Tripping

So we went on a trip, an idea first posited by Ingrid which we polished (oh who am I kidding, she polished – I was just a witness) into an eleven-day, three-city, three-country vacation at the end of 2009.

London was the primary location seeing as our friend Shannon (member of the Z-Rays and now a music teacher) had moved there a couple of years ago – it’s always easier when you have a friend in a strange town, especially when it’s a massive place like London. Ingrid had gone there for a visit in late-Spring (it was during this time that we bought our first house…without her ever having walked into it). In the summer, Shannon came over and stayed with us while we renovated and had the electrical pulled out. It only seemed natural that she be the person we see to end the year (and decade) and since I’d never been to London, it was the perfect choice.

Thing is, it was also an opportunity for me to visit relatives in Holland – and when I say “relatives”, I specifically mean my second cousin who lives outside the city of Leiden (notable, aside from its aged beauty, for its university – the second oldest in Europe).

Seeing as how the Eurostar train made its way from England to the continent via Brussels, Belgium, it occurred to me that it would be an excellent reason to check out a city I’d always wanted to investigate: Antwerp. Why Antwerp? Well…it’s between London and Leiden and neither Ingrid nor I had ever been there, with the exception of a couple of instances in past visits when I had to switch trains at Antwerpen Centraal station. The city always looked like a gothic gem from the station, which is quite a complement seeing as Antwerpen Centraal is one of the most beautiful train stations in the world – seriously, it’s dubbed “The Railway Cathedral” and worth the trip, if only just as a stopover.

The plan was set. And, regardless of the various chaotic things happening around (thankfully not to) us (the halted airline terrorist attack on Christmas, the stranded Eurostar trains just before then, a snowstorm in the UK just as we were leaving) it all went remarkably well, save for one missed train to The Hague.

Antwerp is a wonderful place to visit, with a mind-blowing mix of architectural styles, including some stunning Art Deco neighbourhoods. We stayed at the Mabuhay Lodgings, a conveniently located and very comfortable B&B with two very gracious hosts (and their two very cute cats). It’s a gorgeous city with much to offer and I look forward to spending more time there. I tried speaking Dutch, but between my elementary knowledge of the language and the dialect spoken in Antwerp, it was easier just speaking English.

Leiden, in the province of South Holland, is a spiritual home-away-from-home for me. 15 years ago I had stayed with my cousin and her husband, just outside of Leiden (in the village of Zoeterwoude), after I’d graduated from college. Like Antwerp, we were a little rushed for time (the aim was to celebrate New Year’s with our friend in London), but it was great to see the city again and spend time with my cousin (not to mention introducing Ingrid to her and her friends in the neighbourhood). We both look forward to returning, particularly when it’s warmer. If there was one drawback to our trip, it’s that it was unseasonably cold at times (and one can only flex one’s Canadian-ness in the cold so often before you just want to wimp out and stay inside all day).

London surprised me. It was the one place I had no ideas or preconceptions about – I never had anything against it, but alternately never had much of an understanding about it beyond the clichés. It’s a big, bustling, maze-like place which still somehow retains a convivial vibe; facing colder-than-normal temperatures while we navigated from place to place, I never felt the “silent sneer” you get from people in Toronto. I loved the pubs, I loved the beer, I loved Brick Lane (which reminds me of Kensington Market), I loved (again) the architecture, and was happy to have visited the Tate Modern (which had – coincidentally – curated a retrospective of artist Theo van Doesburg at the Stedelijk Museum in Leiden while we were there) as well as other sites and sights of interest. And yes, we even managed to hop onto one of the few remaining Routemaster buses in operation. We also met some of Shannon’s friends and enjoyed a lovely Sunday roast with them at the Carpenter’s Arms (a pub the notorious Kray brothers had bought for their mother). So much more to say, but that’s it in a nutshell.

Not bad for eleven days (mind you, at least one full day was spent travelling). Photos to follow…

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2009: This is Naught a Love Song

It wasn’t even close to New Year’s Eve before Ingrid and I were swearing that 2009 could not end fast enough, like a vampire-queen freshly staked that we wished would stop spitting blood and just fucking die already.

It’s not that it was such a *bad* year, so much as it was filled with such a dense and dramatic amount of events that by early December I simply had no room left in my head; my brain’s capacity was supersaturated with fragments of information without the ability to reflect anymore (reflection, I feel, being the way we digest information, the same way our stomach digests food in order to allow more food to come later). I tell you: such a state of mind is not healthy.

Among the highlights of 2009, this last year of the naughts: I completed work on two feature films, one MoW (movie-of-the-week), bought a house (without Ingrid being in the same country at the time!), moved into said house, started teaching post-graduate studies in film post production, and completed a major revision on my novel (which I’m becoming very happy with). Lastly, we managed to insert a three-country whirlwind vacation after Christmas. I must say, there was some cruel justice in having abandoned the country while the decade died. And what a decade it was…

Our friend, Shannon, who we met in London, upon hearing how things had gone for us in 2009, showed no surprise. “It’s the Year of the Ox.” she said “I can’t wait for it to end!”. According to Shannon, Years of the Ox are denoted by their eschewing of joy and relaxation for the throes of head-down labour and development. I’m not exactly sure how accurate this is – was it this bad twelve years ago, the last time there was an Oxen year? I ask myself – but one thing I do know: I certainly don’t want to go through another Year of the Ox for another twelve years.

And so, to my readers, and to those just visiting, when I say “Happy 2010” I really mean it. The Oxen year is not quite over yet – the Chinese New Year is not until February 14th (at which point, 2010 will be the Year of the Tiger). I wish you all the best for the coming year, and offer the following synopsis, taken from a website who took it from a website, who took it from another website (so it must be true):

Drama, intensity, change and travel will be the keywords for 2010. Unfortunately, world conflicts and disasters tend to feature during Tiger years also, so it won’t be a dull 12 months for anyone. The Year of the Tiger will bring far reaching changes for everyone. New inventions and incredible technological advances have a good chance of occurring. For all of the Chinese horoscope signs, this year is one to be active – seizing opportunities and making the most of our personal and very individual talents. Everything happens quickly and dramatically in a Tiger year – blink and you could miss an important chance of a lifetime!

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Happy "Family Day"

Tomorrow (Monday) is a newly-created holiday (which, if you’ve been in Canada in February, is crucial for mental survival), called “Family Day”. This is its second year in existence and nobody really knows what to do with it. Okay, when I say “nobody” I mean me.

I’ve never been someone who makes elaborate plans in advance of long-weekends. For me, weekends are about plugging-out of work and relaxing, writing, photography, and the occasional neighbourhood brunch. I suppose if I had a cottage up north things would be different (not that February is necessarily when you want to be at a cottage up north).

Add to this the ree-coc-u-lous name “Family Day”. The premier of Ontario deemed it so, pinning its creation to his rationale; whether said rationale is window-dressing or solemn honesty is beside the point. I hate the name. I’m not a militant sort, but what of those of us without children? Should I spend the day meditating on my biological error? Are all those people gearing-up to get drunk up and down Ossington Avenue tonight doing so as a testament to the strength of the Ontarian family? Doubtful.

Rather than spending it with our kids (who don’t exist, though we do have a lovely cat – her name is Selchie), I shall be mending clothing with holes, cleaning up some paperwork, filing things away, and reading. And yes, we’re going for drinks tonight.

So, from our family to yours, have a lovely Family Day tomorrow, gracious readers.

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Niagara Falls

From the Wikipedia entry “Slowly I Turned“:

The routine has two performers pretending to meet for the first time, with one of them becoming highly agitated over the utterance of particular words. Names and cities (such as Niagara Falls) have been used as the trigger, which then send the unbalanced person into a state of mania; the implication is that the words have an unpleasant association in the character’s past. While the other performer merely acts bewildered, the crazed actor relives the incident, uttering the words, “Slowly I turned…step by step…inch by inch…,” as he approaches the stunned onlooker. Reacting as if this stranger is the object of his rage, the angry actor begins hitting or strangling him, until the screams of the victim shake him out of his delusion. The actor then apologizes, admitting his irrational reaction to the mention of those certain words. This follows with the victim innocently repeating the words, sparking the insane reaction all over again. This pattern is repeated in various forms, sometimes with the entrance of a third actor, uninformed as to the situation. This third person predictably ends up mentioning the words and setting off the manic performer, but with the twist that the second actor, not this new third person, is still the recipient of the violence.

I spent about five years, between my late-teens and early twenties, working in photo labs. It was the easiest thing for me to do, seeing as I had a natural disposition toward photography. I spent many hundreds and hundreds (I suppose I could just write “thousands”, but then that seems like such an exaggeration) of hours printing other people’s photographs, correcting the colour, correcting the density – even occasionally eliminating hairs or scratches on the negatives. All said, it was a thankless job, but not a job one does in the first place if one is seeking thanks.

It was while I held this position that I read (or heard – I am convinced the toxic chemicals eroded my memories from those days) that the most photographed place on the earth was not the pyramids of Egypt, not the Great Wall of China, nor was it the Grand Canyon.

It was Niagara Falls, Canada.

And you know what? That person was absolutely right, from my perspective at least. I have seen so many photographs of Niagara Falls, from so many angles, from so many different types of cameras, lenses, and film stocks that when Ingrid and I went there during the summer, it felt as if I were entering some sort of nightmare/dream world. I hadn’t seen the Falls since I was a kid (with the exception of seeing them from the American side once – not impressive at all) and yet I was intimately familiar with every inch of it. It is the closest thing to recreating deja vu that one can do, I suppose.

Needless to say, I took photos. What else are you going to do? It’s a giant, massively awe-inspiring natural waterfall. And when I got my slides back, I looked at them and groaned – it didn’t matter how good they were, how picture-postcard they were. I’d seen them all before. From every angle, every camera, every lens, and every film stock.

I eventually found one photo which wasn’t so eerily pre-reminiscent: a stranger on an observation deck, staring out (not down) philosophically, as if Camus were alive and in Niagara Falls no less. It is through this photo that I found it possible to combat the madness of my previous occupation: to find the angle no one else has bothered to capture. I do not consider it an exceptional photograph from a technical point of view, but for personal reasons it is a healthy way to re-pave my perception of a subject so totally saturated by the second-hand experience of first-hand observation.

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May (pt. 1: Cuba Libre)

As previously noted, I’ve had a work-reprieve this month. I cannot remember (outside of a slightly scary 3-month spat of unemployment in late 2001) when I’ve had more than a week off. So, fittingly, I wanted to do as much as possible with May as I could.

It started with my wife and I taking a well-deserved week’s trip to Cuba. I was extremely nervous leading up to it, as the film I’d completed had some last-minute snags (“What’s that? The print that went to Cannes has the wrong shot in it? [pause] Oh.”) and I had nightmares of me having to check my email and cellphone messages from the Caribbean. Thankfully – and I must make this clear because someone deserves it – everyone has left me alone. It’s as if I had a guardian angel come down from heaven and lift someone off the floor by their shirt in some office in L.A., saying to them “You mess with Cahill, and you’re messing with Jesus, pal.”. Or something like that.

It was my second time in Cuba, and my second at the same resort – a place on the outskirts of Havana province, about an hour’s drive from Varadero. It was my wife’s first trip, however. Her first trip, as well, to a country that inherently spoke neither English nor French. Of course, on the resort they do (even German – in fact, one of our guides was fluent in Czech). I’m not necessarily a “resort” person (though I will reflexively take the free drinks and snorkeling any day of the week), however I knew that the location of the place was central enough to allow us the latitude of taking day trips to Havana city and other areas. In other words: beach, drinks, sun, snorkeling, and the freedom to escape.

Our first outing was a morning hike, led by a guide, up the hill (250 ft.) that was directly south of the resort. A steep climb that claimed many. However, at the top, we were able to walk through some local farms where they processed sugar cane, fruits, and whatever crops were possible in the bone-dry soil (it being just prior to their rainy season).

Our second outing was Havana. I love Havana. It’s hard not to love it there. Yes, it’s dirty, sometimes smelly, and some of the locals like to prey on turistas. That said, in many respects, it’s a world frozen in time (like much of the country). Beautiful architecture, friendly people.

Our third outing was in a small port city, called Matanzas. It only recently opened itself up to tours and at times we found ourselves being stared at like aliens. As luck would have it, we were there for The World’s Longest Rumba. Apparently, a group of people were going across the country, from town to town, performing live rumba. It was amazing, which brings me to another thing I love about Cuba: the music. Even the potentially corny mariachi bands are amazing. Even if you’ve heard Guantanamera (trans: “girl from Guantánamo”) ten thousand times and feel as if you can retire it from your memory, you’ll still find your foot tapping under the table when it’s played there. Matanzas was a treat. Our guide – the one who was fluent in Czech – took us a local farmers’ market; a narrow maze of shacks where vendors sold fresh indigenous vegetables and grains, not to mention cuts of pork. Someone there handed us “ladies fingers” bananas (or “mini bananas”) – de-lish-ous.

I love Cuba. It’s a country of strange proportions; slightly surreal in the fashion of Latin American “fantastic reality” fiction. There are overpasses on the highway which remain unfinished after decades, old Soviet-era electricity generators which look like rust-bitten sci-fi nuclear reactors, short street dogs which roam the cities in curious packs. Unlike other countries I’ve been to, I must say that there are very few which can match Cuba for national pride. The people love their country – politics right or politics wrong – and this pride is immediately noticeable, regardless that the average monthly income is 350 Cuban pesos (roughly 15 Canadian dollars).

I wasn’t there to investigate politics. No one there knows what to expect from Raul Castro, short of taking his word that he requires a year to generate ideas to take Cuba forward (though tempting, I thought it pretentious to put quotes around “ideas” and “forward”; I’ve decided to keep it all verbatim). The Cuban people have come out of a very, very dark time. After the fall of the Soviet Union, they were essentially abandoned by their largest trading partner in the early 90s, which meant disaster for a country who’s main export was sugar cane; in other words, they were left to fend for themselves – another Haiti, albeit with a better music scene.

In the last decade they’ve managed to get back onto their feet economically, but it wasn’t without a number of years of extreme hardship. We were told stories of what people subsisted on and it reminded me of what I’d read about the siege of Leningrad: people eating leather for nourishment, cat becoming an ingredient in restaurant food…fun stuff. Canada has become a welcome trading partner since, helping with the development of their oil resources. They now trade their abundance of skilled doctors for petrol with Venezuela. Their greatest export now (aside from educated/skilled workers) is nickel, which they trade extensively with China. Running third is tourism.

I was happy to contribute, as I certainly (and always) learn much in return.

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NYC

I had the pleasure of visiting NYC last weekend with my wife (off-season + Travelocity = good). I should say that, beyond the commute to/from LaGuardia, it would only be fair for me to speak of Manhattan (where we stayed and explored during our brief stay). However, needless to say, I want to see more.

As a first-time visitor, it’s pretty astounding. In fact it’s hard to find words to describe the overall scale of the place. It’s massive – paradoxically massive (as if it weren’t built for humans), densely laid and populated, surprisingly clean, and simply fascinating to stare at. I actually didn’t mind standing still, risking muscle cramps in my neck, gawking at century-old skyscrapers, unabashedly unmindful of whether or not I looked like a smitten tourist. I can’t remember feeling this way since 10 years ago when I took my first trip to Europe.

Of course, being only a weekend escape, we came home to Toronto with a swirl of impressions – like a snow globe – whistling through our heads. Thankfully I also took some photos, so I look forward to sharing them here when I get around to scanning them.

If anyone has any interesting nooks and crannies to suggest for our next visit please feel free to dish.

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