Saturday 28 December 2013

Toronto Ice Storm 2013

One week ago, rain started falling from grey skies over the Greater Toronto Area (GTA). It rained all day Saturday. The temperatures dropped turning roads into ice rinks. The worst of this particular weather system was to come overnight. I went to bed.

The clock read 7:02 when I awoke Sunday morning. Too early, I thought, and continued to slumber away, cozy in my warm cocoon. At 7:30, unable to stay in bed any longer (OK, my bladder was about to explode), I got up and walked into the living room (after the bathroom stop), to discover it was actually 9:30 a.m. The power had gone out during the night, and I had slept through it.

From the 10th floor of my glass tower in south-west Mississauga, I had no idea what was really going on outside my door. We were engulfed in a mushroom of grey-white, wet mist. Indeed a miserable looking Sunday morning, but we had power and water and coffee was made. An hour later, we lost electricity. I felt trapped on the 10th floor in south-west Mississauga.

I called my children (mobile lines were unaffected) who are scattered between Burlington, Ontario and Mississauga. They were all fine. Two had electricity. One did not, but a generator was keeping them warm. My father, who lives alone in south Etobicoke, was a challenge to get a hold of. Finally, contacting a neighbour in the area, I learned that he was okay, but without power. I was relieved he was well, but concerned he had no electricity to keep the furnace humming along. My father is 84.

Three hours after our lights went out, they came back on. Yeah, hoorah! Shortly thereafter, we lost the water. When it returned a short time later, the cold water was cold and the hot water was cold. It was time for action.

I pressed a button on my phone programed to instantly connect me with our Concierge. Michael answered.

“Hi Michael,” I said in a warm, but matter-of-fact tone. “We have no hot water.”

“Yes mam,” he said. (He always calls me ‘mam’, a title I am not particularly fond of, but what can you do.)

Michael informed me that he was in the process of finagling something or other, which would ensure that hot water would once again return, and my inconvenience ended. I didn't understand much beyond, “In five minutes,” but it was good enough for me. I hung up the phone. Ten minutes later Michael called to ensure that the water was hot. It was. I gave him freshly baked cookies later that day.

That’s it. That was my trouble for the day and the impact the storm had on me. Sheltered from Mother Nature's wrath in a warm, cozy home, with water, food and all other conveniences modern life has to offer me, I had no appreciation for what was really happening across the GTA.

I soon learned that hundreds of thousands of people were without power. As I write this, there are still tens of thousands who are exhausted from a week of enduring freezing cold temperatures in dark houses. The Christmas miracle they prayed for, did not arrive. Hydro crews continue to work around the clock to restore power to everyone, but it will still be some time before everyone is back on the grid.

The clean-up of the debris and the thousands of trees we have lost in the area is overwhelming and sad.

This storm was devastating, and its impact will be felt for a long time to come, yet it was so beautiful.  One week later, neighbourhoods still sparkle and shimmer under sunlight. Trees encased in ice, glisten and twinkle as if thousands of tiny lights have been strung on every twig, on every branch, on every tree. It's quite magical.

It's beauty and devastation all at once. It's the power of nature. 

My favourite photos:

Friday 13 December 2013

Distillery District's Toronto Christmas Market

"Oh. My. God. There's a merry-go-round," I said
"And a ferris wheel," replies Celina, my daughter-in-law.
"I LOVE merry-go-rounds! Wish it wasn't so cold," I said. 

It doesn't matter how cold it is. I'm riding the carousel and taking Maddie, my grand-daughter with me. It will be her first carousel ride.  It's Christmas time in the city, and we are at the Toronto Christmas Market to take in the sounds, sights, and food. Damn be the cold.  

The carousel ride is $3.00, cash-only, which I don't have. Who carries cash these days? Not me. It's debit this, pay-pass the other, credit card everything else, what with all the loyalty points to be had and all. I borrow the funds from Celina, pay the fee, hand the ticket to the near-frozen-stiff-carousel-ticket-taking-man, grab Maddie and hop a horse.

A cold wind is blasting off Lake Ontario, the carousel is spinning at what feels like warp speed, and Maddie’s tears are falling faster than icicles off roof tops on a warm spring day. It's all making me more than a little distressed. My own tears are falling behind sunglasses (due to the biting wind), gunk is drooling down my nose (due to the biting wind) and Maddie is sliding off the horse (due to biting wind induced disequilibrium on my part). But round and round we go. Wow. Whee. Fun. It was. 

Maddie stops crying. I wipe my nose. Celina captures some great photos.  All we need now is a hot drink to warm us up, but it's going to have to wait a bit longer. There is much ground to cover.

Maddie is not so impressed

Toronto's Christmas Market is in the trendy, pedestrian-only Distillery Historic District. A national historic site consisting of over 40 heritage buildings, it is the largest and best preserved collection of Victorian Industrial Architecture in North America. The Distillery District is the former site of Gooderham and Worts, distillers of whiskey. Founded in 1832, Gooderham and Worts was at one time the largest distillery in the world and Canada’s largest corporate tax payer.

Today, this area is a village within a large metropolis. Condominium dwellers step outside their doors to find shops, restaurants, cafes, art galleries and entertainment. 

We step into Thompson Landry Gallery where on display are the works of famous Quebecois artists (Thompson Landry exhibits only artists from Quebec).  "What's that smell? It's so yummy. I want to eat something," says Celina. Scents of cinnamon and cloves fill the air in the Cooperage space. Here, a taste of Quebec can be had with tourtier and local cheeses available to take home.

As with all good markets, street food is a must, and we are not disappointed. There is schnitzel, and poutine and...Chocolate covered bacon? Yes! We follow our noses to a sugar shack, where a large cauldron filled with melted milk chocolate is sending sweet aromas of sugar through the icy cold air. Crispy bacon is dipped into warm milk chocolate. The chocolate oozes rich droplets onto the serviette we were handed. We lick it up and indulge in what feels like a sinful pleasure. It's different. It's unique. It's heaven on a stick. 

In the evening, the market really came alive with its many strings of twinkling white lights hung over the streets and buildings. It’s all so pretty and Christmasie. All that was needed was a sprinkling of snow to make for a post-card perfect Christmas scene.

Smoke fills the air as fire pits are lit to keep revelers warm and toasty around outdoor living room spaces. Add a glass of mulled wine or a cup hot chocolate and, "Baby It's Cold Outside," won't pop into your mind, not even once, although a down filled jacket, mitts and a touque are still highly recommended. 

Ultimately, there wasn't enough bacon we could eat to make us forget the chill, and we do end up indoors for a warm-up, taking a seat in one of the Distillery's fine restaurants. A hot cup of tea, a beer (okay, two) and several spicy wings later, we are ready to head back out.  We ARE Canadian after all, and are nothing if not hardy.

I really can't stay...
Ah, but it's cold outside


Tuesday 10 December 2013

How to Spend a Day on a Cruise

If you've ever been on a cruise, you know there are days at sea, and days in port.

The days at sea are filled with activities, organized by the Entertainment department, and led by young energetic employees, whose sole responsibility is to do nothing more than ensure you're having a good time (and through their uber energy, make you feel not so spry, all at the same time).

You may or may not participate in these scheduled events. The choice is completely yours. I normally opt out, with the occasional exception of participating in a round of trivia, because if I know anything about myself, it is that my mind is filled with useless, trivial information valuable only when asked, "What kind of ducks are in the fountain at the Peabody Hotel?" (North American mallards--see what I mean--useless.)

On the days when the ship is in port, the organized on-board activities are fewer, if any, because most of the passengers are entertaining themselves somehow, on dry land. I plan my days according to whether it's a sea day or a land day.  So, what to do when the ship can't dock due to unforeseen circumstances like, oh, say, 12 foot high waves due to a hurricane? Such was the case on a recent cruise on NCL's Breakaway. What is the back-up plan? Simple. Eat. Then eat some more. And again. One more time. Eat.

Here then is a day in the life of a passenger (me) on a port day that wasn't, that I like to call:

                                          Gorge Your Way Around the Ship Day




Before dinner


After dinner 

After dinner snack

The End
(No. Not really. Next day. Repeat as above.)

Friday 22 November 2013

Joronimo's Monastery

When there’s money to spend, and you want to show off your riches to the world, erect a building that will last centuries. Joronimo's Monastery in Belém (Lisbon), one of the finest Manueline architecture structures in existence, and today, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is just that structure. Built in 1502 for the Hieronymite monks, whose sole role was to pray for the king's soul, Joronimo's Monastery celebrates Portugal's Discoveries Era, a time when pride was high and money flowed easily.

I board the tram at Cais de Sodre Metro station and clickity clack my way eastwards towards 
Belém, the Tagus River never far from sight. My unfamiliarity with the area causes me to exit the tram one stop too soon. I walk along the busy Rua Belém, which connects to Praça do Império. As I round the corner between the two streets, I see the Monastery’s dome high in the sky. It's my beacon. Ornate spiky pinnacles begin to appear, and each step brings me closer to the structure that took 100 years to build.

It's just after 1 p.m. in early October and the sun is high in the sky. The colour of the building is almost white, or so it appears under such bright sunlight. The combination of colour and light makes it difficult to stand and gaze at this structure. I’m gob smacked by its magnitude. It takes my breath away. I feel small.  

The side entrance is so highly adorned with carvings and figures, gables and pinnacles. It resembles of a tall wedding cake with sugared icing decorations. Solid, yet delicate, and stunningly beautiful.

Side entrance 

The church of Santa Maria with its many stained glass windows, intricate pillars and columns and gold dusted altar, forms part of the complex and is a must see. 

There is so much to take in, with confessionals, and cloisters, gargoyles and carved angels revealing themselves at every turn. Yet for all its grandeur, there is a peacefulness here. Perhaps because it is so large, one can find a quiet spot to sit, think of the past and appreciate.

The cloisters

Kings, writers and explorers are buried here. None more famous than Vasco da Gama, undoubtedly Portugal’s most famous explorer. He is the man for whom Portugal’s one-time riches are attributed to, thanks to his forging the route to the elusive east, bringing home the spice trade, and with it, the money.

Cloister arches
As I wander through this magnificent structure, one that began as a testament to faith, knowledge, wealth and power, I think of all the stories that must lie within its walls. The king who ordered the monastery built in praise of God's good graces. The workers who made their way in and out of this building for the many years it took to erect it. The confessions that were made through crisscross wooden frames separating sinner from confessor. I am in awe of the intricate craftsmanship on display and the masters behind it. Who were these people? Did they have any idea that what they were building would last and be appreciated centuries onward?

The confessionals--there are 12 just like this one--short doorways

At a time when Portugal ruled the waves, brought home gold, spices, silks and precious stones, charted the east and reshaped the world, did the architects, builders and craftsmen have any idea of the legacy they were creating? I’m thinking they did. Why else would such a structure be built, but not to remind us of what once was.

This is to show the height of the doors--I'm 5-5''.  People were certainly shorter back then.

Monday 11 November 2013

What NOT to do in Lisbon

I learned much during my time in Lisbon.  

Things like, the subways are awesome and you should totally ride them. The roasted chestnuts taste as good as they smell. FADO will make you cry, even if you do not understand the language. The wine is cheap and flows freely. The pastries are...well, don't even get me going on that subject!

There were some very basic "touristy" lessons as well. Things you should be aware of should you visit Lisbon (and you really should). For the benefit of anyone planning a trip to Lisboa, I have compiled a handy list of things that you should not do. So, without further ado,

                              When in Lisbon DO NOT:

--Ask for "coffee" unless you want an espresso. Sounds easy enough, but it took me three days to figure this out.  Of course, the moment you start asking for café com leite, (coffee with milk) or for a cappuccino, you might as well slap a sticker across your forehead reading, I AM A TOURIST, as the locals do not consume either of these beverage choices after 10 a.m.  So, pick you battles--wear the tourist label or be crazed on caffeine.

Coffee (espresso)

--Wait for the light to turn green. That might be the rule of the land here, but there, phaw! Just dart the cars, buses, mopeds, trams, trucks, little old ladies, and anything else that might come zipping around a corner. If you can hop on one leg, while maneuvering a cane in the other, go for it. If you stand and wait for the light to change from red to green, you will find yourself alone on a curb, perhaps wondering, "Do.I.Go?" Don't waste the time. Go.
Walk like a local--right on the street

--Wear high heels. Sure, those four inch stilettos are guaranteed to make your legs go from dowdy to sexy and vixen-ish, but let me tell you friends, the danger lurking under those heels makes wearing them, just not worth it. The sidewalks are made up of tiny stones. Your thin heel can become trapped in-between the stones, or you can twist an ankle when the stones are suddenly uneven, or disappear altogether and your foot is down a hole. Yes, you will see local women wearing high heels, but don't be fooled.  You are not one of them. Consider how sexy you will look in a cast if you ignore this piece of advice.  
From this
To this

--Ask questions without first offering a proper, "Bom dia," (good morning) or "Boa tarde," (good afternoon) greeting.  Even if you start with the ever popular and polite Canadian, "Sorry to bother you....", it won't cut it. Use the, "Good day/afternoon/evening," greeting then go ahead and ask your question.

--Sit down in a restaurant and immediately proceed to tell the server what you would like. Even if you know exactly what you want. Even if it was the only reason for going to that specific restaurant.  No siree. Sit your butt down, pretend to look through the menu you are handed, wait for the server to re-appear, at which time you may tell him/her what it is you would like.  

To summarize the learnings

Wearing your most comfortable flat shoes proceed to your favourite café greeting the server with,”Bom dia,” and asking for a table outside from where you can watch the local ladies effortlessly stride over the multi-stoned sidewalk wearing their four inch heels while you wait for your server to return to ask you what you would like at which time you will request a cappuccino and one of those fabulous pastries from the window and by the way does he know where the nearest Metro stop is?

Disclosure: My making these recommendations does not in any way suggest I was personally involved in all of the situations that led to these handy tips. Really. Honest.

Monday 4 November 2013

Ginjinha--A National Liqueur

“With or without a cherry?” asked the server behind the counter.

“With a cherry,” I answered.

I heard a plop and before I could blink, my small, white, plastic shot glass was filled with ginjinha and two drunken cherries. 

Ginjinha, or ginja for short, began as an experiment by a 19th century friar named Francisco, who infused cherries with brandy and sugar. It became an instant success. Today, ginjinha is sold throughout Lisbon in various bars and cafes.  None though as famous as, A Ginjinha in Rossio (Largo de Sao Domingos).

Ginjiha bottles wall to wall

A Ginjinha is best described as “a whole in the wall”, because it is quite literally, A-Whole-In-The-Wall. It is smaller than most of today’s modern walk-in closets, and serves nothing but the famous liqueur. It has been in business, at the same location, since 1840. 

That's all there is to it.

Here you will find tourists from all over the world, university students ending their day and locals who just need their fix. A Ginjihna produces their own brand of the liqueur, and puts out over 150,000 liters of the product each year.

To get your shot of ginjinha,  get in line and patiently wait your turn, as you snake up to the front to answer that one important question (with or without a cherry).  Once your drink is poured, take it outside to enjoy in the square.  There is no seating in the café, so find a spot on a step in the square, or stand and chat with other ginjinha drinkers around you. There are plenty and it’s a great way to meet people.

Everyone enjoying ginjinha

If you take your drink com ginja (with cherry) as I did, the proper way to enjoy it (although there are no fixed rules about this), is to sip the liqueur first, then suck the cherry, leaving you with one dilemma. What to do with the pit? There are two options--spit it into the cup you are holding, then dispose of it. Or do as the locals do--spit it onto the floor. Mine went into the cup. I just couldn't do the alternative.