Thursday, 23 July 2015

Squirrel Haters of the World, Unite!

I have said it before and I will howl it with my last gasping breath.....

SQUIRRELS ARE THE DEMON SPAWN!!!

They aren't cute. They aren't cuddly. They are in fact a protected urban menace who have wreaked havoc and untold amounts of damage upon every neighbourhood and civic centre in the western world. We here in the Great White North live under some misguided illusion that we are under attack from Raccoon Nation; midnight bandits who selfishly help themselves to our unsecured trash cans, when in fact our vigilance is misplaced and should be directed toward the bushy-tailed rodents whose mischief runs much deeper than mere rotting garbage.

I honestly didn't think it was possible to hate the little beasts more than I already did.

Over the years, I have regaled you all with stories of the trashing of our yard, the soiling of our pool, the destruction of our tree-line, the disfigurement of our fences, the holes in our roof, the eating away of our attic insulation, the ruination of our chimneys, the Squirrel Olympics that are run across the eaves outside of our bedroom window every morning at dawn, and the piece de resistance...finally coming face to face with one of the little bastards as he taunted us from our bedroom stairs last summer.

He just sat there.

He stared at me with those beady little squirrel eyes, and while I can't be certain of it, I am pretty sure he was giggling.

Yup.

Despite all of our precautions, the little assholes had finally made their way inside the house, and were absolutely planning a total squirrel domination. We could hear them partying inside the kitchen walls and ceiling and I could swear I heard one of them say the word RAVE.

That little incident was last summer, and while the mangy creeps were humanely removed to a squirrel witness protection program, (I would have hung the little bastards from the fence as a warning to his brethren) the lasting effects of their visit wouldn't be entirely understood until yesterday.

In November I told a story in this space of the massive waterfall that flowed into my kitchen when my wonderful cleaning lady had attempted to sanitize the upstairs bathroom. We closed off the room until we could ascertain the source of the leak. Knowing that the bathroom hadn't been renovated or repaired during the lifespan of the house, we reasonably concluded that the bathtub had rusted through and would need to be either repaired or replaced. Our Trusty Contractor confirmed our suspicions, and while we were not thrilled at the prospect of a bathroom renovation, we knew that this was a "must-do" overhaul if we ever wanted to sell this dump at a future date. After much hemming and hawing, we finally embarked upon the most basic of bathroom makeovers this week.

As Trusty Contractor removed the old cast-iron tub, he discovered that it was indeed rusted completely through. He was somewhat puzzled, however. He remarked that while the rusting would indeed account for some water flowing into the kitchen, it really didn't explain the torrents. But, he has seen a lot in his career, and anything is possible.

Yesterday he had a "Come to Jesus" moment and he couldn't wait to share it with us. The pipe that serves as the water outtake from the tub, was completely severed. He couldn't believe it. It was as if somebody had deliberately cut it in half. He told us that while it was possible it occurred during the kitchen renovations eight years prior, it didn't make much sense that nobody would have noticed it. And....we told him that while the tub hadn't been used since last November, it certainly had been functional up until eighteen months ago when Younger Son and His B'shert resided here.

It was left to The Husband to solve the mystery. Could the damage have possibly been caused by a.......SQUIRREL?

You be the judge.



Notice the chew marks? Yup...those are squirrel teeth.

Well...our previously simple bathroom repair will now require us cutting open the kitchen ceiling in order to replace this pipe, re-plastering the ceiling, and repainting it as well. These f***ing animals are costing us $$$$$$ totalling more than five figures.

Still think they're cute and fuzzy?

I am at the point of surrender. They want the house, that much is certain. Ok. They can have the house.

Just leave me my dignity.



Tuesday, 21 July 2015

Random Thinks for a Slumbering July Day

I have been resisting the very real temptation to wail relentlessly on the ridiculousness of the summer's moribund news cycle, but my willpower is for shit and I simply must call out bullshit when bullshit is so very obvious.

  • For all of my American friends who are caught up in the summer's most watched reality show starring The Donald, please take some heartfelt and battle-scarred advice from a Torontonian who (barely) survived Rob Ford....this too shall pass. It will get much worse before it gets better, but eventually the media will tire of the circus and they will deprive the asshole of the oxygen so very necessary for his survival. The one thing that you cannot do under any circumstances, is write him off as a joke. He is arrogant, outrageous, racist, obnoxious, self-serving, and mean. But because he is rich and famous, he demands serious attention. Money talks. There is a large swath of disaffected and disenfranchised people all over the country who have been itching for someone like Trump to lend credence to their creepy concerns, and he is just the narcissist to give them what they want. His entire raison-d'etre is to shake up the Republican race and he is doing exactly what he set out to do. He is wholly ill-equipped to lead an ant farm, let alone a country, but the continuous coverage and his massive celebrity will guarantee him several more months of trash-talking. Believe me...I feel your pain.
  • For all of my Canadian friends who are basking in the pre-election nonsensical glow that has invaded our collective subconscious, I offer a passionate word of warning. For any of you who think that this Prime Minister and his corrupt band of merry men have been rocked to their core and are going down this October, think again. The demographics are simply not favouring the progressives.....yet. Redrawn electoral districts, a reinvigorated Bloc that is challenging the NDP in Quebec, angst for the Liberals in Atlantic Canada, a still huge Tory stronghold in Alberta that will not be swayed by the provincial election results, all have conspired to keep Sweatered Stevie not only competitive, but even hovering around yet another (gasp!) majority. Combine that with the graft checks coming this week, the despicable attack ads playing ad nauseum, and a very weak Liberal leader, and you have all the makings of another five year nightmare. All is certainly not lost, however. If Canadians truly want change this fall, we simply must do better than 60% turnout at the polls. Voting is the only way to disrupt the narrative, so get to work my fellow Canucks and let's turf this venal asshole.
  • It is really difficult to get worked up about the hacking scandal at Ashley Madison. Believe me, I get it. Internet privacy is a real issue and should be on everybody's radar, but how can one not feel a certain amount of schadenfreude watching a business that is actually complicit in helping people hide their bad behaviour, being called out for their own? I think that the funniest thing I heard yesterday was how millions of marriages may be in jeopardy because of these "hacktivists". Really? That's why these marriages are in trouble? That's like saying that broccoli sales are suffering because I ate cauliflower today.
  • Bill Cosby is a scumbag. There is no defense left anywhere for anybody trying to rationalize his actions. I'm sad. Not for my distorted childhood memories of comedy, but for the scores of traumatized women who have been left in his abusive wake. I never again want to be reminded of this man.
  • My city is in party mode because of the PanAm Games and it has been a blast, but let's be somewhat realistic. Most Torontonians couldn't have cared less about these games up until a week ago, and even then most were fairly pissy about the cost overruns, construction messes, traffic issues, and political pandering. The idea that this city would even entertain the idea of an Olympic bid is pure folly. It is true that my hometown rarely gets anything accomplished without the threat of a major deadline hanging over our heads like the Sword of Damocles, but this is also a city that fought tooth and nail for years over a few pink umbrellas at Sugar Beach. There simply is not enough political will or political capital to expend on a billion dollar boondoggle like the Olympics, so just forget it. Not happening!
  • And while we're on the subject of these sporting events, can I just call out the bullshit that is beach volleyball. Why do the men get to wear gym shorts and tank tops while the women are dressed in sports bras and bathing suit bottoms? On a cool rainy day last week, I actually saw the women clad head to toe in black bodysuits with their sports bras overtop. This shit just plays into the entire Serena Williams body discussion. When are we going to take women's sports seriously and not focus on their appearance over their abilities? Please...I don't want to hear one single snide remark from anybody about how smart the marketing is for this sport. When the men show up for their matches topless and in Speedos, we can discuss the marketing plan. Until then, it is just plain sexist nonsense designed to titillate.
Ok. Rant over for today. I feel much better now, do you?

Sunday, 5 July 2015

Summertime in Sweden

Here's a puzzle for you.

What should one NEVER take when touring the Ice Bar in Stockholm?

The answer will follow later.

We awoke with the sun this morning, at approximately 4:00am, because we knew that the captain had decided to take us through the Swedish archipelago; a three hour scenic voyage of thousands of islands and summer homes used by vacationing Stockholmers who, much like Canadians, savour summer with great abandon. It was absolutely worth forgoing sleep.
Think Muskoka in July. Hundreds of cottages dotting the sea and its inlets, with granite formations and beaches along the shores. 

I have decided that I love Sweden. I could actually vacation here for an extended period of time. Yes, of course it would have to be in the summer, (the average winter temperature here in Southern Stockholm is a balmy -15C) but this is a city and a country that is very much in keeping with my politics, my lifestyle choices, and my value structure. I love that they have a national holiday to memorialize Alfred Nobel, a man who when faced with the notion of a posthumous record of death and destruction, dedicated his life and personal fortune to peaceful endeavours. This is a country that provides free tuition for university students and actually gives them a living allowance. This is a country that is unabashedly neutral when it comes to world conflict, yet still managed to save almost every single Jew fleeing Denmark during WW II. This is country ruled by a constitutional monarchy with a socialist Green Party forming its government. This is a country that values recreation as much as work, benefits for all of its citizens, and creativity and innovation. There is even a thriving Jewish community here is Stockholm. Yes, I think that I could be very happy in Sweden....during the summer.

Following some wandering through the medieval of Gamla Stan, the oldest of Stockholms fourteen island communities, we decided to do something really "touristy". We went to the famous ice bar. Located inside a posh hotel, the bar is completely constructed of Swedish ice trucked down from the north, and is kept at a constant temperature of -7C so as to prevent melting. They give you these goofy looking parkas and gloves and serve you Kool-Aid with a splash of Absolute. Fun? Yes. But....

And now the answer to my riddle.

What should one never take when visiting the Ice Bar?

A screaming 13 month old!!

Yes there were babies on this tour and one in particular was unhappy from the start. Who in their right mind takes a baby to a bar? The screeches from this child could have thawed Greenland. He wailed when they parkaed him. He wailed when they tried to force the fruit juice down his gullet. He wailed when they tried to take his picture, he wailed some more when they finally disrobed him, and he wailed on the bus all the way back to the ship. We were all ready to smack his parents with blocks of ice. The arrogant stupidity of some people.

We tried to make the best of it. 



Yes I drank the concoction. There was hardly enough vodka in there to drown a fly.

This was our final port. Tomorrow is a sea day and then back to Copenhagen. We have loved visiting this unique part of the world. We have been so very fortunate with weather and our traveling companions are second to none. 

Next year in.....?


Saturday, 4 July 2015

Helsinki Has Gone Squirrelly

I have a huge problem with Helsinki!

This jewel by the sea has everything that a twenty-first century urbanite could wish for in a world capital. Culture, technology, beauty, multiculturalism, history, shops, cafes....Helsinki is teeming with all of it. 

Design?

It is an eclectic mix of nineteenth century St. Petersburg and modern European. The Temppeliaukio Church is actually built into a massive block of naturaI granite. I thought it would have made a magnificent synagogue..a symbiotic balance of spirituality combined with 
the beauty of nature. Helsinki was awarded World Design Capital of 2012. It is the perfect blend of old and new. 

Innovation?

This is the country that gave us both Nokia phones and Angry Birds. Need I say more?

Climate?

While I might have a problem with the frigid and extremely dark winters, (isn't that what Florida is supposed to remedy?) I could simply revel in the summers. While Northern Finland is known as "the land of the midnight sun" (the sun is visible for a full 24 hours) Helsinki has to make due with about twenty hours of daylight at this time of year. Now that's what I call civilized.

Leisure?

Hockey is huge here, even in the summer, and the Finns are an active and recreational people, no matter the climate. 

The Husband remarked that it should be required for every elected city official from Toronto to tour some of these Northern European centres to discover the secrets to becoming world class, that elusive designation that we Torontonians are always striving for but can't seem to achieve. Integrated transportation, pedestrian malls, street craft markets, varied street food...all have helped to make Helsinki a desired world class destination.

So what's my problem, you may ask?

These sweet, loving, smart, peaceful people have gone and designated the f***ing squirrel as their city's symbol. The horror!! And with that little nugget of knowledge, my impressions of Finland's capital drastically diminished. 

But...you've got to love a city that has almost as many saunas as people. 






Friday, 3 July 2015

National Pride

How do we define national pride?

We certainly feel it when our flag is raised (especially in triumph) or when the anthem is played. We kvell at gold medal ceremonies, and we weep with military families when a local hero is returned home to rest. But, I have been wondering quite a bit this week, whether those outward expressions, most certainly appropriate, can be seen as the most accurate measure of our national pride or should we attempt to delve deeper. 

Certainly here in St. Petersburg, Russian pride is at the core of every one of its citizens, and it is audible in their voices as they excitedly show off their national treasures and talk of their collective survival. The cultural heart of Russia has been rebuilt from the ground up following the devastation of the Nazi siege, followed immediately by decades of Soviet indifference. The history and legends of the Romanoffs and their exploits are told with accented flair and some small measure of the story-teller's embellishment, but it is all in the name of preserving their national heritage. 

As we wound our way through the streets, canals, palaces, and monuments of the city that Peter the Great built as his legacy and his heirs perpetuated, we became very aware that not only were we viewing some of the most opulent and ostentatious architectural marvels in the world, but that we were truly in the presence of artistic genius. The stunning and whimsical gardens and fountains of the Peterhof Palace; the gilded beauty of the Catherine Palace; the ornate tombs that mark the resting places of the Tsars at The Peter and Paul Fortress; and the unbelievable collection of European masters assembled by Catherine the Great and now on display at the Hermitage Museum; all serve to unite this community. These are a direct and straightforward people. This is the best that the world has to offer and they want visitors to leave with that message. 

I must say that I am rarely enamoured by churches, (Sorry, but it just isn't in my DNA.) but the story of The Church of The Spilled Blood captured my attention. It is built on the site of the 1881 assassination of Alexander II. Alexander was beloved by the people because of his reformations, particularly the abolition of serfdom. When he was murdered, the peasants collected funds to build the church. No amount was too small. The meticulous ceramic mosaics and dramatic exterior are testament to the will of the people.

The will of the Russian people to carefully restore the beauty of their history and share it with the world is one of the greatest displays of national pride that I can think of. The financial commitment and collective determination has been nothing short of miraculous. This city was truly on the brink of extinction some seventy years ago, but today it is a crown jewel of culture and a stunning example of Russian pride. 


Wednesday, 1 July 2015

Medieval Meets Modernity

Happy Canada Day from Tallinn Estonia!

I must admit that when I first saw Tallinn on the itinerary for this trip, I viewed it as an intermediate locale that seemed perfectly situated on the Baltic Sea in order to break up the voyage to St. Petersburg. To say that I was entirely wrong is an understatement. Tallinn is truly a great surprise. The oldest capital city in Northern Europe, Talłinn has managed to straddle the line between old and new, combining its gothic medieval architecture in Old Town, with a vibrant twenty-first century culture complete with vibrant cafes, boutiques, and a thriving high tech industry. Estonia has been kicked around throughout history, including being annexed by the former Soviet Union, but these are a proud people and when the Soviet Union crumbled, Estonia was the first country to declare its independence in 1991. Walking through the narrow paths and cobblestone streets, untouched for centuries, you get a real sense of how Tallinn has remained true to itself since its founding in 1154.

Let's play some Tallinn Trivia and see how much you all know about this beautiful country of Estonia.

Ok, Alex. I'll take Tallinn industry for $500

What major online communication phenomenon was developed in Estonia?

If you answered Skype, then give yourself the money. And if you said that one of the chief developers was named Jean Tallinn, then proceed to the Daily Double. Tallinn is also a completely free WiFi city. How freaking civilized is that?

How about Religuous Symbols for $200, Alex?

What Christmas symbol had its first public showing in Tallinn?

If you answered the Christmas tree, then Alex is very proud of you. The very first public Christmas tree was displayed in the Tallinn Old Town Hall Square in 1441. Apparently the locals danced around the foliage and then promptly burned it to the ground.

Let's go with Botany for $100.

What gin making berry is native to the region?

If you didn't get juniper berry then smack yourself upside the head. Shame on you!! Juniper berries were thought to cure a variety of diseases in medieval times. When we visited the world's oldest apothecary in Old Town, we saw dried berries still on display in what is still a working pharmacy. If you look very carefully, you will notice that each one grows with a tiny cross on top. Healers in the Middle Ages were convinced that they kept the devil at bay. The Husband just wanted to sample the local spirit.

One more...

Food and drink for $300.

What confection had its beginnings in Estonia?

Marzipan! Although I loathe the stuff, it is a favourite of Twin Son's Better Half and it was fascinating to look at the artistic designs in the sweet shop windows. 


Monday, 29 June 2015

A City of Contradictions

The Husband was able to succinctly sum up my very conflicted emotions about Berlin. He described it as a city that has lived its entire history at the political extremes and is now attempting to reconcile its past with its present and future. Traces of imperialism, monarchies, facism, communism, and democratic capitalism are all bubbling just beneath the surface here at every rebuilt building and every reimagined monument or memorial. And the city is teeming with both. There was very little left untouched by the Berlin bombings at the end of World War II. Ninety percent of all buildings in the city were destroyed, and as such there has been a reconstruction and overhaul that is a strange mix of both old and new. To their credit, the Germans are neither hiding from nor whitewashing their horrific history, and are at the very least, making every effort to honour and memorialize the vicitms of both the Shoah and of the Soviet regime. A once divided city is now whole, but there are shadows of the past that haunt this place and are forever inescapable. 

I felt tremendous pain and emotional upheaval today. I instinctively understood that in every place I walked, Nazis marched. At every government building or library that we visited, I recalled visuals of black and white newsreels of Hitler giving speeches or Nazi rallies. It is terribly unfair to the modern day Berliners who are really attempting to be exemplary world citizens, but it is a part of my psyche that I will never be able to fully discard. 

So, while we visited the square in front of the Law School at Humboldt University, all I could see was the poignant memorial to the Berlin book burnings of 1933. At the refurbished Olympic stadium, still remarkably intact since 1936, I saw Jesse Owens quietly dispelling the myth of the "master race". On Museum Island, where culture has overtaken politics, I was starkly reminded of Hitler's rallies on the steps of one of the rebuilt facades. At the Reichstadt, the seat of German democracy, my mind replayed photographic images of the swastika hanging from its columns. I could not abandon my history and heritage for even one moment of today's tour. 

But, it was at the Holocaust Memorial, aptly named The Monument to the Murdered Jews of Europe, where I was struck mute. I silently wept as we made our way through the columns of 2711 individually-sized granite blocks. The stones are uninscribed and stark, almost like nameless headstones. As we walked through, there were times when the ground dropped and sloped and almost caused me to lose balance. We felt enveloped and surrounded on all sides, with no means of escape. I was emotionally spent after just five minutes and was relieved not to have to visit the museum below. I honestly do not believe I could have handled it. 

This is a new Berlin; fresh, vital, modern, and free. But, for those of us who are charged with and emotionally burdened by "never forgetting", it might take a little longer to see it that way.