Sunday, September 12, 2010

Theatre Liceu & Barcelona Port

Thursday September 9

Today I strolled down La Rambla and found the Liceu Theatre just in time for the next tour. The auditorium is one of the grandest I've ever seen, and our guide tells us it has more than 2,000 seats - the only theatre larger is in Paris. Only operas, concerts and ballets are performed here - no plays - and as it was built by the bourgeois it has no royal box. It is now a public building. Unfortunately I've arrived in Barcelona between runs, so I can't book to see a show. As the stage and hall have been destroyed twice by fire, what we're seeing today is a "faithful copy" of the original.

Plush red seats with oval backs and footrests are arranged in a horseshoe shape, which is good for acoustics but leaves some people with poor visuals. To this end, some seats on the outward curve of the horseshoe were fitted with small screens in the 1994 reconstruction. The amount of gilt in the auditorium is astounding. There is a circular bubble at the centre of the curved, painted ceiling, and elaborately decorated walls with raised, gilt-painted vines.

We move onto the hall of mirrors. This is where guests can get a drink between acts. The ceiling has a lush fresco painted on it, and above the mirrors, the walls hold sepia miniature-style portraits of famous composers, musicians and singers. This is all original, with only restoration work undertaken since the hall opened.

With the tour over, I continue down La Rambla until I hit water. For the first time since arriving in Spain, the sun is too bright, and I slip on my sunglasses. (The Aussie sun is much harsher, and I guess I've grown used to it. I can hardly believe this is my first trip outside the country in nearly two years.) The water is blue, blue, blue, and sailboats are tied up all along the port. I snap a couple of photos of the water, the sculptures, the buildings - and a European woman in a smart sundress asks, "Will you photo me?" I take her picture, and she takes mine. This is the first time I've allowed anyone to hold my camera, but she does give it back.

I am tempted by street vendors with hot dogs and waffles, but I should get actual lunch, so I carry on until I see a cluster of cafes at an intersection further along. The one I choose, Casa Pascual, says it's been open since 1916, and it has a "menu del dia" for 11.50 euros, so I go in an make an attempt to read the Catalan menu they give me. The waitress catches me glancing at the glossary in my guidebook and brings me an English menu. A few minutes later a waiter comes by, and I order as best I can in Catalan. He is especially pleased with my pronunciation of beer - "una cervesa" - and gives me a handshake and a "muy bueno!" The Estrella beer he brings is light-tasting but very pleasant, and the glass has been chilled.

I eat my artichoke and chicken paella, and later a dish of potato and seasoned white fish, hake. We have  hake in Australia as well. I'm pleased that many of the other diners have ordered the same main meal, and I can only pick out one other foreigner. For dessert I have oranges with cinnamon, curious whether the translation might have missed something - but out comes a plate of thinly sliced and peeled oranges, sprinkled liberally with fresh grated cinnamon, nothing like the powder I bake with. It's simple but heavenly.

Next, I find the Catalunya Museum of History, and spend quite a long time there - the exhibit is huge. I think Jody would have enjoyed it more than me, because a whole room is devoted to amour and mounted knights. There are a few interactive pieces, like the Moorish water wheel, and a stone wheel for grinding grain. The most interesting to me were all the posters from the 30s through the 50s, and the display of early gadgets, including an Underwood typewriter with worn keys.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

An afternon in Zurich

It's a little before noon local time on Sunday September 5th and Jody and I have finally had some time to relax. Somehow - likely through sheer exhaustion - we managed to get about 6 or 7 hours' sleep on our 11 hour overnight Swissair flight. Still, neither of us feel particularly rested, and our calves and ankles are swollen from all the flying and cramped conditions.

It took some time to make a plan for the day and stick to it, but eventually we cleaned ourselves up- we're over the 36 hour travel mark now - had breakfast, and took the train into Zurich central. We walked until we saw water, then parked ourselves on a green bench in a gravelled, treed lookout point with a wharf.

The sun is streaming down, a welcome warmth after the pilot's announcement of our descent included a 6am weather report of 10 degrees. The two European young men seated next to me made a sound that needed no interpretation. I looked at them, clad in t shirts and shorts from their trip to Bangkok, and uttered one of the few German words I still remember: kalt. The guys grimaced. "Kalt."

It isn't cold now, which is great because I'm in my maxi dress and a half-sleeved cardigan. An older woman has come to ask if she can share our bench, and Jody gives up his turn of having his legs up.

The woman points at her legs and so do I, with an understanding smile. She looks at Jody and says, in accented English, she is young. I am an old woman."
She asks where we are from, and after Jody tells her, I muster enough German to say we've had 20 hours of flying. She returns that she's had 18.

In this half-English, half-German fashion, we remark on the water, the mountains, and the view, which is "wunderbar."

"Married?" The woman points at her rings, and I show her my own. "Mein mann," I say, "drei jahre."

She nods her approval. "Gross liebe," she says. Big love. If my German is terrible, she doesn't mention it.

We move on, have a coffee, and spend the rest of our afternoon in a grassy park with a rose garden.

Saturday, September 04, 2010

Happy Life

It's 9:30pm Sydney time on Saturday and Jody & I are in the Bangkok airport, where the sun is just setting outside the terminal window. We've been traveling about 14 hours now if you count from leaving our hotel at 7am. Our next flight leaves in 4 1/2 hours, and hopefully we can sleep on the plane! It's so exciting to be going on a vacation together, but strange that we'll be returning home to Australia... where we don't yet have a new apartment to call home!

We had a bit of a hurried start this morning, as we made it down to the hotel lobby at 6:58 and found our 7am shuttle driver already worried about the time. I wasn't sure where the second hotel keycard was so I was rummaging to make sure it wasn't in my purse… I might have delayed us about 1 minute. I'd prepaid for the ride to the airport so that made him much happier that he didn't also have to sort out change for me. I felt much better about my slight delay when, at our next stop, two backpackers failed to have any cash to pay the driver. He was so anxious about getting everyone to the terminal on time, he let them ride with us and we had to stop at two banks along the route before we found one that was open.

We reached the airport with plenty of time to spare, and Jody and I ate a leisurely breakfast and coffee. In Duty Free, Jody was excited to find the camera he's been eyeing for less than advertised in the city, but it'll have to go on the wish list. The gate next to us was scheduled for a flight to Auckland, but it seems there was some kind of natural disaster and the run was canceled. We're not informed just now so I don't know what the extent of the damage is. Anyone?

The Thai airways cabin crew wore orchid corsages and shot silk jackets with long silk skirts. They were very courteous and the service was quite good for economy. I would fly with them again. We had a window and aisle seat to ourselves, with no third seat, and there was a reasonable amount of space. Our seats were directly forward of the toilets, unfortunately, but at least that meant there was no one tugging on the back of our chairs as they got up. The food was decent too, and drink service often enough that I didn't get too dehydrated. I read somewhere that you should have one glass of water per hour travelled, but I'm not sure how big the glass is supposed to be… 

No hope of blending in here, particularly with Jody in his Australian hat and me so white and gawking at all the artwork and orchids around the airport. I'm not half as polished as the Thai ladies and Europeans passing through but at least I'm not wearing track pants or hiking shoes. (Graphic t-shirt, cardigan, cotton pants and shiny ballet flats.) A young Thai woman on our flight had absolutely gorgeous sandals: black heels about 3" high, with a zipper closure behind her ankle and two crisscross straps, one around her ankle and another across her toes. One strap was black and the other was diamante, with a diamante dragonfly on the ankle strap. When I complimented her on them, she thanked me, then asked if I was staying in Thailand. Regretfully I told her we were just passing through, and she wished me, "Happy life!"

Pearls and Productivity

If you're not in the loop, I am moving in a few weeks, and things are insanely busy. I don't have internet at the moment either, so my apologies for not posting. I do have one or two "blogging unplugged" entries I've been writing up by hand, and when I have more time I will be posting them.

Today was a mad rush to do many errands, and I felt like the fabled adult of Allie Brosh's world. (If you haven't discovered Hyperbole and a Half, do yourself a favour and click on over. She has a sense of humour that would be skewed if it weren't so bang-on, and she uses Paint and her imagination to charmingly, if strangely, illustrate her insights.)

So! I'm an adult!

  • I went to the bank
  • I opened a PO Box at the post office
  • I paid bills
  • I got a Medicare refund
  • I did laundry in the hotel sink
  • I picked up my new contacts
  • I called about unlocking my phone
Except for the last thing, this was all done in the space of six hours - and I also met a friend for hot chocolate, got my brows done, remembered to feed myself lunch (kebab!) and walked all over downtown. I was doing so well, I decided that I deserved to do something I've been meaning to do for AGES. Though I've been in Sydney nearly two years, and have walked or bussed past the gorgeous restored building that houses Australia's premier pearl jewelers, I have never set foot inside Paspaley.

I wandered around and a nice sales lady came up to me and asked if I was having a browse. (For the record, I was wearing a nice Esprit dress and a scarf, so I didn't look like a backpacker who'd come to gawk.) I decided to go with the truth, and told her I'd been meaning to come by to see the beautiful building and their pearls for some time. She smiled and left me with a "Let me know if I can answer any questions," and I meandered through and looked at many cases of huge round pearls, some on strings and some as earrings, several with diamonds or other stones to set them off. Eventually I came upon a case with earrings set with diamonds, pearls and turquoise-coloured stones. They were sheer gorgeousness. The sales lady chose that moment to ask if I'd found a favourite yet. I pointed them out and she said the stones were topaz, and the metal platinum.

I looked around some more, wistfully, and once near the door (and the smaller, though no less stunning pieces) I said, "Well, maybe on my thirtieth..." and she said that was the year of the pearl. Then, noticing that I was the only 'customer' in the shop, she offered, "You can try those on if you like."


I can say quite honestly that I have never seen such beautiful pearls, and although they were weighty, the post and clasp design didn't drag at my lobes. They were just the right length, dangling down to my jawline, and so sparkly... sigh. They are valued at $22,800.

Yes, people. I got to model jewelry that's worth as much as a car. I then tried a simpler pair, worth a mere $5,000 - a single pearl dropped from a chain and two small diamond studs, and they were also quite lovely - with perfectly round pearls. Such extravagance. Such a fitting end to my last day in Sydney for who-knows-how-long. Such a dream, this life I'm living now...

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

A Rainy Snail Kinda Day

This afternoon I put on my gumboots

and headed out the door to find this little guy

Later I had a delicious cappuccino

In a Max Brenner 'kangaroo' cup! *

What a lovely, rainy snail kinda day.

Drink your coffee in a decent way (don't forget you are an adult) then lick the chocolate leftovers to keep the child in you forever.

Saturday, August 07, 2010

A Busy Kitchen

I decided to play in the kitchen tonight and make dinner AND dessert, certain I could manage because dinner required marinating for 1/2 an hour and would be made on the stovetop, while dessert would use the oven. Oh-ho-ho, how optimistic I was!

Since finishing work two weeks ago I've been a busy girl - trying to decide what path to take next, planning vacations, writing, reading, budgeting and sending handmade cards to my friends who are getting married and having babies. Things are in flux at the moment and I wanted to spend time in the kitchen, as it always seems to give me a sense of accomplishment and the feeling that some things will turn out, no matter how crazy the rest of my life is.

Several months ago I made Chicken Thighs in Riesling, and tonight it was just as delicious as I remembered, served with a side salad. While it marinated away in the fridge I got to work on a cake I've had my eye on for ages : the Smitten Kitchen Gingerbread Apple Upside Down Cake, henceforth known as Skapple cake (the SK for Smitten Kitchen, although as I look at the original post again it seems she's adapted it from someone called Karen Bates at the Philo Apple farm, and the New York Times). So! Skapple Cake.

It's not a difficult cake, exactly - but there are several steps, which felt a bit beyond me tonight. Do not attempt this cake unless you have several bowls. And enough counter space. And perhaps a helpful roommate. And at least two hours, because it bakes for nearly an hour and takes time to put together unless you're really with it. I most definitely was not tonight. I managed with my loose-bottomed cake tin/cheesecake tin, but a cake tin with a sealed bottom is better. Fortunately I'd anticipated the problem of heated topping dripping from the tin, and had put an old cookie sheet underneath the pan.

On the plus side! The cake was moist and spongey, the house smelled fantastic while it baked, and although it looked very "homemade" it was also pretty impressive. I used Braeburn apples, which kept their shape but still softened. If you feel like something warming that will keep you happily in the kitchen for a while, this is a good cake to try. It turned out beautifully, so at least my hard work was worth it. Smitten Kitchen suggests cider or dark ale to accompany it, and a bit of softly whipped cream.

Thursday, August 05, 2010


Props to the guy I heard karaoke-ing as I came home tonight. Thursday night is generally a big night out in Sydney, and usually I pass a bar with a karaoke stage and have to cringe. The canned music had just hit its intro as I came into hearing range, and I felt my musical appreciation drop to my toes as I recognised Billy Joel's "Tell Her About It."

Aside from a speedy recovery to catch up with the equally speedy first line, though, the guy was good! Now, I love me some Billy Joel, and I was gratified not to have painful memories of bad karaoke etched on top of his voice in my head.

I myself haven't been to a karaoke bar in a long time...which means it's probably time to go again. I remember doing "Going Under" by Evanescence, and a guy in our group kindly jumped in when he realised there was a male part; "Love Story" by Taylor Swift; and "Lady Marmalade" from Moulin Rouge. I am not a soprano so my range falls more in the Tracy Chapman / Amy Winehouse area but I can fake it sometimes.

Do you karaoke? Are there songs you always do, or ones you fastidiously avoid? Does the mere thought of getting up in front of people with an abnormally amplified voice and a backing of tasteless videos and soulless recordings leave you quaking in your stylish yet affordable boots?

Friday, July 30, 2010

Fast-Track Life

Our friends who were married a week following our wedding are celebrating their son's first birthday next month. I said to Jody, "Good thing it isn't a race."

Can you imagine if it were? Well, I suppose some people think it is... always racing to get ahead. Sometimes I think that approach gets you as far as the guy who guns it when the light goes green, only to be stuck at the next red light. So, if that's true (and it's open for debate, I admit) - how do we know when to go full throttle and when to enjoy the ride?

Just think of all the idioms we have: he fast-tracked his career; she breezed through business studies; their son skipped a grade; she raced the clock. It's implied that faster is better. Frankly, it scares me to see advertisements along the lines of, "Become a medical assistant in half the time of other schools!" Do they skip units? Cram even more knowledge into eager brains? Only teach the most common ailments and assure the students they can learn everything else on the job???

I suppose that if the aim is to skip the boring bits and get to the good stuff of life, that can be a positive thing... but I'm glad we aren't bound to complete tasks by a certain age or on a timeline. Certainly there's pressure to, but we aren't stuck at one stage of life until we complete an obligatory task.

A fast-track approach to a career is great, if the individual is driven (another road-related idiom!) or gifted. Speeding up your schooling works for some, while for others it exposes gaps in social development. But I feel that life is for living, and the pace may be relentless but at least it's variable! Life doesn't have a curriculum, and although you might get odd looks or lectures if you graduate/learn to drive/move out/get married/have children/get joint bank accounts/learn to cook too early - or too late - in someone else's opinion, it is just that - their opinion.

At the moment, I don't feel like I'm missing out on anything - and I have so much to look forward to! How about you? Does a brisk pace suit you? Do you want to do everything all at once? Or are you content to detour, and plan your own scenic route?

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Handwriting Exercise

Not many people consider their handwriting to be legible, but although I can type very quickly I still like to handwrite some things - cards, special letters, and creative writing. I feel much less constrained when I can print and cross out on paper as I craft a story or poem, and that handwriting is definitely more free form than my cursive. I've always had neat writing, and I put it down to a dose of perfectionism and classes in penmanship at a British elementary school - with fountain pens, no less.

1. Name/Blog Name
2. Right handed, left handed or both
3. Favorite letters to write
4. Least favorite letters to write
5. Write: The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.
6. Write in caps:
7. Favorite song lyrics
8. Tag 7 people
9. Any special note or drawing

You might have to click the image to see it in life size if you don't want to squint. I was tagged by Nathan at PhilosYphia to provide this sample! Enjoy. I've only tagged the three people I thought of off the top of my head, but go ahead and try it if you like.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Oh Hollywood, How You Thwart Us!

So a few months ago, Jody and I splurged on the complete set of Blu-Ray discs of Harry Potter, years 1-5. Year 6 comes out in a few weeks (that's Half Blood Prince) and part one of Year 7 hits theatres in November.

You see, we thought we were so smart. We bought this boxed set:

It has squishy foam at one end, with enough space to fit two DVD cases, see? And soon we can add #6. And in a year or so we can add... part one? Then what? Does the box magically grow to fit part two??

Edit :
After I posted this I checked to make sure it published correctly... and then, and only then, did I count the DVDs in the photo. There were six. I accused Jody of the setup, because he's the one who told me HBP was about to come out. He just laughed. I decided against deleting this post even if it makes me look like a dork.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Sydney Has a Hold on Me

Hard to believe, but I've now been in Sydney a year and eight months. Almost two years, people! Jody and I have now lived here longer than we lived in B.C. as a married couple. Which is probably why Immigration has finally given me a spouse visa.

Tourists stop me to ask for directions, or to take their picture. I move halfway around the world and still, I am the approachable one. And yes, I know where the Aquarium is, and the QVB, and the nearest train station. And no, you should not take a pricey harbour cruise - get on the public ferry and you'll get just as nice a tour, but cheaper.

I know not to walk underneath the monorail on the Darling Harbour Bridge after it's rained, because I'll get soaked as the ridiculous mode of transport whooshes overhead and sluices water from its track.

Not only do I know what Aldi is, I know that my friend doesn't want her mother to buy infant clothes from there, because they'll fall apart in three washes.

Instead of gasping at book prices, I've begun ordering online.

I understand that brunch with the girls requires more effort than a ponytail, jeans, shirt and sneakers.

I have successfully used "pashed" in a sentence.

Maybe I don't quite understand why it's so difficult to see a friend who lives in another suburb, but at least I've accepted that our outings are likely to be three months apart.

Now that it's winter, I don't feel ready to go out unless I'm wearing a scarf or pashmina.

My wardrobe has more black in it than ever. Maybe this means I should move to Melbourne.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Random Kindness

The other night, I was walking home and waiting for the light to change at a crosswalk. A young couple came out of the corner store and unwrapped Ferrero Rochers as they waited with me. I thought to myself that there were three chocolates, and three of us, and how awesome it would be if they gave me the third golden-wrapped ball. Of course they had no reason to - I didn't know them - it was just a fleeting thought.

The light was still red when the young woman spoke. "Excuse me," she said, "this is for you." In her palm was the third Ferrero.

"Thank you," I responded, only slightly startled. "That's very kind of you."

The light changed as I plucked the chocolate from her hand, and we walked across amicably. The three of us continued along the sidewalk for a time, not quite together, but not quite apart.

This was quite unexpected in Sydney, where I've found I'm more likely to be ignored than greeted in the street. It reminded me of church youth group in Ontario, where we would occasionally perform a RASK (Random Act of Senseless Kindness) for the evening's meeting - hanging candy canes from every available public space, for instance. Some days I feel quite isolated, even living in a big city, and I've finally come to terms with the fact that I'm unlikely to bump into someone I know - which used to be nearly impossible to avoid in my hometown.

Lately I've been wondering what random kindness I could perform to make someone's day a little less empty. What could you do? Not everyone would give up their last Ferrero (and not everyone would accept it either) but surely, we could smile more. We could hold the elevator for our neighbour down the hall. We could let someone who is rushing go ahead of us in the coffee lineup.

Has someone been kind to you lately? Pass it on.

Bookmark and Share

Monday, June 14, 2010

HEAL Africa : Worth Supporting

It's a Saturday afternoon in autumn, and I'm sitting in a coffeeshop, notebook open, with a latte for company. The rain has held off, and the sun is peeping through the cloudy sky, refracting off the high-rise windows and bouncing onto the asphalt. I can see the Sydney Harbour Bridge just ahead of me, stretching out behind buildings in the distance. I've been out for breakfast with ladies from church, then meandered through the shopping district and bought a pair of lacy tights. I walked for another hour, and found myself here, with a place and time to write.

But I am finding it difficult to escape into the world of a princess. Breakfast this morning included a speaker, the current CEO of CNEC Partners International. Until the breakfast fellowship was announced, I'd never heard of it. Kim Vanden Hagel spoke about what the CNEC (Christian Nationals’ Evangelism Council) and its initiative, HEAL Africa (Health, Education, Community Action and Leadership), are doing in the Democratic Republic of the Congo to help women and girls whose lives have been destroyed by the recent conflicts in Africa.

Kim spoke about the devastating effects of war on the female population. One of the realities of war is violence, and in DR Congo, I'm told, women and girls are subjected to brutal rapes and beatings. It is hard to swallow, hard to imagine, hard to equate my world of coffee and a peaceful day to day existence with a world where gang rape is prevalent. Not only does it happen, but the victims are cast out at a time when they should be embraced. Those who are strong enough - or lucky enough to be found by local missionaries and aid workers -come to HEAL Africa for the help they desperately need. Many come for healing from physical harm, including surgery and pregnancy complications, such as fistulae.

HEAL Africa also believe that the devastating effects of gender based violence (GBV) can only be reversed when the culture of silence is broken. The culture of silence extends to all forms of GBV. It is not right, in our Western way of thinking, but the culture of silence is one reason the women choose not to seek treatment at the hospital. It would mean admitting to the rape, and essentially placing the blame on themselves and causing their own banishment from their homes and villages. Instead they suffer in silence, assuming they recover well enough on their own.

I have been holding back this post because I feel there is more to add, more to research, before I publish it... but I think I could go on and on and still not touch on everything. And so I will continue with my thoughts from the afternoon following Kim Vanden Hagel's talk, and place notes for further reading at the end of this post...

View Larger Map

HEAL Africa's Fistula Repair Program seeks to care for women who have been left in a painful and emotionally traumatised state. But they recognise that treating the fistula is not enough. The culture that allows these rapes to occur and reoccur without acknowledging that the women have been wronged, must be changed. The stigma of being a victim of rape must be cleared; it is not enough to heal the wounds and send a woman on her way. Those who are pregnant need care and a means to support themselves in the future. Those who are incontinent from fistulae (which is nearly all) require care, particularly if they are the unlucky ones who cannot be healed, even following multiple surgeries; some are consigned to hospital wards indefinitely. Those who receive training are encouraged to return to community life. Some are able to earn money while they pass the time in hospital by making handicrafts.

The women who can be healed are equipped with skills that they can take back to their villages, enabling them to live as a valued member of the community. Their return is seen as a powerful gesture, rather than a shameful one. But that doesn't mean it's easy. It is not only women who are recovering from GBV that receive training through CNEC - the education is available to any woman, which helps to blur the lines and remove the stigma that might otherwise come from accepting training from the organisation.

Along with the support of CNEC and its partners, HEAL Africa is dedicated to enabling locals, rather than sending expatriates to help. By donating your time or money, more girls can be reached, and more women can know that they are worth saving.

I've mentioned the possibility of another charity blogging event, but I've been waiting for something to come along and hold onto my heart. These girls need our help. If you would like to contribute, either by donation directly to HEAL Africa and CNEC or by participating in the blogoff, let me know in the comments or via email. This is a cause worth supporting.

Further Reading

To read more about GBV and the culture of silence surrounding sexuality and abuse, I recommend this newsletter. One statement that caught my eye reads, "GBV occurs everywhere, be it in the home, school, workplace or wider society. The major reason for its widespread nature is embedded in certain patriarchal values that regard women as mere sex objects to be conquered and satisfy the desire of men. Certain myths also see women as accomplices in the rape cases and men as having animalist desires which cannot be controlled. In the absence of limited institutional mechanisms to address GBV and a deliberate culture of silence around issues of sexuality and abuse, GBV will continue to thrive." (Exchange, Summer 2006)

The Real Sydney : A war where the weapon of choice is rape

To read the story of one woman who was helped by HEAL Africa, read the news story titled "International Women's Day - Not Joyful for Some" from 11/03/2010 on CNEC's News Page.

NGO News Africa - Rwanda : Gender Equality, Ending Widespread Violence Against Women

Bookmark and Share

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Chicken Pot Pie & Cheddar Biscuits

Really, the chicken pot pie is just a vehicle for biscuits.

I've been wanting to make biscuits or dumplings for DAYS. A week or so ago Jody made slow-cooked corned beef, and although I've never been a fan of corned beef I assured him I would try it. The pink colour put me off a bit, but it tasted all right - the trouble was, it tasted like meat that ought to be in a stew. We wanted to make stew with the leftovers but our week was far too busy and it didn't happen.

So tonight I was looking for something to make with the organic chicken thighs I'd picked up, and trolled around Everybody Likes Sandwiches, and ELS lured me with talk of a chicken pot pie topped with cheddar-infused biscuits.

How thrilling to find a casserole dish that combined chicken with biscuits! How serendipitous! I have never attempted anything like it before, but isn't it reassuring to know that, if you follow the directions of someone who's done this before, it will (more or less) turn out? That's something I love about being in the kitchen - there's always a certain amount of risk, but more often than not, the reward is great.

In this case, the reward was biscuits and a healthy-tasting melange of vegetables and chicken. ELS's recipe has you use leftover chicken, and I agree that this would be ideal - as it added a lot of time onto my kitchen bumblings to cook the chicken. I let it cool while other things were cooking, and although it worked, this recipe is more suited to using up leftovers.

I often try to reword when I lift directions from someone else's blog, but in this case there wasn't much to change, so I hope I'm forgiven. ELS is run by a Vancouverite known as Kickpleat who is part cook, part graphic designer. Go on over to her site and poke around if you haven't already. There's a vegetarian rice bowl over there that's always welcome on my table.

Chicken Pot Pie with Cheddar Biscuits

Everybody Likes Sandwiches
Serves 2-4

1 small rutabaga, peeled & diced
2 T olive oil
1 onion, diced
1/4 t red chili flakes
4 cloves garlic, minced
2 stalks celery, diced
1/2 t dried thyme
1/2 t dried oregano
2 c mushrooms, halved or quartered
3 T flour
1 c mushroom broth
1 c frozen corn
2 c leftover chicken, chopped
salt & pepper

for biscuit topping:
2 c flour, plus more for work surface
2 1/4 t baking powder
3/4 t baking soda
salt & pepper
6 T cold butter, cut into small chunks
1/2 c yogurt
1/4 c milk
3/4 c shredded old cheddar cheese

1. In a medium sized saucepan, boil rutabaga until tender. Drain and set aside.

2. Meanwhile, add oil to heavy cast iron pot and saute onion, garlic and chili over medium heat until shiny. Add celery, thyme, oregano and mushrooms and saute until soft. Sprinkle vegetables with flour and stir until flour cooks, about 2 minutes. Stir in broth, add corn, rutabaga and chicken and simmer until broth thickens, stirring occasionally. Season with salt and pepper, if necessary.

3. Preheat oven to 450°. Make topping by whisking together flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt and pepper. Cut in butter with a pastry knife until mixture resembles coarse crumbs with some pea-sized lumps. Add yogurt, milk and cheese and stir until just combined. With floured hands, knead dough against the side of the bowl until the mixture holds together. If it’s sticky, knead in up to 1/4 cup more flour.

4. Drop small mounds of topping over chicken mixture and bake until brown, about 20 minutes. Remove from oven and let cool for 10 minutes before serving.

Julia's Notes:

As usual, I improvised. I forgot to pick up plain yogurt at the store but I have this awesome-tasting plain one swirled through with passionfruit - so I tried to avoid the fruity goodness when I scooped out a few tablespoons, telling myself that passionfruit and chicken was not a bad combination if my scooping wasn't precise. This is so unlike the old me, who would have fussed about not having the right ingredients.

Jody and I ate half of the dish, so my best guess is that this would serve 2-4 people, but it's the kind of dish you can stretch depending on how many veggies & the amount of chicken you use. Just be sure to keep the amount of liquid in mind. Speaking of liquid, I used chicken stock instead of mushroom, because it's what I had.

I had carrots so I boiled them with the same water once the rutabaga was done. (Here in Australia, it's called a swede!) I had mixed frozen peas & corn. And because I was starting from fresh, boneless-skinless thighs, I cooked them in the frypan first, then used the pan again - without washing all the goodness out of it - to saute the onions, garlic paste and red chilli flakes. I am so much less afraid of chilli flakes now! So, all in all, I used one pot to boil veggies, one large saucepan, one bowl to stir the biscuits, and a pyrex to hold the cooked chicken and, later, house the whole meal while it was in the oven. Not too many dishes, really. Though it does make me want to get one of those casserole dishes with a lid that can go from stovetop to oven.

Whew! It's been a bit of a rough start this week, and playing about in the kitchen - with biscuits to show for it - has done wonders for my mood. Also, I served tonight's meal with a New Zealand 2008 Sauvignon Blanc from Te Henga. Fruity, but a nice match for the lightly spiced chicken pot pie.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Hip Hop Mondays

Nothing beats the Monday blahs like my hip hop class. It's just five girls in the company of Rihanna and Chris Brown (though not together) with the occasional 90s flashback. Oh, do we have fun! Our current routine is set to "Picture Perfect," and as far as we know we all look great - we have no mirrors in our dance practice room!

Now that we know the steps, we can start to put the routine together and do it back-to-back, which is giving us a pretty good workout. It might be heading into winter, but after the warmup dance and one or two run-throughs, the sweatshirts have been flung into the corners of the room. Our instructor, Katie, is pretty awesome - charismatic, encouraging, laid back - and she's got skills. Funky sexy hip hop skills.

All of us were in black and grey this week, and we looked like a dance troop. We're really starting to come together as friends, too, over the past six or eight weeks. The most experienced dancer there - who's done ballet and contemporary before starting this class - mentioned that our personalities were starting to come through the moves, and she loved seeing it in us when it was her turn to watch. Hip hop has been such a stretch for me, coming from a swing and ballroom background, and I'm still trying to take up more space and make things big and strong on the dance floor. It's what I wanted, though; it's a chance to grow, and push myself, and see how it feels to dance solo.

Mondays aren't so bad. I tie my hair back and pull on my silver high-tops, and I'm ready for hip hop.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Street Scene

She had a smile as bright and wide as Miley Cyrus, but infinitely better fashion sense than the starlet. Even from my seat on the bus she was captivating. I noticed her shoes first - black of course - platform peep-toes with a heavy heel. They showcased her fluoro pink toenail polish, and she teetered on them, shifting her footing as she interacted with the three guys around the bar table. It was a Thursday, just after office hours, and Sydney's favourite happy hour had begun.

The young woman's beer was perilously close to the edge of the outdoor table, but she didn't pick it up. Her friends had her laughing every few seconds, and when she smiled her eyes shut, elfin-like. She laughed with her whole body, her mouth fully open, head thrown back, shoulders shaking with mirth.

The bus pulled away, and I still wonder who was enjoying themselves more - the dark-haired beauty, or those in her company.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Green Beans and Saturdays

I woke up to the sound of rain, and the washing machine churning away on its delayed-start load. Fall has come to Sydney, and with it, a lot of rain and dark evenings.

I must admit, I've been looking forward to wearing boots and jumpers, so this weekend I will be putting away sundresses and shorts. Last night was cool enough to wear my vintage suede jacket down to the pub for a drink with workmates. Seated outside on Darling Harbour, we were treated to fireworks honouring Jazz weekend.

Too tired after the workweek to do more than boil up some ravioli and toss it with pesto, I put off my dinner plans until Saturday lunchtime rolled around. And since it was a lazy Saturday, it was closer to 3pm when I heated up the wok.

With precious little space for cookbooks, I often rely on the internet to find out what's for dinner. My favourites are listed in the "Kitchen Encounters" links - those foodie blogs I check each week - and are often just what I need to get myself out of a pasta rut. This week Luisa, aka The Wednesday Chef, was sharing a vegetarian Indian dish from Julie Sahni.

Bihari Green Beans Masala

2 tablespoons vegetable oil or light olive oil
2 tablespoons flaked or sliced almonds
1/2 cup finely chopped onion
3 large cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1 teaspoon sweet paprika
1/2 teaspoon red chili pepper flakes
3/4 teaspoon kosher salt
3/4 cup coconut milk
3/4 pound green beans, trimmed and cut into 1-inch pieces
1 teaspoon lime juice
2 tablespoons chopped cilantro

1. Heat the oil in a 3-quart sauté pan over medium heat. Add almonds and cook, stirring, until light golden. Remove from heat and transfer almonds to a plate or bowl; set aside for garnish.

2. Add onion, garlic, cumin, coriander, paprika, chili pepper flakes and salt to the unwashed sauté pan, and return to medium heat. Sauté until the onion is tender and begins to fry, about 4 minutes.

3. Add coconut milk and green beans. Mix well and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium-low and cook, covered, until the beans are tender, about 6 minutes.

4. Sprinkle beans with lime juice, and toss lightly. Transfer to a warmed serving dish and garnish with almonds and cilantro. Serve with plain cooked rice or roti flatbread.

Julia's notes:

I used flaked almonds and they were lovely. I think any pre-chopped almonds would work. Their toasted, buttery crunch really makes this dish. I admit I forgot to add the lime - it will brighten this up. The green beans were quite crispy as I didn't let them cook for long, and I like them that way, but you may prefer softer veggies. Jody made the rice and added flaked coconut while it was cooking. We had very little left, so I also toasted some naan.

Flavourful onions and spices

I was nervous about the chili flakes but it wasn't overly spicy, though I did cheat and use the garlic paste I had in the fridge. These two are the flavours you can adjust for heat. I can only stand mild to medium, and the ratio here was good for me. Adjust as you like - just taste as you go!

Stir in the beans and coconut milk

Luisa has some lovely photos on her blog and while mine aren't as sophisticated, you can see that it's an easy dish to plate up and it will look fantastic, even from an amateur cook.

Plate it up and enjoy!

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Traditional Grace

Last night Jody and I took in a traditional ballet at the Sydney Opera House. Coppelia is full of village charm, graceful movement, magic, gorgeous costumes and living dolls.

Dr Coppelius is a secretive pensioner living in a small village, and everyone wants to know what he's up to. Franz, a young man engaged to village girl Swanilda, is distracted by a lovely figure on Dr Coppelius' balcony. Swanilda is none too pleased when she finds her fiance mooning over Coppelia, posturing below her balcony with a bunch of flowers.

Soon afterward, the doctor (who is, in reality, an alchemist) locks up and leaves his house on an errand. The village boys rough him up but are unable to get his key. Coppelius heaves a sigh of relief and wipes his brow with his handkerchief - dropping his key, which was wrapped inside the cloth, in the process. He doesn't notice, but Swanilda does, and she snatches it up with glee. Meanwhile Franz runs off to find a ladder to lean against the upstairs window.

The seven village girls sneak into the house and discover a room filled with life-sized dolls. Cautiously they look around, and find that some can be prodded into movement. (At first I assumed at least some were props, but they were all dancers - eight of them - and able to sit or stand remarkably still! Throughout Act 2 they 'came to life' and danced like rag dolls, robots, a jack in the box or a windup toy.) Coppelia is discovered in a cabinet at the centre of the room, and her jerky movements remind one of a puppet on strings, but she is lovely nonetheless.

Coppelius arrives in a fury and chases the girls out - all but Swanilda, who hides in the cabinet with the alchemist's "daughter." Franz tumbles through the window, and Coppelius drugs him and pins him to a large wheel. Franz is spun around and around, unconscious of the spell being worked on him. The alchemist believes he can make Coppelia come to life and be a true daughter to him, if only she has a soul, and he tries to take Franz's from him.

The cabinet is opened and the audience is sure of Swanilda's discovery - but she has disguised herself in the doll's clothes, and begins to move as she saw Coppelia move earlier. She fools the alchemist, and dances for him as he attempts to transfer Franz's soul to her. The other dolls come to life and Swanilda uses the confusion to try and free her fiance. Eventually he recovers, and the two are reunited. Dr Coppelius is heartbroken that his daughter has not truly come to life, and the scene closes.

The final act involves a lot of group dances as the villagers rejoice in Franz and Swanilda's marriage. Aside from the second act's superb doll dance, the third act held my (and Jody's) favourite number - 12 lovely ballerinas in midnight blue tutus, beautifully in sync and as traditional as you please. Later in the act, nearly the whole cast took part - 35 dancers filled the stage in a country dance. I can't imagine what it would have felt like to be part of that company.

The costumes were fantastic, and even from our position (six rows from the back, in the centre of the upper-level Circle seating) we could see that tremendous attention to detail had been paid. There was tulle and ribbon everywhere, and a great deal of pastels. The sets were just as spectacular, giving off old-world charm. Dancers were supported by a strong and talented orchestra. Don't you just love the jumbled sound of strings and horns that signals the performance is about to start?

It’s lovely to live in a city where I can take advantage of the cultural offerings. Jody and I very much enjoyed our evening out, and it was a memorable way to celebrate our third anniversary.

*Picture from Sydney Opera House website, as photography was not allowed. Coppelia runs from the 4th-22nd of May 2010, includes matinees, and is suitable for family viewing.
The storyline is based on my interpretation of the performance I attended. I'm sure there are numerous sites with other synopses, but this is mine.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Blues'n it Up

Easter weekend in Byron Bay brought the 21st annual Bluesfest, a five day celebration of blues and roots artists - not just Australian artists, but international acts as well. Jody and I met up with another couple, C & M, and spent a glorious day soaking up some good tunes.

Unfortunately I was only able to make it for the Saturday performances, but on the upside, I saw a favourite (Jack Johnson!) and so did Jody (Buena Vista Social Club) - and I discovered a new favourite.

Behold - Newton Faulkner.

Here's what won me over:
  • He writes his own songs.
  • His guitar skills are wicked-cool.
  • He played to a tent full of people for an entire hour, solo.
  • He has a sense of play and an ease in performing.
  • His lyrics are honest yet poetic.
  • He has fantastic red dreadlocks.
I bought his second album, Rebuilt by Humans, at Bluesfest. My friend L, already a fan, tells me the background for this title: Newton had to have surgery for a dislocated hand and fractured forearm. Bad news for a guitarist!

I am so glad he was in the Bluesfest lineup, or I may never have discovered him. I highly recommend his music - I can just put the album on and let it play, and that's rare.

Jack Johnson was good, but unfortunately his songs were so well-known, the audience sometimes drowned him out singing along. And he didn't seem to "connect" with us very much - he was just up there, playing. I wasn't as impressed as I thought I would be. But he did do Banana Pancakes, so I went home happy. And he surprised me by doing a cover of The Joker ("Some people call me the space cowboy... some call me the gangster of love. Some people call me Maurice...")! We caught a (poor quality) snippet of that on video, with a shout-out to my sis about 20 seconds in.
Buena Vista Social Club actually had people up and dancing! They were amazing. Of course no one knew what they were singing (they're from Cuba) but we enjoyed it very much. The female vocalist had a lot goin' on, too - she was singing and dancing and playing the occasional tambourine, all while looking smokin' hot in heels and a slinky dress. The lead singer tried to get the audience to follow him with some scat-style echoes, but 3/4 of the crowd was drunk by then and it was pretty much a failed experiment. Oh well, we had fun anyway. I was having fun even without beer, actually, and instead I held out for a chai from one of the coffee stalls. And it was, quite possibly, the bestchai latte I have ever had. It was not from syrup, and was not simply chai tea and milk. It tasted amazing, and on top of the deliciousness, the barista was serving it up despite the generator constantly flickering, which made for some challenging drink-making.

I bought handmade silver rose earrings and an adorable t-shirt with three owls on it from one of the market stalls, and C found a leather thong necklace adorned with feathers. There were food stalls as well, and I had an absolutely delicious meat pie and salad. People were generally friendly and good-natured, except when it came to two of us defending our two chairs and a blanket in the tent while C & M had their turn for a dinner break. I was glad of the tents, because it was a hot day.

On the whole I thought the festival was well-organised, except when it came time for us to leave the parking lot and head home. Let's just say an hour and a half of waiting to exit, trying to get into the excruciatingly slow-moving lineup without running over drunk, bogan would-be traffic controllers, not knowing what was taking so long, and having four grown adults in an Echo was not the most fun you could have on a Saturday night. Add in a failed few rounds of 20 Questions, including Jody's answer of "zombie" (neither animal, vegetable or inanimate object, dontcha know) and me being laughed at for asking if the 80s movie in question had puppets in it. The answer was Gremlins - so I wasn't so crazy after all. Oh, we were glad to get on the open road!

But would I do it again next year? Absolutely.

Side note: While trawling for a NF article I also found this piece on a Sydney composer - and since I do listen to ABC Classic FM, it is entirely possible that I've heard one of her compositions already. But now I am intrigued, and will shortly be finding out more about Elena Kats-Chernin.

Thursday, April 08, 2010

Snapshots of Easter Weekend

More details to come. This is largely how I spent my Easter long weekend.


Really? This is Cougar Town's bumper-sticker slogan?

I haven't seen the show, and if this is any indication of what it's like, it's staying that way.

Thursday, April 01, 2010

Chinese Fire Drill!

Everybody out! Run around the car! Quick quick quick... get back in your seat before the light changes!

Or, in the case of three young Chinese women I saw this morning on my way to work - if you see a fire truck, pull over! Fling open the doors, run around, and giggle as you try to simultaneously watch the firemen in the truck AND get back into the car.

It totally made my morning. A Chinese Fire Drill!

Friday, March 26, 2010

So Over These Songs

Dear Radio,

Please understand that, while I appreciate the wonders of alternating currents and free music, there are some songs that I just.cannot.stand.anymore.

My coworkers have little radios at their desk, and while I don't mind a little background music, they don't choose the same station - so two days a week, I have opposing sounds coming from my left and right. And so here are the songs that I would really, truly appreciate, Radio, if you could convince your other Listeners to dial down the requests.

Hey Soul Sister - Train

Replay - Sean Kingston

Fireflies - Owl City

Rude Boy - Rihanna

Today Was A Fairytale - Taylor Swift

Empire State of Mind - Alicia Keys & Jay-Z

"Empire State of Mind" and "Rude Boy" are particularly annoying, because they are very repetitive and the range is such that, over the desk partition, I can't hear what I'm sure are carefully crafted countermelodies and lyrical verses, and so all I hear is this:

"C'mon boy, boy boy... take IT take IT take IT take IT"

"New Yo-ooooork... New YORK New Yoooooork!"

I can barely understand Sean Kingston (Iyaz? really?) until halfway through when he stops playing with the synth and actually SINGS a verse. Fireflies is totally overplayed.

And Taylor, I love you - but do all your hits have to be about princes and fairytales?



Saturday, March 20, 2010

No Burnt Pizza Here

There are good weeks and bad weeks in my kitchen. The bad weeks are when I manage to burn frozen pizza or add bad milk to my eggs, and then I throw up my hands and declare it take-out night.

But this has been a good week in the kitchen. Sunday I baked cookies AND brownies, and although I burnt my finger it is healing well (darn those metal bowls sitting too close to the gas element). Earlier this week we had stir fry & cous cous. Last night was the simple but tasty salad, bakery rolls and barbecued sausage. Lunch was mock greek salad. And tonight? Oh yes. Tonight was the fabulously rustic and soon-to-be-repeated Chicken Thighs in Riesling.

One of my new favourite food blogs is Everybody Likes Sandwiches, which has recently migrated from a blog site to its own domain (the Vancouver-based foodie is also a graphic designer). There's much more to love there than sandwiches, and while poking around the site's newly created category search, I discovered what seemed to be the perfect culinary end to my week. So last night I scurried to the grocery store to pick up the ingredients, none of which are obscure - you might even have them in your fridge or cupboard right now.

Chicken Thighs in Riesling
Adapted from Gourmet
and Everybody Likes Sandwiches

1/2 red bell pepper, chopped
2 tsp garlic paste or 2 cloves, chopped
1 t oregano
juice of 1/2 a lemon
1/2 t ground cumin
4-6 skinless chicken thighs
(even easier if they're boneless)
salt & pepper
1 T olive oil

1 T butter
4 large shallots, roughly chopped
4 medium carrots, cut into 1 inch long rounds
1/2 – 3/4 c riesling
4 potatoes, cut into large chunks
1/4 - 1/3 c heavy cream
juice of 1/2 a lemon

1. Rinse and pat dry chicken thighs, using paper towel. Prepare a dish with the garlic, bell pepper, oregano, cumin and lemon juice. The lemon is key for moisture and zing! Stir to coat and allow 30 minutes to marinade.

2. Heat olive oil over med-high heat in a wide saucepan or pot, then add chicken and marinade. Brown chicken on all sides. Remove from pan and set aside.

3. Heat butter and saute shallots and carrots for about 10 minutes, then add the chicken. Pour riesling overtop and cover. Cook over med-low heat until chicken is cooked through and carrots are tender, about 30 minutes. Get the potatoes ready while you're waiting.

4. In a separate pot, cook potatoes in boiling water until just tender. Drain and add to the main dish once chicken is cooked. Add heavy cream and squeeze in lemon juice, then stir gently to combine.

If you have boneless skinless thighs this recipe is even easier, and I got six fresh ones from my deli for just over $5. No photos this time because chicken, potatoes & carrots are not particularly photogenic. This meal doesn't look like much, but it is delicious.

After dinner, Jody complimented me on a successful meal, and then commented on the lighting. "You're funny, turning out the lights because the halogens are too bright."

"I didn't do it to be funny, I did it to be romantical!"

"Oh, that's right - you have nice candles on the table."

That's a good week right there, folks. Enjoy your weekend.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Goodbye Vancouver 2010

I wasn't quite ready to say goodbye to the Olympics when I took down my medals table from this blog. So I leave you now with a thank-you note from NBC News anchor, Brian Williams.

After tonight’s broadcast and after looting our hotel mini-bars, we’re going to try to brave the blizzard and fly east to home and hearth, and to do laundry well into next week. Before we leave this thoroughly polite country, the polite thing to do is leave behind a thank-you note.
Thank you, Canada:
For being such good hosts.
For your unfailing courtesy.
For your (mostly) beautiful weather.
For scheduling no more than 60 percent of your float plane departures at the exact moment when I was trying to say something on television.
For not seeming to mind the occasional (or constant) good-natured mimicry of your accents.
For your unique TV commercials — for companies like Tim Hortons — which made us laugh and cry.
For securing this massive event without choking security, and without publicly displaying a single automatic weapon.
For having the best garment design and logo-wear of the games — you’ve made wearing your name a cool thing to do.
For the sportsmanship we saw most of your athletes display.
For not honking your horns. I didn’t hear one car horn in 15 days — which also means none of my fellow New Yorkers rented cars while visiting.
For making us aware of how many of you have been watching NBC all these years.
For having the good taste to have an anchorman named Brian Williams on your CTV network, who turns out to be such a nice guy.
For the body scans at the airport which make pat-downs and cavity searches unnecessary.
For designing those really cool LED Olympic rings in the harbor, which turned to gold when your athletes won one.
For always saying nice things about the United States…when you know we’re listening.
For sharing Joannie Rochette with us.
For reminding some of us we used to be a more civil society.
Mostly, for welcoming the world with such ease and making lasting friends with all of us.

– Brian Williams, NBC News

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Off? Off-Off? On?

The familiar sound of a smoke alarm from somewhere in our complex prompted a perplexing question.

Why does an alarm go off? Shouldn't it go on? When the alarm goes off in the midst of baking, we then turn it off again. Is that off-off? Or does that mean it's on, much like a double negative creates a positive?

Why are English phrases so unreliable and baffling!?

The Music Geek in Me

I was trying to fall asleep on Monday night, the day before my class, but the thought of my long-gone days as a brass instrumentalist popped into my head and I had to get out of bed and write. The night was warm and quiet as I slipped out to the balcony of our apartment and seated myself at the patio table, with the living room light illuminating my notebook just enough. The scents and sounds embedded in my memories of my time behind a music stand tumbled onto the page...

It’s been years since I held a horn to my lips. I miss the tang of brass and oil in my nostrils, the cool metal mouthpiece unyielding as I begin to warm up. I miss counting rest bars and holding whole notes, interpreting a wall of sound from black symbols on a white page. I miss playing with a group, layering my part into a fluid, cascading arrangement.

Once, I was a member of the Salvation Army youth band. I was third chair cornet, but as there were only four cornet players, this merely served my purpose of not being first chair – a spot reserved for the soloist and the best musician in the section. My part was the harmony – the often unnoticed, often offbeat counter to the melody – and I liked it that way.

The cornet was a popular choice for brass bands in the UK, where the Salvation Army was founded, while military and marching bands favour the sleeker, more commanding trumpet. They are essentially the same to play, with three valves, a conical, tubular construction that curls around and ends in a bell, and the same pitch of B-flat. In defence of the cornet, it has a humbler, sweeter sound, and is not so brash as its long-stemmed cousin. The trumpet might have a greater volume, but when played skilfully, a cornet has no trouble reaching the depths and heights of the scale, and its mellow tone does not restrict a player from pelting out sharp, crisp staccato marches.

I miss the confident weight of an instrument in my hands. Not so heavy as to drag my arms down, my slightly battered cornet – which belonged to the church – gave me a reason not to slouch in my chair. Its care became my responsibility, and knowing that I had cleaned and polished it gave my twelve year old self a certain pride.

Cleaning a brass instrument, now, that is a funny business. First of all, you hope that the band leader has not given you a horn that has languished in a cupboard for a decade or more. Second, you must find an old towel to lay in a warm bath to prevent scratches – both on the tub and on the instrument. Third, you must note which valve is taken from each of the three slots as you unscrew them and lay them gently in the water.

Once the cornet emerged from the towel-padded tub, the drying, oiling and reassembly could begin. Oiling the valves was always my favourite part of maintaining my cornet. Mine had shiny mother of pearl discs where my fingertips rested on the piston valves, unlike many of the newer, mass-made cornets. The oil that lubricates the piston valves has a scent not unlike olive oil, but it is much less viscous.

Even with a minor dent in its bell, I was proud to play my cornet, harmonizing with the other parts. My lips would buzz and strain against the cup of the mouthpiece, warming it and coaxing it to become an extension of my lungs and my lips and my tongue. The valves, when depressed, changed the way the air flows through the cornet, altering the pitch as I played. I grew to be a more confident player, mastering hand-eye coordination and posture as my ability to read sheet music grew.

Right foot lightly tapping against the heavy black music stand. Breath even and controlled, with a bit reserved for that sustained note at the end of the phrase. Reading the music and watching the conductor out of the corner of my eye. Adjusting my volume to blend in. During the rest bars, discreetly opening my spit valve – the owner’s manual would call this the water key – and blowing to dislodge any spit that had gathered. More than once a bandmate’s eagerness resulted in spit on my shoe, but water in the tubes could block an otherwise even note. I loved to soak up these gems of experience from my grandfather, who played the baritone in the senior band.

My family’s move abroad halted my progress in the band for a time, but in first year university I began to play again – this time, with a baritone. Baritones look somewhat like a small tuba and the bell points upward instead of toward its audience. But it had three valves, and the band was sorely short of baritone parts to round out the group that was traveling to Hong Kong. I picked it up and six months later, I was on a plane.

I took piano lessons for two years, but aside from the impossibility of finding a piano-friendly apartment, tinkling the keys didn’t appeal to me as much as playing the cornet. Brass music captured me from a young age, and the crush of sound that builds with a crescendo still thrills me.

Since my trip to Hong Kong in 2001, I’ve had little motivation to buy a cornet of my own. It needs the richness of other parts to be in its element. Apartment dwellers might tolerate the romantic tone of a well-played violin or flute, but a horn is not the sort of instrument your neighbours rejoice in listening to.

* Written at midnight the day before my weekly writing class, and mostly from memory. Any instrument-related errors are my own.

Monday, March 01, 2010

Ultimate 5 : YouTube Guilty Pleasures

If I'm in the mood to let the Internet entertain me, this is where I turn. It is absolutely fascinating what people put on YouTube. I don't have anything up there, myself.


Meekakitty, aka Tessa, is a redheaded model who lives in NYC and recently won $100,000 in a vlogging contest- which she says she will use to go to college for video editing. Awesome! She's funny and can sometimes talk really fast and comes up with the strangest things to do on camera, yet doesn't come across as a try-hard. She's a Zelda nerd and she doesn't drink coffee. Everything else, you'll have to find out by watching her videos.

Chocolate Shop Adventure
Tessa + Caffeine=WORST IDEA EVER
51 Things I Found In My Suitcase

2. An Engineer's Guide to Cats

Two geeks. Three cats. Corporal snuggling and cat yodelling.

The Original
Halloween Portrait
Cat Yodelling

3. Michelle Phan

I discovered Michelle Phan by chance, and although I've watched a few random makeup tutorials before (none of which have made me want to race to the drugstore or department store makeup counter) Michelle is in a different class. For starters, she's a professional makeup artist. Her videos are clean and crisp, she does the video separately from the audio so you can actually see and hear what she's doing, all her makeup and tools are listed in the sidebar, and she mixes it up. Sometimes she'll do a simple look I could wear during the day (not that I have - still at the "watching and marvelling" stage of viewing makeup vlogs) and other times, it's a really big, impossibly complex costume makeup tutorial.

Here are a few that impressed me or bewildered me the most.

Glamorous Birthday Look
Easy Autumn
Lady Gaga Bad Romance Look
Sailor Moon Transformation
Kissable Cheeks with Chocolate!

4. Harry Potter Puppet Pals

Some are better than others, and some are not suitable for school-aged kids... but they make me laugh. Potter fanfiction has practically over-saturated the web, but Harry and pals as puppets? I only wish they could have talked Alan Rickman into reprising his role as Snape.

The Mysterious Ticking Noise
Wizard Angst

5. YouTube, Granny-style

Jody's grandmother asked us to show it to her, because someone told her, "You can just type in any tune and it will play it for you - for free!" She was rather excited about this. I was more than a little wary. The person had not told her there were videos to match... Fortunately there wasn't much that could go wrong from her chosen "tester" song, Auld Lang Syne.  (Thank goodness she asked me and not Jody, who can't spell.) I typed it in and explained "suggestions" to her -

"See? There's Auld Lang Syne with drums, or with bagpipes, or a choir - "
"Oh, let's have bagpipes!"

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Olympic Heat

It is something else to be down under, watching Canucks giving their all on the climate-challenged slopes.

To help athletes see the course through fog, childish blue lines have been painted onto the crisp snow - and unfortunately, it's not the idyllic freshly fallen snow we could have hoped for. They've been trucking it in and shifting it all over Cypress Mountain, but the trees are strangely bare of the white stuff.

Rain has also been affecting the field of play. Eight thousand "standing room" tickets have been canceled, for fear that the onlookers will sink into the slush and mud at the bottom of the hill. It's been so bad, in fact, that US skier Hannah Kearney got a hole in her ski from a sharp rock protruding from underneath the thin coating of snow on the ground. But you know what? She still won the gold medal.

Canada has won TWO gold medals, as of Feburary 17th! And TWO silver medals, plus a bronze! We are rockin' it on home soil, but I'd be just as excited no matter where the Games were being held.
Results so far:

Alexandre Bilodeau : Freestyle Skiing - Men's Moguls
Maelle Ricker : Snowboard - Ladies' Snowboard Cross

Mike Robertson: Snowboard - Mens' Snowboard Cross
Jennifer Heil : Freestyle Skiing - Ladies' Moguls

Kristina Groves : Speed Skating - Ladies' 3000 m

I haven't been able to watch as much of the action as I'd like - work plus the time difference plus coverage that is, naturally, geared for an Aussie audience have made it difficult to plunk myself in front of the TV.

I did get to watch Bilodeau take the gold, live, and it was fantastic. I don't know how they could have judged it; the results were so close! There were two other Canadians not far from the podium, as well, and it made me so proud. I let out a whoop that I'm sure half our apartment building could hear.


Tuesday, February 09, 2010

If I Were a Rich Girl

Oh Sony, why do you torment me? Why do you make an adorable handycam called a Bloggie? It is far too tempting. I am just a humble blogger, not a vlogger...

And Tiffany & Co., since November your sparkling key pendants have been the object of much sighing and wishing. It was my birthday, and then Christmas, and now it's nearing Valentine's Day. Your ads are still splashed across bus stop billboards, and I can walk to your hallowed glass-fronted shop to look at the diamond-studded, antique-styled gorgeousness.

But I hold back, because if I were to look through the window I would go inside. And if I were to go inside, it would be very difficult not to see the keys sparkle behind the display cases. And then... I would be hard pressed to leave the store without one, though it would likely be one without diamonds. And those are not too far out of reach, and even harder to resist!

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Makin' it Funky with dc Talk

Today? Not my best day. Not my worst either. When Jody tried to cheer me up with a rendition of "Lean on Me," I couldn't bring myself to help him with it. He was sure I knew the song - and I do - but to be honest, the version that sticks in my head belongs to one of the most stellar Christian rock groups of the '90s : dc Talk.

From the dc Talk website:
"Although various rock predecessors have examined spiritual issues - U2, Van Morrison, and Bob Dylan immediately come to mind - dc Talk has taken the notion to new lengths, both in commercial terms and depth of artistic exploration. Numerous Dove Awards, three Grammy Awards, one multi-platinum album, two platinum albums, two gold albums and two gold-certified long-form videos attest to the group's ability to bridge the wall between religious and secular audiences."

Toby Mac. Michael Tait. Kevin Max. These guys had serious cred, and judging from the Youtube and iTunes comments, they've still got it. Hip hop, rap, pop-rock - it's all there as they experiment with their sound, but they never lose their standout voices or their firm beliefs.

I did try to teach Jody the dc Talk version of "Lean on Me," but I hit him with the boys' untraditional bridge first:
Make it funky, make it funky. It's more "fun-kay" than "fun-kee" - oh, just go listen to it already. In the Youtube comments purethug says, "whoa... was not expecting that. it's got everything - soul, funk.. perfect."

After I heard "Lean on Me" after so many years away from my sister's music collection, I tried to think of which five dc Talk songs were my favourites... and I couldn't. There are so many awesome songs, it was more like a top 10.

Lean on Me
Luv is a Verb
Jesus Freak
Jesus Is Just Alright
What Have We Become
Socially Acceptable
What if I Stumble
Consume Me
In the Light
My Will

Those last four are particularly amazing to me. If you think Christian music is all choirs and piano, take a listen, especially to anything from the "Jesus Freak" album.

dc Talk's music was one of the best things about my teen years. It's nice to know that some things stick with you, and even nicer when you come back to them and they're just as good as you remember.

* Free at Last album cover from

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Date Night - Sherlock Holmes Edition

Jody has embarked on a "keep Julia happy" program lately, which is very nice, since my parents' visit is over and we have no future plans for me to look forward to.

[January 13th] we went out to dinner and a movie, and our night went something like this:

1. Buy tickets - 6:40 show is sold out, so we opt for 8:45 and dinner first.
2. Find hole in the wall Korean restaurant near theatre. Eat delicious dumplings, drink sake (me for the first time - inexplicably, Jody tries to tell me it can taste like soap if I don't drink it warm), try dishes we can't pronounce - enjoy everything and leave, absolutely stuffed.
3. Visit favourite used bookstore, a few blocks away. Buy American Gods by Neil Gaiman and The Duchess by Amanda Foreman.
4. Watch Sherlock Holmes. This included a pre-movie show, consisting of the bogan* couple next to us mixing their own hi-ball and getting drunk before the previews are over. They talked really loudly and were generally annoying (though not as rage-inducing as the Asian chick who was on her phone in the middle of IMAX Watchmen). Fortunately, 10 minutes in, two girls came down the aisle and kicked them out because the couple was in their seats.
The movie was good, but you can wait for the DVD. The best part was the camaraderie between Downey Jr. and Law - they were an excellent duo.
5. Scrap plan to go for ice cream, as it looks like rain. Arrive at bus stop one minute before our bus arrives.
6. Get in the door just as the lightning starts. Eat brownies and vanilla ice cream.
7. Upload photos and write note while Jody plays with his newly repaired TV. (Par for the course.)

And now, to sleep.

* Bogan: Australian or New Zealander who possesses no class at all. Redneck, white trash.

...And We're Back

Jody and I puzzled over the Blogger templates and he was able to pinpoint the problem... seems that Blogger didn't like my widgets, so I deleted them, but happened to delete the code that pulled my posts onto the page in the process.

Really, I was hoping to use this blog template (vinery) as a starting point so that I could work at making my own original Blogger template - but this will do for now. Better than a blank page staring at you when you visit!

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Thanks, Apple!

Two days ago my Mac refused to power up. Strange - it was charging just fine before! I was at work and it did not seem to be a problem with the wall outlet, so I checked when I got home and, sure enough, Jody's power brick worked to charge it up but mine was busted.

I was very fortunate to grab the last open Genius Bar slot this evening, where the Apple tech confirmed, "Your power adapter is non-functioning." And then he ran another test to make sure it was not the battery, his eyes flicking back and forth between my Mac and his. Mine is now out of warranty (it's from the first batch of aluminum 13" models they made in late 2008) but... Mr. Genius said, "I'm going to make an exception and give you a new power adapter."

Yay! Thanks, Apple! You made my day.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

2009: A Year of Blessings and Sorrow

2009 has been a rough year for many of us. As I headed back to work today, I didn't want my holiday to end, and I sent up a prayer that I could get through the day. And I did!

On the way home it occurred to me that things can seem easier to handle if we take them one day at a time – and even God took things one day at a time. I'm sure He could have built the entire universe in a day (nevermind how many hours a day really represented – that is an argument for another time and place) if He'd wanted to. Instead, each creation was given time and thought, and a day of its own to come into being. I hope that this year, I can remember that, and get through those difficult days one at a time.

I have been so thankful for the blessings God gave me in 2009. They seemed even more powerful in light of all that was happening in the world, and with my friends and family. For starters, neither Jody or I lost our jobs, and the move to Oz seems to have been well-timed, financially speaking. We have had no major health issues, the worst being Jody's illness post-India. The fires and floods throughout Australia, though devastating to thousands, haven't come near us or our extended family. The red dust storm did hit Sydney, but aside from an uneasy two days fighting my asthma, the worst we faced was multiple passes with a vacuum and dust cloth.

At last, I am beginning to feel at home here. My visa application is in. We found a small, friendly church to attend. When Jody's old ThinkPad gave out, we were able to buy him a MacPro, just in time for the FOSS4G conference. Keeping in touch with friends and family has been reasonably easy; we've received good and bad news swiftly and are rarely out out the loop – even our grandparents are sending us e-mail! My sister came to visit in March, and my parents over Christmas. There has been a lot of tea, and books, and snuggles, and many little packages in my mailbox to make me smile.

I've missed several weddings and newborns since we moved – none in my family, but it's been difficult not to be able to share in the joys of our friends. Graduations, theses, new jobs, new homes, new boyfriends and girlfriends.

My heart breaks for all the losses and rough patches I've witnessed this past year. Breakups, deteriorating health, deaths. Lost jobs, lost loves, lost babies. 2009 has not been kind, and I can only pray that this year will bring more happiness than sorrow.

If you see yourself in one of these lines, know I've been thinking of you, and wishing you good things in 2010.

Design by: Blogger XML Skins | Distributed by: Blogger Templates | Sponsored by Application Monitoring