Category Archives: geography

Half-Irish Blues

I grew up believing I was Scottish (which is a bit daft because I was born and raised in Canada, as were both sides of my family for three generations) but when I was 30-something (probably years of age) my maternal grandmother was ranting about my Irish heritage. What does this have to do with me? “Didn’t anyone ever tell you, Evan? The ancestors of both of your grandmothers were from Ireland.”

Proud to Be Irish, flag

Suddenly a deep dark family secret came to light: I was not simply, as I’d always been told, a descendent of pale redheaded people who tended sheep and subsisted on oats and whisky in the northern part of the island of Britain, I was every bit as much a descendent of pale redheaded people who tended sheep and subsisted on potatoes and whiskey in the northern part of the island of Ireland! In an instant, my self-image was tossed in a raging wind of uncertainty!

In my bewilderment and rage, I went ’round the pub and drowned my sorrows in beer after beer. At closing time, as the bartender was rolling me out the door he said, “What are you, Irish?” And suddenly I understood. I’m a double Celt half-breed.

irish yoga

Now, instead of being woefully ignorant of Scottish Gaelic, my burden is doubled by my ignorance of Irish Gaelic. I’ll have to fill my sporran with potatoes. And it won’t be easy playing the bagpipes with one arm and the bodhrán with the other. Half the time I would otherwise have devoted to trying to comprehend Robbie Burns’ Address to a Haggis must henceforth be devoted to trying to fathom James Joyce’s Ulysses. And now my options seem to be limited in religious matters, much as in Canadian politics, to only two possibilities: the orange or the green. But what is presented as black and white is all grey to me.

Only sometimes can I distinguish whether an accent is Irish or Scottish, or whether a foxy redhead is a bonnie lassie or a pretty Colleen. And I’m less expert in matters of Mc and Mac than people have come to expect of me.

Fortunately, there is an easy way out of my dilemma. Based on my appearance, people often ask if I’m German. Since I speak more German than Gaelic anyway, henceforth, I should just reply, “Ja”.

Am I Scottish or Irish? Nein!

Scottish or Irish? Nein!

Whatever you consider yourself to be, Happy Saint Patrick’s Day to you!

Please also read my brief and rather silly St Patrick’s Day article http://www.postcity.com/Eat-Shop-Do/Do/March-2013/Seven-things-all-Torontonians-should-know-about-Ireland-for-St-Patricks-Day/

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Filed under cross cultural understanding, geography, perspective, tradition

Black History and You

Valentine's Day and Black History Month, lonely and white

Along with the USA, Canada and the UK celebrate Black History Month. If you are one of those who would ask rhetorically “What does that have to do with me?”, please consider the following question.

What do you and I have in common with Dr Martin Luther King Jr, Malcolm X, Rosa Parks, Dick Gregory, Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglas, Jack Johnson, Louis Armstrong, Josephine Baker, Nelson Mandela, Maya Angelou, Kunta Kinte, Ricky Gervais, Richard Dawkins, Muhammad, Moses, Jesus, Madonna, Adolf Hitler, Kim Jong-eun, L’il Kim, Kim Kardashian and the Ku Klux Klan?

We all came from Africa. (And if you deny that fact, enjoy your 4,000-year-old flat Earth. Careful you don’t fall off the edge.)

Familiar faces from African-American history

Familiar Faces from African-American History, Caitlin Tamony bbc.co_.uk_

You may hear it claimed that “Black History Month” is vitally significant, especially for a continent not yet free of ignorance-based tensions and hostilities. You may hear that Black History Month has outlived its usefulness — “We all saw Roots on TV.” You may hear that Black History Month is self-defeating—it should all be just History. As Morgan Freeman said, “I don’t want a black history month. Black history is American history.”

As with so many debates, there is truth to be found on all sides. Only the ignorant claim the ignorance is all behind us now. And history should, indeed, be history for one and for all. If only there were no ignorance amongst historians, publishers, educators and media.

painting by Charles T. Webber in the Cincinnati Art Museum_underground_railroad

The Underground Railroad, Charles T. Webber, Cincinnati Art Museum

So let it be History Month, and let’s all look into a bit of history—look up something you know nothing about, or investigate whether certain “facts” you like to quote are as solid as you have always believed. Just notice the limitations of the sources you check. Who wrote what you read and what are the foundations of their claims?

Regardless of how direct or indirect you consider your African heritage to be, why not take a moment or two this month to do yourself and the world a favour: learn something new about our collective past.

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My Hometown and the Ballad of Johnny Montes

flag of New Brunswick

New Brunswick

On Thursday, I came from cosmopolitan Toronto—where I have lived restlessly for the past decade—back to my quiet east coast hometown, Rothesay, east of Saint John, New Brunswick, which I fled in the 90s in search of adventure. Now, as we flip the great Mayan calendar to the next 5,000+ years, is this the place I want to live?

I have lived, for brief and extended periods, in Asia, Latin America, and even on a fly-in reserve in Manitoba. And all over the world, when you ask someone, “What makes you like this place so much?” the cliché response is always, “Mostly, it’s the people.” But, as I recall, that was part of why I left New Brunswick. Old-fashioned, conservative attitudes, something about this place always made me feel like I had to hold my oddball self back so as not to agitate everyone around me. But isn’t that what I just said about Toronto?

OK, so maybe it’s me. But, for a change, I don’t want to talk about me. I want to talk about the people of my hometown. Not the ones I know and love; I’m talking about the ones I’ve never met. A strange concept, for a place where it always seems everyone knows everyone, but I’ve been away a long time.

Saturday morning was the first time I’d heard the name Johnny Montes. I was asked to fill in at the last minute to work the door at KV Billiards which was holding a fundraiser that night for Johnny and his family. Last month, Johnny’s car hit some ice and he went off the road. Over recent years, I have been involved in the slow, costly, nerve-wracking process of recuperation of a family member who suffered similar injuries in a similar accident. It is, to say the least, not easy.

#65 Johnny Montes from Bigwave's "Riverglade National" Photo Report http://www.vitalmx.com/forums/Moto-Related,20/Bigwaves-Riverglade-National-Photo-Report,578804

#65 Johnny Montes from
Bigwave’s “Riverglade National” Photo Report http://www.vitalmx.com/forums/Moto-Related,20/Bigwaves-Riverglade-National-Photo-Report,578804

I soon found out Johnny’s a bit of a celebrity in the motocross world, and a very popular guy around here. A few years younger than I am, he grew up in the trailer park near my high school, where he was likely a neighbour to some of my childhood friends. Who knows; I may even have seen him as a toddler when I was visiting friends there three decades ago.

Just before 7:00pm, I met the owner and she sat me down at the door with the donations jar and a stack of pamphlets which explained what the event was about. Some people picked up a pamphlet, but it was obvious that pretty much every one of the hundreds of people who came in that door from 7:00pm to 1:00am knew Johnny. And they don’t just know him; they really care about him. People were stuffing big bills into that jar, more than a few people surely put in more than they earn in a day, a few pausing to confirm, “This is for Johnny?”

It was assumed I knew Johnny and everyone connected with him. “Is Juan here yet?” That’s Johnny’s father. No one made me feel like I was out of the loop. Johnny’s mother introduced herself to me—why? Because she didn’t know me. One stranger after another was quick to fill me in on who everyone was—“That’s his sister”—and it often turned out I did have connections with people. And people with whom I had no connection fell into easy conversation with me. Doesn’t take much to make a connection around here.

Three damn fine local bands donated their time and talents: Bigg Medicine, Chasing Dragons, and Penalty Box, with a DJ in between acts. The song that summed it up for me was a satisfying cover of “I Love Rock’n’Roll”. The place was packed but no one was pushy. Some people came back again and again to drop more money into the donations jar (which had to be emptied frequently to make room for more) or just to see how the doorman was doing. People from ages 19 to 69, a few guys in suits, a lot of guys in baseball caps, several wearing number “Montes” jerseys, and lots of attractive women but none looked like they had gone out of their way to get their outfit and makeup just right. It was, without a doubt, the most human bunch of people I have been around for a long time.

But the most New Brunswick moment I’ve ever had was just before 1:00am when a 30ish guy in a baseball cap came over and offered me a beer. I thanked him but said no. I was still working, after all. “C’mon. You’ve been standin’ at the door here for like five hours. You should have a beer.” He wasn’t on his first, and why would he be. What he said next proved him to be a true New Brunswick gentleman. “Look, I’m not gay or nothin’; I’m not hittin’ on ya. I just figure you could really use a beer.”

You’ll just have to take my word for it; there was not a drop of homophobia in that remark. His tone said, ‘Not that there’s anything wrong with that’, more sincerely than Seinfeld. This guy was just clarifying the parameters of the offer. They say Canadians are ‘nice’. Well you can’t get much nicer than New Brunswick. And I had to drink to that.

I don’t know Johnny Montes but, the way everyone speaks of him, I want to know him. In the New Year, there is to be an auction in support of Johnny. In the meantime, donations are still being accepted.

Now, someone sing us The Ballad of Johnny Montes. What, nobody’s written it yet? He deserves a song. Someone’s gotta write it. Come on, I’ll race ya!

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Filed under family and relationships, geography, Optimism & Inspiration

Locomotives and Tall Buildings

By train, from Toronto. Home to New Brunswick for the holidays, for the winter, for the hell of it.

Plan:

Drive 5km to station, leave bags—two checked, two carry-on—return car to house, make a leisurely return to station, board train.
Outcome:

Drive to station. Aware that construction has turned everything around the train station into trench warfare, I decided in advance to pay any amount required to park near as possible since I won’t be able to take in all my bags at once. (Surely parking for a few minutes will be cheaper than taking a cab, right?)

If there are two things I’ve learned in this life, one is, never marry someone you’ve known for barely three months, and the more important one is, never enter a corporate, automated, underground parking garage in a car you aren’t willing to abandon.

From the outside, the parking garage looks damn near to the train station, like back-to-back, but that’s an illusion. Joined, but worlds apart. Drive down three levels to the first available spot, which I take, despite misgivings that it is a trick of some sort. I take out three of my bags, unable to manage the fourth, but sensing merit in unloading as much as possible the first time around, and I drag them up three levels of prison-like stairs wells, wondering where the elevators are hiding.

Having walked what must be halfway back to my house—all the while fighting the current of commuters like a salmon returning to his spawning grounds with 75kg of winter clothing, digital apparatus, and research books—I check two bags and pay $3 to store one of my carry-ons which I’m informed is 2.5kg overweight so will have to be repacked when I return with other.

Hike back to car, discovering elevator this time. To avoid paying to park longer, I decide to drive home and bring the backpack when I return to the station. I get to the automatic exit gate and find the $10 parking fee is more than I have in cash and the machine won’t accept debit. I am informed by a man in a fancy suit, who says he’s “from head office”, (hanging around the automatic gate?—hmm, warning sign) that the nearest ATM is three floors up in a convenience store. Conscious that time is money, and that I’m rapidly running out of both, I make haste. And we all know what that makes. Anticipating a significant run, I leave my coat in the car.

I’m in a video game in which the object is to avoid and outrun angry mall security guards, retrieve parking funds, and get back to the car before the parking fee reaches the daily maximum and get the car home with enough time remaining to get back and make the train. Getting directions from one of the Mario Brothers, I find the shop. The owner asks what I’m looking for. Was he deliberately concealing the ATM behind his body? To be safe, I choose $40 quick withdrawal. Insufficient funds? That really puts the F in “WTF?” Stupid convenience-store ATM doesn’t understand I just deposited $155 @%^&* yesterday! Stay cool. This is the bloody Financial District; throw your wallet and you’ll hit a bank.

I go exploring, and promptly find a National Bank which is only across the street but gotta navigate a 500m shopping-tunnel maze to get there (which I calculated to be less time-consuming than being struck by a car). Insufficient funds lie is repeated. The entire staff gathers to give me directions to the nearest branch of my own bank—the national headquarters, sure to have all the answers, is just four blocks away! I take my chances with traffic and frostbite.

In my sweaty T-shirt I burst from the malevolent complex and fly betwixt taxis and streetcars, doing back flips over renegade bike couriers, halting for a red light at the corner of Bay St and What Aver-nue to regain my breath and composure. The little walking man lights up. Surely looking like a CGI effect, I launch myself across the street and through the revolving doors.

The foyer of Canada’s most venerable bank tower. What do I see? Bankers in elf suits decorating a 20m high Christmas tree, banks of elevators, acres of empty space. Quick, Robin, down the escalator! Ah ha, real live bank machines with no line up! Now the truth is revealed. Five day hold on all cheques. I am able to withdraw $20 of $38 available. Now, shiny new $20 bill in hand and 20m below the earth’s crust, I must navigate a galaxy of mirror image coffee shops, luggage stores and hair salons to find a nameless parking garage somewhere between the train station and Lake Ontario. How hard could that be? I was just there 80 breaths ago. There must be an app for this, but my phone is a dunce.

Subtle signage gets me part way but it’s taking too long. At the risk of misinformation I ask a custodian how to get to the overpriced parking garage south of the station. “Damn the tunnels, man; point!” He is a worthy guide. I surf the sidewalk down to a comedy of doors. Two strikes and a homerun!

In my absence, the parking fee had jumped from $10 to $15. If math is true, $20 should be more than enough to cover that, unless… It seems the machine doesn’t recognize the newest bill, and who can blame it. Even the Queen’s portrait is eyeing with suspicion her doppelganger in the clear plastic window and the clip-art maple leaves on her own bill. Thankfully, there is someone there to yell at.

“But I’m from head office. I don’t really know anything about…Wait, I’ll go ask my boss.” He disappears around corner where I hear a woman yell at him “Well you’d BETTER find me a parking spot. Here, I’m going to park in this RESERVED spot.” Poor guy. “You can’t do that, Ma’am.”

I save him, her, and myself. “You can have MY spot, right here, if I can get outta here!” Mr Headoffice opens the gate and I peel outta there like Batman after the Penguin.

The car safely returned to the Batcave, I hoist the bulging backpack onto my sweaty-T-shirt-back, throw my down-filled coat over my frosty forearm and take the subway back to the train station.
Arrive at baggage counter as boarding begins. I redistribute contents of my luggage so that neither carry-on is overweight. The big one, on wheels, is half empty; the smaller one, strap cutting into my shoulder, is vomiting computer components and gift-wrapped major appliances. The guy ahead of me is told to put his carryon on the scale. I stagger by unnoticed. Riding the escalator to the platform, I dump the excess from the small bag into the big one, and stroll onto the train with my head held high, dreaming of my east-coast Fortress of Solitude.

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Toronto the Good and Bad

Three things I really appreciate are live jazz, modern languages, and descent people. Toronto has all three in abundance.

Jazz at Massey Hall "The Greatest Jazz Concert Ever"

Jazz at Massey Hall “The Greatest Jazz Concert Ever”

On Friday, I was thrilled by the “Molly Johnson and Friends” jazz concert at Massey Hall, which is a splendid and venerable concert hall. Molly Johnson, who was delightful as always, is one of my favourite singers. One of her many fine guests was Denzal Sinclaire, whom I well knew would be worth the price of admission on his own. Her pianist for the evening was the outstanding Robi Botos. What a show!

On Saturday I met with a local international group a couple of blocks from home and spoke in Portuguese for two hours. On Sunday I went to a cafe a couple of blocks in the other direction and signed in ASL for two hours. On Wednesday I am going across the street to a Spanish/French evening where people from a dozen countries will switch from one language to the other every 30 minutes. Fun!

Today I heard a woman at the health food shop checkout say, “Last time I was here, the cashier undercharged me by two dollars. I hope it won’t screw up your accounts if I pay that back now.” Good!

What’s not to like about Toronto? Maybe it is just this: Toronto is a place where you hear great musicians giving a dazzling performance at a terrific venue, and the audience conducts itself as if it is trying not to get noticed, as if everyone snuck in on a school night and they are afraid they’ll get caught if they make too much noise. Decades ago, my mother saw the one and only Louis Armstrong play at [Massey Hall] the O’Keefe Centre, (which later became the Hummingbird Centre) and she says that the audience was so reserved he rolled his eyes and grumbled, “What a swingin’ crowd.” Same thing when I saw Ray Charles at the venue formerly known as the Hummingbird Centre; I wanted to shout at the audience “Come on, everybody; it’s Ray freaking Charles!” and I would have been heard without needing to shout.

Toronto has all kinds of good stuff, from the world’s greatest public library system to North America’s most comprehensive municipal recycling program, and of course endless opportunities to immerse yourself in food, music and languages from every corner of the globe. But somehow, Hogtown has no personality. Toronto is less than the sum of its parts.

It is said that Toronto looks down on the rest of Canada, and that the rest of Canada hates Toronto. From both sides, this is unfortunate and uncalled for. For better or worse, Canada and Toronto are not so different from one another. Both could and should be so much greater than they are. If only more parts of Canada had some of the stupendous resources Toronto has. If only Toronto had some of the personality that other parts of Canada have.

Sorry if I sound ungrateful, but I have to be honest about how I feel. I’m glad you’re here, Toronto, and I definitely don’t hate you, but you make me feel like a Toronto audience.

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Filed under geography, languages and communication, music

Where Your Purchases and Information Come From

“This Headline Is Irrelevant” will never make the front page. The evening news will not say, “Tonight’s top story, Nothing to Report.” You’ll get a lot of “news” about sports, and “Muslim Rage”, but never, “Government Forsakes Tax Payer Interests to Bail Out Acme Corporation” or “Tonight’s top story, our senior business correspondent, fired for investigating our major sponsor”. Likewise, products that admit “may contain nuts” will never admit “may contain cocoa harvested by captive runaway children”.

Spring Meadows Farm

Spring Meadows Farm

If you want legitimate information, you have to get it from the horse’s mouth. So I visited some animals and their farmers two weeks ago on Open Farm Day in New Brunswick. On two farms, I saw turkeys and chickens move about freely in open pens that were not spacious but not overcrowded. I saw pigs that were happy as pigs in…sod (that’s what they’re happy to be in). They ran to me like any family dog would, then scurried off and played. A week later, returning from the farmers market, I ate bacon that came from one of their cousins, smoked by the articulate, charismatic, happy-but-overworked (his words) young farmer with whom I spoke both on the farm and at the market.

Kingston Farmers Market

Kingston Farmers Market, New Brunswick

Another thing I saw on Open Farm Day was grass fed cattle. (Contrary to a popular myth, Canadian cattle can be raised exclusively on their natural diet of grass and hay year round; they just can’t graze in the pasture all year. The alleged “need” to feed beef cattle with corn—which they cannot easily digest, like making a lactose-intolerant person live on milk—is just a way to fatten them up in two years instead of three.) The four dozen cattle grazing in the field were as happy as cattle grazing in a field. The young ones, about 15 of them, were in a barn lined up almost shoulder to shoulder. The barn was clean and quiet, the air was fresh, the young cattle had fresh water and hay. What was distressing was that they were on very short tethers. For their first season, they can do nothing but stand up and lie down. The intelligent and personable farmer explained in plain and unapologetic terms that they are being shielded from pests (horseflies) and predators (coyotes) until they are grown. “We’d take them out for a walk every day if we could, but there are only two of us,” she said. “In the spring, they’ll be out in the pasture with the rest of them.” For a dog or a cat to be chained up like that for a year would be torture. But these are not pets. Compared to conditions for industrial cattle, such treatment is luxury. My first thought was, It’s so unfair. But I looked the cows and the farmers in the eye and, despite my sentimental misgivings, I felt that these were not conditions of cruelty and I did not feel the urge to return to vegetarianism.

If only we could all have such immediate access to the origins of all products we consume. To be able to drive an hour from home and see the very starting point of any item you pick up off the store shelf downtown, and form your own conclusions about how well the system is working. But for most people and most products, going to the source is not so easy. Where, then, do you get your information?

Around 1994, attending a presentation at UNBSJ discussing the emerging World Wide Web, I asked if it could be a reliable source of useful information. The presenter told me it would take time, but he believed it would gradually become a powerful resource.

My immediate reaction upon first reading about Twitter (back when I used to discover things on my own rather than through Facebook, to which I remember having a similar initial reaction) was, “What the hell is the point of that?” But as Oscar Wilde said, “The value of the telephone is the value of what two people have to say.” Although it is damningly faint praise, I can now say that a few minutes on Twitter supplies me with wide ranging information of significantly greater importance and interest than does “the news”.

People who have something valuable to say are finding each other. And, having been away from my own blog for some time, (the rewriting of my novel is going well, thank you), I was pleased to once again find something on my own—an increasingly rare occurrence—while looking for something to read in French.

http://alternatives.blog.lemonde.fr/2012/09/29/sourcemap-le-wiki-qui-simplifie-la-conception-des-produits/

This blog post introduced me to Sourcemap, “the crowdsourced directory of supply chains”. A project of MIT’s Tangible Media Group, Sourcemap “is a social network built around supply chains, enabling collective engagement with where things come from and what they are made of.” Something starts out as some project which then begins to attract a handful of geeks and enthusiasts, and then one day is suddenly indispensable, a tool which becomes to shopping (and selling) as a seat belt is to driving. People are becoming increasingly conscious of the harms their spending can be connected to.

A rant about fair-trade bananas or chocolate gets a pretty small audience. But responsible consumerism may become something in which everyone partakes as a matter of course once it becomes possible to confirm, as easily as checking the weather forecast, whether the thing you are planning to buy is produced under inhumane conditions, grown in night soil, derived from unsustainable sources, or shipped from thousands of kilometres away when a local, ethical, sustainable option might be available.

sourcemap showing sources of laptop

A Sourcemap showing sources of laptop components

With the “era of traceability” now upon us, participating in unsustainable and unethical consumerism is becoming increasingly inexcusable. Even here in backwards old New Brunswick, I am finding with no effort such things as fair-trade chocolate chips and local, grass-fed beef, at multiple locations and reasonable prices (no more expensive than the same products in fancy-ass Toronto where everything other than rent is generally cheaper than on the east coast).

sourcemap reveals shared problem of bottle shipping

Sourcemap shows shared shortcoming of shipping

Take a look, get involved. We can bring meaning to the phrase “guilt-free shopping”. Where did the parts of this computer come from? Where will they go when it is recycled? Who made your T-shirt and where was the cotton grown? Sourcemap is still a work in progress, and it may not dazzle you yet, but watch out. You may soon forget what life was like without it.

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Filed under communication and media, conscious consumption, fair trade, food, geography, sustainable

Sete de Setembro, Brazilian Independence Day, de Novo!

Por alguma razão, de todos os tópicos que eu escrevo sobre neste blog, o post que é lido com mais freqüência é esse (que eu escrevi há um ano) sobre o sete de setembro.

Feliz Dia da Independência, Brasil!

For some reason, of all the things I’ve written about on this blog, the post that gets read the most is this one I posted one year ago about the 7th of September.

Happy Independence Day, Brazil!

Antes de mais, quero agradecer ao gente incrivelmente generosa do Brasil. Em 2007 eu passei um mês visitando em Porto Alegre, São Paulo e Rio de Janeiro, com quase nenhum dinheiro, mas nenhuma falta de alimentar, segurança e boa companhia.

Eu sinto falta de vocês e tenho saudades do Brasil.

Abraços,

Evan

Brazil flag map

Brasil

Sete de Setembro

On September 7th, 1822, Brazil declared independence from Portugal. On this day, Sete de Setembro, Brazil celebrates her Dia da Independência. Here’s how that got started.

When Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Portugal in 1807, Portuguese royalty transferred their office from Lisbon to Rio de Janeiro, which was at that time capital of Colonial Brazil. Suddenly, Brazil was more than just a colony. It was now part of “the United Kingdom of Portugal, Brazil and the Algarves”.

The royal family went back to Portugal in 1820 and the following year told Brazil she was back to being a colony. Brazil said, “não, obrigado.” Then Portugal started to get all bossy, but Princess Maria Leopoldina, acting as Princess Regent of Brazil, sent a letter telling her husband Prince Pedro to declare Brazil’s independence. He did, thereby ending more than three centuries of Portugal’s control over Brazil. (No hard feelings, right?)

Parabéns, Brasil!

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Filed under beginnings, geography, languages and communication, tradition

You Are Here: Gangneung, Korea

I asked my old friend Marcus Peddle to write about his city, Gangneung, on the north east coast of South Korea where he and his wife Kyeong-hwa graciously had me for a visit a few years ago. Marcus is a professor of English, a photographer, an erstwhile poet and musician, and a native of Newfoundland who has lived and taught in Korean for 17 years where he is now a citizen.                                           (To pronounce “Gangneung” [강릉 if that helps], say “gang” and then make a sound like there’s a bell trapped in your throat: “nung”, no more like “reung”… No, I still can’t say it right either.)

Gangneung, South Korea: It’s a nice place to live, but I wouldn’t want to visit. By guest blogger Marcus Peddle

Woman on Snowy Beach, Gangneung, South Korea, by Marcus Peddle

Woman on Snowy Beach, Gangneung, South Korea, by Marcus Peddle

Thousands upon thousands of people visit the South Korean city of Gangneung in the summer and on New Year’s Day. In the summer they leave the hot, overcrowded city of Seoul and come for the beaches and the raw fish restaurants. On New Year’s Eve the cars are backed up to the capital on the ‘express’ ways so people can watch the sun rise out of the sea on New Year’s Day along with ten thousand other people. Well, they can have it. I wouldn’t want to visit Gangneung.

But I do like living here.

I am not a beach person. I don’t eat seafood, and I can’t remember the last time I saw a sunrise or even wanted to. So Gangneung’s tourist attractions are lost on me. And, I think, probably not of much interest to a visitor from another country. If you want to experience traditional Korean culture then Andong or Gyeongju would be better. If you are interested in Korean art and events then Seoul is the place to be. But if you are coming to Korea to live then Gangneung is a decent place to be.

First, the natural scenery here is great. The word ‘Gangneung’ is made of two Chinese characters 江陵 which mean ‘river’ and ‘hill’. A small river runs through the centre of the city and has walking and bicycle paths. For a person in shape, getting from one end of the city to the other only takes about half an hour. The river comes from the mountains which separate Gangneung from the rest of the country. These are about 800 metres high and offer a beautiful view of the east coast. In addition to a river and mountains, Gangneung also has a lake that is separated from the sea by just a hundred metres or so. Next to this lake is Gyeongpo Pavilion, from which it is said you can see the moon five times. Once in the sky, once in the sea, once in the lake, once in your drinking cup, and once in the eye of your lover. I’ll take that over a sunrise any day.

Culinary Delights, Gangneung, South Korea, by Marcus Peddle

Culinary Delights, Gangneung, South Korea, by Marcus Peddle

Gangneung also has culinary delights. To the north of the city is a whole village dedicated to the making of traditional cookies called hangwa. Most of them are made with rice flour and lots of them have honey. Highly recommended. There is another village in Gangneung called Chodang that has almost nothing but tofu restaurants. Tofu might not sound very exciting to those of you whose experience of tofu is limited to the rubbery blocks found in many Canadian supermarkets but the tofu in this village (and Korea in general) is different. The tofu is made in the restaurants every day and comes in blocks boiled or fried, in soups and stews, or in a soft form eaten in broth. The tofu in Gangneung is different than the tofu in the rest of the country because it is made with seawater instead of fresh water with added salt. I take back what I said. Visiting Gangneung just for the tofu would be worth it.

So, except for the tofu, I probably would not go out of my way to visit Gangneung if I was a tourist. But it’s a wonderful place to work and live.

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free counters

How did this get placed here? How do I move it to one side?

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You Are Here: Iceland, Where Björk Comes From

Björk Biophilia

Björk's 2011 album Biophilia "combines nature, music, and technology"

In honour of the inimitable musical artist Björk, who was interviewed by Stephen Colbert this week to promote her new album Biophilia, I decided to devote this edition of You Are Here to her homeland.

I know you could find it on a map, but I bet you’ve never been there and don’t intend to go any time soon; and I think you likely know as little about it as I do. So let’s see what we can find out.

Although Iceland is culturally European, it is kind of “out there”, and not just geographically. Here’s a nifty example:

Instead of using family names, Icelanders use patronymics and matronymics. Hence, the full name of the above mentioned artist, Björk Gudmundsdottir, means “Björk, Gudmund’s daughter”. For this reason, the Icelandic phonebook is listed alphabetically by first name.

This might sound impractical were it not for the fact that there are not very many Icelanders. Over the centuries the population has periodically been cut down by half as a result of plagues, famine-inducing volcanic eruptions, and mass migration to Manitoba, leaving the current population at about 320,000 (considerably smaller than Halifax) in an area of 103,000 km2 (bigger than Portugal, smaller than Cuba) — and 62.7% of that is tundra. Sound like Canada? Indeed both countries have a population density just above 3 people per  km2.

Iceland, geyser catland

Geyser Catland, Iceland. Image: Terekhova via Flickr

Iceland has many geysers, (one of which, Geysir, gives us the English word for… You guessed it!), lots of fjords and hundreds of volcanoes. What Icelanders lack in firewood, they make up for with geothermal power. Iceland kicks environmental ass.

First settled in the ninth century by the Norse (although it’s hard to think of Vikings “settling down”), but possibly previously visited by Scots, Iceland’s original population of was (according to genetic studies) of Nordic and Gaelic origin.

Iceland was granted independence from Denmark in 1918 and formally declared itself a republic on 17 June 1944 (following Allied occupation during WWII while Denmark was occupied by Germany). The current Prime Minister, Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir, has twice made Time magazine’s top ten list of female world leaders.

Icelandic Language Day (dagur íslenskrar tungu) is celebrated on 16 November. On top of Icelandic, (an inflected North Germanic language of Old Norse derivation, largely unchanged over the centuries), English and Danish are studied in school and widely spoken in Iceland. Icelandic Sign Language (based on Danish Sign Language) was officially recognised as a minority language in 2011. Your first Icelandic word is Ísland. Guess what it means. (Hint: it’s the same as the French word l’Islande and the Korean word 아이슬란드 .)

The Canadian Connection

The Icelandic currency is the króna (ISK). But with the economic crisis and the Euro looking shaky, there was talk of Iceland adopting the Canadian dollar.

There are 88,000 people of Icelandic descent living in Canada (the largest community outside of Iceland), and Islendingadagurinn, The Icelandic Festival of Manitoba, has been celebrated for well over a century. So at the end of July, after seeing my play in the Toronto Fringe, you can go to Gimli and have some wholesome Viking fun. If you can’t get to Gimli, find out what you’ve missed by reading Icelandic Connection (formerly The Icelandic Canadian magazine). Or stick to the classics, like the 14th century Eiríks saga, which describes Erik the Red’s pre-Columbian voyage to Vinland (Newfoundland).

The temperature in the capital, Reykjavik (pop. 118,000), will be a few degrees above freezing for the next week or so; yet another reason to visit Iceland without delay. And here’s one more. If you’re ever dickin’ around Iceland and find yourself hard up for entertainment, you might want to visit the The Icelandic Phallological Museum.

P.S.

Now I have a regular byline that links to my blog. Henceforth, my Post City articles (such as my latest, on Black History Month) will be followed with: Evan Andrew Mackay is a Toronto playwright and humourist who writes about culture and social justice.

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