Sunday, 30 November 2014

Grey Cup

The Ashes, The America's Cup, The Olympics.  Great sporting contests all, and to these please add: The Grey Cup.  This is the premier trophy in Canadian football, their Superbowl if you will.  True, more Canadians care about the ice hockey Stanley Cup but (say it quietly) it's not often that teams north of the border win that.  If Canadian teams are the only ones that play then at least you're guaranteed a Canadian winner - the Yanks worked this out long ago with their so-called World Series baseball.

"Canadian football?" you ask.  Well, it's American football with a few different rules.  The field is ten yards longer.  There are twelve players instead of eleven.  The distance from the line of scrimmage is one yard rather than eleven inches.  The open-field kick is retained as a legal play.  All offensive backfield players can be in motion at the snap.  I wish I knew what any of this meant.

The important thing is: this year the cup was being held in our very own Vancouver, even though the local BC Lions were not partaking.  Instead the Calgary Stampeders and the Hamilton Tiger-Cats rolled into town and the festivities began, a full four days of them including cheerleaders, concerts, food trucks, parades, and so on.  It was unclear when the actual match was going to take place, or if anyone would notice.

We wandered down to sample the atmosphere, but the atmosphere was well below freezing so there weren't that many people around.  It worked out well as we were able to grab way more of the organic gummy bears, mini torches, and other goodies being handed out by the lonely sponsors.  We got to throw and kick mini footballs and spin prize wheels and stuff.  Pete's highlight was getting to sit in a tractor, something of an obsession since seeing Uncle Andrew's tractor on the farm.  (What do tractors have to do with football?  Well, cattle capital Calgary was playing - there were more ten gallon hats and silver belt buckles around here than in Dallas).

And the match?  It was apparently quite exciting, and Calgary won it in the end.  Then they damaged the cup during their celebrations.  Seems that Canadian football is more violent than its American counterpart too.

A band made up of Coast Salish First Nations.  There were more people on stage than watching, but they were very good.

BC Tourism put entire rainforest in their tent!

And there was the opportunity to have a photo with a spirit bear.

Captain Vancouver.

I think we got a field goal!  This didn't seem to translate into any tangible prize.

Where do you want this silage?

Hannah has e-loader skillz.

I hope they had heaters on stage - the band was far more scantily clad than the fans.

So, pub quizzers, remember: what's Canadian football's top trophy?  That's right.

Saturday, 29 November 2014

First snow

Winter arrived well and truly this morning.  The plummeting temperatures had promised as much, and we woke to a fine dusting of icy snow.  We were quickly into our warm gloves and hats.  Well, all except Pete, who seems to think that his new Geordie haircut has given him a North Easterner's immunity to cold.  He eventually demurred to put on a hat.

When his hands turned blue we thought it was best to come back inside and warm up with lashings of hot chocolate.  During the day we watched a small pond outside the window freeze before our very eyes, and the thermometer says it's -4C!  I shouldn't complain - Hannah was in Calgary this week where the local weatherman urged residents to enjoy the warmth while it lasted.  It was -5C when she was there, and forecast to dip to -19C on the weekend.  Didn't we choose to move here from California?

Cold, what cold?

Deep and crisp and even.  Not really.

I built a snowman!

Such a cold finger.

Friday, 28 November 2014

Fight with a lawnmower

Our time on this earth is defined by stressful life-changing events; leaving home for university, getting married, moving house, being served a latte when you ordered a cappuccino.  Added to this list (according to my mother) is getting your baby's hair cut for the first time.  I can only imagine Mum's emotional trauma as tiny golden curls fell from the head of her infant angel boy all those years ago.  I was a wonderful child.

Anyway, it was time to see whether I would dissolve into a blubbering mess when my own little cherub sat on the barber's chair.  Pete's hair has recently come to resemble a rat's nest, albeit a fluffy blond one that it's fun to run your fingers through, and I can't be bothered with anything resembling a brush during the morning routine.  That's why I chose to have a boy.

Hannah, whose emotional disposition is so much steelier than mine, opted to sit in the chair with Pete.  When asked what we wanted, my request for "a Geordie cut" was met with a blank expression from the barber.  We settled for "short all over" and the scissoring began.  The baby, to give him credit, spent the entire time with a look of deep concentration on his face and displayed rather less concern than his parents.

It was all over quickly, and Cadbury's chocolate fingers were handed out to everyone who behaved themselves, although the barber also asked for $10.  We left with an uncurled baby who will toughen up fast now that his insulation against the Canadian winter has been removed.  We also have a family where everyone sports the same hairstyle - it's like the marines around here.

Something for the weekend, sir?

A little more off the side.


Shaven, shorn, smiling.

And remember son, one day you may be able to grow your hair as luscious and attractive as your father's:

I too was beautiful once.

Sunday, 23 November 2014

Leaving, on a jet plane

If you travel enough then, one day, odds are you'll get a trip where everything aligns perfectly.  I don't travel enough for this to happen but Hannah does, and so I thank her luck for turning a possible nightmare journey into a pleasant one.  Not quite a free-upgrade-to-business-class one, but close.

Pete slept very well on the way over here, but the way back was all daylight and at the wrong time.  Still, we were going from Terminal 2, "The Queen's Terminal" no less, brand new and opened for the Olympics.  It has a cafe run by amazing British chef (yes, those words can go together) Heston Blumenthal.

First, the car rental company didn't charge us any extra for the filthy state our motor was in when we dropped it off.  The poor thing was carrying a lot of mud from at least three countries, inside and out, but apart from the loss in fuel economy from the added weight and aerodynamic drag, we got away with it.

Second, the check-in lady informed us that the flight was only a quarter full and moved us to an empty row.  A whole four seats to ourselves!  In all honesty, I'm not sure if we could have managed in two seats without some kind of international incident, given Pete's spirited bounciness for ninety percent of the journey.

Third, we managed to eat in Heston Blumenthal's restaurant before we departed, and while I imagine it's not quite like his massively Michelin-starred one it does have ice cream made with liquid nitrogen, famous chips, and cocktails that contain wine clouds.

So we were happy when we landed back in Vancouver, although one thing I didn't miss was the traffic.  Like SF, there are too many cars for too few bridges, so our taxi quickly ground to a standstill.  "I know it's marked for three lanes," I shouted at the driver, "but you could easily fit five cars down here!  Come on!" and "It's only a one-way street if there's somebody coming down it towards you!  Move!"  Yes, Tbilisi has changed me.

Back home the jetlag kicked in, and Pete (who I now refer to as my external body clock) woke several time confused that it was the middle of the night, and wondering why there weren't grandparents around to play with him.  There's snow on the mountains opposite our window, and apparently December starts next week.  How long were we away for?!

Hannah and a Black Forest Gateau sundae, so no wonder she's smiling.

Pete: juvenile food critic.

Friday, 21 November 2014

Wild West

The last week of our British sojourn was spent around the West Country.  Inspired by my time in Georgia, I was adventurous enough to leave Somerset, visiting Dorset and even going as far as Devon (they be strange folks down that way).

Our base for this final leg was Hannah's parents' house, which they've newly completed after knocking down everything inside.  The last time I visited it looked like a bomb site, but now that things like floors and walls have been added it exudes luxury with its underfloor heating, vast conservatory, and grandparents on hand to dispense childcare.

I split from Hannah and Pete again, popping to Devon (see above) to meet up with my old friend Andrew.  We reminisced over a pub lunch, washed down with an interesting cider that remains "live" in the barrel; it keeps fermenting as they serve it, so they're not able to tell you how alcoholic it is.  "I wouldn't drive after drinking it," was the barman's sage advice.

I stopped by Katherine and Scott's on my way home to find my eldest nephew and niece glued to their computers and playing Minecraft.  I witnessed my niece sitting in the next room from her brother, sending him typed messages.  Wouldn't it be nicer to walk in and talk to him face-to-face, I enquired.  "When we do that, we get told off for shouting," was her entirely reasonable reply.  Kids these days, eh?

We finished, as is tradition, with a couple of days with Meg and Ellen, and managed to sneak in a quick trip to London to see the incredible poppies at the Tower of London, find some Paddington Bear statues, and catch up with old flat-mate Caroline.  It's twenty years (no!) since we all met at uni, so we put a pic of this monumental reunion on Facebook.  Judging by the comments from fellow alumni about how we haven't changed, everyone is in as much denial about the passing of time as me.

And that's it!  All that remains is a flight home tomorrow, so thank you so much to everyone for giving up your time, beds, sleep (Pete apologises for the jetlag), food, etc. to look after our itinerant family,  Free board and lodge remains available in Canada anytime you want (please phone before arriving).

We're marking Pete out early for sporting greatness.

Grandma is game for a quick twirl on a roundabout.

Thankfully, there's another Granny around the corner when we have to leave the first.

Pete meets Paddington in London

The Shard, the biggest building in the EU!

Shard selfie.

The best coffee around, Ellen claims, and she wasn't wrong.  She went on to state that it was as good as Blue Bottle, but that was taking it a bit far.

And what should go with the best coffee if not the best mince pies?  They were pretty good too.

The poppy installation "Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red", marking the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War, visited by over four million people.

Tourist photo.

Meeting up with Caroline.  We have aged since 1994, but only physically.

A final Paddington, down by the Thames.  Please look after this bear!

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Go west, young man

It was a sad farewell to Eastern Europe for me today as my whistle-stop tour of Georgia came to an end.  I crept out of the house early while Christine and the kids slept, but my good friend Vince was up to wave me off...and maybe to make sure I didn't steal anything on my way out.

He'd booked me a taxi, and Georgian taxis are renowned for their punctuality.  They don't have working seat belts, but they are on time.  I had an extensive conversation with the driver:


There wasn't much traffic for me to enjoy at that time in the morning, but I did experience that fabulous moment when a taxi in a foreign city turns off the main highway and screeches at speed into a dark back alley.  Does the driver know a shortcut?  Am I about to be bundled into a garage and shot?  Thankfully the former, so I felt the shame of still distrusting anything not British despite years living abroad.

Tbilisi airport was quiet, clean, and efficient, and even offered free wi-fi.  It's been very nice not having to fill in any landing or customs forms during this trip, a marked difference from flying into the USA or Canada when I have to declare a value on every jar of Marmite I'm carrying.  Connecting through Istanbul was again easy, and we landed at Gatwick twenty minutes early.

So there we are!  I got into a taxi at 6.10am in Tbilisi and stepped out onto Salisbury train station at 1.45pm.  Thank you Muckers for your fabulous hospitality over these all-too-short couple of days, and I'm still shocked that it's some Americans who have taught me that the world is not the scary, inaccessible, unfriendly place that I once thought it was.  Although next time, please move to a place where driving causes less extreme spikes in blood pressure.

I leave you with a pic of Vince's favourite statue in Tbilisi.  A metaphor for communism, he says, or maybe for international diplomacy.

Monday, 17 November 2014

Georgia on my mind

Mucker Tours Europe is a worthy competitor to Davies Tours International, although our own destinations of SF and Vancouver seem a little vanilla after the exotic delights of Tbilisi.  Today I was shown around landmarks, parks and churches by the trinity of Christine, Claire and JJ, and introduced to the delicacies of Georgian cuisine.

We started with a saunter over the Kura - the river that runs through the centre of the city - via The Bridge of Peace.  Opened in 2010 it follows the same design idea as the other post-USSR official buildings made of glass, which is unsurprising given the same Italian architect seems to have a monopoly.  He must love Georgian wine.

We moved from modern to ancient as we walked to Sioni Cathedral.  It's everything you would expect from a church in this region, with fantastically ornate ceilings and icons everywhere.  It also houses St. Nino's Cross, constructed out of vines and the saint's own hair - the first cross ever to be made in the region, in the 4th Century, hence the improvised materials.  But the one on display is only a replica, with the real one in a safe somewhere in the back, so obviously no miracles took place today.

We then followed up with a Georgian lunch.  I will admit to some trepidation after the grape-and-flour-dipped-walnut-string, but the khinkali we were served were delicious!  They're little (quite large, actually) stuffed pasta dumplings, and are available filled with a variety of things but, most deliciously, spiced meat in a soupy broth.  As Claire taught me, you nibble a little hole, slurp everything liquid out, and then eat it, consuming all but the little stalk/handle thing at the top.  After that was some kidney bean-filled bread (UPDATE: Vince tells me this is called lobiani), having enjoyed a cheese-stuffed version known as khachapuri as we wandered (according to a 2009 survey 88% of Georgians prefer khachapuri to pizza).

Overall, I have to describe Georgian cuisine as "bland".  Coming from an Englishman this could be a compliment, and it vaguely is, but given that we had Indian for dinner the first night, and Thai for the second, actions might speak louder than words.  Oh, and service during lunch wasn't great because the two male servers were glued to a women's weightlifting competition taking place next door in Kazakhstan.

Another fascinating aspect of Georgian culture is loitering.  There are always groups of men standing around, identically dressed in blue jeans and black jackets.  It feels strange at first, as though you're always being watched, but as Christine explained it's often a function of three generations living together in a small flat - where else can you go to find some space?  There isn't much obvious poverty on display (you see far more homeless people in Vancouver) but plenty of general disrepair.  This is offset by the modern architecture and the demolition of single-storey buildings to make way for blocks of flats, but like many post-Communist places there seems to be a lot of money in a few hands.

We ascended above the city by taking a funicular up to Mtatsminda Park.  This is a Georgian Disneyland, and understandably loved by Claire, JJ, and their friend Tennent who joined us with his mum.  It's a very compelling mix of roller-coasters, animatronic dinosaurs, a ferris wheel, and a Soviet-era television aerial.  It also had a nice coffee shop.

By the time we'd finished running about up there, dusk was falling.  We drove home, through the mad and amazing traffic, to find Vince asleep after a hard day of overseeing military manoeuvers with his visiting general.  When he woke up he confessed that "manoeuvers" included a three-hour lunch with some Georgian supreme commander and lots of booze.  "They have a culture of making multiple toasts," he claimed.  "I had to keep up - it's my job."  The mystery of why the USA wants strong ties with Georgia is solved.

JJ's mix of US and Canadian culture marks him out as a future diplomat, just like his dad.

Christine doles out the khachapuri.

Claire bites.

JJ chews.

How many people eat this stuff?  Plenty, obviously.

A bar - strictly for tourists.

The Bridge of Peace.  See how nicely this brother and sister are standing together?

The river Kura.

This is a statue of "Mother", up on her hill to celebrate Tbilisi's 1500th anniversary.  Not a bad chunk of history, that.

Someone handsomely modelling a papakha or "astrakhan", a popular hat in the Caucasus.  The Georgians like to wear it shaggier than others...

Sioni Cathedral, where at least three weddings had just taken place.  There were some "brave" bridal decisions on dress, including white leather skirts.

The beautiful interior.

Holy water was dispensed outside - this was one in a line of around fifteen taps.

No idea what this statue is about, but JJ wanted to sit on it.

And then so did Claire.

That man on his horse on the left?  King David the Builder.  Can't be much wrong with that fellow.

Down to Georgian cuisine.

Claire and khinkali.

A khachapuri variant...possibly. Lobiani!  See

Heading up the 500m funicular.

"Selfie!" proclaimed Claire.  "How do you know the word 'selfie'?" I enquired.

Looking down.

Yep, just like Disneyland.

Fun, and a geo-political lesson; a number of contested regions are listed as Georgian on that backdrop.

Up goes C!

Up go JJ & T!

The TV tower.  Christine tells me that every ex-Soviet country she's visited has one identical, and she intends to collect pictures of each.

You can legally ride dinosaurs in Georgia.

Looking at Tbilisi.  A bit smoggy.

And who's this, commemorated with a gold statue on a column right in the centre of the city, riding a horse and slaying a dragon?  Only St. George, patron saint of England!  I was advised not to say this to any Georgians.  Georgia...St. George...I suppose they do have a fairly strong claim.