I think they said, the sky’s the limit

Of late, a lot of people ask me how I am.

I mostly tell them that I am okay.

Because I am okay. I am a lot of things, but mostly I am okay.

My life in Halifax is pretty simple: I run around the city, I work at my desk. I go for nightly walks up to the Citadel where I take photos of the city’s breathtaking cloudscape.

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The sky is big here. There are no mountains.

When I walk, I listen to Grimes and Of Monsters and Men. I also really like the soundtrack to the movie Drive.

At home, my bedside is littered with biographies of runners. I have reread Hemmingway’s A Moveable Feast twice.

The more time I spend at the Dickson Centre, the more I tune out its tired yellow walls.

I don’t think I could ever be a nurse.

I make vegetarian frittatas with Annapolis Valley vegetables and aged cheddar cheese. I eat a lot of chocolate peanut butter oatcakes.

My mother likes to tell me that oatcakes are healthy.

I don’t think anything with the word ‘cake’ in it can be good for you. But they are delicious.

I ride my bike around the city: to the gym, to the library, to Point Pleasant Park. To the famers market at the Halifax forum.

I sometimes feel lonely. I have to choke back tears. I’m never ready for them, and I always get very angry with myself when I cry.

I chastise my healthy, human self for being silly and immature.

It just makes me feel dumb.

I’ve learn words that I never knew before, like neuropathy and gabapentin.

I think a lot about nerve pain and restless nights. Aching legs. A fatigue that settles like an east coast winter fog.

I do everything I can to sustain summer’s warmth.

When we were in Europe, I borrowed a lot of my mother’s clothing. Living here, I have swallowed her wardrobe whole.

There are some items I can’t make work, no matter how hard I try.

And I try pretty hard.

On Monday, we went to Sears to buy new slippers and a bathmat. Afterwards, I made her try on these pants. They looked really good.

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She didn’t buy them. They were overpriced.

Ten years ago, my mum was visiting me in Vancouver. I took her shopping on Robson Street. Her favourite store was Mexx, and that afternoon she left with a pair of wide-legged, grey tweed trousers with built-in suspenders. They made her look like a Pulitzer prize reporter, circa 1940. All she needed was a small cap with the word PRESS imprinted on a piece of paper, folded into the brim.

They were perfect.

Whenever I think of my mum at her most epic, I think of her, on that April afternoon, standing outside of her change room.

She looks at me. She squints her eyes.

“Vanessa,” she says. “I really don’t think so.”

To which, I say: “I do mum.”

“I really, really do.”

Mach schnell, Mann!

Berlin is the coolest city I have ever visited.

Mum and I began our day to the sad strains of a 5 AM wake up call. A coach would be leaving the port at 6:20 AM to take us to the city, and being as it were that we were located some two hundred and thirty kilometers north of Berlin, it was imperative that we shake a leg.

The drive into Germany’s capital was beautiful. Wide, undulating fields of wheat reflected the early morning sun’s golden rays, while wind-powered turbines stretched skywards, standing a start white against the turquoise of the sky.

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I read and dozed while my mum, card carrying member of the intelligentsia, practiced her bridge game. It really warms my heart to know there are enough players out there to warrant the monthly publication of the literary piece known as ‘The Bridge Bulletin’.

When we arrived in the city, we met Andrea, our intrepid guide who would accompany us throughout the day.

After biking across two cities, my mum opted for a less-exercise intensive introduction to Berlin, so we walked and drove about as Andrea recounted Berlin’s history, beginning in 1237, and all the way up to unification.

The city was a-buzz in football fever, with some 100,000 Berliners heading to Tiergarten park to watch Germany play Slovakia in the Euro Cup.

We visited the Brandenburg Gate, the Bundestag, and passed the CDU and SPD headquarters (where at the former, I said a silent, but emphatic, hello to Angela Merkel.) Humboldt University is astoundingly gorgeous, and just standing out outside of the buildings one can understand how brilliant it would be to attend as a scholar, or be employed as an academic.

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The tomb commemorating those who have fallen in wars and armed conflict stands just across the street and was equally affecting, though for, of course, wildly divergent reasons.

The sculpture, housed inside of a building that was once a guard house for the German royal family, is a mother weeping over the body of her dead son. There is a hole cut out in the ceiling so that no matter what the outside elements, the sculpture stands firm. In the fall, leaves fall through the roof, in the winter snow. Yesterday, it is a solid stream of sunlight, illuminating her cold grief.

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At the East Side Gallery, we saw Brezhnev kissing Honecker, kaleidoscopes of colour, and calls for peace. There no better place to take arty-artsy photos of yourself, than this wall.

We slowly walked through the Holocaust memorial, and I quietly lost my mind at the family of tourists who were playing hide and seek amongst the installation, and even more so at the couples making out and sun tanning on top of it. Afterwards, we walked to The Topography of Terror, where along the way we passed the German Finance Ministry, that was once the seat of Hermann Goering’s Luftwaffe, which incredibly, was one of the only buildings not hit by allied missiles during the war. On the east side of the building, there is a remarkable display of DDR propaganda that depicts utopian socialist ideals: the happiest workers you could ever meet.

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Kreutzberg is cool. Just the coolest. And we didn’t spend nearly enough time in this neighbourhood. Alas.

Checkpoint Charlie is insane and made me feel really weird to see a place with such incredible historical significance turned into a three-ringed circus. How insanely ironic that this place, once the border crossing into a communist country and a symbol of its citizens’ loss of movement, is now a shopping centre where once can pay to have their photo taken with fake American soldiers and then eat their lunch at KFC.

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The mind boggles.

Did you know that Berlin’s Tempelhof Airport is now a space for citizens to use as they like? That people come to bike, run, fly kites, have picnics, and spend time together on sunny days? That the government put its use to vote by Berliners to see what they wanted done with the space and they overwhelmingly chose to keep it as it is, and to keep using it as a communal space?

To keep it for the people.

Sometimes I can get carried away about countries that I have read and read and read about in novels and textbooks and what I’ve seen in movies and plays. I try to live by the narratives that I have loved, but not lived. I try to imagine Grass and Boll and Remarque and Timm and Wolf and in the end I need to relinquish and let go.

Coming to Berlin was amazing because I was there with my mother. A woman who has shaped my narrative and my stories. A woman who will walk with me for two hours instead of sitting down to lunch because she knows that I want to see Alexanderplatz station even though she knows we won’t make it in time, but we’ll stumble over to the Berlin Concert hall instead, and goodness is it ever grand.

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I will undoubtedly come to Berlin again. I’ll rent a bike and see Marx and Engels; I’ll go to the symphony and visit museums and I’ll eat curried sausage in Kreutzberg and dance at some club.

But today was for mum.

Who likes Angela Merkel as much as I.

And who undoubtedly also said hello, as we passed her by.

She sells, sea shells

Okay. So cruises are crazy.

Did you know that people come onto these things and just, like, make a new life on the boat? For years at a time?

How is this even a thing?

Tonight my mum and I decided to partake in a little pub trivia, and the two couples who joined our team had already been living on the boat for sixteen days! SIXTEEN DAYS!

I feel like they that might be able to lay claim to some sort of squatters rights.

Also, full disclosure: Team “The Queen Is On Our Money” claimed top spot. We were originally two Canucks and two Aussies, and we had little time to accommodate our last minute New Jersey draft picks, who, luckily, remained unperturbed by the royal reference.

This morning I was again up at 4 AM, awoken as I was from my sweet bed of rest by the evil triumvirate of: a rocky engine start, a mid-night spectre looking for her lost bathrobe, and the sweet sounds of said spectre’s symphonic sinuses.

I beginning to think I will never sleep longer than five hours ever again.

I tried my absolute hardest to stave off wakefulness, but in the end acquiesced and resigned myself to the day. I stole about our darkened stateroom for an hour, ordering (and devouring) a coffee and a cheese plate – the only thing on the 24 hour room service menu that wasn’t a burger, a dessert, or a Caesar salad – and just generally feeling like the depraved Gollum figure that I am.

What’s in my pockets? Oh yeah! It’s my sense of majesty, ready to be incinerated in the fires of Mount Doom.

After satiating myself, I threw on some workout garb, and again found myself exercising at the crack of dawn with all of the other crazies.

The saving grace? That I was able to watch the sun rise over the water as I sprinted my cheese-coated guts out for forty-five minutes.

By the time I arrived back to the room, my mum was ready to motor. We got ourselves ready, and at 8:30 AM we were heading to the beautiful and quaint seaside town of Helsingborg, Sweden.

We knew that we wanted to rent bikes to explore the city, and were nervous that it may not happen. Today was the holiday after the shenanigan and booze-heavy Midsummer celebrations and absolutely nothing was open.

Luckily, we were able to find a small bodega inside of the central bus terminal that had two low-rise bikes to rent. Call it serendipitous, or call it weird as heck, but somehow we made our way to the most random of renters and we were able to procure our rides.

Thus, we spent a glorious four hours peddling around Helsingborg and its different environs.

The town is itself a study in contrasts: long stretches of seaside, punctuated by art installations and pungent sea salt air; its roadways flanked by octogenarian bathers and million dollar (turn of the century) mansions.

The main cycling path is approximately 20 kilometers long and takes you from beach, to town, to university, to industrial wasteland, to quaint sea side village. It’s a veritable personality disorder of aesthetics, and yet at the root of it all, everything is grounded in a simple beauty. A red brick and ancient stone; areas that once stood for so much more than e-commerce parks and paper packaging plants, that despite it all, remaining standing.

Defiant.

Beautiful.

We visited parks, and castles, and ponds. We dipped our toes and hands into the sea, and we burned our arms in the bright, blazing sun.

We laughed until we cried over pistachio cannoli and blood orange spritzers. I bought Swedish candy which we ate as we marvelled at all of the flags waving in the late afternoon breeze.

After returning our bikes, we continued to explore the downtown core, traipsing about cobbled sidewalks and sun bleached piers.

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When we arrived back to the ship, we stole away to the library, where we ensconced ourselves in another world of make believe.

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Because isn’t that so much the root of travelling? Letting everything go that has come to define your day to day? Your character and your arc? What you need and want (and what you think and want?)

We are nothing but small bit parts, showing up at a Swedish beach town, ready to rent bicycles and steal away into the sunshine.

Everything else is but a dream. And what an exquisite dream to be.

Tis the season

I’ve been thinking.

It’s funny the memories that stick.

No matter how hard I try to focus on one single moving, sentimental, emotionally wrenching moment that my sisters, mum, and I have shared, the first thing that always pops into my mind is this: a snap shot of us sitting on our the living room floor, parked in front of the roaring gas fireplace, Christmas day eve.

My little sister is eating a bowl of bran buds cereal.

She sits cross-legged on a lavender and brown floor rug, her roomy sweatpants covered in cat hair.  What is left of her Christmas day finery is swamped by a large, black hoody and the thick, knit scarf she received in her stocking earlier that morning is looped loosely around her shoulders and neck.

A Christmas cracker crown sits on top of her head, lopsided, sagging slightly to the right side, like the droopy smile of a dreaming child.  Her back rests up against the steamer truck my mother uses as a coffee table and she is laughing so hard, tears repeatedly spring to the corner of her eyes; one after the other the come, each taking the place of the others that are now streaming down her cheeks and dropping to the floor.

Her face flushes deep scarlet and as the trill of her giggles descends in pitch from high heehees to low hohos, I catch an eyeful of all the freshly masticated bran that sits dead square inside of her mouth.

My mother, my older sister and I are all laughing as well.  Jessi has been complaining for a couple of days that she hasn’t had a good “go” in almost a week, and is worried about the lack of fibre in her daily diet.  After a solid twenty-four hours of hearing about our sibling’s lack of progress in this sensitive, intestinal department, we’ve decided that the digestion of one big bowl of roughage should not only help her out, but should also be a family affair.

At first reticent to the idea, as clearly emphasized by her emphatic “don’t-look-at-me!” pleas, Jessi eventually wholeheartedly embraces this experience, and even acts the color commentator to her progress, using her spoon as microphone.

(All of this happens in-between her bursts of gut-busting laugher.)

As Jessi slowly makes her way through her late evening snack, she pauses a moment, dries her eyes, and lets us know, unequivocal in her sincerity, that she really hopes that this endeavour will work in her favour.

We let her know that we too, are rooting for her.

And she’s set off again, laughing so hard we have to give her a swift whack on the back.  Little flecks of bran that originally flew down the wrong tube are quickly assigned a new trajectory, and their landing pad sits clear across the living room.  A bedazzled reindeer get the worst of these food fireworks.

Our cat Simon, skittish on a good day, beetles quickly under the nearest sofa, spooked by Jessi’s demonic half-cough, half-cackle.   His increasingly whacko behaviour has me more than certain he is only half-cat.

After a few sips of water and a more tempered back rub, Jessi picks up her spoon and takes another bite of her now soggy, limp buds.

“That was a little scary, she says.  She pauses before continuing.  “I would never want to die constipated, full of bran.”

Oh how we roar, alongside the flickering flames of the festively-decked fireplace, on that Christmas day in the evening.

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And many more! (On channel 4)

This is my mum:

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She is very old.

JUST KIDDING!

She’s brilliant, and beautiful, and utterly fab, and I love her more than can be properly communicated on ye Olde Rant and Roll.

And it’s her birthday!

As I will be seeing her in exactly two weeks, when the family descends upon New York for my sister’s wedding festivities, I didn’t send her card in the mail (plus Canada post is notoriously slow).

Also, one thing to know about my momma is that she is a Buddhist, zen master extraordinaire, so in her quest to reach nirvana she has shunned all worldly possessions.

(And yet despite this fact, I cannot seem to stop buying her all the beautiful jewelry that reminds me of her.)

I’m working on it, okay?

(Just not that hard.)

However, as soon as I saw this card I KNEW that I had to purchase it:

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I mean, how perfect is that?

Momma, I love you to death, and if I could buy you a lifetime supply of nothing (or, at the very least, all the salmon and salads in the world), I would.

I would in an instant.

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HAPPY BIRTHDAY!

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