November 9th, 2018

I went to Poland!

Mark and I finally went on this trip! It was an enormous stressball to plan, per the previous post, but completely worth it! You can see photos on my social media and I’m attempting to write some deeper long-form reflections, but should I keep on in the advice vein? Yes, probably, said the no one who is currently in this room with me.

1) Flights: It costs to fly to Krakow or Warsaw what it costs to fly most places in Europe, but it’s a bit trickier and there are fewer flight and times at that lowest price point. There is such a thing as direct flights to Warsaw but not very many when it’s not summertime, and they seem to sell out. There are no direct flights to Krakow but it’s relatively easy to change planes in Germany (Frankfurt or Munich, we chose Frankfurt) although Frankfurt airport is sort of stressful (not LAX stressful, though–it makes sense basically). You can fly to Gdansk, but you have to change planes in Warsaw in addition to anywhere else you change planes, plus you have the cost of that extra little flight, rendering the exercise pointless, at least for us.

2) Hotels: Poland is basically an inexpensive country for a Canadian (a cab-driver disabused us of the notion that it’s an inexpensive country, period–they don’t make the salaries we make). We always stay in budget hotels but we were able to go one rung up and it was all very inexpensive and nice. Not super-luxurious, but everything was clean and pretty and the staff was all charming. We never paid more than about $110 a night, and as low as $45, depending on the place and weeknight versus weekend. Also, October is not exactly a hot tourist season, though several of the places we stayed were fully booked. Also we stayed in European chains like Ibis and Golden Tulip, and one local guest-house–I think the big American chains would be more costly. I didn’t look into AirBNB at all for Poland (I only do AirBNB if I can’t find/afford a hotel) so I don’t know about that.

3) People and weather: I’ve lumped these two together because both struck me as pretty much the same as in Toronto. The trees were starting to turn when we arrived in mid-October, and the weather was highly variable, ranging from sunny and 20 to raining and 5. We got more of the latter sort of weather, which locals said was unseasonable. Most of the trees and farmland looked similar to home, although people out in bad weather seemed to have a better attitude about it and fewer layers.

Although all Poles speak Polish first, most people also speak English there. To generalize wildly (there were a million exceptions) the younger you are, the more likely it is you speak English–interestingly, people over 50, even those with quite good English, seemed to have an entirely different sort of accent. Also, it seemed somewhat class-based–people in lower-paying jobs often had no English at all, even if they were public facing, like store clerks or cab-drivers. Socially, people out in public generally kept to themselves and didn’t make eye contact, but if you asked someone for directions or information, they were usually very kind and helpful. On the other hand, people would put their bags on seats on the tram and then watch you stagger about trying to keep your balance until you finally asked them if you could sit down, when they’d very slowly and grudgingly take the bag off–just like in Toronto. Most people seemed to draw the line at being outright rude, though–with some notable exceptions per below.

4) Trains: Trains were efficient, comfortable, and affordable–a good way to get around Poland easily and see a lot as we did so. Trains stations were awful–confusing, chaotic, and train station staff appeared to actively hate us. Also many of them did not speak English, which I mean–it’s fair, it’s Poland, but the whole rest of the country is full of English-speakers, so why are the train-stations only hiring the monolingual?? Anyway. No, not anyway: in Warsaw, connecting trains are not on the arrivals OR departures boards. Only trains that originate or terminate in Warsaw get to be on the board. It took me about 45 minutes of staring at the board to work this out. So if you are looking to get on a train that originated elsewhere–a LARGE percentage of the trains since Warsaw is in the middle of the country–you have to ask the lone, angry, non-English-speaking woman at the information window what platform. The huge line of people at her window, and the shooing motion she made at me when I attempted to ask a follow-up question, attests to the problems with this system. Also, all of the train stations were ugly. But the trains themselves were glorious and it was worth all the hassle to stare dreaming out the window at the rolling fields and tiny villages for two hours while kindly attendants brought me free bottles of fizzy water.

5) Other modes of transit: We took a shuttle service from the airport and then again back–Krakow Shuttle, should you care–and another one through Viator to visit Auschwitz-Birkenau. Krakow shuttle was excellent, very punctual and efficient, and only about $30 each way. The Viator thing was a hassle to get organized but came bundled with a tour and somehow lunch, and ended up being a good experience. I’m not going to recommend the specific people who did the tour because I think Viator uses a bunch of vendors and it would be hard to get the same ones–they whole thing seemed to be a bit of weird–but they were good. FYI the roads out to Auschwitz are very windy and hilly, if you are prone to carsick. We took a cab to and from a visit to my publisher in Warsaw–again, efficient and inexpensive. Also, lots of streetcars in both Krakow and Warsaw, where they are both cheaper and better than in Toronto. And a commuter train out of Gdansk to Sopot, which was like a dollar for a 20-minute ride–this is the Gdansk equivalent of Go Transit and SO MUCH BETTER. Ahem. We took a lot of transit.

6) Food: I thought the food in Poland was excellent, but your mileage may vary depending on what you dig and what you grew up eating. I was worried about the fact that I don’t eat beef/pork/lamb in such a sausage-y country, but there were plenty of pierogies, which I love, and there was always pizza available somewhere–Italian food, especially pizza, is everywhere in Poland. It would be very easy to travel there as a vegetarian, but probably pretty difficult to do vegan or gluten free, I think. I loved both the “Polish” piergoies (mushroom and cabbage) and the “Russian” pierogies (cheese). There was also a meat kind I didn’t have that Mark said were good. In addition there was lots of cabbage and potatoes, both of which I like, something called “farmer’s cheese” or “mountain cheese” (I think they are the same??), smoked fish and lots of other kinds of fish in Gdansk (near the sea), chicken livers (so hard to get here–I was delighted to see them on a menu!) and also lots of sandwiches and pastries–very carb-heavy diet there! Plenty of restaurants just served North American-style food, of course, and I’m sure it was good, but that wasn’t what we were there for. We also liked the Polish chocolate and those famous jelly doughnuts!

Ok, that’s kind of a lot for now. I might try to do a city-by-city thing too, at some point… I love writing about all the great stuff we saw and did!

February 5th, 2013

Dumb Things People Say to Single Women

I’ve been married nearly 6 months now, and apparently starting to lose my single-girl cred. When I try to empathize with or add to stories of single life, I’ve been getting some as-if-you-know eye-rolls. This sucks, because I lived alone for 10 years, so I know a little about that lifestyle. Plus, when I actually was single, I tried to avoid too much complaining about weird comments people made to me. I didn’t want it to come off as  sour grapes. It wasn’t–by and large I enjoyed my life then, but not some of the commentary folks offered thereof. Now I wish I’d spouted off more when it was appropriate. Our society seems to give some sort of craziness license when it comes to talking to single women–you can say whatever you want to them, apparently, without worrying about coming across as mean, stupid, or a lunatic. Here is a small sampling of things said to me *in a friendly manner* when I was uncoupled:

Why don’t you have a boyfriend?
What do you eat?
How are you going to get home?
Don’t you want to get married?
You miss out on so much when you don’t have a partner–movies, parties, dinners…
It’s so hard to fall asleep alone, isn’t it?
You must hate weddings.

Oh, my gosh–I’m annoyed just typing. But I do understand that no one (almost) meant to me feel like a loser/zoo animal with these questions, so in case you are someone who wondered these things, I’ll try to answer below. And in case you are someone who gets these sorts of queries/comments, I’ll offer the best answers I came up with in my many single years–though honestly, I’m still at a loss for some of these.

Why don’t you have a boyfriend?
If I knew, don’t you think I would’ve worked on that issue? Hahaha! I know mainly folks meant the question rhetorically, as in, “You are so great, so what’s going on here?” But they did leave an awkward awkward non-rhetorical pause after the question mark, leaving me to suspect that beneath their so-called praise they suspected I was secretly spitting on my dates or poking them sticks or swearing celibacy or something else deliberate to drive them away. There is NO good answer to this question most of the time, and even when there is, it’s usually too personal to answer at a dinner party (eg., you’re not supposed to date in the first months of sobriety). But…
Best answer for someone you like: “Well, some people win the lottery a little earlier than others.”
Best answer for someone you don’t like: “I guess there’s something really wrong with me.” or “I prefer sleeping around, actually.”

What do you eat?
This question and its variants is surprisingly popular, which lead me, in harsh moments, to believe that many people equate being uncoupled in adulthood with being brain-damaged. Seriously, I know lots of people live in the ideal recipe-size of 4-person households, but surely people don’t ask this questions of childless couples, families of 3 or 5, etc? Do they really think lack of romance makes one unable to do fractions? Or order in? Or make a salad? Or eat leftovers?
Best answer for someone you like: “Whatever I want!”
Best answer for someone you don’t like: “I usually just have a fistful of cereal and cry myself to sleep in the bathtub.”

How are you going to get home?
Most of the questions here are just silly and don’t bug me, but this one, I’m still holding a grudge about in a couple cases. As a single female dependent on public transit, I considered myself responsible for myself, and I never made plans I knew I couldn’t get home from safely. I knew TTC routes, and whether I could afford a cab. If I understood the situation to be unavoidably dangerous (very very rare in Toronto) I simply didn’t attend. People casually asking if I knew how I was getting home–fine, that’s just thoughtful. Asking more than once, looking doubtful, implying that I don’t know how to transport myself safely around town–problematic.

I get more het up about this question when the asker implies I’m unsafe AND s/he is not going to do anything about it. For some, single women deserve to be unsafe, apparently. My brother always walks me to my streetcar stop and waits with me if it’s late, behaviour I find unnecessary but very sweet. It’s less sweet to make a fuss about me walking alone and then shut the door behind me! “Too bad you’re going to get mugged” seems to be the message there. Sob story: once I was walking home with a guy I thought was a friend and as we approached Carre St-Louis, he told me how unsafe he thought it was and how he always arranged his schedule to walk his girlfriend home through it if she was working late. I thought this was a long preamble to offering to walk to the far side of the park with me, but he simply bade me good night on the near side and walked off. After all these years, I’ve forgiven him, but barely.
Best answer for someone you like: “I know my way around; I’m pretty smart, you know.”
Best answer for someone you don’t like: “I have no idea. Could you walk/drive me?”

Don’t you hate weddings/talking about weddings/happy couples?
Seriously, the single woman=psycho shrew construction could not be more offensive. Even if said in a sympathetic tone of voice, this question still implies that to be single is to be so unhappy as to despise the happiness of others: nice. Yes, it’s classy to not talk *constantly* about one’s wedding planning to those who aren’t super-interested (how’d I do on that front, friends? I really tried!) But still, not being able to muster up a little proxy joy for dear friends’ celebrations seems awfully cold.
Best answer for someone you like: “Of course not. If I care about you, I want to hear about what makes you happy.”
Best answer for someone you don’t like: “Absolutely. Let’s just sit in silence for a while.”

Wow, this post is over 1000 words–guess I have some pent-up rage there… I didn’t even get through all my questions. I should try to put this stuff behind me, but not entirely–I think forgetting how it feels is where a lot of these dunderheaded comments come from. Empathy, people–it’s the only way!

Anyone got any single-girl (or guy) crazy comments you’d care to share?

November 14th, 2012

How to take the TTC like a sane person

Every year, I say I’m going to write this post before the Santa Claus Parade, and every year I’m shocked that the parade is in the middle of November and I don’t get it done in time. No more!! This year the parade is on Sunday and I will be ready!

Why do I need to write “How to take the TTC like a sane person” before the Santa Claus Parade? Well, by my exceedingly unscientific count, that’s the day the most inexperienced TTC-riders flood the system and make things difficult for the rest of us. But in truth those folks are around all the time in smaller numbers, being nervous and lost and awkward, so I thought I’d try to help.

FYI, I am *not* saying that all regular riders are dreamboats. There are some–I’d say a good 5%–who are nervous and lost and awkward, or downright mean and aggressive, ALL THE TIME. Those people suck, but their problem is not lack of information–they’re either legimately not sane, or are just jerks, but anyway, I cannot help them.

But you, the uninformed but basically decent and normal first-time rider–you, I can help!

Step 1–Make a plan
Yes, subway stations and bus/streetcar stops have maps and yes, many TTC employees are very well-informed about what’s where in the city, but blithely leaving the house with just an address in your hand is not the best plan. Once you are ON a surface route, the driver can often help you figure out where to get off, but probably most won’t be able to tell what route you should take to start.

Google Maps has a transit directions function that works quite well–just enter your start and end points, and then click on the little bus face. The TTC itself has a little trip planner that works fine, too, though I have less experience with it. You can also ask the folks at your destination what’s the best way to get there–desk staff often has a lot of experience in that regard.

Politeness reminder: Bus and streetcar drivers often switch from route to route, and maybe don’t have the one they’re currently assigned to memorized. Especially with the new automated stop announcements, they’re really not required to. Even if they do in fact know all the stops, they probably don’t know exactly where the address you are trying to get to falls along the route, or what address a certain store is at. Please don’t yell at people for not intuitively knowing exactly how to help you get to the place you want to go. Most will try to help, but it’s not their job.

Step 2. Prepare adequately. Brief your family.
I get that if you take transit a couple times a year, you can’t remake your life for it. But try to be reasonable–a bunch of toys/games/sippy cups, unsecured to anyone’s person, are fine in a car but are going to come to a bad end on the subway. Some strollers are really really big and hard to navigate in tight spaces. Folks are very tolerant of any contraption containing a baby, but for your own sanity maybe consider a smaller option if you have one. Explain to children that train doors close automatically and if kids don’t stay with the pack you could get separated. Then make a family plan about what to do if you do get separated and make sure everyone memorizes it.

The strongest push towards writing this post is the image I have in my head of parents shrieking at their progeny, “IT’S OUR STOP COME RIGHT NOW WE’REGOINGTOMISSOURSTOP!!!!!!!”
a) it’s not the end of the world if you miss your stop–on the subway you can just get on the line the opposite way at the next one, and bus/streetcar stops aren’t that far apart.
b) it helps to know what stop you’re going to and how many are in between here and there. My eavesdropping experience leads me to believe that children love counting stops and seeing how close they are to their destination–why not make it a family game? On the new trains on the Yonge/University/Spadina line, the spot you’re at on the map even *lights up*–how fun is that?

Politeness note: Just like we’re all responsible for getting off at the right exit on the highway without causing an accident, we’re all responsible for getting off at the right bus/streetcar/subway stop without shoving anyone. People *will* make way for you if you get up right after the stop before yours and begin courteously making your way to the door. I think some novice riders look up from their book/ipad/conversation right before their stop, see a mass of humanity and panic–“AH,no one will move to let me off”–so they start aggressively shoving. Please don’t do that–anyone who takes transit regularly will move aside if you start in their direction–and if they don’t see you, “Excuse me” works wonders. Some folks get the idea that the spot in front of the door is all theirs and won’t budge–them, you can shove.

Politeness note: Don’t stand in front of the door because you “don’t want to miss my stop” unless your stop is actually next. Otherwise, what about the people whose stop *is* actually next? They will have to shove you, that’s what.

3. Step 3: Think reasonably about safety
I do not want to hear anything more about people refusing to go to public places in downtown Toronto in the middle of the day because they’re “scared of muggers.” I’m sure muggings happen in the city, but they’re pretty rare–much more sensible to take precautions against being hit by a car. There *are* neighbourhoods where there is a greater chance of bad things happening, but they’re not on the Santa Claus Parade route. If you are going to be out late, off the beaten track, and/or travelling alone, it’s worth finding out from someone who lives in the area what spots to avoid–please don’t take the advice of folks who haven’t been downtown since the 90s, or only even 9-5 Monday-Friday.

It is very unlikely that anything criminal will happen on populated TTC vehicle (even I think twice about getting on a subway car with just one dude in it) but you still have to act like a sane person. Don’t leave your purse or coat on a seat while you stand up to go look at the map, don’t let your children run beyond your ability to monitor them, don’t talk loudly about how much cash you have on you. Seriously, I know this is a stupid paragraph but I have seen all of these things.


Whoo, over 1100 words. This is kinda a rant, I guess, but I don’t exactly mean it as one. Yes, I get stressed seeing people misbehave in transit and then blame the system, but I also love Toronto and it’s various trasnits, and I want more people to enjoy. I was scared of the TTC when I started riding it, too, but 10 years later, I wouldn’t get half as many places, read as many books, or be as often on time if it weren’t for the TTC. Share the love, ride the rocket.

July 18th, 2011

Days 6 and 7, Oxford and Manchester

Oxford is just so incredibly beautiful, full of history and learning, gorgeous architecture and fields and gardens and places to buy books and pubs. But the thing that blew my mind is that this historical place going back centuries is *still* an accessible (well, to some) institute of higher learning. Just as my parents drove me to Montreal with my purple sheets and London Boy t-shirt when I was 19, some people’s parents drive them to *Oxford* and leave them there to increase their brilliance.

It was the summer term while we were there, so we didn’t see all that many students. A young man biking frantically ahead of our bus with his academic robe streaming behind him gave some idea of what the vibe will be there come fall. And we saw a few groups coming into or out of graduation ceremonies: the girls in pretty dresses, the guys in white tie and tails for some reason.

It’s just as well that most of the students weren’t around, as the tourists would’ve completely trampled them. I know it’s terribly poor form to complain about tourists when one *is* a tourist, but it’s also practically de rigeur–everyone does it. There were MANY tourists in Oxford, which surprised me–it’s a university, after all. Most were there, I think, for the architecture, which was stunning, and not so much interested in the colleges themselves. There was also an undercurrent about Harry Potter that I did not understand–apparently there are some scenes in the films set there, but I haven’t seen the films. We saw this broom at All Souls’ College, and people seemed pretty excited about it–thoughts?

Other highlights of the day included the Bodleian Library (though I was very sad that we were not allowed to see the actual stacks), Blackwell’s Books, which has 3 miles of shelving in the basement alone, and where I bought my lone book purchase of the trip, The Book of Other People, which I am much looking forward to reading. (NOTE: If I had not grown to loathe both my luggage and my miserable lack of upper-body strength, I would have bought many more. Consumer responsibility is increased when one will have to carry it.) We also had some really good pub food.

We saw our 7th consecutive sunny dawn the next morning, and were really starting to doubt the rumours about English weather. We left our cosy hotel and it was only when we were standing at the bus stop preparing to depart that I realized we’d be staying next to a Cattery the entire time. A cattery! House of cats must be what that means, right? Certainly explains the cat I saw in the parking lot at the hotel (I chased it; it bolted; I never learn).

We took the bus to the train station, and were very early (as usual). Then the train was delayed. Then we got on the train and it was chaos–no assigned seating, no where to put large suitcases, totally zoo with people still staggering through the aisle 15 minutes after the train had departed, looking for a place to collapse. The strange thing is that I was the only one that minded; the English were quite cheerful about having to stand in the aisle for a whole stop, or sit with their legs sprawled around their baggage. In light of their good grace, I refrained from complaining (much) either.

Still, it was a looooonng train ride to Manchester, and the flapjack I had bought as a genuine English treat disintegrated into a million particles all over me (and Mark) and was much too annoying to eat. Plus I never figured out where the bathrooms were. So I was not in great spirits by the time we arrived at Manchester Piccadilly, which I had thought was not actually where we were supposed to be, as our tickets said Manchester Metrolink.

It turns out that the Metrolink is a tram service (basically just like Toronto streetcars, but with tootling little kids-show-style horns), so the ticket saved us 90p in getting to our hotel. Unfortunately, a) some idiot tripped me and walked away as I crashed to the ground, so then my knee hurt, plus I was angry, b) our train had been delayed so much it was rush hour by the time we got on the tram, and c) when we got off at the stop proscribed by the info dude at the train station, it was completely not apparent where we were, and none of the streets were labelled.

So, I didn’t get off to a great start in Manchester. By the time we arrived at the Stay Inn (which is technically in another town entirely, Salford), I was in a bit of despair, and not thrilled to see that there is no entrance to to hotel from the street, and you had to go through an alley and parking lot to get in there. The very helpful and sweet staff working the desk were horrified at my suggestion that it wasn’t safe to be sending pedestrians through a dark alley and lot if they came home late–they assured me both that it was, and that the owners were building a street entrance the next year.

The room was nice, if small–the tv was on top of the wardrobe, which meant you either watched flat on your back, or with your neck at a 45 degree angle. Odd. The kindly hotel staff misunderstood our desire to see the town and sent us toe Piccadilly Gardens, which reminded me of Yonge and Dundas Square, with spray fountains and artfully arranged cement plazas, and nothing much to do but shop. Actually, as Mark pointed out, Manchester is a lot like TO, down to the tram/streetcars.

Instead, we strolled the Chinatown, and had a nice, very authentic meal in a room full of Chinese people–always a good sign. I kept thinking I would learn about the Chinese population in Manchester when I went to the People’s History Museum the next day, but I never did. That’s odd, too.

The next day was much better and I didn’t fall down once.

July 15th, 2011

England Days 2-5: Dagenham, Romford, Windsor, Camden, and Oxford

One thing that has always marked me out as a Canadian with American roots is that I don’t care much about tea. I mean, I’m happy enough to drink tea, if you’re putting the kettle on anyway, but I don’t find delight or solace in it the way so many of my fellow Canadians and, I’m told, Britons do. I don’t even care what you put it in–I’ll drink tea with or without milk, sugar, or lemon. If I don’t feel like getting up, I’ll drink it black.

But it was kind of delightful to drink a “proper” pot of tea on our first morning at Charlie’s. Given the extremely basic level of the room, I was shocked by the quality and generosity of the morning feast. Eggs, bacon (very strange looking bacon), all the toast and jam you could handle, tomatoes, cheese, croissants, and lovely tea–it seemed *richer*, without being stronger, than the Canadian bag-in-cup kind. Thus fortified, we set for the heart of London.

Everyone I talked to who’d been to London said the best part was just walking around looking at stuff, so instead of going straight to Russell Square, we got off the tube at Covent Gardens and just wandered around. It was a bit early to see much action there, but the day was lovely and fresh, and the buildings and old markets really are gorgeous. We wandered somehow to Piccadilly Gardens, which was terrifying–the most traffic ever in the world. We went to the Waterstone’s, a nice giant bookstore, and I finally got an A-Z map–then we immediately got lost. Or perhaps we’d already been lost, but hadn’t known it until we looked at the map.

Finally we gained Russell Square–Bloomsbury!! I tried to imagine Vanessa and Virginia Stephens, Duncan Grant and Maynard Keynes and all the rest walking briskly among the old townhouses (less old, then), having brilliant conversations about the next great thing in art, literature, furniture, economics. I didn’t entirely succeed, but enjoyed myself. We found a bookstore devoted entirely to the works Swedenborg, sat on the grass in Russell Square and watched the pigeons, and finally went and got something to eat from a grocery.

We carried our food to the front yard (garden?) of the British Museum, which was an absolutely perfect place to picnic. See?

The inside of the museum was pretty great too. Mark had wanted to go, and since it was free (well, a 3 pound donation is recommended, which is still pretty reasonable) I had thought we could just drop in for a little bit. But both the space and the exhibits were pretty enthralling. What I couldn’t get over was the Enlightenment Exhibit–the British Museum actually *existed* during the Enlightenment, and took on some of their collection on an as-it-happens basis. I have never seen anything like that.

After another grocery-store meal (they have really nice prepared foods in English groceries–who knew?), we went to see *Rosencranz and Guildenstern Are Dead* at The Royal Haymarket Theatre. We had gotten the tickets from of the 8 bazillion discount ticket outlets in central London, after seeing a single tiny poster for the show on the subway. Apparently, most people want to see *Shrek the Musical* or *Legally Blond, the Musical*, but I loved this play when I read it/saw the film, and wanted to finally see it live.

Totally great! The film, with Gary Oldman and Tim Roth’s portrayls of the title characters, is pretty firmly entrenched in my mind and I think many others’ minds, and it was so delightful to another brilliant interpretation that was so *different*–bawdier, goofier, just as weird but differently so. If you’re in London this summer, I recommend.

The next morning, we had another generous breakfast, this time including Red Leicester cheese, which I wanted to try because I hadn’t had it before. Turns out, pretty much like cheddar.

Then we hit the tube and parted ways, as Mark was off to Oxford and I was headed east of London to Dagenham. Dagenham is technically in another county (Essex) but such is the size of London that it qualities as a suburb and the tube goes there. There’s also a movie made about Dagenham, but I haven’t seen it and so can’t comment. Mainly Dagenham is where my friend K. teaches grade one (“year one”, I believe they call it), bakes cupcakes and remains awesome.

I was pretty proud of myself of getting myself all the way out there solo (over an hour, and without incident). It was also great to be reunited with K., who had left Canada a year and a half before. We hung out, ate chicken at Nando’s, bought underwear at Marks and Spencer, and went to the bingo hall in Romford. All the typical daily life of the residents there, which I was delighted to try out. Here’s me goofing around in the bingo hall.

Then to bed, because early the next morning, Windsor Castle!! I don’t mind doing touristy things when they are awe-inspiring, as Windsor truly is. After taking a train reminiscent of the GO (but with only one level), surrounded by the gorgeous and the posh on their way to a horse race (I think) also in Windsor, we got to this magnificent…fortress. Seriously, if you declared war on Windsor, you’d have a hell of a time getting in there. We saw all the stuff you’d imagine–Queen Mary’s dollhouse (I am a dollhouse enthusiast), lots of art and lofty rooms, and the best part, the changing of the guard with a random little show from the marching band. Here they are:

They we wandered Windsor proper for a while, before getting back on the train and heading into the heart of London, to the very beautiful Regent’s Park. Not only did the open-air theatre in the park have the most wonderous public bathrooms I’ve ever seen:

They have an amazingly huge and commodious theatre–not that the High Park Amphitheatre isn’t wonderful, but this one had actual chairs!! We saw The Beggar’s Opera. The set was so amazing it was copyrighted, as a very polite usher informed me when he made me delete the picture I’d just taken of it. The show was well performed, but at times hard to follow and…unimaginably filthy. What were people *like* in 1728? Oversexed and amoral, apparently. I was particularly stunned by the mega-meta ending, but it was a wild performance and exciting to be there.

The next morning we got a late start, ate a tasty Canadian breakfast (maple syrup!), and tried to go into town to drop my luggage off at Paddington Station, then go explore Camden Market for a couple hours before I had to get back for my train. This was the plan but…it was Sunday. I had been feeling very bad about how much better London’s subway system is than Toronto’s, but the nice thing about ours is that it mainly works every day of the week, while London’s becomes half-inoperative and entirely slow and baffling on Sundays. What should (I think) have been an hour’s journey turned into 3, with many crowded transfers. So by the time I finally left my bags and got to Camden, I had spent 17 pounds to be free of my things for less than an hour. Camden is very nice, I think, but all I saw of it was the Doc Martens’ store (wowsers!!) and a Pret a Manger, before i had to head back. And then of course the subway station we’d come out of had closed, and we had to walk to another one. My advice is not to use the Paddington left luggage if you’ll only be gone a short time, as it is the same cost for anything under 24 hours, and it’s very expensive.

After all that hassle, it was great to get on a train and just not transfer for an hour. It was still very warm on the train, though, and I hate sitting backwards, so it was even better to get *off* the train and find Mark waiting for me at the station in Oxford. After our merry reunion, we lugged my luggage (which I had grown to loathe) into the centre of town and had a little tour, before a delightful dinner at a centuries old pub. I had the mussels, which were younger than that.

Then we got on the Oxford city bus and went out of town about half an hour, to a place called the which is basically a rest area off the highway, although more advanced than the north American version–this one had restaurants, a mini-park. a grocery store, and hotels. We stayed at the Days Inn, which was very plain and cheap, but clean and comfortable and, thrillingly, had a door on the bathroom. There was a tea/coffee centre in the room complete with biscuits, and Mark had thoughtfully placed a Dairy Milk on my pillow. Hello, Oxford!

July 13th, 2011

England Day 1: Vomit, Gatwick, and EasyBus Conspire towards Disaster

Note: I’ve decided to review the first day of our legendary trip to England as a separate post, because it was awful and the rest of the trip was excellent–sort of cordoning off the pain. If you can appreciate a wry depiction of various minor miseries, by all means read on, but if you prefer avoid this grim and frankly disgusting post, feel free to skip to all the other days of the trip (once I write about them), as all the rest were super-fun.

So we were taking a redeye Air Transat flight from Pearson to Gatwick, which meant that when it was delayed just a tiny bit, it was hard to process because I was already really tired. But 45 minutes is not all that long, and eventually we were in the air, reading Rampike (well, I don’t know what everyone else was reading, but that’s what I had) and hoping they would bring us something to drink as I had forgotten to get water beforehand.

The flight staff were nice, but seemed a bit frazzled and overwhelmed organizing and distributing a hot meal to the giant aircraft. This was somewhat gratuitous, as a) it was the middle of the night so no one was hungry, b) I’ve had nice sandwich type meals on Air Transat before, but the hot one turned out to be disgusting. I tried a bit of my chicken and rice, but the texture of the meat was truly bizarre, so I gave up and ate my salad and cookie, which were fine, and then tried to go to sleep. Sorry to dwell on the food–this comes up (ha!) later.

I couldn’t sleep that well, and woke up less than two hours later to find that that there were still four more stupid hours until we could be in England. I read a bit more, and then heard a noise that sounded like a heavy chair being dragged across a tile floor. This turned out–though it took me a while to understand–to be the woman across from us being violently ill. This continued until after we landed–she was still retching as I walked off the plane. When an alarmed flight attendant–they were all both attentive and alarmed–asked the husband and daughter what they thought the matter was, motion sickness or perhaps the flu, both said in stereo, “The food!” I’m not sure that could be true, since no one else was ill, but that grey chicken being limp as wet toilet paper sure makes a powerful case.

Her husband and daughter were paragons of kindness and took good care of her, and I certainly felt bad for the woman and understand I was lucky to escape her fate. All that said, it is very very difficult to listen to four hours of intense sickness at close proximity without, at least a little, wanting to die.

So it was a very wrung-out and tired Rebecca who arrived at Gatwick. Also thirsty–the flight staff had never been all that generous with the little dixies of water, and the first thing I wanted was a big bottle all for me. Hahaha, said terrible fate, as there were no vending machines or drinking fountains before customs and, hahaha again, it was the day before the public workers’ strike and the border patrol was at a near standstill.

As we cruised past the border patrol area and down a long hall packed with sad-looking tourists and their luggage, wailing babies, and fairly baffled staff, I realized we were in for a wait of several hours. I asked staff members where I could get some water, and they said the wing was under renovation and thus, “There’s nowhere.” We stood in the line for a while. I kept licking my gums. Finally I found the bathrooms–one toilet for men and one for women, in a hall crammed with hundreds of people. I asked a staff member if I could drink the water from the taps in the bathroom. He said he wouldn’t recommend it.

Finally I encountered a staff guy who recognized my desperation (it had been over an hour in the non-airconditioned hall by this point) and actually went to the staff room, bought me a (big!) bottle of water, and brought it back for me, apologizing for having taken so long! He is and will remain my hero. All the staff were nice about my plight, just not sure what to do, and really the generous thing that guy did for me is not really a possibility for all the people who were there. I seriously don’t know how the families with little kids got through it.

When I finally returned to our spot in the lineup, Mark had made friends with the couple behind us, also engaged and also from TO–we talked wedding venues for a while. When the woman in front of us–floral-dressed and angry–drifted sideways away from her husband to see up towards the front of the line, and then remained there, a guy a dozen people back came over and tapped her on the shoulder. “You wouldn’t be trying to cut in the line there, would you? Because we’re all waiting here.” With wordless distain, the woman went back to her husband, and the guy went back to his spot in line. One of our new friends murmured, “This is how riots start.” Too true.

Here are some grainy shots of the terrible lineups:

They’re terrible shots and don’t show the full extent of the problem. I post them mainly because staff was roaming around stopping people from taking pictures of the mess. I figured out why when the next day the papers said the delays were “reasonable”–ahahaha.

So we of course missed the appointed time for our prepaid EasyBus ride into London. But we were within the hour’s grace period that our ticket allows when we finally reached the stop. The girls there waiting said the bus was late, and was later still when it arrived–after our grace period was over. I thought we could at least ask if the driver would honour our tickets based on the time we showed up, not the time the bus arrived, and expected a simple yes or no. Surprisingly, he instead started screaming at us and calling us liars, saying he knew we weren’t there when we said we were, because *he* was–a lie in itself. Welcome to London.

Exhausted, dispirited, hungry (would *you* have eaten the breakfast provided on the plane?), we wound up paying the second fare just to make him stop calling us names. EasyBus is really inexpensive, but not if you have to pay twice (I’ve since written to complain about all this, and received a form letter in response, stating of course they would investigate all complaints thoroughly, but due to “confidentiality” they could never speak of it again. Ugh.)

As soon as we got on the highway, I realized we were trapped in a vehicle with a driver whose relationship to reality was a bit loose–what if he dumped us in a field or held our luggage for ransom? So it was not a calm drive into town, though it was pleasant to look at the fields and other-side drivers and to think, “Wow, I’m really in England.”

Miraculously, the driver took us where he was supposed to, and even let us have our luggage back–yippee! Even better, the dudes in a convenience store we stopped at were overjoyed to see tourists. They unfortunately had no maps to sell me, but were happy to direct us to the subway station, and also to talk me through which of the English coins was which. I bought another beverage (I spent the rest of the trip stockpiling fluids) and set off for the tube.

At the tube we found maps, and more people who love tourists. As I puzzled over the stops, the guy at the “assistance” booth was hanging out his window, beckoning us over. I finally noticed this when he yelled, “Where do you want to go?” He talked us through the map to our destination, and then to buying Oyster cards, the inexplicably named metropasses of London.

We made it to our north-end B&B in…well, it took a while but we made it. Charlie’s B&B can only be described as a budget hotel, but it was a pleasant enough old townhouse with a kindly elderly proprietor (who asked midway through the checkin process if we were Jewish, with a seemingly neutral reaction to my affirmative response. Why is this always happening?)

Our room was both miniscule and in the basement, but I was content enough with it until I realized the bathroom had no door. With two hours sleep in the last 24, and no food in 12, this discovery seemed potentially worth crying over, but in the end we decided our relationship could withstand this blow, and went out for dinner (yes, by this point it was dinnertime–time flies!)

And…and…and…London is really awesome! We walked to Kentish town, looked at shops, read menus outside restaurants, watched the people bustling around (more native Londoners and fewer tourists than we would see later, as we were so far from the heart of downtown). We ended up having a lovely meal in an airy upscale pub, then wandered back to the hotel, where even the discovery that the bed had only one sheet could not prevent an excellent night’s sleep.

If you’ve read this far, thanks for listening to my rantings–it’s good to unburden myself of all this. The trip was nearly all brightside after this–stay tuned!

April 21st, 2011

Rebecca’s author photo–you can vote!

So sometimes being a writer in my own little way is pretty much the best thing on earth, because it gives me license to do strange projects in the name of art, and to enlist others. Last weekend, I got to do my dream photo-shoot, which was me on a bus, being semi-serious, semi-goofball. Thanks–so much–to Dave Kemp for humouring me in this endeavour. It was as fun as I thought it would be–maybe more.

Here (below) are the links to my top 5 pictures (selected with J and the photographer’s help). What is your favourite? I can actually keep two, to use in different situations if I want, so it’s ok if you declare a tie:

Selection 1
Selection 2
Selection 3
Selection 4
Selection 5

March 30th, 2011


Two grade-eight girls on the bus, talking about what high schools they want to go to. Dressed in eighties reflux: side ponytails, jelly bracelets, identical pink plaid shirts hiked up and tied to reveal their bellies. Both with very loud voices, very severe speech impediments (of the sort probably caused by extreme orthodontia, but I couldn’t see for sure). Crowded bus, but very quiet. School names redacted because I have already forgotten them.

Girl #1: And if I don’t get into School A, I’m totally going to School B.
Girl #2: Yeah?
Girl #1: That’s an art school too.
Girl #2: Yeah?
Girl #1: Because with an art school, you get aaalllll white.
Girl #2: Yeah?
Girl #1: Yeah. I mean, I don’t mean to be racist, but like, black people? What can they do.
Girl #2: (pause, then very firmly) Sing. And dance and rap and stuff.

I doubt the conversation meant much; the girls had already classified most of their classmates as skanks, hos, bitches and sluts, all of whom are ugly. I can’t even imagine where in Toronto their current school might be, that they only know white people so far.

I also feel really bad for *really really* disliking those two girls. They’re just kids, right? I feel like I should have gone and sat with them and explained diversity or something. They probably would’ve stolen my purse if I’d even made eye-contact.

When I was getting off the bus, I walked down the aisle and realized everyone was listening, and that these two guys in their early 20s were adding little comments to the dialogue, making fun of them. I felt better that those dudes agreed with me, and then terrible that the girls were being mocked by exactly the demographic they most wanted to impress.

Life in the city is weird.

February 1st, 2011

Very important question

I found a pack of gum sitting on a subway seat. No one was nearby. The pack was still in its original cellophane seal, seemingly untampered-with. It is a good kind of gum.

Can I chew it? Or is probably poison gum, part of some elaborate trap for naive young transit-takers?

January 14th, 2011

New in Voyeurism

I’ve joined the literary-voyeurism army on Julie Wilson’s Seen Reading project, and I’ve got some wonderful company. I’m really thrilled that Seen Reading is back after its hiatus, and that I get to be a little part of it. So expect regular reports from me on my Scarborough beat. Also, I rather expect some fails. Even this week, in my first few attempts, I saw what can go wrong. Examples:

1) It is impossible to tell what someone is reading on Kobo unless you are practically on top of them.
2) Some people actually sew little coats for their books that stay on even while the book is open. I assume they are reading porn (why else hide it?) but have no proof.
3) If I am myself reading a very good book, I sometimes forget to look at other people.

More on the situation as it develops!

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So Much Love by Rebecca Rosenblum

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