A Day in Bologna

During our anniversary trip to Italy in May 2018, my husband and I took a day trip to Bologna from Florence. The high-speed train gets you there in under half an hour and cost about $80 CAD for the 2 of us, return. Bologna and its environs are well known as the birthplace of many foods and wines – particularly for tagliatelle al ragù, lasagna, tortellini, creme caramel, Parmesan cheese, balsamic vinegar, and two sparkling wines Lambrusco (red) and Pignoletto (white). We came to explore the city, but primarily to experience the food. And we did! Read on for details.

Art, Architecture, and Atmosphere

Bologna is starkly different from the cities of Venice and Florence in terms of art, architecture, and vibe. Granted, it does have its historic architecture, such as the Piazza Maggiore and two leaning towers that appear to be reaching towards each other for an embrace or un bacio (a kiss). However, Bologna is a much more modern-looking city, with clean lines and pastel colours, crisper pieces of public art, a sophisticated train station, porticoed street upon porticoed street of designer fashion shops, and a more youthful and vibrant feel; a city on the edge of adulthood trying to break away from its elders.  The two worlds, newer and older seem to live in relative peace. One possible indication of the coming of age of the younger city is the proliferation of graffiti everywhere in the city.

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Train Station Sign
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First Sights of Bologna
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Public Art
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Statue of Neptune
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Musician
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One of hundreds of porticoes
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Downtown Sidewalk Cafe in Early Morning
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Marriage of Old and New
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Old Architechture
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Leaning Towers
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Piazza Maggiore

Food Stops Along the Route

We roamed the streets of Bologna and paused at markets to marvel at massive collections of candy and magnificent displays of meats, stopped at the highly-recommended Caffe Terzi for their famous espresso with chocolate (rich and delicious!), and tried on several pieces of handwear at a glove shop where a resident puppy shared in presiding over all transactions. After lunch (which I’ll get to in a minute), we stopped at several shops, including the well-known and very busy Paolo Atto e Figli and Tamburini shops, to  drool over and purchase some local products, handmade tagliatelle pasta, culatello (a cured meat from Bologna that’s similar to prosciutto), cheese, and another local favourite, pere mostarda (which is not pear mustard, but rather like a dark, thick pear jam that you serve with cheese and crackers, or in pastries like cornetti [croissants], or on toast for breakfast, as we were told). There are many other local products in these shops, such as dried pastas, spice mixes, honey, wines, liqueurs, cured meats, Parmesan cheeses of various ages with very different tastes, and rich, thick real aged balsamic vinegar (which comes from Modena, about 45 km from Bologna, and is FAR better than any grocery store stuff). Bologna is a foodie’s nirvana.

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Caffè con Ciocolate at Caffè Terzi
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Mounds of Meat in the Market
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Deli Counter at Tamburini

Food Parade

Speaking of food heaven, our main purpose for visiting Bologna was not just the food in general, but for a specific restaurant, the small Osteria Broccaindosso, hidden on an unassuming street a fair distance away from the bustle of the downtown. Unless you were looking for it, you’d probably not find it, especially if you spend your time in the core. Based on recommendations from other bloggers and further research on travel websites, I selected this place well in advance of our trip, so we had it mapped out, made the trek, and found it with no problem. We arrived about 20 minutes before they open for lunch, but had a chance to peruse the (smallish) menu while we waited. We were definitely hungry.

Once we were in, we decided to go with a two-pasta platter for two, wanting to try two of the local pastas in their natural environment. We started with tagliatelle al ragù, which was rich and thick, with wonderful fresh pasta. Next up was lasagna, rich with bechamel and meat sauces. We had ordered glasses of the local sparkling wines Lambrusco and Pignoletto to accompany our meal. Our server, a man in his late 50s/early 60s, decided that neither was appropriate to pair with the lasagna, so he brought us complimentary glasses of the rich house red. He was right. And not for the last time.

What we *really* came to this restaurant for, however, was dessert. For €5 you can get a single dessert, but for €15, you can get a seemingly endless parade of one amazing dessert after another. We told our server/torturer we wanted the “big dessert.” He asked if we were certain, and we assured him we could handle it. He nodded his head gracefully but with a distinct air of doubt and returned to the kitchen.

Before long, our server returned with a huge bowl of cut strawberries, at least 2.5 to 3 pounds of them for the two of us (1 to 1.5 kg). We tucked into the luscious fresh fruit.

A few minutes later, he returned with a tray of five large desserts, held in place on the tray by five soup ladles. There was a tasty zuppa inglese (the Bolognese version of English trifle), the best tiramisu we had in all of Italy, a light creme fraiche with berries, a delicious chocolate mousse, and a creamy vanilla pudding with caramel sauce. Each was stunning!

We assumed that this was the end of the parade. We were wrong.

While we were still eating, our server delicately lifted slices of creme caramel with plenty of sauce onto our plates. So rich and creamy. Mmmm.

Still not all.

Within minutes, he was back with the final round, the eighth in this parade of desserts: the most decadent dark chocolate brownies I’ve ever had! Wow! Our server insisted we have two each.

In the end, our server/torturer was right yet again: we couldn’t finish it all, but we certainly made a valiant effort and, in truth, we didn’t leave much behind. After espresso (always served after the meal, to drink while it’s hot) and some handshakes and hugs and kisses with our server, we waddled away very gingerly, so as not to slosh around the food and beverages in our very full bellies. Bliss!

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Tagliatelle al Ragù
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Lasagna
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Dessert Round 1
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Desserts 2-6
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Desserts 7 & 8
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Caffè

Intentions and Recommendations

We would happily return to Bologna again, specifically for the dessert platter at Osteria Broccaindosso. If you’re a dessert aficionado, you MUST eat here when in Bologna.

Before we visited the city, I had plans of so many other places to stop, to munch on an antipasti platter filled with meats and cheeses and pere mostarda, another couple of cafes, and at least one or two gelaterie, but we were so full after leaving the restaurant, that we couldn’t even think or speak of more food. Maybe next time, we’ll spend a couple of days and try a few other recommended restaurants for some other traditional foods (for example, I didn’t get to try the local specialty tortellini in brodo), maybe even do a food tour to sample snackies at a number of restaurants.

We walked almost 18 km that day and sat only while at the restaurant and on the train. We (and our poor feet) were completely exhausted by the time we got back to our rented apartment in Florence, after a 100-minute train delay (seriously) and a 25 minute train ride.

If you plan to visit Bologna, make sure to bring your appetite, and especially your sweet tooth. And your camera. You’ll have a fun, food-filled time.

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A Return to the Travel Blog – Part 2: Packing Tips

I hadn’t really considered Other Half and myself to be veteran travellers, but in retrospect, I guess we could add quite a few notches to the travel belt. We’ve visited every province in Canada one or more times, been to numerous US states, a handful of times to Mexico, three times (soon to be four) to Europe. You can get some great insights from the tips of others. You also learn a lot about how to travel while you’re doing it. Or more accurately, after you’ve completed it and have an AHA moment or several. I’ve learned from the travel tips of others and from our own experiences and now have a few tips of my own. Here they are, in case they may be helpful. This is going to involve some trust on your part. But just trust me.

Packing

Take a scroll through your packing list – you DO have a packing list, right? – and evaluate the necessity of everything you feel you can’t live without. You might be surprised at what you can leave at home, saving a ton of space and weight in your luggage for all of your holiday purchases.

Part I – liquids and such

– You’ll be tempted to bring body wash, shampoo, conditioner, hair spray and other liquid hair products, moisturizer, make up remover, aloe vera, shave gel, etc, etc. Don’t. Just don’t. Trust me. Here’s a little-known secret: Unless you’re travelling to someplace devoid of life, you’ll find the things you need at your destination, usually in small sizes and for less money than you’d pay at home. And as you already know from stuffing your bags full of complimentary shampoos, hand cream, mini lily-of-the-valley soaps and the like at the end of weekend getaways, hotels provide several of these things, gratis. Use while on vacay and toss any remaining pieces – virtually guilt-free – before checking out. Note: this also applies to baby powder, q-tips, tampons, pads, band-aids, Tylenol, hand sanitizer, soap, laundry detergent (if you’re inclined to bring some, just in case), nail polish & remover, mouthwash, disposable razors, sewing kits – you name it. Bring your deodorant, toothbrush and paste, and sunscreen. You don’t want to reek while burning to a glorious bacon colour on your first day.

– If you must take bottles of liquids, whether small or large, put a piece of plastic wrap over the top, under the lid. It keeps things from bubbling out when the air pressure changes during the flight. Note: while the preceding section of this tip doesn’t originate with me, this next bit does: bring at least an equal amount of extra plastic wrap with you for the trip home. Once the lids get twisted a few times, the original wrap will be pretty worn out.

– If you’re just going with carry-on bags and no checked luggage, only take liquids that you cannot possibly live without. This will serve you in a few ways: 1) you won’t have to worry about whether your 1L plastic bag will hold all of your liquids; 2) you will have room in that 1L bag to bring small bottles of bevvies on the return trip (hey, the airline doesn’t say you can’t bring alcohol as part of your liquid allotment); 3) you will reduce the weight and space in your bag, which you can use for souvenirs or other items you’d like to bring home.

Part II – checked bags

If you must take a checked bag or two, here are some ideas.

– Roll your clothes instead of folding them. Don’t argue. It saves tons of space and your clothes won’t wrinkle the way you think. I’ve seen a great video on the internet where a traveller packed an entire outfit into one roll. Look it up. You’ll be impressed.

– You know those wine bottle travel bags you can buy for about $30 each to bring some lovely Italian wine or Mexican tequila home with you in your suitcase? Yeah, don’t buy those. Go to the dollar store instead, or to the beach shop near your resort. Trust me. Buy some of those blow-up water wings kids wear in the pool. Go crazy, spend about $10 and buy a bunch. Put your precious liquid cargo into a wing. Blow it up. Put another one on the top part of the bottle. Blow it up. Boom! You have travel-ready booze. If you’re worried that the wings might come off, bring/buy a few extra-large socks to pull on over the whole thing. Works like a charm.

– While you’re at the dollar store, pick up a small ‘daily pill’ container. You know the ones I’m talking about. Use this to hold your earrings and other jewelry, if you feel compelled to bring some with you. I never bring jewelry with me on vacation with the exception of a cheap watch. If it goes into the drink or gets lost or stolen, no big deal. I do sometimes buy jewelry when on vacation, however, so the pill container is useful for keeping them intact for the return trip.

– Go to your local luggage store (or to the luggage section at Walmart) and pick up a hand-held luggage scale. They’re well worth the investment (of $5-$15) and have saved our bacon more than once. Before you start on your way home with all of your many purchases, pack your suitcases and weigh them. Maybe one bag is just over the 50 lb limit while the other is a few pounds under. If you can move some things around before you get to the airport, you’ll likely avoid surcharges. Provided you haven’t gone WAY over the limit.

– Upgrade your luggage, if it’s been kicking around for a while. Get yourself some “spinners,” rolling luggage with 360 degree wheels. You’ll easily be able to motor along through the airport, streets, and hotel hallways without (as much) cursing.

Part III – general packing

– If you’re traveling to Europe, Asia, or the U.K., you likely already know that they use a different type of electrical current than in North America and that you’ll need an adapter or two. Here’s something you may not have pondered: many European hotels are very old and have precious few outlets. This is a challenge for those of us who have multiple devices to charge (phone, tablet, laptop, razor) or that need to be plugged in while in use (blow dryer, curling iron). Here are my tips: bring an adapter or two, and one North American electrical power bar for each. You can plug the adapter into the European outlet, plug your power bar in, and lo and behold, you now have several outlets for your electronics. One additional tip: pick up one of those plug in multi-USB doodads and you can charge two or more devices simultaneously, saving outlets on your power bar.

– Ok, so you’re used to wearing at least one different outfit every day in your regular life. And you’re going to be away on vacay for 2 to 3 weeks. To maintain your fashion habit, you’ll have to take a LOT of clothes, right? Wrong. Here’s an secret: hotels in other countries have laundry facilities and laundry services. I know. It’s a revelation, right? Here’s another secret: other tourists or locals won’t know you’ve worn a particular outfit before. As one sage put it, ‘when traveling, take half the clothes and twice the money.’ It’s true. Seriously, slash your wardrobe list to a bare minimum, maybe enough for about 4 to 7 mix and match outfits, whether you’re going for 1 week or 3. Yes, you’ll need to spend a couple of hours on laundry while away. But it’s a small sacrifice compared to carrying gigantic bags over cobblestone streets or up the endless, narrow flights of stairs, and definitely better than trying to stuff your heavily-laden luggage into the small overhead bins on the high-speed trains. Trust me. I’ve learned this the hard way.

– Ladies, if you’re worried about pickpockets or having your handbag stolen while on vacation, get yourself a travelling purse that’s both RFID scan-proof and slash-proof, and make sure it has a zipper with locking clips. I love my cross-body Travelon bags. Yes, they’re fairly pricey (and not particularly attractive as fashion statements) but they are worth the investment. You can buy them on Amazon or in travel or luggage stores.

– Obvs for those big sightseeing trips, you’re taking your fancy DSLR with its multitude of lenses, right? Or at least some scaled-down version of same which is separate from your cell phone. Having that thing hung round your (or your partner’s) neck all day will cause neck and back pain after just a day. Consider visiting a camera store (or Amazon) to purchase a harness-style strap. It’s worn something like a backpack, but with the “pack” (the camera) in the front. The harness also stabilizes the camera when walking so it’s not swinging side to side and all around as you enter that fancy china or glass shop, daring you to break something. My husband loves his. Yes, a little dorky, admittedly. But it can literally and figuratively save your neck. Average cost is between $30-$50.

– If you expect to do any significant amount of walking besides to the pool or beach or restaurant, here’s a handy and extremely important tip: bring the world’s most comfortable pair of shoes. At least 2 months before your trip, visit a store that sells high-quality running or hiking shoes and have them fit you with a good pair, suited for your gait and your feet. Break them in for several weeks before your trip to reduce the amount of rubbing/blisters that will still probably happen. On a related note, bring several large, super-stick bandaids that won’t rub off your heels after two seconds of walking. Trust me.

Part IV – weird stuff I pack that you might find useful

– Seat cushions (your choice of thickness) to help make the seemingly unpadded airplane seats fractionally more comfortable. Make sure they don’t have buttons and that they’re not tufted. This would be worse than the regular airplane seat.

– Ziplock bags galore, from sandwich size to the large ones you can put your clothes in and squeeze the air out. They come in handy for stuff you didn’t even know you could use them for.

– Related to the above: a few fold-up fabric shopping bags (where I come from, they’re a requirement, not an option). You can carry one or two in your purse or backpack. They’re much easier on the hands than plastic bag handles for when you’re carting groceries or souvenirs or your heavy coat you thought you’d need.

– Our European trips have taught us that not every country provides washcloths in their hotels. Ew to using a bare bar of soap on your bare…whatever. If you’re a washcloth person at home, I’d recommend packing a few – in Ziplock bags. You can dry them out on the heated towel racks in the bathroom. Just don’t wash them out in the bidet. Haha.

– We often opt for self-catering accommodations when we travel, which means I do some cooking. I take a small spice kit with me that features the herbs and spices we use most: salt, pepper, cayenne, garlic powder, and basil. That way you don’t have to waste money on buying those things there. They don’t take up a lot of room or weight in the suitcase. If you don’t plan to cook, don’t bother to take a spice kit.

– I also take a package of ground coffee (preferably from my favourite local roaster or another brand I regularly drink) and a bunch of filters so that we can have coffee at the hotel any time. I’ve learned from experience that grocery store coffee in other places (I’m looking at you, Mallorca) is often unfit for human consumption, so rather than suffer with bad coffee, just bring some of the good stuff from home.

So love the ideas or hate them, these are some of my tips from an ever-evolving list. What tips do you have? What do you pack that I should be putting into my suitcase? Let me know in the comments below.

Thanks for reading!

A Return to the Travel Blog – Part 1

It’s been some time since my last blog. Too long.

They always say to write what you know and write what you love, so I’ll make my re-start by writing about my prep for our trip to Italy as practice for and incentive to blog while there.

I tend to do a lot of research before we undertake any travels. Like, a LOT of research. My husband and I discuss (often reluctantly on his part) what sort of vacation we’d like to take at least 7-8 months in advance of a trip (yes, I usually start planning for the next one about 4 or 5 months after our most recent trip) along with what sort of budget we have to work with. Do we want to relax on a beach? Immerse ourselves in a different culture? Admire art and architecture? See the scenery? Shop? A combination of the above? Then the conversation moves to which areas or countries we might like to experience.

After we narrow the selections to 3 or 4 places, I go to amazon.ca and order the Lonely Planet guidebooks to those areas. (I like the Lonely Planet series because they are extremely informative and the writing is the most beautiful of the stacks of books available.) While waiting for the books to arrive, I do online research on the unique features or products, activities, attractions, beaches, weather, markets, must-see sights, art, shopping, restaurants, spas, etc. of each place. TripAdvisor is a fabulous resource for all things travel, and I spend quite a bit of time here, as well as on the tourism pages of each potential location. Prices for flights and accommodations and additional costs (such as shuttle costs from airport to where we’ll stay, excluded city taxes, food costs, etc.) figure prominently.

I’m looking for the positives as well as the possible negatives: tiny rooms, unswimmable beaches, distance from airport and amenities, scary roads, pickpockets (a big problem in many places!). And I want to see what sort of fit a place will be based on our tastes and interests. I literally spend hours and hours on travel research, virtually every spare moment over a 4 to 6 week period. Then I share the nutshell version of my discoveries with Other Half and we come up with a decision.

Once we know where we want to go, about 6 months before we plan to travel, I nail down the best prices and either book myself with the airline and the air bnb-type accommodations, or book one or both pieces through an online source (Expedia is my favourite, but there are a multitude of others), or through my fabulous travel agent, Julie.

As soon as these essentials of our trip are booked, I start on my packing list, which includes things you might not think of tossing into the bag. But I’ll save that for my next blog.

Do you have any research tricks or recommendations? Any sites you peruse when planning your travels? I’d love to steal – um, hear – your ideas.

Thanks for reading.

The Italian Experience (part 1)

Rather than express any emotions I feel, I tend to internalize them. Blame my “stiff upper lip” upbringing. As a result, I’m not a person who cries. Once a year, whether I need it or not, I always say.

But I’ve recently done a considerable amount of crying. Not out of sadness but from awe. I’m not long returned from 17 days in Italy, a trip of a lifetime that I’ve dreamed about for decades and planned over the last 3 years. I had very high expectations, based on my extensive research. Italy far exceeded my hopes and dreams. Leaving trails of wet Kleenex, I cried my way through Venice, Rome, the Tuscan countryside, and Florence. Though I will try to do so, it’s difficult to convey just how deeply moving and emotional this experience was for me.

Since I was a child of 9, I’ve dreamed of the romance of riding in a gondola. Why that visual captured my imagination and heart at such an early age, I don’t know. To see one in person brought on mild waterworks; to finally RIDE in one had me smiling while simultaneously crying tears of joy. It was everything I dreamed it would be and so much more! The epitome of romance and elegance.

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Tuscany was stunning! So dreamy and relaxing and soothing and comforting. Every hairpin turn in the road revealed a new beauty that brought tears to my eyes. The gorgeous scenery seared itself into my memory and will add colour to grey cityscapes forever after.

I LOVED Rome! Such an authentic place, a real, living city, modern, but rooted in the past. Two memorable crying moments to recount: the first, finally getting to see Bernini’s Proserpina statue, which I’d studied extensively in university and loved from the moment I first saw it in the art history textbook. To see the sculptor’s incredible gift of capturing the immediacy of the moment, the fingers pressed into the flesh – I still get goosebumps!

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Visiting the Sistine Chapel was extremely moving, almost a religious experience. I was awed by Michelangelo, a master of creation, an almost divine artistic intellect and talent. I stood, head back, mouth open, hungrily gazing at every centimetre of the ceiling and Last Judgement wall for ten minutes, tears streaming down my face the entire time. It’s something I’ll not soon forget – or get over.

My most emotional and transformative experience, however, was in Florence, meeting Michelangelo’s David and spending about 30 minutes “communing” with him. I came around the corner from the musical instrument exhibit and saw him from the far end of the corridor, and that was it. At the first sight of the 17-foot high statue, my lips started to quiver and the tears came, unbidden, freely filling my eyes and rolling over my cheeks. It’s difficult to put into words the in-person experience and associated feelings – burning eyes, butterflies in my stomach, pounding heart, breath caught in my throat; those things barely scratch the surface of my feelings in the moment. And then I moved closer. And closer. And closer. I was almost overcome with awe. David is imposing, huge, massive, gigantic, the centre of the room’s domed focal point (the centrepiece of the entire gallery, really). There are so many words that can describe David, but the one that I find the most fitting is ‘perfect.’ He is absolute perfection. End of story. Truly awe-inspiring. When I talk about him, even writing about him now, my eyes well with tears…

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Italy is a repository of so many delights.  I talk to friends about the different pieces that might appeal to them – the excellent coffee to my barista friends, the delicious pasta to my fellow foodies, the vino to the wine bibbers, the incredible painted ceilings to the art lovers, the scenery to the photographers, the ancient sights/sites to the history buffs – but for me, Italy will always be about the delight of David. Always. I was very deeply affected by him. I hope I never forget how I felt in that instant of meeting him, how I still feel when I think about him.

If and when you visit this land of incredible, historic beauty, and wonderful people, I urge you to make the pilgrimage to meet David in person. And I hope he makes as powerful an impression on you as he has on me.

Sorry-Not-Sorry: Deflating A Tire

Today I saw, at a distance, one of my former Victorian Literature professors from grad school. All the horror came rushing back. She was – and probably still is – a lovely woman, but she represents so much of what I hate in literature: Victorianism and the early English novel, the writing equivalents of the 21st century music scene. Just because a person knows a word or chord, or can rhyme/hold a tune does not mean said person is an artist in their proclaimed genre. To validate the claim, some degree of the invested labour, thought, and talent must be evident to an intelligent audience.

This blog post is not just sour grapes at this particular professor expecting us to read (or in my case, skim) 1200 pages per week of Victorian popular poetry: that written by amateurs and published in the Victorian equivalents of TV Guide, People, O, Cosmopolitan, Glamour, the National Enquirer, Women’s Weekly, and other such trash that may be fun reads but feature no more quality literature than can be found on a bathroom stall in a seedy bar – ok, maybe there are some sour grapes, which are clearly still repeating on me, even 4 years after graduation.

And it’s not just a result of this one class, nor is it just the popular poetry (you have no idea how hard I’m working to not put the word poetry in ironic quotes!) that I’m whining about: the density of the language and extreme wordiness of the early English novels wear me out and make the experience unbearable rather than in any way pleasurable. It’s like listening to a woodpecker pound its beak against a metal pole for endless hours, with no point for either bird or listener. Or like listening to any Miley Cyrus song. Or like listening to a gaggle of giggling teenage girls on a long and bumpy bus ride.

Due to lack of other, better options, I took a lot of Victorianist classes in grad school. Secret fact: I never finished any of the Victorian novels assigned in any of those classes. Sorry-not-sorry to my professors. I hated and still hate that stuff! There, I’ve said it! Adam Bede, Emma, Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights – the mere thought of either makes me cringe and want to throw up. Austen, the Brontes, Eliot, Gaskell, Hardy, James, Stevenson, Thackeray, and so many more have written “classics” that should be retired from the general population of works to be read by anyone, perhaps most especially high school and university students trapped in a class that focuses on this sort of writing (notice I didn’t say literature – Old Spice products’ labels could be more correctly considered literary, in my admittedly less-than-humble opinion).

Some Vic writing, I do enjoy – in moderation, perhaps even to an austere degree: an occasional (abridged) bit of the verbally diarrheic Dickens, and slightly more of the delightfully rebellious Oscar Wilde. But some texts I absolutely cannot abide, and despite more than one attempt at reading, I just cannot finish. A case in point: Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, written in the infancy stages of the English novel. I have tried on at least three occasions to suffer through this pretentious, stilted, unnecessarily wordy and pointless work. I know that many people love it. But I just cannot, and will not, accept it as something readable. Even the Coles Notes version was barely tolerable.

As I said, sorry not sorry. It’s something that’s been on my chest for a while. Now that I’ve voiced my highly insulting and unpopular opinion – and everyone, including me, is entitled to his or her opinion, popular or not – I can feel that I’ve let the air out of that tire. Seems like I’m driving an 18-wheeler here, each tire needing to be deflated in its own due time.

If you can convincingly persuade me WHY I should ever attempt another of these tomes, WHY they are, in fact, worthy of my attention, I will give some consideration to making another attempt at this textual quicksand. But your argument had better not sound like anything that would have come from Elizabeth Bennett’s or Mr. Darcy’s vocabularies.

#JaneAusten #Dickens #VictorianLiterature #VictorianPoetry #Victorianism #Literature #Poetry #GeorgeEliot #ElizabethGaskell #ThomasHardy

My Obsession

I have to admit something: my husband might be right; I might just have a problem. A coffee problem.

What’s wrong with coffee, or with loving coffee? I’m not in the least ashamed to admit that I do have a strong attraction to all things coffee, from many, many, MANY bags of beans, several cafe-type signs, a 50s-style neon coffee diner clock, a Keurig (actually, 2 – one for work and one for home), custom-made tamper, knock box, two styles of French Press, a Chemex, a moka pot, cold brewer, mini dripper, fancy Krups espresso machine (complete with milk frother), 2 milk steamers, 3 blade grinders, 2 burr grinders, a shelf full of espresso, cappuccino, and latte cups and mugs, a coffee-tasting journal, jewelry with various coffee devices as ornaments, and a growing cafe t-shirt collection amassed from a few different coffee tours throughout Alberta, British Columbia, Washington, and Oregon. Most of the photos on my iPhone and iPad are of latte art done by my barista friends, and I regularly share said multitude of pictures to social media (perhaps to the chagrin of my beleaguered friends who, maybe through gritted teeth, continue to “like” my photos).

I don’t especially like the biggest Canadian chain’s brew, nor the Moby Dick version. And despite having the option of so many coffee preparation methods available at home, I prefer to go to my favourite hipster cafe and drink their fine, latte art-enhanced espresso-based brew at the tiny place’s bar. Just call me Norm –

🎼 “Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name” 🎶

– and we literally do all know each others’ names. I regularly – like twice a month – attend coffee tastings/cuppings, spend Friday evenings, Saturday afternoons, and Sunday mornings there, and am connected on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and/or text with 3 of “my” baristas plus the cafe itself. We regularly chat, have coffee or lunch together, hell, I’ve even had one of them assist me with my resume on a couple of occasions!

Don’t get me started on a rant about single origin coffees versus blends, or a tangent about which region has consistently the best beans (*cough* Guatemala *cough*). After several tastings, I’m able to distinguish flavour and texture separations between natural, honey process, and washed beans. Thanks to a brilliant and dedicated barista, I know how to identify what is meant by acidity, juiciness, berry, fruit, chocolate, or cookie flavours. I know that Ethiopian and Kenyan coffees are, in general, not for me, but that I love the chocolatey, brown sugary taste of South American coffees. All need-to-know information, if you expect to be a connoisseur.

So it would appear that I drink an exorbitant amount of the liquid gem. But I don’t. I only drink the equivalent of about 2-10 ounce cups per day and only slightly more on weekends. Flat whites are my thing at the cafe; sometimes, a mocha; rarely, a cappuccino or an espresso; occasionally an Americano or a pour over; often, in summer, an affogato; and there is the plain “dirty-sock water,” as I call it, that is the black coffee of the tastings. But off-site (aka away from the cafe), I drink coffee with cream and sugar. I often think I’m enjoying the cream and sugar at least as much as the caffeine. Dana suggests that I could just try drinking cream and sugar, or mix it into hot water or tea. But coffee is a more delicious carrier.

Ok, if this has to be an intervention, I’ll admit to an addiction (alright, an extreme addiction) to coffee and coffee paraphernalia, but I’ll face reality with my own nonchalant and unapologetic twist: there are worse obsessions. I’m sticking with this one.

#coffee #yyj #yyjcoffee #obsession #caffeine #caffeineaddiction #coffeeobsession #yyjfood #coldbrew #flatwhite #Americano #affogato #mocha #espresso #cappuccino #pourover #barista #hipster #cafe #Norm #Cheers #Guatemalan #Ethiopian #Kenyan

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My First Book Review: George Szanto’s “The Underside of Stones”

George Szanto’s story cycle, “The Underside of Stones,” is without doubt the best book I have read in years. The writing is not pretentious but is clear, accessible, beautiful. The stories immediately draw the reader in to occupy a room near the beer-filled refrigerator of the main character’s rented casa and follow him throughout his travels, conversations, experiences, and wonderment during his 10-month stay in Mexico.

I’m beginning to understand that wonderment is a many-petalled rose. There is wonderment at the conception, gestation, birth, and multi-faceted growth of a child. Experienced by the majority of the population, this type of wonder may be found on the outer petals of the rose. Moving gradually inward, we experience awe when viewing the starry heavens and the physical universe. There are the gasped-at understandings uncovered during the path of education. We shake our heads in amazement at the ingenuity of ancient civilizations’ construction prowess. We are moved to tears at the timeless beauty and tangible emotion of Michelangelo’s Pieta. But there are smaller petals of wonderment, those found discovering layers in things that appear simple on the surface.

Szanto’s narrator, Jorge, a version of the author himself, perhaps, experiences wonderment by means of the supposedly simple rural (akin to urban) legends personified in the characters who populate the story cycle which takes place in his fictional town of Michoaquaro, Mexico. Coming from a world of Norteamericano logic and rationality, where it would be easy to dismiss the sights and stories as figments of imagination, Jorge encounters leaks between, not quite mythology, but folklore, and what he had long perceived as reality. His sense of wonderment at what lies in the slippage between both worlds rubs off on the reader, who begins to question his or her own grasp on what the word reality really means in Michoaquaro: a randomly appearing, sidewalk sweeping, talking dead man; a woman with two heads; a man with many more than five senses, two wives, and a massive urban – sorry, rural – legend in his own right; several long-dead people living, one at a time, inside a statue; tales of mythic beasts; too-serendipitous-to-be-so outworkings of plans and schemes – so many more things. Have the beer, tequila, and pulque so addled Jorge’s brain that he accepts the stories he hears and sees? Even if so, the reader has not been drinking along yet is pulled along with Jorge’s sense of wonderment, an almost childlike naivety that does not understand yet does not judge what goes on in this liminal space of – what? Reality and sub-reality? Fact and fiction? Sense and nonsense?

I propose that this is folkloric space, space where anything can happen. To reiterate, in my mind, it is not quite mythology, which tends to be large and grandiose. I’m thinking of the much larger-than-life Greek and Roman and Egyptian gods of antiquity and the legends that surround them.

One basal similarity between the mythical gods of old and folkloric Michoaquaro is the local cultural acceptance of the stories and scenarios. The most significant difference between the two to this reader, however, is that the ancient Eastern mythologies and cultures are easily identified as completely foreign, defunct, dismissed as relics of the past, while Michoaquaro, though fictional, is in a location that, in the age of technology, communication, and global travel, is familiar, not so foreign, and is part of our present.

A sense of wonderment arises from so many directions when reading this story cycle: how can these beliefs still exist in a modern world? Yet presented by a man from our own rational world who has seen the things he has seen, experienced what he has experienced, how can the stories be untrue? At what point do we stop being credulous? How can we slide into folkloric space to find out for ourselves what sort of metareality exists? Jorge offers no solutions to these questions, including what conclusions he may have reached about the existence of folkloric space as a real thing. But by the end of this first book in a set of three, he has one foot balanced precariously in each world, that of rationality and that of folkloric possibility. By choosing to accept one and dismiss the other, are we cutting off our nose to spite our face? Are the two worlds mutually exclusive? Or can they cohabit peacefully? The not knowing, the precarious balance is intriguing. I am at the centre of the rose of wonderment and am unsure which step to take, curious as to whether I will fall into an as-yet undefined chasm of possibility. Perhaps the second book in the series will, like a literary can-opener, pry open folkloric space to let this reader in.

#Mexico #books #folklore #mythology #liminalspace