Inuit identity. He's been to Sudan with War Child Canada, and to Zambia for a World AIDS Day documentary. He sponsored the One Million Acts of Green challenge and he's a member of the David Suzuki Foundation's board of directors).

I miss the anti-religious, anti-consumerist and anti-authoritarian undertones of the old format. The only good thing about cutting the show in half is that it gives George less time to talk about hockey. I hate hockey.

But 30 minutes isn't enough time to let George do what he does best -- the long-form interview. George is a master of the long-form interview. He is sincere, interested, informed and intelligent. As a result, his subjects respect him. His interviews often feel more like conversations. He knows how to draw stories out of actors, directors, writers, musicians, athletes, activists and politicians. He's done the research and knows what he's talking about. He takes his time when asking a question. And, more importantly, he listens to what the other person is saying. He doesn't read scripted notes. He doesn't fawn. He isn't fake. He leans forward and draws people in with his natural charm and those big, brown liquidy eyes. He’s not just a good interviewer, he's an award-winning interviewer (as his collection of Geminis attests).

The CBC is making a big deal about moving the show to 7 p.m. But is this really a big deal? Do people still watch TV shows on television? I haven't watched TV shows on television since 2006. The beauty of watching George's show online is that I can watch it when it's convenient for me. So I can watch him when I eat breakfast or when I come home from work. Or I can just curl up on the couch and watch an entire week's worth of episodes back-to-back on Saturday afternoon. I suspect that most of his audience watches the show the same way, so why not keep it in the 11 p.m. timeslot?

Perhaps the move to primetime is a recognition by the CBC that George is one of its biggest stars. But what made him a star are all of the things you can't do in primetime. This is why Canadians like him. We sense he is genuine, deep and intelligent. If we want shallow and superficial, we'll watch CNN. The CBC is a public broadcaster. It should not be overly concerned about numbers and ratings and making money. Sure the CBC might get higher ratings by moving the show to primetime but at what cost? Is it worth getting more viewers if you have to sacrifice quality and depth? But there's no way to talk about this without talking about government funding and budget cuts and that's a post better left for another day.

As for the new set, I'm still getting used to it. It's too slick. Too bright. Too corporate. It's a beautifully designed set for a morning show. But not for George. The show's old set was always dark with lots of black. And I think this darkness contributed to the success of his interviews. It set a mood that helped people open up. The mood was serious and somber, a perfect setting for probing questions. The new studio doesn't match the mood that George tries to set in his interviews. It's too light, bright and airy. Of course, not all of George's interviews are serious. He's a funny guy and maybe he wants to inject more humour into the show. A lighter, brighter set better reflects this new direction.

The biggest change this season is the introduction of the three-person comedy panel. The panel takes up the last 10 minutes of each show and features two permanent panelists (comedian Ali Hassan and actress Naomi Snieckus) and one rotating guest panelist (filled by various celebrities but best when filled by the funny ones like Andrea Martin and Colin Mochrie). The panel riffs on random topics while George facilitates. Ali and Naomi are clever and funny. The panel is a good idea but it would be better to have it once a week rather than every night. Turning it into a weekly segment would keep it fresh and fun.

Anyway, I'm happy to see the show is still on the air. Nine seasons is an impressive run for a Canadian talk show. George just keeps getting better (and hotter) as he gets older. I just wish the CBC would recognize that George is one of their best interviewers and give him the time and space to do long interviews.

The new show is good. But I prefer the hour-long, late-night format.

Me and George outside CBC headquarters in Toronto this summer

Just for fun, here are a few of my previous posts about George Stroumboulopoulos:

We love George

George goes to America

Four hours with George Stroumboulopoulos

George Stroumboulopoulos: Canadian sex symbol 

An hour with George Stroumboulopoulos

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Hiking in the Swiss Alps

Hiking doesn't get much better than this. Big mountains, breathtaking views and world-class trails -- steep, challenging and a little bit scary -- stretching out for hundreds of kilometres in all directions.

Hiking in the Swiss Alps isn't exactly a wilderness experience. The valleys are dotted with resort towns and railway lines. The mountainsides are home to cows and goats rather than bears and cougars. It's wilderness lite. But this is part of the charm of hiking in Switzerland. Civilization never really disappears but it doesn't encroach on the landscape either. It strikes the right balance between nature and culture. You can hike for hours with nothing but mountain peaks and frozen glaciers for company and then, like a mirage in a desert, you turn a corner and there's a mountain hut serving up cold beer on the edge of a cliff. It's luxurious and I love it.

I've gone soft and I'm okay with that. Ten years ago I would have scoffed at the idea of hiking in a developed area. It's easy to be a backcountry snob in Canada with its open spaces and wild places. Hiking back home means walking into the wilderness with your tent on your back and walking out a week later dirty, smelly and covered in mosquito bites. No hotels, no restaurants, no hot showers, no cold beer. Nothing but uninterrupted wilderness.

The only downside is that it's impossible to get to the edge of civilization in Canada without a car. Not just a car but the kind of car that can withstand bone-rattling logging roads that deliver you to the trailhead. All of the backcountry hiking I did in British Columbia wouldn't have been possible without Paul Johnson and his truck. (Wow. Just writing that brought tears of homesickness to my eyes.)

The beauty of living in Europe is that you can get deep into the mountains by public transit (I suppose this is also the downside of living in Europe. If you can get deep into the mountains by public transit, it means everyone else can too). If getting into the mountains in Canada is difficult, getting into the mountains in Switzerland is easy. We rolled out of bed in Bonn, hopped on the subway, changed trains a couple of times, transferred to a bus, rode up a cable car and, just like that, we were in the middle of the Swiss Alps. We were sitting on a train in the morning and hiking in the Alps in the afternoon. Public transit delivered us effortlessly, seamlessly into the heart of the Alps right from our front door. You just can't do that back home.

Sergey and I spent four days in Gimmelwald (pop. 120), a tiny, car-free village perched on the edge of a cliff 1363 metres above the Lauterbrunnen valley. There are only two ways to get to Gimmelwald from the valley floor: by foot or by cable car. There's not much going on in Gimmelwald. There are two places to eat, a couple of cheeseshops, a handful of log cabins and more cows than people. In other words, it's an excellent base camp for day hikes.

The best thing about Gimmelwald is that it isn't developed like other Swiss towns. A few decades ago, developers wanted to turn Gimmelwald into a huge ski resort. But the villagers thwarted those plans by getting the entire town reclassified as an "avalanche zone." The avalanche classification means it's too dangerous for development projects. So Gimmelwald remains a small community of farmers who milk their cows, cut their hay and survive with Swiss government subsidies.

The cows, the fairytale homes and the fresh cheese all add to the joy of hiking in the Alps.

If you go . . .

Getting there: By train, Bonn to Gimmelwald takes about seven hours door-to-door. From Bonn/Siegburg take the high-speed train to Basel. At Basel, transfer to the regional train to Interlaken Ost. From Interlaken Ost, take the local train to Lauterbrunnen (make sure you sit in the front car as the train splits halfway there, with the front half going to Lauterbrunnen and the second half going to Grindelwald). At Lauterbrunnen, walk across the street and take the bus heading for the Stechelberg gondola station, and get off there. Ride the gondola up one station to Gimmelwald. Alternatively, you can hike 1.5 hours up to Gimmelwald from Stechelberg. If you book three months in advance, the train ticket from Bonn to Lauterbrunnen costs around 60 euros. The later you book, the more expensive it gets. Check DB Bahn for fares. The combined bus and cable car fare from Lauterbrunnen to Gimmelwald costs 10 francs.

Staying there: The cheapest option is to bring your own tent and stay in the Stechelberg campground. If you prefer a bit more comfort, Gimmelwald has a hostel, a pension, a couple of B&Bs and an old hotel up the hill -- all run by locals whose families have been living in this town for generations. We stayed at Esther's Guest House, in a tiny attic room with a skylight above the bed for stargazing at night. Our room cost 65 francs per person per night (with a discount of 10 francs per night for paying in cash).

Eating there: The cheapest option is to make your own meals. There is no grocery store in Gimmelwald so stock up at the Coop in Lauterbrunnen (right across the street from the train station). If you don't feel like cooking, there are decent pizzas at the Mountain Hostel and good meals (with vegetarian options) at the Pension & Restaurant Gimmelwald. For more variety, walk 30 minutes uphill to the town of Murren

Getting out: Check out the hiking map on this site. The hike up and down the Schilthorn (2970m) from Gimmelwald is a must-do. It takes about seven hours round-trip (more than 3500m total elevation gain and loss) but give yourself at least nine hours because you will want to stop, sit and soak in the 360 degree views along the way. Use the map to custom-design other hikes based on how far you want to go each day. The possibilities are endless.

More photos on my flickr page.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

The mountains are calling and I must go

For me, spending time in the mountains is not a luxury, it is a necessity. It's important to feel unimportant, to let some air out of the ego.

I've written about this before but I think it's worth repeating: the view from the top of a mountain not just stunningly beautiful, it's also philosophically important. To stand on top of a mountain and see nothing but mountains beyond mountains all the way to the horizon is a humbling experience. You can't help but surrender yourself to the realization that you are nothing more than an insignificant speck on a tiny planet in a vast universe whose mysteries we know very little about.

This is not a bleak, cold or empty view on life. To me, surrendering to the mysteries of the universe is more fulfilling than subscribing to a religious story that claims to have all the answers. Certainty is absurd. Why not revel in uncertainty?

There is nothing more fascinating than life on earth. Our planet is the only place in the known universe where life exists, which is an amazing thing when you consider how big the universe really is. Our planet is just one of eight in orbit around our sun, which itself is only one of about 200 billion stars in our galaxy. But even our galaxy is just one of 100 billion galaxies, all joined together in an enormous web stretching out in all directions.

It's a waste to reduce all of this to a religious story and then fight over whose version of the story is better. Why can't we just marvel in the evolutionary perfection of life without ascribing some greater meaning to it?

I didn't intend for this post to go this way (I was actually going to write a straight-up post about our hiking trip in the Swiss Alps. Where we went and what it was like and all of that). It's just that everything seemed so simple in the mountains and so unnecessarily complicated back in Bonn.

We got back from the Alps the day violent protests over the anti-Islam film were making headlines. The whole thing struck me as being absurd. It boggles the mind on so many different levels. I watched the trailer on YouTube to see what the fuss was all about. And I just don't get it. The film is such an incoherent, idiotic, embarrassingly bad, low-budget mess (the whole thing looks like it was filmed in front of a green screen) that it's hard to believe anyone could take it seriously. It's not even worth responding to, let alone getting up in arms about it.

What's wrong with us? And by "us" I mean "us as a species." Why are we still whipping ourselves into a frenzy over such petty, tribal divisions? Why can't we just accept that we don't have all of the answers and that none of us have exclusive access to the truth?

Sunday, September 02, 2012

Home sweet home

I went home for the first time in more than three years. I had expected it to feel weird to be back on Canadian soil after so much time away. But everything was pretty much the same as it always was.

Still, I saw some of the same old things with fresh new eyes. Take the word "awesome," for example. A few days before I left for Toronto, a German friend asked me about the word "awesome." He wanted to know: a) what it means; b) why it's used so often in place of more descriptive and/or accurate adjectives; and c) why it's considered an appropriate response to the question, "How are you?" (I had similar conversations with a Russian friend who confessed she found the word unbearably annoying and an Albanian colleague who was shocked to receive "Awesome!" as a one-word reply to a work-related email. For the record, the email was not from me.)

I explained that awesome was just a generic word to describe varying shades of good without expressing any real degree of the goodness of the thing being described. And that the point of using the word "awesome" as a response to the question "How are you?" is to demonstrate enthusiasm and extroversion, which are prized personality traits in North America. But I also said that Americans were the true users and abusers of the word and that Canadians didn't really say it that often.

And then I went to Toronto and was proven wrong.

I don't know if my ears were attuned to the word because of all of the recent conversations about it or if people in Toronto had always used the word and I simply hadn't noticed. But as soon as I arrived at Pearson International Airport, I started to hear the word everywhere I went. I heard it on the subway. I heard it on TV. I heard it at the coffee shop. I heard it at the hair salon (the girl cutting my hair said awesome six times in one hour. I counted). I even heard it in a commercial for salad dressing ("eat awesome" was its ambiguous tagline).

The other hint that I had been away from home far too long came during an afternoon at the Canadian National Exhibition. I decided to gamble $5 at the "Guess your age" booth. The carnie sized me up. He asked me to smile, he looked deep into my eyes, he looked at my hands, he asked me what my favourite food was (Japanese) and to name my favourite movie (don't have one). He pretended to think about it for a bit and then he pronounced me 55.

Clearly, he was just giving the stuffed animals away but I was annoyed that he didn't even try to guess. What's the fun in that? So I asked him how old he really thought I was and he replied, "Um . . . 43?" I was no longer annoyed, now I was angry. (I didn't know it at the time but I would be vindicated a few days later when I stumbled across an article about the guy in the Toronto Star. He seems to consistently guess too high and is thrown off his game by tall people.)

He said it was tough to guess my age because I was tall (it's unclear why a professional age guesser would make a correlation between height and age for anyone older than 18) and because he mistook my sister for my daughter.

I used to baby-sit my two youngest sisters when I was in high school. My favourite baby-sitting game was called, "Let's pretend I'm a teenage mother and you're my children." I'd take my sisters to the mall and make them call me "mom." It used to amuse me when people thought my sisters were my daughters. Now it depresses me. So I guess that's a pretty major change.

What else did I see with fresh eyes? Well, public transit in Toronto seemed embarrassingly bad after living in Japan for three-and-a-half years. It's not convenient, it's not reliable and it never really gets you where you need to go quickly enough. Toronto is decades behind other big cities when it comes to public transit. Also, Toronto's subway system seems to attract more "interesting" passengers than other cities, such as the woman who sat beside me who smelled like she hadn't bathed in three months or the guy who sat directly behind me, clipping his fingernails the entire time.

It goes without saying that the best part of returning home was reconnecting with family and friends (although in the age of Skype and email it's difficult to lose touch).

But it was just as nice to be in an English-speaking environment. I could read menus and chat with the checkout girl and read the community listings and eavesdrop on conversations and catch up on Canadian news and read the ingredients on the cereal box and order a pizza and ask for directions. In Canada, I'm no longer an outsider living on the fringes of a world I am part of but don't really belong to. In Japan and Germany, there were days I felt completely isolated and alone. I don't feel that way in Toronto. I feel like I belong.

Growing up, there were things about Toronto I hated. I thought it was too big, too urban, too flat, too ugly. It still is all of those things but I've come to appreciate it in a way I never did before. The city hasn't changed but my perception of it has.

It's an awesome place to call home.

Sunday, August 05, 2012

The cutest mayor ever

It turns out Japan is not the only country with cats in positions of power. Meet Stubbs. He's a cat. He's also the mayor of Talkeetna, Alaska (pop. 875).

Mayor Stubbs recently celebrated 15 years in office. To mark the occasion, CBC Radio interviewed Lauri Stec, manager of Nagley's General Store, which doubles as Stubbs' mayoral office. In the interview, Lauri admits Stubbs isn't exactly the hardest working man in Alaska. He usually spends his office hours in front of the computer, napping on top of the keyboard.

When he's not sleeping on the job, Mayor Stubbs likes to walk around town, keeping the rodent population at bay and having his belly rubbed by constituents. He heads to the bar at 4 p.m. everyday to drink water (out of a wine glass, no less) laced with catnip. Lauri describes Stubbs as an "all around good guy," who is a good listener, non-judgemental and doesn't raise taxes.

Fifteen years ago, so the story goes, the citizens of Talkeetna didn't like the list of human candidates for mayor so they decided to elect Stubbs as a write-in candidate. At the time, Stubbs was a kitten who had been newly adopted by Lauri. He was a fixture at her store and popular with local residents.

Technically, the town is a "historical district," which means Stubbs is more of a symbolic mayor than a real mayor. And, of course, there's a human council that steps in when actual decisions need to be made. But Stubbs has become a tourist attraction, drawing in visitors (and dollars) to the town.

Mayor Stubbs has become something of a celebrity, and is more popular in the polls than some of his human counterparts. He has 25,000 subscribers on Facebook, which is almost 10 times the amount of people (2,610, to be exact) following Toronto Mayor Rob Ford.


Thursday, August 02, 2012

In Bruges

In Bruges. Really. Walking down narrow cobblestone streets. Drinking Belgian beer. Trying to figure out if this fairytale town is heaven, hell or something in between.

When I first saw In Bruges, I thought . . . where the hell is Bruges? Now I know. It's a city in northwest Belgium. I also now know that the city as it looks in the movie is exactly how it looks in real life -- like a perfect 15th-century film set. And, unlike Colin Farrell's character, who characterizes hell as an eternity spent in Bruges, I found the place quite charming.