Archive for October 2008

The most beautiful sunsets you might ever see.

October 28, 2008

I’ve often written about the other places I’ve been, but so far other than a few offhand comments I’ve never really described where I live. Alright. I’m in a good mood and I feel like typing, lets see how this works out.

Calgary, Canada. Many people see it as a commercial city, the home of the Alberta oil companies, a strictly business city of wealth and power. That’s true to an extent, Calgary is a new city and it shows. An extremely new city that really only ever came into being with the sudden boom economy of oil in the 1970’s-80’s that boosted its success and the Winter Olympics it hosted in 1988. Since then it has grown into a thriving city of over a million with a distinct vibe all its own. You will not find any distinct old monuments here, no stylishly outdated architecture or mighty old Cathedrals, it’s fairly uncommon for a building to be over 50 here never mind a hundred or more, so if it’s history that you seek when touring the world this is not the city to be. That said being new has its advantages; the streets are well designed and easy to navigate, the buildings in good condition and usually well kept, the streets are clean and the people generally quite friendly compared to many older cities which have had time to grow old and bitter about its success. Indeed, if I were to picture Calgary as a person it’d a be a young man, well kept and clean shaven in an expensive suit. Nice enough fellow really, very keen and work minded however and his buddies Edmonton and Vancouver often tell him he needs to relax and take a break every now and then because for someone his age he’s far too uptight. Don’t get me wrong, he’s a good guy, he just needs to learn to relax and have some fun. I mean he’s what 150ish? That’s still a kid and yet all he does is work work work.

But lets not stop here. Unlike most other places I’ve visited, I *know* Calgary. With my habit of exploring and wandering aimlessly on foot, I like to think I know this city better than most people ever will. So when in most of my rundowns I give a description of the places vibe and what I saw and did there, here I can give details. Let us begin.

In Europe, Germany and UK especially, there are some spectacular parks. Hyde park in London is breathtaking, and in Bordeaux France there are some amazingly lush and green gardens. In Germany they have a love of greenhouses and more exotic plants as well as landscaping. Calgary doesn’t have anything like that, not really, what it does have though are parks with of a different sort of beauty. Where in Europe the gardens and parks are well tended and tailored artistic creations Calgary has natural preserves; fields of wildflowers springing up from the ground among the light shrubs and twisted old poplar and willow trees. Perhaps you might catch a glimpse of a deer among the tall grass, there are a few that live in Fish Creek park, or a rare birds nest within the trees. It’s a different form a beauty than the structured man-made parks of older cities, a sort of place that is only enhanced by the cities youth, carefully preserved slices of the wild in the midst of the city. Another example: There’s a pathway along a small waterway called Nose Creek which follows the twists and turns of this small creek and the train tracks alongside it, and when the weather is right and the city is quiet, it’s easy to picture yourself stepping through time as you wander down this path. The sounds of birds in the trees and the gentle wooshing sound of tall grass being blown by the breeze, that distinct yet not entirely unpleasant smell of a trains grease and oil that makes ones mind turn to western movies and cowboys, the soft lulling of the water. It’s idyllic and easily one of my favourite walking paths.

That’s not to say there arn’t atleast some attempts made to make a tailored park for relaxing and fun. In the Downtown area there is a place called Prince’s Island Park which is a favourite for downtown business men and women to enjoy a nice lunch or for families to have picnics. Connected to downtown via bridges to the more stylish and artsy district known as Eau Claire, it’s also a favourite hangout for buskers and street performs. I’ve seen a street magician performing a few times now who’s particularly good, and if the weather is nice it’s common to have at the least one or two people playing their guitars somewhere with the instruments case or a hat before them for spare change. It’s heavily wooded in places and has well tended flat lawns in others, benches are plentiful as are small gardens and even a cafe, meanwhile Canadian Geese and other winged wildlife are a regularity there which seems to stun most tourists as whenever I’m in the area you’ll see at the least two obviously tourist families pointing excitedly at our geese while snapping pictures of their relatives with the poor birds in the background. (And when will you realize those are wild animals folks, please stop letting your children wander too close, those birds can be mean when provoked as anyone who’s encountered them as a child themselves can tell you.)

The city itself is a massive suburban sprawl with a very centralized downtown that stands out starkly in the otherwise flat prairie lands. A collections of Tall skyscrapers of polished glass all crowded together with the notable Calgary tower among them. Travelling through the city is fairly easy once you figured out the public transportation system but I can imagine it could be frustrating for visitors. The LRT is the main transit system which branches out from central downtown into the more suburban areas, an above-ground train system that’s free to use downtown but otherwise costs the same as a bus ticket for travel to or from the downtown district to other outlying areas. Relies on an honor system rather than booths like you’ll find in subways but is occasionally patrolled by transit cops who’ll ask to see your ticket and will fine you if you don’t have one. Traffic isn’t really my concern seeing as I’m not much a driver (Aka I don’t drive because I’m too cheap!) but it can and does often get congested on the streets around 4:00 PMish when work usually lets out and everyone is rushing to get home. Drivers arn’t too bad in general, and there are plenty of walking paths and traffic stop-lights for pedestrians like myself to use. So getting around isn’t hard once you’ve got it figured out. Not bad.

But there are also some downsides. For one while the city is getting crowded thanks to it’s unusually quick growth. Too many business, not enough people to work all those businesses, yet too few houses, so it’s common to see NOW HIRING signs all over the place, even the occasional ‘closing because we don’t have enough staff’ sign and service can be lacking in many venues. Meanwhile housing costs have skyrocketed so when people DO move here for a job, they suddenly discover that actually living here might be more expensive than planned. It also means that there are quite a few homeless in the city and that tents being pitched along pathways and in parks is depressingly common, and although its not as bad as many other places yet, it could prove a major problem in the future. Calgary is also a bit of a business city, as I stated earlier, which means that entertainment can be annoyingly hard to find sometimes. Oh it’s there if you know where to look, but compared to say Montreal or Vancouver, Calgary is a relatively boring city at times. Whether that’s really a good thing or a bad thing is up to you…

But then there’s the view. If there’s one experience I’d like to describe from here, it’s this. Calgary is a prairie city that sits on the borders of the mountains, this causes some strange weather effects such as a neat little thing we call chinooks. Hot air will rise over the mountains from the western coastline then descend over and into the prairies making the weather often windy and unpredictable at best. Calgary is particularly known for its warm winters where a chinook wind will blow down from the mountains and while everywhere else is suffering -20c temperatures we’re relaxing in t-shirts and enjoying the warm breeze, next day will be cold as usual and perhaps the next will bring another burst of warm winds, it’s hard to tell. But besides making weather forecasting a headache for poor newscasters, this also produces some of the absolute most stunning sunsets (And sunrise, although I like my sleep so I rarely see those myself.) you will ever see. This effect isn’t really uncommon, any city situated nearby mountains will get it to some degree, Calgary just happens to be perfectly placed for some spectacular views you have to see to believe.

Lets play pretend here, try to visualize what I’m describing. I’d say close your eyes, but that wouldn’t work out so well considering this is written, so just ‘pretend’ your eyes are closed as you read to help you picture it. You’re on a steep hill, tall brown grasses billow in the warm winds that brush against your skin pleasantly. From up here you’ve got a good view of downtown Calgary with the Rocky mountains clearly present in the background as a jagged outline in the distance contested only by the tall glass towers of mans creation. To the east and away from the mountains the sky is a dark purple, black almost from the clouds while to the west and the mountains it’s clear but for a few wisps of cloud that form a whimsical pattern in the sky. And as the sun descends you see it; those black clouds slowly being lined with the most bright pinks and oranges you can imagine, bright patterns standing out starkly among the clouds. You tilt your head upwards and the entire sky above you is a pitch black with those wonderful patterns of oranges and pinks throughout, the patterns slowly and lazily shifting even as you watch from that same warm breeze you feel now. Then you look back down towards the horizon and you see that amazing sky reflected in the windows gleam of the tall skyscrapers of downtown, and for a moment you don’t see Calgary, but you see a painting that can’t be real: The distant horizon is a jagged series of mountains with the sun descending behind it, the sky a perfect soft blue but for a few wisps of white cloud, then starts the big dark mass of contrasting purples and pinks reflected in the mighty crystalline spires before you. It’s getting dark by now so some of the houses are turning on their lights, and while the horizon is still a bright blue, before you you see a scene where the ground is a series of sparkling star-like lights with that central series of crystal spires and the sky that twisting contrasting mess of dark and light colours, and perhaps you wonder if you’re still standing and if the world hasn’t turned upside down, the warm winds still tugging at you making you wonder if you arn’t flying. The illusion quickly fades, the sun descends fully and the sky goes back to a simply dark cloud that makes you wonder if it might not rain or snow later. But for those few brief seconds it lasted, it’s one of the most amazing experience you will ever have.

Doing a quick google picture search brought up a few results and here’s the best I could find, and here’s another. Picture the sky from the second with the skyline of the first, and you’ve the picture I’m describing.

Calgary has its flaws and its annoyances, but in the end after I’ve walked back down that hill and I’m on the train home, all is forgiven. I know, I’m a bit of a dreamer to enjoy this stuff so much and I’m sure reality will come crashing down on my head someday and leave me a nice proper drone, but till then here’s to beautiful sunsets in shiny new cities! Calgary ain’t the greatest city in the world, but hell, it’s my home and I love it here.

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Edinburgh oh Edinburgh.

October 27, 2008

Truth: Edinburgh is the only place ever in which I have seen a bagpipe busker in full plaid regalia, complete with an overturned red wool hat in front of him for change. I am still unsure whether this is a good or a bad thing.

Edinburgh is an interesting city. The initial arrival from the train station is a bit disorienting and it certainly didn’t help that like everywhere else I’ve visited I’d done zero research before visiting other than to look up the name of a decent hostel, but uppon climbing up from the dank underground station and into the dim grey of a typically overcast day all was forgiven as Edinburgh easily has one of the most impressive first views possible. The train station being situated right next to the Edinburgh castle and a beautiful park in what once was the castles moat.

Edinburgh is a tourist city, or at least that’s how it feels. Walking down the main historical street you’re faced with dozens of buskers and street performers all competing for attention alongside the many tour group operations. However unlike many other touristy cities, Edinburgh has a nice vibe to it and neither plays the preening beauty act nor the vicious money trap scheme on you, atleast not right away or openly. Indeed it struck me as a city that took some pride in itself, the type that like to show off certainly but at the least is not an ass about it. The streets are enjoyable to walk down and the buildings well kept, the areas clean and the people friendly enough. Small monuments for one thing or another dot seemingly every corner and almost every location has some sort of story. For example my friend and I were sitting in a cafe for a break when we noticed the signs proudly proclaiming THIS to be the amazingfantabulous cafe where the author of Harry Potter would often relax (It was alright, bit crowded and loud for my tastes!). And a small statue of a dog in front of a bar named Bobby’s Bar would later be revealed to have an elaborate tale of a puppies love and endurance (Ever watched the show Futurama? If no, shame on you, it’s an excellent show. If yes, remember the episode with Fry’s dog? This was the real life inspiration for that story.). A statue of a man on a horse would be revealed to be a local joke with a humorous tale of its own. A heart shaped series of tiles on the ground another (Don’t stand there!). And so on and so on. It’s exhausting but extremely entertaining.

How I heard all these stories was a simple matter of joining up with one of the local free walking tour groups, which of all things was led by an American student there for a study program. Nice person mind you, but when you’re being told the local history by a girl with a distinctly New Yorkish accent, it’s a bit disorienting. Still, hard to complain when it was free eh, and it’s not like she did a bad job at all. Far from it! It’s just there are certain expectations you have with these things, what can I say? Besides, I later got my wish of a thick Scottish accent describing locations as later that day I would sign up for an Underground Vault tour after my interest was caught by the previous guide (The New York one!) noting the cities historical underground system of inter-connected basements as we wandered along.

Before I jump to that though I’ll finish with the above ground though. The touristy historical city is extremely concentrated into a single area where the buildings are usually round 5 stories-ish tall with one main avenue called the Royal Mile and various smaller tight twisty streets branching off to the sides. This street leads right up a steep hill to the castle itself, which is one of those castles that is posed dramatically on the peak of a steep hill with cliffs all round I presume for for tourism purposes as it makes for one helluva picture. I unfortunately never went *in* the castle seeing as I’m cheap and it was expensive, but to make up for that I explored the area around it plenty and spent a fair bit of time in its moat-turned-garden which while not especially big is easily one of the most beautifully green parks I’ve ever seen. I was told this was because the moat had been notorious as a dumping ground for crap (literal crap!) which over the years made the soil extremely well fertilized, go figure. Nice shops in that area if you’ve the money to spend. It was all very enjoyable and scenic.

Of course one can only wander the streets so long knowing that there’s the potential for even COOLER streets underneath that may or may not be haunted by ghosts and such depending on who you’re talking to. But honestly, how neat is that? Not only is there the photo-friendly dramatic ‘castle on a cliff’ stereotype but they’ve even got haunted underground passages? How many more cool stereotype UK tourist sights can you have in one city? Naturally I had to see the underground so tours were signed up for and walking was done, this time led by a young woman with an appropriately Scottish accent and in appropriately historical ye-olden style dress. Many of the places we saw with her as lead were the same as the ones I’d seen earlier, and often the same stories (Although there were differences in the tales every here and there.) and eventually this led to the underground, which of all things was reached by going UP in in an apartment building? HUH? I’m still uncertain of how exactly that worked.

This famous ‘haunted underground city’ as it turns out is in truth like I mentioned earlier, more a series of inter-connected basements and tunnels than anything. Much of it has been bricked off over the years and sealed shut and it’s only in recent times that people have taken to exploring the place. It came into being when the city was getting extremely crowded and the local merchants and the like were searching for extra room to store silly things like food and people, and someone eventually came up with the idea “If we can’t go up or out anymore, why not go down?” and the underground was born. All in all it was an interesting experience to see and certainly worth seeing if you’re in Edinburgh, but it was hardly the epic experience I’m sure you were expecting me to say it was with all this build up. No, in truth picture a series of very old underground vaults lined with grey stone, now picture it being extremely dark and spooky with the occasional drip-drip-dripping of water here and there and only the guides flashlight to show the way. Not particularly much to see as it was a barren series of rooms for the most, but the surprisingly enthusiastic and charismatic guide (Who had a scottish accent need I remind you!) who told various tales of sadness and woe certainly made it entertaining. It all ended with one of those ‘Boo!’ gotcha moments which I absolutely despise because it breaks the ambiance the guide had to create, but everything leading up to that was golden. Is it genuinely haunted down there? I doubt it honestly, but I’m the skeptical type who thinks “Damn it would be cool if ghosts were real!” all while disbelieving everything thrown at me out of silly logic and so forth. It was certainly dark enough there to make a creepy vibe, no doubt, but a series of empty underground rooms is still just a series of empty underground rooms regardless of whether they’re creepy or not, and untill I see myself a transparent ghost right outta ghostbusters staring me down personally, I’m likely to continue to believe that the mind plays nasty tricks on people in places like that and that’s likely all these tales of ghostly gooblies is.

After underground, Hostel, bunk, sleep, off to next city next day. Edinburgh condensed into one days packed walking journey. Personally I’d love to go back there some time, of all the cities in the UK besides London, I’d have to say Edinburgh left the best impression. It’s a beautiful city filled with all sorts of little stories tucked away all over the place, a gem of a place for people like myself that enjoy hearing these little local tales and legends.

All about sleep.

October 20, 2008

I have alot of trouble getting to sleep. Why? Because I’ve always found that I’m most active, most energetic when I’ve reached that thin line between feeling tired and drowsy. When my eyes are getting a bit heavy and your thinking is getting muddled with sleepiness, that’s when I tend to do my best work! Admitedly when I wake up later I then have to go over whatever I did earlier before sleep and edit it heavily before it’s even close to done, but nevertheless, that’s when all the best ideas hit. Hell, half the stuff on here were written late at night, saved, then posted the next day.

Anyway, all that said, once I’ve managed to force myself to sleep I often have the most wonderful dreams. Never nightmares, oddly enough. I haven’t had a nightmare since I was around 14, and I actually recall my last nightmare pretty vividly. Not so much the details but I remember what happened in it. Terrible, terrible nightmare. Haven’t had any since, but that one was good/terrible enough to last awhile so I haven’t really needed em. But back to dreams, I often have the most wonderful dreams. Strange, sometimes creepy often violent dreams, but so imaginative I wake up and first thing I do is try to fall back asleep to continue where I left off or if unable to do that, do whatever I can to try and remember the dream. Inevitably I fail to remember much of the dreams and more often than not completely forget them within an hour or two, but while those impressions last it’s amazing. I feel like my mind if full of these amazing ideas just waiting to get out, it feels great!

For awhile I tried to keep a journal next to my bed to write these things down, and I did, but they never had the same impact on paper as they did in my mind and innevitably when I re-read those journal notes later on I’d find myself disappointed or confused about just what I’d been trying to describe. In the end I tossed the journal and just basked in those moments of bliss when I wake up from those dreams rather than scrambling to try and write everything down before it’s completely forgotten. Besides, the good dreams, the really creative ones always linger. They last, leave an impression on you and leave you thinking about em long after most dreams will have faded and been forgotten. I end up thinking about them when I walking someplace, eating, or even getting ready to head back to sleep and hoping beyond hope that the same dream comes again (It never does!). I suppose those’re the things writers cling to and create stories from somehow, taking those vague dream plots and weaving them into something coherent. Someday I’d like to be able to do that, even now I often write these things down or type up short stories I keep tucked away from prying eyes.

The problem for me always comes with the ending. I can weave a story easily enough I find, I know how to type properly and how a well written narrative is formed. I’m amazing at creating believable and intricate characters then bringing them to life, likely the results of years spent playing various styles of story-driven MUDs online. No, all that is fine, it’s the endings that get me every time. That’s why everything I write is short, why I’ve never managed to write anything longer or put these thoughts into a full story and why even those short stories rarely are actually finished. The ending! I mean… how do you end a dream? I never want them to end, never, and yet there has to be one. It has to be final and make a statement. I can’t stand authors who leave the endings open or don’t tie up loose ends properly, so I wont do the same. But that’s the problem… I’m not sure I can. It’s not like I can say “Then I woke up The End!”, that’s be the ultimate ripoff ending.

So that’s the delima and what’s bugging me currently. I’ve got one of those beautiful dreams running through my head and as I tend to do I’m trying to make it neat and tidy in my head. It’s a good one, it really is, but as always I can’t figure out how to end it. Likely I’ll type it up later and save it somewhere to be left alone, never quite finished but still ligering in my thoughts from time to time. Dramatic, no? Unfortunately true. One of these days I’m going to have to figure out what the secret to ending a story is, to give a pleasant ending that’s not a cheap copout like so many are. Maybe once I’ve figured that out I’ll put the various short stories together and see if I can’t get a full book out of it. That’d be nice!

The Castles of old and Newcastle.

October 6, 2008

After York I went to Newcastle, which honestly wasn’t all that impressive of a place really. Nothing particularly wrong with it there, I just found the overall experience to be fairly dull and muted. Boring. Fortunately Newcastle does have a neat castle, go figure, which I got to explore at budget prices and where most of my day in Newcastle was spent.

There’s just something extremely fascinating about castles, these massive stone juggernauts that even today stand as the pinnacle of medieval might and power. When you think of kings, of emperors, queens and lords, that all ties in with the image of the Castle, a majestic stone structure that’s built to weather the toughest of blows whether it be nature or our fellow man dealing them. It’s easy when you stand at the base of these structures to picture the sheer power these would have bestowed to the lords over the people, its size and construction is built for intimidation and military prowess. Dramatics aside, there’s also the sense of age and time that accompanies the castles of old. You see, Canada was established well past the castle era, and although Quebec sports an impressive set of early defenses, for the most part our bastions of might in the past were wooden fortress and the earth itself, torn up to form walls of mud and wood to hold back the cannons of the enemy. None of those forts really exist anymore and time has washed clear the bloodstains of the colonial era, other than the occasional monument or a cheesy recreation, there’s nothing left.

Not so with Europe. Those massive stone castles stand as a sort of testament to mans violent past. Built solely for defence, lacking almost any sense of comfort or style, such as the one in Newcastle which was designed in the Norman style. Tight corridors and narrow flights of spinal stairs, large bare stone rooms, minimal windows to keep the defence of the structure rigid. These buildings were built to withstand it all, and many have, even the test of time.

In Newcastle I believe the price was 50p to wander the bare building, large and empty. It was a rainy day at the time, and to enter onto the premise I walked under the old Black Gates, the remains of the original outer castle walls that would have once surrounded the area, now only the massive stone gatehouse long ago stained black from wear remains. Drawbridge down and wooden planks dark and damp from the water, this long structure stands out amidst the modern industrial surroundings and the heightened train tracks next to it, an ancient monolith of the past. You pass through the old gates and follow the path under the train tacks and towards the castle proper which lies just on the opposite side, another strange monolith from the past as the huge stone structure sits by itself in a parking lot, train tracks on one side, city buildings on another, and on another the last remains of the walls remain, now having been converted to a small park that leads towards the river and into more industrial land.

Up the flight of stone stairs and into the structure you’re faced with the small novelty gift shop and a small wooden booth where a bored but kindly older man sells you a ticket. In one direction lay a bare stone room where a series of pictures have been set up to list some of the castles history as well as another smaller display listing the various ghostly happening that have occurred there and a few notable people and encounters there because of those encounters, doorways lead into the castle proper. The building is built like a box, with a large central room in the middle surrounded by staircase in the corners and various smaller hallways and rooms, one unfortunate stone stairway leading up into a flat stone wall for whatever reason, the original castle builders having left it unfinished for unclear reasons. Up leads to the main hall, often used as an exhibit for various local functions, and further up to the roof where you’re allowed to wander at will. By this time the rain had begun to clear luckily and while the sky was still appropriately darkened for proper medieval ambiance lighting (Thank you Newcastle) I was able to get a stunning view. Heading deeper into the castle towards its base you’re faced with inter-connected large stone rooms, one a small chapel and another gated off to prevent people from falling down the large pit it seems to lead into. A prison I presume. What’s especially noticable here is the way the stonework is built from various different types and eras, pieces having been reused, moved, rebuilt and switched around over the years. So you’ll see an appropriately worm smooth stone from who knows when sitting atop a seemingly freshly carved stone from only a few hundred years ago. Another reminder of those castles long past.

Other than the occasional plaque with a few words of history written on them or stone monuments propped up against the walls, the place is barren and empty. No fancy showmanship for touristy delight, it hasn’t been prettied up or decorated for the most part, although a few rooms do contain some threadbare displays. And for me that’s what made Newcastle a unique and entertaining experience. The place was all but empty when I was there so no large crowds or the yelling of bored tourists, it wasn’t decorated with silly out of place childrens displays. Just the castle, here and now. See it, enjoy it, soak up the ambiance and enjoy. Very cool.

Newcastle was not my favourite city by any means, the fact that all I’ve spoken about this entire entry are castles, largely in general terms, speaks a lot of how barren I found the rest of the city, but there was nothing wrong with it either. Unlike Manchester there was no sense of disliking the place… I just couldn’t find much entertainment. There’s probably plenty to see if you knew where to look and all, but as a one-day traveller there’s only so much information open to you and so many places you can get to with limited means, aka walking. Still, nice experience and an impressive castle which gave me an excuse to rant about how damn cool the things are.

After this was Edinburgh, and another excuse to rant about medieval worksmanship, but that’s for the next entry.