Those falls at Niagara

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It’s fun to be a tourist sometimes. And it would have been absurd to leave North America in a few weeks without having seen Niagara Falls.

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Two hours from Toronto by coach, the falls straddle Canada and the USA and since the Canadian side is soaking in Americana (a Hershey’s store, Elvis impersonators, a Coca Cola milkshake shop and Planet Hollywood), I can only assume that the American side is covered in red and white maple leaves. (Unlikely.)

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Yes, the town is tacky and I didn’t bother seeing any of the wax museums – my only wander into a casino was a disappointment. But the falls themselves really are vast and loud and stunning, and on a hot day like yesterday, the cool spray felt a bit like a blessing.IMG_1614 IMG_1624 IMG_1629 IMG_1631 IMG_1635

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Festival review: Nachtdigital 17

I had the opportunity to attend the exclusive Nachtdigital festival in Olganitz, Saxony, from August 1 to 3.

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one-of-a-kind graphic design

It’s all electronic, held in the German countryside in the summer and I say “exclusive” because only 3000 tickets are ever released and the event is consistently sold out straight away.

Olganitz is a village not far from Leipzig and it made for a very lovely drive south from Berlin.

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Most people camp but there are bungalows available too, in the “Bunga Bungalowdorf”.

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My party was camping. We brought enough food and beer for a small army and divided our time between our little tent town and the main stage areas, which, owing to the petite size of the whole operation, was only a three-minute walk away.

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The stages (one main stage, one inside a big tent and a smaller one by the water) are set by the lake, and the weather was hot and perfect for swimming and splashing around. It was a really beautiful place to have a music festival.

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The music was minimal in general – the heavier stuff in the small hours of night and the more ambient at sunrise and during the daylight. Being Europe, music starts in the evening and goes right through until 11am, although a thunderstorm did make everyone stop for an hour or so on the second night.

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I think this is Siriusmo

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Around the grounds there were little hideaway places to party, like this miniature mirror booth.

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And at night the place was lit up by flashes of colour.

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I had no expectations for Nachtdigital but I had heard many positive things which all turned out to be true. The overall pace and buzz was warm and relaxed – everybody was in a good mood. There was something really exciting about beats echoing out through the fields at night, before it was time to see the early European sunrise.

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And no reason to stop dancing, except to soak up the rays.

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Music: The festival’s specialty is exposing lesser-known and underground DJs from around Europe. My highlights were Siriusmo, Robag Wruhme & Roman Flügel, Heatsick (who I have now seen on three different continents), the Doumen Records showcase and the very unique ROD, who unleashed his terrifying bass right after the thunderstorm.

Crowd: Smiley and relaxed. I didn’t see any “antisocial” behaviour at all. The majority of people were young and beautiful and seemed to mostly come from Germany and The Netherlands.

Food and drink: Guests can bring their own booze into the campsite but not the main stage area. The food for sale was actually pretty tasty, with lots of vegetarian options. Drinks were also not through the roof. But if you plan well, you can survive the whole three days without spending any cash at all.

Grounds: A lovely and unique location, in the fields near a small lake surrounded by woods. Toilets were nothing special (portaloos) and the “shower” was just a cold hose with some curtains around it. Luckily, the weather was really warm!

Nachtdigital has quite a following, and I can see why. I’m still listening to this kind of thing, reminiscing.

 

Majestic wind turbines of Germany

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Germany has a plan to meet 80% of its energy needs with renewables like wind power by 2050. Incentives for producers are now being scaled back but in the first six months of 2014, wind power increased by more than 60% (according to this article from TheLocal.de).

It’s a forward-thinking country and it was wonderful to see plenty of handsome wind turbines on our road trip from Berlin to Olganitz for the Nachtdigital festival. Joe Hockey thinks they’re a “blight on the landscape” but I think they’re pretty great.

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wind turbine lying down on the job!

Going back to Berlin

Two days before returning to Berlin I watched the aching and beautiful film Auf Der Anderen Seite (The Edge of Heaven). What I love about Fatih Akin’s films – besides their emotional depth and lingering sadness – is their keen eye for the “ordinariness” of life in Germany (and Turkey). Streetscapes, kitchens, university cafeterias – it’s as real as can be. It was the perfect way to practise my German.

I spent a year in Berlin as university student. I was young and free and my days and nights were, well, extensively documented on social media – why not? But some things don’t show up in Facebook photos: the smell of baking bread in the U-bahn stations; hands make sticky from drinking Club Mate; the first glimpse of early sunrise in the summer, when your night is still in full swing; the heavenly taste of Kristallweizen with a slice of lemon.

It was all like I remembered, but I’m (maybe) a real grown-up now. More inclined to enjoy organic ice cream than 50c tequila shots (grassy, sweet Zubrowka is another matter); more excited about eating Turkish food at normal dinnertime than at 4am. This time around, I was able to tick off the two activities that I somehow never found the time for in 2011 – cycling in Tempelhof, the vast empty space in the city that used to be an airport; and visiting the über smart modern art museum, Hamburgerbahnhof.

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Clärchens Ballhaus – a dancehall unchanged since decades

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I used to live on this street

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Club Mate is a soft drink made from mate tea. A acquired taste that every new resident has to get used to.

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Reunion with my dear Australian friend Kate

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Neukölln at night

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Kneipe

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“You pay 1 euro with your first drink for the DJ”

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The Tempelhof terminal is one of the only remaining examples of Third Reich architecture

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Some examples of food worth going crazy for:

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Bio-Eis (organic icecream, now everywhere in Berlin)

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Döner macht schöner

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Leberkäse im Brötchen

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I travelled around the world to find this Turkish dessert – it’s called Künefe and is made of shredded pastry, soft cheese and honey

I don’t think I could ever get sick of Berlin. It has a wonderful creative spirit and wears its history on its sleeve. Its citizens are interesting and interested in preserving its unique place in Europe and the world. It’s a crossroads for young people from everywhere, and in the summer, when gardens are growing out of control everywhere, it’s a real fairytale.

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Darkness and sunshine – that’s Berlin!

An evening on Lake Ontario

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I was invited to a little beach party on Ward’s Island, in the eastern part of the island cluster just a short ferry ride away from the city. It was my first time on Lake Ontario, and the evening could not have been more fresh and clear and rosy.

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Looking over the lake, there were rogue ducks waddling everywhere and a whole lot of other birds screaming from the next island over. And a party cruise playing music from 2005. It was still lovely.

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When the sun set, we could see lights from the United States twinkling on the horizon.

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Full of beer and giggles and cookies, we caught the last ferry back to the city. The CN tower was all dolled up, as usual.

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Halfway Point

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Montreal brunch – luckily I wasn’t meant to eat all of this by myself.

Two and a half months ago, I flew out of Kingsford Smith on my way to North America. Alone. It’s been, in the majority, a solo trip since and assuming all goes to plan (no September snowstorms), I’m halfway through.

It feels like much longer. My memories of California and Mexico are like a colourful dream sequence now, and that was only in April. I’m hearing an odd mashup of accents when I open my own mouth. Like everything, I’m sure that the next half of the trip will be intense and fantastic when it’s happening, and be over far too soon.

Along the way I have met dozens of solo travellers and I always feel like we’re part of a special club. We’ve discovered the thrill of going out into the unknown, armed with only wits and charms. Yes, there are a million blog posts already about how travel opens your mind and the romance of leaving home with only a few pairs of clothes and some good books. So everyone gets it. But there is something to be said about deliberately turning yourself into a complete stranger.

For one thing, people are impressed by it. You really came here all by yourself? Do you have family here? Friends? Wow! You’re brave! (And I smile to myself.) I don’t feel overly brave or adventurous, really – it’s Canada. They speak English here. I’m a dual citizen so I don’t need any scary immigration paperwork. Everyone is friendly. But I am proud of one thing – conquering my fear of being alone.

On my 25th birthday, which was a few weeks ago, I got a manicure. Then I went to a Japanese restaurant, by myself. I splurged on an expensive ramen and a beer. After that I walked over to a tiny theatre for a film screening I’d read about online. When the film was over, I made some friends by chatting about the rain and offering some chewing gum around, and we went out for more beers. It felt good to be a grown-up woman who could find her own entertainment and meet new people.

I’m planning on writing a separate post a bit later about the act of a woman going into a bar to drink alone. But it’s not too much of a stretch to say that for me, getting used to that has been one of the most rewarding treats of the whole exercise.

Maybe being happy alone is a skill that can only be learned through experience. In any case, I think that mastering it can only be useful for all the trials and errors of an interesting life.

Sometimes, in idle moments – and there are many – I think about the singular burn and sparkle of the Australian sunlight. The way everyone’s skin looks shiny after the sun sets on a hot day. Wattles, and jacarandas, and espressos and Coopers. It’ll all still be there, and I’ll get to enjoy it with all the people I miss. But I’m blessed to be young and healthy and I know who I am, which has been a wonderful thing to discover.

If you’re a woman (or man) who has travelled alone, please share your thoughts about it with me.  xx

St Vincent at NXNE

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I’ve just returned from seeing St. Vincent out in the open, for free, at Yonge and Dundas Square right in the city. It’s part of the extravaganza that is North by Northeast (NXNE). She was preceded by Swans.

The array of artists is bewildering. It seems like the entire music world has converged on Toronto – and nobody’s complaining!

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I love St. Vincent’s music more and more. It’s taut and sexy and sophisticated, but made full-blooded with licks of electric guitar. She did an impressive solo on stage, and peppered the set with mysterious monologues about childhood games. What a stunner.

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At the CN Tower

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“Everything changes after three weeks.”

So said the Englishman who had been here for six. That meant that I should have been two days already into the rest of my (Toronto) life. Well, let’s say you get a few extra days for the weekend. I thought about whether it was that particular evening, warmer than most of the ones I’d had before, that was going to be pivotal.

But it was the whole disappearing day, really, that was a little bit special. I had spent three weeks (and two days) in Toronto, and had very little to show for it. Up until my arrival, every few days held the promise of a new city and new people to meet. I had moved to a new city for real and now, it was all up to me.

As happens so often in life, I shouldn’t have worried so much. Although I didn’t realise it except in hindsight, it was indeed around the three-week mark that my new (temporary) life started to come into focus. My street and my home began to feel familiar. I made some friends and started having things to go to in the evenings. I started to memorise streetcar routes and subway stations. I was able to sleep.

I look at the CN tower every day. So far up in the haze above the streets, it often has a unreal quality to it.

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If I was only staying in Toronto for a few days, enjoying one exciting day after another, I would have visited the CN Tower already. So I decided to go up.

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My place is over there somewhere.

Even though I had to push my way through hundreds of squealing children, it really was beautiful up there. You can ever-so-slightly see the curvature of the earth, off in the blue distance over Lake Ontario. IMG_0943

It’s expensive, as you’d expect – about $35. Especially because I chose to pay an extra $12 to go up a few more storeys to the Skypod.

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However, although it wasn’t advertised, the $12 includes some peace and quiet.

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On the main level there is a glass floor. I was excited to stand on the glass floor, until it came to the point where I had to step on it. IMG_0957My heart was beating incredibly quickly. There were other grown adults who were obviously terrified, and I don’t blame them. The fear of plunging to our deaths from incredibly high buildings unites us all, I guess.

So I had finally visited the CN Tower. I had seen a Sight, and was determined to see some more. I wanted to be excited about Toronto, every day that I spent there. And it was that evening that I met the Englishman, and realised that he was right.

Trampoline Hall

How do you find out what’s good to see and do in a new city? Surprise surprise, I’m using the internet. The internet pointed me to Trampoline Hall, a regular event started by Sheila Heti, the Toronto writer who now works on the great magazine The Believer. I’d heard of Sheila but not of Trampoline Hall. It seemed too exclusive an event not to be awesome – the night was already sold out and I apparently had to get to the venue a few hours early and secure a place in the line for rush tickets.

So I went to The Garrison on Dundas St West and got myself the ticket.

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Isn’t it lovely?

People, mostly young and literary-looking, were very excited about the whole thing, and rushed in to get a good seat. I was very excited about the program.

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Don’t forget your glasses

The programs and stage designs are organised by different people for each event. The program (as in, the curation of the night and also the paper form of it) was this time put together by Becky Johnson, and the stage design was by her improv group The Sufferettes. It consisted of pantyhose with all manner of objects stuffed down them. It was excellent.

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At Trampoline Hall, people give lectures. They are not allowed to be experts on the topic but they obviously do plenty of research, because a key requirement is being able to answer a whole lot of follow-up questions. David Dineen-Porter told us about the “Northern Vowel Shift”, which was really fascinating. Did you know that regional accents are diverging around the world? And that American broadcast media speaks in its own accent entirely? No, neither did I!

Kalpna Patel told spoke with excitement about the extravaganza that is the Scripps National Spelling Bee, and Freddie Rivas gave a heartstringy account of a childhood lacking in material wealth, but not in love and laughter.

I get the impression that there are plenty of spoken-word events happening in Toronto. These people know what they’re doing. But Trampoline Hall is part comedy night, part public-speaking contest and, by putting its speakers on the spot, part performance art. The atmosphere was beginning-of-the-week festive and I met a whole bunch of interesting folks. It was the perfect introduction to a city full of thinkers that is about to burst into life for the summer. See you next time, Trampoline Hall.

Saskatoon, Saskatchewan

IMG_0891 “We say there are two seasons in Saskatoon: winter and ‘construction’,” said my prairie friend Steph. The idea, of course, being that all the building and roadwork that accumulates during the long winter must be completed in the brief burst of summer. When I arrived in Saskatoon, construction season had begun. The skies were clear and the bright sun was smiling down at the flat, dusty landscape. There was reason to celebrate. In winter, temperatures colder than -30 celcius are commonplace. My mother was born in Saskatchewan and has relayed stories of locals tying a rope between their front door and their front gate in order to find their way through the yard in a blizzard. My grandfather has told me that a person ‘snowed in’ in their car would probably die – if the car was off, then of cold; and if the car was on, then of carbon monoxide poisoning.

But enough of that misery. Saskatoon in the sun was a delight and it was showing on everyone’s faces. I could only imagine the whole place covered in ice, but it showed few signs of that on the day that we walked along the South Saskatchewan River. IMG_0866 IMG_0867 IMG_0873 IMG_0874 IMG_0875 IMG_0882 IMG_0877   There is a sculpture park close to the banks. IMG_0883 IMG_0884 IMG_0888IMG_0886 The Bessborough is one of the oldest buildings in the area. Very stately. IMG_0892A beer, liquor and food festival called Top of the Hops attracted a whole lot of locals and was pretty raucous fun. As it turns out, the province has plenty of breweries and distilleries – and people who love to have a good time. Little glimpses of old-world prairie life are there, too – like the “two-step” that everybody started dancing at the end of a Friday night. I might be returning in August – the summer festivals and parties will be mostly over, but the open space and friendly spirit will surely be the same. IMG_0891