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.

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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?

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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.

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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. 

“…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.

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

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Stockholm, you are beautiful! 

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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“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.

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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.”  

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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:

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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!

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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.

Moonlight and memories

I wrote briefly the other day about what was on my mind leading up to Father’s Day 2016, and here I am again…tapping out another post on my phone, curled up on the bed of my childhood in the guest bedroom at my mother’s house as I reflect upon this evening. And yes, my dad is on my mind again, because without the example of his love for knowledge and for the pursuit thereof I probably wouldn’t be the such a dork.

Being a dork as a kid and as a teenager was tough, but as an adult it’s not so bad – especially when you find other people who share your interests to either the same or greater level. Now, I hop in and out of many different geekdoms but one thing that surprises people is that I’m really into outer space…and not just in a Star Wars kind of way.

Years and years ago, my favourite second brother got a simple telescope for his birthday. We used to aim it at the night sky outside my window in childish attempts to see it in greater detail. The Moon was obviously the easiest target, and even at its limited capacity the little telescope we had could bring out a few of the major details. I loved that telescope, because I already loved looking up at the night sky above our rural childhood home and seeing the Moon and stars in all their glowing glory…and that telescope brought at least the former a little bit closer.

Fast forward to just a few months ago, when I walked with a colleague from Job2 from the workplace to the bus stop and discovered a kindred spirit in astronomy – though clearly, he wins the dork competition here because he has his own telescope and recently made an astrolabe from scratch. And fast forward a little more to today, when a relatively clear night , his telescope, and his generosity with his time and knowledge allowed me to see the night sky in a whole new way with my own eyes.


I saw the Moon tonight in a waxing gibbous, its terminator line a jagged edge of greyscale craters against a black, black sky. I saw star clusters that we city folks can’t see with our naked eyes for all the light pollution our homes emit. I saw Jupiter and its four Galilean Moons. I saw Saturn with its rings accompanied by Titan just outside the bright circle of moonlight.

And in my mind’s eye I saw my father in a memory. He’s standing in the back doorway of my childhood home in his bathrobe and pyjamas, calling out from the back steps to a pair of tents pitched in the far corner of the lawn where five hyper children – my two brothers, two of my cousins, and I – have literally been howling at the stars and Moon. It’s now just after four in the morning and a rousing cacophony of these five voices singing different songs under this late-summer sky. He’s telling us to be quiet, and to try and go back to sleep; he doesn’t want to be dealing with disgruntled neighbours.

A few hours later, I’m the first to leave the tents and go inside to sit with my father at the breakfast table. He doesn’t scold me for the noise; instead he asks me, “What did you see?”

I saw the summer constellations and satellites zipping through them. I saw a shooting star and I saw the sky turn around Polaris. I saw just how small I was in the grander scheme of things and I saw just how much there was yet to learn and discover.

And at that breakfast table, I saw my father: calm, quiet, and attentive, slicing fruit for me as I told him about all these things I saw in the sky. I saw him beginning to stoop with the early onset of age brought on by illness, I saw the early tremors in his hands, and I saw the love in his eyes when he finally passed me a small plate with my helping of bananas, apples, and oranges.

He knew what to be angry about – and being woken at four in the morning by children shouting and singing at the dark grey sky was not one of those things. No, in this case my father’s wisdom held his temper in check, for he knew that there had to be some bigger reason behind our energy and excitement.

Yeah, maybe it was the fact that we kids were allowed to camp out in the backyard and that our cousins had been left behind on our whim to sleep over. Yeah, maybe it was the fact that my favourite first brother had brought out a book called Mysteries of the Unexplained and scared us all with accounts of the paranormal and supernatural. Yeah, maybe it was the sugar from the marshmallows and chocolate and graham crackers we’d stuffed into our faces.

But maybe, just maybe…maybe we were all just enchanted by the night sky. I know I was. That night and all its astronomical wonder has stayed with me all these years. And tonight, for the first time in a long, long time, I was utterly delighted and totally captivated by the heaven we can see on a clear, warm summer’s night.

When a knife in my back starts to twinge and turn

It’s been a month since I actually posted anything, which doesn’t really seem to fit the definition of “being back.” Mea culpa. Life has been pretty crazy in the last little while – when it rains in my life, it really does pour – and I’ve been fighting to keep my head up above the rising flood. But now spring has actually arrived, my life is calming down enough for me to write in earnest again, and I’m finding footing on dry land once more. And I’m more in love with life now than I ever have been.

One of the bigger things I’ve wrestled with in the last year-and-a-bit of my life was learning how to let go – of things, of people, of what never was meant to be. I was holding on to far too much of what lay behind me that I had no way to grasp the things I needed for the journey ahead.

And yes, I was holding on to a lot of pain. Far too much pain, really, but I held on to it because I was utterly terrified – of what, I’m not sure.

Was I terrified of not feeling anything at all? Was I terrified of what I might feel instead? Was I terrified of forgetting the hard lessons I had learned?

I don’t know. I was being pretty irrational about holding on to the hurt, to the point where I still can’t explain why I did…or why I kept it all hidden away and bottled up inside.

Then before Christmas last year, some of it bubbled over. Before I even fully realized what I was doing or saying, I blurted out to an old friend that I felt as though there was something wrong with me.

No, he assured me – there wasn’t, and there never had been.

And when I bubbled and blurted a little more about why I felt all wrong, he said, “Knives in the back are there for a reason. For us to learn and move on… It’s life.”

I chewed on that thought for a while after, and the next time I felt one of those knives in my back twinging and turning, I took a deep breath and pulled it out. It was the knife of a toxic connection that was starting to affect a couple of the longer, more meaningful relationships in my life. It was doing nothing to improve my life and instead making everything so much harder with all the negativity and anger it was attracting.

What filled the wound left behind was a better kind of love from others who mattered more and meant more than that one connection. I found myself standing a little straighter in my emotional state, and feeling stronger than before. I’d done it: I’d felt a knife in my back, I’d learned what it was trying to teach me, and I’d pulled it out and let go.

And it felt so good.

I’ve gone and pulled a few more out since then and done the necessary emotional first aid to patch myself up and get on with the business of life. Sometimes the process has involved letting go of something physically, such as a trinket or memento from some long-ago friendship or relationship; sometimes it’s involved taking a constant source of pain and turning it into fuel for a particularly grueling workout. But no matter what the extraction looks like, it’s as though I’m being given another chance to stand up for myself. Each new decision to pull out another knife turns the wound from a source of pain into a channel by which something better can flow into me.

I do see now why we need knives in our backs, but they don’t have to stay there. They’re more use to us in our hands than buried hilt-deep in our backs. Once we’ve pulled one out, it we can use it to cut loose something else that’s holding us down or holding us back. And while we’re doing that for ourselves, we’re reminded too that we shouldn’t be doing any more of our own back-stabbing.

The Classics FamJam

Here in Montreal, I’m typically the youngest in any of the groups I’ve run with ever since arriving in 2008. Coming from another province, my high school diploma was sufficient to gain admission to university; however, here in Quebec there’s this college system called CEGEP that means Quebecois students in university are usually in their early twenties by the time they get to university. And so, at age 18 I found myself invariably the youngest person in the lecture hall by at least two years and often, more.

The Department of Classics, Modern Languages, and Linguistics at Concordia University is, as you can imagine, pretty small. (The fact that the university merged three distinct fields of study into one department should be painfully indicative of this.) By the end of my first week at Concordia I was already pretty familiar with many of the faces five different lecture halls, but it would take about a year for me to really work up the courage to talk to most of them outside of class, if at all.

Eventually though, I was able to squeeze out of my shell just long enough to make a few friends in my program – but then most of them left Montreal to go pursue other things in other countries. From graduate and post-graduate studies in the United Kingdom to perpetually backpacking around the world, they all had something else to do somewhere else in the world.

I’m pretty lucky, though, because the post-graduation “something else” of three of these friends involved staying in Quebec (in the case of two) and coming back to Quebec after graduate studies in England (in the case of one). Ever since Marianne came back from York and successfully managed to get Amanda and Mario downtown for our first reunion pub night, the four of us have kept up the sporadic but deeply meaningful habit. Pardon the pun, but it’s a bit of a hangover from our days in Classics: not only were there pub nights with the former members of our crew, there were also pub study sessions in between classes. Some of the best second- and third-year Latin translations we ever did came directly out of the campus bar.

I will be 26 later this year, but Marianne, Amanda, and Mario are all hitting 30. But the funny part is, I don’t really feel the four-year age gap – nor have I ever with them. In fact, during Amanda’s birthday party this past Saturday I told Marianne, “I know I’m four years younger than y’all, but I still feel old too. Maybe it’s because I feel close enough to you guys to forget most of the time that there is an age gap to begin with, but you guys have also never made me feel like I was too young and too uncool to be a part of this.”

Not all of my friends from Concordia left the city once their Bachelors’ degrees were done, but of the ones in Classics who did stay it’s not just physical proximity that keeps us close to one another. There are common threads made up of shared interests, ideas, and perspectives; they weave in and out of one another and between each of us. One week before gathering to celebrate Amanda’s birthday, we were around Amanda and Mario’s dining room table discussing Star Wars over wine. It was just one discussion in stream of continuous chatter that lasted over multiple bottles of wine, and we continued long enough after the last one to sober up and dry out to get home safely. I crashed at Marianne’s that night, and the next morning she sent me on my way back downtown after making sure I was suitably caffeinated and fed for the trip from Laval back into Montreal.

The important part of all this is that the whole reason why we were at Amanda and Mario’s house instead of at the pub was because we were all a bit too skint to afford a night out, but they had plenty of wine to keep us well-sated. Though the plan changed a little last-minute, there was no question: Marianne and I would trek out to have dinner at home with them on a Friday night. This evolution in our age-old tradition of hitting up the pub reminded me that no matter what you do, if you’re doing it with people you love it doesn’t matter when or where things happen. It just matters that they happen in the first place when you’re together, because that’s what keeps you together in the end. Whenever I look around our table, whether it’s at the pub or in someone’s house it feels like home — like family.

At age 18 during my first week in Montreal, if you had told me I would have found an amazing group of friends who would soon become family to me after I had uprooted myself all the way across Canada to start over, I would have said you were crazy.  I came to Montreal via several burned bridges and with a deeply scarred and wounded heart, and I skulked around campus that first week like a scared lost puppy.  I had no idea that my childhood love for mythology and archaeology would lead me to far more than a degree in Classics, but as it turned out I graduated from that program with three amazing people I’m proud to include in my extended family.

It was really only at Amanda’s party that we officially dubbed our quartet as The Classics FamJam, but in retrospect there was never anything else this particular friendship could have ever turned into besides a family. It’s a weird, quirky, geeky, artsy-fartsy family whose motto is In Vino Veritas, but it works and is full of warm fuzzies and unquestioning support, and that’s what matters above all. We’ve known each other for more than five years now but this past Saturday night was the first time we took a group photo – our first “family portrait,” if you will. But it’s clear from how we all look, bunched up together with our arms around each other, that we’ve built something that’s going to last a whole lifetime.

FamJam

19 March 2016 – Amanda, Marianne, Mario, and Angela at Luce for Amanda’s Big Three-Oh