A taste of cardamom

It’s been a while, hasn’t it…  Last time I posted, it was one week after I arrived home from my two-week jaunt overseas to Sweden and Ireland with one of my best friends.

And then, suddenly…all quiet on the northern front. 

It’s not that I haven’t tried to write.  I really have.  Feverish scribbles in many notebooks record my efforts.  And it’s not that I haven’t had anything to write about, either.  Indeed, I returned home to the love of my life; I left my second job where I worked en electronics retail; I met my love’s family over Canadian Thanksgiving…oh, and I got engaged just before Christmas!  Personal life events aside, there was always the soapbox of some big current issue:  a Canadian perspective on the US elections; another voice in the protest against the patriarchy; more insights on feminine self-perception and the issues women have with their bodies… You name it, I could have written about it.

But I lost my voice after coming back home in September.  It was as if Angela the Writer was struck speechless by that journey and just felt as if there was nothing to write about on the home front that could hold a candle to the wonders of Sweden and Ireland.  (It certainly didn’t help that before  I left my second job in mid-November, I kept having mini-breakdowns everywhere because of how stressed out, anxious, and over-tired I was.)  And so, as I wound myself into a tighter ball of stress and anxiety and fatigue, the Montreal Autumn waltzed by mostly unnoticed.

And then the Montreal Winter arrived.  Cold and dark as it was, the snow didn’t start coming in earnest until just a few weeks ago.  The past two weeks in particular have been bone-chillingly cold with blustery winds and near-white-out snowfalls.

Memory Lane, or as it’s called in Swedish, Nostalgitripp, beckoned to me and called me back to Sweden in particular when the snow finally hit in earnest.  In the midst of this winter I found myself cocooned in memories of blue skies shining over Stockholm, birch-lined paths through Falun, sun-splashed cobblestones in Gamla Stan, exuberant winds coming off the Baltic…and cardamom buns and coffee enjoyed next to window-baskets full of bright flowers whenever it was time for a fika break.

My fiancé recently let me loose with gift money in the cooking section of Indigo as part of my Valentine’s Day present, and in that particular haul is a book called How To Hygge:  The Nordic Secrets to a Happy Life, by Norwegian food writer and chef Signe Johansen.  While it’s more of a lifestyle book than one of cookery, Johansen includes many Nordic recipes in it…and in the chapter on fika, there is a recipe for cardamom buns.

If I ever have to summarize my time in Sweden in terms of food, kardemummabullar from Fabrique Stenugnsbageri is always the first thing I mention.  Kanelbullar, or cinnamon buns, are commonplace enough in North America, and while the kind we get here in abundance is made in the typical American fashion (gigantic, stodgy, and made with too much sugar), their cardamom counterparts are rare treats even in the fanciest boulangeries of my city.  I absolutely love cardamom (many of my favorite tea blends from DavidsTea involve the dried, fragrant green pods) and get noticeably excited when I see it listed on a menu.

Now, hygge (pronounced hoo-ga) is a lifestyle that’s all about cosiness, comfort, companionship, and all the little things in like that bring them to life, and I encountered this concept right in the middle of the time of year that tends to make me feel lethargic, uncomfortable, and lonely.  But as I read the chapter on fika and looked over that recipe for cardamom buns, I remembered not how the Fabrique kardemummabullar tasted but rather how I felt while eating them for the first time.  I’d chosen a rich double espresso to go with it, and as I tucked into this modest little feast I felt all the stiffness, tiredness, and stress of long travel hours melting away.  As I ate I felt ready to take Stockholm head-on like the proper adventurer I wanted to be.

If a cardamom roll could do that once, maybe it could do it again, I thought as I read Johansen’s recipe, curled up on the couch with our British Shorthair purring next to my head while snow fell down outside the window.  We even do have cardamom in the spice cupboard…

I had time this weekend to take on the challenge of home-made bread, and this morning we had a batch of kardemummabullar waiting for us to enjoy in our breakfast.  As I gently tore apart a golden-brown spiral and looked out at the snow that’s piled up on the porch and in the alley below, I felt this long winter brighten a bit with my first taste of the hygge life.

And just as it had done on a side street in Gamla Stan, the taste of fragrant cardamom, fresh bread, and coffee helped me get back on my feet.

The Rainy Road To Dublin

It’s been a week since I arrived home from two weeks abroad, and I’ve yet to write about the last leg of the journey:  Dublin.  Mea culpa. Being thrown back into normal life seems to have thrown me off-kilter slightly, but hopefully a week later I can still properly convey all those wonderful experiences packed into my last days in Ireland.

We only took one full day in Dublin, since we felt the hustle and bustle of a city under construction and 1916-centric tourism might be a bit too far from the relaxing finish we wanted to our two-week holiday (especially after Donegal and Galway).  Arriving on Monday afternoon from Galway after a rainy ride on the bus (and, indeed, a rainy week thus far in Ireland, which in September should be expected by anyone vaguely familiar with the Emerald Isle), Camille and I checked into our last Airbnb in Drumcondra, north of Dublin centre, before heading out on foot to Saint Stephen’s Green and Grafton Street.

Following four days of hearty full Irish breakfasts and pub grub on the West Coast, I dove with gusto into the Chinese vegetable stir-fry with tofu and shrimps alongside veggie noodles on our first night in Dublin.  Next morning, we parted ways in the city centre after breakfast at Murray’s on O’Connell Street, and I trotted off to the hallowed wooden doors of Trinity College to meet up with another old, dear friend and his wife.

Gary and Jenn welcomed me with open arms to Dublin, and we went on a grand adventure that lasted the entire day.  Starting with a visit to the Book of Kells and the Long Room at Trinity so I could pay homage to the biggest research project of my undergraduate degree, we spent the day talking, laughing, and enjoying fantastic company, food, and beer.

dubs03

The barrel-vaulted ceiling of the Long Room at Trinity College Dublin, flanked with countless shelves groaning under the hallowed weight of old books of all shapes and sizes.

 

Though we did stop in at the fabled Foggy Dew, I didn’t actually touch a single drop of Guinness (*gasp*) whilst in Ireland — and that’s because I kept up in Ireland the trend I’d started in Sweden of drinking beers that aren’t readily available in Canada.  I did stick to darker beers though, from amber and brown ales to stouts and porters, and I don’t feel like I really missed out on a “proper” Guinness.  Guinness is everywhere in Montreal and my favourite pub serves the best pint of it in the city, so why try comparing when there are so many good ones to try that I won’t get at home?

dubs04

Kepler the stuffed German Shepherd poses with a pint of Buried At Sea, a complex and chocolaty stout from Galway Brewery. (@kep.the.shep on Instagram)

 

The final pint on this whirlwind tour of Irish beers was taken at The Black Sheep (61 Capel Street, Dublin Northside), rather late in the evening after a leisurely stroll up and down the Liffey. By the time we hugged goodnight and bid each other farewell at my Airbnb, I’d had a tour of Dublin City that most tourists don’t get.  It’s the kind where old friends who are practically family take you off the beaten paths of shopping districts and group tours visiting every historical site so that you can see their city.  Sure, you discover and experience new things together (excellent coffee in a boutique café or Mongolian food in the middle of the Temple Bar district, for example, or even a national treasure in Trinity College they haven’t gotten around to seeing yet) but for the most part you’ll circumvent the tourist traps and see a version of the city you won’t get on a bus tour.

But the best part of any trip that involves meeting up with lifelong friends is that not only do you arrive with a strong bond already there, you also leave with that bond reinforced to the point of it being a true bridge — a bridge that can be crossed in both directions, and a bridge that leads to a home on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.  I left such a bridge between Montreal and Sweden, and now one between Montreal and Ireland joins it.

How truly wonderful it is to know that for me there’ll always be a road to Dublin that brings me over the Atlantic and the Liffey, right back to Gary and Jenn’s door.

dubs01

The Liffey at sunset, viewed from the Ha’penny Bridge…a beautiful end to a fantastic and full, rich day in the company of wonderful friends. 

Discovering Donegal

And so, we are in Ireland.  Precisely, at the time I’m writing this we’re somewhere in the countryside between Donegal and Galway. Having bussed our way through the North from Dublin to Donegal on Wednesday afternoon, I’m taking a break from watching green fields dotted with cattle and sheep and the occasional pony in order to catch up on blogging and photo editing.  When I need time to collect my thoughts into some coherent expression, the rolling grey clouds above patchwork greens provides a calming focal point for my wild, excited mind.

img_0005

We stayed in Donegal two nights and one full day, arriving in the early evening of Wednesday and leaving late this Friday morning.  True to stereotype, it’s been rainy the whole time; on-and-off at the very best during the daytime and rather steadily once evening sets in.

img_0012

Abbey ruins provide a unique site for a cemetery, and this one actually also looks over the water.

Nonetheless, we’ve made quite a solid go of Ireland so far. I’ve even managed to find a little piece of Ireland for everyone back home on my souvenirs list, including a small token for my boyfriend’s parents so that I won’t arrive empty-handed when I finally get to meet them in October. As for my own self, a pop into a shop just off the main square (called The Diamond) called Wool’n’Things yielded two skeins of fine, locally grown-and-spun Donegal tweed in heather purple and forest green, and a pair of crimson wristlets of the same woollen tweed to wear over Pharmaprix HotPaws gloves back home in Montreal this winter.  I much preferred Wool’n’Things to the other larger souvenir shops on The Diamond proper, mostly because the old proprietor of Wool’n’Things indulged my curiosity to learn more about Donegal wool and brought me back into the storeroom to help me find end-of-batch skeins to buy and knit up myself once I’m home.

Staying in a proper Irish bed-and-breakfast is also something I highly recommend when you get it into your head to visit a small town over here and really want a “local” experience.  Forego the larger hotels in the town centres and find yourself a place like Haywood’s B&B that’ll serve you a full Irish breakfast and provide you with insider opinions on where to go and what to buy in town.  At Haywood’s in particular, an en-suite room provided us a lovely balance of privacy when we needed downtime when paired with chatting in the common dining room with other guests and the proprietors during the course of breakfast.

img_0001

Visit the Olde Castle Bar for hearty fare (like wild venison pie or the pub staple of fish-and-chips) and a pint of Donegal Brewing Co’s Red Hugh Pale Ale, or pop into Dom’s Pier One for live Irish music every night of the summer season, a bowl of seafood chowder caught off the coast just a few miles down, and a pint of more Donegal Brewing Co’s craft beer (the Atlantic Amber Ale comes highly recommended).

But most importantly, while you’re in Donegal make sure to take a stroll along the Blue Stack Way, and best be sure to take it at a leisurely pace.  Rugged wild Ireland is, after all, a place of mysteries and old ways; you never know when you might bump into them.

img_0002

 

“…for there you have been and there you will long to return.”

Leonardo, writing in Italy on the subject of man taking flight, was still right:  once you’ve been somewhere and found more of yourself and your heart outside of wherever you call “home,” you’ll always want to go back.

And so it is with Sweden.  A few days now into Ireland and I’m still catching up with photo editing and journalling, and therefore still stuck on Sweden particularly in terms of my writing.  My heart is happy to be on the Emerald Isle at long last, but it’s also already yearning to beat once again in time with Swedens’s old, wise heart.  Luckily for me, my other half is looking forward to coming along next time, and I’ll only be too happy to oblige and indulge his own curiosities by bringing him back to places in Stockholm and Falun that I found and fell in love with on my own.

After returning to Stockholm from our weekend “at home” in Falun, we spent much of our time once again in Gamla Stan as well as Djugården Island, the former to revisit some of the more interesting and peculiar shops we’d discovered on our first outing as well as to visit the Kungligastottet (the Royal Palace) and the latter to see the Vasa Museum. We were blessed once more with beautiful weather and countless more discoveries and little marvels along the way.

As we drive now through a rainy Irish countryside to make more memories and gain new experiences of the world, images of “my” Stockholm keep a firm hold on the pieces of my heart that I found there.  I say “my” Stockholm for the way it was when I first walked upon its venerable stones will never be that way again; I will return to this northern city more knowledgeable of its ways and privy to some of its secrets, and I’m sure I will always find something new to love there — but it will be like coming back to a familiar friend who has also grown and changed in the interim, and therefore Stockholm as she showed herself to me when I first met her will always be uniquely mine.

img_0042

View of Strandvägen from Djurgårdsbron, the bridge that takes you from Stockholm proper into Djurgården.

img_0049

Stockholm, you are beautiful! 

 

img_0050

One of the quirkier shops in Gamla Stan. We don’t know its name or how anyone manages to find something to buy in here or how it’s still open. It’s as if everyone in Sweden came with a box from the attic and dumped it out in this shop.

img_0048

One of my favourite window displays ever, in any city I’ve ever been in!  A candy shop called Polkagris Kokeri in Gamlastsan (Lilla Nygatan 10) combines old books, vintage luggage, and greenery with their home-made candies and confections to create an eye-catching, whimsical, and utterly beautiful display.  @gamlastanpolkagriskokeri on Instagram for photos, and http://www.gamlastanpolkagriskokeri.se for more info.

A weekend at “home”

Early on Saturday morning, my travelling companion and I boarded a train at Stockholm Central that was heading for the town of Falun.  I’m pretty sure that a lot of people who fly Stockholm, especially for the first time, don’t necessarily plan on taking two days out of their trip to Sweden’s capital to go see a town two hours out into the countryside, but we did — because a very old, very dear, and very special friend of mine lives there.

I’ve known him for more than half my life, yet this weekend was the first time we ever actually met face-to-face. But from the first hello and long-expected hug to the last good-bye and one last hug to last us until next time, I felt like I had gone home for the weekend.

img_0078

Not actually outside his place, but rather by the entrance of an adorable little bed-and-breakfast in the former miners’ district near the Falun Mine. Half of them were torn down in the 1960s or thereabouts, and the half that survived are now cosy, but rather pricey, homes for Falun families.  The horse figure here is actually known as the Dala Häst, or Dalarna Horse, and is a prevalent souvenir option for sale in Swedish gift shops.

Not only is there a lovely old soul in this town, but the town itself is also a lovely old soul.  We three spent most of our waking hours talking and walking through Falun on impromptu tours from his apartment to the Falu Gruva (the Falun Mine) or through church graveyards (the “Old Church” couldn’t contain the town’s population at one point, so sometime in the early half of the 1600s construction began on the “New Church”).  All along the way, we were walking in the middle of the town’s streets flanked on either side by quiet houses, many of which were painted in failuröd – a distinct reddish-brown shade of paint made from the run-off of the Mines that’s composed of iron ochre, flour, and oil.

img_0035

“We haven’t really seen many people…so…what are all the Swedish people doing on a Sunday?” — “Mostly…minding their own business.”

After the hectic day-and-a-half journey from Montreal to Stockholm and a long amble through Gamla Stan, our weekend in Falun really was a lovely escape that brought us right into the tranquil, beautiful heart of Sweden and her people.  But the best part of all was finally having the chance to spend time with two of the best, most wonderful friends anyone could ever ask for, including one whose heart of gold was the reason why I insisted we trek out to this small town whose heart beats thanks to copper.

It’s strange how a place so far from where you live can feel familiar even though it’s entirely new to you.  Part of the reason was that as we were walking through Falun he was telling us the town’s story, and how intimately he knows and how deeply he loves his home came through in the narrative he gave of its old, long life.  There’s something truly transformative and magical about having a tour guide with personal connections to you as well as to the town, instead of one who’s just paid to do it as a job.  The other part of it was that, having known and talked to him for more than half my life, any conversation to be had over the weekend was merely a face-t0-face continuation of a stream of chatter that’s continuously flowed since some time in 2002.

img_0027

Maybe not everyone is as lucky as I am to be able to “go home for the weekend” while on vacation abroad, but certainly if you’ve got a long haul in Sweden it’s worth it to take a train into Falun and take in the many little marvels (as well as the one grand marvel that is the Falu Gruva) it has to show you.  I’m highly aware of how fortunate I am to have many reasons to go back to Falun on my next journey into Sweden, and how one of them can give me a hug when I set foot back in this beautiful town again.  I’ve found a big piece of myself on its quiet streets and in its unbroken, dramatic sky, and I’m sure there’s more to find down the road.

A full, rich day

We slept in on Friday morning — a well-earned lie-in, because ever since Wednesday evening we’d been on the move from YUL through CDG to ARL, not to mention getting into Danderyd via Stockholm (roundabout, to say the least).  Our first Airbnb booking for Sweden turned out to be a studio apartment renovated from a basement mudroom off the garage of a quaint yellow family home.  Danderyd, being a rather affluent Swedish suburb, offered us quite a scenic walk from our rental to the Tunnelbana in Mörby Centrum.   Getting between Central Stockholm and Danderyd was much easier on Friday compared to navigating the system on Thursday, and on Friday once we hit Central Stockholm we walked down from the station into Gamla Stan.

Oh, Gamla Stan!  I love the “old town” of cities, and make it a point not only to visit my own in MTL often but to also explore those of the few other places I’ve been to during my shorter travels.  There’s something exhilarating about being in such an old place: older than any city I’ve ever walked in, as its earliest strata is somewhere in the 13th Century while most of what’s visible now dates from the 16th and 17th.  As Elizabeth Kostova wrote in The Historian,  For the first time, I had been struck by the excitement of the traveler who looks history in her subtle face.”  

IMG_0015

These #leadinglines in #Stockholm, #Sweden that I found in #GamlaStan along #Skeppsbrokajen show my first steps on roads older than anything I’ve ever known back home in Canada, maybe even including Canada itself… A loving reminder from this #venerable #city to a #young #traveler:  to trust the journey, to bloom where she is planted, to always remember that the #curiosity of a hungry mind and a wild heart can only be satisfied by actually going out there and doing something to gain #knowledge.  

 

As this was our first full day in the environs of Stockholm before heading into central Sweden for the weekend, we were quite pleased that the weather blessed us with lots of sunshine and a bit of a breeze for our hours-long stroll through Gamla Stan.  After numerous times reminding each other that “we have time – we’re on vacation” my companion and I finally let go of any vague notions of an actual itinerary and just wandered through narrow cobbled streets, popping in and out of stores as we pleased and even picking up a few things on the way.

After walking down and seeing about six or seven “cafés” we clued in that around here, it seems that the word is used to describe a place that serves coffee as well as real bistro menus, we finally settled on stopping at an actual “just coffee” shop.  We had our first official Swedish fika at a café at Stora Nygatan 6 — Naturbageriet Sattva — where you can find organic pastries (including gluten-free, sugar-free, and even a few vegan options), pretty good coffee and tea, and a cosy table for two inside or out.  We opted for outside, enjoying coffees and a cinnamon roll as we chatted and people-watched during a long, long fika.  I myself had nearly forgotten the pleasures afforded by long coffees with old friends, and by the time we were ready to hit the stones once more I felt refreshed and bright.

IMG_0021

A little ways down the road, we stumbled upon a boutique selling household linen products that proudly bore the phrase, “Made in Sweden.”  Knowing my BigSis is back home planning her future nest with her fiancé, I had to stop in and take a closer look at what was afforded at HAPPYsthlm, Stora Nygatan 36. I ended up buying her two tea towels, both made from a lightweight pure cotton, one of which in a navy-blue and bright tomato-red print of birds and florals that seems to be one of the shop’s signature designs.  Not only was it on household linens of all sizes, but also on other products inside including various forms of stationery and ready-to-frame prints.

 

After lunching on a park bench across from the Riddarhuset, we took a roundabout route back down Stora Nygatan to Skeppsbrokajen, circling up around the eastern side of Gamla Stan past the Royal Palace.  Crossing over Strömbron, we strolled through the Kungsträdgården where my knowledge of Swedish kings (gained from the odd mixture of the Sabaton album Carolus Rex and my own mother’s hobby of studying world royalties) came in rather handy.

IMG_0013

Karl XII / Charles XII of Sweden — also known as Carolus Rex.  He ruled from 1697 to 1718, from the age of 15 until death by bullet to the head.  To this day it’s unclear whether enemy or friendly fire ended his reign, during which he was known for his moral austerity and brilliant campaigning on the battlefield.  A staunch believer in the Divine Right, his death marked the end of autocratic rule in Sweden and was followed swiftly by the Age of Liberty. 

Nearly 20 000 steps later, we made it back to Danderyd where we passed the evening editing photos, discussing further all the sights we had seen, and planning out our next day’s worth of travelling.  In fact, I’m tucked safely into my seat on the train towards Falun, where we’ll arrive soon to spend the weekend with an old, dear friend of mine who I’ve known for literally half my life but have never yet met.  I’m excited beyond words to finally make a face-to-face connection with him, as over the years he’s been a loyal and kind soul through my most difficult experiences.

So far this vacation has been so much more than just “time away” from both of my jobs.  It’s been about discovering more of my truest and best self, about finally turning dreams into reality, and about bringing the best of what I’ve already experienced in life with me to get the most out of what’s new.  It might be rather rainy and  chilly right now outside the train window, but my heart is warm and cosy.  This trip has been everything I wanted it to be, and more besides, and that bodes well for the remainder.

Good thing, too, as I’m flying home from Dublin on the 14th!

***

For all the latest on this 2016 Sweden and Ireland adventure, follow my Instagram page @demipinte — and if you want to see it all from the whimsical view of a plush-toy German Shepherd that my boyfriend gave me for the trip, go to Instagram as well to follow @kep.the.shep !  

Hej från Sverige!

Earlier this year when I realized it had been six years since I last had an actual vacation that was longer than four or five days off work, I decided to take a full two weeks off Job1 and a full three off Job2 to get the hell outta Dodge for a while and talked one of my best friends into skipping town with me.

Kep002

And now here I am now in Sweden; next week, I’ll be in Ireland.

Getting across the Atlantic was no trouble at all.  The overnight flight from Montreal to Paris was a breeze, because I’m one of those special people who can fall asleep within an hour if they play no active role whatsoever in the process of moving the vehicle in question forward.  I fell asleep somewhere between Newfoundland and Iceland on a plane flying in complete darkness, and then woke up halfway over England with bright sunshine streaming into the cabin and a flight attendant pulling up alongside my row with coffee and banana bread.

Getting through Charles-de-Gaulle was a production and a half, though all was well in the end with the reward of a cappuccino and a tartelette-aux-pommes  at the gate while we waited for our SAS flight to Arlanda.  Once in the air, I again slept for most of the flight, waking up just in time to see our plane break through the cloud cover and catch my first glimpse of Sweden through the tiny window.  Seeing all that green space, broken by tawny patches of fields and glossy swathes of blue-grey water, made my heart soar ever higher as we got closer to the ground.

My first footsteps on Swedish ground were on the airport’s tarmac as I came off the exit ramp of the small SAS bird and crossed into the Arlanda terminal.  A few hours later, walking back with my companion from the grocery store to our cosy Airbnb rental, my Fitbit buzzed on my wrist to tell me I’d completed my daily goal of 12 000 steps (which might just indicate how much we had to walk even in spite of being stuck in airplanes for 10 hours today).

It’s so exhilarating to finally be travelling after so many years of hoping and dreaming and scraping together enough to get here.  I’m so excited to finally be meeting friends who I’ve known for half my life in both Sweden and Ireland, yet never yet met with in person.  Funnily enough, when we were waiting to leave YUL yesterday, I saw on my “On This Day” Facebook feed that exactly three years before, I had pulled the following fortune out of a fortune cookie after eating dumplings with the very same friend with whom I’m travelling now:

FortuneCookie

 

I’m glad I was finally able to make good on the promise I made to myself that day:  that before I left my 20s, I would make this dream vacation reality.  And so, hey från Sverige and stay tuned for updates as we go through Stockholm, Danderyd, and Falun this next week!

***

For all the latest on this 2016 Sweden and Ireland adventure, follow my Instagram page @demipinte — and if you want to see it all from the whimsical view of a plush-toy German Shepherd that my boyfriend gave me for the trip, go to Instagram as well to follow @kep.the.shep !  

The Food of Love

Most of my defining moments happened around the family dinner table, mainly because my parents raised my siblings and me on a steady diet of hearty home-cooked meals eaten as a single family unit every night of the week.  The family dinner table was where I learned life skills like the art of conversation, proper mealtime etiquette, and how to appreciate every morsel of food put in front of me — especially when I did not like it.  It was also where I learned how to value the time and effort of others, and how to give back to them in kind.

The dinner table of my childhood still stands in my mother’s home today and is a stately piece carved from narra wood, the national tree of the Philippines, that my parents shipped over from the Philippines to Canada when we emigrated in 1992.  I find it rather poignant and highly suitable that a Filipino family gathered daily around a table made from our homeland’s national tree, especially considering that everyone who’s taken a seat around it has helped build and strengthen the bridge between the old world and the new.

No matter where they started, family discussions always ended around the dinner table.  Get-togethers with friends and extended family also inevitably ended there, particularly during the summer months when the conversations of day-long barbecues outlasted the last encore of crickets.  Holidays never really saw us leaving it, except of course to clear away empty serving dishes and dirty plates only to return with more food and clean flatware. We ate around it as a family in both immediate and extended forms, adding not one but two leaves on countless occasions to accommodate more guests.  As a baby my nephew crawled on it in between mealtimes, we older folks standing on all sides to keep him from zooming off its polished top; as a toddler, he crawled and then ran under it before whacking his head one day on the edge.  Our dogs sat beneath it as we ate, often indulging in morsels that fell (or were surreptitiously held) under it.  We presented new friends and partners to one another around it, the “others” sizing “us” up against the yardsticks which we ourselves had measured our own progress as sociable human beings.  ((And, when not in use for its original function, my mother used it to sew clothes and curtains and sheets while we put together school projects.))

Nowadays, eating out is a slightly more frequent occurrence than it used to be during my youth and I don’t get many chances to join my mother and BigSis (and now, her boyfriend) around any table, but the family dinner is still integral to our relationship.  More recently than my BigSis, I too have started bringing my own new boyfriend along to dinner, and seeing his face around our table along with the faces of those who know me and love me best warms my heart immensely.

Last week we all went out to Junior, a Filipino restaurant on Rue Notre-Dame .  It was a grand occasion, mostly because MiddleSis and Nephew are in town as well.  As a kid I grew up desperately wanting to eat the North American fare that my classmates and neighbour-kids always tucked into instead of the dishes of islands I couldn’t even remember, but these days my more matured palate can’t get enough of the flavours and textures packed into Filipino food. I love the crisp saltiness of lechon kawali mixing with the tangy sweetness of Mang Tomas sauce; the heat and crunch of a sizzling sisig tempered only slightly by mayo and white rice; the limey zing of a fried bangus served whole, minus the needle-sharp bones of course.  Even the alarmingly sweetness and chewiness of sticky suman dipped into matamis na bao or the cold crunch of shaved ice mixed with ice cream, evaporated milk, sweet beans, young coconut flesh, fruit jellies, and jackfruit – in other words, halo-halo – seem to hit the spot on my cravings so much more accurately than North American desserts these days.

What  I loved most about this latest outing to Junior was that my new boyfriend – an Xth generation Quebecois from Sherbrooke whose Irish, French, and German roots stretch back a few centuries – is a good eater who thoroughly enjoyed the best of my homeland’s cuisine.  Of course it helps immensely that Junior is hands-down the best Filipino food you can get in the city, but even the greatest  and tastiest dishes can be lost on an unappreciative palate. I’ve witnessed it before with past boyfriends:  the polite smile with a barely-discernible trace of apprehension or even dismay at what’s on the Filipino table; the thinly-veiled suspicion of any meat that isn’t instantly recognizable as beef, pork, chicken, or fish; the staunch refusal to even try one mouthful of something new.  That is definitely not the case with this one, which in my book makes him a true keeper.

My family is somewhat leery of picky eaters, and not without good reason. Clearly, since I’ve just spent a few hundred words on the subject, our family dinner is a sacred and precious ritual, and those we invite to partake in food, drink, and company are not only invited to witness them but are indeed being welcomed into our family’s most intimate and telling moments.

But for me, having grown up with one foot in Canada and one occasionally still on the boat back to the Philippines, it means the world to have a non-Filipino partner with whom I can share my cultural roots on every level – especially when it comes to the weird food I have grown to love and re-adopt as “my own.”

The story of my family was written around that narra table; the story of the Philippines, by Spain’s use of the islands as a gateway to the New World.  In both cases food played a huge role in the shaping of such narratives, the exploration and development of which appeal to me as both an amateur writer and as an enthusiastic food-lover.  I can’t help but feel incredibly lucky and rather blessed to have grown up at a table that always had homemade meals upon it, especially from a cuisine that like the table itself was brought over from the home islands to the True North, Strong and Free more than twenty years ago.  And I certainly can’t help but feel extremely proud to share that table now, in all its laden groaning glory, with a person who will add his own words – his own chapter of the story – to that warm and loving narrative.

Shakespeare called music the food of love, but in this family the food of love is the food itself as well as the company we keep when we partake of it around our narra table.

Breaking Free

Winter came late to Montreal, but it’s felt like it’s lasted forever just as it does every year. Having finally hit my stride with regular outdoor running last fall, it’s been torturous these last few weeks to wait for winter to blow past my city entirely. Much like Hobbits take second breakfast, some areas of Canada get second winter and I happen to live in one of them.

Easter Sunday was bright and beautiful, and though it started off with a bit of a nippy breeze by the time I got home from my mother’s nest it was a lovely 13 Celsius and I couldn’t help myself. I had to run. After all, as I had said to my longtime Swedish friend just a few days before —

 

And it’s true. For me running is about the sun and the air and the wind; for him it’s the smell of fresh damp earth. But whatever gets us going when our respective frozen northland homes finally begin to thaw out, I know for me there’s something else that pulls me out of my apartment and towards those paths and trails I’ve come to know so well. It’s the fact that whenever I run outside, for however long I’m out there I’m free. There’s nothing but myself and the hybrid environment of urban and natural surroundings; nothing to stop me from stretching my legs out as far as they can stride; nothing to make me forget I’m alive.

In fact, running makes me remember I’m alive. It’s funny – depending on how far and how fast I go, I end up feeling like I might die! But there’s something about a racing heart and quickened breath and sore limbs at the end of the run that gives me a sense of strength and self-assuredness that I haven’t felt for a long time.

But this yearning, this longing to stretch and grow — it’s more than just wanting to break out of the indoors and be outside again after a long winter.  I was born a free spirit; my heart is wild and my soul has wings. But through a series of various events, when I turned twenty-five I looked at my life with fresh eyes and unexpectedly found myself in a cage of expectations, responsibilities, obligations, and limitations.

And I don’t like that one bit.

I know that growing up and “adulting” involves buckling down and taking on things that make you a contributing and productive member of society. But is the conventional way of becoming a contributing and productive adult really the way we all have to do it? It takes all kinds of people to make the world go round, after all, so what are the free spirits of the world supposed to do about growing up?

Something that doesn’t sit well with me is the fact that somewhere along the way somebody – I can’t remember who exactly, or maybe the reality is that it was actually several individuals – told me that the free-spirited, wild-hearted creativity I possessed would not serve me in good stead when it came to “real life” – that these traits were better left for hobbies and personal pleasures, and that my best chance at being a success in life was to go to university, get a degree, find a job in some big corporation, and work hard. And that while all this was going on, I’d be an even bigger success at life if I found a nice man, married him, procreated with him, and raised my offspring to be educated, hardworking specimens who would also perpetuate our race. Oh, and I can’t forget to use everything I’ve been given in the service of others and for the glory of God because that’s the bottom line of human existence.

Well, I’ve completed part one of that plan, and I came pretty close to having the second part as well. But it didn’t work out with that guy, and that made me re-evaluate a lot of things in my life that I had grown up thinking were “what I’m supposed to do.” And then I look at what I do on a daily basis and then at the talents with which I was blessed, and I get really uncomfortable because it’s revealed to me that part three is barely present at all. I don’t see how I’m serving man or God to the best of my potential – because the things I’m really good at are, apparently, only good enough for hobbies and personal pleasures.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m grateful to be employed twice over at two amazing companies; I’m blessed and I’m fortunate in these circumstances to have a means of supporting myself. I was raised on many principles including the one that states than any decent, honest job is worthy of respect, and I believe that whole-heartedly.

And that might be why it’s never sat well with me, this idea society seems to have that if you’re a non-celebrity pursuing a career of creativity and expression there might be something wrong with you, and the ensuing pressure that gets put on us to live conventional lives.

It still takes a hell of a lot of hard, honest work and blood, sweat, and tears to make natural creativity and curiosity into something useful for humanity. You still need to be responsible and make sure you have a means of supporting yourself and of getting back on your own two feet whenever you fall. You don’t have to be famous to be a successful creative person, but we seem to make fame and celebrity our benchmark for success in creativity and so we’re told to leave the creative pursuits to people who are already famous for them.

Which baffles me because if fame and celebrity is how we measure success in unconventional careers, can you tell me what’s so creatively meaningful and hugely important about certain celebrities that society worships – or, as my mother put it, “Who are the Kardashians and why do I need to keep up with them?”

Now can you tell me the name of the designer who brought us the POÄNG chair or the BILLY bookcase?

And now, who has a more direct impact on your comfort and quality of life?

If presented with two career options that require me to put in the same amount of effort, willpower, and time to serve humanity, I would much rather choose the one that gives more than ten percent of that back to society and the one that gives me more joy and more pleasure in putting in that kind of work in the first place. I don’t have to end up being famous for it. If the work I could do to turn creative vision and free-spirited dreams into something useful and improve somebody else’s quality of life, that’s enough and that should be our benchmark for what makes the pursuit of a creative career successful. I’m not saying I want an unconventional and creative career for the sake of being famous: I want it for the sake of improving the human condition by contributing my vision to those of others who break the mold for this same purpose.

So, what are you supposed to do when you realize that you’re an ill-fitting cog in a vast machine that takes all the work you put into its running and gives only ten percent of it to the people you’re apparently meant to be helping? What are you supposed to do when you wake up every morning feeling like there’s something else you could be doing with the time you’ve been given on this Earth to make it a better place for humanity? What are you supposed to do when you realize that people were wrong about you and about your talents being good enough only for yourself and for your nearest and dearest?

What do you do when you realize you’re in a cage when you’re really meant to fly beyond the horizon – to leap across the gaps between people – to run like hell on wild ground?

You can either stay where you are, which is the safe option.

Or you can be the daring, brave, and free spirit you were always meant to be, and just do it. Because you’ll never be able to help others and improve the human condition if you can’t even do that for yourself.

In Pursuit of Happiness, #6: Appointment Television, Healthy Living, and Writing Letters

Appointment Television: At a certain point in my early adolescence, my parents cut the cable to our family room TV. Given that the overall cable viewing schedule of the household was limited to news, educational programs, and family-friendly TV shows, I didn’t really miss it. My classmates would fill me in on what was currently happening on TV anyway when we should have been conjugating irregular French verbs or solving for X, so I never really felt like I was missing out to the point of being culturally irrelevant.

I really got into British programming during university thanks to my parents finally re-entering the current century by installing a dish as well as online streaming services like Netflix, but as a working full-time double major undergrad I didn’t have much time to really expand my TV schedule beyond the few tried and tested classics of my youth and the new shows I really got into in between semesters.

And even now, as a two-job working stiff of a gymrat, I don’t have a whole lot more free time for TV – which is more problematic now than it used to be because missing out on all the new shows and not having a regular time slot for friends to catch me up means I actually do run the risk of being culturally irrelevant insofar as television is concerned.

Praise the Lord, then, for Appointment Television. It’s a podcast all about the TV you should be making time for, and because it’s produced by a trio of hardcore television watchers (my lovely friend Margaret H. Willison and her co-hosts, Katherine van Arendonk and Andrew Cunningham) it means that it’s a trustworthy source of a variety of recommendations, information about TV I really should know more about, and explanations as to why some shows really are as important for society as their fandoms say they are.

Take the segment “TV vs TV” for example, in which two shows of similar premise, style, and production are put head-to-head on trial to determine which is the better production. In fact, the first episode of Appointment Television included this segment and put Star Trek: The Next Generation against Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Now, I would have kept listening simply because Margaret is on this podcast but the fact that Andrew and Katherine were able to succinctly explain the differences between two separate series of a complex universe with a hot-blooded fandom in a way that I, a staunch non-Trekkie, was able to kind of get why any iteration of Star Trek has cultural relevance is what really got me hooked from the get-go.

The other segment I really love is “TV Book Club,” which has broadened my viewing scope because I just don’t want to be left out of anything these guys think is cool to watch. After experiencing Terriers and Black Mirror because of Appointment TV (in retro-listen, as I jumped on the bandwagon after the podcast was already well on its way) I’m now current with the podcast itself as well as with the current TV Book Club series, Bunheads.

Go check out Appointment Television now. Seriously. You’ll thank me later.

***   ***   ***

Healthy Living: After the holidays it’s always tough to get back into the routines of everyday life, but I’m so glad that I’m finally resettled into my usual rhythm of working out, eating clean, and giving it all 100% to continue my transformation.

I’ve written at length about why this new lifestyle is so important to me and if you follow me on Instagram you’ll know that I’m one of “those” people who post workout selfies, food photos, and hashtag the holy crap out of words and phrases like transformation, girlsworkouttoo, legday, cardio, workout, girlswholift, gettingfit, eatclean, homemade…and so on and so forth.

After years of constantly making unhealthy choices (physically and nutritionally as well as emotionally and spiritually), I stand here in 2016 as somebody who is done with toxic living on all those levels. I’m so much happier, stronger, and wiser now than I ever have been before – and especially than I was this time last year.

My daily hour at the gym is one of the few I have on any given day that’s entirely all to myself that doesn’t involve sleeping, so I tend to try and make the most out of it.  I’m actually getting to a point in my journey where I can legitimately start pointing out all my “gains” – namely those “booty gains” (I’m telling you now, women who look good in yoga pants do more lifting than yoga) – and where people I’ve known for a while  are pointing them out to me.

2016 is already shaping up to be full of new fitness challenges and goals, and new milestones to work towards every day.  I’m so grateful that I had the opportunity and the means to take control of my health and wellness when I did because now I can’t imagine having ever made it through the last year with the self-empowerment I’ve gained and all the support my gym family gave me.

***   ***   ***

Writing Letters: Those of you who drop by on a regular basis will know that another part of my 2016 Resolutions involved writing letters to anyone and everyone who would ask me for one. The first person to officially take me up on this offer was one of my friends from Job2, Frederique. She and I were hired at Job2 in the same group back in 2011, and she’s never been anything but an awesome friend. I’m so glad that the first piece of mail in my letter campaign was for her; she was my first real friend at the store when we got hired and she is such a joy to know.

I’ve got a few more letters on the way to other people who have given me their addresses and I hope each envelope contains in it as much joy for those recipients as the one I sent to Frederique. Handwritten letters are one of the greatest little pleasures of my life. Whether it’s writing them or receiving them, I love how letters are tangible evidence of the connections between two people and two places. I write these letters in the hope that something I have to say could touch a life, and therefore make two lives all the more better for the sharing of one talent.

My offers to send you handwritten letters still stands and will continue to stand into the foreseeable future, so please don’t be shy to let me know if you’d like one!

***    ***   ***

That’s all for this week’s instalment of “In Pursuit of Happiness.”  Keep on finding the happiness in the little things around you, and I’ll be back soon with a proper post – I promise!