Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Sydney Aria

When most people think of Sydney one thing comes to mind: the Sydney Opera House. With its intriguing architecture and famously impressive acoustics, the Opera House features highly on many people’s bucket lists and I’m no different. As soon as BBS mentioned going to Australia with me I told him my only wish for Sydney was to catch a performance at the Opera House.

We vacillated for weeks ahead of time attempting to decide what we would see during BBS’s short window of time. After some debate we finally settled on the 33rd Annual Highlights of Opera featuring the SBS Youth Orchestra. Rather than watching an entire opera, the Youth Orchestra would accompany a series of professional opera singers performing a selection of pieces from a variety of operas.

Made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2007, Jørn Utzon’s architectural masterpiece sits on Bennelong Point in Sydney Harbour not far from the hotel BBS and I were staying. The series of shells that make up the iconic roof make an impression whether seen from a nearby rooftop or, perhaps more impressively, from within the Opera House itself.

The performance we saw that night was impressive and definitely left me planning to see a proper opera before I eventually leave Sydney. The Youth Orchestra, to my untrained ear, was suitably impressive with only a few audibly off notes over the course of the night. Although not all the kids on the stage were talented enough to go onto become professionals, conductor Stephen Mould has good reason to be proud of the talented musicians we heard that evening.

I am not, it should be noted, an opera aficionado and I was pleased and surprised by how many pieces I recognized once I heard them. Papageno (or Pa, Pa, Pa) from Mozart’s The Magic Flute, for example, didn’t click when I read it on the program. Only moments into Angela Brun and Christopher Hillier’s uneven performance I was instantly able to mentally sing along.

As vaguely alluded to by one of the night’s honorees, Hillier was vastly outclassed by virtually everyone. Last minute replacement Warwick Fyfe, on the other hand, whose impressive baritone left everyone longing for more after his Hai Gia Vinta la Causa from Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro was a pleasure to listen to.

Brun’s later sublime performance of Leo Delibes’s The Bell Song from Lakmé was one of the highlights of the night and raised one of the rare ovations of the evening. The only other person to whom that honour was extended was fan favourite Dominica Matthews’ performance of Seguedilla from Bizet’s Carmen. The only person who changed costumes for her pieces rather than donning an evening gown, Matthews added a sense of fun with her flair for drama every time she took the stage.

The true find of the evening, however, was tenor David Corcoran whose initial foray on stage with Dies Bildnis from The Magic Flute caused BBS to wonder aloud whether he had written the lyrics on the back of his hand. (He was actually pretending it was the mirror he would have had in hand for the real opera.) His later performance from Verdi’s Rigoletto was outstanding. One of the youngest singers to take the stage that night, Corcoran was a one-time recipient of the Moffatt Oxenbould Young Artists Development Program awarded by the night’s sponsors, the Australian Opera Auditions Committee.

The final performance of the evening from La Traviata left me humming as I left the Opera House. I realize that opera isn’t for everyone but a night like this with snippets of different composers is a great introduction to the medium. Whether it was the talented kids, the gifted singers, or the fantastically impressive surroundings my night out at the opera exceeded my hopes for my evening at the opera.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Life From the Passenger Seat

The sibling road trip BBS and I arranged of the North Island was rather lacking in solid planning. We came to a mutual agreement to allow anything vaguely resembling an actual plan to remain fluid. We each had spots we wanted to visit on our four-day route and anything else, we decided, would be gravy.

High on BBS’s to do list, and smack dab in the middle of our first day’s route, was the Kauri Museum in Matakohe. Although we decided we didn’t want to pay to see the actual museum, we both fell in love with several hand-carved bowls in the gift shop that we foolishly didn’t purchase. The experience only went to prove my theory of travel shopping: Is this something you’ll regret not owning in five years? If so, buy it!

Later that first day, we arrived at the Waipoua Forest where we visited the enormous Tāne Mahuta. It may seem odd to pull off the road to
take photos of a mere tree but at over 167 feet, this is the type of tree that gives birth to legends about faeries, elves, and Avatar’s Hometree. Taking in the millennia-old trees along those miles of winding roads was truly breathtaking and made taking the much longer scenic route more than worthwhile.

After a good night’s rest in Paihia, we were on the road again, this time to see Cape Reinga, on the northwestern tip of the Aupouri Peninsula. Often referred to as the northern most point on the North Island, Cape Reinga is a photographer’s dream with breathtaking vistas in literally every direction.

We were informed that from the plateau where the lighthouse is located, it is possible to see the actual point where the Tasman Sea and the Pacific Ocean meet. The weather was typically overcast during our visit, so I wasn’t able to see the mythical line myself.

As I stared out across the ocean I was able to imagine the land as it must have been hundreds of years ago when the Maori first arrived in New Zealand. The churning waters below and the rough, craggy hills behind me hardly seemed like they would have been a welcoming sight to the weary travelers. Yet, as I have said before, New Zealand is just that: welcoming and warm. I can’t think of anywhere better to find oneself when running away from home and responsibilities of reality.

After walking around Cape Reinga, BBS and I piled back into the car and headed for lunch at the Mangonui Fish Shop. The fish and chips shop had been recommended to us by the oft-absent front desk clerk at our hostel and didn’t disappoint. Since we were there off-season, the restaurant wasn’t terribly busy but the fish was freshly fried and the chips were crispy and plentiful.

Our last stop before heading back to Auckland was Kawakawa and its “world famous toilets.” Designed by Austrian artist and architect Friedensreich 1988, the toilets are a popular tourist stop for anyone in the area.

BBS and I didn’t see as much of New Zealand as either of us hoped during his stay. We explored small patches and made the most of our time. While he no doubt wished I was more amenable to hiking and tromping around random hilly paths, I would like to think he still had a good time while I showed him around “my island home.” Perhaps the best part of the trip was the places we didn’t see because that means I will have to return soon.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Are We There Yet Papa Smurf?

When I first informed my family that I had run away from home and landed in New Zealand, they were naturally a little worried. That emotion was quickly followed by envy at the freedom that granted me the time and wherewithal to gallivant around the planet. Ever the stalker, my eldest brother, BBS, quickly latched onto the idea of joining me in KiwiVille™ before the fall semester started. The plan was to spend a week or so in New Zealand and then hop across the Tasman Sea to spend a few days in Sydney, Australia.

We (and by that I mean he because I’m a lazy git who never answers emails) planned to rent a car and drive around the North Island to see the sights. We mapped out a route that would take us from Auckland past Orewa, through Paihia, to the northwestern most tip of New Zealand, Cape Reinga. We initially planned to drive back through Auckland to hit Rotorua but to my dismay time got away from us and we never made it there.

The drive to Paihia was beautiful and reminded me a lot of similar views in Northern Ontario – except with more palm trees. Since I don’t drive, I enjoyed the relative comfort of the passenger seat while BBS put in eight good hours behind the wheel that first day.

Thanks to my executive decision to take the scenic route along Highway 12, we arrived in Paihia slightly later than intended. Whether because of the late hour or simply due to the laziness of the front desk staff at Bay Adventurer, it took us ages to check into this popular backpacker stop. Off-season though it may have been, I was shocked to discover that the town appeared to close down before ten every night. Any hope BBS and I had of enjoying a late night pint and a pizza were dashed as we wandered through the darkened town and were left puzzling over why this area was so popular with the backpacker crowd.

As we discovered two days later, Paihia was simply the eerie Bizarro World version of Russell, a brief ferry ride across the Bay. Literally every café, tourist shop, and hardware store was identical to that on the other side of the bay. I’m sure there were differences but I simply wasn’t able to find any.

The beautiful Haruru Falls and Waitangi Treaty Grounds, where the historic Treaty of Waitangi was signed in 1840, make Paihia more than a simple backpacker magnet. The Treaty Grounds are, in my opinion, a far better way to enjoy Kiwi history and culture than stopping by the comparatively dry exhibits at the Auckland Museum.

Several days later, we made our return trip to Auckland along Highway 1 and I officially dubbed it the faster, if less pretty, way to navigate the North Island. The seeming speed of the return journey may have been due in part to the incredibly yummy lunch of mussels we had my SIL Eleanor’s cousin’s home. When we hit the road after lunch our car seemed to eat up the miles in front of us and we were back in Auckland ahead of schedule.

Road trips were a staple of my childhood, so spending several days in a car with my brother didn’t faze me. Of course, it didn’t hurt that I don’t drive so I was able to nap during some of that time. I can’t speak for him but I think we had fun during our Kiwi adventures. Of course, to hear about those adventures you’ll just have to tune in again on Monday.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

In Vino Veritas

One should never travel to a new place without trying the local delicacies. In the case of New Zealand, that means a plate of lamb for dinner and at least a glass or two of wine from time to time. Since I always try to make an effort to fit in with the locals, I made sure to imbibe in locally fermented grapes whenever possible.

So when I heard that BBS was tracking me down in New Zealand, the first plans I made were for a winery tour on Waiheke Island, a 45-minute ferry ride from Auckland. Joining us for our tasting adventure were BBS’s cousin by marriage and his wife.

After a slightly bumpy ferry ride, we boarded a bus on Waiheke with seven other people and our driver/guide for the day who filled us in on island life. My favourite piece of trivia was that Waiheke is the third most populous island in New Zealand – after the North and South Islands.

Our first stop was Stonyridge Estate where we paused long enough to enjoy a light lunch of quiche and salad. As our vineyard guide introduced himself in the cellar, we were quickly clued in to the fact that this was a boutique winery in the every sense of the word: one of the first Bordeaux-style wines he told us about cost over $200 per bottle. He followed that tidbit up by telling us we would not be trying any of it that day.

While we sipped on glasses of not-$200 wines, he told us about the surprisingly low bottle yield they produced, and the more surprising fact that they still used real corks. In an area that prides itself on being among the first to switch to the more modern screw tops, I was amused by his defense of old-style corks and the lack of “valid research” about the potentially negative effects on cellared wine. My one regret about the entire tour is that I didn’t purchase a bottle of Stonyridge’s wine, as this was by far the best we sampled all day.

After lunch, we made our way to Rangihoua Estate to learn about and sample olive oil. A woman there guided us through the process of growing, picking, and transforming the locally grown olives into olive
oil. BBS’s favourite part of the tour, however, was the impressive hand-carved giant chess set that sat in the corner pressing room. We followed our olive lesson with a tasting of four or five different oils and an incredibly tasty herb pesto of which virtually everyone on the tour purchased at least one bottle.

Everyone on the tour deemed our next stop universally disappointing. Wild on Waiheke is an example of a winery being a “jack of all trades and a master of none.” It is a winery that was also a brewery, corporate retreat specialist, and several other niche market endeavors they shared with us and yet they managed to do none of them well. The wine was barely palatable; the beer, I was told, was average at best; and the jarred and bottled snack foods they urged us to sample were tasty but unimpressive.

Although we weren’t asked for feedback after our tour that day, I would encourage Fullers to remove Wild on Waiheke from the Taste of Waiheke tour and replace it with a winery whose wares tourists may actually want to purchase.

Mudbrick Vineyard
, the final stop of our tour, was a refreshing improvement and a nice way to end our slightly rainy day. The gentleman who conducted our Mudbrick tour was knowledgeable and pleasant while he took us from the tasting room, to a terrace with views of Auckland in the distance, and then finally to the vineyard’s internationally acclaimed restaurant. Sadly, of the two whites we sampled, the Viognier, a favourite varietal since I first sampled it in South Africa in 2001, was a one-note disappointment.

Although they weren’t all homeruns, the wines we tasted, vineyards we visited, and great company all made for a lovely day. I would highly recommend a visit to “Wine Island,” as I dubbed Waiheke, to anyone visiting the Auckland area. The local vintners combine old world expertise and sentimentality for the grapes with a sincere love and modern appreciation for their chosen art.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

City of Rain

This post marks the beginning of what I hope will become an Internet rumor that within a month or two becomes an Internet truth. Here goes: Auckland is Māori for rain. As rumors go, it doesn’t seem too big or important but as someone who lived there for three months it seems incredibly and unerringly true.

Kiwis reading this are undoubtedly yelling at their screens that it is my own fault that I chose to visit this fabulous country in the middle of winter. It was, I confess, my own conceit when I believed that no “southern hemisphere winter” could impress a Canuck who just survived a snowy winter in Oslo, Norway. Yet the dampness of Auckland had me kvetching like no torrent of snow ever could. One of my flat mates even had to use the oven to dry out his shoes from the omnipresent moisture one day. With those admissions on record, I just have to say that I am officially and utterly over any weather pattern that involves rain!

Of course, it was the rain that helped push me from long term tourist to an official (by my personal standards) local.

I wasn’t initially certain if living in Auckland as an overgrown backpacker counted as “officially” living in New Zealand. While I did have a mailing address, I wasn’t there for very long, didn’t have a job, nor did I stay long enough to develop one of my patented faux accents. Yet when one looks back on my “homes” over the last five years, one thing theme is evident: water and the many ways it can drive me insane.

In India we literally had a hole in the wall that caused a flood in our guest room. In Kenya, I loved the sound of rain on the tin roof but it always caused heart palpitations since there were several gaps in said roof that caused it to rain in the living room. Egypt was home to the pipes that stopped providing water on a semi-regular basis shortly before we moved. Not, as one might think, due to a drought but simply because the fifth floor didn’t seem to deserve water on the days when my maid was scheduled to work. In Norway, our water problems were brought on by the washing machine we bought shortly after arriving. Due to a comedy of errors, I ended up partially installing the machine myself and two or three floods later can safely say that I am an awesome plumber when the need for clean clothes outweighs my need to be a girly girl.

Which brings us to New Zealand and its never-ending pattern of rain. The owners had only recently renovated the house where I lived and I was among the first people to live there. My little corner room had a large bed, small wardrobe, a desk, a tiny window, and two exterior walls. The latter would prove to be my downfall as the rainy season persisted in Auckland.

It turned out that the eaves of the house weren’t quite up to code. Or maybe it was the mortar in the walls or simply the rain gods who so enjoy mocking me but almost every time it rained in Auckland, it rained in my room. Not simple holes in the roof, but cracks in the foundation that would find rivulets of moisture tracking their way down the walls and gathering in yellow puddles in the freshly painted white floor. Dots of mold formed on the venetian blinds and even on my suitcase as the problem persisted week after rainy week.

My landlord’s solution was to plant towels throughout my space but even these eventually fell to the power of the rain gods who were not about to be thwarted in their quest to make me feel at home with H20 related miseries.

Lest you think the indoor rain made life unbearable, allow me to ease your fears: after a while I simply learned to ignore it. After years of water-themed headaches (starting with Poseidon trying to kidnap me on a trip to Mexico as a child), I refused to be beaten by something as mundane as poor masonry. Despite the fact that I still don’t know what Auckland looks like without the shield of omnipresent rainclouds, I loved living there. If the water gods trying to make me miserable is the standard bearer of my past, then I guess Auckland was, if only briefly, home.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Radiation Head

I have always had dreadful luck when it comes to electronic devices. It started when I was a child and I accidentally put my foot through a Christmas gift that turned out to be a stuffed animal with a radio in its tummy. Come to think of it, even prior to that debacle, I may have been responsible for killing at least two needles on my father’s record player.

The Ford Contour The Ex and I owned when we arrived in the Midwest had a problem with its Check Engine Light. The problem was that whenever I was in the car, it wanted to come out to play and would only go back to sleep if we paid a small fortune to the local Ford dealership who kept telling us nothing was wrong. According to their fancy diagnostic machines, the fact the light only came on when I was driving was simply a coincidence. The fools.

During that same period of time, this curse came to be known as Radiation Head because no matter what phone I was on or where I stood, any call I made on a cell phone always dropped. This was especially embarrassing as I worked for a large cell phone company at the time.

I used to hypothesize that I had a giant electromagnetic field surrounding me that caused so many gadgets to malfunction in my presence. Little did I know that my curse was only waiting for a perfect storm called New Zealand to truly demonstrate its true malevolence and power.

Within weeks of arriving in Auckland, my computer had a heart attack… Or maybe that was me… One night, while I was busy deleting writing I deemed unfit to be posted, BigMac (my Mac) decided to join the separate vacation my Muse had taken from me and gave me the blue screen of death. “Macs don’t get the blue screen of death!” I sobbed.

What followed was a week and a half of me having a series of nervous breakdowns in a variety of Apple stores throughout Auckland while the Mac Geeks explained that my charger was fried and it would take several days to order, ship, and receive from the States. (Don’t ask me why I couldn’t have one from their stock, as this question was never answered to my satisfaction.) I’m sure it’s a coincidence but that week also coincided with the purchase of my first bottle of vodka since arriving in New Zealand.

A month later, the battery on my camera died. Okay, this one may have been my fault, but since my backup battery was also inexplicably dead at the very moment I needed drunken photos, I will chalk it up as another win for Radiation Head.

The electronic doomsday tale that has been my time in New Zealand came to a head my last week in Auckland when, at the worst possible moment when the mic on my phone died. According to the calendar, my phone was a year and a day old - an age the good folks at Nokia explained to me meant it was no longer under warrantee. Several heart palpations later, I had a rather pricey new headset that would save me from jumping off the Auckland Harbour Bridge.

A week later the whole thing up and died.

No matter what outlet I plugged it into, or how loudly I wailed at the Electronic Gods, my year old phone would not charge. Its lovely screen stayed dark and it refused to sing to me about Defying Gravity. This time I knew there was no quick fix in the offing – I was officially and utterly screwed and there was no light at the end of this phoneless tunnel. I departed New Zealand with a heavy heart and a dead phone in my purse.

When I arrived in Sydney, I headed to the local mobile phone shop and told them that no matter how much I lusted after the new iPhone, I would like to purchase their cheapest unlocked handset. Ever the glutton for punishment optimist, I had them double-check my E75 just in case. Five minutes later, I heard a chorus of angels sing as the lovely girl behind the counter told me my phone was fine – I just needed to replace my fried charger.

Long story short (way, way too late): New Zealand brought my chronic Radiation Head to a whole new level of evil. All it took was one day in Australia and whatever power New Zealand held over my electronic tethers to sanity began to wane. I had a new charger and my old phone worked like a charm – even the microphone had somehow miraculously fixed itself. Given my history, I won’t jinx myself into thinking this is the end of the Radiation Head story, but I do hope that maybe this chapter is at an end and the next won’t start for a long, long, long time.

[image source]

Friday, September 10, 2010

Nine Years Later

I was surprised to look at the calendar earlier this week to see it was September 11th again. It has been nine years since that day but even the date manages to chill me and serve as a constant reminder of the events that changed American history. Horror had a new name that day as my coworkers and I listened to events unfold on radios throughout the office. We were all paralyzed by what we heard and waited for some unseen force to turn back the hands of time and undo what was happening.

So many people died nine years ago today. They were mourned by friends, family, and even strangers around the world who stood and grieved for the senseless losses. They remain lost to us and nothing we do can change that. Avenging their deaths won’t bring them back. Nor will denying people their rights or hating blindly.

I wonder what some of those people did that morning. Did they remember to kiss their children on the forehead as they headed out the door? Did they say, “I love you,” to their wives before they picked up their briefcases? Did they cut people off on the road because they were running late to the office? Did they laugh at something funny in the newspaper while they sat on the train? Did they give the bum on the corner a nickel of their change from Starbucks? Did they curse their boss as they snuck into the morning meeting five minutes late?

Nine years ago, 2,996 people died. When most of them woke up that morning, they had no idea what fate awaited them and acted as if that Tuesday were just like any other. The small transgressions of each day passed because those weren’t supposed to be their last moments on earth.

No matter how much we wish for it, we cannot change the events of that morning. All we can do is learn from them. It sounds trite, perhaps, but the lesson of that day shouldn’t be about lashing out blindly, looking for someone to blame. The true legacy of the victims of 9/11 should be to live each day as if it were our last: to share our gifts with those around us so that we can be remembered for how we embraced life and lived each moment to its fullest.

Not, how did he die, but how did he live?
Not, what did he gain, but what did he give?
These are the units to measure the worth
Of a man as a man, regardless of birth.
Not what was his church, nor what was his creed?
But had he befriended those really in need?
Was he ever ready, with word of good cheer,
To bring back a smile, to banish a tear?
Not what did the sketch in the newspaper say,
But how many were sorry when he passed away?


Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Mini Home

It occurred me to recently that I am officially a girl without a home. For the last five years when people asked me where home was, I told them whatever country I was currently living in and let them draw their own conclusions. After all, as a professional expat wife, it was my job to make my home wherever I could find it. Now that question is more difficult than ever to answer, since the point of this trip is to help me find a home within myself.

Deep down Canada has always been, and likely will always be where my heart calls home. Yet I realize that the Canada I know and love is captured forever in amber and seen through rose coloured glasses. I haven’t lived in the country of my birth for well over a decade, and if the G20 riots I watched on television are anything to go by my beloved Toronto has changed dramatically in the years since I “rode the Rocket.” Perhaps that is what I love about Auckland or as I like to call it: Mini Toronto.

The most populous city in New Zealand is, for all intents and purposes, Toronto in microcosm – or so I was told by a reliable source. The similarities go far beyond the obvious superficial ones of Sky Tower, Queen Street, and the waterfront with its plethora of restaurants and bars. From its oddly polite and law-abiding denizens to its pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods and parks, Auckland is a surprising portrait of home on this island thousands of miles from the city of my youth.

My first stroll along the boutique-dotted Ponsonby Road revealed a fine collection of cafes, bars, and restaurants from one end to the other. Although Queen Street, and its parallel sister, High Street, get more attention from tourists and the guide books, Ponsonby is a great location for those days when an afternoon of lunching and boutique shopping turns into an evening of martinis and dancing.

At the top of Ponsonby Road is Karangahape Road. Known locally as K’Road, the street boasts an eclectic mix of shops, bars, clubs, adult emporiums, and cafés. Although I may have partaken of a pint or two in the bars on K’Road, my favourite stop along this local street appealed to the child in me. Named after my favourite Robert Munsch book, the fabulous second hand store The Paper Bag Princess boasts not only well-priced merchandise but even has some of Michael Martchenko’s illustrations on its walls.

A nice walk (or brief Link bus ride) across town is the shopping nirvana of Newmarket. Although not budget friendly (or maybe that’s my inability to ever shop on sale), the stores in Newmarket have everything a girl in need of retail therapy could ever want: from Macs to MAC cosmetics, the main drag Broadway is a great place to find that perfect something you never knew you needed. Sadly, other than the Cock and Bull, I found the area to be dreadfully devoid of good eats or drinks.

Luckily for me, the tourist trap that is Parnell is a quick walk up the road. If Ponsonby is where the locals hang out, then this is where they send their guests. Although I didn’t have high hopes for The Chocolate Boutique Café, which I found listed in every guidebook on the city, I soon found myself drooling and pledging my fealty to their PMS-worthy Chocolate Pot. Further down the road, I found locally sourced merino wool, jade jewelry, and every other Kiwi must-have.

This oceanside city was most familiar to this wandering Canuck perhaps because of the people. During my daily walk up Sisyphus Hill Queen Street, I strolled past people from dozens of countries, streaming out of the local Korean barbeque, Indian-owned dairies, and ubiquitous sushi shacks. The pleasant symphony of languages assaulted me as a fresh reminder that I was no longer in the homogenous societies of Oslo or Cairo.

On the weekends, teams of people can be found in one of the numerous parks throughout the greater Auckland area playing games of pick-up rugby or football (soccer). The sidewalks of Queen Street, meanwhile, are dotted throughout the week with a variety of impressive buskers. More than an array of humble musicians, any given day can find a donation hat for street artists, magicians, or even Cirque de Soleil wannabes. Men and women in tailored suits rushed between buildings in the CBD while backpackers gathered on hostel steps and in cafes to discuss the latest party or the status of their working holiday visas.

From the softly accented politeness to the falsely familiar landscape, I came to see how so many international transplants have so easily called this place home. I do not wish to romanticize Auckland, yet I find myself embracing its faults and shadows as much as I enjoy basking in each of the new delights I find around seemingly every corner of this Kiwi city. Yes, it would be easy to call this small corner on the edge of the world my new home.

Monday, September 06, 2010

Days of Our Lives

It takes time, and a certain level of comfort before a group of strangers are willing to call themselves friends. At first, they often don’t know the right word to describe the situation but the signs are there – the shared meals, common laughs, and occasional memories passed between drinks or during the adverts when watching someone’s favourite program on TV. Suddenly the strangers realize they know more about each other than they meant to or thought they to. Most of all, they realize that they don’t mind and even welcome those moments of togetherness that just a few days before had been vaguely awkward.

So it was in the house where I stayed in Auckland. After weeks of cocktail party-polite inquiries as to how work was or how blisteringly cold our rooms were, the ice started to melt between us. It began as a night or two of the group shivering in front of the TV in the chilly living room and then evolved into sharing pieces of our hearts with strangers who didn’t know us well enough to judge. No matter what was said or done no one said anything aloud as if acknowledging our someone's problems made them real.

Then one weekend, something changed. Friday night began innocently enough with small talk while someone prepared a meal in the communal kitchen. Somehow, within a few hours everyone was drunk (some Typ0s more than others), we were dancing, and we were being more honest with each other than sobriety probably would have allowed. Although we had all gleaned the basics about one another from snatches of overheard conversations, the talk that night opened windows onto the truth that a lack of grain alcohol probably would have left shuttered. The next night, despite promises from some people to never drink again, we were back at it. This time, however, the dancing was moved to K Road when supplies had to be replenished.

We weren’t about to become the Real World, New Zealand but as the weeks passed into months, and people came and went from the house, we all learned more about one another and somehow weren’t completely scared off. Although the likely didn’t realize it, the tears, haircuts, fights, dances, parties, movies, silences, smokes, salads, and those seven strangers helped the process of putting Humpty Dumpty back together again.

I know I blogged recently about friendship found on a drunken airplane ride, so finding it in a rooming house shouldn’t be any different I suppose. Yet this one took me by surprise. We were strangers who made a point to stay that way for weeks, making certain to never delve beyond the surface of politeness. Whether it was the passage of time and the forced proximity, the lingering effects of too much alcohol, or a simple of case of familiarity breeding insanity, walls were broken down and tenuous new threads of something greatly resembling friendship were formed.

“This is the true story of eight strangers paying to live in a house in Auckland, New Zealand. Find out what happens when people stop being polite and start getting real. The Kiwi World.”

Friday, September 03, 2010


Although I insist on having my iPod blasting my eardrums at the gym, and greatly enjoy dancing and singing along to random music while I wander around town, I have never been a person who expressed negative emotions through music. Rather, I have always used music to make myself happy and get my endorphins moving. Lately, however, I have found myself downloading songs and culling through my iTunes collection with specific ideas in mind.

When I get homesick, for example, I crawl into my oversized Toronto Maple Leafs jersey and listen to HomeSick; my all-Canadian playlist featuring everyone from Stompin’ Tom to Spirit of the West. Then I turn to You Tube to listen to the "Hockey Night in Canada Theme" (classic, thank you) and "I Want to Drive the Zamboni". I dare anyone not to dance like a gleeful child when listening to "Goin’ Up" by Great Big Sea.

My latest iTunes playlist is called Girl Power. Recent developments in my life, I realize, are probably explanation enough but that would make for a rather short and boring blog entry, so I think I’ll expand on the thoughts and emotions that led to the pounding and blasting of everything from Pink’s “So What” to Gloria Gaynor’s “I’m a Survivor.”

For the most part, these songs put me in a place of power and strength in my newfound singlehood. Every so often, however, I accidentally listen to the lyrics (Lisa Loeb, “Stay”) and find myself drifting toward melancholy. For every “Irreplaceable” by Beyoncé I seem to find a “Your Ex-Lover is Dead” by Stars. I never thought I’d be one of people who cried at telecom commercials or who broke into tears at the sound of “that song” and it bothers me.

Traditionally, the music I choose to download to iTunes tends to be my own personal sensory time machine. Garth Brooks takes me back to getting drunk with the girls in Hen House back in Halifax whilst Sister Sledge’s “We Are Family” flies me straight back to grade nine. Mention of Iron Maiden in “Teenage Dirtbag” by Wheetus always makes me think of my brother, BBA, and anything by Corky and the Juice Pigs reminds me of the fabulously bizarre night when I attended a concert of theirs in Toronto with a bunch of Pages from the library.

(Just as I finished that last paragraph “Gitchee Gitchee Goo” from Phineas and Ferb popped up on my Happiness playlist and I started singing aloud and dancing in my seat. Normally that wouldn’t be so bad except that I’m sitting in an outdoor patio in central Sydney and everyone in the bar now thinks I’m drunk, crazy, or [more likely] both.)

This vaguely pointless trip through my iPod makes me wonder what my readers are listening to. What do you listen to when you want to dance for joy down the crowded streets of your city? What songs do you listen to when you want to wash your face with salty tears? And what songs do I need to add to my collection to make my day brighter or bring me closer to your personal shade of bliss?

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

“Thank You For Creating Buffy”

When last we left our intrepid fangirl she was drooling over every word Joss Whedon cared to share about the craft of writing. Although exceedingly brilliant in his awesomeness (I know that made no sense but it doesn’t make it any less true), Whedon also spoke about his other creative outlets like Buffy (the character he said was most like although he didn’t realize it for years), Firefly (the show that taught him about grief), and The Avengers (whose cast, he said, is devoid of egos.)

During the Q&A Whedon addressed that oft asked question about the possibility of seeing the brilliant Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode Once More with Feeling on Broadway. To the great disappointment of everyone present, he referred to his Broadway dream as a “pipe dream.” He rushed to point out that it was, however, “a really good pipe” that was unfortunately being clogged up due to time issues.

On the issue of his creations singing I have this one-off quote about regarding the Avengers: “Everybody wants to hear Thor sing!” I could put it in context for you but I think leaving it out there like that is far more amusing.

Later one of the audience members asked a question regarding the so-called “Joss Whedon Method” of writing wherein the audience falls in love with an amazing character only to have them killed unexpectely. Whedon joked that when people heard he was scheduled to direct an episode of Glee everyone’s first question was, “Who is he going to kill?” He defended himself saying this was not his “defining characteristic,” but rather that it simply made for more interesting reading and watching to when someone unexpected dies.

During one of the more amusing moments of the afternoon, the gifted artist was asked if he felt any guilt about the recent vampire resurgence in popular culture. Whedon “refused to take the heat” for this fangy development, and put the blame solely on Anne Rice whose “Interview with the Vampire” he read at 15.

Hours after basking in Joss’s presence, my roommates at the hostel told me I was still glowing but I can safely certainly wasn’t the only one affected by him. From the deafening roars of approval throughout his talk to the blind adoration I saw on the faces of the other people lucky enough to attend the post talk VIP event, Whedon need not worry about the loyalty of his Australian fans.

The VIP event was the reason my ticket cost so much and was well worth the money spent. I drank several glasses of sparkling wine and ate my share of canapés with 150 of Joss Whedon’s closest fangeeks friends after the general talk. We all gathered in the North lobby grasping for whatever brief moment the talented man could spare. You could always tell where in the room the room he was located by looking for the throng of people with their eyes glazed over while he addressed individual questions and comments.

Since I did not want to appear too eager I waited a solid 10 minutes after he first arrived in the room before making my move. I joined the adoring crowd and waited for the perfect moment to ask my question. I listened to him respond to questions about costuming on Buffy and take in the awesome fan tattoo pictured (pictured left), while I debated whether I should ask a fangirl question about the demise of his Wonder Woman project, or go with a smartgirl question about authors who inspired him.

My moment came when Whedon’s publicist attempted to disengage him from his current gaggle of fans and move him across the room to a new gaggle. “Mr. Whedon,” I said quickly trying to get his attention before he walked away, “I was wondering which authors intimidated you? The first time I read Nabokov’s Lolita I swore I’d never pick up a pen again. Who does that for you?”

He looked at me with what I choose to interpret as respect and said it was funny that I mentioned Lolita as he was going to talk about the relationship between his love of Lolita and Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Little Princess but felt that people would think that was weird. I laughed and said that he would have the whole audience that way: the women would think his love of The Little Princess was adorable and the men would high five his Lolita fixation. I glazed over much of the conversation that followed because I was too busy chanting, “He liked my question!!” over and over in my head.

Five minutes later my punkest move of the day unfolded. Whedon had dutifully followed his publicist across the room and was generously posing for photos with several fans despite earlier warnings not to ask him for any photos or autographs. The first photo marked the beginning of the end for the publicist’s control over the fangeeks – or at least over me.

Earlier that day I had visited a local comic book store to purchase a copy of the Buffy Season 8 graphic novel on the off chance I would have an opportunity to obtain Whedon’s autograph. With the book burning a hole in my purse I watched as another fan handed him a copy of the Whedon-penned Astonishing X-Men (Gifted), and asked for an autograph. That’s when I made my move.

“Since you already have an indelible marker in your hand would you mind?”
I said in my most pathetic fangirl voice. With a sigh he did just that and made my entire freaking year. You will be proud to hear that I waited exactly 23 seconds during which I walked a suitable four feet away before I squealed with glee and jumped up and down, clutching the book to my chest. “Well played,” one of my new friends said admiringly. I simply nodded and continued my geeky happy dance.

As awesome-tastic as the entire Joss Whedon talk and after-event were, it was these newfound friends who were the highlight of the event for me. I hung out with five people who ranged from a recent high school graduate to a PhD candidate writing his dissertation about popular culture. These were well-spoken individuals whose love of an adolescent girl with superpowers had evolved into a love of her creator: Joss Whedon.

After partaking of the “free” alcohol at the VIP event three of us moved onto a bar in the Rocks where we proceeded to talk about the brilliance of fanfic, favourite Buffy/Angel moments, ourselves, and everything in between. Over snacks and a couple bottles of wine, we bonded with nothing more than the love a third generation television writer between us. We didn’t know “Rhonda the Immortal Waitress,” we weren’t about to be “Touched by an Equalizer,” and we had all forgotten to vote for Amy Ackers as Australia’s new Prime Minister, but none of that mattered. We were prepared to bring our number-2 pencils to work on Monday and we loved the man who wrote from his “dark place,” and that was enough for a day of friendship and Scooby bonding.