Monday, June 30, 2014

Feeling patriotic, more or less.

I have always felt a bit...uncomfortable about patriotism. The way it sparks conflict and division makes me uneasy. But living 'overseas' I surprise myself with the fondness I feel growing a bit bigger, year after year, for my home and native land (that's a line from our anthem). 

I wrote a whole blog post about how I feel about Canada. Everything that is good about it, why I feel so lucky to be Canadian. And then I hit delete.

Because the trouble with patriotism is that every patriotic statement I try to make comes across as a comparison to another country, implying Canada's superiority at the expense of another.

And I hate that.

Let's just say that Canada simply is and for that—for exactly where it is in 2014 and for everything that conspired in the past 147 years to make it that way—today, I am grateful.

Nothing more and nothing less.

photos from my wedding, august 2013, halifax, canada

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

When in Lithuania

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

When in Scotland

The When In Guides are getting new additions this week—welcome Scotland and Lithuania!


In a phrase: A friendly, picturesque European capital full of unexpectedly wonderful shops, restaurants, and views.
Good for: Food / Drink / Shopping / History / Wandering
Sleep at: Ibis South Bridge, cheap and cheerful

Monday, June 16, 2014

My new old city.

Let me paint a picture of my new old city for you.

I know that right now you're all like this is going to be boring OK bye but I promise it's not!

Valletta is a Baroque city, built in the mid sixteenth century, and planned from the bottom up in a very trendy grid pattern. It measures just 900 meters by 630 meters. Let's put that into context. Here are all the things you could fit in it:
  • Las Vegas' Aria Resort and Casino
  • Times Square (pretty much down to the inch)
  • Half of Hyde Park, one-sixth of the Toronto Zoo or one-seventh of Central Park
  • The Vatican City
  • 10 Louvres
So, it's really small.

Valletta's streets are lined with tall, narrow, honey coloured townhouses, and its numerous city squares are dominated by imposing palaces and churches. It's surrounded by giant fortress walls and its hilly streets could rival those of San Francisco. It's a city time has forgotten, a time capsule of sorts; Just 1% of the buildings in Valletta were constructed after 2001. Quite literally, the entire city is a UNESCO world heritage site.

During World War II Valletta was severely bombed and damaged. I can't overstate how much it suffered. It was the most bombed Allied city during World War II: More than London or Berlin. It lost its Victorian opera house, the beautiful Auberge D'Auvergne (now the site of the law courts), and numerous homes and lives.* It drove the Maltese underground to rock cut shelters that could accommodate 185,000: shelters that are a permanent part of the urban landscape today. Look at photos of Valletta pre-war and there are entire sections of the city that looked completely different (and certainly more resplendent) back then.

After the war there was a shortage of housing in the city and Valletta's population declined rapidly from 19,000 just after 1945 to 6,000 today. Of the people that live here now, 30% are over the age of 60, practically all are Maltese, and just 7% have a tertiary education.

I have never been more in the minority anywhere I've lived (and I've never felt more at home.)

Valletta is the smallest capital city in Europe, and until very recently it's also been a ghost town. The vacancy rate of properties here is around 30%. (Sometimes I sit and try to picture all those empty spaces, and what they might look like.) And, while 70% of all occupied buildings in Valletta are rentals, good luck finding one that's available to rent: Much of the property here is social housing. Further, 30% of properties in Valletta are dilapidated, passed on through families and never inhabited or repaired, much less rented out.  These and other factors have led to the perception that some areas of Il-Belt ("The City") are "rough". Which is, by the numbers, far from the truth. There is far more crime in the posh neighbourhoods of Sliema, St. Julians, and St. Paul's than in Valletta: compare its 560 crimes per year to St. Julian's 3,000.

Regardless, life in Valletta still sounds pretty grim on paper. It's a mostly vacant city, whose inhabitants are seniors, and whose face is forever scarred by war.

But enter Valletta and it's not the numbers you see. Live in Valletta and it's not the numbers that matter. #LifeinValletta is beautiful, and I can't wait to share it with you.

*You can find many of the Maltese who died in WWII memorialized online here.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

I moved!

After four years (where did the time go?) of living in Malta, and five flats, we don't take it for granted anymore that our housing situation will be stable.

We knew Flat Number One was a temporary housing situation, located next to the university while I was studying there.

We loved Flat Number Two so much, with its uber modern conveniences, and would have stayed there forever had the owner not sold it.

In Flat Number Three we had a Russian singing and dancing school in the apartment above us. We lasted two months there before the noise drove us out.

In Flat Number Four we were in a neighbourhood we liked near the sea. But a month ago, lured by tales of riches, our landlord decided to convert it to a holiday apartment.

And then we found Flat Number Five, which isn't actually a flat at all. It's a studio in an old converted warehouse in my very favourite city in Malta: Valletta! And it might be my favourite home yet.

I hope we'll be here, in the oldest building we've ever called home, for a good long time.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

A castle in the middle of a lake.

We wrapped up our trip to Lithuania last Easter at Trakai Castle, a 14th century beauty on an island in the middle of a lake. It used to look like this (so dreamy!) but was reconstructed to its original glory after WWII.

Trakai Castle is as picturesque and magical as you want a castle in the middle of a lake to be—Disney ain't got nothing on this.

And if it doesn't convince you of Lithuania's coolness, I don't know what will.

Trakai is worth a day trip if you find yourself in Lithuania, and Lithuania is so worth exploring if you find yourself with itchy traveler's feet. 

Thanks again to our wonderful hosts. We'll never forget Easter 2014.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Visiting Vilnius: The Capital of Lithuania

Without giving away too many personal details about our visit to Lithuania last Easter, where our friend's generous and lovely family hosted us, I'd love to tell you a bit more about it.

We first went to Lithuania's capital city, Vilnius, where our friend's family lives and works. His father, who we had the privilege of getting to know, is an incredible artist who I like to think of as Mr. Lithuania. Not only has he designed the coat of arms of the city of Vilnius and the country of Lithuania, he is heavily involved in keeping the history of the country alive through his wonderful etchings and his design work on some of Vilnius' most important historical buildings.

And he let us stay in his studio, which was just such a thrill. I won't share photos of that very intimate space, but suffice to say, it is the artist's studio of your dreams. Perched in the attic of a historical building in Vilnius' Old Town, it is home to the most wonderful printing press and collection of art.

Our friends took us on a fun two-day tour of Vilnius' historical sites, parks, and pubs. Vilnius is a ridiculously beautiful city, in a wonderfully understated way. It has fewer tourists than I imagined, it's very affordable, makes great beer and pickles, and all the young people speak English.

In other words, give it a few years and its bound to be the next city break destination in Europe. 

Pictured above is the most wonderful hot orange and ginger juice. I'll be scrambling for a recipe the next time I get a head cold, it was delicious!

Vilnius is also one of the greenest cities in Europe. That is, it's essentially one giant park. We were all too happy to indulge in the grass and spring blooms, which are a rarity in Malta. And how cute is this open-art art class?

Wandering about we ended up in Uzupis, Vilnius' very own artist's republic. Its a self declared independent republic (with it's own wacky constitution, pictured below), and home to some very cool art installations and restaurants.

Later that day we wandered in and out of carving workshops, markets selling perfect pickles by the bucket, and little souvenir shops. Between shops we snacked on traditional garlicky fried rye bread and sweet bread beer. At night we toured many of Vilnius' charming bars and pubs (La Boheme and Who Hit John were firm favourites) and had the best cold, creamy beet borscht (Šaltibarščiai) at the GrillHouse. 

The Lithuanian food scene is fantastic. Who knew?

So much of Lithuanian food and culture and art is impacted by its incredible history, and its journey from the largest country in Europe during the 14th century, to Soviet bloc state after WWII, to independent state in 1991, to European Union member in 2004. Lithuania wears its history on its sleeves, and it's raw and beautiful. 

I hear Lithuania mentioned a lot in the news lately. I don't like to get political in this space, but the atmosphere in Lithuania was clouded by a veil of sadness and worry as events unfolded in Ukraine.

I hope this beautiful city, and this incredibly warm and welcoming country, enjoy a future of peace and safety. And pickles for all.