Saturday, December 24, 2011

merry Christmas! (yes, I know, I said CHRISTMAS)

When I was young, Christmas had a very clear meaning to me.  

It was the time when you set the Christmas tree, with absolutely every single decoration the family had accumulated since forever and all the lights available and possible.  

The time to set a nativity scene, too, with tiny clay figurines placed on a bed of moss delimited by a ring of hay, with historical accuracy conveniently flying out the window.  And the figurines included fish (which we’d place on tiny mirrors), chickens, and a host of other things.  We’d have a great time using tiny boxes to cover with moss and create hills, rivers… ah, yes, I think we might have had a tiny bridge or too, two.   We’d place the Three Wise Men (who, for us, were the Three Magi Kings) at one of the extremes of the scene, and we’d move them a bit closer to the manger every day.  Jesus was placed in the manger on the 25th (well, of course! When else?), and the “Three Magi Kings” would reach the manger on January 6th, the day when we’d receive our gifts, placed inside and next to our shoes (you had to leave one of your shoes by the tree), along with a letter from “The Kings” (in response to the letter we’d had left for them on the tree, of course).  Ah, yes, sorry, this is the Epiphany already, past Christmas, I’ve digressed…  

It was the time to visit family, too, culminating with the Christmas dinner, one year with my maternal grandmother (and the huge entourage on my mother’s side of the family), one year with my paternal grandmother (and the equally huge, if not bigger, entourage on my father’s side of the family).   Each implied different traditions, different food, very different crowds.  But it always implied lots and lots of delicious eating, playing with tons of cousins, hearing stories…  No gifts, though, as that wasn’t part of my father’s family tradition and, as for my mother’s family, only some of my cousins would get them at their own home.  Christmas wasn’t about gifts at all (I mean, I was guaranteed gifts from THREE Magi Kings on January, way better than gifts from ONE funny guy in red!).

It was a strange, mystical time, too.  No school.  More time spent with my family.  Lots of time to stare at the Christmas tree and let my mind wander… Lots of time to think what to ask the three kings too (not too little, not too much, just a bit more than one deserved, to make sure one would get EXACTLY what one wanted).  A time to eat candied fruit, nougat, drink eggnog… 

All in all, a happy time of being together, of taking life leisurely, and treating yourself with food and treats.  

Ah, yes, I’m an atheist.  Without even the slightest hint of a doubt.  That hasn't changed a bit.  But the same way I don’t need to call Monday something else because I don’t dedicate it to the moon, and the same way I have no issues with March even though I don’t believe in Mars, the Roman god of war, I have no qualms about celebrating Christmas without any religious beliefs (not that I never had any issues, but people change - or am I getting old? LOL).  

So, I (ok, we, my husband and me) set up a Christmas tree, a nativity scene, and will spend these days being close to people we love, eating good stuff (or stuffing ourselves good?), and enjoying a magic change of pace.  Merry Christmas, and merry Winter Solstice, happy Hanukkah, or happy whichever event and ritual you celebrate, with or without religious fervour, to mark this time of year as special!  And a very special dedication to those who've helped make our time in Toronto a more special one, and to those who, from abroad, remind us we're still loved from afar.     

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Love-fest @ Carmona (From Lisbon to Carmona, with love - part III)

The main reason for this whole trip had been to participate at a friends' celebration in Carmona:  their 15th wedding anniversary.  We love this couple and their children.  They charmed us with their openness, sincerity, simplicity, sharing spirit and zest for life when we met them in Beirut over 7 years ago and, when I told them that we might not make it because of a tight budget, all it took was a "But we would really like to see you here" for me to realise there were more important things in life and get me booking flights and hotels.    

Since the celebration was a private affair, I can't go into details.  Instead, here's a "recipe for a smashing, unforgettable, unique 15th Wedding Anniversary Love Fest 'a la Andaluza':

- Have an eclectic, artistic, international mix of friends that love you come from every continent to gather at a historic, medieval, walled Andalusian town (Carmona).

- For the first night, choose a place with history, where stories have been told and stories can be told.  Remember, an anniversary is the retelling of a story with the frame of a new one in the process of being told.  Fill the with the aforementioned friends, plentiful elixirs and food, music both classical and Mozarab, and let everybody get acquainted and be merry in the most literal sense. 

- For the second day, leave some time so everybody can explore the town (or recover from the previous night's revelling), enjoy its ancient streets, its food, its ambiance.  Then, have your friends witness your renewal of vows at one of the most charming churches in town.  Since you'll have people of all faiths (and lack of them) in church, you can ask the priest to keep it short.  ;-)

- Afterwards, let the partying begin (anew)!  For this, you'll need a Coro Rociero (a lively Andalusian choir) leading the way with song through the town to one of the ancient gates, with your friends walking along with you and with horse-drawn carriages for those who can't walk that much.   Do make a stop or two, especially if it's in front of a nursing home and you make the old ladies' day with the Coro Rociero.  Remember, happiness multiplies when you share it.

- Then, welcome the whole entourage at your home.  Seat them at specific places you have long, diligently and lovingly planned so everyone will share dinner with new people with whom they'll have the perfect evening.   You know your people, so don't worry, you'll be amazed at how wonderful your seating arrangements work.  Let food, drinks, desserts, dancing and new friendships flow freely.   

- Next (and final day), make sure your friends can relax at your home once more and escape the heat at the pool.  Tempt their buds with more delicious food.  Tempt their artistic senses with an impromptu performance by those friends you love and who love you back: Butoh, piano and poetry mix well here.

- Since you've let some of your friends express themselves artistically, it may be time to let others express their bravado at the local bull ring for a friends-only performance.   Keeping the (young) bull alive will earn you the gratitude of even more of your friends.   The soft orange and pink of the sunset on the dusty hills will soothe everyone after the show of some of the more daring (do expect some to be less skillful than daring and have an expert at hand, you want to keep your friends in one piece!).

- By now, everyone has partied their fair share, they've eaten as far as their bodies and eyes let them, and are ready to bid farewell.  But a good host will offer one last dinner, a moment for more new friendships, for memories, and for some of your friends to spontaneously express their love for you with poetry, song, toasts, unusual gifts made from even more unusual things found lying around, and any other way they can, out of real happiness for being there with you.   

But be very careful to never forget the last, secret, quintessential ingredient:  do all this out of a sincere pleasure in sharing all you have, your possessions, your time, your love, openly and plentifully, with those you hold close to your heart.   If you've done everything correctly, your friends will bid farewell not only having truely celebrated your anniversary, but thinking "These people, wow, I want to be like them".  

And I kid you not, I hope I can be as loving, sharing, and zestful as these, our dear friends from Beirut.   Happy 15th anniversary and thanks, thanks and more thanks!

Monday, December 19, 2011

Christmas Market @Distillery District

Enjoying the market's last day. No snow, but plenty of tasty treats, music, and gifts to compensate. A maple taffy cone and some mulled wine are musts.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Maya at the ROM

At 25CAD, it's hardly a bargain. But with pieces from dozens of museums in Mexico and abroad, you'd miss a unique opportunity to see art that few have a chance to enjoy. Beautiful, impressive, rarely seen objects and a superb museography, it's a must.

Location:Bloor St W,Toronto,Canada

Friday, December 09, 2011

Thursday, December 08, 2011

More than just a stop: FARO (From Lisbon to Carmona, with love - part II)

In order to get from Portugal to Carmona, we had to first take the train south to the Mediterranean town of Faro.  Being somewhat small and surrounded by places with much nicer beaches, people tend to overlook Faro and take it as just a stop-over place.  But we enjoyed our short stay quite a bit, which is why I decided to do Faro justice and dedicate this post to the three things we loved most about it.  

Primeira:  the port itself.   There's something about the Mediterranean and the sun at that direction and latitude that makes for beautiful sunsets, and that was one of the very first things Faro offered us.  I sort of feel that the photos don't quite reflect what we saw but hey, this is a blog about sharing experiences and not to boast about photos, right?

Segunda:  the Old City.  In fact, we explored it as much as we could both on the day we arrived and the next.  Surrounded by ancient walls, it was quaint, quiet, nicely renovated, and offered us, once we reached the central square with its cathedral (the Sé), the opportunity for a delicious dinner with great views and for a price which was WELL within reason (and, on top of that, we got to try something we'd never seen:  white sangria!).

Terceira:  O Sé (the cathedral).   Faro's cathedral is a very nice example of the Portuguese use of tiles for altars, as well as an intriguing mix of Romanesque and Baroque styles (there's probably a very specific name for this cathedral's style and I'm making an embarrassing display of ignorance here...).  Not only that, but this cathedral offers a quite special, if gruesome, shrine.  Most people kind of miss it: it's small, to the side, and not particularly beautiful.  But if you pay attention, you'll see that bones and skulls (of former monks) have been incorporated as "decoration"?  Afterwards, and to take your mind away from the hundreds of monks serving as building material, you can go to the bell tower for some more views of the town.

I feel we could have stayed a third day, as there were a few things we still wanted to explore (like the city's Jewish past) and some we wanted to enjoy again at a more leisurely pace (like the Old City and neighbouring areas), but we had a celebration, a VERY important one, to attend in an old city with Phoenician origins: Carmona!

Monday, December 05, 2011

Jews, Russians, Avant-Garde, at AGO

A superb Russian Avant-Garde exhibition that ends with two beautiful and very different paintings by Chagall: "Clowns in the Night" and "Blue Circus".

Location:Dundas St E,Toronto,Canada

Friday, December 02, 2011

Bemvindos a Portugal (From Lisbon to Carmona, with love - part I)

Our first couple of days in Lisbon were intense.  I don't think we were prepared for the cultural richness of the city.  If I tried to write chronologically about all we did and saw, I'd never finish.  So here's what we liked the most:

- The street-cars (trams)!  They are everywhere!  They give the old part of the city a very nice atmosphere, and they make for great photos.  Of course, the setting was superb, too, with all the different districts of the city exerting their very particular charms.

- Manueline Art.  You can see it in very many places, but the Mosterio dos Jerónimos (Cloister of the Hieronymites) is one of the best, along with the Torre de Belém.  Don't you love it when you're looking at some decoration or piece of architecture, and it starts dawning on you that there's something different, something you've never seen before?  I found this sumptuous, Gothic style both intriguing and beautiful.

- The views, the views, the views!   Lisbon is a hilly city.  It was an imperial city, too.  And almost everywhere you go you have a view: of small streets, of stairs winding up to higher parts, of old magnificent buildings, of the Tagus river...  You can walk, and gawk, and walk, and gawk.  In fact, there are three miradouros (belvederes) from which you have great views of the city, plus the Elevador de Santa Justa, an iron tower/lift that transports you from Baixa up to Bairro Alto.  Amazing!

- Food.  Yes, even vegan me had to mention Portuguese food, which is notoriously vegan-UNfriendly, particularly pastries!  But, that being said, I must say Portugal reminded me a bit of Lebanon, where I could order a number of appetisers that would be of such good quality that I could very well do without a main dish.  And my husband, who is no vegan at all, agreed with me.   And if on top of that you're in a street with a park on the side, quaint colourful houses on the other, a pleasant warm climate, and relaxed people waiting on you, eating is THE experience.  Oh, and sangria!  Refreshing, fruit-packed, Portuguese red wine sangria.  Delicious.  As for the infamous Pastéis de Belém (egg tart pastries), I didn't try them, but my husband did, and at the bakery de rigueur; me, I was more than happy to make do with bicas (espresso).

 - And last but not least: the hospitality.  Especially since we stayed at a friend's, who despite his neck-breaking work-load still managed to find time for us, and to even tour us around, which is how we were introduced (gently, since it was midweek) to Lisbon's nightlife and drinking at Chiado.  And that's how we got to know Ginginha, a sweet liquor usually served in chocolate cups.  It couldn't get any better!

THAT was the introduction to Lisbon and Portugal.  I can't stress how much we enjoyed it!  But after a couple of nights we had to head to Faro, to get closer to Carmona, where we had a big celebration to attend... but, of course, more of that later!   

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Monday, November 21, 2011

Chagall Exhibition Concert

Some Mozart, Schnittke, Tchaikovsky and Van de Ven, by the Koffler Chamber Orchestra, at the Art Gallery of Ontario.

Particularly loved Schnittke... dark, rich, complex. And Martin Van de Ven surprised us with some "klezmer chamber music".

Location:Dundas St W,Toronto,Canada

L'Automne - Le Fin

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Mo's on Queen

Ad for Movember, a campaign that takes place all November where men grow moustaches and campaign to raise awareness about men's health and to raise funds for prostate cancer research.

Should you wish to donate/contribute, here's the website  Every cent counts!

Thursday, November 17, 2011

From Lisbon to Carmona, with love - An Intro

Portugal was my Philippines. You could read this previous post to understand the reference, but I can also spare you the extra effort and say that, like the Philippines, Portugal was a country that was never in my list of places to see. In my mind, it was too similar to Spain, which is also too similar to home.  It also seemed sort of out of the way, with only Spain (where I had been to on a few occasions already) nearby. 

Like the Philippines, it was pure chance that took me there: good friends were celebrating their 15th wedding anniversary in a small town in Andalusia (Carmona), and our very tight budget notwithstanding, how could we possibly say no to such a symbolic celebration, where friends from all over the world would congregate in sleepy Carmona?  And, funny enough, the cheapest way to Carmona was to fly not to Spain, but to Portugal. It was destiny shaped by economics. 

Finally, like the Philippines, Portugal surprised me, marvelled me, and romanced me.  I look at my photos now, and I still find myself with eyes wide open in amazement at all we saw, did and experienced.  And let's not forget to mention a friend who I had met in Beijing by luck, and who once again by luck was back in Portugal, ready to show us how a warm welcome is properly done. What at first seemed too many days (or at least plenty of) in Portugal, soon turned into barely enough to scratch the surface of the beauty, culture and richness of a country that had just not entered my mental travel map before. 

Ah, yes, and Andalusia?  Andalusia was fantabulous. In fact, like Portugal, it piled surprise after surprise on my unsuspecting self.   And the encounter with Al-Andalus after all my travelling in Muslim countries was eye-opening and, more importantly, that much more rewarding thanks to all the accumulated experience.

Yet, that being said, our friends' anniversary celebrations topped it all. We found ourselves immersed, deeply so, in a true celebration of love, happiness, friendship, sincerity and sharing. I want to be like my friends. Period. 

Portugal, Andalusia, MM, A&N, thank you all for a trip full of meaning, surprises, lessons, and love, a trip so rich it even needed an introduction and will probably give me material for many posts.

my sunsets

Man, am I going to miss my sunsets when we move offices... SIGH

Location:King St W,Toronto,Canada

Monday, November 14, 2011

Ég elskar Ísland

If you weren't at El Mocambo tonight, you missed an unbelievably amazing concert by Sigrún Stella, For a Minor Reflection (my absolute favourite by far) and Of Monsters and Men (of which you might have heard of already). Thanks Toronto for the opportunity to see them live!

a taste of Iceland

Sweets, Japanese-inspired art by Icelandic-Canadian artists, and a fantastic documentary on Iceland's Airwaves Festival, at El Mocambo. To be followed later tonight by a concert by Icelandic groups!