I left my heart in Strasbourg

We spent a fantastic long weekend in Strasbourg. What a charming little town! The cathedral is glorious, all the historical buildings are perfectly preserved, the food is delicious, and the city is so easy to navigate. I would go back in a heartbeat.

Being there in September, the weather was a bit chilly, and we had some rain. And then there was the time LittleB got run over by a bike. We were crossing the road and a cyclist went against the light and totally plowed him over. He was fine, just a bit beat up. She was roughed up as well, but I had a harder time feeling bad about it since she was the one in the wrong, even though she insisted he “appeared out of nowhere”. Anyway, no hard feelings, Strasbourg. We still love you.

Florence: Art pilgrimage for all

Florence. I spent years studying the art, architecture, religion and philosophy coming out of the Renaissance and beyond. And going to see it all in Florence was a literal pilgrimage. A boon for the soul.

Of course, it would have been soooo much better if I actually remembered anything about that art, architecture, religion and philosophy – but it was an amazing place nonetheless.

We saw all the top sites you can imagine:

  • Santa Maria Novella church, one of the first major basilicas in the city, filled with art from many famous painters
  • The Florence Cathedral and Brunellschi’s dome, an engineering feat that is even more breathtaking in person
  • Uffizi gallery, housing the most important Rennaissance art collection in the world
  • Ponte Vecchio over the Arno, particularly close to my heart from my opera singing days.

I’ll let the art below speak for itself. But what about some of the other highlights from our Florentine adventure?

  • When we stopped to eat some gelato on the shores of the Arno, we saw a guy cycling down the road, and his paper liquor bag broke, shattering what seemed to be a nice bottle of champagne in the street. I said ‘Aw, that really sucks’ a little too loud, but he heard and agreed ‘Yes, it does really suck,’ and proceeded to pick up all the broken glass. I thought that was nice.
  • BigB wanted some authentic biscotti, so we stopped at a market stall where he asked for ‘one of each flavor’, which the girl interpreted as ‘one of each flavor for everyone in the family’, meaning we got about 2 kg of biscotti. Which seemed like too much at first, but we managed to eat it all within a couple of days anyway, so I guess she knew what she was doing.
  • J was really into the art at Uffizi. She stood and stared at nearly every painting for the first hour, it was amazing. Until it turned out she was actually just trying to process all the Jesus paintings from the early periods, and finally said ‘Why are they just painting the same thing over and over?? I’m tired of Baby Jesus and dead Jesus.’ I think that sentiment is actually what started the Renaissance in the first place, so… hooray for that lesson?
  • BigB was also really into the art at Uffizi, but his interest took the form of photographing close-ups of every single marble bust in the whole place. I mean, I like marble busts too, but this was unhealthy. How many statues of Sophocles does one museum really need, and why do we need photos of each of them? The answer is ‘Probably 3, just in case’.

Too soon, it was time to go. I feel like we could have spent weeks wandering the city, but we had to get home and start eating biscotti. Don’t worry, Florence, we’ll be back.

Great Canadian Tour 2015: Ottawa museums galore

One of the best things about Ottawa is all the museums. There are so many that, growing up there, it’s commonplace, almost boring, to go to a museum. But lucky for us, fresh off 3 years of no museum visiting in Indonesia, the kids still think it’s pretty cool! It’s not so cool for the pocketbook, but hey, we’re on vacation, right?

The first museum we decided to visit was the Air and Space Museum. The kids were keen, but I’ll admit that I also pushed for it because it was the one I have visited the least often myself, so it was still a fresh experience. And, of course, who doesn’t want to look at awesome old planes and rockets? And maybe there was a chance that Chris Hadfield would be there, right? (He wasn’t.)

We saw everything from old-timey flying (and hilariously non-flying) contraptions to slick air force jets, a huge bomber, rescue helicopters, courier planes, cushy 50s passenger planes. And the space section was lots of fun, with some hands-on activities and neat artifacts from Canadian space missions.

But, really, I think we had the most fun taking photos of the kids in the photo board cutouts. These things are classic:

We also visited the Canadian Museum of Civilization History. We are well aware that our museum timing is limited to only a couple of hours, so we have to triage. B and I can never get enough of the First Nations hall and the Inuit art in the basement (which is always shamefully undervisited), and we made a point of visiting the special exhibits rather than the permanent ones, keeping in mind our triage decisions. The exhibit on Greece was very cool, and I was able to crack into the depths of my undergraduate brain and read a lot of the ancient Greek writing. B was uber keen on the “Confederation” exhibit, which was a bit tedious for the rest of us non-politicos until we found a table where you could wear a top hat and pretend to be one of the fathers of confederation! And we also saw a Terry Fox exhibit, which was timed for the 35th anniversary of his run. It was great to share this important Canadiana with the kids, even if B did spend most of the time just photographing close-ups of all the hockey jerseys in the room.

And of course there’s a great Children’s museum that we needed to visit. We also decided to watch an IMAX movie about Lemurs. Lemurs are cool, but for some reason this film was a bit too over the top, and felt like it had been made 10 years ago, despite being recent and narrated by Morgan Freeman. It was missing some kind of legitimate messaging, like “lemurs are good, deforestation is bad” is pretty trite, even when you’re targeting a young audience… But we had a good time over all. We even ran into the kids’ cousins who were at the museum with a summer camp trip, so that was a nice surprise.

The final museum on the list was the Billings Estate Museum, which is a manor right in the heart of the city, the home of the original settlers of the area. In fact, I didn’t visit for the museum itself, but for afternoon tea. My mom and I escaped for the day and spent a lovely few hours enjoying tea and snacks overlooking a beautiful outdoor garden. Probably my favourite kind of museum trip!


Paris part 2: the art

The top of my Paris bucket list was the Louvre. We spent an entire morning there, and we easily could have spent days. Of course, the Mona Lisa was a show stopper, but I enjoyed a lot of the other pieces as much if not more. I was distraught that the Vermeer wing was closed, but I satisfied myself with the Venus de Milo, the Medici cycle, some Monets and the ever-titillating Gabrielle d’Estrées and her Sister, among others.

That afternoon, we wandered over to a gourmet food store so I could buy some truffles to bring home. We stocked up on goodies and cooked ourselves a delicious fresh pasta for dinner and sat up drinking wine into the night. Another perfect Parisian day!

Up next: Eiffel Tower & Oysters

Paris part 1: the palace

The train from London to Paris was pleasant but unremarkable. Once again, we didn’t see anything but darkness in the tunnel, and we watched as the English countryside turned into the scattered suburbs of Paris. We arrived at the Gare and hopped on the metro to Bastille – where we had rented an apartment for the next four nights.

If you’ve never been to Paris, then I don’t blame you for this – but for all you folks who have visited or lived there, you neglected to warn me that Paris is the least suitcase-friendly city in the universe. We went up and down about 10,000 stairs between getting off the train and entering our apartment. No escalators. No elevators. Just many, many stairs and plenty of uneven sidewalks interrupted by construction. I think, actually, by the time you go down into to the bowels of the Paris metro and walk the several kilometers of winding underground paths to your stop, you might as well have just walked along the street. Also, normally I subscribe to the ‘pack 2 pairs of underwear in a bag for the week’ kind of travel mantra, but for this trip, I made the mistake of bringing an actual suitcase (to bring back large amounts of delicious Parisian treats). So I had to lug that suitcase through what I assume was equivalent to the distance of the entire metro line. Only backpacks for me from now on.

But we did make it safely, and we couldn’t wait to head out for amazing French food for dinner. But where to go? We did some quick online searching and found a highly rated restaurant nearby that was unique in being run by a single chef who also acted as waiter and host – serving only a handful of people each night, as though you were sharing a meal with him at his house. Perfect! I called him up and managed to get reservations for that night.

And it was AMAZING. Easily in my top 3 meals of all time.

The next day, we decided to venture out to Versailles. Travel tip: Don’t book with an overpriced tour. It was an easy train ride and we had no problem buying tickets at the palace itself for much cheaper than any tour.

We were expecting a lavish, opulent palace filled with rococo curiosities. It turned out to be more like a dusty museum that had been pillaged of its contents over the course of a few centuries. Actually, I guess that’s exactly what it was – an empty building with most of the stuff having been sold off for the good of the republic at various points in history. There were still a few items in the main bedrooms, but they weren’t *stunning*, and they were caked with dust. It was most interesting to see the layout of the building itself – I’ve watched enough period piece movies to know that the king and queen had zero privacy, and this proved it. All the rooms were essentially hallways, and it was pretty clear that they were high-traffic zones. Probably they didn’t sleep much in there, and it was mostly for show, but still, they really did give themselves to the motherland, in all the being-naked-and-going-to-the-bathroom senses of the word. The Hall of Mirrors was cool, but again, kind of dusty and run down.

We wandered outside into the gardens, which are enormous and famous. But because we were there in early spring, they were mostly ugly and misty. Plus there were some refurbishments going on in many of the fountains. The entire garden is hundreds of acres, which was so overwhelming we didn’t even bother leaving the palace area to explore deeper into the yard. Time to take our tired feet home for some wine.

Along the way, we stopped at the Notre Dame cathedral to watch pigeons poop on all the tourists, found a little cafe and ate some crepes for lunch, and I bought some local art. It was a perfect Parisian afternoon!

Next up: Art!

New Zealand Part 3 – Maori & Geysers

While we were in Rotorua, we decided to take a tour of the local geyser, which is housed within the property of a Maori cultural center. They had a special ticket price where we could have a tour of the village grounds, the carving and weaving schools, a kiwi habitat and the geyser, as well as an evening Maori music/dance show and dinner. Sweet!

The afternoon started with the tour. The grounds were lovely, and they had a lot of nice artifacts, carvings, and buildings. We watched them weave baskets, carve some decorative wall panels and tour the meeting houses (where we would later see the show). After that, we walked down toward the geyser. Whoo mama, it was awesome! Apparently this one is rather sporadic, unlike Old faithful, for example. This one just randomly decides to “geys” (*is that the verb??) whenever enough steam and gases build up. We were lucky enough to arrive during a particularly large geysing. It was hitting about 25 feet into the air!

We wandered up and around the geyser site, checking out other steam vents and fizzling pools. We also saw a bunch of bubbling mud holes, which they use to make cosmetic products. (Some of the photos are actually from a second set of bubbling mud pools we visited another day, but I figured they all went together well enough!)

After the geyser, we visited a kiwi viewing habitat inside a building. Now, apparently kiwis are nocturnal – who knew! So we were ushered into a pitch black room and told that the kiwis were somewhere inside this bushy area, vaguely near the back of the habitat. Yeah, I think I might have seen its beak. Anyway, so that was not as cool as you would have hoped. At least we saw a building in which kiwis were possibly living, so there’s that.

Next, onto the show! It started with us gathering at the great lawn and waiting for the warriors to invite us in. This involved a lot of chubby guys yelling and gesturing with sticks. Then there was a bit of singing, and we were brought into the meeting house. Then, we enjoyed a few singing and dancing numbers, with the troupe of warriors and lady.. warriors? Anyway, they were pretty good. It seemed a bit like a high school play. In fact, I’m thinking it might have been the school break job for some of them, like you would go and work a summer camp for a few months – well, maybe you join the Maori troupe and entertain tourists. Anyway, they did the hakka dance – it’s cool, look it up. It’s the big-eyed, tongue-sticking-out dance – here’s the ending:

After the show, we chowed down on “real” Maori dishes, some of which were cooked in an underground pit. Honestly, most of the food seemed pretty normal to me, but it was still yummy. Later, we took another twilight tour of the geyser, but it had quieted down by then. Still, the area was misty and surreal, with the moon hanging low in the sky, muting all the yellow sulfur and blue rocks. It was getting chilly, so we lounged for a few minutes on some thermally heated rocks and shared a few cups of hot chocolate before heading home.

Perhaps it was just the magic of the evening, but I came away from Rotorua wondering if maybe we have a drop of Maori in our family tree. It certainly felt a bit like home!


Vatican tour

We took advantage of a late-night Friday tour of the Vatican museums. They were enormous in both scope and beauty. I couldn’t possibly take enough pictures to do it justice. Also, we were not allowed to photograph within the Sistine Chapel, but we did spend at least 30 minutes enjoying the view in there. And for my HUMS folks, I met some of our old friends in the Raphael Rooms!



La bella Roma

Sightseeing in Rome!


NYC extravaganza – part 1

I’m sure you’ve all been wondering where I’ve been for this past week or two!

Well, I was in NYC last week for a work-related conference, followed by a trip to DC. Luckily, because I was so close to home, my parents were able to come down and spend the weekend with me.

I arrived in NYC on Friday, minutes before “winter storm Nemo” touched down. But I didn’t realize what was happening at the time, since I had been the air for so long and hadn’t heard any weather information. Thankfully, we landed without any issues. Indeed, the snow hadn’t started falling when I arrived. I later found out that we were one of the last planes to come into JFK that evening!

After landing, I caught an airporter shuttle and headed into town. Everything was feeling a bit surreal since it had been so long since I’d seen north america. The cars were on the wrong side of the road, there were no motorcycles, and the houses were not nearly close enough together. Oh yeah, and it was cold! (But don’t worry, fellow canucks, I was still under dressed compared to the locals and other tourists. It wasn’t that cold!)

An aside: I had a hard time finding clothes to wear on this trip. Winter coats are not something you typically need to buy in Jakarta, so I didn’t have a lot of choice… I had to settle for a $200 cashmere coat that I will probably never wear again. Argh!

Unfortunately, the storm meant that my family couldn’t arrive on Friday as planned. My parents were delayed until Saturday afternoon, and my sister had to cancel her visit completely. So, I holed up in the hotel room (at Times Square) and ate a giant club sandwich (which cost $30). But yum! real mayonnaise, bacon and chips!

Times Square 1
Times Square 1
Times Square 2
Times Square 2
Two "double" beds
Two “double” beds
The desk in the hotel
The desk in the hotel
Dinner, yum!
Dinner, yum!

Anyway, my delayed family left me with most of Saturday to myself.

I decided to wander around the city a bit to get my bearings. I headed out and walked up to Central Park – apparently with all the other people in Manhattan. Well, at least all the people with dogs, dogs in coats and boots and strollers.

It was beautiful, though. The snow was blanketing trees and icicles hung from street lamps.

Central park 1
Central park 1
Central park 2
Central park 2
Central park 3
Central park 3

I walked about halfway up the park on the west side, then turned around and headed back down the east side. I would have kept going, but I wanted to get to the MOMA when it opened. Along the way, I saw a bunch of great landmarks:

Carnegie Hall
Carnegie Hall
Central Park West
Central Park West
Radio City Music Hall
Radio City Music Hall
Rockefeller place skating rink
Rockefeller place skating rink
Rockefeller place
Rockefeller place
Rockefeller tower
Rockefeller tower
Rockefeller place.... in LEGO
Rockefeller place…. in LEGO
Trump Tower
Trump Tower
FAO Schwartz: the "BIG" piano
FAO Schwartz: the “BIG” piano

When I arrived at MOMA, there was already a lineup, but it was still early enough that it wasn’t to crowded. I paid my $25(!!) and went in. Now, it’s been several years since I took any art history courses, but most of the important things stuck with me. To see so many important works in one place, in person, was a bit overwhelming. I teared up a few times. It was lovely.

Andy Warhol's Campbell's Soup Cans
Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans
Munsch's The Scream
Munsch’s The Scream
Van Gogh's Starry Night
Van Gogh’s Starry Night
Monet's Water Lilies
Monet’s Water Lilies
Mondrian's Composition in Red, Blue and Yellow
Mondrian’s Composition in Red, Blue and Yellow
Pollock's Number 1A, 1948
Pollock’s Number 1A, 1948
Alfred Stieglitz's City of Industry
Alfred Stieglitz’s City of Industry

That afternoon, my parents arrived and we went out to celebrate with some beers! I teared up a few times. It was lovely.

Dad & Beer
Dad & Beer
Mom & Me
Mom & Me

Later on, we went to see ‘Wicked’ on Broadway. I didn’t tear up, but it was lovely too.

Stage of 'Wicked'
Stage of ‘Wicked’
Mom & Dad at Wicked
Mom & Dad at Wicked


Week in Yogyakarta – part 4: wrap up

The whole reason we went to Yogya was to take a week-long Bahasa Indonesia course. It was a 6-hour/day class for five days, working one-on-one with a rotating roster of teachers. The lessons were basic, covering things like food, directions, time and dates. It was interesting because the teachers spoke only in Indonesian, helping you infer information from context and immersion. I thought it was great. B, on the other hand, got tired of “playing charades” trying to guess what the teacher was trying to tell him. We both still got a lot out of it, but I think I enjoyed it a bit more!

LittleB also took a one-hour class each morning, during which, from what I can tell, he mostly drew pictures of gameboy games. Not really sure how that helped him learn the language, but hey, I guess they work with what you give them. For the rest of the day, both kids spent the remaining hours at the hotel with a babysitter we hired. She was very sweet, but just basically let the kids play gameboy all day (do you see a theme here?) and do a bit of swimming. Then we would all meet up for a quick lunch and again after class ended in the afternoon.

Throughout the week, we struggled to find food for the kids (as usual). In the area, we managed to find a decent pizza place that LittleB could eat at and a bunch of other places where he couldn’t (and in fact, just touching the table at the vegetarian restaurant gave him hives… stupid all-soy vegetarian food). By mid-week we gave up and just started ordering a few pizzas each day for their lunch and dinner. The rest of us enjoyed some great thai food, some tasty waroeng food, and a catered luncheon on Thursday at the school.

The breakfast at the hotel, however, was terrible. Almost inedible. We started literally just bringing food with us to eat at their table.

Otherwise, we didn’t have a lot of time to see much more of the city. B took a silver smithing course on Wednesday night, and I visited Malioboro street with my friend on Thursday. That’s a great tourist area filled with shops and street vendors, and it’s the place to go if you want to buy batik. Unfortunately, batik clothes are not made for ladies of our stature, so I didn’t end up buying anything.

On Friday, we took the kids with us to see The Hobbit in 3D. I thought they might be scared, but J totally loved it (well, the first half before she fell asleep), and LittleB seemed scared but said it was awesome afterwards. I’m sure he’ll only have nightmares for a few years. It builds character, right?

We flew home on Saturday, and now it’s back to regular life for a while!

Week in Yogyakarta – part 3: silver smithing

One of the problems with traveling with kids is that, despite how many things you would love to put on your itinerary, you are always going to be limited in what you can do because at the end of the day, kids just don’t:
1) have the same stamina that you do – they tire easily, and they can’t stay awake terribly late
2) have the same interests that you might have. What you think is interesting might (probably will) bore them to death, and
3) have the patience to do an activity that requires repetition, or takes longer than… oh, say 45 minutes.

So all that being said, when the chance to do something very cool like silversmithing came up, S and I drew straws to see who would get to go out with our friend and give our ring-making skills a try, and who would stay in with the kids. I won.

We finished our Bahasa lessons on Wednesday, got some quick dinner, and M and I were on our way to a one-night silversmithing class in which we would make our own ring, all for the ridiculous price of… $12. Yep, a 3-hour class, taught by a silversmith AND that price included the actual silver to make the ring out of. I’m going to have a hard time going back to Canada and buying things at North American prices.

It took us a while to get there, for in classic Indonesian fashion, no houses ever have numbers on them, and no roads ever have road signs on them… so when you give your taxi driver an address, you still probably only have a 50/50 shot of getting to wherever it is you want to go (unless the location is popular enough that it’s location is common knowledge). So we drove around… and around… and around. Then our taxi driver got out and asked for directions. Then we drove for a while longer, at which point our driver once again got out to give directions.

We made it to the studio with minutes to spare before our lesson. Along with M and myself, we ended up attending the class with a middle aged Australian woman, and an American couple from California in Yogya for their honeymoon. We met our Guru (teacher), and went at it!

To save time, we didn’t do any of the actual rendering of the metal or anything like that: no smelting, etc. It was a pretty basic course. They had meter-long strips of silver in different widths ready for us to cut and mold into rings. The teacher pulled out a bowl FULL of different styles of rings, and asked us which one we’d want to make. When we decided on a style, he came around and drew a diagram of what exactly we’d need to do. Some of the rings were quite complex: I have a hard time thinking anyone making a ring for the first time would be able to do something so intricate on their first try. In the end, M chose to make a ring with a twisty-pointy face. I chose a wide solid band that I could hammer the bejeezus out of. Clearly, “twisty-pointy” and “wide band hammer receptacle” are technical terms. I’m a silversmith now. You can trust me.

So the first step was to cut the silver, if your ring needed any cutting. Maria needed to cut the ends of her silver in half, but my ring didn’t need any cutting, so it’s clearly not an important step and we should just move on without any explanation of what was involved.

Next up: inscription. If you wanted, you could add an inscription to the inside of the ring. This involved taking giant steel spikes with tiny letters on the end of them, and literally hammering the letters into the silver. If you’ve ever done any leather-work, it’s basically the same thing, except in this case it’s with metal and therefore less wussy. Being a gigantic dork, I chose to go with an inscription that said “+1 CON”. For those of you who aren’t ALSO gigantic dorks, that is a Dungeons and Dragons reference. In the game, Constitution is the stat that measures how healthy your character is, and because of this “+1 CON” is like an inside joke for dorks who have had surgery. Kind of a “good luck” charm, if you will. With my heart surgery history, I thought it was an obvious choice.

After finishing the inscription, we then had to file the outside of the ring. Punching the inscription into the metal left an impression on the outside of the ring as well, so we needed to get rid of that. Polish (no not the country!) the ring afterwards with sandpaper for 20 minutes.

After you’re done all that, you need to light your inscribed, polished strip of silver on fire. YESSS. I’m good at that. After you soften the metal, it’s design-time. I chose to hammer the crap out of my ring to give it a sort of “old-world” look to it. I thought the end result looked like the head of an old nail, in a cool way. Our teacher thought it looked like a crumpled piece of paper… in a cool way.

After finishing with the design, it’s back into the fire, then we hammered it around a giant steel spike to curve the ring into it’s final “ring” shape. Then: you guessed it: BACK INTO THE FIRE. This time to solder it (join the two ends).

After subjecting my ring to a blowtorch for the third time, it was due for a 5 minute acid bath. I have no idea what the acid bath was for, all I know is that for 5 minutes, I got to pretend I was a Bond villain, heartlessly dipping my victim into a vat of acid. Good times. Following the acid bath, we took it out and gave it one more polish, only this time, instead of with sandpaper, we did it with some local fruit juice! It’s a very eco-friendly solution. I was pretty impressed.

We all said our goodbyes (the honeymoon couple seemed to have a great time, though the Australian lady seemed sour), and went on our ways, home with the gift of $12 worth of silver, a fun evening, and great memories!


Week in Yogyakarta – part 2: Borobudur

This past weekend, we visited Borobudur Buddhist temple, a UNESCO heritage site and the biggest tourism draw in Indonesia.

We rented a car and driver through a local company, and set out early to miss the heat and crowds. It was about an hour drive, and we took the scenic route to get there – enjoying some lovely views of rice paddies and Yogyakarta’s neighbouring volcanoes. We arrived and headed into the site. Luckily, since we’re here on work visas, we were able to get in on local prices ($3 instead of $19 each!).

Joining the throngs of visitors, who were mostly Indonesian, we started the trek up the hill toward the temple itself. It was a bit of a walk, but not as far as I thought it would be. Even the stairs weren’t quite as numerous or deep as I expected.

The temple was beautiful. I can’t believe it was built over a thousand years ago. Frankly, it has weathered better than most of the sidewalks in Bogor! The bas relief was still finely detailed and the statues lovely.

Unfortunately, our trip was soured a bit by the other visitors – they kept asking to take photos with us and of us, and we would often get caught by a crowd of Indonesians clambering for a photo of us or the kids. I’m not really sure how a handful of chubby “americans” is more exciting than a UNESCO heritage site, but it sure seemed that way.

After about an hour, we headed home, with a quick stop at a nearby sister temple.

All in all, it was a lovely morning. I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves: