Sunday, February 23, 2014

Sunday, February 23, 2014 - 2 comments

Poutine vs. Pickled Herring: The Shared Olympic Experience

I got up this morning with one thought on my mind:  Gold Medal Game.  The banners are made, the face paint and Red Mittens ready, and Jeff the Hockey Player (my little mascot) is sitting eagerly by the front door.  This is the day we take down the Swedes and defend our title.  (And our national pride!)  

I’m not normally a “check your email first thing” person, but during the Olympics, I play by different rules.  I opened my computer to see what sort of overnight smack-talk had appeared on my Facebook wall, and was greeted by the message:  “You are not connected to the internet.”  A flip of my light switch confirmed my worst fear:  NO ELECTRICITY!!!

I had to laugh at the irony.  A couple of years ago, I played an April Fools joke on an Indian friend here, telling him that I’d seen on the news that on the 1st, the day of a huge India-Sri Lanka cricket match that we all planned to watch together, there was going to be a city-wide power cut.  He laughed once he realized it was a joke, but then much to my horror, there was a massive thunderstorm that day and the power really DID go out where they live!  (Thankfully, we still had power at our house, so we just moved the party over here and my friend didn’t have to hate me forever.)

Were the electricity gods having a go with me?  Was this payback???

A desperate text to the friend at whose house we’re going to watch the game set my heart at ease.  They still have power.  Whew!  We can bake the mint Nanaimo bars.  We can cook the fries for the poutine.  We can watch our guys win the gold.

I’ve lived outside of my “passport country” of Canada for going on half my life now.  Half of that time away was spent in the States, and the other half has been in Turkey, still living mostly with Americans.  So, much as I love my country, it’s easy to feel “North American” in a general sense, or, perhaps more often, like a “citizen of the world.”  But during the Olympics, particularly when watching a hockey game, my red and white blood starts to pump through my veins.  It’s all about the maple leaf. 

My recent trip home gave me the chance to stock up on some “National Pride Snacks”, like these great maple leaf Ritz crackers.  I’d saved all my hockey banners from the 2010 Olympics, on a hunch they might come in handy, and they did.  :)  And with a stack of Canadian t-shirts in my closet, I’ve got my Olympic wardrobe all set.

These last two weeks, I’ve been so incredibly grateful for things like (mostly constant) electricity, the internet, texting, and Facebook.  I’m not normally a “glued to my phone” person (I don’t even have internet on it - gasp!), but during the Olympics, technology has allowed me to be connected with the world - to be a part of something happening hundreds of miles away and share the experience with my countrymen thousands of miles away. 

During the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, we watched everything on Eurosport.  We were the only ones of our friends with a satellite dish, so our house became Olympic Party Central.  This time around, the only station covering it was a local one, and they are happy to drop Sochi the moment there is a football game, so it’s kind of unreliable.  (Besides that, Turks don’t exactly make for the most lively curling commentators!)  But thanks to live coverage on I got to join with the rest of Canada in screaming for joy when Jennifer Jones and the girls guided the last stone to gold and holding our breath in awe as Scott and Tessa danced and glided to their silver.  (And thanks to Google Amca - Uncle Google -   the answer to “What in the world is a ‘twizzle’?” was right at my fingertips!)

Trying to follow the hockey puck on a tiny laptop screen isn’t the easiest thing in the world, so much of our Olympic viewing has taken place at our friends’ house on their big screen TV.  Thanks to having a VPN, we can decide between Canadian and British coverage.  (CBC has annoying commercials, but a British voice doing the play-by-play for hockey is just...unnatural.)  We’ve become big fans of the BBC’s snowboarding commentators.  They’re seriously more entertaining than the events.  (Classic quote when a French snowboarder got some incredible amplitude:  “He had time to serve an inflight meal up there!!!)

Being able to watch things online is great for those days when you have to actually work during events (!) cuz you can catch up on what you missed later.  The tricksy flipside is that everyone else has already seen what you’re watching, and it becomes unsafe to turn on the computer or answer your phone.  Text messages are carefully ignored, hands used to block all portions of the screen that might give something away, and calls started with, “Don’t tell me anything, I haven’t watched the game yet!!”

The night of the intense gold medal women’s hockey game between the States and Canada was a classic example of this. We started watching the first period when the live game had just eight minutes left in the third.  Immediately, my phone began to buzz - harassment from my American friends in other places, no doubt.  I purposely didn’t look, not wanting to burst that delicious bubble of suspense as we watched our girls MIRACULOUSLY bring the game up from 2-0 to a 2-2 tie in the last three minutes of regulation time.  Only when Marie-Philip Poulin scored that incredible goal in sudden death overtime did I look at my phone and revel in my Yankee friends’ glum messages of defeat.  (And, yes, I did a fair bit of gloat-texting myself!)

Hockey, as we all know, BELONGS to Canada.  It’s what we do.  So, obviously, there was a lot riding on the men’s semi-final against our age old rivals, the USA.  One would go to the gold medal game, and one would go home with a bronze, at best.  The night of the game, I was people out from too many Olympic gatherings, so I opted to watch it at home alone.  But the great part about technology is that, while I got to have my “introvert recharge time”, I wasn’t really “alone” at all.  A group of American and Swedish friends were all watching the game together in another city, and all three periods were punctuated by smack-texts back and forth with the Americans and messages of fear and trembling from the Swedes, who quickly realized they would be facing us in the gold medal game.  And then, after we soundly defeated our rivals, the message light on my phone and the little red Facebook notification button were flashing the rest of the night with conversations like these:

Swede:  We’re taking you DOWN on Sunday!
Me:  Just like you took us down in curling?  Oh, wait.....  :)
Swede:  Blah, blah, blah, whatever.
Me:  Abi (big brother), it’s ON!

Today I’ll be watching the game with a Canadian, his half-Canadian kids and his American wife (who becomes an honourary Canadian for the Olympics) as well as a smattering of other Americans and an Indian, who might just decide to spice things up and cheer for the underdog.  It’s Poutine vs. Pickled Herring, and my Swedish friends and I are ready to face off.  The poutine will be hot, the texts flying, the national pride so thick you can taste it.  It's on.

To all of you back home who have set your alarms for 4:00 AM to get up and cheer, I’m proudly waving my flag along with you from over here.  (Though in a slightly less bleary-eyed state, I’m sure!)  

We are the True North Strong and Free.  
We are Winter.  

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Wednesday, February 12, 2014 - No comments

The Ache That Invites

When I was little, I was way into Care Bears.  I had a stuffed Cheer Bear, the pink one with the rainbow on its belly.  At one point I couldn’t find her, and was much distressed.  After looking and looking, we decided she must have fallen out of the car in the 7-11 parking lot and was gone for good.  And my sweet Mom bought me a new one - identical to the first, though with significantly less matted fur.  And then, a week or so later, we found the original one - and suddenly I had twins.  :)

My temporary separation from my Cheer Bear is my earliest memory of what it feels like to experience a loss, but certainly not my last.  Oh, that healing the ache were as easy as buying another teddy bear!  (Or, better yet, finding her again!)  

Fast forward almost twenty years to a grown-up me, chaperoning a pile of teenaged girls at a youth retreat in Gatlinburg, TN.   On the last morning, I was in charge of rounding up the girls and making sure they hadn’t left anything in their hotel rooms.  All heads and suitcases accounted for, I herded them into the van and we headed for home, completely unaware that my stuffed koala, Theodore - my beloved companion through childhood nightmares and twenty-something world travels - was still lying tangled in my hotel bed sheets.  I can still feel the ache in my stomach when I unpacked my suitcase and realized he was gone.  Phone calls to the hotel yielded no results, and I could only hope that he ended up in the loving arms of some maid’s little girl and not in a trash bag on the side of the curb.  Perhaps it’s because I was an only child, but Theodore was a real friend to me, and the loss of him still makes my heart hurt.

Over the years, numerous other losses have left various-sized holes in my heart.  Some are seemingly trivial things, like the discontinuation of my favourite lipstick - Eva’s Caramel (I’m sparingly making my way through my last two tubes) or the recently-discontinued blue and yellow Staedler pens that I’ve used for every school paper, thank-you note, journal entry and creative musing since I was thirteen.  (They had a perfectly fine point and a hard lid that I could chew on to my heart’s content without risk of those nasty blue bits that get in your teeth when you chew on a Bic pen.  I only have a few left in my stash and wonder how I’ll ever write without them.)

Others are more symbolic - losses felt more because of what they meant than the value of the objects themselves.  Funny text messages from my Turkish uncle - the last few he sent me before he passed away of lung cancer - unknowingly erased by a friend who borrowed my spare phone.  My Akbil (Istanbul transit thingie) - my faithful sidekick through five years of exploring the length and breadth of that great city, gone forever from my keychain when I was forced to exchange it for the “new, improved” Istanbul Card.  The beautiful gold necklace my mom bought me for my thirtieth birthday, stolen from my luggage in a hotel room - worth plenty in and of itself, but even more because of the femininity and grown-up-ness it represented to me.

Two Saturdays ago, I stood crying by the graveside of my dear Grandpa.  He was the last of my grandparents to pass away, leaving a hole in my family that cannot be filled.  Besides the fact that I’ve lost someone I’ve loved my whole life, along with him perish a fisherman’s tall-tales, memories of our city when it was all dirt roads and ditches, and stories of what it was like to court my Grandma.  I’ve got photographs of my first fish caught in his little row boat, trophies from bullhead derbies and grand prix wooden car races, a handcrafted dollhouse in storage in my aunt’s attic, and a lifetime of memories of trips in the motorhome and canasta at the kitchen table.  He will live on in “remember when” conversations with my cousins and the card games and fishing techniques I’ll teach my children.  But I’ll never beat him at Five in a Row or hug his skinny frame or see him tip his cowboy hat as he drives away again.  

Standing in a tight circle around Grandpa’s grave, my family shared memories and thoughts about what he meant to us.  And then, in a fitting farewell, my mom and her sisters set to “twanging.”  This was a favourite tradition at family gatherings - all of us females gathered around Grandpa at the piano, singing the oldies - Grandpa’s fingers flying and a particular aunt’s nostrils flaring, my cousin Jen and I joining in with the lyrics we could remember.  This final tribute of “Are You Mine?” and “That Silver Haired Daddy of Mine” had us dissolving alternately into laughter and tears, one sister carrying on while another’s voice wavered, all of us feeling the absence of our beloved piano player, yet smiling at the memories of him that will stay with us forever.

Some losses come by choice - the favourite childhood toy wistfully sold at a garage sale or the relationship lost through a wise but painful break-up.  Others that come against our will - the pink slip presented with a mumbled apology, the photo albums lost in a fire, the picked lock accompanied by the missing family jewelry, the car accident that takes the life of a friend - leave us decidedly more bereft.  Along with people and possessions, we grieve the loss of the sense of security, familiarity, and intimacy they brought to our lives.  And we’re left with sepia-toned memories and crackly recordings that, while comforting, can never quite replace the flesh-and-blood versions of the ones we miss.

As all these losses have been rattling around in my heart, so has a thought that underscores them all, made all the more clear with the most recent loss of my Grandpa:  we were never meant to cling tightly to this life, this world, or all its shiny trappings.  All the love, the joy, the aliveness we experience here on earth are only a shadow - a reflection of the eternal.  Clasp our fingers around our treasures as we may, they were never meant to fill our hands or our hearts.  All the loving, the cherishing, the holding dear that we do in this life are meant to leave us wanting more.  That incompleteness, that almost-but-not-quite-ness, the itching and the wanting are gifts that invites us to point our desire higher to the One who fills us to overflowing and the Home where we are meant to dwell forever.  

Each loss, painful as it is at the time, is a chance to wrap my arms tighter around the one permanent Love in my life and rest my soul in the knowledge that my place with Him is secure.  All the missing and aching I do on this earth causes my heart to long all the more for the day when I’ll be united with my true Love in my true Home, and never have to say goodbye.  

I think of all the hurt and hardship my Grandpa experienced in his lifetime, and I know he’s finally tasting of the life that was always just out of reach.  I marvel at the thought of the One he just barely knew here on earth now wiping every tear from his eyes and showering him with the abundant love and overwhelming joy that are his for all eternity.  He has met Love Himself, and he has forever to get to know Him.

I have a feeling twanging together around the Throne is going to be a whole new level of amazing.  :)

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Sunday, February 09, 2014 - No comments

Edible Christmas

I know, I know, it’s already February - it’s way too late to be posting about Christmas.  But January kinda flew past in a blur of teaching prep, a training weekend, and an unexpected trip home for my Grandpa’s funeral.  And if some people can get away with playing carols in August, surely I can’t be faulted for a little out-of-season blogging!

I’ve always preferred giving homemade Christmas gifts over store-bought ones - partly cuz I like the personal feel and partly cuz crafting and creating brings me so much joy.  This year, I was super excited to be able to do all homemade edible gifts.  After a crazy busy fall where I was travelling pretty much every other weekend, sequestering myself in my “Elfing Workshop” for several days was just the recovery I needed.  Besides, that, my roommate was in the States for the holidays, so I was free to wreak havoc in the kitchen without driving her insane!

I kicked off the season well into December by watching It’s a Wonderful Life while decorating the little tree in my room, as per my mom’s and my tradition.  I love to quote the lines along with the actors - “A man doesn't get in a situation like this every day.....not in Bedford Falls, anyway” - and I always put the ornaments down to give the swimming pool scene my full attention.  :)

The kids in my life came over, as they do every year, for a cookie decorating party, unleashing their creative fury in a whirl of frosted fingerprints gingerbread giggles, flinging sprinkles into every corner of the living room inaccessible by vacuum.  Each year they get even more skilled with a piping bag and I marvel at their patience in making pupils in icing eyes and using sprinkles to form tree garland on their masterpieces.  

Between trying to get my Christmas cards across the ocean sometime before January (which didn’t exactly happen - mail seemed extra slow this year), making presents as well as snacks for various holiday parties, and all my other regular activities (when you live in a country where there’s no Christmas, life doesn’t exactly stop) I had to make myself a stack of lists and schedules to keep it all straight.  The dining room table became my “command centre” and helped me stay on track and finish everything on time.

I made little bags of goodies to give away for hostess gifts, Christmas presents and stocking stuffers.  Episodes of Old Time Christmas Radio on iTunes made for a great background to my chocolate dipping and finger licking, and every available surface was covered with pans of decorated treats.  Thankfully everything dried in time to package it up and get on a plane to the city where I spent Christmas with friends.  (I may or may not have done the dishes before I left!  Shh, don’t tell the neighbours!)

Here’s what was in the bags.  (Drool if you must.)

Chocolate covered spoons to stir into coffee or hot chocolate.  

Chocolate dipped marshmallows to add a little fun to a mug of hot chocolate.

Salted vanilla bean caramels.  (This was my first time making caramels and I was super happy with the results.  Here’s the recipe if you want to give it a go.  They were amazing.)

Gingerbread biscotti.  Yum.  And yum again.

Also, not pictured, were a couple of jars of balsamic fig chutney that I gave, along with cheese and crackers, to some of the healthier folks on my list.  

All in all, it was a delicious Christmas!