Monday, January 28, 2013

THIS, your quintessential Canadian magazine

In case you need to know how to do stuff, like love two people at once, breastfeed if you're a transgender dad, and tell if you're a psychopath, among other useful stuff, there's THIS, a pretty cool magazine I picked up the other day at the bookshop:

*Photos of magazine THIS published with authorization from THIS.

Ice, skating and scones at the Don Valley

Seizing another partly sunny day - a walk in the Don Valley, ending at Brickworks.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Fly's 14th anniversary

Queer as Folk's nightclub, Fly in real life, Babylon in the series, celebrates its 14th anniversary and, unlike the series, every second face is non-Caucasian. Do I need to repeat how much we enjoy Toronto's diversity and openness?

skies, ice and snow by the lake

A fine day after a long waited for snowfall. Interesting designs in the sky and on the ice. We feel very lucky to have Lake Ontario so at hand.

Friday, January 25, 2013

winter in Ísland III - a very Butō Christmas Eve

December 24th was another amazing day.  Yes, I know, another post regarding a single day!?  Also, forgive me for my repetitive use of words like amazing, beautiful, incredible, etc., but a) it's my blog after all and b) I am sincere and I absolutely enjoyed all this.  So there!  ;-)   

Since I was still working on my driving on snowy/icy roads (or, more accurately, I was working on my confidence, as our 4x4 seemed more than adequate), I didn't want to drive far yet.  Plus, it was Christmas Eve and there was one place we were fast running out of time to visit... 


Yes, the concept sounds quite kitsch.  The Christmas Garden (Jólagarðurinn), just south of Akureyri, is in essence one big Christmas shop.   But hey, you set a traditional red Icelandic house in a snowy landscape, then fill it with mostly Nordic (and some Russian) Christmas things, and it becomes one darn pretty and charming kitsch box!   There were candle-holders, Christmas balls, holiday figures of many sorts (including some super cute Icelandic elves)... but the most fun was all the candy and treats!  Of all sorts, and so colourful!

Ah, and we met our second Icelandic folklore character, hidden in a cave inside the house:  Grýla, a giantess that comes down from the mountains around Christmas to catch naughty children for her stew.   Obviously, she lives with the Yule Cat.  Nothing further removed from a jolly Santa, hey?


We continued our drive south, on road 821.  I loved that drive.   Though the sky was somewhat overcast, at moments the clouds would shift, revealing amazing views of the mountains on both sides and the valley below.   We wanted so bad to stop and take photos!   But I was worried about few hours of sunlight the days had, so we pressed on until we reached our destination, Grund, with its unusual and slightly Slavic looking church: Grundarkirkja.   The church was closed, but the views! the views!   I was so taken by all of it!  The church with the stark, sharp mountains as background, gorgeous Icelandic horses in a pen nearby, the broad  valley stretching in the distance, the shifting light from what sun broke through the clouds.  It was really cold, yes, and it was actually quite difficult to walk at times, because the ground underneath the snow was often pure ice and extremely slippery.   But hey, what's a reward without some effort involved, right?

At the church's graveyard we discovered another Icelandic tradition.   Originally, people would put candles and decorate the tombstones a bit, as a way to remember departed loved ones who were not there to celebrate the holidays with you.  Nowadays they use crosses lit up from the inside with electricity.  At least the wind won't blow those out, and they actually looked very nice.

We could have decided to drive back to Akureyri, but I was enjoying the road so much and there was still light, so I looked at our atlas and saw that, not much further south, there was another church, so It thought  "OK, let's drive just a bit more, to that church, and then we can drive back..."


The road to the farm of Saurbær, where the church (Saurbæjarkirkja) was, was even more impressive than the road to Grund.   This time we could see the river (Eyjafarðará) too!   Honestly, this was one amazing short drive although, as is always the case in Iceland, the weather played a great part and a good deal of the beauty of it was thanks to the silver-gold light of the winter sun behind the clouds.  We drove past one of those impossibly quaint little red houses in the middle of nowhere. Which is where we were.   Not that the place was desolate, but it was a sort of "non-destination":  the guidebooks don't usually mark the road or the church as worthy a detour.  We were there by mere chance, and we couldn't believe how we could have so many stunning views all for ourselves.

The church was up a small hill, and I was very glad to see our car could go up the small curving road without skidding even a bit!  And, surprise!  this was a sod-roof church!  Later we'd find out it was one of only 6 in the whole country!  It was locked (and it had a sign that said the key was to be found at another town... but only until September! LOL), so all we could do was admire it from the outside.   There was not a soul nearby, its small graveyard had the lit-up crosses I mentioned before, the wind blew even colder and sttronger than at Grund...

And that's when inspiration hit my husband.  It's funny, he was planning on doing Butō in Iceland alright, but the idea was for him to pre-select some place, take time to prepare, and perform later.  We didn't expect him to suddenly be struck by inspiration and improvise at some unexpected place!  Luckily, his few "props" (in this case a blue robe) were always in the car, and he had his cameraman (me!) always by his side!  Best of all:  I had only seen videos of his improvisations and rehearsals, so this was going to be the first time I'd see him in action!  If possible, I was even more excited than him.  :-)   Now, for those of you who don't what what Butō is, I'm afraid its definition is rather evasive, so you might want to take a look at the Wikipedia Butō entry.  Suffice it to say that, however you define it, my husband was doing this very personal theatre/dance improvisation inspired by the unique setting (the weather, the mountains, and the church and its graveyard).

That improvisation and one last gawking at the beauty around made this tiny road trip one of our best memories of the trip. 


When we visited the Akureyri Church (Akureyrarkirkja) our first day, we were very happy to hear there were going to be two services, with a choir, on the 24th.  We had booked dinner at our hotel, so it felt like a great idea to go to church between our excursion to Grund and Saurbær and dinner.  

The Akureyrarkirkja is pretty unassuming, but it was designed by the same architect (Guðjón Samúelsson) that designed Reykjavík's famous Hallgrímskirkja and, quite frankly, I enjoy its simplicity and clean lines.   Plus, it was picture perfect while walking the steps leading to it amidst the heavy snowfall...

I've said it before, I'll say it again:   you don't need to be religious to enjoy religious events.   People were dressed in their best clothes, a few women even had dresses with some traditional Icelandic elements, and we were openly welcomed even though it was obvious from our clothes and cameras that we were interested as travellers more than as religious people.  In fact, I think the warm and welcoming attitude made for much of the pleasant experience it was to be there and hear people and the choir sing.


Let me finish this überlong post with a small note on our Christmas dinner.    Akureyri is a small town, with just about 13,000 inhabitants.  There were TWO places offering dinner that night: our hotel and... another hotel!  We had Christmas dinner at ours, Hótel Kea, along with other foreigners.  It was DELICIOUS.  (I'm going to get so much flak from vegans for this...)  By now, my veganism had been put completely on stand-by.  I had decided that, given how limited my options were, I was going to enjoy things as they were while the trip lasted.  And enjoy I did!   Though there was a bit of everything, including a most interesting beetroot cured salmon and a cured lamb with horseradish and dill, my favourite was the dessert: "ris ala mande" (rice pudding mixed with whipped cream, vanilla, and chopped almonds) with caramel sauce, roasted almonds and fruit, and meringue with white chocolate.   Decadence anyone?

Such an intense day (and dinner) required an easy stroll around town, around pretty, quaint, Christmassy Akureyri...

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Toronto's Wayne Gretzky sports bar

THE place if you want Canadian or Irish beer, poutine, bison burgers, hockey matches and Gretzky's hockey sticks and pucks!

Friday, January 18, 2013

winter in Ísland II - of books and rotting fish

Our first day in Akureyri was, quite frankly, awesome.  Without exaggeration.  In fact, instead of a single post about our whole stay in that city, this time I want to write only about this day, December 23rd which, for Icelanders, is the holiday of St. Thorlac's Mass (Þorláksmessa).

Views, views, views...

We were spoilt in this area!   First, we got a room that had views of the centre of the city and of the fjord from our window!  And it was pure chance, as I hadn't even thought to ask for a room with views!  Imagine, after so many hours of travelling, you find yourself looking out the window, under the soft light of sunrise (a late one at that, at around 11:30 at those latitudes), at red and blue roofs, the water and the mountains in front... Beautiful, and it sure motivated us to go straight out and enjoy the (short, because it's too far north) day!

And not far from there, just walking uphill to the city's church (Akureyrarkirkja), even more impressive views of the fjord (Eyjafjörður)!   It's probably me and my love of mountains, but just being there, with the snow, the trees, the reflections of the unseen sun's light on the clouds and water...  I was living out one of my dreams, right there.

Close to the water, next to Akureyri's Hof Culture Centre (Menningarhúsið Hof), we also had some of the most beautiful views we had had of the city, because from there you could see the docks, the church, the fjord...  One very fortunate communion of nature and city.   In fact, we ended up coming back to this spot just for a photo shoot on a different day, tripods and all!

Sweet and smelly traditions!

One of the reasons I like Iceland so much is because of its café culture.  It's so easy to find cosy, nice cafés!  Even the chain ones tend to feel warm and welcoming, but it's still way easier to find an independent one.   Being the holiday season, of course, we soon came upon the opportunity of tasting some traditional things.   Some of them, like mulled wine (or jólaglögg) is rather common in other parts of Europe, although whether you can have a glass of jólaglögg while looking out the window of an old house and onto the fjord is another question altogether...

And there's also what falls in the realm of "acquired taste delicacies", the kind that even locals have a love-hate relationship with.  Like rotting skate, which is a kind of ray.  Apparently you could also say it's pickled and fermented skate.  You could call it by its Icelandic name, kæst skata.  But the strong, overwhelming smell stays the same whatever you call it.  And it invaded the whole of the Hof...

But, it's a Þorláksmessa tradition, and we'd never ever tried anything similar.  Which is why, when we entered the Hof looking for a small break from the cold and saw so many Icelanders enjoying a Þorláksmessa buffet, we had to give it a go (yes, curiosity trumped veganism, I confess).   Mind you, there was lots of very tasty, "normal" stuff, like salmon, herring and potatoes.  But, to the amusement of the locals, and to the happiness of the chef, we made sure to get a couple of small portions of skata.   To everybody's even greater amusement, we discovered the smell and chewy texture of rotting skate was nothing compared to the taste which, at first, is not that remarkable, until the flavours start developing in your mouth and all of a sudden you feel this ammonia-like assault in the back of your mouth and throat.   Feeling guilty for putting on our plate more than we could handle, we did try a second morsel.   Neither of us experienced eaters could stomach more.   But we did finish the rest of our plate, and we still stuffed our faces silly with the fantastic desserts table, which had a sort of Danish look to it, but still had some things we had never tried.

That was one fun experience, though the memory of the smell and taste of skata followed us the rest of the day!

Atheists like some Christmas spirit in their holidays, too 

How clichéd, maybe, but seeing the town all dressed in holiday decorations felt really nice.   Especially because there was an Icelandic touch to it.  Of course, you had the de rigueur Christmas tree at the main square...

But besides the more traditional decorations like Christmas balls and lights, most windows had what they call advent lights.  It's funny because, with their seven lights, the very first thought that came to mind was "a menorah?".   They're a Nordic tradition, it seems, and they do give the whole town a very special feeling (because they are indeed in almost every window!).

And then there's gift buying, of course!  But what place was utterly packed?  The bookshop!   It seems giving a book as a gift is almost a must, and people were busy choosing and buying books at Eymundsson.     Not to fall out of step, I got something for myself I had regretted not buying last time we went to Iceland:  an Icelandic language course produced in Iceland itself!  Yay!  Also, at Eymundsson we had our first encounter with Icelandic Christmas myths, as the Yule Cat (jólakötturinn) was part of the window decorations.   This is no pretty Christmas kitty, though, but a monster that eats people who haven't received new clothes to wear before Christmas Eve.   Our first encounter indeed with a Christmas mythology quite darker than ours.

And all the pretty things to look at

Maybe I'm too much of a fan of Iceland, but it was fairly easy for me to find spots that were themselves unremarkable (they're not mentioned in any guidebook as must-do's), but that inspired me somehow.  A second hand bookshop, an art gallery on a hill, views of the waterfront from a hallway at Hof...  It almost seemed that everywhere I turned I could find something to shoot.

It was a very full, happy day for all our senses.   A happy Þorláksmessa!  Which is why it deserved a post of its own.   And THAT was just our first day!