Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Ice bound

I wrote in my last post about shocks to the system when coming back to Iqaluit (I will get back to the European adventures, I promise). None more so than realizing the ice in the bay was still here. When we left at the end of June, the last gasp was going on. There was still ice there, but it was melting quickly. I figured it would be gone a few days after we left. I remember being in Ottawa a couple of days later and reading the first boat of the year had made it into Iqaluit. A bit later than in previous years, but it was the start of resupply season in Iqaluit.

Except the ice didn't go away. Not really.

When I came back on the 23rd I flew over Frobisher Bay and I could see plenty of ice out there. There was a sealift boat in the bay, but it didn't take long for me to hear that she had been damaged trying to get to Iqaluit. She had about a six-foot gash on her hull. Bad enough that she had to unload the rest of her cargo onto another ship before she headed back south for repairs. Then the CBC started reporting that two other sea lift boats were stuck at the mouth of the bay. They couldn't get through because of the ice and even ice breakers were having a hard go of it.

I hardly claim to be an expert on such things as I've only been in Iqaluit for seven years, but it's the first time I've seen ice like this at this time of the year. There's the real possibility the bay may not be ice free all summer. I took this photo last Friday and was cursing as the ice seemed to be drifting closer to shore.

Which I thought sucked. I didn't realize it could get worse until I opened the curtains this morning. It was raining then, so I didn't take any pictures, but it cleared up this evening. So this is what the bay looks like right now.

That is a shitload of ice. Aside from it being a touch depressing to see that much ice floating around the bay and knocking several degrees off the temperature, there is a more pressing problem. It effectively stops the sealift from continuing. You'll notice a boat in one of the pictures. She should be unloading material right now. She was yesterday. But when all the ice came in this close to shore, they can't run the barges back and forth. There were great big chunks of ice aground down by the beach this afternoon. It's not melting any time soon.

Sealift schedules are always part fantasy. We were told our order should arrive in late August. That roughly translates into mid-September at the earliest. We have orders arrive as much as two months behind schedule (that was our last one with NorthMart. We were done with them after that fiasco). So while I'm not waiting for stuff to come off that boat in the bay, it's a sure bet this ice is throwing that boat off schedule. And future boats off-schedule.

So yeah, getting a little worried about all of that ice out there. We bought a lot of stuff and we would actually like to get it at some point. We're not on the last boat, so there's no need to panic. But I promise you, there were not many happy faces looking out over the bay today.

Ah, the north...

Last Five
1. Long since gone - Matt Mays and El Torpedo
2. Sleep together - Garbage*
3. Fashion coat - The National
4. Elenor - Me First and the Gimmie Gimmies
5. Takes this waltz (live) - Leonard Cohen

Monday, July 30, 2012

Back in the routine

There's a problem with coming back from vacation for most people...I suspect that's slightly more the case when you're coming back to Iqaluit. For most of the month of July I was in places filled with greenery. Or in some of the major capitals of the world. I could drink good cappuccino on a daily basis (even in Scotland), get amazing food of any kind almost any time with nearly unlimited shopping and cultural activities.

And then...bang. Iqaluit.

I'm trying not to put down my home, because there are many virtues to the place. I'm just saying the first week back is always a bitch, and last week was no exception.

Although the hardest part of last week was getting back into my diet and exercise routines. I wrote a couple of months ago that I had managed to lose about 35 pounds. Well, prior to going on vacation I was down 43 pounds. Although my weight loss had slowed, I was still losing about 1.5 pounds per week, which is nothing to sneeze at. If I kept that pace up, I'd hit my goal of losing 80 pounds in the new year. Considering I was planning for that to take two years, I was quite pleased.

But there's nothing like a good vacation to screw up the best laid of plans. Actually, it seems to be cruises. Five years ago I was barrelling along on a novel, heading into the last quarter of the book when I went on a cruise. I've barely written a word since then. That's why I was so worried going on this trip...would the diet and exercise routine curl up and die afterwards?

It's been hard to get back into the swing of it. Part of the problem was that while I was pretty good with keeping active on vacation, the diet was locked in a closet and ignored for the entire time. Yes, I did plenty of walking around cities. Hell, I was even a good boy and managed to get to the gym on the cruise ship a half dozen times.

But the food? Forget it. The first morning back in Iqaluit when I had my usual breakfast of a bowl of Cheerios and a banana I could practically hear my body screaming at me: "What the fuck is this? Where's the chocolate chip pancakes, croissant, hash browns and 10 pieces of bacon?" Supper wasn't much better when it was just a stirfry and, most importantly, no dessert. Well, specifically, not four or five desserts, which is what I tended to do on the cruise ship.

What can I say? They had really good desserts and I simply had to try them all. I couldn't just choose between carrot cake, a cappuccino cake, fudge cake and a few other treats when they're saying I can have all of them and they might not be back the next night, meaning I would miss out. That's just wrong.

The fact I was only up 1.4 pounds after the end of the trip borders on the miraculous, it truly does.

So right now it's just fighting to get back into the routine. I'm managing, but it's hard. Last time I started working out because it was something I needed to do mentally. It actually made me feel better. This time the elliptical is just mean. Last time it took about three weeks or more to get used to the new diet routines. Now that the beast got a taste of life outside of the cage, it's been resisting going back in there. I've finished a perfectly normal supper and I'm still hungry.

I'm managing and I haven't cheated on the eating and I haven't skipped a day at the gym. But until I settle back into the pre-cruise routine, things are going to suck.

Last Five
1. Mambo swing - Big Bad Voodoo Daddy
2. Capturing moods - Rilo Kiley
3. Let's get lost - Lloyd Cole
4. Eye candy - Ron Sexsmith
5. Tighten up - The Black Keys*

Sunday, July 29, 2012

The Cruise: Copenhagen and Oslo

I think if we made a mistake on this trip it was underestimating Copenhagen. I remember when doing the initial research and considering catching a ship for another port because, well, how exciting could Copenhagen be? We ended up pick it because the other ports added extra sea days to the trip. But still, I  figured 24 hours in town would be more than enough.

Not even close.

It's a really nice city, I have to say. It's got a great mix of old European style and a modern city. It's staggeringly clean, people bike everywhere (which freaked out Cathy because they don't seem to lock them up, and they all look like they were designed in the 1940s), they're exceptionally polite and just about everyone speaks English. I also got the feeling there was a lot going on (like a great photo exhibition that we sadly just didn't have the time to go and see). There was a nice energy, a nice...vibe, to the place. Something that was hard to put your finger on, but that you knew this was a city you could grow to love if you had more time there.

Because of my little medical...incident, we had even less time to see Copenhagen then we had planned. Through dumb luck I picked a hotel in Nyhavn. In fact, it was the old sailor's hostel. Basically they would show up, go out drinking and whoring (it's the former red light district) and then collapse back at the hotel. Attached next door is a church, so after a night of debauchery they could go and confess their sins.

I mean, the hotel was nothing great, but it was clean, in the middle of things and that's an awesome history. Plus, this was the view from our hotel room.

It was a great area to wander around. Sort of like St. John's, but with a different vibe. Lots of bars and restaurants, so I guess you could make the argument that this is Copenhagen's George Street, except it never felt tacky, which is how I feel about George Street.

After that we wandered. We found the main shopping district, so it was nice to do some European window shopping. Plus, there was a Lego store, so I was good there. In the evening, we walked along the waterside to head towards the Little Mermaid statue, which tour books warn (Rick Steves Guide to Scandinavia was invaluable on the trip) is highly overrated. And while it's not as epic as a lot of the statues you see around Europe, it's nice. Plus, it's nice to watch people's reaction to it. They really love that statue. And the fact it's not covered in fencing or protected by police or having to pay money to see it is pretty cool as well.

And to get to the statue we walked past a restaurant that was offering salsa dance lessons, an exhibition of sand castle art, a couple of massive fountains, a few huge churches and a lovely park. Not bad for a 40 minute walk along the water.

It's just a nice little city. We considered this a scouting trip, of sorts. Yes, we wanted to enjoy the cities we visited and get as much as we could out of them, but we also wanted to get an idea of what cities we'd like to come back and see more of. Copenhagen is definitely near the top of the list.

Oslo got screwed because of the weather, I fear. It was misting and raining on and off in Copenhagen when we left. We then sailed north and took that weather with us. Except it managed to magnify during the trip, so it was pretty miserable most of the time we were in the city. Now, you can still have fun in a city where it's raining, but combine that with the fact you couldn't really see anything (heavy fog) and that Oslo is one of the more expensive cities in the world (which meant window shopping tended to give you a stroke) and we just never warmed up to the place.

Oh, there were still cool things. We went to their national art gallery and I got to see "The Scream" which was interesting. It produced one of those "never thought I'd actually get to have this experience in my life" moments. We walked the grounds of the royal palace and watched a changing of the guard where the soldiers (all in their early 20s) seemed to barely be able to keep a straight face. Scandinavians have very practical looking royal palaces. Not at all over the top like some of the other ones you see in other parts of Europe.

I think the highlight was probably going to the Nobel Peace Prize museum. Now that was a fascinating place. We could have spent hours there, but just didn't have the time. A fantastic photo exhibit on the first floor about Afghanistan, a section featuring this year's winners, then a room featuring previous winners on iPd like devices, followed by an interactive wall display of past winners, like this.

I'm not sure we'd consider going back, mainly because of the cost. But there's obviously a lot going on there and if we had hit it on a better day, we would have liked it more. As it stands, it was when we were leaving, when the weather finally cleared up, that we saw cool things. Like their new opera house, which looks like something from Star Trek.

And this wonderful church we sailed past as we were heading out. We past awfully close to it, as you can probably tell. A wedding was just concluding as we went by. That was pretty fun, with everyone waving...

We saw a lot of churches this trip, but that was one of my three favourites. Pity we couldn't get to go inside, but I don't think the docking facilities could handle our ship.

Next up, Aarhus and Berlin...

Last Five
1. Marathon - Heartless Bastards
2. Turn into - Yeah Yeah Yeahs
3. China - Tori Amos*
4. Hey porcupine - Josh Rouse
5. Reign of love - Coldplay

Thursday, July 26, 2012

The Cruise, Part 1

Despite my best attempts at brain damage, I did manage to survive our vacation. I really did have plans to update more regularly, but my stubborn refusal to pay Princess Cruise Lines ridiculous internet charges (oh, and by the way, the speed was 1 MB/s at peak and they wanted upwards of 70 cents per minute for that. Christ preserve me) coupled with my desire to actually see the cities we were visiting as opposed to hunkering down in an internet cafe put an end to that idea. Oh well. There are worse things than not constantly being on the internet for weeks at a time. The break probably did me some good.

So how was the cruise? It was pretty good, I think. This was our second cruise and I think if you were comparing the vessels - The Carnival Miracle and The Emerald Princess - they are remarkably similar. They're pretty close to the same size, can handle about the same number of passengers (although our ship wasn't sold out. I suspect the accidents from earlier the year have affected many ships in the same way) and have many of the same things to do on board. That wasn't planned. I think if we had known going in how similar the two vessels were we would have been concerned because we were frequently bored when sailing the Miracle.

The problem with the Miracle was the number of sea days. We had four of them and then four at different ports. And most of the stuff on board wasn't of interest to us. I'm not a sit on the deck and let myself get irradiated by the sun for days on end. I don't like casinos nor am I a big drinker. Take those away and the options for entertainment on the Miracle, when she was at sea, were quite limited.

The benefit to the Emerald Princess was that of the 11 days we were on board, nine of them were spent in ports. The two days at sea worked because they were spend recovering from all the land activities. So lounging on our balcony reading a book as the Baltic Sea swept on past was actually quite relaxing. We aren't going to be rushing off to do another cruise any time soon, but at least we know we prefer the "destination" cruise as opposed to the more aimless wander through the Caribbean.

The thing that most people seem to care about on these cruises is how is the food. In our case it was fine. It was nothing spectacular, but it was certainly good enough. I wasn't looking for the meal of a lifetime on board. Although it was amusing that the one night we decided to splurge on one of the two "higher end" restaurants on board - an Italian one where you have to pay a cover charge - was the day of the choppiest seas of the cruise. And since the restaurant was on the back of the ship, well, it was entertaining at least.

There was certainly plenty to eat, which isn't great news if you're trying to lose weight (one of our waiters was quite insistent that he could bring us everything on the menu if we wanted). I found the deserts to be better than the main courses which, again, bad news if you're on a diet. And our one big gripe was that so many of the meals were seafood (Cathy's allergic) and the bad habit they had in the main dining rooms of having meals containing nuts and not mentioning that on the menu. Happened three or four times when Cathy would get something on her table and there they were. Seriously, who puts almonds on mashed potatoes?

The other secret to cruise ships is to have some will power. They have you on board, therefore they're constantly bombarding you with ways to spend your money. Especially since you don't have to use your credit card directly. You have a ship card that everything goes on. At the end of the cruise, you get your bill. We saw one lady have a six page bill printed off. Having learned from the previous cruise to watch our spending, our bill was quite reasonable. About half of it was simply the mandatory gratuity that gets charged every day to your account.

But yeah, they're trying to get you to spend. There's the gift shops and the constant reminders you should buy your stuff on the ship because if you want Baltic Amber or nesting dolls, you're taking a big risk buying them onshore because they're probably fakes (I mentioned that to a tour guide in St. Petersburg. I thought she was going to drive back to the boat and set it on fire she was so mad). Or the spa, which had some truly spectacularly expensive packages. And, of course, the booze.

The staff was also pretty good. You tend to hear a lot of nitpicking complaints on these ships, but honest to God, they're all insanely friendly, they all say hello to you or wish you a good morning or evening. They cater to your every reasonable whim. I'm not sure how much more some people are looking for.

I tended to look at the Emerald Princess this way...she was a very nice, high end ferry. I didn't need to spend a lot of time aboard of her...I just needed her to get me to the next city I wanted to see in a degree of comfort. And she did that just fine.

Next blog post, I'll talk about some of the cities we visited and how I will completely judge a place in the eight hours we normally got to spend there...

Last Five
1. I would die for you - Garbage*
2. Codes and keys - Death Cab For Cutie
3. Oh Carolina (live) - Elton John and Ryan Adams
4. Taste it - INXS
5. Sky blue and black (live) - Jackson Browne

Thursday, July 05, 2012

Welcome to Copenhagen...

As a method of entering a new country, flat on your back lying on a stretcher certainly does have a dramatic flair, although I can't say I really recommend the experience. First of all, I'm fine. Second of all...oi, what a day. We're currently in Denmark getting ready to start the big leg of our vacation, which is a Baltic cruise. Copenhagen was only ever meant to be a 24 hour buffer, just in case something went wrong with flights, luggage or something else. Still, the more we read up on Copenhagen, the more I was kind of regretting not spending more time there, especially since we basically just killed a day doing nothin in Ottawa, having completed the sealift ahead of schedule. Our flight was Ottawa-Toronto-Copenhagen. The later leg is about 7.5 hours long, which is the longest stretch we've done by plane in about three years. Anything less than three hours, Cathy and I can do in our sleep. Still, I figured that since most of the flight would happen at night, we would just sleep it off, wake up the next morning and hit Copenhagen running. Yeah, not so much. The first problem was I couldn't get to sleep, which was weird. I could have slept on the Ottawa-Toronto flight, but I could not get comfortable or drift off. The second problem hit about an hour before landing when I began to feel....weird. And it was a weird I had a funny feeling I'd experienced before. Back in 1996 I flew to South Korea to teach English, including a hellish 14 hour Toronto-Seoul leg in which I quietly lost my mind wondering if this wasn't the stupidest thing I'd ever done in my life (I'd got a job offer to teach English in South Korea 10 days earlier). I ended up having a panic attack and passing out. The plane stewards, not quite knowing what to do with the white guy passed out in the bathroom, just brough me back to my seat and quietly ignore me for the next several hours. So yeah, I knew something weird was happening. I got up, tried to stetch, then went to the bathroom, but things got worse. I managed to make it out of the bathoom and sink to my knees. Someone asked if I needed help, I said yes and then it was light's out. Next thing I'm hearing is Cathy's voice, sounding frantic, and a group of people around me trying to figure out if I'm all right. Oh, and an elderly retired doctor who was travelling on the plane, trying to determine if I had a seizure or something (I didn't). What happened over the next few hours was really quite extraordinary. Air Canada's staff were fantasic. One of the stewards was also a fireman, so he had first aid training, and stayed with me until the plane landed. Even brought me a lovely tank of my very own oxygen. I kept insisting I was fine and tried to make jokes, but they made everyone on the plane wait until the paramedics came on board and took me off. Despite my protests, they carted me away to a hospital in the back of an ambulance, where they ran a bunch of tests. All came back negative. I'm pefectly fine (well, as fine as I was before all of this. Oh, and a scrape on my head from where I hit the floor). But we didn't get charged a thing. Some paperwork, but assurances there was no bill to settle up, which is amazing. We had to go back to the airport to get the bags, which was pretty straightforward. And we got reassurances that we were in the country legally, although our passport wasn't stamped. No one can figure out exactly why I passed out like that. I think the flow of blood to my brain was restricted because I was trying to get comfortable and I did something weird. Or sitting for 7.5 hours without getting up to stretch my legs or take a walk. I will be walking every 10 bloody minutes on the return flight, I can say that much. So anyway, a dramatic entrance to the country. But I'm fine. Once we got to our hotel, we actually spent several hours wandering around the city and even walked out to see the Litter Mermaid statue (it's a touch anti-climatic). So the worst seems to be over. Beautiful city, by the way. Just wished I had entered it properly....

Monday, July 02, 2012

Ah, our national airline

(This was supposed to go up on Canada Day, but the internet at the hotel collapsed before I could post it. So let's pretend it's still July 1, shall we?) So on this, our national holiday, let us consider a national instution and pastime - Air Canada. Because the airline is an institution and hating it as much a national pastime as watching hockey. And today we got to see the very thing that makes Air Canada something you want to punch in the face, but also kind of admire. And before you express concern over the admiration, keep in mind that surveys constantly rank Air Canada as one of the best airlines operating in North America. It baffles people, but really, you're not flying on enough American air carriers. Once you do, you kinda respect what Air Canada is doing a bit more. Today was supposed to be fairly straight forward - get Boo on a cargo plane. The plan was simple - get up around 6, have him at Air Canada Cargo around 6:30, he gets transported to the airport around 7, goes on a plane around 8 and then heads to St. John's where he summers with his grandparents. Things went off the rails around 6:31 when we arrived at Air Canada Cargo in Ottawa and there was no one there, even though the office hours state it opens at 5:30. The place was closed. Keep in mind we confirmed this flight a month ago, was told the offices would be open and it would be business as usual. Not so much. So after some waiting around, and discovering that no, they weren't running a little late, we managed to flag down someone in the warehouse. Seems he was the only one who came into work that day. The agent and office staff - no idea. And he couldn't book the dog because he didn't have the codes or training to do it. And as this was 7 am, on a Sunday, on Canada Day. No one was answering their phones. Thus began The Stress. Because the dog had to go out today. I let Cathy take to the lead when dealing with this, not because I'm not capable, but because a stressed out and pissed off Cathy is far scarier than I am. She made it pretty clear to the poor bastard at Cargo, then she wasn't happy and, what was worse, there was at least one more level she could go to, and it wasn't going to be pleasant if she had to go there. I've seen it. It's not pleasant. You don't want her to go there. Thus ensued many frantic phone calls. Cathy's parents were involved. The 8 am flight came and went. The Stress was building. A complete stranger who was dropping off mail from Canada Post offered to watch the dog for us for a few weeks if we couldn't get him out today. No reason, just wanted to help out obviously stressed people. Which is astonishing when you think about it. Finally, there was a resolution. I'm not going to get into the details because I'm fairly certain rules, and possibly laws, were broken. But Air Canada staff rallied at the last minute and Boo managed to get on a flight and made it back to St. John's today. Which is what makes Air Canada awesome and frustrating at the same time. The fact they had almost no staff at Cargo, nor could they find anymore for more than 90 minutes who could help makes you want to smack your head (or the senior managers at the local Cargo office's heads) against a brick wall. But when the crunch came, ordinary staff rallied, helped out, were extremely apologetic (and sided with us in our frustration) and managed to get the situation resolved. On a Sunday morning. On Canada Day. Ladies and gentlemen....your national airline. Much like the rest of Canada, it's frustrating and often doesn't work the way it ought to. But the ordinary people can still rally and surprise you. And because it was said to us many times today as we wandered around Ottawa and made me smile every time - Happy Canada Day.