Sunday, November 8, 2009

Goodnight, Vancouver - October 2009

Fifteen months ago, I moved out to Vancouver. It was my first time there, except for a brief visit the month before, but I'd heard all sorts of good things about it, and I thought it was time I discovered a bit more of this country of mine. If all went well, I planned to stay there about a year, before either going home or moving on to another city. As it turned out, my time in Vancouver was variably successful, and I ended up staying well over a year. Of the fifteen months I was there, I worked for nine of them and was unemployed for the other six. The working months were an important growth experience for me, while the idle months were rather lonely and depressing. I enjoyed living in the city, but didn't fall in love with it the way I expected to. I'd been told before going there that Vancouver was a beautiful city, one of the best places in the whole world. It certainly has its strengths, but compared with my hometown of Ottawa, I'd say it's on par, nothing more. Let's see how the two cities stack up:

- Vancouver has the Aquarium and Science World; Ottawa has the Museum of Civilization, the Natural History Museum, and the War Museum.
- Vancouver has Bard on the Beach (a Shakespeare festival) in the summer; Ottawa has a load of music festivals.
- Vancouver has a swing dancing scene; so does Ottawa, and it's cheaper!
- Vancouver has mountains and ocean; Ottawa has hills and a river.
- Vancouver has mild weather all year round, including a lot of rain; Ottawa has four seasons, including bitterly cold winters and scorchingly hot summers.
- In Vancouver you can buy milk in returnable glass bottles; in Ottawa you can buy milk in convenient four-litre bags.
- Vancouver has Granville Island; Ottawa has the Byward Market.

Still, if people want to promote Vancouver as the best city in Canada, I don't feel the need to stop them. Those of us who live in Ottawa know it's a beautiful city, and we don't need anyone else to tell us so.

Things I will miss about Vancouver:

- Stanley Park: a vast nature park right next to the downtown!
- Granville Island: a great place to browse, if too expensive to shop.
- Grouse Mountain: a fun climb with a great view.
- My church: maybe a bit too liberal at times, but definitely a refreshing change from my much more conservative Ottawa church.
- AVEN: I don't know what the AVEN scene in Ottawa is like, but I got attached to the Vancouver community.
- Cheap, plentiful sushi: I hope I can find some in Ottawa!
- Bakery bread: I don't think I can go back to the regular kind.
- The Vancouver Central Library: one of the best features of downtown Vancouver, in contrast to Ottawa's cement cinderblock, which is a blight on the landscape.
- The Burrard Street Bridge and English Bay: my favourite view in the city.
- The blue of the ocean

At the end of September I moved out of my apartment – and, yes, back into the hostel. The next week was a transition period for me as I said goodbye to the city and wrapped up some loose ends. The first weekend of the month was Mid-Autumn Festival, and as I'd done last year I went to the Chinese classical garden where I sampled their moon cakes and listened to Chinese music. I also paid my first and only visit to Lighthouse Park in North Vancouver. I'd been meaning to go there for a while, but never got around to it. I'm glad I finally did, because it must have been one of the most beautiful places in Vancouver. If you're ever in the city, I recommend it.

The next week my mom arrived for a visit, and I moved out of the hostel and into a hotel with her. I spent the next week showing her around the city, going back to visit some of the best Vancouver locations, and eating way too much. On Thanksgiving Sunday we took a bus up to Whistler. As it turns out, Whistler is a pretty little town, but not very interesting unless you're into alpine sports. We did take a cable car up the mountain, though, where we had a lovely view of the scenery. When we got back to the city we stopped in a restaurant that was offering Thanksgiving dinners. Even though it wasn't home-made, it turned out to be a really good meal.

At the end of a week my mom flew home, but I had other plans. Ever since I'd come back from Hong Kong I'd had the idea of taking the train back from Vancouver to Ottawa. It would mean being stuck on a train without access to internet or a shower for days, but I thought it would be worth it for the chance to see more of the country. So that's what I decided to do. Once I'd seen my mom off, I went to the train station and checked in my luggage. For my last meal in Vancouver I decided to go out for sushi: veggie combo, eighteen pieces, for $7.40 (with tax). I bought a magazine special on Law & Order to read on the train. I went to the library to use the internet, and then walked back to the station in time to get my train. It turns out that the cross-country trains are rather nicer than regular trains: the seats are larger, with more leg-room, and they recline for sleeping. I was also lucky that there were very few people in my carriage, and I was able to spread my things across two seats. I got settled in, chewed through two-thirds of my magazine, and then drifted off to sleep as the train pulled away from Vancouver. I spent the next four days travelling across Canada.

Day 1: I wake up at dawn somewhere in central B.C. We're riding through a mist-shrouded, forested landscape. The only sounds are the rattle of the train and the low, melancholy ring of the wheels rubbing against the track. The whole scene is hauntingly beautiful.

I polish off the rest of my magazine, but I've still got a copy of The Economist, a book by Charles de Lint, and my entire X-Files collection, so I'm not worried. Around mid-morning we see our first mountains. We slow down to take pictures by something called Pyramid Falls, then again by Mount Robson, which is apparently the tallest mountain in the Canadian Rockies.

We cross over into Alberta during lunch. The conductor tells us to adjust our watches for Mountain Time, but my watch has never left Eastern Daylight Time, so all I have to do is stop compensating by an hour. Soon after, we stop in Jasper to stretch our legs. Jasper is a tiny town surrounded by mountains, and appears to exist entirely for tourism. I go for a walk, enjoying the scenery and the smell of clean, cold, dry winter air. Then I stop into a grocery store for snack food: rice cakes, oatmeal bars, and canned sardines (I've never had sardines before, but it turns out they're really nice.*) As we pull out of Jasper we pass a herd of caribou, and later on we pass what appear to be bighorn sheep, although I didn't even know we had those in Canada! I don't manage to get any pictures, unfortunately.

Day 2: I wake up just as we're leaving Saskatoon. I can tell we're in Saskatchewan because it's really flat; I'm actually surprised by how well the landscape is conforming to stereotypes. I adjust my thinking again for Central Time. The day is pretty dull, and I spend most of it reading and composing long-overdue blog entries. In the afternoon, the landscape becomes much more hilly and forested. We enter something called the Qu'Appelle Valley, and soon after, we're in Manitoba. That evening we stop in Winnipeg, but it's late, and there isn't much we can do except grab a snack and get back on the train.

Day 3: I've finally figured out how my reclining seat is supposed to work, but I've still slept fitfully for the third night in a row. When I wake up, my watch says 9:00, and this time I believe it. For the first time in days, the sun is out, and it lights up a landscape that seems to be all lakes and trees. This must be Ontario.

I'm thrilled to see the sun again, and the landscape is lovely, but by this time I'm getting seriously sick of the train. I'm especially tired of sitting down, sleeping badly, and not showering. We only get one short stop, in a small northern Ontario town, and I spend most of it walking up and down the platform. On the plus side, I'm half-way through my book and my blog's in pretty good shape.

Day 4: We pull into Toronto. I snap a picture of the C.N. Tower, grab a snack, collect my copious luggage, and board the train to Ottawa. Once I get home, I do three things I've been really looking forward to: taking a shower, eating a hot meal, and having a good night's sleep. In a bed. Horizontally.

All-in-all it was a somewhat uncomfortable experience, but worth it. I'll definitely have to go back and spend more time if I want to see central Canada properly, but at least I got a glimpse of it. I wouldn't do it again, but I'm definitely glad I did it this once.

In the news, Barack Obama has won the Nobel Peace Prize. For… I'm not quite sure what, and neither is anyone else, apparently. Not that Obama doesn't seem like a swell guy, but if you're going to award what's probably the world's most prestigious honour to someone, you'd better have a darn good reason for doing so – and "giving people hope" doesn't really qualify in my opinion.

T.V. shows I've seen this month:

– Well, not this month, but over the past year I've seen almost every episode (94%, anyway). I remember not hating it in high school, but it turns out it's actually a really good show – at least for its first five seasons or so.

Books I've read this month:

Three Cups of Tea
by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin – Pretty interesting true story about a man building schools in Pakistan.

The Joy Luck Club
by Amy Tan – Stories about Chinese women and their Chinese-American daughters. I appreciated all the references to Chinese culture, some of which I got, and some of which I didn't. I also found the characters surprisingly real.

* According to my mom, I did try sardines when I was a child – and hated them!

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Hold On To That Feelin' - September 2009

The Labour Day weekend was my first free weekend in a month and a half. After my busy August, I decided that the best way to celebrate would be to spend the entire time doing nothing – or, more specifically, sitting in my room in front of my T.V. and watching a truly appalling amount of Star Trek. In three days I saw four of the movies (two of them for the first time) and eight episodes of the original series. Although I feel a strong, if grudging, affection for Next Generation and its sequels, I've always been quite antipathetic towards the original Star Trek, but the recent movie has given me a bit of an incentive to get into it. I'm now actually at a place where I can watch and enjoy it – much as one watches and enjoys Bugs Bunny cartoons, without ever taking them seriously.

At the beginning of the month my boss told me he would have to let me go at the end of September. That actually works quite well for me. I'd been planning to stay in Vancouver only as long as my job lasted, and once I knew it was ending, I started making plans to leave. I'm actually lucky that they kept me on this month. Enrolment has been quite low, and they've already let go most of the teachers they hired to help with the summer surge. Unfortunately, I lost the class I was teaching in the morning, which was at the intermediate level, and was given the beginner class instead. I found teaching beginners quite challenging, and not nearly as much fun as teaching higher-level students. Teaching the very basics of English – how to make five-word sentences, how to count to one hundred – isn't very interesting, and it's difficult to make the class fun while keeping it simple enough for the students to understand. Fortunately, a more experienced teacher was also teaching the same level, and she gave me a lot of advice and ideas about activities. On my last day I brought in icy moon-cakes to share with everyone, in honour of the upcoming Mid-Autumn Festival. I was really sorry to leave, but I think I've learned a lot over the last four months. My boss had good things to say about me, and my co-workers were really nice about saying goodbye. I hope I can find another job like it in Ontario.

So far my only plan for when I return to Ontario is to apply to the JET Programme again. I didn't get in this year, but I still really want to go, badly enough that I'm willing to go through the whole process all over again! I'll be pretty disappointed if I'm unsuccessful again, but it would be worth it to go to Japan. In the mean time, I don't know what my chances of finding a good job in Ontario will be, but it will at least be nice to be home again.

Movies I've seen this month:

The Visitor – An interesting little movie about undocumented aliens and the challenges of the U.S. immigration system. I thought it was pretty good, although I wish it had focused more on the immigrant characters. (Three stars)

Plays I've seen this month:

Othello – I'd read this play before, and liked it a lot, but this was my first time to actually see it. It's definitely one of Shakespeare's better plays – not quite Hamlet, perhaps, but then, what is? Compared to his other major works, it's not the best-written, but it makes up for that with a pretty strong story. Moreover, the production I saw was really good, with strong performances from everyone, especially the protagonist. In fact, it was the best Shakespeare production I can recall seeing.

Books I've read this month:

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court by Mark Twain – I couldn't always tell in this book whether Twain was poking fun with his protagonist, or at him, but I prefer to think that he's doing both, and to see this book as an indictment both of the barbarism of the middle ages and of the "myth of progress" that dominates modern American thinking.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Pride and the Island and Zombies - August 2009

My second summer in Vancouver has been jam-packed with activities. I'm still working, doing basically the same thing as last month, and continuing to enjoy it. Not only has that kept me busy during the week, but my weekends have also been quite full.

First, there were the fireworks. I'd been to see them last August, and this year I went with my roommates to see them again. The same weekend was the Pride celebration. Last year, I went to see my very first Pride Parade; this year, I marched in the parade. I went with my church, which in turn went as part of the Anglican Diocese of Vancouver. Since the parade was on Sunday, we gathered at church for an early-morning service, then had breakfast, and took our places in the parade line-up. It was a hot day, and we spent a good hour or so just standing around before the parade even started! Besides having fun, I got a nifty tan that day – which was good, as I'd somehow managed to go half a summer without getting tanned!

The next weekend I went over to Nanaimo for an AVEN meet-up. It was a pretty short visit; I spent more time just getting to Nanaimo and back than actually being in the city. Still, it gave me an excuse to see more of Vancouver Island, and also to see more of North Vancouver and the Gulf Islands, which I found remarkably lovely.

A buddy of mine from the Netherlands came to visit for a week, and we spent much of the following weekend together. Saturday happened to be the Vancouver Zombie Walk, which I mentioned last year in my September post. Last time I wasn't able to take pictures, so this time I made a point of bringing my camera. Unfortunately, this year's walk wasn't as exciting as last year's; the zombies seemed much less organised, and it came off more like a Zombie Stroll or Zombie Chill. Still, I did get a few good pictures, including zombie pirates, a zombie Dorothy and Scarecrow, and – my favourite – zombie Michael Jackson! After the zombies we went to Granville Island to see a high school production of Macbeth. Obviously, being done by high school students, it wasn't the best Shakespeare production I've seen, but it was still pretty good, and it was free!

I used the next weekend to take my last trip to Victoria. I decided I should take advantage of the opportunity to do a little more sight-seeing, so I spent an afternoon at the Royal B.C. Museum. I'd heard it was really good, and it was, but I found it a bit small, and very expensive. I spent most of my time in the native American art exhibit. I enjoyed learning about native American culture and history, both pre- and post-European contact. I especially appreciated that the exhibit was limited specifically to B.C. native cultures. Too often it seems that Canada's native peoples get discussed in a holistic way that obfuscates the vast diversity among them. The other exhibits were about the local environment and local culture, neither of which I found very exciting. There was also a special exhibit of artefacts from the British Museum, which should have been fascinating – except that I'd seen the same exhibit when I was in Hong Kong two years ago. The best part of the whole day may have been as I was leaving the museum. A guy in a Darth Vader costume was standing on a street corner playing the fiddle. Now, a guy standing on a street corner and playing a fiddle – we've all seen that. But a guy standing on a corner, playing a fiddle, and wearing a Darth Vader costumethat's special!

The last weekend of the month I had a work dinner on Saturday and an AVEN dinner on Sunday. The work dinner was at my boss's house, and it went quite well, although, oddly, my boss was unable to eat anything because she is Muslim and was observing Ramadan! The AVEN dinner was almost a complete disaster when we got to the intended restaurant and found it closed, but fortunately we quickly scouted the restaurant across the street, and were able to move the whole even over there! That weekend, I also saw my sister off. She'd been living and studying in Victoria, but now she's moving back to Ontario. I've enjoyed having her so close by. With her gone, I probably won't stay in Vancouver much longer.

Movies I've seen this month:

The Last King of Scotland – I thought this was quite a good movie over-all, although, as often happens with films about political upheaval in foreign countries, I found myself wondering, "Why are they making it all about the white guy?" (Three and a half stars)

Plays I've seen this month:

Macbeth – This was technically my second time seeing Macbeth in as many years, the first having been in Hong Kong. It wasn't terribly professional, but I thought the young actors did a pretty good job with their parts, especially the lead. I also liked the decision to dress the characters in a neo-Goth style, which I thought suited the material quite well.

Books I've read this month:

The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham – Aside from my slight disappointment that this book, despite its title, has comparatively little to do with triffids, I was quite impressed with it. It paints a very interesting picture of humanity struggling to survive in the aftermath of a biological holocaust, and although I don't agree with all its predictions, I still found it a good read.

The Prince and the Pauper by Mark Twain – A sweet children's fable with a completely fantastic premise. I appreciated the mix of historical realism and gentle satire with a sense of whimsy and innocence.

Monday, October 5, 2009

26 - July 2009

Thirteen years ago, at the age of thirteen, I decided to take stock of my life. I looked at who I was, and how I'd gotten that way. Most importantly, I thought about what I wanted my future to be like. I didn't have any clear idea of how long it might take to turn into the kind of person I wanted to be, but I'd always imagined that I should have most of it sorted out by the time I was twenty-six. Besides, at twenty-six I would be twice as old as I currently was. So I decided to set myself a few goals, and hope to have them achieved by that age. Chief among them were the following: make a friend, fall in love, and figure out what I wanted to do with my life. Thirteen years later I've had variable success. I've never fallen in love, but I'm beginning to think that may not be all that important. I haven't figured out what I want to do with my life, but I do like the path I'm on, and I've decided to concentrate on enjoying the journey. I have made a friend. Or two. And, as that's probably the most important of the three goals, I think I can feel pretty good about that.

So, now that I'm twenty-six, it's time to take stock again. Here, in brief, is my life as I saw it thirteen years ago, and as I see it now.

At thirteen:

Favourite colour – white
Favourite movie – the Star Wars trilogy
Favourite T.V. show – I can't remember what I watched back then. Probably Wishbone, Bill Nye, or Alex Mack.
Favourite book – The Neverending Story
Favourite musical artist – Probably one or all of Amanda Marshall, Jann Arden, Sarah McLachlan, or Sheryl Crow.
Countries I'd visited – 4: Canada, the United Kingdom, Austria, Denmark (The U.S. doesn't count, since I was too young to remember it.)
Cities I'd lived in – 3: London, ON; London, UK; Ottawa, ON (L.A. doesn't count. See above.)
Jobs I'd had – 0
Musical instruments I'd studied – 2: Piano, trumpet
Languages I spoke fluently – 1: English

At twenty-six:

Favourite colour – blue
Favourite movie – I haven't seen Star Wars since I was thirteen, but I suspect it'd still be number one.
Favourite T.V. show – The X-Files
Favourite book – The Neverending Story (Some things haven't changed.)
Favourite musical artist – Collective Soul
Countries I've visited – 7: Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Austria, Denmark, Hong Kong
Cities I've lived in – 5: London, ON; London, UK; Ottawa, ON; Hong Kong; Vancouver, BC
Jobs I've had – 8: food court attendant, ice-cream scooper, inventory clerk, drug store cashier, E.S.L. tutor, E.S.L. teacher (3)
Musical instruments I've studied – 3: piano, trumpet, oboe (plus trying to teach myself the guitar)
Languages I speak fluently – 1: English

These are my goals for the next thirteen years: learn French, pick a career, and write a book. We'll see how that goes.

This was the first year in a very long time that I was away from Ottawa for Canada Day. Celebrating our nation's birthday in our national capital has been something of a tradition for me since I graduated high school. I made the best of it, though. The weather was lovely: sunny, and not too hot. I went down to Granville Island, where they had live music and some official Canada Day ceremonies. The coolest thing they had there was a display entitled "Where In the World Do You Say You Are From?" Visitors were invited to place a stone on a world map representing where they were from. The purpose of the exercise, as was explained to me, was to get people to think about how they identified themselves, and also to highlight the diversity of people at the event. I put my rock on the Ottawa area. It's where I usually say I am from, even though I wasn't born there and am not currently living there. After Granville Island I went down to the beach to watch the fireworks. It got pretty cold sitting out on the beach at night, and we couldn't see the fireworks very well, but I had a pretty good time, over all.

During the winter I learned that Vancouverites have a very low tolerance for cold. To my surprise, I've discovered that they're almost equally intolerant of heat. In July, I started hearing people commenting on how hot the weather was – "hot" being about 25ºC. Then a heat wave hit, and suddenly the weather became "ridiculously hot". Which is to say that it broke 30ºC. I felt obliged to explain that 30ºC is not "ridiculously" anything. It's hot. Period. And anything below 30ºC is merely "warm". Seriously, they should go through 40º weather in Ontario. Then they'd know the meaning of "ridiculous".

July was my first full month of teaching, and I enjoyed it a lot. I had a really good curriculum to work with, and I had a lot of fun picking and choosing what things to teach and supplementing them with my own ideas. I have some really great students to thank for that. One of my classes in particular contained a fairly enthusiastic bunch, and they were a pleasure to teach. Not all of my lessons were successful, and I know I still have a long way to go as a teacher, but enough went well this month to make me feel relatively good about myself and confident about the future. My favourite parts were planning a scavenger hunt at HMV and teaching social issues and discussion techniques.

One of my roommates had her birthday in July, so we all went out clubbing to celebrate. I've had some pretty good clubbing experiences, but this wasn't one of them. First we went to a bar. We had to pay cover just to get into the bar, then sat around for an hour drinking – or, in my case, not drinking – and talking – or rather not talking because it was too noisy to hear anything! When we got to the club, it was packed, and we had to pay cover again. We squeezed into a corner near the entrance, where we were in everyone's way. We had to move every thirty seconds to let people by, and I got elbowed in the nose by someone! Eventually I decided to move to the actual dance floor. Dancing was considerably easier there, but the music wasn't very good. They mostly played random techno-ish music with no clear melody, which was really hard to dance to. In short, the whole experience was disappointing, and I hope the next time I go clubbing it's with people with better judgement, at a club with better music.

I spent my birthday weekend with my sister. On my actual birthday we climbed Grouse Mountain. This time I made it up in and hour and forty minutes, a ten minute improvement over last time! I'd gotten a second-hand digital camera when I was in Ottawa, and my sister gave me an SD card for a birthday present. That means from now on I should be able to take much better pictures than I have.

In the news, Michael Jackson died. This hasn't affected me as strongly as some people who can actually remember when he was popular. My earliest memories are all of him as an effeminate white-person. I like some of his songs, I respect him as a cultural icon, and feel sorry for him as a person. Other than that, I don't have much of an opinion.

Movies I've seen this month:

Finding Neverland – I expected to like this film a lot, but actually found it quite disappointing. It has a good story, a top-notch cast – and oddly uninspired writing and directing. (Three stars)

Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring – Artsy Korean film about a Buddhist monk and his pupil. I liked it at first, but I found it harder to understand as it went on, and was fairly confused by the end. (Two and a half stars)

Public Enemies – The film looks beautiful, sounds pretty good, and features some great actors. Unfortunately, the story isn't particularly engaging, and I never really cared about the characters as much as I wanted to. It may not be a bad movie – but I feel no desire at all to ever see it again. (Three stars)

T.V. shows I've seen this month:

Torchwood: Children of Earth – Wow! This show has come a long way! From its humble, somewhat laughable beginnings, it's grown into a mature, intelligent, and genuinely angsty sci-fi thriller. The story was interesting, the plot was comparatively tight, and there were even some good character moments. Sure, some developments don't really make sense, but others are amazing! Oh, and not to give spoilers, but there's at least one twist I'm really sad about. *sniff* I won't hold it against the writers, though, because it was brilliant!

Books I've read this month:

The Chrysalids by John Wyndham – One of those novels I never got around to reading when I was in elementary school. It paints a fairly interesting picture of what life might be like in a remote, post-apocalyptic society. I found the ending somewhat disturbing, but over all I quite liked it.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Me and My Little Room - June 2009

I started working again at the beginning of the month. I started out substituting for a teacher who was on vacation, but after she came back I was given my own class, and now it looks like I'll have a job at least until the end of the summer. I'm at another language school, just like the the last two I worked at. So far I like the environment: the students are well-behaved, the staff are friendly, and the curriculum seems good.

Apart from re-adjusting to life in the workforce, I haven't been up to much this month. I've grown comfortable with my life here in Vancouver. I like my little basement room, and my roommates seem okay. Currently, I'm living with a good mix of nationalities. There's an Irish couple and a couple of Mexicans. There was also a German girl, but she's moved out and been replaced by a Japanese girl and a Québécoise. I enjoy going to church, taking long walks, and occasionally socialising. Other than that, I don't get up to much. Vancouver's lost most of its excitement, and I probably won't stay here much longer. For the time being, though, I have a job I like, and the weather's been quite nice, so I'm enjoying myself.

I did the Grouse Grind again, and it only took me one hour and fifty minutes. That's five minutes less than last time! It was nice weather, not as cold and wet as in October, but not too hot, either. The surprising thing was how cold I felt when I got to the top. I don't know if it was because of the altitude or the fact that I was drenched in sweat, but I needed a hot drink to warm me up. Maybe it was the altitude; I took a walk around, and noticed a few snow patches still lying around! I also saw the birds and the grizzly bears, although the latter were sleeping.

In the news… Iran's been in the news a lot. Obviously I support democracy, and oppose nuclear proliferation, but beyond that I don't really know what to think. If the election was rigged, I think there should be a recount, but if the result was valid, then we all have to accept it.

T.V. shows I've seen this month:

New Doctor Who (Season 2) – I thought that after Christopher Eccleston, I might not warm again to David Tennant, but I did. This season seemed like a slight improvement over the last one, although it's possible that my standards have just fallen. I am beginning to enjoy the wackiness of this series; the almost gleeful cheesiness actually gives it a lot of character. It's just too bad the writing and acting aren't better; it could be a really good show if they were.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

A Season for Everything - May 2009

At the end of April I returned to Ottawa for my first visit in nine months. The primary reason was to attend a friend's wedding, but it also gave me a chance to see people, and take care of practical matters like getting my teeth checked and renewing my driver's licence. I stayed there until the middle of May, and then flew back to Vancouver.

The wedding was something of a first for me. Previously, the only weddings I'd been to were for members of my extended family. This was the first time I actually knew both the bride and groom. That made it much more exciting and personally relevant. I only have a few friends, and each of them is (hopefully) only going to get married once. From that perspective the wedding was one of the most important events of my life, or at least the highlight of my year. The ceremony was simple but nice. I got a bit emotional, but didn't cry. The family asked me to take pictures at the reception, which was good, because it gave me something to do. I took lots of photos, got caught up with some Ottawa acquaintances, and danced with lots of people, including the bride and groom.

Even though my Ottawa visit was short, I'm glad I got to have it. It was nice to be back among familiar things, and to see friends and family again. Most of all, it made me realise something: Ottawa is home, at least for now. Travelling and seeing the world is nice, and of course working is good, but Ottawa's still the most important place in the world to me, and probably will be until things change dramatically.

Now that I'm in Vancouver again, I'm back to job-hunting. This is the season where a lot of schools hire new staff, and I'm hopeful that I can find a good job for the summer. Being unemployed, I'm once again too poor to do anything interesting with my time, so my days have mostly been filled with books and television. On the bright side, the weather these past few weeks has been gorgeous, warm and sunny, with blue skies every day. I've been taking advantage by going on a lot of long walks around the city. I walked all the way around Stanley Park one day, which I'd done last June when it was unseasonably cold and wet. This time was a lot better.

I began this post with some happy news, but I have to end it with something sad. My friend who got married at the beginning of the month lost her brother only a few weeks later. As when my uncle died, it isn't something that affects me personally, but it affects my friends, and friends can be just as important as family, if not more so. I went to Victoria for the funeral. I'd never attended a funeral before, so it was another first for me. Obviously it was a much less pleasant experience than the wedding, and I can't say I enjoyed it, but I'm glad I went.

In the news, the civil war in Sri Lanka has finally come to an end. I have mixed feelings about it. On the one hand, it's thrilling to think of any war ending, especially one that's as old as I am. On the other hand, it seems to have generated a massive humanitarian crisis, with both government and rebel forces partly to blame. I don't understand the situation very well, but I'm surprised the international community hasn't done more to address this crisis. If innocent civilians in a foreign country are suffering, isn't it our job to get involved? I certainly hope more is done to help the victims now that combat has ceased. I also hope a peace can be reached that respects the needs of everyone involved, so that the country can heal and move forward.

Movies I've seen this month:

Star Trek – Saying it was better than I expected may not be saying much, but the truth is, I actually liked this movie. Hard to say why. On the one hand, it lacked the philosophical depth that was supposedly the strength of the T.V. shows. On the other hand, as pure sci-fi action-adventure it was at best mediocre, with decent special effects, okay action sequences, and a pretty silly story. The interest really came from the characters. The movie managed to re-invent, send-up, and pay homage to the classic figures all at the same time, and it was remarkably fun to watch. I appreciated all the little tributes – surprising, given that I've never been more than a very casual TOS viewer. I especially liked NewMcCoy! This would make a very good opening to a new T.V. show, or – as is more likely – a movie trilogy. They'd have to come up with a better story next time, though. (Three stars)

T.V. shows I've seen this month:

New Doctor Who (Season 1) – Entertaining if generally dumb sci-fi show. Unlike Torchwood, it doesn't take itself too seriously, but seems content with being so-bad-it's-good. I like Christopher Eccleston.

Books I've read this month:

J. M. Barrie and the Lost Boys: The real story behind Peter Pan by Andrew Birkin – A biography of J. M. Barrie and his relationship with the Llewelyn Davies family. This is the same story told in the movie Finding Neverland, which I really ought to see, now. I haven't read many biographies lately, but I thought this one was very well done. I felt a real sympathy for the characters, who are all flawed people in complex relationships, and I also felt that I learned something about the time period they lived in. The story is touching, and consistently tragic; I wanted to cry on several occasions.

Orientalism by Edward Said – I think I liked the idea behind this book, but to be honest, most of it went straight over my head. Maybe I've been outside of university too long, and have lost the ability to decipher academic texts (which I was never that good at to begin with). Or maybe it was that virtually all the literary allusions were lost on me, which kind of detracted from the "support" portion of the argument. Somebody needs to give me a dumbed-down version of this book – maybe with less Flaubert and more David Lean.

Monday, May 11, 2009

April Flowers - April 2009

My first winter in Vancouver has finally come to an end! In truth, Vancouver doesn't really get much of a winter, at least not in the traditional sense of snow and sub-zero temperatures. Instead, the year began with three months of what you might think of as a long, early spring: no snow, no freezing, but still cold, dark, and wet enough to be unpleasant. But the end of March brought longer days, increased sunshine, and – the real herald of springtime – flowers! Maybe it's because I missed out on the experience in Hong Kong, but I'd forgotten what a thrill it is to see things growing again. Best of all were the cherry blossoms. At least, I assume they were cherry blossoms. They're pink, they grow on trees, and they were all over the place, making the air smell sweet and covering the ground like pink snowflakes! Do we have this many cherry trees in Ottawa? I don't remember them, but there are quite a few in Vancouver and Victoria.

In my fourth week of work, there was a party for the students. All the teachers were required to go, and to dress up according to the theme, which was "celebrities". I reprised my role from Hallowe'en, since I still had most of my costume, although I had to improvise the make-up a bit. (Here's a tip: unless you're really desperate, white-out is not a good substitute for hair paint!) As it turned out, I wasn't the only Johnny Depp there; someone else came as the character from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Now I know what it's like to come to a party wearing the same dress as someone else! Costume mishaps aside, I had a lot of fun. I danced a lot, hung out with the students, and got hit on by a drunk Saudi Arabian.

Unfortunately, that was also my last week of work. They'd originally hired me for four weeks, and decided not to keep me on for longer. So as of the middle of April I was once again unemployed.

Around that time I also got a letter from the JET Programme telling me that I'd been selected as one of their "alternates". That means that I didn't make it onto their list of people they decided to hire, but I might still be offered a position if someone else drops out of the programme. I have pretty mixed feelings about it. On the one hand, I'm glad that I still have a chance of getting in. On the other hand, I doubt many people would turn down an opportunity to go to Japan, so I don't expect many spots to open up. Also, if I do get offered a position, it might not happen for several weeks, or even months, and in the mean time, my future is still uncertain. Compared to that, I'd almost prefer a straight "no" from them. But I'm still trying to be optimistic. In the mean time, I've decided to stay in Vancouver for the summer. If I do get into the programme, it will still be my point of departure, and I think my chances of getting a summer job are better here than in Ottawa.

On the bright side, I've discovered something neat: did you know that if you're unemployed you can actually get free money from the government? Okay, it's called Employment Insurance, and I'm sure you did know that, but prior to this year it's something I've never thought about, let alone applied for. Fortunately, someone suggested I apply, and I'm glad I did, because I have actually gotten a little money out of it. I don't know how long it will last, but it's certainly better than getting no money at all. This experience makes me feel much more grown up than I did before. Perhaps it's because in the past I always relied on my parents to support me, whereas applying for E.I. really makes me feel like part of the working population.

I went to Victoria for the Easter weekend. The weather was finicky, but there was enough sunshine to get out of the house and enjoy a nature walk or two. I found an Anglican church in the city and went there for Easter Sunday. Then I celebrated the end of Lent with chocolate and non-vegetarian sushi.

For the second half of April I was back to having free time, and since I'd earned a little bit of money, I decided it was time to treat myself by doing some of that sight-seeing I'd never gotten around to. First, I went to the Vancouver Aquarium to see the belugas and other attractions. The baby beluga was cute, and they also had a bird show, dolphins, frogs, sharks, and – my personal favourite – jellyfish!

The Vancouver Art Gallery was pretty much a waste of money. They didn't have any special exhibits on when I went, and the permanent exhibit consisted of modern art and Canadian landscapes. The former included attractions such as a large purple plank, a pile of earth, and three throw-cushions stuck to an orange background. As for the latter, I've never been a fan of Canadian landscape painting, which always strikes me as flat and joyless – in contrast to actual Canadian landscapes, which are often quite lovely!

Science World was a lot more fun. It's mostly geared towards children, but hey, put me near anything science-y, and I can become very child-like. There was an entire room full of interactive science activities. It reminded me a lot of the Children's Museum in London, Ontario, where I used to go as a child. They were also running a special exhibit on Lego, with Lego models of different things.

If my old job doesn't take me back, I will have to start looking for work again in May. In the mean time, I'm heading back to Ottawa for a couple of weeks. I'm glad to be going home again, even if it's only for a short time. I've missed Ottawa a lot, and I'm looking forward to seeing people again.

In the news, Obama's first hundred days are over, and he still seems to be relatively popular. Recently he's been doing things like overturning the ban on photographing war dead, relaxing the U.S. position on Cuba, and calling for nuclear disarmament – the last of which seems like an especially laudable, if idealistic, goal. I also heard that Vermont has legalised same-sex marriage. I'm especially pleased about this because it's the first state to do so through and act of legislation, rather than a court ruling. I've always felt that courts who asserted same-sex marriage rights were acting outside of their jurisdiction, so I see this as a positive step both for gay rights and for democracy!

Movies I've seen this month:

Slumdog Millionaire – Entertaining film, but definitely not what I would have expected from a Best Picture Oscar-winner. It sort of combines the romanticism of a Bollywood musical with the harsh realism of a movie like Salaam Bombay. That made it different from any other film I'd seen about India, but still wasn't enough to really engage me. (Three stars)

Goodfellas – Pretty good mob film. The story could be the precursor to The Sopranos, and you can see how the show was influenced by the movie. However, it has neither the character depth of The Sopranos nor the emotional resonance of The Godfather, and as a result I wasn't quite as keen on it as other mob films. (Three and a half stars)

Doubt – Quite a good little movie, though obviously small in scope and based on a play. I was really impressed by how ambiguous the story was. Unlike most films, this one never gives away the answers, leaving the audience to draw their own conclusions. We had quite a lively discussion about it – which, of course, is usually the best part of watching a movie! (Three and a half stars)

T.V. shows I've seen this month:

Torchwood (Season 2) – Once upon a time there were some T.V. fans who loved Buffy and really loved Angel. They loved it so much they wrote fan-fic about it – specifically, slash. One day they decided to take their Angel Slash and turn it into its own T.V. series. So they wouldn't get sued, they moved the setting from California to Wales, recast most of the characters (but not all), and renamed it Torchwood. Seriously. How else do you explain this show?

Anyway… Season 2 starts off a lot better than Season 1: better stories, sharper dialogue, and more well-rounded characters. It gets worse as it goes along, but thanks to a more cohesive cast it's still the better season over all. Highlights include James Marsters, who basically reprises his role as Spike from Buffy and Angel. It may be unoriginal, but hey, I like Spike! Rhys finally finds out Gwen's secret, and gets to prove he can be just as big a man as Jack Harkness. And then there's Owen, who was already the strongest character – even before he died! My biggest complaint is that Tosh doesn't get the development I thought she deserved. I'm also sad about the end of the season. I doubt that the next one will be as good, but I'm still looking forward to seeing it. Hope it airs soon!

Books I've read this month:

Daughter of Fortune by Isabel Allende – One of those really fast-paced and engrossing novels that are hard to put down. I didn't care too much for the story at first, but I got really into it in the second half. Although I thought the book ended a bit suddenly, I still liked it over all.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Family Business - March 2009

At the beginning of the month one of my aunts came to Vancouver for a couple of days, and my sister and I met up with her for dinner. That was nice, since I don't often see members of my extended family. On a sadder note, one of my uncles died on the other side of the family. It was pretty unexpected, and I feel pretty bad for his family, although I wasn't very close to him personally.

Still on the subject of family, I was still unemployed at the beginning of March, but I did get a little bit of work when my sister asked me to do some copy-editing for her. It was pretty easy. All I had to do was to read her Master's Thesis (which I probably would have done anyway), and correct the grammar (which I probably would have done anyway). As my sister's got pretty good grammar, it was a lot easier than, say, trying to correct a student composition!

In the middle of the month I finally got a job at a language school. It's similar to the school I was working at in the fall. I'm teaching one low-level class of about twelve students, almost all of whom are Saudi Arabian men. I'm also doing private tutoring with a German student. I'm glad to be teaching again. I need the money, but I also enjoy the work. It's nice to feel useful, and it gives me a chance to practise the skills I learned in the TESL course in January. I'm also glad to be getting some practice with tutoring, which I've never done before.

I tried to attend the St. Patrick's Day celebrations, but the weather was lousy. Half-way through the afternoon, it actually started snowing! That's unusual for Vancouver; I don't think it snowed once in the month of February. And apparently this has been an unusually cold winter! The next week I went to see a presentation on homelessness at the library. They showed a documentary and tried to explain who the people on the street are and why they are there. I don't know a lot about the issue, but it's a major problem in Vancouver; there are homeless people everywhere.

I still don't have money to do much, but I've discovered one cheap form of entertainment. One of the churches here has started having movie nights on Fridays. They're working their way through some of the major Oscar contenders from last year, most of which I didn't get to see. They ask for a donation, but it's still cheaper than seeing a film in theatres, and they hold discussions afterward. I've also been getting T.V. shows free from the library.

In the news, actor Andy Hallett, who played Lorne on Angel, died this month. I didn't know much about him, but Lorne was my third favourite Angel character, so I'm sad. I'm also quite surprised, since he was one of the youngest actors on the series.

Movies I've seen this month:

Milk – A relatively well-made movie about a gay-rights activist in San Francisco. It was interesting, but I didn't get really into it. The characters could have been better developed (especially Dan White), and the style didn't grab me. (Three and a half stars)

T.V. shows I've seen this month:

Torchwood (Season 1) – I dig the heck out of the fact that the hero is a hot, manly bisexual, and the way all the characters defy sexual clichés. Unfortunately, that's about the only good thing I can say about this show. The premise, story, and atmosphere are all along the lines of Buffy, Angel, or The X-Files. The writing is mediocre and the character development leaves a lot to be desired. Like the shows of Joss Whedon, it tries to maintain a tension between cynicism and optimism, but its sappy moments feel trite and its attempts to be "dark" mostly come off as silly. Still, it does improve a bit in the last four episodes. Maybe Season 2 will be better.

Books I've read this month:

Heidi by Johanna Spyri – As an adult, this book didn't really grab me, but it's a good children's book, and I can see why I liked it as a child.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

The Interview - February 2009

At the beginning of February I finished up the course I was taking, and then began job-hunting. So far, I haven't been successful. Language schools still don't seem to be doing much hiring, and although it's still early, some people think the industry - like other industries - can anticipate a slow year. Obviously being unemployed is a bit stressful and worrying. It's also boring! Not that I can't find ways to fill up the hours in my day, but I miss going to work. And although I have lots of free time, I don't have money to do anything, so I haven't gone sight-seeing or even been out dancing!

I have one big piece of news. I apparently made it through the first round of the JET application process, because I got called in for an interview in the middle of the month. The fact that I made it that far makes me feel pretty confident of my chances of being accepted, but the interview is still the deciding factor, and I'm really not sure how well I did. It was a half-hour process with three interviewers. I tried to prepare for it, but I couldn't anticipate all the questions they asked, and there were several I had difficulty answering. (ex. "How are you going to represent Canadian culture while you're in Japan?" Er, you mean besides being my lovable Canadian self?) I should find out by mid-April whether I've been accepted or not. I really don't know what to expect, but I'm trying not to worry about it. I did my best, and there's absolutely nothing I can do now that will affect the outcome. Except pray. Prayers are still appreciated!

I'm sufficiently optimistic still to be studying Japanese. I'm progressing very slowly but steadily. To help myself along, I've been borrowing DVDs of Azumanga Diaoh from the library. It's my favourite of the series we used to watch in the anime (Japanese animation) club. Although my Japanese skills are still very limited, it's fun to listen to the characters talk and try to pick out familiar words from their dialogue. A Japanese student was also nice enough to give me a copy of Tokyo Story, an old black and white Japanese movie, so I can practice my listening skills on that, too.

For St. Valentine's Day I went to an AVEN potluck. We ate cake and watched Doctor Who. For Mardi Gras there was a pancake dinner at church with bacon, maple syrup, strawberries, and even whipped cream! (Never had whipped cream on pancakes before.) The next day was Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. Last year I was in Hong Kong, where vegetarian eating is difficult, so I only gave up eating meat. This year I'm reverting to my usual practice of going completely vegan, meaning no meat, eggs, or milk. It hasn't been that difficult, except that I'm forced to cook pretty much all of my own food. That's cheaper than eating out, though, and healthier than some of the junk I've been eating this year.

Of course the most important day of the month was Sunday the 22nd: Oscar Day! As was the case last year, I hadn't seen any of the top contenders, and treated the ceremony as a preview of movies I should see. Top of the list is apparently Slumdog Millionaire, which I'd already heard good things about. Sean Penn won Best Actor for Milk, which got me thinking about the last time a lead actor got recognised for playing a gay character in a gay-themed movie: Tom Hanks in Philadelphia. That was fifteen years ago, and it feels like we've come a long way since then. Back then, the big issue was AIDS; this time it was same-sex marriage that everyone was talking about. Heath Ledger did indeed pick up the Best Supporting Actor trophy, as everyone'd been predicting for the last thirteen months. I haven't seen any of his competition, but having seen The Dark Knight I can say that he was good, and probably deserved it. Japan got the Best Foreign Language award for a film called Okuribito (Departures). I looked it up: this is the first time Japan's won an award in that category since its creation back in the 1950s. WALL-E, one of the only other films I saw last year, got the Best Animated Film award, which it richly deserves.

Best of the ceremony: I really liked how they handled the acting awards, where they had five previous winners in the category come up on stage and give individual shout-outs to each of the nominees. That was a welcome change for a ceremony that often doesn't give enough air-time to the winners, let alone the nominees! All the acceptance speeches were good; none ran on too long, and nobody got cut off (well, maybe one guy got cut off). Best acceptance speech goes to Dustin Lance Black, who won the Original Screenplay award for Milk. Best moment was Philippe Petit (the Man on Wire) balancing the Oscar on its head, on his chin.

Worst of the ceremony: Usually one of my favourite parts of the ceremony is the live performance of all five nominated songs in full, but this year there were only three nominated songs, so they worked them into a single medley. It wasn't nearly as much fun, although hearing "Down to Earth" mixed with "Jai Ho" was kind of cool. For some reason they didn't list the past achievements of the winners, which seemed like an odd decision to make. The film montages were pretty lame, although it wasn't as bad as three years ago when they practically took over the show! Oh, and someone needs to teach Jennifer Aniston and Jack Black how to say, "La Maison en petits cubes".

In Memoriam: Last year we lost Roy Scheider (actor), Paul Scofield (actor), Sydney Pollack (director, actor), Charlton Heston (actor, N.R.A. president), Paul Newman (actor, salad dressing maker), and Michael Crichton (writer). We also lost Majel Barrett (Mrs Gene Roddenberry), but she got left out of the montage. I was kind of surprised; I know she was mostly famous for her T.V. work, but she was in movies too, right?

Movies I've seen this month:

Tokyo Story - A painfully slow-moving art film of the kind we used to watch in university. I was mostly bored by it, but I did find it beautiful to look at, and I got the point in the end. I also appreciated that, as in old American movies, the characters speak slowly and clearly, making the dialogue easier to understand. (Three stars)

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Soup Noodles and Kraft Dinner - January 2009

I don't have much to tell this month. It's the slow season for ESL, and I gather there isn't much work available. That being the case, I decided to take a TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) course. Although I already had TESOL training and more than a year of experience, I didn't have an "officially recognised" certificate, which is apparently necessary for a lot of the jobs in this city. So I enrolled in a month-long programme, and thereafter my days were mostly taken up with classes, and my spare time with homework.

Even though my primary reason for taking the course was necessity, I ended up enjoying it quite a lot. I had a fun teacher and nice classmates (both of them; it was a small class!). Although I've had a lot of teaching practice recently, it's been a while since I actually got any teacher training. Being back in school gave me a chance to learn about different methodologies, collect some new lesson ideas, and get feedback on my teaching style. The most important thing I learned is that I still have a long way to go to become a really good teacher, but at least I have some good ideas of what to work on. Hopefully I can get back to work soon, so I can start putting those ideas into practice.

Obviously my other reason for wanting to be back at work is so I can earn money. As long as I'm unemployed, I can't afford to do much of anything interesting. Things were especially tight at the beginning of the month, when I was trying to make up for over-spending at Christmas time. There were a couple of weeks where I was basically living on soup noodles and Kraft Dinner. Nutritionally disgraceful, I know, but brilliant financially!

The big news event of the month was the presidential inauguration of Barak Obama. In the week that followed, he and his family must have appeared on the cover of every single magazine in the country. After one day I was already sick of seeing them smile at me. Doesn't he ever get tired of having his picture taken? He was also Time's Person of the Year, and appeared on the cover of the Economist seven times in the last twelve months - I counted. Of course, despite all the P.R., the really issue is what he does now that he's been sworn in. So far he's already signed an order to close the Guantánamo Bay prison within a year, but he seemed a bit slow off the mark on the war in Gaza. He also has some kind of "stimulus package" to help prop up the U.S. economy, but I'm no good at talking about financial matters.

In related news, we got our government back here in Canada. Michael Ignatieff is the new leader of the Liberal Party, and so far he's not so keen on his predecessor's coalition plan, so it looks like our current government is sticking around for the foreseeable future.

Chinese New Year came at the end of the month. Obviously it isn't as big an event here as it is in Hong Kong, and I didn't do much to celebrate, but I did go out and see the parade in old Chinatown. It was pretty good, and I had a much better view of it than I had of the Hong Kong parade, so I enjoyed it a lot. The only crummy thing was the weather, which was cold and rainy.

Okay, I haven't seen any movies, or read any books (well, I've been reading books, but I haven't finished any), or been out to any performances, so there really isn't anything else to say.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Interesting Times - December 2008

In the middle of October, Canada had an election in which not much changed and almost half of the electorate failed to vote. The impression this gave was of a Canadian population that didn't really care much about politics. Seven weeks later, the opposition parties apparently decided that they were gonna make us care, darn it! Having slept through one of the least inspiring elections in their history, Canadians woke up to find themselves facing what could be the biggest constitutional crisis in eighty years. We were suddenly living in interesting times - with all the good and the bad that implies!

The story is fascinating. It brings back memories of university, and makes me wish I was back there studying Political Science again. The short version (you don't need me to tell you what's going on in the news) is that the Liberals, N.D.P., and Bloc Québécois decided to get together and form a coalition to oust Stephen Harper's Conservative minority government. But before they had a chance to do this, Harper went to the Governor General and convinced her to suspend parliament until the end of January. I honestly can't say how I feel about this decision, except that it was a tough call to make, and I don't know what I would have done in Michaëlle Jean's position. On the one hand, a coalition has every right to form a government if it commands the support of a majority of the house. On the other hand, the parties involved are so disparate that it's hard to imagine them governing effectively.

When I first heard about the coalition, I was rather annoyed, because it seemed like a desperate power grab by the opposition parties. But when it comes to being obnoxious, there's plenty of blame to go around. If Dion was obnoxiously ambitious, putting his own desire for power ahead of our need for a stable government, then Harper was equally obnoxious in the way he clung to power, even with only 38% of the popular vote. Moreover, he made some infuriatingly insulting comments about the Bloc, in which he implied that sovereigntists aren't real Canadians. (You can't say secessionists aren't Canadians while denying them the right to secede. Make up your mind, okay!) The Bloc, of course, is obnoxiously separatist; the Greens are obnoxiously impotent; and Jack Layton is just obnoxious. Period.

The upshot of all this is that we get to be without a government for a month and a half. (Watch us get along just as well without them!) Fortunately Canada's supposedly weathering the financial crisis fairly well so far, but it still seems like the result of all this intrigue has been similar to the result of the last election: nobody has really won, least of all the Canadian people.

At the beginning of December I moved into a new apartment. I was sad to leave the hostel, but I still go back and visit. I'm now living in the basement of a house. It's in east Vancouver, but very close to the SkyTrain (Vancouver's metro/el-train system) station, and only a ten-minute train ride from downtown. There are several other tenants, but they're rarely around, so I usually get the communal kitchen and dining area to myself. My room is small, but it's private, and contains everything I need, including wireless internet. I even have my own television with full cable! Initially, I saw that as an unnecessary perk. I haven't had proper T.V. since I left university. At home we don't have cable; in Hong Kong we had only four stations, two of which were in Cantonese; and at the hostel the T.V. was shared. So I'd gotten used to life without television, and didn't expect to use mine much. But it turns out that on dark, cold, rainy nights, when you're stuck at home with nothing to do and no one to talk to, T.V. becomes very inviting. So on my first night I turned it on and, being fairly out of touch with the hot, popular shows of today, sought out the comfortable and familiar - syndicated re-runs of shows I used to watch when I was in high school. Since then I've been spending most of my evenings with the brothers Crane and the crew of Starfleet. I think I may need a life.

In December I got my first taste of what work in Japan might be like. A group of Japanese high school students came to our school for a week, and I was one of the teachers assigned to teach them. I was quite nervous about it before hand. Japanese students have a reputation for being well-behaved, but they're also notoriously weak in English, and I was afraid that if I had a bad experience with my students it would put me off going to Japan. As it turned out, they were quite wonderful. Their level of English was low, but we ended up teaching very basic language and playing a lot of games, which was fun for everyone. One day I accompanied the kids (who wore a lot of plaid, by the way; who knew?!) to a Canadian primary school. We got a tour of the school, and then the Japanese students showed some Grade 1s origami, calligraphy, and other Japanese games. The best part was hearing the Japanese girls squeal, "kawaii desu!"* in response to the little Canadian students. Heh, don't they know they're plenty cute themselves? At the end of the week we let them try waffles with maple syrup and gave them all dream catchers. Overall, it was a very positive experience, and now I'm looking forward to Japan all the more.

Since then, my work hours have been cut down quite a lot, due to a drop in the number of students. I'm not sure when it may start to rise again, but it seems unlikely that I'll be able to keep working there in the new year, so I will probably have to look for another job.

December started off much like November: cold, wet, and rainy. The temperature hovered steadily at around 10ºC, about the same as the winter low in Hong Kong, but felt much colder with the humidity. I'd been told that that was about standard for a Vancouver winter, and was all prepared for a wet, green Christmas. But something unexpected happened in the middle of the month: one morning the temperature dropped below zero, and it started to snow! The snow only stayed around for about ten minutes, but the next day it started snowing in earnest, and pretty soon the ground was covered in a thick blanket of the soft, fluffy, white stuff. The reaction from the locals was largely surprise and complaining, both of which I had trouble understanding. I mean, there were only about four inches on the ground, and people were acting like they'd never seen the stuff before. (What, snow? In Canada?! In the winter time?! Naaaw!) This may explain why the streets took so long to get ploughed, and why the sidewalks were perpetually slushy. I had to laugh at them (wish winters in Ottawa were like this!) and also to feel a bit annoyed at the ingratitude. I mean, really. After a month and a half of rain, we finally got some nice weather! The skies cleared and the humidity dropped. The snow - as it does, paradoxically - made everything feel warmer, and - even better - made everything brighter, which was a relief after weeks of unyielding darkness. For a week we got crystal blue skies, pristine white snow, and temperatures just cold enough to put a spring in your step without being physically painful. Seriously, could you ask for better weather? As someone who grew up with harsh Ottawa winters, and endured a snow-free Christmas in Hong Kong, I for one was thrilled.

I'll admit, the snow did start to get too much, after a while, though. The week of Christmas it snowed again, and then it snowed the next day, and then snowed some more. The snow made walking a wet business, driving dangerous, and commuting slow. My sister and I had a painful experience on Christmas Eve. We were trying to get from downtown to my place, but after half an hour waiting for the train, two hours on the train waiting for someone to clear away a fallen tree (you wouldn't think it would take two hours plus to cut up a tree, but I guess that assumes you can actually find a chainsaw somewhere in the city of Vancouver...) and another half-hour waiting for a bus, we finally gave up and ended up spending Christmas Eve in a Chinese diner eating eggs and toast! Fortunately we were able to make it home in the end. Christmas Day was a lot better. We had Christmas dinner with some relatives who live in Vancouver. By that time the snow had gotten so deep that those foolhardy enough to drive literally had to dig their cars out. That was about the time I decided we'd had enough snow for a while.

To celebrate Christmas I also went to see the Santa Clause Parade, my first ever - or at least the first one I can remember! I saw the Christmas lights in different parts of downtown. I went to the Christmas pageant at church. And I saw some really cool gingerbread houses in the lobby of a hotel! I spent New Year's in Victoria.

The only other thing I want to mention is that I'm continuing my guitar-playing. My co-workers very kindly suggested that I take the guitar from work home over the holiday, so that's what I did. I've played it every day I've been here. I thought it might be difficult to get motivated (I was never that industrious in my piano-practice), but it turns out the guitar is addictive! Most of the time I only end up stopping when the pain in my fingers becomes unbearable! Unfortunately, I'll have to give it back in the new year. I could look into buying one of my own, but they're generally expensive, and I'm not planning on being here that long, so it probably wouldn't be worth it.

Movies I've seen this month:

A History of Violence - I'd heard a lot of good things about this movie, but I was very disappointed in it. It was surprisingly short, and I didn't really understand what its point was supposed to be. (Two stars)

No Country for Old Men - A slow, moody picture that combines atmosphere, brutal violence, and the subtlest touch of humour. I liked it a lot, and I think Anton Chigurh deserves to go on my list of great movie villains. (Three and a half stars)

T.V. shows I've seen this month:

The Sopranos - Crazy Italian Mobsters and the Women Who Love Them: a year and a half after it aired, I finally got to see the final season of this show. It was a rather disappointing ending, but The Sopranos was still a great series, and that's how I'll always remember it. Tony, Carmela, Meadow, A.J., Jennifer, Christopher, Pussy, Paulie, Silvio, Bobby, Livia, Junior, Janice, and Adriana: I will miss you all. Most of you were obnoxious, and many of you were despicable, but I'm glad I got to share in your weird family hijinks. R.I.P., those of you who didn't make it. Things I learned from The Sopranos: 1) Don't be a mobster. 2) Don't marry a mobster. 3) Never do business with a mobster. 4) Never borrow money from a mobster. 5) Never act as a mobster's shrink, priest, doctor, or A.A. sponsor. And finally... 6) Never ever EVER play cards with a mobster! Salut.

* Japanese for, "So cute!"