One week of passionate debate about CanLit

One week of passionate debate about CanLit

I don’t typically post about work. That said, I’ve been working long, hard hours in the past few months writing, coding, Photoshopping, and doing all things social media so that the show can deliver the best in online programming. My fingertips are worn down to the bone. Well, almost. OK, they’re not really. But I have worked a lot of hours and would like to see it pay off.

So, here’s my plug for CBC Radio’s Canada Reads. The debates start next week and will air on March 2-6 on CBC Radio One at 11:30 a.m. and 7:30 p.m. (2 and 8 p.m. NT). Go to the site, listen to the debates, Tweet about it, and make me feel like I’ve done a good job.

Oh, and as if we don’t have enough work to do next week, the team is also launching a brand new program! The CBC Book Club will be a month-long online discussion of the winning Canada Reads book, hosted by the lovely Hannah Sung. Check out the Canada Reads website for details at the end of next week.

In the meantime, for an up-close look at my job, take a look at these posts that I wrote for the site earlier this year:

[While I’m working web magic for the show during debate week, East Coast Guest Posts will be running on this site. Check back from March 2-6 to see what East Coasters have to say about fashion & style.]

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An Oscar worthy re-enactment of the night's events

An Oscar worthy re-enactment of the night's events

Don’t let the headline fool you. I’m not actually one of those people who thinks of my dog as my kid. I love him dearly but he’s more of a permanent roommate.

That said, there are definitely moments in our living together where he seems almost human. Like the time he wiped out down the stairs at a friend’s place and scared himself silly.

Check out the dog blog today to find out more about his shennanigans and what I think is a plot to get me to call him my fur-kid.

Let’s be honest. Some of the boutiques in downtown Halifax (as in other cities) are intimidating. Online shops have been appealing to me lately because a) I don’t have a lot of free time and b) I want to look at my options on my own time without someone shadowing my every move.

An added benefit of shopping online is not having to deal with snobby shop girls. Having worked in clothing retail, at upscale locations like Hazelton Lanes in Toronto, I can make this statement without impunity. Granted, some of the clientèle were equally as snobby (please, don’t get me started). And really, if I’m going to be spending my money on anything, I don’t need to feel like I have to bring in my pedigree papers just to get through the front doors.

By DKNY

By DKNY

Back in December I discovered Bluefly which dubs itself “the ultimate hookup for the fashion obsessed.” Now, that’s not exactly me but I’d been searching for the perfect winter coat to replace an almost decade old one that I finally had to admit was outdated. So, here’s what I’ve got to say about the online shopping experience so far:

I caught a Boxing Day sale and was very excited to save a whopping 57% off retail value. Since it was my first order with them I found a promotional code that covered the shipping cost too. Then, recently there was a President’s Day sale at Bluefly and Cokebaby treated me to two tops and a dress as a Valentine’s gift (yes, I know, I’m a very lucky girl and he’s a very sweet boy). Both shipments arrived at my doorstep in under a week and were everything I was hoping for.

Even though we paid a fraction of the retail price, once the $30 shipping and then brokerage fees are factored in, the savings aren’t what you see at face value. At least not within Canada. You’re still getting good quality designer brands for about half the cost but I’m going to have to shop around to see if this is really the best value for my dollar. Not that I shop that much anyway but I like to feel that my dollar is going as far as it can for what I’m buying.

On a side note, an interesting tool they have on the site is an online shop assistant. If you’re ogling a piece of merchandise for too long a little pop-up box appears asking if you require assistance. For those who are intimidated by technology this is a very helpful tool. It’s also nice to know that if I ever have a question there’s help just a click away. Plus, unlike real shop girls she won’t judge me for slumming it in my regular clothes (or, more likely, my pyjamas).

Overall, I’m not totally convinced that smaller items are worth it unless you buy a number of items together. However, for big ticket pieces like my winter coat, I think for the quality it’s a bargain compared to what I might have paid otherwise.

Have you shopped for clothes online before? If so, what’s your experience been?

[Next week, as a special treat, I’ll be having fashion & style week on East Coast By Choice. A few lovely bloggers have agreed to post about their views on style (or lack thereof). Check back from March 2-6 to see what East Coasters have to say about the topic.]

Seen Reading

Seen Reading

For those of you who know me on Twitter, you’ll know I go by the name of @aliasgrace. Being a bookworm I thought it was a fitting handle for a number of reasons, one of which is that it’s from a great piece of CanLit.

So, when literary voyeur Julie Wilson from Seen Reading asked me to do a podcast for her Readers Reading series, I happily obliged with an excerpt. You can hear me on her site in all my grainy-voiced glory. And, no, I’m not a chain-smoking 80-year-old woman. Go check out Aliasgrace readingAlias Grace by Margaret Atwood (McClelland & Stewart).

If you don’t want to do it for me, do it for Tofu. It’s not enough that he has a website dedicated partially to him. When he heard I was doing a podcast recording he tried reading passages with me, over me, and even without me. It wound up taking me probably twice as long to do the recording (and editing) as a result. Fame is clearly getting to his little head.

But who can resist that face?

(Disclaimer: resisting this face will only lead to heart shrinkage and Grinchism.)

P.S. If you’re a bookworm like me and would like to participate in the series, contact Julie Wilson at julie [at] seenreading [dot] com.

Last week Cokebaby and I treated ourselves to dinner and a movie up in Bayer’s Lake. While I mostly go for vegetarian fare when I’m cooking for myself or going out to restaurants there are exceptions. And, truthfully, they mostly come in burger form. This time I tried out Señor Jack’s Jalapeño Burger from Jack Astor’s with a side garden salad (who can resist the curly rings of pickled beets, huge croûtons, and blackberry dressing?). Best. Burger. Ever. There was just enough of a spicy kick, complimented with a sweet pickle relish. I was in burger heaven, oblivious to all the cows giving me stink-eye.

Official movie poster

Official movie poster

But the meal wasn’t even the best part of the night. It was the movie Slumdog Millionaire (which took home a whole bunch of Oscars last night). As the title of this post oh-so-subtly suggests, this isn’t a critique of the film in any way, shape, or form. Except, that is, to say you should probably go see this film if you haven’t already. And if you have, well, you know what I mean.

Oh, also, you have to watch this end credit sequence. And, finally, I want the yellow scarf that Latika wears with a white t-shirt and jeans. It’s the must have fashion accessory of the season IMHO.

We went into the movie not knowing very much about it besides the praise of friends (and seemingly the world). I didn’t even realize it was based on a book originally published as Q & A by Vikas Swarup (HarperCollins). Being a bookworm, it brought to mind a few good reads I’ve picked up over the course of the past few years. So, if you enjoy(ed) the movie and want to read books that are similar, check out these titles:

The Song of Kahunsha by Anosh Irani (Doubleday)—Upon hearing that the orphanage that has cared for him since he was an infant is to be torn down by land developers, Chamdi runs away in search of his father. The sheltered world that he leaves behind is a far cry from the streets of Bombay. It’s a world of violence and destitution. But he meets two street children who take him under their wing. Together they scrape by and search for a means to escape poverty.

Shining Hero by Sara Banerji (HarperCollins)—A well-to-do adolescent girl is charmed by a Bollywood star passing through her village. Nine months later she is horrified to discover she’s giving birth to a baby that she subsequently sends down-river. The infant boy, Karna, is discovered by a woman desperate for a child of her own and who takes him in as her own. But fortunes turn quickly and soon he is forced to seek out his birth mother who has since married and had another child.

The Toss of a Lemon by Padma Viswanathan (Random House)—Inspired by her own family’s history, the author creates a fictional tale of a child-bride who is soon widowed. According to the rules of her caste she must live out much of the rest of her life like a ghost: wearing white, and from dawn to dusk she is not permitted to contaminate herself with human touch, not even to comfort her small children. Her son grows up to reject the principles of caste and welcomes the ways of a modern India, eventually causing a rift between them.

The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy (Random House)—Shifting between 1969 and 1993, this is the story of fraternal twins growing up in the state of Kerala. It’s a complex book that captures a lot of interesting points about the period, such as the Communism movement, the caste system, and the Syrian Christian way of life. The author also uses Malayalam words throughout which adds to the richness of the book.

So, there you have it. A few extras to take away after you’ve seen the movie. Do you have any recommendations for books, music, or films to go with Slumdog Millionaire?

P.S. I’m also loving the movie soundtrack.

No, it’s not the sushi. And for me, that’s saying a lot. Those of you who know me in real life know that I love sushi. I could probably eat it every day and not be tired of it.

But this winter, I’ve been hooked on a menu item that most people don’t even look at when visiting the umpteen million sushi restaurants that abound in the city of Halifax. I’m talking about the meal in a bowl: udon/soba noodles.

We’ve been hit with a pretty brutal winter with wind chill factors that I’ve mostly seen further west of here. And frankly, there’s nothing better for it than to sit down to a giant bowl of hearty soup. And the varieties are plenty. Up until recently my favourite was the vegetable tempura variety.

From valvados on Flickr

From valvados on Flickr

One night I got adventurous and tried out something even better: nabeyaki udon. And I’ve been on a kick ever since. Nabeyaki udon is basically a personal size Japanese hot-pot topped with tempura shrimp, an egg, and a variety of other ingredients. Every restaurant has their own concoction. My personal favourite is from Milamodo (because I love fried tofu) but Doraku and Sushi Shige make a pretty mean bowl of it, too.

Honestly, I can’t think of anything better to warm and fill you up on a cold winter’s day. And, as an additional bonus, your friends sitting across the table from you will envy you your gastronomical prowess. That, I can almost guarantee.

[Love Twitter and sushi? Well, look out Halifax ’cause here comes Twushi. Due to the snow storm, the event was postponed from last night to next week. Check out the Halifax Tweetup page for more details on this and other Twitter related events.]

The big, wide world out there tends to think of geeks and nerds as social outcasts. We all know the stereotype: the socially awkward, overweight, acne-faced adult living in his/her mother’s basement, coming up only for sustenance that doesn’t rightfully belong on the food pyramid.

Neven Mrgan from Flickr

Photo credit: Neven Mrgan from Flickr

Well, the movers and the shakers of Halifax’s geeky underworld are on a mission to change all that by bringing the social back into social media.

It all started innocently last year with what eventually became Third Wednesdays. Now, we’ve got knitting circles, pupp-e play dates, brunch, sushi, and the list goes on.

Honestly, I’m the kind of person who usually has to plan things weeks in advance due to a busy work and social schedule. So when these things started springing up spontaneously I just couldn’t keep up. That’s where the idea of putting together a wiki came together.

Whether you’re new to the scene or not, check out the Halifax Tweetup page on Google Sites for upcoming events. Then come out from behind the glow and comfort of your computer screens to join in the fun. And, if you’d like to add to the event listings, DM your e-mail addy to me on Twitter and I’ll hook you up as a collaborator.

Coming up on the Halifax Tweetup schedule: Third Wednesday tonight, Twushi (that’s Twitter plus sushi) tomorrow night. Check the wiki for details.

Remember the scene in The Simpsons where Homer is daydreaming about the land of chocolate? Well, that was me in the south of France only it was with foie gras. Um, wait a second. That sounds kind of gross on a lot of levels. Well, even though I only had it twice in the nine days we were in France, it was equally as glorious as it was horrendous. But, like they say, when in Rome do like…Hedonismbot.

Here are some gastronomical highlights from the trip:

cwbuecheler from Flickr

Photo credit: cwbuecheler from Flickr

Picnics—By far, our favourite thing to do when travelling in Europe is checking out the fresh local produce and putting together meals to go. In Nice, we frequented the Cours Saleya Market & Monoprix, while in Avignon we enjoyed the offerings at Les Halles & 8 à Huit. Things we looked for included sundried tomatoes, olives Niçoise or en herbes de Provence, fresh baked bread, and, of course, fabulous cheeses. Whatever you do in France, if there’s an open display of cheeses that aren’t pre-packaged, for goodness sake don’t touch anything. In Paris, Cokebaby got his hand slapped for reaching out. Just remember, cheese is like a religion here. Don’t sully the alter. There are also plenty of pâtisseries and chocolatiers to go around for dessert.

Wines of the region are rosé and Côtes du Rhône which you can purchase for incredibly reasonable prices. Even champagne is dirt cheap here. For special treats we tried Muscat de Beaumes de Venise (a sweet fortified wine) and pastis (an anise-flavoured liqueur usually served on ice with a pitcher of water that you can use to cut it to your liking). In Nice, we found a great wine shop called Côté Vin where the young shopkeep was keen to speak English and gave us some great recommendations for local (and organic) wines of the region without an ounce of pretension.

Le Atmosphere (Nice)—On opera night, we tried finding a recommended restaurant called Chez Palmyre. Finding no signs of life there on that night (or any other) we wound up on the very touristy Cours Saleya Strip where we were reeled in by an employee. Yes, yes, tourist trap antics. But we were running late and it was literally a two minute walk from the opera house. We went with the formule which got us a starter, main, and dessert for 13,50€. Each of us had a fish soup (served with croutons and rouille), grilled sword fish with roasted vegetables in rice. For dessert I had a creme caramel while Cokebaby opted for chocolate mousse. For the price, service, and quality of food we weren’t disappointed.

Maison Nani (Avignon)—We kind of hit the jackpot with this little gem of a restaurant. The atmosphere is warm and homey, the service impeccable, and the food was everything we wanted it to be (and then some).  On our first day, we arrived close to the end of lunch service so we missed out on the specials but after our meal we vowed to come back early to check them out. Both days the place was filled with locals and the owners were around greeting everyone personally. Our meals ranged around 8-12€ and you could purchase a 75cL Cotes du Rhone wine for about 4€. The wine came in unmarked bottles that brought the term house wine to new meaning but who can argue for the value? I indulged in a foie gras salad served with toast. Simple but delicious. For dessert I couldn’t resist the café gourmand: a cup of espresso with a sampling of Chantilly cream, a cake that tasted like homemade Ferrero Rocher, crème anglaise, and a raspberry crumble for under 4€. On the next visit, I was very happy to get the special tart of the day made with broccoli, onions and olives, with a side salad, and vegetables (potato salad, cucumbers, tomatoes, mustard fennel, lightly salted and boiled string beans).

jenny downing from Flickr

Photo credit: jenny downing from Flickr

O’Neill’s (Avignon)—At supper time many of the restaurants along the main strip were closed, we assumed, due to it being low season. Back alleys turned up international cuisine for very reasonable prices. It probably would have made some sense to have Chinese food for the lunar new year but, frankly, we didn’t come to France for the Chinese food. So, we stopped in at O’Neill’s Irish pub. Um, yeah, that didn’t make much sense, right? The thing is they had a bunch of French items on the menu. While Cokebaby enjoyed his pizza Alsace (ham, olives, mushrooms and Emmenthal) and pint of Kronenbourg blanc, I was happy to receive the yummiest (and biggest) salade Niçoise with a goblet full of vin chaud (aka Glögg or mulled wine).

Le Courtois Café/Pâtisseries (Nîmes)—A family-run business since 1892, this gorgeous spot is situated in the same courtyard as a palm-tree and crocodile fountain (the city’s emblem). The dining room had crammed seating but elegant Old World decor. Cokebaby and I felt like the veritable bulls in a china shop and if the weather had been a bit warmer we probably would have enjoyed the experience more on the patio. That said, the food was delicious and the service both pleasant and efficient. This was my second and last foie gras salad. Not quite as delicious as the first but it came with a tasty side of scalloped potatoes. Cokebaby’s poulet Basquaise (chicken served in a clay pot with peppers and smoky spices) was not the most memorable meal but he enjoyed it nonetheless. On the way out we passed the display case of pastries and, although incredibly tempting (and probably where they excelled in terms of food), we passed them up in order to move on to the sites of the city.

Restaurant du Gesù (Nice)—This was a quaint little Italian restaurant situated at a cobblestone square across from a church. We opted to dine outside in the enclosed patio next to a heat lamp. The food here was simplicity at its best. We shared plates of gnocchi (potato pasta) with Gorgonzola, and ravioli with pistou (basically, pesto without the pine nuts). On the blackboard they had featured a wine of the month which we tried out for 14€ (this time it came in a corked and labelled bottle). By the time we were served our meal the place was packed with locals and students.

********

Our last day in Nice was spent trying to cram in as much food and drink into our faces before we had to fly back. We had croissants, café crème, wine, cheese, beer, pastries, and more. By the end of the night I was wholly and truly satisfied that I could indulge no more. Thankfully, vacations do have to come to an end sometimes. Otherwise, I’d be the size of an elephant. That or I’d have to take up smoking as an appetite suppressant which I’m convinced is the only way everyone stays so thin in France. Kidding..!

A view from outside the walls

A view from outside the walls

The highlight of our trip to the south of France (besides the food and wine) was by far our day trip to Nîmes where we visited the historic Arena. Formerly a Roman amphitheatre, the Colosseum-style building is now the site of two yearly bullfights and other public events.

Cokebaby is a bit of a history buff, particularly of this period, so the opportunity to see this monument of human civilization was phenomenal. All the tours we’d paid for up to this point included an audio guide and this historic site was no exception. We found ourselves listening to pretty much every single detail and sitting down to hear the “extras” that were provided. In fact, although we were one of the first people to arrive of the handful that were taking the tour at that time of day, we were the last to leave.

Some interesting things I learned about gladiatorial life:

  • originally, gladiators were highly skilled volunteers
  • matches to the death were not the norm as the host would have to pay the gladiatorial school the cost to replace the trained fighter
  • it was an equal opportunity profession (as in there were lady gladiators)
  • lots of animals and convicts were, in fact, harmed in the making of this form of entertainment

The history of the Arena was also quite interesting as it changed hands and served different purposes during its time. Although initially constructed for entertainment purposes, it also became a military fortification during the reign of the Visigoths and then an enclosed community before eventually returning to its original purpose for entertainment.

As for the bullfighting that takes place there, we saw conflicting information about whether or not it was a no-kill kind of venue. So, it’s probably just as well that one wasn’t going on while we were in the town.

A lovely day in the public gardens in Nimes

A lovely day in the public gardens in Nimes

After grabbing a delicious lunch at a local bistro we continued on a walking tour to take in the exterior of the Maison Carrée (one of the best preserved Roman temples in the world) and eventually to the Jardins de la Fontaine. Here, we recaptured memories of Versailles and Paris. It’s an elaborate public garden with well-manicured lawns and maintained walkways. Families were everywhere. Old men played boules. It was absolutely lovely. It made me wish there were more of these types of public places in Canada where people can spend their time outdoors with loved ones.

We returned to our hotel, content and ready to return to Nice for the final days of our stay.

This part of the trip is what I like to call:

Planes, trains, & automobiles.

Literally.

We had already proved ourselves oblivious to the world by missing the news about the biggest storm to hit the region in a decade. It really shouldn’t have been a surprise to us when the concierge at the hotel informed us that there was a train strike. Apparently, unions just randomly hold strikes every once in a while in certain parts of Europe. The same thing happened to us in Venice only we were actually on the way to the airport then. I guess 35-hour work weeks and five weeks of vacation is enough to drive anyone to mobilize and take action. Or at least pick up smoking as a hobby.

Trying to get by in a second language in this sort of situation is not amusing. I understood that there was a strike. I even got that only certain routes were posted. What I did not figure out on my own was whether or not we could a) still use our pre-purchased tickets and b) get back to Nice.

There was only one employee that we saw behind the closed stall. And let me tell you the stereotype of the rude Frenchman must certainly stem directly from the ancestors of the a-hole who was the only ticket agent in the station. I only got out the first part of my sentence to ask if he spoke English and upon hearing my accent he put up his hand dismissively, scoffed, and walked away to an area where he could not be reached by us lowly customers.

With only a basic understanding of the language we were at the mercy of those around us. Thankfully, the town of Avignon is filled with very kind and helpful types such as the women behind the café at the station. One of them explained that we would use our tickets to get to Aix-en-Provence and then transfer from there. And that’s what we did with several delays in between.

Although we added about two additional hours to our journey, we found our way back to Nice a little worse for the wear but with a story to tell and a number of photos from the scenic route.

Next week: a French cuisine overview. Then, back to regularly scheduled blogging.

Sean Munson from Flickr

Photo credit: Sean Munson from Flickr

One of the worst things you can do on a trip is tempt fate. Case in point: on our train ride to Avignon I noticed an entry in our guidebook that talked about Le Mistral winds in southern France. Living in Halifax, I’ve grown accustomed to the fact that rain falls sideways, that umbrellas must be purchased seasonally, and that good hair days are when you don’t have to leave the house.

So, reading about how the south of France—which until that point had been giving us temperatures of around 13 degrees—could even remotely compare to the wind tunnels of downtown Halifax, gave us a good laugh.

Well, that was a mistake.

Mother Nature does not like to be taken lightly. She’s kind of like that mean popular girl in high school who’s all fake-nice to the people she thinks “matter” but will claw your eyes out if you mess with her in any way. As a result of overhearing our snide remarks, Mother Nature unleashed Le Mistral upon us in the same way.

Although we didn’t hear about it until days later, apparently we were arriving during the end of one of the worst storms to hit the region in a decade. As a matter of fact, the name Avignon derives from the Roman word avenio meaning “town of violent winds.” That turned out to be a fact we didn’t find out about until our second day in the quaint little town.

We found ourselves shivering in a bus shelter outside the train station, as cold torrential rain poured down. When we boarded the shuttle bus into town, as further evidence of why one should never mess with Mother Nature, a woman sat in front of me who couldn’t have wanted to be more Amy Winehouse if she was Amy Winehouse: crazily styled hair amassed atop her head and in the process of layering makeup upon her skin. The only reason I could be sure she wasn’t the real deal was because the real Amy Winehouse was probably in rehab or maybe doped up and sprawled out on a bathroom floor somewhere (I still was having problems figuring out what time it would be back home let alone in the UK. Not that there’s really an acceptable time to be doing blow).

It turned out that our hotel, the Hôtel Cloître Saint Louis, was only a few short steps away from the train station. All our cold little worries melted away once we arrived. I must admit that we splurged a little here to stay in a charming 4-star hotel that was formerly a monastery and recently converted to a hotel that housed very modern rooms. Our room had a bathroom on one level and a bedroom overlooking a grassy courtyard.

Because we’re troopers and didn’t want a little bit of foul weather to ruin a perfectly good vacation to Provence, we decided to grab a bite to eat at a local bistro before visiting the Palais des Papes. This is what the UNESCO World Heritage Site has to say about the historic site:

In the 14th century, this city in the South of France was the seat of the papacy. The Palais des Papes, an austere-looking fortress lavishly decorated by Simone Martini and Matteo Giovanetti, dominates the city, the surrounding ramparts and the remains of a 12th-century bridge over the Rhone. Beneath this outstanding example of Gothic architecture, the Petit Palais and the Romanesque Cathedral of Notre-Dame-des-Doms complete an exceptional group of monuments that testify to the leading role played by Avignon in 14th-century Christian Europe.

If you’re any sort of a history buff, you’ll know that seeing this in real life just made our day. One of the great things about the little town of violent winds is that so many of the locals were amazingly friendly and let me struggle along in French. I think it amused them but it gave me the much needed practise that I was hoping for.

Strolling around a random beautiful churchyard

Strolling around a random beautiful churchyard

At the local market in Les Halles, we bought some Brie from a vendor who was so excited about his city and the fact that we were staying at the Cloître Saint Louis that he basically gave us a real life audio guide of tips on the best views of the city, particularly from the rooftop of the nearby church.

The next day we went to the Pont Saint Bénezet (of the Sur le pont d’Avignon song) where, although sunny and beautiful, we learned the true meaning behind the town’s name. Fun fact: back in the day, a couple of priests were blown off the bridge into the frigid water below. To console them, the pope sent them his personal physician and…some money. Because nothing eases pain more than cold hard cash.

Sadly, shopping in Avignon consisted of window browsing (apparently the French version of this phrase translates roughly to window licking). Even with 50% discounts, most prices came out to the same original price in Canadian dollars. So much for Soldes d’hiver 2009.

Next up this week: Gladiators! Bull fights! And national train strikes!

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