Saturday, January 31, 2015

A Moment in Tallinn

"I'm from Estonia... *long pause* It's...a country in Europe.... *long pause*'s....close to Finland, and also Sweden.......*long pause*....yeah there you go. You know those. Okay so let's just say I'm from something like that, fine."

I was born in Tallinn, the capital of Estonia. When I tell people this, they are genuinely confused because as it stands, Estonia is the one country in the world that has never been mentioned in any remotely relevant way whatsoever (well, unless you count Barack Obama visiting it as something important???). It's just my parents and Val and I here - everyone else is an ocean away (or two oceans? help a sista out, geography connoisseurs. Just kidding, I know it's one!). I've always envied people who can say things like "I can't come to your batmizvah Susan, grandma and grandpa are coming in from Sault Ste-Marie"  (my grandma did Skype me from a rural cabin in the Ukraine though) or "Sorry I won't be there for your Fifty Shades of Grey potluck, Robert. I'll be in Oshawa with my aunt and uncle that weekend."  I wish I had relatives on this continent, preferrably the type who like to host dinners and always tell me I need to keep eating because I'm practically wasting away.  Just having a slightly bigger crowd of people who know how to pronounce my weird last name would be nice. But alas, they are all far, far away. Anyway, so a couple of months ago, after we visited London, we dropped by to see my aunt, uncle, and cousins in Tallinn.  My dad, as I mentioned in the London story, was planning to have my aunt (who is a dentist) fix our teeth.  I, however, planned on eating all of the cake.

Growing up in Tallinn, my obsession with cake developed with a violent incline and a steadfast pursuit of the next best creation.  Why have I spent the past twenty-two years of my life passionately admiring everything that is frosted? Because since birth, I've been exposed to fresh, organic ingredients masterfully folded, swirled, and sprinkled into delectable masterpieces, each with its own key notes and epic finish.  This. Is. Cake.  

Passion fruit dark chocolate mousse, honey-glazed phyllo delicately wedged between layers of cold, freshly whipped cream, field berries scattered over an aged vanilla-bean custard, and a blackberry reduction to top your Scandinavian dairy cheesecake: all made daily, with love, the way pastries are supposed to be. 

Estonians take cake seriously to the point where they don’t want you to bite off more than you can chew. Seriously.  Cake is usually sold by weight, so if you’re having a great day and just want a little after-dinner treat, three hundred grams should do, but if you just bombed an interview, they’ll cut you the whole slab, guaranteed.

The best part about Tallinn, aside from its epic culinary achievements, is the Old Town.  Part gothic, part Victorian, the Old Town is made up of cobblestone streets and narrow, winding towers.  Around Christmas, the town square is decorated with an enormous Christmas tree which my cousin and I climbed and lit on fire when we were five. No further comment.

After moving away, I’ve had the same dream about this specific street, over and over again.  It leads to my mom’s favorite coffee shop, Maiasmokk -inarguably the best coffee shop in the city- where the walls are made of mirrors and the pastries are classic works of art, year after year.  My mom used to take me out of school and we’d eat cake and ice cream all day long, and my mom would earnestly explain to my aunt: “She didn’t want to go to school, so we had cake instead.” 

Indeed, Maiasmokk was a top must-see on my list, and while at first, my dad left us there to eat our pastries in solitude (“Cake, Alisa?? AGAIN??”) he quickly returned to eat a slice with us, pensively.

On the way out of the Old Town, you pass a row of flower stalls where little old ladies used to sell Lilly of the Valley in newspaper cones. 

Then, years later, someone decided to juxtapose the city’s vintage charm against the sharp lines of this unexpected architecture.  I won’t pretend to know what this is (someone’s house? A business?), but it sure looks cool…

One of my dad’s properties was a condo in this building. This is where I was born. 

And this is an endless supply of fish that my aunt cooked which was so, so good.  Estonia is also known for its incredible selection of seafood.

At the market, you can expect to find wild boar pepperoni, or this cray selection of dried fruit…

And at the grocery store, an homage to fruit hunters: this is a guide to exotic fruit!

And..a Cappy…which doesn’t look like something else…at all..

And if you’re looking for hot love, look no more..

Or perhaps you would like a very provocative hot dog. We’ve got those, too..

And don’t forget to pose with this fine betch..

I stumbled across these white berries while hiking through the towers just outside the city centre.  My Godmother- my mom’s best friend- would often walk with me through these towers and on our way back, as we waited for our streetcar, we would step on these berries to make them burst. Have you ever done that? It makes the most satisfyingly crisp pop, and it’s utterly addictive. I stepped on a couple, thinking of her…

Fo tha homies!

Tallinn doesn’t feel like home anymore. It hasn’t in a very long time. But every time I go, I remember something new, the way you might stumble across a roll of undeveloped film.  I find these memories in the most unexpected places, or they find me, like the tiny rays of sunlight between the town’s little houses. And that’s where I was born, so there you have it.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

The Big Toronto Apple

I’ve always loved Toronto, or at least, the idea of Toronto. Having lived in-and being unsuccessful at obtaining a visa for- Brooklyn, I always considered Toronto the next best thing to the (original) big apple, but as it stands, my impressions of it have been limited to the following:

Ages  12-14: Summers spent living at Wonderland (shout out: Ghoster Coaster and Tiny Tom’s donuts! No shout out: impossible-to-win giant stuffed animals which I still dream of…)

Age 16: Winning a Ricky Martin CD at a dirty dancing competition in Mel Lastman square…

Age 23: Getting bitched out by my artiste boyfriend for not loving the Bata Shoe Museum.

Age 27: Conquering the Leviathan at…well, Wonderland again.  Top Ten most insane things I have ever done.

It seems my impressions of T-Dot are always guided by the people I happen to be with when I’m there, so last week, when presented with an opportunity to check out the city on my own, I carpe’d that diem.  Oh and it was literally a diem. 

First of all, nothing makes you feel like a small-town hick like riding a subway. There I was, thinking I was a big shot because I know not to take the 85 St-Laurent to St-Laurent (all my East End betches, where you at? You know that mufucka never gets to that mawl..) and can pretty much take Ottawa's transit system with my eyes closed. Entering the Union Square subway, I was actually really overwhelmed. You know how people just assume that if you’re in a subway, you know what you’re doing, and they walk super fast all around you and roll their eyes when you stop to inhale for half a second? That was me, annoying everyone in the world just by being. After buying a handful of pirate booty (cute little tokens that you use on the subway and street cars), I dropped a coin in the slot with the agility of a comatose sloth, and headed towards the giant map that supposedly tells you which train to take. 

I’m used to very clear, very direct directions in NYC, but Toronto is another how are we expected to just know what Southbound and Northbound means? Luckily, a very nice lady saw me frothing at the mouth from confusion, and quickly pointed to the right platform, lest my pointless bag of bones take up any more space in the crowd of ambitious commuters. And while on the train, I made sure to let everyone know I was a tourist by epically projecting my Google maps app for all to see that I am So. Effing. Confused. I will say this proudly, however: I did not get lost even once! 

Between running across the streets with a wild look of terror in my eyes (hellllo four lanes of traffic!), circling block after block as my GPS refreshed (thanks again, Mobilicity!), and eating gum off the underside of the railing (just kidding), I was basically Buddy the Elf.

And maybe everyone in Toronto saw that, because be it from kindness or pity, everyone was so, so nice to me. From the gentleman who politely asked if I was in line at Tim Horton’s (while I stood about 8 kilometres away from the café), to the street car driver who explained to me how street cars work (after I announced to all of the passengers that I’ve never been on this type of transportation before), to the lovely man at Bull Dog Café, who, when I asked him why he chose that name for his coffee shop, explained that “The bulldog is a magestic animal” and wished me a blessed day.  And some treats I acquired, fresh from the oven…

Later, while charging my phone at a Starbucks, I was approached by a businessman with a laptop, who asked if he could “nestle in” beside me and plug his laptop in my outlet. #thatswhatshesaid and of course I obliged. But the thing is, people just aren’t so open in Ottawa. We’re small-town, we’re cozy, we’ll tell you how to get to the Byward Market, but we don’t do any nestling whatsoever, and that is clearly a problem.

After getting my appointments out of the way, I spent the day people-watching, walking by the water (remember when I said I don’t know anything about geography, in the LA post? Yeah I don’t know where in Toronto I was, either..) I went to the Eaton Centre, the street, the other street, this one really nice park, and Times Square. Well, not really Times Square but…you know..

I really loved the diversity of the people in Toronto.  It was amazing to walk into an establishment and see fifty women, all dressed to the nines. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen so many people care so much about their image, or seen an elderly woman carry a Jil Sander leather lunchbag, or seen a perfect replica of it at Forever 21 (what???). 

Remember this bag, from like Runway 2012? I had to do a double-take when I saw fierce gurlfrend slam him down on the counter and order a latte. So badass.
And much like NYC, Toronto is full of hilarious people saying hilarious things. While in Ottawa, the most exciting thing you’ll hear on the street is the latest way the homeless guy would like you to go fuck yourself, Toronto’s exclamations are slightly more colourful, and include:
“Roll down your window and come get some!”
“He’s a real son of a bitch. Guarantee it.”
…and with honorable mention: 

“Not her. Never. She’s a real person.”

Part of a true solo traveling experience, to me, is roughing it. For this express trip, I chose to stay at a hostel near….somewhere. Okay, let me really try…it was around…College Street? Something along those lines. Anyway, it got great reviews, and it’s been a while since I slept under crusty sheets, so I was super stoked. I was surprised to receive a text message from a mysterious number that afternoon, telling me where I would find my keys, the buzzer number for the door, and my room number. Ooooooo how 50 shades of grey, I thought, can’t wait to meet the landlord! Well, to my ultimate surprise, there was no landlord. Or anyone. At all. 

The password for the door was the very tricky, undecipherable combination of numbers known as “1 2 3 4”. Although I have great appreciation for the brilliance in its simplicity, I’m equally confident that a nearby vagrant could’ve just as easily unlocked the secret code by pleasing himself against the doorknob. After cracking that matrix, I entered a dark hallway and immediately noticed one of those cats with the waving arm, just waving and waving and waving at me.  Don’t ask me how he sent that text with no opposable thumbs. 

While there was no one in this house, there were lots of rooms, and lots of Chinese writing everywhere, from posters covering windows to magazines serving as doormats. I walked up the creaky wooden stairs and discovered my room, Room #3, and its wonderful smell of strawberry Playdoh.  The room was very cold, but one time I slept in a towel on rocks in Italy, so I figured I would just deal. About an hour later, I couldn’t feel my nose, so I sent the cat downstairs landlord a defeated text. This is how it went down:

Allow me to say the “sooooory” did not help the “my landlord is a ghost” situation.

On the floor of the room: a mat with the numbers 1 through 6. A ‘choose your own murder’ scenario, perhaps. On the dresser: four stickers praising the consumption of milk products. “Mmmmmmmilk: it’s good stuff!” I’m going to die tonight, I conceded. 

No, the owner was nowhere to be found, but under the bed was a pair of slippers, and they were not facing forward the way slippers would be had they been placed there for my use. No, these were somebody else’s, and he would undoubtedly return for them, likely holding a hatchet or variety of asphyxiation tools. Every now and then I would hear this sort of vibrating/buzzing sound very much resembling that of a vibrator. Maybe that is what had been occupying the master of the house.
After charging my phone again, I walked back down the creaky stairs, through the dark empty house, and stepped out into the frigid cold to meet some friends for dinner. Took the street car like a champ (“One token for you, good sir, and a transfer for this ol’ broad, indeed!”) and wasn’t even late, which was irrelevant because the line up for our restaurant was insanely long. Christian told me this place was happening, and indeed it would be. Nazareth is a small Ethiopian restaurant, adorably decorated with plastic leaves, and serving enormous injera dishes that are well worth the wait.  The cooks/waiters/owners (?) don’t have time for small-talk, or to even explain to you what the menu consists of, so the conversation went something like this:

Christian: What do you recommend?
Lady: What do you want? Just pick and I make. It’s all good.
Christian: Okay, and what kind of wine is the house wine?
Lady: It’s red, or it’s white.

And you know those are the best restaurants – the ones where the food is so good that they don’t care to please you with their social skills. And man, was it ever good. At 969 Bloor Street West, if you’re in Toronto and have no dinner plans, I would highly, highly recommend Nazareth.

An enormous dish!

I would also highly, highly recommend the company of Christian and my new friend Leyla, who are both incredibly ambitious people and who managed to inspire me just over the course of dinner. “What would you do if you were not afraid?” Christian asked. Of course, like all confident people, he asked this with excitement, and I became afraid of the very question itself, and ate way too much injera, and hoped the question would just answer itself.  It’s not every day that I find myself in the company of people who are passionate about the very essence of ambition, and so I look forward to returning..not only for that very feeling, but for the promise of a Nicaraguan restaurant for our next date…

Returning from dinner, I found myself facing yet another security curveball: the gate to the abandoned house was shut. It’s tough enough with the code on the door…how would I ever enter El Delapidante now? Luckily, about a kilometre away, a butterfly sneezed, and the gate swung wide open once again letting me into my humble abode. Phew.

The room was warm and toasty now, and I changed into my pyjamas and braved the hallway towards the bathroom, toothbrush in hand. As I shut the bedroom door behind me, I was suddenly struck by the sleek, Audi-like shine of the exoskeleton of a cockroach. He sat on the frame of the door, waving his antenna around, probably also trying to figure out just where the hell everyone was. I let the little guy chill while I left to brush my teeth, figuring he would dip by the time I came back.
Walking to the bathroom, I discovered various projects at various stages of completion. Half-fried potatoes in a frying pan in the kitchen, a piece of paper on the dining table with several lines drawn down the middle with the pen resting just inches away, and in the bathroom: a pair of men’s briefs soaking in a shallow bucket of grey water. It occurred to me that I was in an Asian House of Wax. As I brushed my teeth, I counted fifteen chest hairs in the sink, two bottles of Drakkar Noir – official scent of creeps united, rising to the occasion once more –and a family size bag of toilet paper, visciously torn open in several places. Understandable.

I left the bathroom, walked by la cucaracha who was now viciously gnawing on another insect in a corner of the kitchen, and into my cozy, pungent bedroom. That night, as I fell asleep to the gentle whirring of the dildo next door, I thought about Toronto, and how much I had feared being there alone. I guess through the years I had become accustomed to making crazy impressions of ‘the big city’, to the point where I worried that I wouldn’t be able to handle just having a normal day there by myself (outside of Wonderland). I feared being overwhelmed, of feeling lonely, of losing myself in the crowds. But if “wherever you go, there you are”, then there was never anything to be afraid of, because there I still was, entirely myself, a real person, chest hair and all. See you again someday, Toronto!

Friday, January 2, 2015

Twenty Fifteen and My Resolve

Six months ago, I signed up for a fitness challenge.  I surpassed my goal, won some money, and the next day, I signed up for a new one.  I didn't have a celebratory pizza, a spa day, or even a cupcake. I went back to the gym, and did two back-to-back spin classes.  There's something about motivation -regardless of whether it's about athleticism or anything else in life- that carries with it a sense of fear.  A fear of losing this fleeting drive, this desire to be your best, to push yourself.  I think what if I let myself slip today? will it set the stage for tomorrow's failure? And I get so consumed by that idea that I find it easier to just put on a pair of sweats and work out.  A few days ago, I found myself hunched over a trash can at the gym, about to revisit dinner in a backwards way. I had a fever, but ran on an uphill incline until everything started to turn black. I had a weekly mileage target, and those italicized words repeated themselves in my head over and over again, and there I was.  How do you draw the line between perseverance and overdoing it? Determining that has become part of my new year's resolution for 2015.

Anais mentioned she's going for a run on new year's day because what she does on that day essentially determines how she lives the rest of the year.  I also like to go for a run every January 1st to start the year off right, and I was certainly planning to do that, until I thought: what is 'right'? Why do we make a list of 'things that must be done' and only reward ourselves when we've crossed these  'right' things off the list? This year, in committing to my resolution, I did absolutely nothing on new year's day- nothing challenging, anyway.  The day was a combination of lazing around in bed, eating warm, yummy food, and watching movies.  Outside, runners were hitting their distance goals, and inside, there was the warm glow of a little candle and a scary movie on the big screen.  And you know what, it was exactly what I needed.

I've got some ideas for my annual January diet challenge, but they aren't taking center stage anymore. Instead, my goal this year is to kick back and oh I don't know..maybe not push myself so hard I break my middle toe (hello 2013!). My resolution is to drink all the lattes, see all the friends, take all the baths, read all the books, eat all the cake, run when I want to, and just generally chill out. We miss so much of the day's beauty when we're focusing on the things we 'have' to do ("life gets in the way of living"-Grade) that what I'd like is to just simply, in its purest form....chill out.

And as a testament to all of the chilling that is about to ensue, this hoodie has become less of a gym accessory and more of a relaxorama uniform!

I hope you take some time for yourselves this year. You're worth it!