North American Holiday

I can’t be bothered finding an alternative photo hosting site for the moment… so I put everything up on Picasa.

Here are some of my favourite photos from the holiday.

san francisco, 2012
chicago, 2012
montreal, 2012

It was such a wonderful trip! Despite the +40 C temperatures and never ending allergies I had so much fun seeing my family and friends. Highlights include buying authentic cowboy boots in Vacaville, having dinner with my old Peace Corps pals, hanging out with April, eating “It’s it” with Vanessa, seeing my 92 year old great aunt, going camping with my mom and Jenny and Ricky and a blind, deaf poodle with no teeth, swimming in Lake Michigan, dancing to Steely Dan with my aunt at Ravinia, eating chilaquiles, drinking PBR (ok, the taste is not really a highlight…), finding a bunch of awesome stuff at the Sparrow’s Nest, eating amazing gluten-free pizza with Jenny, Ricky and Kim, inventing a gin, watermelon pucker and grapefruit juice cocktail, going to a sweet picnic in Jeanne Mance park featuring an amazing jam session and Isabelle’s bacon brownies, stuffing myself on poutine and smoked meat in Montreal, re-discovering my old hood in Mile-End, brainstorming plans for wold-domination with the ladies of BAW,  hanging out with el Tickor.  I had such an amazing time… I wish I didn’t have to go back to work on my thesis :(

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Driving in NZ

the road warrior

Yesterday I had my first experience driving a car in New Zealand.  There is one adjective to describe this experience for both myself and my passenger: terrifying.

People in Wellington drive extremely fast.  The roads are extremely narrow, twisting, and hilly.  Louis’s car (pictured above), is huge, wide, does not have power steering, and is manual transmission (and billows out toxic fumes upon start-up).  This combined with the fact that for the past 15 years of my driving experience I have done things completely opposite to what I should be doing now made the experience quite challenging.

50 km/hr + narrow twisty roads + hills + driving on the left + enormous car = LORD SAVE ME

In my opinion, most of the logistical factors in driving a car are of the muscle-memory, instinctive variety.  Especially for some one like myself, who learned to drive 15 years ago, in suburban Chicago, and have driven infrequently in the past 10 years, mostly in North America, I am used to a particular style of driving.  Other than awareness and alertness, the physical act of driving is like riding a bicycle, my body just instinctively knows what to do.  Well, imagine if some one just turned your entire world up-side down.  Shifting gears with your left hand, signaling with your right, turning right into the left-hand lane of traffic… it’s all so counter-intuitive!

Beyond even the quite obvious principle that most people are right-handed, therefore it makes sense that the driver should be on the left side of the car, with the clutch on the right side of the driver, everything just felt wrong about driving on the other side of the road. I was constantly afraid that I would turn into the wrong lane of traffic, where I would be crushed by a huge oncoming truck.  Having a bicycle for the past 2 months has certainly helped acclimatise me to the rules of the road and general flow of traffic, but I still do find myself cycling along the right-hand side of the road occasionally on an empty street, and at an intersection, looking left then right before crossing.

Another thing – there are NO STOP SIGNS in this city!  It’s all yield and “right of way” signs, which means people never stop!  You get to an intersection, and just roll right through.  Now I know why people drive so fast here – they never have to stop!

To be honest, I don’t really care to learn to drive in this country.  I hope to never be in a situation where I have to drive on a regular basis, or own a car.  However, due to increased pressure from my flatmates, I have been made to feel quite guilty for attempting to get out of any driving-related tasks, without any valid reason for doing so, simply because I don’t like cars or driving. Especially when I have a valid driver’s license.

But really, is it wrong of me?  I am vehemently opposed to non-communal or public-transportation motor-vehicles.  I would be totally happy to never have to drive a car again.   There are circumstances when driving is essential, for example, when I wanted to visit Lascaux in France, in which case, you have to take a taxi, which can be prohibitively expensive, or rent a car.  There were no buses that went there, 40 kms from the nearest town, so I had to rent a car and drive alone through the French countryside, when I could barley drive a stick-shift.  That was stressful!  But worth it to see that amazing cave.

My flatmates like to do a weekly trip to the super-market, where we spend approximately $100 on food, and then on Sundays, we spend $50 at the vegetable market.  It has been the habit for Louis to drive his car and I to accompany him.  Lotte cannot drive, and generally stays home with the baby.  This is a lot of food, and would be difficult to transport without a car.  I understand that there may be a situation where Louis cannot go to the store or the market, in which case it would probably fall on me to do the shopping on my own.  Luckily, this hasn’t happened yet.  If I were able to drive the car, it would be a lot easier.  However, in my current state of hating-driving, I would have to either ride my bicycle to Kilbirnie and back, lugging 20 kgs of groceries with me uphill, or, walk 15 minutes to catch a bus, and then catch it back to town before walking home, uphill, with 20 kgs of groceries.  Neither of these options sound attractive.  Due to the irritating and completely fucked up nature of Wellington, the nearest grocery store to my house is at least a 30 minute walk, and overpriced.  The more reasonably priced grocery store is about 7 kms away.   Today I went to Moore Wilsons (about 2.5 kms distance), on my bike and bought 20kgs of things, and it was exhausting lugging it all back.  Did I mention it’s uphill? BOTH WAYS?  And usually raining?

WHY? Why did I come to this godforsaken place?  How long for the days when I lived on St. Dominique, 100 meters from “Epicerie Segal”, alternatively “The Push N’ Shove”, or “The Third World Market”, the cheapest grocery store in Montreal! Or on du Parc and St. Joseph, upstairs  from the PA!!!  Or even when I lived by the IGA in St-Henri.  How I long for the Aldi on Cermak ave in Chicago, dream about the Fairplay (just don’t go at the end of the month, when the food stamp benefits come in!), and fantasize about Pete’s Fresh Market.  Even Si-Muang City-Mart in Vientiane was more convenient than the offerings of this town!  Wellington, people have to eat for Christs’s sake!!  Why make it so difficult?

Oh, North America, I know I have expressed disdain for you in the past, but how I miss your courteous, moderately-paced motorists, grid-like traffic patterns, stop signs, bicycle lanes, and conveniently located amenities.  You don’t know what you’ve got ’till it’s gone.

Because of all of these circumstances, I must admit, driving is a useful skill.  I’m sure that there will be an occasion when all this will seem well worth it, despite my current reluctance.

It’s certainly true that driving offers convenience.  However, I would argue that this is due to the layout and geography of our cities and towns, which is in part due to oil and car manufacturers lobbying for zoning regulations that encourage dependency on non-renewable resources, and fosters isolation.  If people actually challenged the perception that cars are a necessary evil, and refused to live in neighborhoods where a car was needed, we could build stronger communities with more efficient and effective public transportation.   We should demand this from our public officials.  So, yeah, what can we do?  Well, we can start by not driving, which is what I’m doing.  OK, now I have a valid excuse for not learning – I’m ideologically opposed to it!

new, improved nicole, now with jaundince!

It’s true… according to the documents I submitted to the New Zealand High Commission in Ottawa, my doctor indicated that I am suffering from jaundice.  That would probably explain the strange yellow tint to my eyes…

Unfortunately for me,  New Zealanders don’t let people suffering from jaundice into their country, so I have to now get a letter from my doctor explaining that he must have accidentally ticked the wrong box.

They also informed me that I am missing a radiologist’s report from my x-ray, just so they can be sure I don’t have TB.  I called the Montreal Chest Institute to ask them to fax a copy of the report to the High Comission in Ottawa.  the radiologist’s VERBATIM response: “WHat the hell do they need that report for?!  I already filled out their form saying ‘No evidence of TB.’  These new Zealand Immigration people are so anal!  It’s just really frustrating.”

If only you (radiologist, and the rest of the world) knew just how truly frustrating a process this has been!

Oh yeah, I’ve also had to get medical reports faxed to me from the USA and now I have to pay the Clinique St. Henri doctor $40 for the forms he filled filled out (incorrectly!)

In addition, my home phone and internet has been disconnected. I had some moments of panic, but am now recovered.   Like I said to my sweetie, “I can handle anything the universe throws at me.”.

Tip – NEVER TRY TO IMMIGRATE TO NEW ZEALAND!!!

more entanglements with bureaucracy

Well, I am nearly ready to send in my application for my New Zealand student visa. In addition to filling out a 20 page application, getting passport pictures taken, and photocopies of several official documents detailing my acceptance at Vic and my financial arrangements, I am also required to submit proof that I am a physically healthy individual, unlikely to put undue strain on the New Zealand health-care system, and provide the authorities with evidence of my good character.

In order to accomplish these 2 final steps, I have had to figuratively jump through a number of increasingly irritating hoops.

Step 0 – get fingerprints taken in Illinois last time I was home to send to the FBI for my “police certificate”, or essentially evidence that I do not have a police record and am not one of America’s Most Wanted.

Step 1 – Phone several doctors and clinics to find one that will see me and do the necessary tests. Go to the post office, get a $18 USD money order for $25 CAD, mail to the FBI, along with my finger prints.

Step 2 – Go to the St-Henri walk-in clinic, pay $50, wait 2 hours to see a doctor for all of about 5 minutes, while he looks at my documents, takes my blood pressure, and signs one page.

Step 3 – Walk up the mountain to the Montreal General Hospital, pay $260 to get my blood drawn, pee into a cup, and be given a large orange jug, which I am instructed to pee into for the next 24 hours, and return the following day with the full jug for further testing. They instructed me to keep the jug in my fridge during this time, where hopefully one of my roommates would mistake it for orange juice and drink it.

Step 4 – Ride my bike in the snow to the Montreal Chest Institute.  Pay $35, get my chest x-rayed.

Step 5 – Wait.

Step 6 – Call the clinic to see if my results have arrived. They have.  I prepare to pay another $50 to see the doctor for another 2 minutes.

Step 7 – Call the FBI to check up on my police certificate that I submitted 4 weeks ago.  Hey, guess what, the FBI is so backlogged they still don’t even have a record in their system that I’ve submitted a request.

“Wait a week or 2 and call back.”, they advise me.

“This is the final document I need to submit my student visa application.  I’m leaving the country in 5 weeks and don’t have a visa.  I requested expedited service.  Why does it take so long?”

“Sorry ma’am.  We have a huge backlog.  We can only guarantee 8-10 weeks processing time.”

ARGH!

Step 8 – Wait.  Panic.

Step 9 – Reflect on all of the documentation I’m submitted for this visa, and how money I have spent, now nearly $400, not including the actual application fee to the NZ consulate, and the courier fees for overnighting it to Ottawa and then back to Montreal. Worry that my application, when I do submit it, will be rejected for some inane reason.

Step 10 – Decide I can’t do anything about it, I’ve done everything in my power to take care of all these matters in a timely manner, using my best time & resource management skills (which, according to Susan Miller, Leo’s are great at), and leave it all in Buddha’s hands.

On my mind, throughout this entire process, I must admit I’ve been thinking”No way would Ticker go through with any of this.” And resigned myself to the thought that he probably will never apply for a 1 year working holiday visa.  Who knows, maybe he’ll prove me wrong? Again, this is all in big B’s hands.

Montreal Children’s Library

Tomorrow I’m beginning a creative writing project with the kids from the Richmond Square Branch of the Montreal Children’s Library.  I’m totally stoked about this project!  It’s called “A Community of Words” and is in collaboration with the Blue Metropolis Foundation, and of course, the Tyndale St- Georges Centre, where my branch is located.

As the project leader, I’ve been organizing a group of 9 kids to participate in this 6 week creative writing workshop.  A Canadian Author, Claire Rothman will be visiting the library to help teach the kids about the creative writing process.

I’m really excited to see the ideas the kids come up with.  They have some wild imaginations and are constantly surprising me.  Working with them has been so unbelievably mind-opening to me I feel like I’ll really miss their influence when I leave.  These kids totally have their finger on the pulse of what’s happening in Canada, and all over the world.  They’re not afraid to tell you what they like and don’t like, tell you your clothes look dorky, if Lady Gaga is cool, and try and cheat when you play checkers with them.   They know things you’d never expect kids to know about.  Most of them think reading is boring, though I’m slowing trying to change their minds about that.  One of them was telling me today about how Zac Efron is gay.

Most of the kids who use my library are black, and from the Little Burgundy neighborhood.  I also have a lot Bengali, North African, and South Asian kids.  Most of them speak English and French, in addition to their native language.  A lot of them have siblings who use the library, and I get to know their entire families.  Some of them are cuties and sweeties, while others are headaches and troublemakers.  After doing storytime at 3 different daycares, and seeing maybe 50 babies, then dealing with the wild animals in the library in the afternoon, I still manage to enjoy myself and find energy to play Uno, watch puppets hows, and read comic books with them.

Yesterday 3 of the boys did a puppet show for me – the first act went roughly something like this:

*curtains*

3 headed dragon enters stage left.

Skunk enters stage right.

Skunk: Hey dragon!  You have 3 ugly heads!

Dragon: Shut up or I’m going to melt your face off!

Skunk: I’m going to spray you!

*Sound of skunk spraying dragon*

Dragon:  AHHHH!!!

Narrator: The dragon shoots flames out of it’s heads and melts the skunk’s face off.  Then, he eats the skunk.

Skunk: AHHHHHHHHHH!!!! (as he’s being eaten)

Narrator: But the skunk smelled so bad the dragon died after he ate him.

Skunk and Dragon exit.

*Curtains*

The end.

Overall, amazingly believable acting and truly great puppetry from these young geniuses!

I’m looking forward to this project and hope to feel inspired yet again by these awesome kids.

2009 – Best year ever?

I’m beginning to think that perhaps 2009 has been the best year of my life, so far.  Sure, I had some setbacks and disappointments (Liberia, being broke, health issues), but overall, it’s been amazing.  I just found out that I’ve won the Victoria University PhD Scholarship to study under my mentors Drs. Goman & Dorner!  It’s a bit intimidating to think I’ll be back in school, as a doctoral student, and soon to be DR. Nicole !  But I’m so excited so be spending 3 years in New Zealand working on something I find so interesting, it’s unbelievable!  This scholarship includes tuition and fees, plus $21,000 a year!!!  HOLY SH*T! I’m to start March 1st in Wellington, so I’ll be picking up and heading out of town around the end of February, with a brief stopover in Chicago to see my momma and get some bussiness taken care of…

So, in addition to this wonderful news, as I’m reminiscing upon the last year, all I can feel is happiness and gratefulness for all these blessings I’ve had.  Not only do I have the coolest job in the world, which, sadly, I will be leaving in 2 months, I also have a totally awesome boyfriend, and everyone I know is healthy and happy.  Yes, I’m poor, but I’m happy!

I spent a lot of the past few weeks doing embroidery, and a few other arts & crafts activities.  All of my family got embroidered hankies – they’re better for the environment than using kleenex and softer! I made a few necklaces, using a necklace I bought in Cambodia as a model, and some decorated agendas for 2010 using the inside of envelopes to make a collage.  I felt pretty productive!  I also did quite a bit of baking and cooking… in addition to those recipes I mentioned before, I’ve been pumping out the cookies, apple pie, and cranberry bread.  Christmas I spent at Ticker’s, where we roasted a Chicken, made some totally awesome amazing stuffing, mashed potatoes, steamed veggies, and roasted squash. In order to work off all that stuffing, chicken, mashed potatoes, and cookies, we took a long walk up Mont Royal on Christmas day – a snowy hike that burned a few calories.  I’m still feeling bloated – so it’s diet time in 2010, but well worth the indulgences of the holiday season!

So, Merry Christmas, Happy New Year!  Good luck for 2010!