Turning the Ignition Key

I’m going to just start typing, and bear with me, because it feels a bit like starting up a car that’s been sitting in a garage for several weeks. Not rusty, but a little creaky and not quite ready for the open road for a few minutes, at least until it starts to warm up…

Speaking of temperature, today was chilly, and for the first time, it truly felt like fall was in the air. Never mind that summer has officially been over for 3 weeks. Vancouver doesn’t get the spectacular display of autumn leaves that we used to see in New England, and it was partly what made it my favourite season. Now, I’m not quite as fond of it as I used to be, but I still do like the seasonal dishes and produce: Ratatouille, roasted squash, pears and cranberries, and I also like the fact that it’s typically the time of year when I feel as if everything’s starting up, that the year is really beginning. January 1st may be the official kick-off of the calendar year, but as the son of two teachers and now sometimes one myself, the academic calendar always seems more appropriate.

Back to classes here also means the return of the Fringe Festival, and I’m a fan. That’s over and done with now, but I did make it to a few shows. It was gratifying to see that the annual festival of intimate theatre that takes place nearby us on Granville Island as well as throughout the city was more popular this year than ever. I’m afraid that I didn’t get to the International Film Festival, which usually comes on the heels of the Fringe, but it also looked to be well attended.

So what’s coming up? I’m looking forward to BarCamp, the yearly unconference where everybody gets to be an expert in something. I think I have a subject to talk about this year, and I’ll be putting some of that up beforehand, mainly to tease those who might be interested in it. I’m also anticipating the Cassoulet festival that Oyama Sausage Company celebrates. I’ve written about it before, and perhaps I will again. After all, it’s not ever day that you get to eat what’s probably the most sublime dish ever made with beans, herbs and meats.

I’m not looking forward to the election back in the US. Politics and government in the US has reached the point of complete and utter absurdity. The American electorate is now by and large so irrational and driven by Public Relations manipulation that I don’t expect any sane outcome in November. I’ve been listening to the audio version of the book The Age of American Unreason by Susan Jacoby, and I’m becoming convinced that she is right on target. Political culture in the US is a reflection of general culture, which has become less and less informed, knowledgable and reasoned. Americans have stopped talking about anything important, except the latest scandal, goofy YouTube moment, or gaffe. Instead of calling the Tea Party out on their ignorance of what the Constitution says (like for instance, the separation of powers which makes it clear that a President can’t send in soldiers to another country without the approval of Congress, which is exactly what George W. Bush did in Iraq), the TV networks focus on entertaining people with sound-bites. Americans don’t read newspapers any more, much less books. With entertainment trumping real information, it’s clear to me that the most powerful voice in US politics is not any of the politicians, but Fox News. During my US trip, at certain motels, Fox News was the only cable news channel available on the television. That would be like Pravda being the only newspaper available at a news stand (for those who aren’t familiar with the name ‘Pravida’, it was Russian for ‘Truth’, and was the official news source of the USSR). With Fox the most widespread and popular source of info-pablum, the US is now effectively being led by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation.

There, it looks like my motor is running again.

Happy Canada Day 2010!

It’s that day of the  year again, when we all wear red and white T-shirts with Canada on them, head down to Granville Island to get temporary maple leaf tattoos and celebrate Canada Day (or as it was originally called, Dominion Day).

Thanks to Heather for some photos of us in our regalia (well, the T-shirts anyway). The island was jammed, despite less-than-perfect weather. It sprinkled on and off all day, but that didn’t dampen the spirits (and appetite) of people, who chowed down on all sorts of goodies: we got some oh-so-traditional barbecued squid and tofu and bubble tea; others had Chow Mein noodles and Pork Dumplings, Vietnamese coffee, hot dogs, shaved ice and Butter Chicken. I’m always thrilled at how so many people born in Canada and  immigrants like us celebrate and share in the good fellowship of ‘Our Home and (nearly) Native Land.’
Pam and I show off our Canada Day Tattoos

Pam and I show off our Canada Day Tattoos

Canada Day on Granville Island

Canada Day on Granville Island

The Seal pokes up his head

The Seal pokes up his head

Canada Day Cookies

Saw these cookies cooling off a few days before

A Bit of an Ode to Granville Island

Entrance to Granville Island at Dusk

Entrance to Granville Island at Dusk

I often tell people that living near and shopping regularly for food at Granville Island has ‘changed my life’. It’s true, and I thought I’d spend a little time trying to explain how and why.

First of all, it’s changed the food that I buy. I rarely get food that comes in a box or is pre-processed, and get mostly fresh meat and vegetables. The things I do buy that are cooked or prepared include sausages and other meats and paté from Oyama Sausage company, soup from the Stock Market soup kitchen, the occasional pie (dessert or entree) from À la Mode, and bread from any of the 3 bakeries (French – La Baguette & L’Echalote, Artisanal – Terra Breads, or English/North American – Stuarts). I try to buy what’s in season (although that can be hard in January or February), and look forward to certain months when I know something will be appearing and gradually (or swiftly) going down in price. We are about to hit the summer fruit season, and I love seeing the arrival of peaches, apricots, plums and blueberries. Because of this, I’ve learned which vendors have the best of each variety of fruit, vegetable or meat. While I do get some organic vegetables (onions and potatoes), I also try to buy things that are grown locally. Again, this makes the winter months a time when I have to compromise a bit, but most of the year it’s quite possible.

We are very lucky in that we live a short walk from the market, and I quite frankly can’t imagine living farther away from it. The fact that we walk there and carry our groceries back adds just a little bit of exercise (or at least the excuse to go outside and get some air, even if the weather is rainy or simply dreary.) For the vast majority of visitors to Granville Island, the market is a curiosity, a kind of living museum of the way people used to shop for food (and still do in many other countries outside of North America). I’m always amused to see someone taking a photograph of a stack of cherries or strawberries (although they are pretty); They’re getting a snapshot of my grocery store, and in a few cases where they flood the aisle and are oblivious to the rest of us, I wish they’d just get out of the way and let me get on my shopping. That doesn’t happen too often, but some days, when a tourist bus lets off, the market has to walk the thin line between attraction and grocery store.

I shop at the market often, and nearly always bring a sack. Since I’m there so much, I’m recognized by nearly all of the merchants, and am on a first name basis with several of them. I’ve also learned about their families, heard some stories, found out their likes and dislikes, and think of them as people, not just someone at a cash register. I’m impressed with the close-knit families who work in the Market, and am often been cheered up (or calmed down) by simply entering the market, especially when it’s not crowded with tourists, which unlike a Supermarket, is not lit solely by fluorescents. (I should add that on Foursquare, the social media ‘game’, I’m the mayor of Granville Island Market, and have yet to be replaced by someone who checks-in there more.)

Speaking of Supermarkets, I do go to Costco about once every 2 months or so for a few items (olive oil, paper goods, maple syrup), and also go to an organic grocer on Broadway (who used to be the Dan-De-Pak home office, or so it seemed) for rice, the odd box of breakfast cereal or crackers, etc.) I always feel kind of disappointed and maybe even a little depressed when I walk into a cavernous Safeway, IGA or Save-On Foods, all lit by those fluorescent lights, and very cold from the frozen aisles.

Back to the Granville Market: In addition to the people, the food and the light, there are the smells. I can nearly navigate the market by my nose. In the fish market, I can smell the brine of today’s catch. There’s frequently the aroma of freshly baked bread by the bakeries (and La Baguette has that marvelous yeasty smell of pain de mie nearly all of the time). The food court (which I must confess, I sometimes go to first, in order to eat before I shop, which helps stop larger purchases made when hungry), there are areas where you smell pizza, curry, or falafel. In several spots in the building, the smell of coffee and tea wafts out into the aisle, and you can understand why there’s such a line at J J Bean.

In the summer, there is the extra treat of Thursdays, particularly in the morning, when local farmers truck in their produce, and sell some of it outside, next to the Market. In recent years, some farmers have specialized in Heirloom Tomatoes, and I’ve actually tasted celery (yes, celery!) that is actually mind-blowingly sweet and tasty. Some of the farmers stay all day, but most of them are there mainly in the morning, so Thursdays are particularly good to get early and get the best produce.

I’ve discovered new fruits and vegetables at the market. We’ve tried Stinging Nettles as a side dish, and boiled down elderberries into syrup. I’ve cooked sour cherry soup, and after our trip to Southeast Asia, have made Ataulfo Mangoes (Manila Honey Mangoes), Dragonfruit, Rambutans, Longans, Lychees, Pomleos and Passionfruits a treat for breakfast or dessert. Nearly all are available (although not cheaply most of the time) at the market. I’ve frequented the Asian Food specialty shop in the market, The South China Seas Trading Company, where I’ve finally learned to appreciate the finer points of coconut milk, fresh tamarind, little red chiles, lemongrass, galangal, and even fish sauce. I’m thrilled to have found great fish that is cheap (Rockfish – big, red, and ugly, but they’ll filet it for you for free, so you have a lovely, firm white flesh for curry or soup), and am surprised at how good the turkey is. I’ve cheated a little, and gotten pre-marinated Maui Ribs, as well as Cornish Game Hens, and one of these days this summer we’ll make a Caribbean Goat stew with the fresh goat meat we sometimes see them cart in. The spot prawns are in this week, and every year I look for fiddlehead ferns (in the Spring) and Okanagan pears (in the Autumn).

All in all, Granville Market has expanded my diet, made me more in tune with the passage of the seasons, lowered my blood pressure (at least when I’m visiting, I think), and provided me with a sense of connection to my food with the people who grow it and sell it. It’s helped me learn to cook new and more complicated dishes, and also let me off the hook when I’m stumped and just get a homemade turkey pie or soup. I feel as if I’m richer and my life is healthier and fuller with the market in it, which is about the most one can say about any activity, especially one as mundane as food shopping.

Heirloom Tomatoes at Granville Island Market

Heirloom Tomatoes at Granville Island Market

On the Road

Years ago we decided that we’d make room for some of the visitors to Vancouver during the Olympics. So, on Monday evening, we set out, rolling our suitcases down the hill to the Olympic streetcar. Four minutes later, we got on the Canadaline Skytrain and got off at the Vancouver airport. It couldn’t be easier, and I’d recommend anyone who’s on the fence about the new mass transit vs. a taxi to look seriously at taking the Canadaline, especially if you have luggage on wheels (which the vast majority of bags are these days). About the only down-side was the Olympic crowds, even at 8:45PM.

Our flight on Cathay Pacific left at 2:00 AM, so we had a quiet airport and some time to use the Wi-fi to make some last tweets (and to chat with a friend in Hungary – what a small world this is becoming…but more about that in a later post).

The flight was OK, but very, very cold. Honestly, it was like spending 10 hours in a meat locker; You could almost see your breath. Pam and I had coats with hoods, which we kept up the whole time. There was one blanket per person, and no more. We got in to Hong Kong at their 7:30 AM or so (a day later). After a short layover of about an hour, we boarded another flight to Bangkok. A couple of hours later, we touched down and saw their new(ish) airport, that had been built 3 years ago. It’s a very impressive structure, with caterpillar-like gates connected to a steel, concrete and glass main section. We were immediately met by two young reps. for the tour company (Abercrombie & Kent, who Pam used for her tour of Antarctica). They whisked us through baggage and customs, and we then were handed off to one of the tour guides here, who goes by the nickname Tukke (Tookie). She, and a driver, drove us through the enormous city of Bangkok, to the hotel where we are staying here, the Mandarin Oriental. It’s a very fine hotel (officially 130 years old), albeit old enough that I saw echoes of my grandmother’s taste throughout: the English colonial furniture, the palms and white palm tearoom, the pool with cabanas and teak walkways throughout. It’s well maintained, however, and the Internet in the room was good enough that I could phone my parents back in the states via Skype on my iPhone and it was good enough for them that my father thought it sounded like I was ‘next door’. The view, of the Chao Phraya river (River of Kings) is pretty impressive too:

The View out our Hotel Window – That’s the French Embassy’s Garden in the Lower Right

We managed to stay awake (barely) until about 7:30 PM before collapsing and then waking up at 3, and then 6 this morning. After one of the best breakfast buffets I’ve ever eaten (included with the room – I’ll try and take some photos tomorrow), we returned to the room, and after a short rest, I write this update.
I’m going to try and update the Flickr set of our trip as we go, and it’s here

Update: After many problems with the set getting too big, I’ve split it into 7 sets, including:

So, it’s off for a short boat trip across the river to explore some of the city (after we change into shorts to adjust for the heat). Then, perhaps a ride on the Skytrain (Hah, Just like home!). I’m also planning on a massage for my aching shoulder, back and neck, which may be from the plane ride, plus accumulated stress from the past few weeks.

More to come…

Good-bye to the Oughts

While the past year has been good, I must admit that I’m in complete agreement with those like Time Magazine, who dubbed the first 10 years of 2000 as The Decade from Hell. It was a decade that belonged to Bush, whose ascendancy to the White House I have often said was the worst single event in US History. It was for us, a great leap into the unknown, leaving the city of Boston and the country of our births. It was definitely scary in the beginning, but we’ve slowly climbed back, at least in terms of our finances, to where we were when we left, more or less. We dodged much of the housing bubble, and although Pam and I both saw time out of the work force, I suspect that would have been just as bad (or worse) if we had stayed.

After the election of Obama, many people have asked us if we were considering returning to the US. After all, we were ‘Bush Dodgers’, according to some. Well, the ridiculous debate on Health Care reform had us constantly shaking our heads in bewilderment. The fact that the US still fails to acknowledge health care as a human right (like the ones of religion and guns that they extoll so often), is something we’ll never understand. The lack of acknowledgement that the proliferation of guns is causing more and more violence and death throughout America is also baffling to us. Whenever we see people being interviewed on the US evening news constantly refer to God, their belief in religion and other magical thinking also seems further and further from us. Nope, we’re not going back to all of that.

Good-bye to 2009, Then

Looking back on just this year, I do have some events that I’ll remember fondly. Here’s a brief list:

  1. The Concert of works for and by Dutch composer Louis Andriessen for his 70th birthday. Back in April, I got to see and hear him (and one of his works), as he reminisced about performances by airport runways and mused that the bass line in Bach Chorale Preludes is “like a cow mooing, interrupting chirping birds”.
  2. Riding the brand spanking new CanadaLine all day on my Birthday, and playing Foursquare (and ‘tourist in my own town’) as I went all the way from the south of Richmond to North Vancouver without burning any gasoline (not counting the fuel on the Seabus).
  3. Actually not one but several fun and stimulating Meetups for bloggers, graphic designers and Social Media folks. Several were at Caeli’s Pub, which has become one of the most popular social watering-holes in town.
  4. An after-hours tour of the newly-renovated Arctic Ocean exhibit of the Vancouver Aquarium as part of the local chapter of the Interaction Design Association (IXDA)
  5. Excellent meals at Provence at Marinaside, a tea (thanks to Tiny Bites) at the Fish House in Stanley Park and this past week, a warming Hot Pot (Shabu Shabu) at a new Korean Restaurant, Dae Bak Bon Ga, on 4th Avenue in Kitsilano.
  6. The Inauguration of Barack Obama (of course)
  7. BarCampVancouver, which was a blast this year at Discovery Parks.
  8. Helping to run and participate in UXCampVancouver, the first User Experience ‘unconference’ in the Vancouver area. Many thanks to Karen Parker for providing the leadership and guidance. Next year, it will be even bigger and better. This was, perhaps, the big highlight of the year for me.

And a few sad losses:

  1. The loss of Workspace, a marvelous public/private space that hosted many great techie get-togethers. It was the closest thing to a ‘parlor’ that the Geek Scene in Vancouver had. I’m hoping that another will come, but sometimes these things take time to replace.
  2. The closing of a bunch of restaurants: Chow (which I reviewed in this blog), O Thai (which was replaced by another Thai restaurant in the same spot that is decidedly poorer), The Fish Café (on 4th Avenue in Kitsilano), and a few others that I forget at the moment (maybe for that reason, they should have closed).

When I look back on 2009, I know that I will sadly have to note that it was the year that Becca Hammann died (see previous entry), and it will be some time before I am used to that fact.

I also note the birth of many babies by friends and relatives, and once again, our orchid is blooming.

My next post, will be about next year. Oh look: the clock says that it’s here already. Well, come in, 2010. Make yourself at home.