Brussels, Round Two

Monday 30 December 2013

Way back in September (I can't believe it's been that long) I joined in on @rovingaltruist and @thecultureur 's twitter chat, #SeeTheWorld, where Belgium was featured.  At the end of the chat, it was announced that I was the lucky winner of a weekend stay at the luxurious The Hotel in Brussels.  We had visited Belgium the year prior for an F1 race and while we enjoyed our time there, we weren't planning a return trip in 2013 but I certainly wasn't going to pass up this opportunity so we rearranged a couple of things and booked flights to Brussels.

Upon arriving at The Hotel, we checked into the most gorgeous suite - so gorgeous, in fact, I had trouble motivating myself to actually leave it!  (I wrote about our stay in detail for The Hotel's blog which you can find here.)

But alas, as comfortable as it was, we had a city to revisit.

The beauty of exploring a city for a second (or third or fourth) time is you feel less pressure.  Instead of scrambling to take in all of the sights, you can revisit those that were noteworthy and then head off to explore the rest of the city you haven't uncovered.  It leads to wandering down side streets and stumbling across markets you didn't know existed.  It allows for more time to linger at that café and you feel less guilty about returning to that fantastic suite a little early to enjoy the complimentary mini bar and stunning views.
Brussels often doesn't rank as well with visitors as other destinations in Belgium.  It might not be as picturesque as Bruges and she might not sweep you off your feet at first glance but there is something about Brussels that's intriguing.  If all else fails, there's plenty of beer, waffles, chocolate and quirky shops to keep one occupied for days on end.

The weather during our stay in the city wasn't particularly welcoming but that didn't stop us from pounding the pavement.  We wandered for hours on end until we became too cold or our feet were too sore.  As usual, we mapped out our path on our city map, making sure to head into unexplored territory and when the weather really turned on us, we ducked into the Musical Instrument Museum (which deserves a post all on its own) for a few hours.

While the trip wasn't necessarily in the grand plan of travel for the year, we were thankful to have a second look at Brussels.

Zurich By Night

Friday 27 December 2013

When planning travel, we often put a lot of pressure on seeing the city in the daylight when everything is open and the streets are bustling with activity.  Normally, I would agree but every once in awhile, one comes across a city that is utterly magical come nightfall.  Zurich is one of those cities.

We arrived in Zurich in late afternoon after spending a few days in the Alps.  The sun was quickly setting but our disappointment quickly turned to wonderment.  The entire city is blanketed in lights which makes it feel warm and romantic despite the near zero temperatures; the Christmas markets and decorations only added to the allure.  Because of the holiday season, the streets were bustling with shoppers and the steam from mulled wine and food stalls drifted up into the night.

While we were able to retrace our steps in the light the following day, I couldn't help but feel that Zurich is meant to be explored at night.

A Christmas in Norway

Tuesday 24 December 2013

As I have previously mentioned, Joe and I are spending this Christmas in Norway.  It's not our first Christmas abroad (we spent one in Gabon) but it's our first in Europe and both of us were quite excited to see what Norway had in store for us during the holidays.  It's such an interesting experience to see the commonalities between cultures during the holidays but also the traditions that differ.

Clues of the holiday to come started popping up around Stavanger in November.  The last public holidays in Norway were way back in May so it feels like there's a lot of build up to this one.  The real holiday kick off came the first weekend of December with a (very) small Christmas Market in Gamle Stavanger and the annual Christmas tree lighting in the main square (evidenced in the photos above.)

Typical to everyday life in Norway, holiday decor is understated and neutral.  I have yet to see a coloured bulb let alone blow up Santas.  In fact, the exterior of houses aren't decorated at all.  We've noticed a few neighbours stringing white lights along their balconies and hanging a glowing star in the window as well as something that looks quite similar to a Menorah perched on a window ledge.  Downtown, however, is really quite endearing - garland and lights drapes above the cobble stone streets and there certainly is that feeling of holiday spirit.

Christmas tree lots popped up all over the city and the grocery store is littered with Christmas versions of everything.  Our toilet paper is now decorated with ornaments, sacks of flour feature a Christmas scene and our favourite part, the juleøl has taken over the beer section of the supermarket.  Before Christmas came to be in Norway, Jul was actually a Viking drinking festival and thus, juleøl remains a big part of the season.  Each of the breweries release a Christmas beer - usually dark & hearty, perfect for the weather.  Pepperkake (gingerbread) is also popular and the meat sections are filled with ribbe (roasted pork belly) and pinnekjøtt (salted & dried lamb ribs.)

The main event in Norway is actually on Christmas Eve consisting of a large meal and a Christmas service followed by the opening of presents, and if you're lucky, a visit from julenisse - a kind of cross between Santa and the Norwegian troll.  Unlike the Santa we're familiar with, this guy isn't as shy and stops over while the children are awake.  He's apparently a jolly guy but can also be a bit nasty if you don't pay him his bribes.  Some households also have children leave porridge, lefse (a traditional flatbread) & beer out in the barn for the nisse, a troll/elf who protects the land and it's thought that if he's not happy, he'll start playing pranks on your family.  1 Juledag and 2 Juledag follow (December 25 & 26) which are public holidays and meant for family time.  All of the shops remain closed although I hear there may be a few pubs open around town.

Joe is meant to work a half day today and then we'll celebrate the holidays together.  The house is fully decorated, the presents bought and later in the week, we'll have a traditional Canadian Christmas meal with friends of ours.  It might be a little quieter than had we flown home to Canada but we're both looking forward to cozy days at home together.

From our family to yours, we wish you a God Jul!

Grindelwald, Switzerland

Tuesday 17 December 2013

When Joe and I decided that a winter trip to Switzerland was a strong possibility in December, I started to research which cities and towns we should visit but here's the problem with Switzerland, it's all extremely beautiful and all worthy of a visit.  I reached out to Kristina who had lived in the country for a few years and she suggested a couple of little villages in the Alps.  As I looked a little closer into her suggestions, I stumbled across Silvi's Dreamcatcher Inn and the decision was made - we would spend a couple of nights in Grindelwald.

Grindelwald is indeed, a tiny little town nestled in the Alps.  It's primarily a skiing destination with several hills in the immediate vicinity but unlike more well-known Swiss ski destinations, it's quite low key and quaint.  There are a smattering of shops, most related to skiing and mountain climbing and a handful of restaurants and hotels but mostly, the mountainside is dotted with chalets, gondolas and chairlifts.

High season doesn't begin in the area until the 23rd of December so aside from the locals hitting the slopes, we felt like we were the only visitors in the area.  In fact, many of the hotels and restaurants weren't even open yet but that didn't bother us in the least.

We loved our room at Dreamcatcher Inn and our hosts Silvi, Horst & Sandra were lovely.  Again, due to low season, we had the entire place to ourselves.  The icy path up the side of the mountain meant we had to park below and hike to and from the chalet but the views made up for it.  Both mornings we were treated to a delicious, home cooked breakfast and in the evenings, we drank a bottle of red wine, courtesy of the hosts' vineyard and sat in the large jacuzzi on the deck.  While the village was quiet, this was the one place we had a bit more time - more time to cozy up with a book, hot tea & more time in the hot tub overlooking those mountains.

Around Here

Sunday 15 December 2013

+Joe and I just got back from the most lovely winter trip to Switzerland.  We spent time in Lucerne, Grindelwald, Interlaken & Zurich all of which were stunning.  I've been editing a few photos and still can't get over how beautiful that country is - those Alps are something else.  There's something about being surrounded by towering mountains that really humbles a person.

+I'm so far behind on blogging - I have hardly touched on our trip to Istanbul let alone Brussels, Bruges & now Switzerland.  I don't even know where to start.

+We are in full on Christmas mode in our household.  This weekend we bought a real tree (my first one!!) and have decorated the apartment up perfectly.  This is one perk to staying put for the holidays.  We haven't decorated since we left Canada and while there are obvious downsides to missing Christmas with our families, I'm really happy to pull out the spirit and embrace celebrating here.  The warm glow coming from the tree, star and candles is magical and for once, I'm not entirely depressed that the sunset comes at 3 pm.

+Between consuming all of the heavy (but delicious) Swiss-German food and the mountain of Swiss chocolates we brought back with us, I'm feeling like I've put on a substantial winter layer on these bones.  It's not entirely needed in Stavanger being that it's 8 degrees Celsius and rainy most days but that doesn't stop me from grabbing another chocolate as I pass the box.

+Speaking of holiday cheer - have you seen this Westjet video?  Westjet is one of Canada's 2 main airlines and are known for their friendly staff and out of the box thinking.  They've been known to pull stunts like this before (see last year's here) but I think they went above and beyond this year.

Travel Planning: Winter Travel

Wednesday 4 December 2013

High season travel in Europe often revolves around the summer.  After all, children are on school vacation, the weather is more agreeable, and the increased amount of daylight is convenient.  But, it also means crowded attractions, increased prices and depending on where you are, extreme heat which can make anything other than lying on a beach, uncomfortable (ahem, Greece & Spain.)

Our ideal time to travel is usually the shoulder seasons - this means May & early June and again in late September & October.  The crowds are drastically reduced yet the weather is still nice and the travel costs are often lower than peak.  Unfortunately, it's impossible to fit in all our trips in such a limited amount of time, particularly when we like to spread them out over the calendar.  While it's attractive to seek out sunshine during the winter months, there is something to be said for embracing winter travel.

First of all, it is a lot cheaper in terms of flights and hotels (unless you're looking to fly over Christmas) and a lot of the times, you'll feel like you have the city to yourself.  It feels less touristy and a little more real.  You won't be wasting time lining up for attractions and you probably won't be fighting for a glimpse of the Mona Lisa from behind a mound of other tourists.

Last year, Joe and I visited Berlin, Prague and Oslo during the winter and very shortly, we'll be catching a flight to Switzerland.  In case you're also planning a snowy or cold destination this year, here are a few tips from a Canadian who knows winter well.

+This seems silly but even I, a seasoned Canadian, often underestimate winter temperatures - DRESS WARMLY.  I wear wool tights under my jeans and sport an extra pair of socks, a parka, scarf, mitts, and hat.  For those of used to below 0 temperatures, -5 might not sound too bad but spending hours outside in said weather can feel colder than first expected.
+Allow yourself a lot of breaks.  Pop into a café for a warm drink or stop in a cozy pub for a beer.  Your feet will thank you.
+Not all of Europe (even Northern Europe) has a snowy winter.  If you're looking for snow, do your research ahead of time.
+With that being said, winter can also mean rain.  Bring an umbrella and keep a list of indoor activities in your location in case the weather really isn't cooperating.
+Take careful note of attraction operating hours.  Many will drastically reduce their opening times during the low season or even close altogether.
+The further North you go, the less daylight you'll have.  Plan accordingly but don't abandon the streets just because it's dark.  The twinkling lights on a calm winter's night can be magical.
+Christmas Markets are a wonderful experience and something quintessentially European.  If you're traveling in December, definitely try to add one to your itinerary.  Popular stops include Strasbourg in the North of France, Prague, Vienna, Brussels and really, all of Germany.
+Be prepared for travel delays in case of snow storms.  Again, those of us who are well acquainted with winter are shocked when major airports (hello London & Paris) close after 2 cm of snow.  In fact, sometimes they close with the impending threat of snow before one flurry has even hit the pavement.
+Driving in a foreign country can be nerve-racking.  Driving in a foreign country with snowy roads can be terrifying.  If you aren't comfortable, don't risk it.  Stick to trains.
+Embrace the season - rent a pair of skates, try tobogganing, breath in that fresh, crisp air, sip mulled wine & hot chocolate, buy a soft cashmere sweater and sit by the fireplace.

Where are your favourite winter destinations?

(Also, I've been featured in the December issue of Bella Magazine.  You can check out my interview on pages 47 through 49.)

Coffee Talk

Wednesday 27 November 2013

There was a time where the moment I got off an airplane and smelled that familiar coffee smell trailing it's way towards my gate that my heart would leap and I'd be exclaiming to Joe, "There's a Starbucks!" Living in the third world did that to me.  There were no fancy cafés and there were certainly no lattes.  Nescafe (instant coffee) ruled the roost.  A couple of restaurants housed coffee machines and cafe au lait was possible although made with damn UHT milk and nothing came close to my beloved vanilla latte or chai latte or caramel macchiato.  Product aside, there also were no coffeehouses that felt cozy inside and played coffeehouse music.  There was no where to bring your computer to type to the sound of coffee bean grinding and frappuccino blending and there certainly wasn't a neighbourhood café where you'd regularly meet your friends to catch up.  We did that in our homes because that was our only option.

Funny enough, when we moved to Stavanger, one of the things I was most excited about was jumping back into café culture.  The thought of creamy, foamy lattes made me salivate and I was so excited at the prospect that I'd have years to start uncovering all of the little cafés in this city.  And uncover I have - over the last year and a half, a certain friend and I meet almost weekly to catch up on life.  Sometimes we visit old favourites and sometimes we visit other places we've walked by and wondered about.
Steam Kaffebar - Stavanger
Starbucks has never been present in Stavanger.  In fact, up until recently, there was only one in the entire country and it was housed in Oslo's airport.  When we first moved to Europe, I'd get my fix when we traveled.  I liked the familiarity of it - I knew what and how to order and it was exciting when that first sip hit my tastebuds after months of being separated.  Joe didn't get it (he's not a coffee drinker) but he'd support my semi-frequent stops in foreign cities.

And then something happened...  On one of our weekend trips, I passed by a Starbucks, smelled that familiar smell, and wondered to myself, 'When is the last time I went in?'  We had been on a million different trips and passed by a million different Starbucks but I wasn't feeling that pull anymore.  I certainly hadn't given up coffee but unbeknownst to me,  I had given up Starbucks.

These days, I find myself looking for that independent café on a quiet street.  The ones that are small and quaint and serve good coffee.  I love the idea of coming in from the cold, getting comfortable, sipping my kaffe latte, people watching and catching up with a good friend that doesn't include take out cups and definitely not drive-through.  Perhaps it's just accommodating to my particular circumstances or maybe it's a sign that after 3.5 years abroad, I need a little less of the familiar and am more comfortable seeking out the other.
Blue Bird Kaffebar, Stavanger
This morning, I woke up and read an article that outlined Starbucks entrance into Stavanger and I'll admit, my heart sank a little.  It detailed the space the company had purchased and that construction had already started in hopes of opening up the chain by the summer 2014.  It's location on the harbour would be perfect for all of those cruise ship tourists who disembark, do a walk around the centre before returning to the boat - now maybe they'd stop by Starbucks and pick up their favourite drink before leaving.  I get it and yes, it'll be successful but a part of me wishes it wouldn't be.  To me, Norway isn't Starbucks, it's the quaint, cozy and locally run cafés and bakeries and I will be mightily disappointed if my favourite haunts can't keep up with the new competition.

(Don't get me wrong, I'm not a Starbucks hater and when I'm in North America, you'll often catch me with that white and green cup gracing my hands, albeit, less frequently than before.  I still prefer to seek out the independent coffeehouses when home but they're fewer and farther between.)

Let's Talk Travel Magazines

Wednesday 20 November 2013

Last year, as part of Joe's birthday present, I purchased a subscription to Condé Nast Traveler.  Every month both of us would look forward to a new magazine showing up in the postbox and it was great inspiration as we planned our travel throughout the year.  At the end of the summer, I started receiving renewal notices and after humming and hawing over it, I decided to give other magazines a try, not because we didn't enjoy CNT, but just to see what else was out there.  So I purchased AFAR for Joe and National Geographic Traveler for myself hoping we'd get our first edition somewhere around the holidays.  Well, apparently they were well ahead of their 8-12 week estimate for the first delivery and now we find ourselves getting all 3 magazines each month.  It's a bit of travel overload on our coffee table right now.

Condé Nast Traveler is the mecca of wanderlust.  Every year it curates a Gold List - that is, the most fabulous hotels in all the lands.  This is both a blessing and a curse for someone like me who really, really loves nice hotels.  The properties they feature are the crème de la crème, many of which are out of reach for the average traveler.  But, it's nice to dream.  Each edition features several locations and I find the articles to be interesting and well written.  Joe and I also really enjoy the Where Are You? feature which is a sort of puzzle where you must find out the location with the photo and clues given.  When you figure it out, you can enter to win a trip... and it's a really nice trip because it's Condé Nast.

AFAR is like the coffee table book of the three.  Visually, it's beautiful.  The layouts, the photos, and the collections it puts together read like a work of art.  There are always a few substantial (in terms of length) articles but there are quite a few one-page curations which are great for those who prefer to take their magazines in small portions.  There's a great mix of different travel styles and if there was such a thing as a 'hipster' magazine, this might be it.  It just feels cool.

While the former might be hip, National Geographic Traveler is your classic travel magazine.  You get everything you would expect in a travel magazine; beautiful photographs, interesting destinations, and great stories.  The Nat Geo Traveler excels at tips whether it be where to get a great meal in a particular city to how to get a great sleep in an airport.  This magazine feels a little more straight to the point - less babble, more practical.  You know with each issue what you're going to get and the average traveler will feel like all of the features are within reach.

We've been holding on to every issue, stacking them up and going back to reference articles as we're travel planning and they certainly help to put some destinations on our radar.

{PS. If you're looking for gifts for the upcoming holidays, I'm sure any traveler would be happy to see any of these show up on their doorstep.}

What do you think, which one suits you?

Where to Stay in Istanbul

Monday 18 November 2013

It's been months since our trip to Istanbul and since I wrote my first post, post-trip.  It was one of those trips that has been swirling around in my head ever since we returned and while I've been meaning to blog about it, I also wasn't ready to share it.  When an experience was really good, it can be hard to put pen to paper (or fingers to keys) and sometimes, it's just nice to let it settle and be what it is without the pressure to articulate it.  All that to say, I think it's time.

Istanbul is a really, really big city that straddles both the Europe and Asia continents and having never been there before, it was a little overwhelming trying to figure out the best place to stay in terms of location and hotels.  (And we all know I'm a little nuts about finding good accommodation.)

My research told me that the majority of the main tourist sites were found in Fatih, also known as Old Town, in the European part of the city.  It also told me that traffic in this booming city can be horrendous which led me to believe that it might be easiest to stay in Old Town.  Generally, I don't like to stay in the tourist centres - while the sites are fantastic, it's nice to be able to escape the crowds and the restaurants geared towards foreigners at the end of the day.  So, I compromised and booked the first few nights in Sultanhamet before we'd cross the Galata Bridge to Beyoglu for our final couple of nights.

Our first hotel was Hotel Sultania located on a pedestrian street lined with restaurants and hotels, mere minutes from Topkapi Palace, Hagia Sofia and The Blue Mosque.  The hotel itself is relatively small with 42 rooms all named after famous Sultan's wives in the Ottoman Empire and it's decorated with traditional Ottoman style.  Our room was spacious, comfortable and very clean and while the decor was a little kitschy, it seemed fitting for the area.  The staff was also really friendly and intent on making sure we had a lovely stay.

Our stay in Fatih was certainly convenient.  We didn't need taxis or public transit as everything in the area was easily reachable on foot and it allowed us to hit the main sites within the first couple of days.  Finding restaurants was a little more difficult as there were hundreds around but the kind with inflated prices and that don't feel particularly authentic.  But, we enjoyed the convenience.

After a couple of full days visiting the sites that make Istanbul a famous tourist destination, we were definitely ready to cross the Golden Horn to our second hotel, The House Hotel Galatasaray.  As our taxi weaved up a tiny, one way road lined with junk shops, I did have a moment of panic wondering if perhaps I hadn't made the right choice but the feeling was quickly dispelled.  In fact, booking this hotel might have been one of the best decisions I've ever made..

There are three House Hotels in Istanbul all designed by well-known Turkish designers, Autoban and all located in restored apartment buildings.  (This company also claims the scrumptious and beautiful House Cafés found throughout the city.)  The Galatasaray was the first of the 3 hotels to open and is found just down the hill from Istikali Avenue, a popular, pedestrian shopping road leading up to Taksim Square, yet set amongst apartment buildings, galleries, and independent shops.

Our room was stunning.  In fact, upon pushing my bags to the side, I asked Joe if we could move in.  The attention to detail was evident and it felt welcoming and homey yet luxurious.  The shower in the middle of the room was surprisingly quite functional and the lounge on the top floor was impeccable with fantastic views over the neighbourhood.  We loved this hotel.

In the end, both Hotel Sultania and The House Hotel Galatasaray were great choices.  For a first visit to Istanbul, if you have the time, I highly recommend choosing to stay in a couple of different neighbourhoods and especially outside of Fatih for a more well-rounded view of the city.  If we are lucky enough to return to Istanbul (and my goodness I hope we are,) we'll probably forgo Fatih and stick to Beyoglu... and probably the House Hotel Galatasaray.

-Hotel Sultania often has different deals featured on their website.  We were able to secure free transport from the airport.
-We booked The House Hotel Galatasaray through Design Hotels for a better rate.

Further Education

Tuesday 12 November 2013

Luck had it that our first expatriation landed us in Gabon, a French speaking country, and I had some French education behind me.  Even so, when we arrived, it had been years since I'd spoken a word of French and several more years since I had to use much other than simple conjugation, ABC's, 123's and classroom vocabulary.  For the first several months, I cowered behind my language skills scared to make mistakes, stumbling over words that had long buried themselves in the depths of my brain and fearful that if I did respond and pass off my French, I'd be rewarded with a flurry of words that I couldn't keep up with.  Yet, when you move to a country where 99% of the population does not speak English, it becomes a sink or swim scenario.

Eventually, things started to connect again in my mind and soon I was spending much less time pre-formulating sentences well ahead of any communication.  I credit a lot of my confidence to speaking with our guards and our housekeeper - they were consistent relationships who were patient and understanding as I tried to piece together what I needed.  They didn't correct me or walk away when I wasn't making sense; they worked with me until we were both in complete understanding.

While this was happening, I could feel my grammar slipping away.  No longer was I worried about saying something perfectly, I just wanted to be understood and generally, I was.  I knew I was making a plethora of mistakes and I felt frustrated that while my oral communication had improved tenfold, I wasn't improving on the details of the language.  With French teachers few and far between, I continued to bump along, conversing haphazardly yet fairly confidently.

Of course, the move to Stavanger brought my French language use to a halt.  I had aspirations of meeting a couple of French expat wives who I could meet for coffee once a week but it didn't happen.  A year passed and aside from a couple of jaunts to French speaking countries, I did not utter a word of French.  Some days, I'd translate my day in head to see if I could still do it or I'd turn the TV to France 24 but would quickly lose interest.  Come June, I stumbled across a French language teacher in Stavanger and before I could talk myself out of it, I composed my best email in French detailing that I'd like lessons in the Fall.

Since the end of August, I've met with a lovely French woman once per week for 1.5 hours at her home.  During my first lesson we completed a placement test where my teacher remarked that my oral communication was strong but my written was lacking.  I found this interesting as my entire French education, I felt the reverse, a fairly common notion for anyone who has learned a language in a classroom with more pen to paper than anything else.

From "Bonjour" to "À la semaine prochaine" we do not speak a word of English.  It is exhausting.  One on one, we work through grammar and vocabulary; we'll do fun things like make crêpes and play games or we'll watch adverts on youtube.  Sometimes the words flow easily and the lessons are quickly grasped whereas others are more of a struggle as I try to wrap my head around le girondif and curse the masculine/feminine forms.  I've come home laughing that my teacher had reprimanded me for not answering in full sentences which unexpectedly sounded as if I'd been listening to myself several years prior with my FSL students in Canada.  The tables had turned and now I found myself une étudiante once more.

It's been good.  It's been good to flex my brain a little more.  It's been good to polish up my language skills and it's been good to feel the slightest bit more productive.

{On that note, tonight is Joe's first Norwegian lesson.  His company finally got around to arranging lessons at the office.  We asked if I could also attend but unfortunately, they wouldn't allow it so I've instructed Joe to pay extra special attention so that he could teach me afterwards.}

Trois Ans de Mariage

Wednesday 30 October 2013

Three years ago today, Joe and I were married in Gabon.  At the time, it was a bit of a kerfuffle - the months of struggles trying to work out my residence card hoping I wouldn't be deported finally culminating in the resolve to get married.  The major's office gave us two weeks notice but thinking the ceremony wouldn't be legal anywhere outside of Gabon, we didn't put much thought into the actual logistics of it.  It was what it was and without wanting to take anything away from the wedding we were planning in Canada, we just sort of did it.  These days, the whole idea of it brings a lot of laughter.

When I pull out our marriage certificate for paperwork here I can't help but giggle at the tiny, handwritten strip of paper and when Joe and I get asked about it, we'll often jovially relay the story.  We'll share that our driver was one of the four witnesses as we were desperate for attendants that had legal residence in Gabon (something many of our friends were also struggling to attain.)  I'll recount, whilst shaking my head, the struggle to find any sort of suitable dress in Port Gentil however, not wanting to show up underdressed, I purchased a $12 white dress from a local shop that I detested.  Joe, leaving his formal wear in Canada, borrowed a suit from his boss!

We'll talk about arriving that morning to city hall waiting in the back of the room for the ceremony to start only to be beckoned to walk down the aisle to Rihanna & Eminem's 'Love the Way You Lie.'  Our Moroccan friend Tarik, also an attendant, translated the entire ceremony for us through a microphone as the mayor was adamant that we understand every single word.  We all laughed as they reiterated that we decided upon a monogamous marriage and what that entailed and we sat smiling and nodding as we endured a twenty minute long speech as to why we should bring all of our friends and family to Gabon.

Quite unlike our reception in Canada, we immediately left city hall for an oceanfront restaurant where we sat, sweating, in plastic chairs, batting away flies and sipping champagne.  Currently sitting on our bookcase here in Stavanger is the cork from that first bottle of champagne with a Gabonese coin wedged in it, a tradition relayed from our British friends who joined us.

While we didn't have a photographer to capture all of the details, those memories are etched in our minds and although I can see a million things I would have done differently, I love that every time it comes up, every anniversary, every story we tell, it brings a smile to both of our faces.

{If you're interested, you can read the first post where we announced our wedding to family & friends via this blog here and of course, our more typical Canadian wedding is here.}

On Documentaries

Friday 25 October 2013

Documentaries often have a bad rap.  I think some people equate them to those terrible educational films you had to watch when you had a substitute teacher.  (They're not at all.)  When someone chooses to make a documentary, it's usually because they are passionate about the topic and there's a story to be told.  It's not necessarily about making money or being a box-office success, it's about sharing and teaching and learning and when you combine those with artistic cinematography and a soundtrack, it's a recipe for success.  Or at least it is in my books.

One of the perks of being a trailing spouse and not working is having time to explore documentaries.  If I'm feeling bored one afternoon, I'll do a browse through Netflix or iTunes to see what I find.  Sometimes I'll watch something I would never expect to be interesting only to find a fascinating story and I almost always feel like I've learned something.  In fact, that's my favourite part about Netflix - I watch something I might not have paid for separately which has uncovered a wealth of fantastic documentaries.

So, in no particular order, a few of the favourites over the past year...

Ai Weiwei - Never Sorry
Ai Weiwei is a contemporary Chinese artist whose pieces tend to straddle Art and political activism.  Never Sorry offers a glimpse into his process as an artist while examining the injustices of current life in China particularly when it comes to freedom of speech and corruption.  Critics widely pan this documentary as a success and I'd have to agree. In a word, fascinating.

Brooklyn Castle
Brooklyn Castle follows an inner-city school in Brooklyn and their unlikely success in the competitive chess circuit.  Despite budget cuts and students with financial and other burdens, the after-school program continues to thrive resulting in the school winning the most junior high school chess championships in the country.  I don't play chess but I was rooting for these kids and the teachers who fight so hard to keep the program up and running.

Stories We Tell
Sarah Polley is a Canadian celebrity made famous by her beloved role in Road to Avonlea.  This documentary is brilliant in almost every way.  Brilliant.  Polley uses a combination of interviews from family and friends of her late mother as well as clips which were filmed to resemble home movies in order to uncover a family secret.  Stories We Tell has this way creating such a intricate, comprehensive story without having the main character present.  It was wonderfully done.

They Call it Myanmar: Lifting the Curtain
Myanmar, also known as Burma, is one of the most closed off societies in the world as it's citizens continue to live under military dictatorship.  Filmed, occasionally in secret, over 2 years, we get a glimpse at everyday life in one of the world's poorest nations.  It, again, reinforces that what we see on the outside is a very small aspect of the complexities of a nation, particularly of one that is so cut off from the rest of the world.

Being Elmo
Most children who grow up in North America will have some sort of connection to Sesame Street.  Those puppets signify childhood where we learnt our numbers and letters and where we were taught lessons about sharing and caring.  Being Elmo not only shows us how the beloved character came to be but also a behind the scenes look at puppetry.  Seeing how the puppets are physically made and then how they are brought to life by those that play them was really interesting.

Note by Note: The Making of Steinway L1037
We have a tendency to see an object just as an object like it appears on Earth exactly as it is whereas Note by Note allows us to follow one piano from start to finish and all of those that bring it to life.  The details and the sheer amount of time, effort, energy and manpower behind it's construction is really quite something and certainly reignited my appreciation of handcrafted items.

Helvetica is one of the world's most used fonts and what might appear to be a simple, clean typeface, is actual a well thought out, complex system.  The film looks at typography, how it's used and what it says.  It examines Helvetica's successes and critics all while drawing attention to just how often we come across this font.

Inside Job
I'm not good with numbers and while a lot of the concepts are still over my head, I can understand that money, greed and corruption have had catastrophic effects on the world economy.  Inside Job looks at the financial crisis, how it started, how and why it continues and the bastards who made millions of dollars off of it.  I've never seen so many well educated, powerful people play dumb and it is infuriating.  Even more so, practically nothing has changed.  This is an eye opening film.

Scatter My Ashes at Bergdorf's
I tend to get caught up in the serious documentaries but this was a nice departure for me.  From the history of the store, to the competitiveness to get a brand into Bergdorfs to it's elaborate window displays,  we really get a sense of the exclusivity of this New York department store.  And while the likelihood of my shopping there is unfortunately, minimal, a girl can dream.

First Position
The former dancer in me was enthralled by this film.  First Position follows six dancers who hope to enter the world of professional dancing.  The commitment and dedication these performers exhibit is nothing short of amazing particularly in an industry that is so competitive and cut-throat.

Exit Through the Gift Shop
Fellow blogger, Jess, recommended this Banksy film to me after I posted on Stavanger's Street Art Festival.  It gives a really interesting look into the world of street art and perhaps even more interesting, starts a discussion about what constitutes Art.  This is a great discussion starter and if anything, will have you looking a little more closely and perhaps with a little more admiration at the Art that graces our streets.

{Honourable mentions from over the years - When the Levees Broke - The September Issue - and as polarizing as he may be, Michael Moore's trio of Bowling for Columbine, Fahrenheit 9/11 & Sicko are fascinating.}

Any recommendations?  Tell me about it!

Travel Planning: Itineraries

Wednesday 23 October 2013

So far, we've tackled long term travel planning, we looked at booking flights & hotels and now, it's time to look at itineraries; how do we plan our days before & while we're traveling.

As with everything else, I'm generally the one who does the pre-trip research.  I try to get an idea of what there is to see and do in the location we'll be visiting, the areas of the city we might want to visit, I'll track down restaurants to try and I'll check if there are any admissions or tickets we should pre purchase.  (I learned my lesson after the Alhambra & Versailles.)  I usually compile everything on one, handwritten piece of paper to bring with me.

Unless we had to purchase tickets for something in advance, we do not keep a strict itinerary for a trip.  To be completely honest, we usually plan our days when we arrive in our location - we'll get a city map from the hotel and over dinner or drinks, we'll sit down and start to plan it out.  We'll discuss the must-sees and decide when/how to see them but generally, everything is kept pretty loose.

With that being said, here are a few things we've learned along the way...

+Always research transport to/from the airport in advance.  Sometimes it makes sense for both budget & time to jump in a cab, other times, not so much.
+Tourist spots are tourist spots for a reason and they're usually what a city or location is known for but don't forget, a city is much more than it's well-known sights.  Research other neighbourhoods and spend some time wandering the streets well away from famous spots.
+WALK!  Joe hates walking the same street twice which sometimes drives me nuts but we see so much of the city because of it.  When we stop for lunch or a drink, we'll pull out our map and draw all of the routes we've walked which inevitably, draws our attention to areas or streets we've neglected.
+Schedule plenty of time for meals and drinks.  When you see a cute cafe, stop and have a drink.  People watch, try the local beer and if the staff seem friendly, ask for their recommendations for things to see and do.
+Eat away from the main tourist sights.  The best restaurants are usually where the locals are - well away from the tourists.  Come armed with recommendations from the internet, friends and locals which will help you avoid hanger.
+When planning to visit popular museums, try to visit first thing in the morning or later in the afternoon when they're less busy. It also pays to research where you can buy tickets.  Pre-purchasing online or at a satellite location can save you from wasting time in lengthy lines on location.
+Don't plan to shop on a Sunday without double checking that shops will be open.  Stores across many major European cities will close on Sunday however, there are often markets to explore for a less mainstream experience.
+Keep a loose itinerary but don't be afraid to stray from the plan.  Sometimes you stumble onto something you didn't know existed and those often turn out to be the most memorable parts of the trip.  It's a shame to rush off just to stick to a plan and miss out on something really unique and valuable.

Do you create an itinerary or do you prefer to go with the flow?

Cruising to Kristiansand, Norway

Monday 21 October 2013

Back in August, Joe and I jumped in the car and drove 3 hours Southeast of Stavanger to Kristiansand.  We had been hearing about this Southernmost city in Norway for some time particularly as a summer destination and with the summer quickly leaving us, we jumped at the opportunity to spend a night there when the weather looked promising.

It's a quaint, little town with a distinctly beachy feel and surprisingly enough, the most visited city by tourists in all of Norway.  It's home to the second largest port in Norway and if you plan on bringing your car from Continental Europe to tour this Scandinavian country, it's quite likely you'll arrive first in Kristiansand.

Joe and I booked a room at the brand new Scandic Bystranda hotel right on the water.  We walked and walked and walked, exploring the centre of town on foot and dined at Bølgen and Moi, located right on a waterway, Saturday evening.  Sitting on the terrace, we watched boats pull in for ice cream and groups of people having cocktails in their boat before heading out for the night.  After a sunset stroll to walk off a large dinner, we capped off the night with a bottle of champagne on the hotel's second floor terrace.
Kristiansand's stunning new Concert House
From the terrace of the Scandic Bystranda
On Sunday, we jumped in the car and drove up the hill behind the city to Banaheia, a large park with several walking paths and a fresh water lake often used for swimming.  We weaved through the trails until we found Café Generalen, a lovely little restaurant with a great outdoor dining area in the park where we had lunch before jumping back in the car and returning to Stavanger.
Cafe Generalen
I can see why Kristiansand would be a popular destination for families in the summer.  It's abundance of parks, playgrounds and beaches make it a great destination to bring kids when the sun is out.  We enjoyed its laid back nature and being that the town is very pedestrian friendly, it was great to park the car and explore leisurely on foot.

And the drive home was pretty darn nice too...

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