Sunday, November 28, 2010

Japanese Tourists - August 1-5, 2010

On the last day of July I woke up early and made the trip to the airport. I got a ride with some family acquaintances; I’d actually had a lot of people offer to give me a lift, for which I’m grateful. I checked my luggage without much difficulty. The overweight charge has gone up from $75.00 to $100.00 since the last time I travelled overseas, but at least I’ve got the art of packing polished enough that I didn’t have any weight surprises. I went through security (including one of the new and much-discussed body-scanners), and then joined the other JET participants from Ottawa. The first flight was a short one to Toronto. The JETs all stuck pretty close together as we made our way to the international terminal, grabbed a snack, and took advantage of the airport’s free wi-fi. At 1:00 we boarded the plane and began our thirteen hour flight west. It was my second flight to Asia, so knew how to handle it. As on the trip to Hong Kong, we got well fed. I chatted with my neighbours, whom I’d gotten to know pretty well thanks to all our pre-departure seminars. I made use of my personal entertainment system, figuring it might be my last chance at movie-watching for a long time. I tried to avoid sleeping, but I did doze a bit towards the end. And then, almost before we knew it, it was time to land, and we were touching down in Tokyo.

I arrived at Narita Airport on Sunday, August 1, at 3:00 in the afternoon. Needless to say, I was there for a good long while. We had to walk from the terminal to arrivals, spent an hour or two lined up at customs, claimed our bags, divided our luggage into what we wanted to keep with us in Tokyo and what we wanted sent on to our host prefectures, and were finally put on a bus to our hotel. The bus ride took about an hour, and by the time we got there it was dark. I was given several packages full of information, which I accepted without much thought, found my room, and went to bed as quickly as I could.

You would think that having been awake almost continuously for twenty-four hours, I would have no trouble sleeping, but my first night in Tokyo was actually the first of several restless nights. Somewhere in the early hours of the morning I woke up, and couldn’t get back to sleep. It was as though all the tricks I’d tried to get my body onto Japanese time hadn’t worked, and it was as convinced as ever that one o’clock in the afternoon (Eastern Daylight Time) was a ridiculous time to be asleep.

The result was that I was pretty wasted throughout Tokyo orientation. Far from giving us a day or two to acclimatise and recover from our jet-lag, the Programme threw us into activities right on the first day. Breakfast was bright and early on Monday morning. After that, we had a welcome ceremony and watched the first of several speeches and presentations. This was also our first opportunity to meet some of the other JETs from our designated areas. After lunch, there were more presentations, and then workshops on specific aspects of living and teaching in Japan. The day concluded with a reception and buffet dinner.

As we shuttled ourselves upstairs and downstairs, backwards and forwards, from one room to the next, something occurred to me. You know those tourists you sometimes see? If you live in a big or important city, you probably know what I’m talking about. They travel in packs. They never stay anywhere long. They spend their days going from place to place, obediently following the lead of their guides. They carry their cameras around with them, and frequently stop to take photographs. They comment excitedly whenever they see something interesting, even things you consider perfectly ordinary. And they rarely interact with anyone outside their group. Since they don’t speak the language, they don’t talk to any of the locals; they just stick close together and chatter in their own tongue without any regard for the people around them. You know tourists like that? Well, that was us. All through our three days in Tokyo, we stuck together, conversing in English and having very little interaction with anything truly Japanese. We had so little free time that there were few chances to go exploring, or even to leave the hotel. It hardly felt like we were even in Japan!

At the end of the first day I decided I needed to get our of the hotel for a bit, even if it was only to stroll around the area. I took the map we’d been given, and ventured out on my own.

This might be a good time to make some comparisons between Hong Kong and Japan. Besides certain obvious things, like the fact that most people are oriental and everything is written in Chinese characters, there are lots of little ways the countries remind me of each other. In both countries sit-down toilets are common, and in Japan they often come with extra features like heated seats and water sprays. However, squat toilets are also common, although the ones in Japan are shaped differently from those in Hong Kong. In both places you can usually avoid them, but not always. In Japan, as in Hong Kong, they drive on the left. The sidewalks all have yellow strips with bumps running down them, a very practical device for assisting blind people with canes. Many of the restaurants feature plastic imitations of all the dishes they offer on display in their front windows, for convenient browsing by potential customers. They print everything on A4 paper, which is almost like 8 ½ × 11, but a bit longer and thinner. They also use two-hole punches and binders, for reasons that defy comprehension, as they leave sheets a lot more mobile and vulnerable to tearing. And, of course, the food is similar, though by no means the same.

I also noticed plenty of differences. In Hong Kong, they aren’t big on recycling. Rubbish almost never gets sorted by the people throwing it out, although lots of enterprising old people will go through garbage cans afterwards, collecting anything they can turn in for a profit. Here they’re quite conscientious about it: paper, plastic packaging, and glass, metal, and plastic containers all have to be separated from the other household waste. There are special bags for each type of item, and everything comes clearly labelled so you know where it goes, with symbols that are much easier to understand than those on Canadian packaging, despite the fact of all being in Japanese! The tap water is perfectly drinkable, so there will be no regular trips to the grocery store for jugs of distilled water this time. The electrical outlets are also similar to those in Canada, except that they rarely have a hole for the third prong, so I still need to use my adaptor with my computer. They use American English instead of British English, which surprised me at first, but makes sense considering the close relationship the U.S. and Japan have shared over the last half-century. It still seems like an odd choice, but if I can learn to say “rubbish” instead of “garbage”, I’m sure I can handle spelling “color” without a “U”. Finally, Japan is a lot more expensive. Compared to Canada it’s not so bad; a couple of things are actually cheaper. But there are none of the ridiculously low prices like those you find in Hong Kong. I may be making more money, but I’m going to have to budget hard if I want to meet my savings goals here.

Anyway, I wandered around a bit, and eventually found myself in a Japanese bookstore. Curious to see what kinds of books were available, and which western novels had Japanese translations, I browsed for a while, but I found it difficult to understand most of the signs and the labels. This was not because they were in difficult kanji; they were actually mostly written in katakana, the Japanese phonetic alphabet for writing foreign words. I’d already learned the hiragana alphabet (which is used for Japanese words), but I’d never gotten around to learning the katakana alphabet, and could only recognise some of the characters. Standing in the bookstore, staring at words that were probably English, but written in a foreign script, I felt really silly. Lots of people had told me to learn katakana before I came to Japan, because with it I could read all the Japanese words that were really borrowed from English. It’s exactly the same system as hiragana, just written differently, and only forty-six characters long. How could I not know it yet? Frustrated with myself I returned to the hotel and began studying. As I knew from practising hiragana, there isn’t much to leaning a new alphabet. It can be done in a couple of hours; you just copy it down a bunch of times until you have it cold. Before I went to bed I knew half the characters, and when I again found myself awake in the small hours I sat by the window and practised some more, so that by morning I had most of them.

On Tuesday we had yet more training seminars. In the afternoon we met some of our prefectural supervisors, and were told a bit about what we could expect from our arrival in Sendai. After that we had to sort our luggage and decide what things we wanted shipped from the hotel to Sendai. I’d already sent one suitcase and bag from the airport, so I just packed some of my heavier items in a box and mailed that.

In between all these activities, I took some time to look through the packages I’d received on my arrival. There was stuff from the Canadian embassy for Canadians living in Japan. There were guidebooks about Japan. There were booklets about emergency procedures and coping with natural disasters. Best of all was my JET diary! It’s is a smart little agenda-type book, made specifically for JET participants. That means that it includes all sorts of information that JETs would need, such as information on the programme itself, useful web sites and telephone numbers, conversion charts, instructions on making telephone calls and sending mail, information on natural disasters, maps, and a short dictionary of medical and nutritional terms. It made me realise, not for the first time, just how much trouble the JET Programme is going to for us. Over the past three months we’ve received piles of papers, orientations, classes, a free trip to Japan – and we haven’t done a single day’s work yet. I can’t help wondering what their rationale for doing this is, and whether it’s really worth it to them, but I’m not complaining.

In the evening I met up with a Japanese acquaintance from university. I’d tried unsuccessfully to call him several times, but I eventually figured out the phones and the dialling system, and he agreed to meet me at the hotel. First we went up to the observation platform on top of one of the neighbouring buildings for a panoramic view of Tokyo by night. Then we went out for dinner at a small restaurant. I decided to take the opportunity to try sake, since I would probably have it forced on me sooner or later. I had two different kinds, one of which was sweeter than the other, and that one I actually rather liked. Still, after two small cups I decided it was making me tipsy and that I had better stop. I was really glad to be able to get out and see even a little of Tokyo before I left. It was also nice to have a Japanese person to show me around a little. Unfortunately, he’s going back to university in the United States in the fall, but hopefully I’ll be able to see him again while I’m here.

On Wednesday we departed for our prefectures. We had breakfast, bid farewell to our compatriots who had arrived with us, and packed our things together. I took some time out to go up to the top floor of the hotel for a daytime view of Tokyo. The area we stayed in was called West Shinjuku, which is apparently one of the city’s major districts. Right across from us was a very interesting and creative-looking building. I would later learn from my guide-book that it’s the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Office building, and that it’s really rather well-known, but at the time I just thought we had a pretty cool building outside our window.

After check-out, or prefectural advisors met us in the lobby and guided us to the subway. The subway took us to the station where we would catch the shinkansen (bullet train) to Sendai. While we waited for the train, we were allowed to go and buy a lunch to take with us. I considered several of the Japanese bento boxes, but decided that I was feeling queasy and had better not shock my digestive system with anything too foreign, so I just bought a sandwich. I tried to find some juice to go with it, but the apple juice I eventually tracked down turned out to be carbonated. ‘Cause, you know what a tasty, vitamin-rich, and thirst-quenching beverage needs to make it even better? Fizz!

I’d slept a bit better the previous night, but was still pretty tired. I rested a bit on the train, but it only took a couple of hours to get to our destination. We were introduced briefly to Sendai Station, and then taken on the subway to our hotel. We got put up there for our very first night in Sendai, which I really appreciated. We even got private rooms with our own bathrooms. Our luggage that we’d shipped was there waiting for us, and I used the extra space to unpack and re-arrange things a bit. In the evening we got taken out to a restaurant for a welcome party. I checked out of the party pretty early, partly because I was still dead tired, and partly because people started lighting up, and the smoke was getting to me. Yes, another similarity between Hong Kong and Japan is that they haven’t banned smoking in public houses. I’m definitely going to be avoiding bars while I’m here.

I walked back along a street called the Ichi-ban Chou, a kind of pedestrian mall, similar to Ottawa’s Sparks Street. I successfully used my very limited Japanese to buy an ice-cream at a small shop, and ate it quite contentedly as I walked – at least until I remembered that eating on the go is supposed to be bad form in Japan. And since they’re not big on rubbish bins on the streets, I had to carry the cup all the way back with me. On the way, I took note of some of the more interesting stores. One caught my attention right away: Sendai has a Baskin Robbins! And they serve mint chocolate chip ice-cream! (Okay, they call it “chocolate mint” here, but it tastes the same.) I spent some time in the HMV, which had a comfortingly large foreign music section. I found surprisingly few Byan Adams C.D.s, but quite a lot of Neil Young. There’s also a Miyazaki store, by which I mean a store that sells exclusively items based on characters from Miyazaki films. My favourites were the key rings with the little soot-sprites from My Neighbour Totoro on them. I’ll definitely have to buy something there before I leave.

That night I finally got a relatively decent sleep, which was good, because on Thursday we were introduced to our head teachers. Our advisors had given us all an introductory speech template to practise, so we could look like we were making an effort. After a short ceremony, we received information on our individual schools and apartments, and also our hanko, or Japanese seal. This is an item of vital importance, which basically functions the same as a signature. Mine has my last name written top-to-bottom in katakana. After this I loaded my luggage into my head teacher’s car and let her take me all the places we needed to go. First, we went to the local municipal office to apply for an alien resident card. Then we went to the bank to set up an account. Then we went to get a cell phone; this was an especially gruelling process that required a lot of translation and took about an hour, even though all I wanted was a cheap phone with a relatively simple plan. Finally, we went to the school, where I signed (or, rather, stamped) a bunch of documents.

A different English teacher gave me a ride to my apartment, and I finally got to see the place I’ll be living for the next year. She took me to the local grocery store; my flat came pretty well stocked with cooking and eating utensils, so all I had to do was buy food. Fortunately I’m pretty comfortable with Asian grocery stores from my time in Hong Kong and Vancouver, so I knew what to look for. Onions, vegetables, tofu, rice, soy sauce, rice vinegar, peanut butter: these are the things I need for a basic stir-fry, and they were all available. The one thing I was worried about was peanut butter, and I was very pleased to find it, even if it did come in a tiny jar. The teacher I was with laughed at me for seeking out low-fat milk (yet another similarity to Hong Kong: milk here tends to be of the “whole” variety), but at least I found it. I was also excited to find real apple juice (non-carbonated), brown rice (I was afraid I would have to spend a year eating only the white stuff), and tea. There was no whole-grain bread, but I did find a rye bread that had whole grains of rye in it, and the teacher recommended a soy bean spread to go with it that ended up being quite good. I’ll have to do a lot more exploring before I get comfortable with all the things in Japanese grocery stores, but I have brown rice, and I have peanut butter. I will survive my year in Japan!

The teacher gave me a lift back, and then left me. I cooked my dinner, and then went to my bedroom to sort out the brand-new bed that my employers had thoughtfully provided for me. I had to unwrap it first, and then I spent some time figuring out what all the different pieces were. Instead of a western-style bed, I got a futon, which goes on the floor. It also came with several blankets, including a nice fuzzy fleece and a soft downy comforter that I know I’ll appreciate when winter comes along. For now, though, it’s sweltering hot, so I just went with the piece of terry cloth that I took (correctly) for a summer blanket. Oddly, the only thing that the bed didn’t come with was a pillow, so I wrapped a towel in my spare blanket and settled down for my first night in my new home.

Oh, and by the way, it turns out it’s pronounced “fh-to(n)”, notfoo-ton”.*

Movies I’ve seen this week:

Alice in Wonderland
– A surprisingly bad movie, considering the director and source material. I actually rather liked the contrived plot-line – it was the world onto which it was superimposed that didn’t work for me. It’s tempting to say that I resented it for diverging so sharply from the books, and that someone who hadn’t read the originals would be able to appreciate the movie on its own merits. The problem with that is that the movie makes so many jokes based on content in the books that I suspect anyone who hadn’t read them would feel completely lost. So it ends up being neither a good adaptation nor a good original work. (Two stars)

Iron Man
– Reasonably diverting super-hero action film. Light enough to be amusing in places, but without the gravity needed to be truly engaging. (Three stars)

The Secret in Their Eyes
– A gripping and well-made mystery thriller that I quite enjoyed for its first three-quarters. Unfortunately, I was disappointed in the ending which gets a bit crazy and far-fetched. (Three stars)

* To clarify, the “F” sound in “futon” is really half-way between an “F” and an “H”; the “U” is barely pronounced; and the final “N” is almost silent in much the same way as it is in French.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Story So Far

As I begin a new adventure, it seems like a good time to give you a bit of background on myself. If you’re reading this blog, you probably know a lot about me already, but even if you don’t, this quick summary of my life should get you up to speed.

The first seven years:

I lived with my mother, father, and sister in a small house in London, Ontario. I remember this as a mostly happy time in my life, although, as so often happens, I may just be viewing the past through rose-tinted glasses.

The next seven years:

My parents split up. My mom, sister, and I spent another year in London, then went on an extended vacation to England and Europe. Although my memory of this period is pretty vague, I credit it with instilling in me a love of travel and of exploring new cities. During the six months we were abroad, we visited Cornwall, Stratford, the Lake District, Scotland, Denmark, and Austria, besides spending a great deal of time in London.

When we returned to Canada we moved to Ottawa, and I started going to school again. I had to start learning French, which I didn’t understand and resented. I didn’t have any friends, and everybody teased me. Life was hell.

Around grade six, I started watching Sailor Moon. It was one of my first experiences with Japanese animation, although years later I would discover that many of the cartoons I’d watched as a child had also been anime. In my last year of elementary school, I saw Star Wars and it ruined my life. I developed a consuming obsession with the trilogy that eventually evolved into an passion for in movies in general.

High school:

I still didn’t have any friends, but people stopped teasing me, and some of them even started hanging out with me. Life sucked, but was notably not hell anymore. I developed a reputation as a film buff, and since I’d never been good at anything in my life, I decided to cultivate it. Some of the people I hung out with watched anime and studied Japanese, and in my last two years I began watching anime too, although I didn’t think very much of it. I kept taking French, and by Grade 13 was surprised to discover that I’d grown to really like it. Sadly, high school was also where my French education ended, and my fluency has been declining ever since.


I moved back to London and completed a four year B.A. at the University of Western Ontario. I initially enrolled with a major in Political Science, with an eye to possibly applying to law school. However, in the interest of keeping up my reputation, I took a few film courses, and liked them so much that I decided to add Film Studies as a second major.

I joined the school anime club, although it was the people more than the shows that attracted me to it. Eventually I warmed to one or two of the series we watched, and in my third year I even wrote an essay on the films of Miyazaki Hayao.

Around this time, I also made a couple of friends, thanks to which my life no longer completely sucks, and I even allow myself to entertain the romantic notion that it might actually be worth living.

The last four years:

As the time for me to graduate university approached, I became increasingly aware of the fact that I still had no career path chosen. I had more or less dismissed the idea of going into law, and neither of my majors suggested an obvious course of action. I didn’t think I had what it would take to be a filmmaker, and government jobs are notoriously difficult to land. A trip to my guidance counsellor was not very helpful. The personality test he had me take revealed that the job I would most enjoy was that of university professor. I laughed out loud, and then made a comment about “those who can’t”. In fact, I think a part of me was secretly expecting that answer, but the thing about pursuing a career as a professor is that first you have to decide what you want to be a professor of. And if there’s one thing I’ve always found difficult, it’s choosing one academic discipline over the others.

At this point, something else was becoming painfully clear to me: I had spent the last nineteen years of my life in school, and they had taught me to be really really good at being in school! But occasionally, one hears about a different world, a world that exists beyond the walls of academia, a world referred to, rather intriguingly, as “real life”. And it occurred to me that for a truly well-rounded education, I might want to try experiencing this “real life” thing, at least for a little while. And so I began to zero in on a less ambitious plan. While I was still studying, an acquaintance told me about the “JET Programme”, an initiative that allowed English-speaking university graduates to spend a year teaching in Japan. During my last year of university, I heard similar suggestions from several people, including my counsellor. In fact, there are several countries, particularly in Asia, where you can get a job with a good salary and benefits just for being a native English speaker. Most of the better jobs also prefer that you have a university degree, but that was no longer something I needed to worry about.

Besides the fact that it was one of the few jobs I was qualified for, the idea of teaching English overseas appealed to me on a couple of other levels. First, in the area of real life experience, it would force me out of my comfort zone and into a more self-sufficient lifestyle. Second, it would give me valuable job experience, which would be good to have on my résumé. Third, as mentioned above, I have always had a love of travel, but since moving to Ottawa my international experience had been limited to a week in Austria, a week in Washington, D.C., and two weeks in London and Paris. I had never been to Asia at all, so the opportunity to go there was especially enticing. Moreover, another thing my travels as a child had instilled me with was the notion that it wasn’t enough just to visit a country for a few days. To really experience it, you needed to live there for an extended period, allowing it to become part of your daily routine, and seeing not just the big sights but the small oddities.

So I decided to take a break from school and do a stint as an English teacher. I took a TESL (Teaching English as a Second Language) course, with the idea of applying to the JET Programme right away. Unfortunately, I missed the deadline, and spent a year working at Shoppers Drug Mart and applying for other positions in east Asia. I eventually got hired by an agency in Hong Kong, and spent ten months teaching in a Chinese-language high school there. When I was done, instead of moving back to Ottawa, I decided to try living in Vancouver for a while. There were a few reasons for this: I wasn’t ready to stop travelling, but I still intended to apply to the JET Programme, and needed to be in my home country to do it. The clincher was my experience in Hong Kong: it seemed that everyone I met there had either been to Vancouver, or knew someone in Vancouver, or had family in Vancouver. Having to admit that I’d never so much as been to B.C. made me realise how little I really knew my country, and I resolved to learn a bit more about it. I spent fifteen months in Vancouver, during which time I worked for a total of nine months in three different language schools. I applied to the JET Programme and made it to the interview stage, but was ultimately rejected. I was disappointed by this, but undeterred. Having spent over a year in Vancouver, I decided to move back to Ottawa and apply again.

In retrospect, I’m really grateful things worked out that way. The intervening year gave me a chance to get re-acquainted with Ottawa and spend time with my friends. I re-applied to the JET Programme, and this time I got accepted! Now, four years after graduating university, I am finally leaving Ottawa to begin a year of living and working in Japan. I hope to continue this blog as a chronicle of my experiences there.

Friday, October 22, 2010

I ♥ My Hometown!

Ottawa is a lovely city. Living abroad, I’ve often had people ask me about my hometown, and that’s what I always tell them. I mean it, too. It’s physically beautiful, with an interesting variety of old buildings and lots of green space. It’s big enough to host several museums, historical sites, and festivals, but small enough to feel welcoming and accessible. It has hot summers and cold winters, beautiful spring days and fiery fall colours. It’s a nice place to visit and to live. Though life continues to take me to far-flung locations, it’s still my home, and the place where I eventually want to settle down.

Now life is taking me to the distant land of Japan. I’m going to be there for at least a year: the longest period yet for me to be away. And there’s no guarantee that when I leave I’ll be returning straight home; I may well decide to spend another year or more travelling in the region. So as I prepare to depart once more, I’ve put together a little photo diary of the city. I didn’t get pictures of all the places I wanted to, unfortunately, but I have enough to remind me of what my city is like and why I love it. It’s partly a way to help me remember it while I’m away, but it’s also a record of how the city is now in 2010. Ottawa is a changing city. Most notably, it’s rapidly expanding, with its borders getting ever further out, and new developments being built all the time. It will be interesting to see how many of these pictures still represent Ottawa in a few decades. For now, though, here is my hometown, told as a record of my favourite – and least favourite – Ottawa locations.

South Keys (Least Favourite):

This giant strip mall I’ve nicknamed “Brobdingnag”, because it feels like it was designed for much larger creatures than humans. The façades extend so far up that one has to step off the sidewalk and walk several metres away from the storefronts to read many of the signs, and the complex is so long that it actually fills up the space between two separate Transitway stops!

Rockcliffe (Favourite):

A nice place to go for a drive if you like looking at beautiful houses you’d never be able to afford.

The Museum of Civilization, a.k.a. Le Musée des Civilisations (Favourite):

Okay, technically it’s in Gatineau, but I think most people claim that Québec city as part of Ottawa, anyway. This is a pretty good museum of Canadian culture, with an interactive exhibition on the first nations, and another on the colonial history of the country. The special exhibits are sometimes good, and there’s even an IMAX theatre.

The Market (Favourite):

This is a lovely spot for strolling, shopping, or going out for lunch, and it’s right in the heart of downtown!

The U.S. Embassy (Least Favourite):

This imposing, guarded, and generally unfriendly structure makes no attempt to fit in with its surroundings. Overlooked by palatial structures like the Parliament Buildings and the National Gallery, it has neither charm nor beauty, but sits grumpily and superciliously on Sussex Drive between the ByWard Market and Major’s Hill Park.

The view from the Rideau St. Bridge (Favourite):

Every so often, I find myself walking somewhere, and I have to stop and say to myself “Wow. I live in a really beautiful city!” This is the place where that most often happens.

Parliament Hill (Favourite):

This building is grand-looking enough for our seat of our government, yet not too imposing. Its front lawn welcomes visitors who come to watch the changing of the guard, take in the light show, or participate in the Canada Day celebrations. It’s also a good vantage point for gazing out at the river, and the Peace Tower proclaims the correct time to people in all directions.

The Sparks Street Mall (Favourite):

During my last visit to Ottawa, I heard that this street was on the way down, which is sad. The open mall is a really nice place to eat lunch, shop, or just go for a stroll.

The National Arts Centre (Least Favourite):

Okay, I don’t want to make it sound like I hate the N.A.C. I’m just frustrated by it. I don’t go there that often, and I have nothing to say against its music scene. What I will say, though, is that of the plays I’ve attended there (and there have been several over the years) every one has been a disappointment. As a child I saw lots of good theatre in London, England, and more recently I’ve been to decent productions in cities like Toronto and Vienna. Maybe it’s not fair to expect Ottawa to rival those world-class cities, but there’s definitely room for improvement here. Whether it’s the physical building itself that’s the problem, or simply the quality of the productions, I’m not sure, but a city as culturally rich as Ottawa should be able to do better.

The Ottawa Public Library – Main Branch (Least Favourite):

Other cities I’ve lived in have beautiful central libraries. Vancouver’s has a coliseum theme, while Hong Kong’s is a bright and airy structure overlooking Victoria Park. In contrast, we have the Metcalfe Library, an ugly concrete structure out of the seventies. Such an important institution should add to Ottawa’s beauty, not mar it.

The Ottawa Canal (Favourite):

Unfortunately I didn’t get a picture of this in the winter, when you can visit it for beaver tails and skating! Even in the summer, though, it’s a nice place to go for a walk.

The Museum of Nature (Favourite):

This old stone building looks rather wonderfully like a castle. The inside is just as wonderful, full of exhibits about our fascinating natural world. Apparently its location is directly opposite the Parliament Buildings, and I was once told a story about one prime minister wanting to knock down all the intervening buildings and create a direct line of site between the two structures. It’s an impractical plan, of course, but I really wish it wasn’t, because I think it would look quite nice.

The Glebe (Favourite):

A nice, quiet, suburban area with a lot of character. The houses are nice, but not overly-large, and there are lots of interesting stores on Bank Street.

Shoppers Drug Mart – Glebe (Least Favourite):

Ever since the summer I worked as an inventory counter, I’ve had a loathing of this chain, which seems determined to make its presence felt in every corner of the city. Of all the massive stores I’ve been to (stores which, contrary to what the name implies, sell not just drugs but also cosmetics, stationary, books, cameras, and milk), this one is my least favourite. Dominating (as all Shoppers Drug Marts do) the block on which it sits, it forms a kind of corporate blight on an otherwise charming neighbourhood.

The Real Canadian Superstore – Westboro (Least Favourite):

Another store I had the pleasure of counting when I was an inventory clerk, this hypermarket looks like it could keep an army in shelter, food, clothing, prescription drugs, gardening supplies, and greeting cards for a year. Which I’m sure we’ll all appreciate when the nuclear winter sets in, but until then, I don’t see why we need this monstrosity taking up an entire block of Westboro Village.

Island Park Drive (Favourite):

Another nice street full of interesting and unaffordable houses.

Westboro Village (Favourite):

Take a walk around this area and you can see how it could really have been a village once upon a time. Now it contains a few interesting stores, notably one of Ottawa’s Ten Thousand Villages.

The Parkway (Favourite):

This strip of greenery and roadway runs along the north edge of the city, where it meets the Ottawa river. It’s a lovely place to go walking, driving, or cycling. It also symbolises one of the things I like most about the city: the amount of green space it incorporates.

Merivale Rd. (Least Favourite):

This is “Brobdingnag II”; I hate it just as much as South Keys, and for all the same reasons. I once heard a caller to the CBC express the problem very well: the whole street was very obviously designed for cars, not people. If you want to drive everywhere, then it functions as a kind of giant shopping mall. It’s not at all friendly to pedestrians, though. Each of the big-box stores that lines the street is the size of a regular city block. The sidewalk runs right alongside the busy divided road, and is separated from each store by a parking lot that’s easily as big as the store itself. The result is that walking from one store to the one across from it is a five-minute journey, and it would probably take an hour to go from one end of the “mall” to the other.

Kanata, Barhaven, etc. (Least Favourite):

The biggest limit to Ottawa’s beauty is, unfortunately, this: extent. While the downtown core and many of the surrounding neighbourhoods remain lovely, the city is rapidly expanding outwards, and none of that charm can be found in its newer settlements. Although I don’t often venture beyond the old city limits, what I've seen of the suburbs has been uniformly depressing: seas of identical houses and colonies of big-box stores. Bus service is minimal, and distances are so great as to discourage walking, so people have to drive everywhere. They seem, from what I’ve seen, to be free of local institutions, or any kind of local character. Of course, maybe I’m misjudging these regions. My few trips to them have mostly been in the context of my job as inventory clerk, and so naturally featured a lot of big-box stores. Still, they depress me, and I worry about the future of the city if it continues to expand this way.

Five things I would do if I had unlimited money and influence:

1. Turn Lebreton Flats into a parking lot and turn the downtown core into a busses-only zone. This would force people to take public transportation, and also get a lot of cars off our downtown roads.
2. Tear down the Metcalfe library and replace it with something that doesn’t look like a giant cinderblock. Preferably something with a roof garden.
3. Tear down the N.A.C. and replace it with something that could actually put on a decent production of The Nutcracker.
4. Pave over Bank Street and turn it into a walking street, similar to the Sparks Street Mall. (Does anyone actually like driving on Bank Street?)
5. Enact some zoning laws to make sure some thought got put into the new suburbs.

And one more thing…:

- Build an aquarium. Because I love aquaria and I think every big city should have one. Hey, I know, they could make that the new use for the Conference Centre!

Sunday, October 10, 2010

One Hundred Little Things - July 2010

I kicked off my last month in Ottawa rather fittingly with my favourite Ottawa event: Canada Day. As usual, I spent my afternoon wandering around downtown and my evening on Parliament Hill. The evening concert featured a large number of artists, the most famous being the Barenaked Ladies. I was a bit disappointed that they weren’t the main act, and that they had to share the time with so many other artists, but at least I can say I’ve seen B.N.L. live. They played a few songs from about ten years ago, one new one, and, of course, “If I Had $1000000”. I swear, that song never gets old!

I’ve done a few other touristy things this month, including going to the changing of the guard on Parliament Hill and paying my first visit in years to the Museum of Nature. The changing of the guard was okay, though quite perfunctory, considering that the Hill has no actual guard to change. I have very fond memories of the Museum of Nature, and was quite keen on visiting it again. It was closed for a while for renovations, and I visited it shortly after it re-opened. Visiting it as an adult, I could see its appeal for children, but it didn’t thrill me the way its London counterpart did the last time I was in England. The fact that there were little kids running around everywhere, bumping into me and getting underfoot, didn’t help. It’s still a decent exhibit, though, and definitely worth seeing. My memory of the place is too fuzzy for me to know which parts were new, but I don’t remember the blue whale skeleton being there before.

Work being over, I theoretically have a lot of free time, but the been keeping pretty busy getting ready for my trip to Japan. Big things like my travel arrangements are being taken care of for me, but there are still dozens of little things to be done. I’ve been doing a lot of clothes-shopping, trying to ensure I have everything I might possibly need over the course of a year. Japanese people being short and I being tall even for a Canadian, I’m not counting on being able to find anything over there that fits me. There’s also packing, cleaning my room, organising documents, renewing my passport, converting dollars into yen, getting vaccinated, buying omiyagi (gifts) for people in Japan, etc., etc. One of the things I haven’t been able to do is to inform the Ministry of Health about my change of location. I went into the local office to try and do it, but they wouldn’t accept the document I gave them, and told me I’d need something official to prove I was going to be working in Japan. You know, I really don’t see why I have to tell the Ministry of Health every time I go somewhere. What’s it to them that the reason I haven’t made use of their services recently is that I’m living in another country, being covered by a different health-care plan, and not, say, that I just haven’t gotten sick? And if they’re so keen on me keeping them in the loop, why can’t they make it easy for me to do so? Why do I need to prove I’m going to be working in Japan; can’t they take my word for it? Is it likely I’d lie about my location in order to avoid the benefits of OHIP??? This is one of those bureaucratic hoops I just don’t get.

Though we all had busy schedules, I tried to spend time with all my friends before I left. My last swing dance in Ottawa was the week before my birthday, so I and my guests got in for free. I danced with lots of people and had a really good time. For my birthday party I went to The Works with my friends, and then we all went up to Parliament Hill to see the evening light show. The show told the story of Canada in three parts: first the indigenous culture and colonisation, then the history of the country post-confederation, and finally a tribute to Canadian culture. The show was certainly questionable in some of the ways it chose to represent Canada, but it was good food for conversation, and some of the light effects were quite impressive, particularly the part where they made it look like the walls were popping in and out.

I also had a going-away party with people from church. It was nice to be able to say goodbye, and to have them all wish me luck. I got some really good going away presents, too. Nothing big, but all of it useful, from a Canada shirt (something I’d been meaning to buy, but hadn’t gotten around to), to a package of tissues (always good to have), to a portable U.S.B. hard drive (I just know that’s going to come in handy).

The vegetable garden ended up being a qualified success. We didn’t get any more spinach and the beans never grew. I also didn’t get a chance to enjoy the later vegetables, such as the carrots and squash. We did get some nice peas, although they only ended up being a handful. We also had some nice meals based on beet greens and Swiss chard, and the lettuce proved useful for sandwiches, although it turned into crazy tall mutant lettuce. I only got to try some of the tomatoes, but the ones I had were really nice, and I look forward to enjoying more in future years.

In the news, that oil spill that started back in April was still going this month. They say they’ve got it capped, now, but it’s still sickening to think about the environmental damage.

Movies I’ve seen this month:

Entre les murs – Decidedly un-heartwarming look at a high school teacher struggling to educate his class of unruly students. (Three stars)

Capitalism: A Love Story – Michael Moore’s attack on capitalism: a potentially fascinating project, if handled well. Which, of course, it isn’t. Moore unfortunately forgoes the journalistic principles of balance and reasoned debate entirely, opting instead for one-sided rants and childish pranks. And while vitriolic in his condemnation of the current economic situation, he fails to offer any concrete suggestions as to how it could be improved or what it could be replaced with. (Two stars)

Iolanthe – Gilbert and Sullivan musical about some fairies who start meddling with Parliament. Mildly amusing, but forgettable. (Two stars)

Ponyo – A new animated film by Miyazaki Hayao. Sweet and inoffensive, but a bit hard to follow, and definitely not Miyazaki’s best film. (Two and a half stars)

Towelhead – Despite the name, this film has comparatively little to do with racism. It’s certainly there as a sub-theme, which is played out rather interestingly, and I wish had been dealt with more, but the real topic is the awkward, and sometimes disturbing, sexual experiences of a thirteen-year-old girl. Although I can’t say I found that very appealing, it was rather a refreshing change to see a brutally explicit film about female adolescence, and I’m quite impressed with the performance of the eighteen-year-old lead. (Three stars)

Mao’s Last Dancer – Fairly interesting true story about a Chinese ballet dancer who visits the United States and decides to defect. It’s unusual to see a western film about Chinese characters, and I quite enjoyed most of it, although I thought the last half hour was a bit weak. (Three and a half stars)

Les Plages d’Agnès – Autobiographical documentary by filmmaker Agès Varda. I’ve never seen anything she made, which meant, unfortunately, that the documentary was mostly lost on me. (Not going to try)

My Big Fat Greek Wedding – A fairly conventional romantic comedy. Cute and amusing in places, but a bit forced and lacking in real charm. (Two and a half stars)

Gigante – Either a sweet and quirky romantic comedy, or a creepy and disturbing stalker film. It seems to think it’s the former; I’m pretty sure it’s the latter. (Two stars)

T.V. shows I’ve watched this month:

Doctor Who (New Season 5) – Another lame and corny season of this strangely addictive series. Matt Smith as the Doctor is quite likeable, but doesn’t have his predecessor’s ability to distract the viewer from the show’s many weaknesses. For the first few episodes, I really thought I’d had it with the show, but there are some intriguing developments later in the season, and I’m curious to see how they play out in the future. (I missed Season 4, so I don’t know who this River person is, but I like her!)

The Wire (Season 1) – In October, when I first arrived back in Ottawa, one of the first thing I did was request this from the library. I finally got it one week before my departure, which meant that I had to watch it in a kind of mad rush between all my leaving preparations. This complex and uncompromising police drama, set in the “home of the misdemeanor homicide”, is definitely of a pedigree above ordinary T.V. shows, making comparisons with The Sopranos inevitable. I wouldn’t say it impressed me quite as much as that landmark series, but it does have several strengths over the other show. Both deal with crime, but this one follows the stories of both the criminals and the policemen pursuing them. It also tries to explain its criminals, shows them with doubts and weaknesses, and makes them sympathetic in a way the DiMeo crime family never was. Comparisons are also inevitable with David Simon’s book Homicide, which partly inspired it. I had fun recognising characters and sub-plots from that book. I also felt similar feelings of disgust with the crude, violent, and often unethical behaviour of the cops. I’m sure it’s realistic, but it doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in the police. Although certainly a very good series, I can’t say that it truly grabbed my imagination, or that I’m terribly impatient to see the next season. Still, I’ll probably check out the rest of it some time. As someone pointed out to me, once you get a taste of good television, it’s hard to settle for the regular stuff.

Radio programmes I’ve listened to this month:

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (Seasons 3-5) – Dramatisations of the last three books in the trilogy. True to their written counterparts, Season 3 is fairly entertaining, Seasons 4 and 5 mostly dull and depressing. My favourite part is actually the contrived happy ending that has been tacked onto the last episode, which gets all the characters back together and includes some all-new Crowning Moments of Funny.

Books I’ve read this month:

Easy Avenue by Brian Doyle – Several times over the past few years, I’ve read a children’s book, been disappointed in it, and wished I’d read it when I was younger and might have appreciated it better. This brilliant little book I wish I’d read when I was younger because I love it, and wish it had been in my life longer! For starters, it’s set in my beloved hometown. Since it takes place in the post-war period, it also provides a glimpse of Ottawa history: a pet fascination of mine. It’s also rather obviously modelled on Dickens’s Great Expectations, and is indeed very Dickensian in its story and characters. The story itself is nice and told with a good touch of humour. I’m taking it to Japan with me; I’m going to re-read it when I get homesick.

Wyrd Sisters by Terry Pratchett – My favourite Discworld book so far! The story is comparatively tight and cleverly told. I enjoyed the many, many references to Macbeth and other Shakespeare works. It was also nice to have mostly female protagonists for a change, and Pratchett does a less-than-awful job of writing them.

The Flight of Dragons by Peter Dickenson – An interesting non-fiction book in which the author argues for the existence of historical dragons. This may seem like a far-fetched theory, and I’d certainly question some of his reasoning, but as a scientific and literary investigation it’s fairly informative, and several of his arguments are intriguing.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick – Sci-fi novel best remembered as the basis for Bladerunner. Quite a bit better than the film, with a more interesting world and better character-development. It actually contains a lot of interesting inventions besides the eerily anthropomorphic robots, many of which are only touched on vaguely. My biggest complaint is that so many of the themes it raises are left underexplored.

The Inimitable Jeeves, Carry On, Jeeves, and Very Good, Jeeves by P. G. Wodehouse

"I say, Jeeves?"
"Yes, sir?"
"What do you make of this book?"
"The collection of short stories by Mr Wodehouse, sir?"
"That's the one. Bit rummy, what?"
"In what respect, sir?"
"Well the plotlines for a start. Dashed silly, if you ask me. Falling in love and out of love. Elaborate deceptions of elderly relatives. Burglary. Bribery. Blackmail. And some truly awful parenting practices."
"The style does tend towards the fatuous, sir."
"You said it, Jeeves. Why, if two chaps were to get together and perform the thing, it would be… something as a whatsit, Jeeves."
"Condemned as an improbable fiction, sir?"
"Exactly. I mean, take this hero lad. Seems like a good egg. Sound in the coconut, heart of gold, all that rot. It's just that he… well, you know, he doesn't seem to… do much of anything."
"You think the protagonist would be more engaging if he had some form of employment, sir?"
"Precisely, Jeeves. It's all very well to spend an hour or two with Bertram Wooster the infantile frat boy, but think of the fun one could have with 'Bertram Wooster: Private Investigator'?"
"That would certainly open up several dramatic and comic possibilities, sir."
"Or how about, 'Bertram Wooster: World Traveller', or even, 'Bertram Wooster: Member of Parliament'!"
"Aided, of course, by his loyal valet, sir?"
"Of course, Jeeves."
"Might I venture an observation, sir?"
"Certainly, Jeeves, venture away!"
"Well, sir, you might consider the purpose of the author in writing the stories. They were not, I believe, intended as high art, but merely as light entertainment, designed not to edify, but to bring a curl to the lip and a twinkle to the eye."
"Are they, by George? Well, call me an old stick in the mud, but the eye does not twinkle, nor does any other of the parts. I think the characters are positively beastly to one another. As far as I can see, they're all severely deficient in common s., and quite lacking in the m. of human k."
"One does discern a certain vein of schadenfreude, sir, such as is commonly found among the natives of this island."
"Really, Jeeves? You think that we Brits are full-up with this… whatever it was you said?"
"One hesitates to generalise, sir. However, if you will turn your mind for a moment to the plays of the late Mr Wilde, the fantasy novels of the late Mr Adams or the still extant Mr Pratchett, or those gentlemen of the Monty Python comedy troupe, you may remark upon a tendency in our comedic works towards the unsentimental, not to say the cynical."
"And you think this tendency reflects the British taste in humour?"
"To a limited extent, I believe it does, sir."
"With the upshot that much British humour is lost on our cousins across the drink?"
"I fear that may sometimes be the case, sir."
"Right ho! Thank you, Jeeves."
"Very good, sir."

Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynn Truss - (Sic) Well, if you’re going to write a book and subtitle it “A Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation”, then it shouldn’t surprise you when other people come along and deconstruct your punctuation! Actually, one of the things I learned from this book is that that comma that comes before the “and” in a list of three or more items is called an “Oxford comma”, though no explanation is given for why U.S. writers tend to use it while British writers tend not to. This and other subtleties of English punctuation are the nits the author of this book picks. I was thus expecting a fascinating read, but though funny and somewhat informative, I found it less than inspirational. Maybe that’s because so many of the points she clarifies are either ones I’ve been well-versed in since high school, or because I question several of the assertions she makes. (Shouldn’t that be “A Zero-Tolerance Approach…”?)

Dragonsinger by Anne McCaffrey – This sequel to Dragonsong is fairly slow-moving and action-free, and though it develops the world introduced in the previous book, there is nothing in the story that grabbed my attention, and the characters are starting to bore me.

The Mating Season by P. G. Wodehouse – Okay, I think I’ve satisfied a lifetime’s worth of curiosity about the Jeeves books. It’s time to stop now.

Friday, September 24, 2010

…And Dribble Out of My Ears - June 2010

We had our last few Japanese lessons at the beginning of June. I wish they’d gone on longer, or been held closer to our departure date. We only had time to cover some basic functions and vocabulary, and I imagine that by the time we actually arrive in Japan, I’ll have forgotten most of it anyway. Most of the others in the class were beginners like me, although a few do speak some Japanese and have even lived in Japan before. I was glad I’d done even a minimal amount of Japanese study before the class; I think it helped me to get more out of it.

Later in the month we had a Japanese cooking class. I really appreciated it, as Japanese cooking is quite a bit different from Canadian cooking: no ovens for one thing, a lot more emphasis on rice, and a lot less cheese. They introduced some Japanese snacks, such as mochi, candied chestnuts, wasabi peas, and edamame. They also taught us some useful recipes, including onigiri (rice balls), wakame salad, and cold somen noodles. They were all good. I’m especially keen on the onigiri, which seems to be a kind of Japanese equivalent to the sandwich.

This month I also learned my placement. I’ll be working in a chugakko (junior high school) in a city called Sendai. I’ve never heard of it before, but apparently it is a relatively major city. It’s in the northern part of Honshu, about five hours north of Tokyo by car (or two hours by bullet train), and has a population of about one million (similar to that of Ottawa). I wanted a high school placement, and was hoping to be put in a slightly more central location, but over-all it looks pretty good.

The first weekend of the month I went to an event called Doors Open Ottawa. Apparently it occurs every year, but this was the first time I’d heard of or attended it. For one weekend, many of the major buildings around Ottawa open their doors and welcome visitors in. Since we often neglect to do touristy things in our own cities, and since I’ll be going away soon, I figured it would be a good opportunity to learn a bit more about Ottawa history. I visited several locations, including the drill hall, City Hall, Rideau Hall, and a couple of churches. I even went to my old high school and snapped a picture of the plaque with my name on it! The most interesting location was Laurier House, former residence of both Sir Wilfred Laurier and William Lyon Mackenzie King. The rooms had all been preserved in a period style, and there were guides around to provide anecdotes about the former prime ministers. There was even a corner dedicated to Lester B. Pearson; don’t ask me why. The other location I was very glad to visit was the Conference Centre, formerly Ottawa Union Station. You might not guess it today, but the railroad used to run right up to downtown Ottawa, and terminate in the building across from the Château Laurier. It still looks like a railway station, and I rather regret that it doesn’t get used for that purpose any more, and that our current train station is a rather utilitarian affair in the east end. Still, I guess the downtown wouldn’t be as picturesque as it is if it had trains running through it.

Work ended for me this month. I’ve only had one student for the past couple of months, and now that her contract has come to an end, I don’t expect to get any more. On the plus side I have lots of free time to prepare for my departure. Mostly, though, I’ve been watching movies and T.V. and reading books – not even challenging books, but fast, light, juvenile books. I guess you could say I’m cramming in as much reading and viewing as possible while I still have the chance, recklessly letting my brain turn into mush…

In the news this month, Israel boarded an aid ship bound for Gaza while it was still in international waters, killing nine people. It seems like an idiotic move to me, but as usual the situation is complicated, and we’ll probably never entirely understand exactly what happened. In national news, the G20 held a summit in Toronto. As tends to happen with these events, security was ridiculously tight, and still didn’t stop people from smashing shop windows and torching cop cars. No one comes out of this incident looking good, and the ones who come off worst are probably the Canadian people as a whole.

Movies I’ve seen this month:

The Haunted Castle – Silent German expressionist film, by the director of Nosferatu. Not my favourite silent German expressionist film, but I do love the genre! (Three stars)

Fifty Dead Men Walking – Gritty thriller about one man’s career as an I.R.A. informant. It’s a pretty interesting story, though depressing. Poor Ireland: such a screwed-over country! (Three and a half stars)

Gideon's Trumpet – Low-key dramatisation of a landmark U.S. legal case. I love this kind of movie: it takes an interesting subject and makes it comprehensible without sensationalising it. (Three and a half stars)

The Good Earth – Old black and white U.S. movie about a family of peasants in pre-revolutionary China. Surprisingly good, considering when it was made, with a reasonably interesting story and some beautiful cinematography. The fact that the two leads are played by white actors is a bit weird, but I was actually more impressed with the number of honest-to-goodness Asians in the cast. (Three stars)

Micmacs à tire-larigot – Silly French film about a man’s vendetta against the arms manufacturers whose weapons have ruined his life. The premise is a bit questionable, but I guess arms manufacturers make pretty unsympathetic targets, and I enjoyed the mix of oddball characters, particularly the contortionist. (Three stars)

Gentleman's Agreement – Think "Jewish, Like Me". A journalist goes looking for anti-Semitism, and finds it at every turn. Quite good and intelligent in places, despite its seemingly out-dated theme. (Three and a half stars)

An Education – Much better than you would expect from a “coming-of-age movie about a teenage girl’s relationship with an older man”. Despite its familiar premise, it manages to rise above the hopeless mess of clichés and tell a relatively insightful and positive story. (Four stars)

Tulpan – My first Kazakhstani film, about an aspiring shepherd and his search for a wife. It has a sweet story, but is as much about showcasing a way of life as about the characters. Slow-moving and featuring some very impressive long takes. (Three stars)

T.V. shows I’ve seen this month:

Jeeves & Wooster (Season 4) – Last time, I promise. This season wraps up the series, with its appeal still mostly lost on me. I wouldn't say I've become a fan of Hugh Laurie, or even of Bertie Wooster, but I've definitely become a fan of Hugh Laurie as Bertie Wooster. And while Stephen Fry isn't at all how I'd envision Jeeves, based on what I've read of the books, I enjoy the acerbic, passive-aggressive, gently flirtatious relationship the co-stars share. One can only imagine what they could have done with a decent plot. I guess if I want intelligent upper-class comedy I'll just have to stick with Frasier. By the way, if you're wondering why I'm still watching this show, it's because its four seasons amount to a grand total of twenty-three episodes.

Flash Forward (Season 1) – A new American sci-fi thriller starring an oddly large number of Brits. Chief among these is Joseph "Whatever-Happened-To…" Fiennes, sporting a Jack Bauer complex and an American accent so flawless it's easy to forget this is the same guy whose biggest claims to fame are playing Will Shakespeare and being Ralph Fiennes's younger brother. Meanwhile, the supporting cast looks like a cross-section of every T.V. show from the last decade. Hey, look, it's Courtney B. Vance from Law & Order: C.I.! Hey, it's Dominic Monaghan from Lost! And there's Alex Kingston from ER, and even Gina Torres from Firefly! Not to mention John Cho from the new Star Trek movie.

Anyway, the plot: Everyone in the world gets a glimpse of the future, and spends the next six months trying to realise the future they saw, avoid the future they saw, or figure out how any of this happened in the first place. It's definitely an interesting idea, and watching the various futures come together – or not, as the case may be – is certainly fun. The plot is equal parts goofy musings about the power of "destiny", the question of "free will", and the importance of "belief"; and relatively exciting crime-thriller-style investigations, chases, and showdowns. It reminds me of the first season of Heroes, in that it manages to be about half so-cheesy-it's-good, and half pretty decent. I'd certainly give the second season a chance if there were one.

Books I’ve read this month:

Right Ho, Jeeves by P. G. Wodehouse – Another Jeeves novel, in which Bertie is more than usually obnoxious and everyone else more than usually cruel to him.

Dragonsong by Anne McCaffrey – Fantasy/science-fiction novel from the Dragonriders of Pern series. The world the action takes place in is interesting enough, but the book only tells a fraction of a story, combined with what appear to be snippets of other plot-lines. I guess I need to read more from the series if I want to understand it.

The Drunkard's Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives by Leonard Mlodinow – Touching on many of the same themes as Outliers, this book maintains that, due to the interference of random factors, results are not a reliable measure of potential, and we should never overlook the role of chance in our lives. Taken to an extreme, this may seem overly fatalistic, but, as the author points out, the empowering corollary is that people can increase their chances of good luck through sheer force of perseverance. I also found it a useful rebuttal to our pervasive tendency to idolise success and denigrate misfortune. My biggest complaint is that, although I appreciated the refresher math course that takes up the book's middle section, I think the author should have spent more time demonstrating his main thesis.

Sourcery by Terry Pratchett – Another Discworld book about a young “sourcerer” whose existence threatens the whole world. Not bad, but not as much fun as some of the books, and with a rather unsatisfying ending.

The Code of the Woosters by P. G. Wodehouse – I have to admit, these books are beginning to grow on me. I'm getting quite into the narration style, and this one at least has a relatively gripping if very silly story-line. On the other hand, pretty much all the characters are selfish jerks who made my skin crawl. And, though quite funny in places, I wouldn’t say Wodehouse exactly has the sparkling wit of, say, Dickens. Which reminds me: gosh it's been a long time since I read Dickens!

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Springtime in Ottawa - May 2010

Wow, May just flashed by! I don't know if it's because I've been busy, or because of the great weather. May is my favourite month of the year in Ottawa, and I appreciated it all the more for having been away for the past two years and knowing that I may well be away for the next two. This is the time of year when I remember why I love Ottawa so much: when it's gotten warm, but not quite excruciatingly hot; when everything's turned green; when the flowers have bloomed and the birds have come back and baby animals are being born. It's the time of year for getting out of the house again and going for long walks by the river and marvelling at just how truly lovely this city can be. This is how I remember Ottawa whenever I'm away from it!

My buddy from the Netherlands came here on vacation, and she stayed with me for a weekend. I enjoyed seeing her again, and the chance it gave me to play tour guide in my home town. I took her to as many must-see attractions as I could: the Museum of Civilization, the War Museum, the Tulip Festival, along the river and the canal, and around the Parliament Buildings. I hadn't been to the Musée since I was in university, and I'm quite impressed with what they've done with the Canada Hall. They've created a section to represent each of Canada's regions, and added a gallery of notable Canadian personalities. Being Dutch, my buddy didn't find the Tulip Festival and talk of Canada's close relationship with Holland to be anything new, but she did confirm for me that Canadians are still remembered as liberators throughout the Netherlands. We had beautiful weather most of the time, which was great for just walking around and taking pictures. I think she had a good time here, and she also left with a definite impression of what Ottawans get up to on Friday nights: swing dancing!

Now that I've been accepted to the JET Programme, I've started having orientation seminars and training. I have to give the Programme credit; they seem quite serious about getting their recruits ready for life in Japan. We had a couple of TESOL training classes, which were pretty much review for me, but I still found them helpful. Now we've started Japanese lessons. We only get six classes, but at least they'll give us a start on the language, and we also have a textbook to work through. They're also giving us a lot of information about Japanese culture and school life. Gradually, the notion that I'm actually going to be living and working in Japan for a year is becoming more real.

I mentioned that my church choir, which I'd joined back in January, was taking a break. This month I have some semi-good news. The choir has started singing again on Sundays, but we're only singing the regular hymns with the congregation, and we aren't doing rehearsals. The vegetable garden is continuing to grow. We had baby spinach early in the month, but none of the other plants has produced food yet. And I've discovered the secret to getting more books read in a given period of time: read shorter books!

In the news, the U.K. has had an election, ousting Gordon Brown and returning the Conservatives to power. There's a terrific oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico, spilling thousands of barrels of petrol into the water and endangering the livelihoods of local animals and people. It's horrible to think about the environmental damage; the only way there could be a good side to this would be if it inspired the world to develop cleaner sources of energy, and to stop relying on fossil fuels. South Korea has broken off relations with its northern counterpart after the latter was accused of sinking an R.o.K. boat. I find it hard to believe that North Korea would do anything so stupid as to deliberately alienate its southern neighbour, but then, the D.R.K. is famous for its inscrutability and bloody-mindedness. Who knows why it does anything?

Movies I've seen this month:

– Gilbert and Sullivan and the making of the Mikado. A fairly conventional story (famous artists in a creative slump are suddenly inspired to create a new work, which goes on to become a beloved masterpiece), padded with a surprising number of sub-plots and asides that add a great deal to the realism, but rather take away from the flow of the narrative. (Three stars)

– IMAX movie about sea creatures. Like all documentaries about the ocean, it's fun to watch. Unfortunately, we sat too close to the screen, making the 3D effects go a bit wonky.

Bright Star
– Cute teen romance that just happens to be set in the nineteenth century and have John Keats as one of its protagonists. I was strangely impressed with this film, which offers the most restrained, un-spectacular, and, ultimately, realistic portrayal of young love I've ever seen in a movie. Unfortunately, that's all to say that it's really rather slow-paced and dull. (Three stars)

– Gritty and disturbing Italian film about organised crime in Naples. Along similar lines to Los olvidados, or City of God, but very slow moving and anti-spectacular. Makes one appreciate why "Va' fa Napoli!" is an Italian curse. (Three and a half stars)

Up In the Air
– Another smart and timely comedy-drama by the director of Thank You for Smoking and Juno. I enjoyed it, but didn't find it nearly as brilliant as the previous two. (Three stars)

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

Jeeves & Wooster
(Season 3) – The continuing adventures of a gentlemanly gentleman's gentleman and his "mentally negligible" but "golden-hearted" employer. This time, half the episodes take place in New York, but the stories still proceed in basically the same vein. There are some amusing moments (Bertie getting into a fight with some brown paper and treacle), but I can't help thinking that the show would be several times better if they cut out all those annoying plot bits and renamed it "Silly Songs with an Upper-Class Twit and His Valet".

(Season 1) – They have come to Earth with the promise of peace, an alien race known as the Tael-… er, the V. But there are those who resist these "alien compan-"… I mean, uh, "visitors". Okay, so comparisons with Earth: Final Conflict are inevitable, and the most appealing thing about V was its potential to succeed where that brilliant but horribly mismanaged series had failed to tell an interesting and morally complex story about first contact between humans and a superior alien race. Unfortunately, that means I've been easily disappointed by all the ways in which V differs from E:FC, but I'll try not to let that cloud my review too much.

Actually, I think even without the comparisons I would have found this show disappointing. The characters are flat and clichéd: the angry teenager, the concerned mother, the conflicted priest, the unprincipled mercenary, the manipulative villain. The aliens are all absurdly altruistic or laughably callous. They have cheesy, '60s B-movie-style debates in which they either extol the virtue or scorn the depravity of "human emotion", without scrutinising the issue or elucidating their own motivational system. Despite the potential of the premise, all the ground it covers feels well-trodden. I'll keep watching it if it comes back for a second season, but I won't be too broken up if it doesn't.

Books I've read this month:

Notes from a Small Island
by Bill Bryson – Travelogue about one man backpacking around Britain. The writing style is too subjective for the book to be really useful as a travel guide, but it does make me think that one of these days I should try backpacking around Britain myself.

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland
by Lewis Carroll – I've started on something of a re-reading-the-children's-classics binge, and I thought it had been far too long since I'd read this most vitally brilliant of English master-works. And it is, you know. If there are two books that every speaker and student of the English language should read, they are this book and its sequel. They're just chock-full of plays on the English language, characters so singular they have become ingrained in our culture, and a wonderfully zany sense of humour.

Through the Looking Glass, and What Alice Found There
by Lewis Carroll – I actually like this book even better than its predecessor. It has a more structured narrative while, paradoxically, coming much closer to capturing the logic of a dream. It also contains the famous "Jabberwocky" poem and the chapter on Humpty Dumpty, my absolute favourite of all the Wonderland characters. It's only the end that I find rather weak, in contrast to the first book where the ending is the best part. By the way, if you, like me, were wondering, they're pronounced "guy-re" and "ghim-ble", not "jai-re" and "jim-ble".

by Terry Pratchett – How am I only now discovering the Discworld books? I'm really getting quite into them. They may not be strong on structure or narrative coherence, but I appreciate the humour, the satire, and the imagination. The last two books have even had happy endings!

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
by C. S. Lewis – Historically my favourite of the Narnia books. I didn't like it as much as I remembered, but towards the end I recaptured the sense of wonder I felt reading it as a child. I also decided that with some sections expanded, one could make a decent film out of it, although I'm not optimistic about the movie that's in production.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Nihon ni Ikimasu!* ^_^ - April 2010

After our mild winter, it wasn't a surprise when spring arrived early. By April, the snow was all gone, and the weather had gotten fairly mild. The only thing missing was precipitation. We'd gotten precious little of it in the way of snow, and as we moved into spring we went through weeks of bright, sunny days with little or no rain. That might seem like a good thing, but spring hasn't really begun until things start growing, and for that they need a good soaking. A week into April, they finally got it. I've never been so happy to see rain.

As usual, I've enjoyed watching the world turn green again, but this year is especially exciting for me, because we have a vegetable garden! Back in the winter, I read a book called Animal, Vegetable, Miracle about a family that move to the country and start growing their own food. Since being healthy and being environmentally responsible are both important to me, I found it quite inspiring, and I was allured to the idea of eating home-grown fruit and vegetables. At the end of March we were finally able to begin planting. We bought seeds for all kinds of things: peas and beans, carrots and onions, spinach and lettuce, squash and tomatoes. Now we have dozens of little green plants; I can't wait till we can start eating them!

Work has been quite slow of late. Although I still technically have a job, I have very few hours, and lots of free time. Under other circumstances, I'd be pounding the pavement looking for another job, but I'm not going to worry about that now because…


A year and a half after sending in my first application, I've finally been accepted to the JET Programme. I'm ecstatic. Going to Japan has been a dream of mine for the last four years, and now it's finally coming true! I'm also nervous. I'll be spending a year alone in a foreign country surrounded by a strange language and a very different culture. It will be an exciting experience, but also a challenging one. The programme begins at the end of July, which means I still have several months to prepare. I imagine they're going to fly by.

I haven't been up much else this month. I had a nice Easter weekend although, given how little I've been working, it couldn't really be considered a holiday. A few weeks later I got roped into joining this year's Walk for Multiple Sclerosis. I didn't gather any pledges, but I figured it would be worth it to show up and give my support. I donated some money, and joined the procession for a nice spring stroll down the parkway.

In the news this month, the Polish president, Lech Kaczynski, was killed in a plane crash, along with his wife and much of the Polish leadership. It's a black, black time for Poland; I can't think when a comparable tragedy has hit a country. In other aviation news, air traffic in Europe was grounded for almost a week due to a cloud of ash emanating from an Icelandic volcano. The incident affected not only travel to and from Europe, but also all flights travelling through it. Some airlines may want to take a hint and start routing their flights through a different continent.

Movies I've seen this month:

Death Proof
– Surprisingly good B-style action film by Quentin Tarantino. I was expecting relentless gore and violence, but the movie actually consists mostly of talking, punctuated by a couple of spectacular action sequences. It includes some interesting conversations, well-developed characters, and an entertaining degree of self-referentialism – essentially all the things I felt Inglourious Basterds was missing. The story may not be that strong, but I quite enjoyed watching it. (Two and a half stars)

Hot Fuzz
– British parody cop film starring Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, also of Shaun of the Dead. It's funny when it's sending up crime movie clichés, but then it falls into a lot of those clichés, and gets really silly by the end. (Two and a half stars)

The Yeomen of the Guard
– Made-for-T.V. production of a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta. Basically a silly story with some mediocre musical numbers sung in an operatic style that makes the lyrics mostly incomprehensible. (Two stars)

Il Divo
– Bio-pic about the last days in the rule of Italian Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti. Never heard of him. Which is too bad, because the movie looks incredible, but suffers from the fact that I have no idea what's going on in it. Guess I should go brush up on my modern Italian history, and then come back to it. (Haven't a clue)

– A cute dramatic comedy about a woman who comes to a small conservative French town and opens a chocolaterie. I got a bit annoyed at times with how religion kept getting made out as the bad guy (of all the times to open a chocolate shop, who picks the beginning of Lent?), but it all worked out in the end, and over all I think the film struck the right note. (Three and a half stars)

The Magic Mountain
– Artsy and epic German film, based on a book by Thomas Mann. I didn't understand it, but it did remind me a bit of Lost Horizon – if Shangri-La was a mad-house. (Two stars)

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

Jeeves & Wooster
(Season 2) – Despite the iconic stature of its characters, I've been rather disappointed in this show. Yes, it has the charm of a British period piece, but the stories are highly repetitive and essentially deal with shallow obnoxious characters doing stupid things in order to ingratiate themselves to, take revenge on, or avoid getting involved with other shallow obnoxious characters. In short, a kind of English, upper-class, interbellum equivalent of Seinfeld, minus the clever bits. It's almost worth it, though, for Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry, who are, respectively, loveably bubble-headed as Bertie and wonderfully supercilious as Jeeves. And yes, that Hugh Laurie, and no, I would never have made that connection if left to my own devices.

Being Erica
(Season 1) – Wow! A Canadian T.V. show that actually doesn't suck! I didn't think it was possible! Okay, I don't want to oversell this series, which is often cheesy, predictable, and saccharine, but despite its shortcomings it's actually my favourite new show in a long time. A big part of the draw is the main character. Erica Strange is a young, single, working woman, coping with a variety of issues, from family to work to relationships. In other words, she's a bit like me – or at least like someone I might plausibly meet in real life, and how may T.V. heroines can you say that about? The show has a unique premise, quite unlike anything else to be found in this medium of cop shows, medical dramas, and sit-coms. It's Canadian, which may seem like a subtle thing, but there's a refreshing novelty to watching a show that doesn't take place in a foreign country. Although it can be corny, it also contains surprising moments of insight. And I enjoy the way Dr. Tom quotes everyone from Proust to Yoda!

Books I've read this month:

The Light Fantastic
by Terry Pratchett – The second Discworld book. I expressed some disappointment with the first book of the series, but found this one considerably better. Its plot is much more unified and engaging, and the writing noticeably funnier. I especially appreciate the way Pratchett satirises tourism; he actually does a much better job of problematising the practice than any of the non-fantastic texts I've read on the topic.

Teacher Ram's Fascination with Fire, and Other Stories
by Kennard Ramphal – Collection of short stories, mostly set in rural Guyana. The stories aren't particularly interesting, and are mostly about how quaint and backwards Guyanese people are. Not that I've ever been to Guyana, but I found them a bit difficult to buy.

Thank You, Jeeves
by P. G. Wodehouse – Bertie, black with boot polish, bolts from a boat, burns his banjolele, begs for butter, and burgles his breakfast. (Hee! I had to do that!) Having been less than impressed with the T.V. show, I decided to have a go at the books – which so far are equally less-than-impressive. I'm probably coming to Wodehouse a bit late in life; if I'd read this when I was ten, I'm sure I would have enjoyed it immensely. It's inoffensive, fast-paced, and funny in places, particularly around the end. It's just all a bit light and inconsequential. Oh, and "inoffensive", except for the fact that it rather disconcertingly has the N- word in it. Don't know if that's more a reflection of when and where it was written (England, 1934), or a deliberate comment on the ditziness of the characters (it's worth noting that Jeeves says "negro").

* Japanese for, "I'm gong to Japan!"