I wrote about Atlas Obscura in the My Favourite Things of the Year post. The book is SO awesome, I rush home every day after work to lose myself in its nearly 500 pages (yes, I'm a nerd in case that wasn't already apparent). The writing style is so engaging, the subject matter so fascinating, that I cannot recommend it enough. I am already planning travels around it.
The book – and website it's based on – focus on lesser-known curiosities around the globe. Prior to reading it, I had never heard of the longplayer in London, England (a musical recording arranged in such a way that the variations will never repeat for one thousand years; listen to it digitally here); Mount Roraima, Venezuela (an unbelievably beautiful flat top mountain with its own unique ecosystem); or Centralia, Pennsylvania (seriously, WTF?).
My immersion in this tome has me contemplating my own travels. In particular, moments I've experienced that have stayed with me and formed a part of who I've become. They weren't always the main event. They often involved a chance encounter with someone who, in a way they will never realize, has impacted my life profoundly.
These are some of the global experiences I've had that resulted in memories of a lifetime:
6) Making friends with a stranger in Frankfurt Airport (2016): earlier this year, I traveled to Dubai. It hasn't been my favourite destination. All the flashy buildings and endless shopping malls proved too superficial for my tastes. However, the journey did result in meeting someone that I think of often. It happened during a stopover at Frankfurt Airport. A friendly woman from Chennai, India struck up conversation with me as we waited for our Toronto-bound flight. We talked for hours like old friends, it was almost as if the thread of our bond was pre-existing. She told me of her family. I told her of my future plans to visit her country (with her even offering to be my tour guide and lend a place to stay). It can become lonely traveling solo, so these types of interactions always elicit joy in me. We became separated after landing at YYZ and while she did leave a voicemail message for me afterwards, it was sadly without a return number. On the very slim chance she is reading this, please give me another call or send an email. You are an amazing woman that I'd love to reconnect with.
5) Driving through the Canadian Rockies in the dead of winter (2001): it was a late December drive from Banff to Edmonton. The days were already short during this time of year, but the shadow of the mountains decreased them even further until all one saw were shapes moving in the darkness. And stars. Thousands (millions!) of stars overhead. We were the only ones on the road, save for the herds of elk illuminated only by moonlight that took the lack of vehicular traffic to wander where they once couldn't roam. This drive made me realize how truly stunning my home and native land is, even with the lights off.
4) Relaxing at a Japanese spa theme park (2015): My excursion to Japan in 2015 was memorable for a number of reasons, the main one being I CLIMBED A FREAKIN' MOUNTAIN. But that is the expected answer. The following day was also legendary. It may take strength, fortitude and deep belief in one's self to accomplish climbing a 12,000+ ft peak, but it takes all of that and more to be stark bloomin' naked in front of dozens of staring strangers at a Japanese onsen.
3) Scavi Tour, Vatican (2011): Few people know of this very exclusive tour of the underground necropolis beneath Saint Peter's Basilica and even fewer get to go on it. By chance (and perhaps luck), my father and I had the opportunity. I am not religious but visiting a site with such rich history, and seeing the bones of the individual who is said to have spread the gospel of Christianity to the world after Jesus's crucifixion, was a very humbling experience.
2) Riding for nearly 40 hours on a train from Beijing to Chengdu, China (2007): I've already documented this here, here and here. At the time, it felt like hell. The more I reflect though – and the more distance there is between me and that toilet – I realize what an immense learning experience it was. Everyone should take a long-distance train in a foreign country. It's a wonderful way to connect with locals.
1) Taking this private tour through the DMZ, South Korea (2015): Every Christmas, I watch a Seth Rogan film. Don't ask me why. My life has just somehow evolved to watching stoner comedies during the holidays. In 2014, that film was 'The Interview'. Throughout that year, my interest in Korea (both North and South) was also peaking. After viewing it, I boldly booked airfare to Seoul along with the aforementioned tour. I didn't really know what to expect, and I do admit to second-guessing my decision in the weeks before traveling, but in the end it proved to be one of the greatest trips of my life. Seoul itself, I feel, is poised to be one of the world's dominant cities of influence. I would love to work there. If you are a recruiter, hit me up. Seriously. But THE particular moment that has put it on this list happened while visiting a hilltop South Korean army base. A shy recruit handed over his binoculars and motioned for me to look at a river down below. As I did this, I caught glimpse of members of the North Korean army patrolling its banks. I was floored. Here I was witnessing a moment of modern history. I then tried to peer at more of the mountainous, raw landscape sprawled out before me, eventually catching sight of a North Korean army base on the peak opposite. Through the lens, I observed a North Korean soldier looking right back at me. A shiver went down my spine.
This is a short story about my annual Christmas breakdown. Over the last three years, it has become an event that happens at random, at unexpected times and unexpected places. It is also nearly invisible to those around me; despite writing this public online journal about my life, I am very private and covert in person. Only those truly close to me ever suspect an emotional shift.
Last year, it happened at work after I glanced up at my bulletin board and saw a picture of him. As it's right in the periphery line of vision of my computer screen, it is technically an image I see every day. Yet, last year I felt it. The weight of its meaning gave me pause as my breathing became heavy and I could feel my eyes well up with tears. I was having an anxiety attack. Thankfully, I have my own office and quickly closed the door to take a ten minute breather.
Today, it happened in my car while waiting in a long drive-thru line at McDonalds. All afternoon I had been shopping with a friend, listening to them talk about their upcoming family gathering while observing other families out and about sharing moments and completing their Christmas shopping in tandem. After we parted ways, I knew I needed a junk food hit. The greasiest of burger, the saltiest of fries. Only this could provide comfort. After pulling in, it hit me. My lips quivered and the waterworks began. Good God, I miss my father.
I don't really look forward to this season anymore. The emptiness of loss (and anger and sadness) is still there every. single. day. But in the week or so leading up to Christmas, it becomes amplified. And only those living it understand.
It really sucks.
It really sucks that my father will never meet my future husband or ever get to play with my future kids. I think that bothered him. It definitely bothers me.
It really sucks that other people's happiness brings me down. I hate admitting this but I'm not above being human. It's a terrible thought to harbour and I feel great shame by it. It's not that I don't want their contentment to happen - most definitely not, it is what everyone deserves - just that I can't be 100% present in these moments because my mind is so clouded by envy.
What doesn't suck though are small, serendipitous signs from the universe. After today's pathetic breakdown, I received a text from an old friend looking to reconnect. They, too, are still mourning the loss of their much loved mother. And my neighbour, an elderly widow, left a surprise gift at my doorstep of freshly-baked bread and cookies, inviting me for tea as she misses my company.
Perhaps these unexpected gestures were karma to detract from the negative one.
That's the other thing about loss - those living it always look for meaning. I believe it is there. I am willing to search for it. I am not alone.
And neither are you.
"There's a hole in the world like a great black pit
and the vermin of the world inhabit it
and its morals aren't worth what a pig could spit
and it goes by the name of London."
Whenever I think of London, England, I think of the aforementioned stanza from Sweeney Todd, a Broadway musical about a barber/serial killer set amidst the nineteenth century squalor of the capital. It is a place with an illustrious, albeit controversial, history. A global centre of commerce and culture and corgis, one of THE greatest, most influential cities in the world. And yet ... it is also probably one of the most difficult places I've travelled to. The only place where I've ever felt that being a polite, friendly Canadian has put me at a disadvantage.
Londoners don't have time for polite.
Londoners are primed to eat people alive.
"I, too, have sailed the world and seen its wonders
for the cruelty of men is as wondrous as Peru
but there's no place like London."
Take, for example, my first hour in London (2007). Having just landed at Heathrow Airport, I was still excited from seeing the iconic red double-decker buses navigate the roadways from 20,000 feet descending. Then, while in the airport, I became more excited at overhearing the variety of British dialects (that I love so much). Several of my senses were now fully computing that I was, indeed, in a foreign land which made me MORE excited for the upcoming adventure. Slightly lost, I approached an older gentleman wearing a security uniform.
"Excuse me, can you tell me how to access the Tube?"
For full effect, one should re-read that while thinking of Oliver Twist's famous line "Please sir, can I have some more?" because that is how I felt after receiving the response. I felt like I – a perplexed, lost visitor from a foreign land in a freakin' AIRPORT – could not be inconveniencing this AIRPORT EMPLOYEE more by asking a relatively simple question. The security guard took one glance at me and sneered "Can't you read the bloody sign?"
I stood, my mouth agape. My father, whom I was traveling with, whispered to just keep walking.
And so we did.
That bit of rudeness was but a taste of what was to come. From hotel staff that couldn't be arsed to divert their attention away from a tiny television playing an especially riveting arc in Coronation Street (I am not making this up), to a sales clerk that actually apologized for his initial rudeness to me because he assumed I was American (I am also not making this up), my first excursion to The Big Smoke was a real eye-opener. I admit, all I knew about traveling through Europe up until that point was learned by watching National Lampoon's European Vacation. The British were supposed to be mannerly, genteel and self-effacing. Instead, I encountered some of the biggest assholes on the planet. People that went out of their way, it seemed, to be passive-aggressive-aggressive at the slightest opportunity.
Of course, these statements don't apply to ALL Londoners.
But I encountered enough on a daily basis, either personally or through observation, to have it temper my impression of the city. It did not feel like a welcoming place.
So why would I want to return, as I will be in the new year?
Because I am more seasoned now. Less wide-eyed Dorothy from Kansas, more agile Lara Croft. One's experiences shape personality, character and outlook. Since 2007, I've developed an arsenal of charm ... and belligerence, when needed, as well as a mighty fine suit of invisible armour.
Because I may be Canadian but England accounts for 50% of my lineage. Somewhere within me, I have the fortitude to swim where others may sink. It is my ancestry. It is my very blood.
And because there's no place like London.
Once again, it's the season for year-end lists. And as I'm too busy/not motivated enough to write something more original (even copying this intro from last year's post), I will simply detail my favourite things of the year. Enjoy.
HEALTHY FOOD: I am learning how to cook and have so far perfected a handful of dishes, one of which is a chicken, roasted pepper, rice medley mixed with various cajun spices. It's not original (and perhaps pretty basic for those with more culinary ability) but it is delicious and I'm proud of myself for developing a new skill.
RUNNER UP: Kale smoothies.
NOT-SO-HEALTHY FOOD: Oh Doughnuts in Winnipeg.
This is the most decadent donut I have ever had in my life. I'm still hoping to visit on a day when lemon meringue, pictured above, is being served (but will happily order and eat whatever is on offer).
RUNNER UP: Dark chocolate with lavender.
MINDLESS PASTIME: Bowling
RUNNER UP: Ruckers
BOOK: When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
This is a beautiful, heart-wrenching first-hand account of the thoughts and feelings one experiences after being diagnosed with terminal cancer. The final paragraph is everything I needed to hear from my father but which he wasn't granted opportunity to say. This book touched my heart.
RUNNER UP: Atlas Obscura by Joshua Foer, Dylan Thuras and Ella Morton
I haven't excitedly rushed home to read a book before, but for this one I do. 'Atlas Obscura' is a completely engrossing travel book that details the globe's more curious locales, giving me a million more reasons to hold a current passport. This book ignited my mind.
INSPIRATION: Alexander McQueen
Of late, I've been increasingly mesmerized by highly detailed, intricate works of art that evoke mood. Alexander McQueen was a master of this in the medium of fashion and, as his shows would attest, theatre. Both his myth and output are inspiring me to think bigger and try harder with the aim of achieving but a fraction of his mastery.
RUNNER UP: Gustave Doré
NEWS STORY: Bear Clan
I really struggled to find a positive news story from 2016. With each passing week, it seemed the world entered an increasingly fragile, chaotic state. A group of volunteers in Winnipeg has been doing exceptional things though and deserve to be recognized. The Bear Clan was initially formed to protect young women and children in my hometown's most vulnerable neighborhoods. They now routinely help the community in other areas, including missing persons cases from all walks of life. I have the utmost respect for them. They are good people doing good things.
RUNNER UP: 2016 was a terrible year. I cannot think of a truly feel-good story.
RUNNER UP: 🌛
ALBUM: Lemonade by Beyoncé.
Beyoncé is an artist and performer without equal and this album is a cultural masterpiece. I would be lying if I said I didn't belt out 'Don't Hurt Yourself', co-written with another favourite Jack White, every day in the shower. Flawless all around.
RUNNER UP: 'Somebody Else' by The 1975 resurrects Depeche Mode in the best way possible.
FAVOURITE MOMENT: Riding a camel with my best friend in Dubai.
RUNNER UP: My mom asking me who "Becky with the good hair" is.
See, Beyoncé transcends generations.
It was a late flight in. She was exhausted and wanted nothing more than to get home and relax. Rushing past the other arrivals, she made her way to the taxi queue and entered the first one available. It would be a 10 minute ride to a warm shower, comfy robe and relative serenity before slumber. After offering her address, the plump, bespectacled driver initiated conversation by inquiring where she was travelling from.
"My hometown, Winnipeg."
"Oh," he replied. "lots of rednecks in Winnipeg."
Well this should be interesting, she thought.
The driver continued, explaining his reasoning ("It's bigger than Regina") and then attempted to justify it further by claiming Little House on the Prairie was filmed there. She didn't quite get the correlation.
"I'm pretty sure it wasn't." she stated in a firm tone barely cloaking her annoyance.
"Oh yes, someone told me."
He, like so many others, had never actually visited Winnipeg but felt the need to get on his soap box about it. She desperately wanted to interject with facts but the cab driver seemed to enjoy listening to his own voice. Not being able to get a word in edgewise, she gave up and stared out the window in an effort to avoid the nonsense. Her focus shifted to something that had been troubling her. A recent confrontation with a "friend" that had exposed the futility of placing trust in someone that continuously demonstrated they didn't merit it. Always trying to find the good in everyone was her cross to bear.
If someone needs to plead that they are a good person, they typically aren't.
If they were, their character wouldn't be called into question in the first place.
Deep in thought, she failed to notice that the cab driver was taking the long route to her home.
Written by Teva Harrison
In-Between days is billed as a memoir about living with cancer but it is more than that. Author Teva Harrison, diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer at the age of 37, combines prose with illustration to convey the frank realities and inner most thoughts of those living with the disease.
Favourite line: "And we have to listen to the women who went through it before us. I know that somewhere – if I could have just found her – there was a woman who could have told me that I was not alone. And that would have changed everything."
The Creation of Anne Boleyn
Written by Susan Bordo
She is one of history's most polarizing figures described as everything from whore to martyr. These simplistic assessments of character fail to define the influence she had during her life though, not only on King Henry VIII but on the religious framework of an entire nation. Proof that her being was more than just mere words could contain. This book details Anne's history (as far as we know it, as most was erased by Henry after her execution) and also discusses the modern impact she is having on young women who are quick to recognize that she was a complex 21st century queen trapped in medieval times.
Favourite line: "She's a young women whose temperament, for all her flirtatiousness, was more unnervingly "masculine" than was usual for her time: confident, excited by her own potential to effect action in the world, capable of fierce resentments, daring ambitions, bold actions – and unwilling to be anyone's plaything or political tool. She was the mother of Elizabeth, not an understudy of Queen Victoria."
Written by Maureen Callahan
Alexander McQueen has always fascinated me. His creative genius, aura and history (often self-fabricated) have created a myth that became bigger than the fashion industry itself; his work transcending commerce and veering closer to art, the legacy every designer wants no matter the discipline. This book shines a light behind the glamorous facade of the industry, depicting all the stress, drugs and ego that fuel it. The rise and fall (and rise again) of Kate Moss and Marc Jacobs are also documented in a thoroughly engaging read.
Favourite line: "I don't think she sought out darkness. I think it just happened along the way."
Very proud to win "Best in Region" at the 2016 Canadian Regional Design Awards, the Redgees. Saskatchewan Polytechnic received top honours for the Prairies (Saskatchewan/Manitoba/Nunavut) for design work on the 2017/18 Viewbook. The piece – which merged traditional print with augmented reality – will also be showcased in an upcoming issue of national magazine, DesignEdge. Winners were announced at a ceremony in Toronto on November 2.
The Redgee Awards are the most comprehensive collection of work from Canada's professional creative communities.