Annie Bananie en Europe

A blog about travel, life, and everyday tidbits

Category Archives: Canada

Vancouver in three photos

The third and final stop of my three-part trip in November 2017 was Vancouver. Here is Vancouver in three photos.

The only (relatively) rain-free day out of my three days in Vancouver was a perfect one for a stroll around Stanley Park. It seemed like I wasn’t the only one who thought so.

A gorgeous bird perched atop a tree in Stanley Park, observing passersby as they walk/run/cycle by obliviously. Hello, beauty. What’s your name?

Final glimpse of autumn foliage in a residential neighbourhood – it almost looked as if it was raining flames.

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Montreal, Quebec City, and Ottawa in May

In mid-May, I attended the 10th World Biomaterials Congress in Montreal (the previous one was four years ago in Chengdu, China). With over 4000 delegates from all across the world, this is the largest event in my field of world and I was honoured and glad to be able to represent my lab, MiMe Research, at the congress. But I’m not here to talk science. As I was back in Canada, I took this opportunity to invite my parents to stay with me in the Montreal area for a few days, convenient as it only took them 5 hours to drive from Toronto. During the last two days of the congress, after my oral presentation and chairing duties were done and I was relaxed, it was time to have some quality family time. We spent a day exploring Montreal itself, took a day trip to Quebec City and Montmorency Falls, and stayed overnight in Ottawa on the way back to Toronto, just in time for the end of the annual tulips festival!

Part 1 – Montreal

I had actually been to Montreal twice before – once in grade 9 as a part of a band trip and once during the summer holidays in 2002 as a part of an Eastern Canada trip with the entire family. I was quite young during those visits and don’t recall much from those trips, and 2002 was 14 years ago – wow! This time I was able to properly explore Montreal, on my own and with the family, without being in a rush because the congress lasted an entire week so there was plenty of time to see Montreal as a whole new city!

Downtown Montreal resembled downtown Toronto in several ways – tall buildings (thought not as dense as those in Toronto), bad traffic, and vibrant nightlife. I do remember going inside the Notre-Dame basilica in grade 9, but maybe I was too young back then to appreciate how stunning the interior of the basilica was. And indeed I was stunned this time around and thought that it looked more beautiful than Notre Dame de Paris. Among the notable discoveries was Mount Royal, after which the city of Montreal was named. Here is the story of Montreal written at the summit: “On October 2nd, 1535, Jacques Cartier, discoverer of Canada, climbed the mountain under the guidance of the Indians of the village of Hochelaca and, impressed with the beauty of the landscape displayed before his eyes, he gave it the name of Mount Royal, from which the city of Montreal took its name.”

I saw some interesting sculptures in downtown Toronto and my favourites would have to be a pair collectively called “The English pug and the French poodle”. Of course, here an English gentleman was holding in his arm an innocent-looking pug while an elegant French lady held onto her gorgeous poodle. Aside from them, I also met some “celebrities” at the congress – the Tremblay family! Apparently Tremblay is the most common family name in Quebec, and we were happy to be joined by the moose family, Donald, Bob, Betty, and Lucie. Of course we can’t forget about my own family – hi mom and sis! Dad will appear later… 😛

Part 2 – Quebec City

Onto Quebec City, hereafter known as just Quebec. I had also been to Quebec during my teenage years, but as it was the case with Montreal, I don’t remember much about Quebec other than buying a little tank top for my sister. I was actually contemplating going on a bus tour and in the midst of searching for suitable ones, found that there is an attraction called Montmorency Falls just 15 minutes outside of Quebec. After deciding that driving is obviously the better option, the family was off to Quebec and now I can officially say…on y va!

I love waterfalls so to miss Montmorency Falls when it was so close by would be a foolish move. And what lovely weather we had! The falls themselves were quite impressive, perhaps not as voluminous as Niagara Falls but apparently taller. What we didn’t expect was that a steep climb would be involved, as we went down to the bottom of the falls and obviously had to climb BACK UP. Oof, that was tiring, but so worth it!

As for Quebec itself, many people have told me that it is more “chic” and European than Montreal, and in my mind that was what it was like too. We walked around the old town for a bit, and it certainly felt more quaint (there’s that word again, already used to describe Córdoba) and less urban, which suited my tastes because I like small towns (not that Quebec was one) more than large cities. I felt that during the daytime, Quebec was livelier than Montreal, but unfortuately we weren’t able to stay overnight! Also, the Chateau Frontenac was a lot taller and more magnificent than I had imagined/remembered it to be. Oh, Quebec, I liked you a lot!

Side note: For the readers that are unaware, Montreal and Quebec City are in the province of Quebec in Canada, which is the French-speaking region of the country. In Montreal and Quebec, I tried to communicate in French as much as possible, but as anticipated, Quebecois French and French in France are quite different in many ways. I would say my conversational French is quite fluent, but only in France! As a result, sometimes I actually had to resort to English in order to save time and avoid embarrassment. Certainly a good try though…heh!

Part 3 – Ottawa

On the way back to Toronto from we made a short detour to Ottawa, the capital of Canada. Yes, our capital is Ottawa, not Toronto (although the capital of the province of Ontario is Toronto, not Ottawa, even though they’re both in Ontario – how strange!) I thought it would be nice to make a short stay here as well. After all, how often do we do road trips like this??

Compared to Toronto and Montreal, Ottawa is not as busy and crowded even though it is the national capital. However, its charm is undeniable. Unmissable is Parliament Hill, where the Parliament of Canada is situated. Unfortunately we missed the chance to see the inside of the parliament building, but we did catch a glimpse of cannons being fired as noon struck. I never did find out whether there was a special occasion or whether it was merely a daily tradition…

As I had mentioned before, the annual Ottawa tulips festival was nearing its end and as a matter of fact, our second day in Ottawa was the final day of the festival. Having seen Keukenhof, I’m not easily impressed by flowers, but it was still nice to see some pretty tulips, actually a gift from the Netherlands to Canada. Other points of interest in Ottawa included ByWard Market and a gigantic sculpture of a spider outside the National Gallery of Canada, in front of the Notre-Dame Basilica of Ottawa…how fitting. At the end of the day, before resuming the 6-hour drive to Toronto (caused by the long weekend traffic T_T), we stopped by a park to rest and recharge under the sun…gotta get that vitamin D when I can!

I’ll conclude my Montreal-Quebec-Ottawa adventures here and just say that I am so glad to be back in Canada and will always love the country. Incidentally I am on the train from Toronto to Montreal as I am writing this, as I have to fly back to Glasgow from Montreal. Back to rain-land, yay! I’ll miss you, Canada, my home! See you again soon!

Somewhere that was only mine

The word “hometown” elicits complicated feelings in me because my true “hometown” is not a home. “Born in China and grew up in Canada” – that’s what I always tell people when they ask me where I’m “from”. While it is true that I still have extended family in my hometown Guangzhou, the place where I am most comfortable, the place where I feel the most sense of belonging, the one place I truly call home will always be Toronto.

Growing up in a city made me take the familiarity – or what I thought was familiarity – for granted. The same streets, the same buses, the same buildings – nothing ever seemed to change, except for me. It wasn’t until I went home after having spent three and a half years in Europe did I realize for the first time that I was so out of touch with my own home. Familiarity became the most unfamiliar part of my world.

During an 8-month period of idleness and unemployment, I decided to take full advantage of being in Toronto and to become a tourist in my own city, something I had wanted to experiment with for a while. It was then that a whole new Toronto began to unravel. Beyond the impression that Toronto has given the world as a booming metropolis and an urban centre, I ventured out of the heart of the city into its veins, to those little-known places that are so local and so authentic that perhaps only few are aware of them. I observed the city as it thrived, noticing the ever-changing colours of its ephemeral seasons and the sound of footsteps as people scurried through subway stations to and from their workplaces, day by day.

In the midst of it all, I fell in love with Toronto’s greenspace, almost to the point of obsession. I was fascinated to discover that there are parks, hiking trails, conservation areas scattered all around the city, and where were they but tucked behind the concrete highways and avenues? I really had to make an effort to find them, whether I had to drive to a secluded parking lot, take the bus and get off at a seemingly random stop, or just trust my instincts and follow a narrow path on the side of the road leading to an expanse of nature in the middle of nowhere. The sense of adventure was like looking for a treasure in your own basement – it’s got to be there, and the search is the most exciting part!

Pond in the middle of Moccasin Trail Park, Toronto, October 2014

Crothers Woods, David Balfour Park, Wilket Creek – these are just some of the places to consider if you’re looking for the perfect walk in Toronto, away from traffic and noise. And even Torontonians might not know about these places! Among the green areas that I had found, my favourite would have to be Moccasin Trail Park, right next to the Don Valley Parkway, one of the busiest and most important highways in Toronto. Most daily commuters on the DVP would probably have noticed large expanses of green areas on both sides of the highway, but few have ventured away from the main lanes and into the tree-covered parks and gardens. That was exactly what I set out to do.

Autumn was in full swing and it was the perfect time to see the exceptionally colourful foliage that Canada is known for. My walk into the woods of Moccasin Trail Park became a coveted date between my camera and me, a treasured one since it would be one of the last opportunities I had to capture Toronto through the lens before I left again. It brought me a supreme sense of serenity, especially since I was the only one there on that mid-October afternoon. Amidst the slow stroll on my way to the Rainbow Tunnel, I discovered an inconspicuous pond right in the middle of the woods, hidden from sight unless you went slightly off-road. I could still hear the sound of cars passing on the highway because as I had mentioned before, the park was right next to the DVP, but this place was like an urban oasis. The pond itself was a pristine mirror reflecting the beauty of the surrounding nature, one that I was surprised to find in the middle of the city. So calm, so eerily peaceful, so out-of-this world was the atmosphere that I marvelled at every colour and every sign of life. And at that moment, the park, the trails, the very spot where I captured the photo – they somehow became a special place within the city I thought I knew so well, somewhere that was only mine.

Perhaps I only felt this way because in my heart I knew I would leave Toronto again and wanted to cherish every unique secret that I found out about it. And I did leave, only to await coming back to the familiarity that would always welcome me. Perhaps the next time I walk the path of Moccasin Trail Park into my secret place, the leaves would have fallen, the pond would have dried up, and picture-perfect would have become a distant memory. Even though the park will still be there, I don’t expect to be ever able to duplicate the experience or reproduce the photo. And I won’t try, because one image is enough to remind me of the special feelings that only one moment could ever give me.

(I recently discovered a small camera that was released back in October from Light Co. It has the potential to be a good travel camera, combining 16 lenses into one about the size of a smartphone to keep it convenient without losing the quality. Check it out 😉 )

Cottage time in Barry’s Bay and Algonquin Park

October is a magical time in Toronto because the fall season brings with it the art of transforming foliage, which covers the city and surrounding areas with vibrant colours. I’ve known this for almost the past two decades, but only began to truly appreciate the beauty of Canadian autumns last year. I thought it would be the perfect time to take a trip back to Toronto during mid-October this year, right in time for the Thanksgiving long weekend, and head north to Barry’s Bay in the Algonquin Park area with my family for a short cottage trip.

In the 19 years since I’ve immigrated to Canada, I had never been to Algonquin Provincial Park, which is a 3.5-hour drive from Toronto. It might have been past the summer cottaging season, but mid-October was definitely a popular time for Canadians to enjoy a final cottage break before winter kicks in, especially in the north where the autumn foliage colours were already in bloom. I won’t include too many words for this post – the photos speak for themselves.

Aside from canoeing on Carson Lake, exploring Algonquin Park, and relaxing at the cottage in Barry’s Bay, the trip included a hike in Madawaska Valley, a beautiful surprise and a rare time when all family members hiked together (mainly because I insisted). The colours of the autumn foliage were at their best in mid-October, which was exactly why I went back to Canada and headed up north with my family. The vivid orange and red leaves are lovely complements to my even more lovely parents and sister, aren’t they 😉

That time we decided to eat hákarl

It all started a few years ago when my friend Geoff told me about hákarl for the first time. I think it began with a conversation about surströmming and continued on to include hákarl and rakfisk and all kinds of foul stuff…it’s only fair. It wasn’t until I went to Iceland in January 2014 did I remember the word hákarl, or well, more like I was reminded of it by Geoff. “Bring some back home!” was his request…if possible, of course. And it was possible. And it happened.

“What is hákarl?” you ask. Well it turns out that our Nordic friends have some very…unique taste buds. While the Swedish have fermented herring in an explosive can (that would be your surströmming) and the Norwegian have their fermented trout (rakfisk), the Icelandic people have, you guessed it, fermented shark. Oh, you want to know more? You see, the hákarl is known for its putrefied odour and distinct, foul taste. We take a shark, cut off its head and remove its guts, and bury it underground for 6 weeks or more. Afterwards, the now fermented shark is cut and hung to dry for another several months before being cut into small sugar cube-like pieces, becoming the beauty that is hákarl. Ahh, sounds appetizing, doesn’t it?

So then I went to Iceland and had the time of my life. Just as I was about to walk to the gate at the airport where I would board a plane that’d take me safely back to Toronto, I remembered that request. I didn’t want to have to face it. I had avoided hákarl all the while in Reykjavik but at that very moment I thought…what if, just what if they sell it here at the airport and what if…I could actually bring some back to Canada? That would probably please my friend Geoff, but there is no doubt that I would be coerced into trying it, an experience that I wasn’t too keen on having. What to do? What to do?

It wouldn’t hurt to ask, I thought, and so I asked a lady working at the airport whether any of the stores sold “ha-KARL”. That was how I pronounced it, which explains why the lady looked confused and took a while to understand what I meant. Apparently the word was pronounced “HOW-kerk” in Icelandic, hah! As I was getting ready for her to reply “no” and sigh a sigh of relief, lo and behold she said, “Yes, in the Icelandic specialty shop!” She promptly pointed me in the direction of the store and told me that I’d be able to find all sorts of traditional Icelandic foods there, including hákarl. Oops.

NOW I’VE DONE IT. Now that I’ve found out that they indeed did sell hákarl at the store (and I found it quite easily), there was no way I was leaving without getting a frozen container. I think there were moments of hesitation and contemplation, but then I remembered Geoff’s famous motto of “do now, regret later”, and with the attitude and the spirit of “why the heck not?” (thanks Waterloo), checked it out at the cash register. Deed done. There was no turning back.

I expressed to the cashier that I was worried about the smell leaking in the plane cabin as I would be on a 7-hour flight, and the frozen hákarl will definitely thaw during that time. I didn’t want the smell of ammonia to fill the plane causing a crisis, so I had to take every precaution I could to prevent the possibility of it happening. The cashier seemed to understand my paranoia and happily proceeded to wrap my container of frozen hákarl in five layers of plastic bags, finishing off with a very tight knot and placing it in a final bag. That would have been alright, I hoped. I asked how long the hákarl would last in the freezer and she replied in the tone of a joke, “Quite a while, but it’s rotten anyway, so it doesn’t really matter.” WELL PLAYED. Not sure if I should be worried or not.

With the shiny bag in front of me in the airport waiting area, I had a very intense inner monologue. A bit distressed with a twisted feeling of anticipation, I thought, “This thing is a ticking time bomb, probably a very smelly one. I’m hoping it doesn’t cause any trouble during my 7-hour flight. There is a garbage bin nearby. I could still do it. And I realize all of this nonsense monologue is very strange, but this is probably the only time in my life that a white plastic bag would stress me out this much. Will this even get through customs? I’ll try, or get arrested. Worst case they confiscate it. Man if I go to jail because of this…lawl.”

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