You Have Five Minutes To Smell The Flowers: The United Kingdom

Photo by Amanda Kelly

Chance

My recent trip to the UK left me thinking a lot about time.  How it moves, how our feelings move it, how it can be slow or fast, sometimes both at once.

Einstein once wrote: “the separation between past, present and future is only an illusion”.  If that’s true, that might explain why it’s so difficult to live in the present moment and find our footing in “the now” without worrying about what comes next or forgetting what has happened before.  It’s a bit tricky to seize the day when time is so pliable and elusive.

Something tells me that Einstein was thinking more about scientific facts than he was about spiritual growth when he came up with the theory of relativity.  One fact that I know to be true is this: we can’t erase the past, and we can’t access tomorrow, so it seems to me that we have no choice but to put one foot before the other and be as real and good in the present moment as we possibly can.  Of course there is interconnectedness between then and now, but everything other than this moment right here is a black hole that you can’t quite touch.

Even so, I love trying to bend time in my favour.  My second favourite thing about the UK is getting a 5-hour leg up on everyone in North America.  You wake up fresh, tackle the important stuff, and right around the time that your productivity is waning and the Pimm’s starts calling, those lazy sloths over in the West are just wiping the sleep from their eyes.  From a competitive standpoint, they seem so far behind, and that is so satisfying!  From an efficiency standpoint, absolutely nothing could be more valuable than having those five glorious, uninterrupted hours.

You can gain that kind of head start relatively easily, by getting on a plane and catapulting yourself through the air five hours into the future (the closest thing to time traveling we will likely ever experience).  Be careful though because somehow in the process of crossing the Atlantic, I travelled out of a scorching heat wave and landed right in the middle of sweater weather.  Here’s another universal law: whenever I pack cardigans I need more sundresses, and whenever I pack sundresses I need more cardigans.  It never fails.

Alas, welcome to cold and rainy Poundstock, Cornwall, where one can definitely never have enough sweaters (or leg warmers for that matter).  I counted and the population (including the friends I was visiting) is officially 8, one of which is a horse and one of which is a donkey.  Their names are Nemo (short for Geronimo), and Chance.

This place is quiet; it may in fact define rural.  The house where I am staying is nestled so deeply into the green hills that life seems to pause with each sip of tea, and the stone clock perched on the kitchen windowsill is the only obvious indication of forward motion.  I find myself checking it often, just to orient myself.

After a couple of days, my pulse has slowed to match the pace of the grey clouds passing overhead.  I am swallowed whole by the vast quietude, disappearing into the damp, windy pocket of the seaside.  The old house once served as the town’s chapel, and there are still remnants of its earlier purpose to be found, including a cemetery in the back yard.

From under a heated blanket, I pass time by counting the gravestones outside my bedroom window.  How long have they been gone?  Who was their one true love?  More importantly, where are the people who left those flowers?  I didn’t see anyone come by.

Given my hankering for recreational divination, you can imagine my excitement when I discovered that I was only four miles north of Bude, where the artist Pamela Colman Smith is buried.  Smith is half of the team who created the world’s most famous and widely referenced tarot card deck (the Waite-Smith tarot) in the early 1900’s.

In Smith’s honour, I pulled a few cards from my travel-sized tarot deck while I was in Cornwall.  My own reading had a very clear and unmistakable message: “NOT YET”.

Southwark

I had a number of opportunities to practice patience on this journey.  One day, my hosts and I packed a picnic basket and walked to Millook beach and this was, to be sure, the longest walk I have ever taken in my life.  Thankfully, I had ample warning of the magnitude of this trek so I was mentally prepared for the five-hour hike.

We crossed endless fields, picking blackberries and passing no one along the way, except for a crusty, old man who bristled past us quickly with his walking stick.  We continued on for miles, chasing the distant glint of blue on the horizon as my companions and I became tiny specks in the rolling countryside.

At the halfway point, we stopped and devoured an entire lemon drizzle cheesecake, stuffing every morsel of yellow and white cream into our mouths with our hands.  Clearly we were now at one with nature; connecting to our wild, animal roots.

We crossed a small wooden bridge, and followed a trickling stream along a shady path that led us to the water’s edge.  When we finally arrived, a heavy wind bullied us back from the massive waves that were thrashing against the rocky shoreline.  We took shelter near a lone, dilapidated boat, shouting inaudible words at each other as our voices disappeared into the salty, howling air.  We huddled there for a few minutes before turning around and heading back towards home.

On another day, we ventured into Padstow, a sleepy fishing village on Cornwall’s northern coast.  The cobbled streets were lined with gourmet ice cream, tea, and confectionary shops intermingling with an array of touristy wares and handmade crafts.  After indulging in some white chocolate Malteser ice cream and trading in our pence for some tiny trinkets, we escaped the sudden downpour by ducking into a cavernous pub where we passed the rest of the evening doodling and philosophizing over plates of fish and chips.

I was hurtled out of this slow, easy world via speeding train into the frenetic activity bubbling over London’s Paddington station.  It almost seems as if Big Ben’s ominous presence casts a spell over all of London, making the city restless and hungry for swift and steady progress.

Having lived in Montréal for most of my adult life, a city where leisure is highly revered, I guess I am used to being surrounded by people with a more laissez-faire attitude.  Unfortunately, this attitude can sometimes manifest itself in the form of unruly facial hair, cycling to pick up a baguette with a baby in your bike basket, or spending an entire Sunday sitting in the park listening to an amateur hand-drumming circle.

Granted, I did arrive in the wake of the recent UK riots, and a recession, but there does seem to be a heaviness that hangs over the heads of many Londoners that is impossible for someone from my background not to notice.  I have not yet decided if my overt positivity stems from my cultural upbringing, or if it is simply part of my genetic makeup.  Optimism is definitely a very Blake trait.  I used the word Blakeness recently as an adjective to describe the unstoppable perseverance and twinkle that exists in all of the members of my family clan.

I’m not judging English stoicism harshly here.  Brits have a slightly less emotional and more realistic approach to life that in some ways I really admire.  We could even say that Londoners are highly evolved because they are capable of living with an intense focus on the demands of the present moment (or millisecond).  I just find myself wondering if anyone ever really stops.  Do they ever make time to lie in the grass and do nothing but dream?  If they do, how long will they allow themselves to lie there before they are overcome with the fear of missing something important or being left behind?

I did not lie around in the grass in London, or buy any heart-shaped rocks (but that was just because my suitcase was full).  I didn’t want to feel or look like a tourist so I took a cue from the locals and busied myself immediately upon my arrival.

First I checked into the stunning 3000 square foot loft near London Bridge where I had the amazingly good fortune of staying.  The crown jewel of this loft is its rooftop hot tub where you can soak up spectacular views of three of London’s architectural highlights: The London Shard, Tower Bridge, and The Gherkin.

I took a short walk along the Thames in and around Southwark, exploring the delicacies at Borough Market, and then made my way to the Urban Physic Garden.

The Physic Garden

The truth is, I went to see this living art installation partially by accident because I thought it was called the psychic gardenAfter visiting, I still think that would have been a much more appropriate name for it.

When I arrived at the garden, I entered tentatively, mainly because it was very weird, and also because I felt like I was trespassing on some sort of hippie cult’s private gathering place. To my right, some longhaired folk were playing ping-pong amidst a slapdash collection of potted herbs and plants.  To the left, people were gathered around a picnic table drinking herbal tea next to a rusty, deserted ambulance (“The Rambulance” aka “Rambling Restaurant”).

Collections of wild, renegade plants were grouped together into “wards” based on their medicinal properties and the specific types of ailments they could cure.  I spent some time studying the plants in the cardiology ward, and then left rather abruptly after passing a sinister looking row of poisonous plants, which I thought emitted a spooky, evil vibe.  They were profoundly creepy and you’ll have to take my word on that because the garden was open for a very limited time only.

I finished my walkabout with dinner at Village East, a trendy restaurant in Bermondsey.  While it may be the perfect place to host a 25th birthday party for hipsters, it is not perhaps the most appropriate place to sit alone reading Michel de Montaigne’s essays on solitude.  I decided to finish my reading elsewhere…back at the loft in the rooftop jacuzzi.

It always amazes me how easily I can slip into a joyous state of calm anywhere in the world, even in the most unlikely scenarios: all I need is a glass of wine and a hot tub.  Throw in some of The Sanctuary’s sandalwood vanilla body butter and I am really on my way to heaven.

It was four years ago that I first discovered this delightful cream, and I will never forget the bliss that overcame me in that Boots drugstore when I took off the cap and inhaled its spicy, sultry scent.  To this day, I am literally overcome with happiness and excitement each time I apply it (and don’t even get me started on the Sanctuary’s hot sugar scrub).

Sanctuary’s products have earned a coveted place on my “favourite things I can only find in the UK” list, and are in very good company alongside: Waitrose’s Rhubarb Champagne Yogurt, Kettle brand’s Sea Salt & Balsamic Vinegar Crisps, and Boots’ Moisturizing Nail Polish Remover Pads.  The UK has some superior commercial goods, and they know how to sell them to you; this cannot be denied.

I wanted to go straight to the source of my greatest pleasure and see where the body butter magic happens, so I booked myself an appointment at The Sanctuary spa in Covent Garden.  The staff at Sanctuary (a women’s only spa) did have a few good tricks up the flowing sleeves of their blue kimono tops.  First of all, the massage therapist asked me if I wanted to wear any “paper knickers” during my massage, or if I’d prefer to take off my “swimming costume”.  Um, sorry, does that mean get dressed, or undressed, or are we getting ready to do a puppet show with dolls made out of paper?

This masseuse had some intensely good moves; maybe that’s why she thought she could get away with a “less is more” approach.  I am a huge advocate of efficiency and I like to apply it with force in pretty much all areas of my life, but not when I’m having a relaxation massage.

I swear, the oil on my back was just starting to warm up under her hands when she suddenly turned off the pan-flute solo midway through and said “all done”.  Not yet, I thought.  NOT YET.   I’ve never even seen a twenty-minute massage on a spa menu before.  Is that even enough time to lie down?

Another thing about this spa: there are no cold dunk pools.  Yes, there were saunas, steam rooms, hot tubs, and two full-sized swimming pools on the premises (one body temperature, and the other cooler, for exercising), but what I really yearned for was a freezing cold, ice water pool.  After spending time in a sauna or steam room, a cold shower just doesn’t cut it.  Remember, Canadians are like polar bears.

Don’t get me wrong, the Sanctuary is a veritable oasis of peaceful calm spread over five floors, and the spa definitely earns its name.  Virtually no sound penetrates the soaring white archways, save for the gentle swish of vines swaying from the sky-high ceilings, or the faint ripple of majestic, white fish gliding across a pool past euphoric women swathed in towels and robes.

I find this kind of quiet much more comforting somehow than being deep in the countryside.  I think it’s because I know that noise does exist just outside the walls and that I am actively choosing to escape from it.  I am lavishly content to escape on this particular Monday afternoon, sipping tea amongst a handful of serene, silent strangers.

I finish the day with a visit to the Sanctuary’s signature “Sleep Retreat Beds”, where I am told that in just thirty minutes, I will experience a total body revitalization similar to getting a good night’s sleep.  The sleep retreat beds vibrate the skin using low frequency sound waves that resonate in harmony with the body’s cells, coaxing the body into total relaxation.

Five women are lying in a row, silent, and as the beds start to hum, a woman’s soothing voice emerges from the darkness to guide us.  She asks us to leave our cares behind as we enter a garden, and to watch the clouds pass by overhead.  She describes the garden, the sound of a fountain, and the feeling of the soft, green grass under foot.  Someone in the room begins snoring, and my meditation is disrupted for a brief moment while I marvel at how anyone could fall asleep so quickly.  Out of curiosity, I press a few buttons on the bed’s remote control to see what will happen, but it just keeps whirring at a steady, languid pace, lightly rocking my legs side to side.

I close my eyes and go back into the garden.  I can feel the sunshine on my face, and I am just starting to make out shapes in the clouds, when I hear our guide say, “Now, prepare to leave the garden”.  Am I the only one laughing, because surely this lady has to be kidding, right?  She may as well have said, “Come to the garden and relax deeply, you have five minutes to smell the flowers.”  Couldn’t I stay a little longer?  I think I was just about to get somewhere good.

Before I know it, I find myself folding time as I traverse the ocean, hours and days turning back and the dark sky changing to light.  Part of me is neither here nor there, and I feel as though I exist in a temporal void between then and now.  As I crawl into bed the blurry edges of my jet lag close around me and I wonder how it can feel both like I have been gone too long and like I left too soon.

Advertisements

Croatia: In Search Of The Sea Organ

The Adriatic Sea

There are times in life when everything feels like hard work.  I had been having one of those years.

By standard measures, I was successful, but my career had grown into a monstrous commitment that was asking more time and energy of me than my friends and family combined.  I may have been winning the rat race, but what I really wanted was to get off the hamster wheel.

I was sitting in the airport when I found my new mantra published in the pages of The Four Hour Work Week by Timothy Ferriss: there’s more to life than work, and if you’re smart, it shouldn’t take you eight hours a day to get the important stuff done.

I knew this.  I idolize my grandmothers for having never once used a computer, and never once sending an email.  I’m lucky enough to still have one very precious piece of living proof that it is possible to function without the Internet, and she spends half of her time in the garden because she knows how to prioritize. 

I wanted to honour that family wisdom, and shut out the constant cyber-babble infiltrating every corner of my life via mobile device.  I wanted to rid myself of technology’s shackles, to tell time by the heat of the sun, wash away my sense of obligation, and to bury the memory of my eternally overstuffed inbox deep under the sand.

The Adriatic Sea, I decided, was just far enough away from my reality to accomplish all of these goals.  I made a plan to work my way up the Dalmatian coastline, starting at Croatia’s southernmost tip, Dubrovnik, and ending in the capital city, Zagreb.

I first became obsessed with the idea of visiting Croatia after reading an article about The Sea Organ, a large musical instrument on the coast of Zadar that is played by the wind and waves.  The organ, built in 2005 by architect Nikola Bašić, transformed what was once a gloomy stone barricade into a popular gathering place and a living work of art.

Much of Croatia’s beauty exists behind walls and fortresses that were built in response to the relentless attacks on the country’s schools, hospitals and churches during the Second World War.  In addition to the cities, the residents themselves seemed highly guarded to me; smiles and trust were not easy to earn.

I received an inhospitable welcome upon check-in at Hotel Splendid in Dubrovnik where I was greeted by three surly hotel attendants arguing over an envelope full of Kuna.  When I was finally acknowledged, it was by the angry, sour-faced woman who demanded my passport and then disappeared into a small doorway behind the counter.  After a few minutes, I asked one of the men she had been yelling at if I could have my passport back to which he simply replied, “Ne.”  I later discovered that it is typical for hotels in Croatia to keep your passport as collateral until you pay your bill.

One of the men handed me what looked like a small metal bat and pointed down a yellowish hall. Why was the keychain on my room key so ridiculously heavy?  Did they think I was going to lose it?  Steal it?

There was nothing to steal in the room but a crusty wool blanket or a dilapidated lampshade covered in dead flies.  The bed was almost too small for one person, but after a quick inspection of the rest of the hotel and its deserted basement bar, I decided that sleeping was my best option.

Lesson one: don’t arrive at night.  I felt vulnerable leaving the airport with my luggage and getting into a cab with a driver who didn’t speak any English.  I became increasingly uncomfortable during the long, winding journey up the mountainside.  It was impossible to gauge our whereabouts when all I could see out the window was an eerie, endless, black abyss.  It wasn’t until the next morning that I discovered that the emptiness had actually been the sea, hiding under the cover of night.

I awoke to its navy blue splendor, stretching out beyond the field of yellow and white striped sun umbrellas perched behind the hotel.  Across the water, white stone houses with terracotta roofs dotted the mountainside, resting peacefully in the grass like lazy sheep.  There were no skyscrapers, no unsightly billboards or signs, just a few gentle dabs of civilization, seamlessly intertwined with nature.  The view was so beautiful that I went straight out into the early morning air, climbed over the rocky shore, and dove into the water to float under the perfect skyline.

I spent the rest of the day exploring Dubrovnik’s Old Town, starting with a chocolate milk shake at Dubravka 1836.  Run by the same owners as the famous Nautika restaurant (renowned for being the most romantic restaurant in the world) and sitting just across the public square, 1836 boasts the same stunning views of Fort Bokar, a fairy tale castle floating in the middle of an endless sheet of sparkling sea.  Since 1836, the café has been a popular place for literary types to go to write, read the newspaper, and drink coffee, or on Sundays, for families to eat ice cream.

Weekends are viewed as a sacred time for family, and generally speaking, Croatians don’t allow work to interfere with spending time with loved ones. Going out for ice cream (or “sladoled”) on weekends has been a longstanding tradition in Croatia, and there is a dazzling array of delectable flavours and colours to choose from.

You can get a bird’s eye view of the countless vendors and their tasty wares from The Old City Walls.  To walk the city’s entire perimeter costs about $20 and takes about two hours (depending how quickly you can climb the hundreds of stairs.)

The view is definitely worth the hike.  Watching the moving diorama around Onofrio Fountain, I felt as though I was looking right at the heart of Dubrovnik, its beauty safely nestled inside the city walls like a precious photo inside a locket.

Big Onofrio Fountain

George Bernard Shaw once called Dubrovnik “paradise on earth” and indeed, the city is so beautiful it’s hard to imagine ever wanting to leave.  Maybe this is why no one felt it was necessary to offer rail service in or out of the city.

Lesson two: Don’t bother buying a rail pass. Trains in Croatia are unreliable, and rail travel seems to be used only by those tourists who don’t know any better. Bus is by far the quickest and least expensive way to get around.

Taxis are hard to come by, and inconsistently priced (though reliably expensive), and some drivers will take you the long way if you don’t know the route yourself.  I was surprised to find that many drivers did not speak English but understood French, which is often taught as a second language in Croatian schools.

It was impossible to flag down a cab in any language at the Zadar bus station.  After the eight-hour bus ride from Dubrovnik to Zadar via Split, I was beyond eager to get to my hotel, but the only cab that passed by refused to take me to Borik where my hotel was located because it was “too far away.” It turned out I had one more bus ride to go before I would get to my spa paradise.  Luckily it was worth the wait.

When I finally arrived at Hotel Adriana’s breezy yellow entrance, I was greeted with a friendly “Bog” (hi) and a glass of champagne.  I had booked an online special called the “Zadar Kulturist” which included: a transfer into Zadar’s Old Town and access to its museums, three nights in a junior suite, a private breakfast on my spacious balcony overlooking the sea, gourmet five course dinners, unlimited access to Adriana’s private garden pool and world-class Aquapura water spa, and a 60 minute massage followed by a manicure or pedicure.  This was every bit as magnificent as it sounds and an amazing value at less than $500.

Encouraging a ‘more play, less work’ mentality, Internet access came at a premium ($10 an hour or $30 a day), but Adriana had a public computer in the lobby for checking emails for those who couldn’t resist.  The only other things that were not included in the package were lunch and beverages, but that problem was easy to solve with a Konzum grocery store located one block from the hotel.  I stocked the mini fridge in my room with caviar, champagne, Heineken, salami, bread, fruit, and cheese for less than 50 Kuna (approximately $8) and had decadent picnic lunches on the beach every day.

From start to finish, Adriana was the perfect getaway, and I definitely would have stayed longer had they not been fully booked (a common problem during the peak season in Zadar.)   I decided to try their sister property “Club Funimation” which was part of the same Falkensteiner resort complex.

The name should have tipped me off that “fun” was the name of the game here, as opposed to say, relaxing or sleeping.  Funimation was designed for families, and was more like a theme park than a hotel, with kids on water slides and blaring arcade games in the lobby.  It was difficult to believe that I paid more for Funimation’s boring buffet and fizzy, watered down wine from a tap than I had for fresh caught fish, organic vegetables, and Adriana’s blissfully peaceful atmosphere.

Thankfully, the Aquapura spa (which was shared by both properties) provided a lovely escape from the noise.  The spa had a number of sunny, sleep-inducing relaxation areas with couches and waterbeds cocooned behind silky curtains, as well as a Kneipp treading pool, cold plunge pool, aromatic Turkish steam bath, Finnish sauna, and a heated outdoor whirlpool.  The spa also featured a tea lounge where I was ecstatic to discover some “real” herbal tea.  In Croatian, “tea” is a term loosely used to refer to any drink made of boiled water with plant extracts in it.   I’m not sure which extracts exactly are used in their version of black tea (čaj), but it seriously lacks punch.

After a day of much needed soaking, steaming and pampering, my travel weary body was satiated.  I had gone three whole days without checking my email – a personal record – and I was ready to go out in search of the Sea Organ.

From the moment I set foot through its gates, Zadar’s Old Town revealed a seemingly endless stream of delights to me. As I grew closer to the water, my internal compass hummed, and every step was like peeling back the cardboard doors on a Christmas advent calendar.  At every turn, gifts appeared: bedazzled leather slippers ($3 and just my size), a gaggle of children walking their dogs, The Garden’s pillow-covered terrace overlooking the harbour.  It was as though the cobblestone pathways were strewn with small surprises designed specifically to bring me joy.

In my version of the world, joy, connection, and meaning exist in unlikely hiding places and my job in life is to find these things.  So far, whenever I have succeeded in this task, it has been as a result of following my gut instincts. Sometimes I find what I’m looking for, and sometimes I don’t, but I suppose that is all part of the journey.

As I walked along the boardwalk towards the Sea Organ, I began to hear what sounded like the far away yawns of a waking whale.  The glistening blue to my left was beckoning me to jump in, but I continued to walk, mesmerized, towards the source of the soothing, ambient drones like a child under the spell of the Pied Piper’s flute.

I joined the crowd of local kids gathering on the sea organ’s massive white steps, under which hides the complex maze of underwater pipes responsible for the organ’s strange, arrhythmic outpouring of sounds.

The kids began daring each other to jump, and soon there were cannonballs, and tiny, tanned bodies soaring through the air, disappearing into dark blue splashes below.  Their courage inspired me.

I descended onto the bottom step, water lapping at my toes and my skin shivering with anticipation as my feet touched the mossy, slippery surface.  I took a breath and dove into the cold, salty water.  The mountains and people disappeared from view until all that was left was me, pure me, and the surge of frigid, muffled bubbles that enveloped my body, shaking my senses out of their slumber.

When I emerged, a large boat was passing.  In its wake, waves rose and crashed against the sea wall, causing the organ to emit an erratic burst of moans and howls.   The children screamed with glee as they bobbed up and down, all of us scrambling against the powerful current towards the shore.

I climbed up onto the Sea Organ’s steps, finding that most of them were now empty and wet, including the one where I had left my clothes, purse, and towel.  Before I even had time to panic, a man began waving at me, my belongings clutched tightly in his hand.  I approached him, dripping and smiling. “Hvala” I said.  Thank you.

The Sun Salute

I waited for sunset, when the sea organ is reputedly at its loudest, and when crowds gather nightly to witness the Sun Salute’s technicolour light show.  Built by the same architect as the Sea Organ (and just a few feet away), the Sun Salute is a large, round solar panel that collects energy from the sun throughout the day and emits beams of coloured light at night.

True to its promise, the Sun Salute crackled to life as the sun melted into the water, and colours began dancing across the ground in lines of light, pulsing in time with the wave’s rhythm.  While others jumped and clapped with excitement, I stood completely still, in awe of nature. Not since I was a small child have I experienced so much wonder in one day.

Was it the reminder of my carefree youth that prompted my misguided decision to visit a roadside carnival on my last night in Zadar?

When I got to the front of the line for the bumper cars, the attendant pointed to the kids in front of me and asked me which one was mine.  “None of them,” I said, as I stepped past the rope and wedged my legs behind the steering wheel of the tiny car.  I whizzed around the rink, and had only enjoyed one or two neck-rattling mini-collisions before the buzzer sounded.

I had some tokens left so I tried another ride.  It wasn’t long before the memories came flooding back of my dad consoling me on a ferris wheel: “Just look at the horizon,” he had said.  Here I was more than twenty years later, zipping through the air in Zadar, repeating those words to myself over and over as my sweaty, white hands clasped the miniscule metal bar that was somehow defying gravity and holding me in place.  How could I forget?  I have always hated rides.

Live and learn, as they say.  I wish I had finished off my trip in Istria eating gourmet truffles, olives and cheese, but I had already booked my return flight home from Zagreb, hoping that the country’s capital city would have some good scenery to offer.

Unfortunately, if Zadar is the Montréal of Croatia, Zagreb is the Ottawa, and it felt quite stuffy in comparison.  It didn’t help that I went from lying on the beach sun tanning in Zadar one day to walking around getting lost in the rain in Zagreb the next.

Whereas Zadar opened up a world of splendour, Zagreb seemed to shut me out, and I found that many of the shops and cafes I wanted to visit were closed. I wandered around in circles trying to find Škola (a hip bar I had seen listed in the 2009 Croatia Lonely Planet guide) but finally discovered (thanks to some locals) that it was no longer there.

I had better luck with Booksa, a small café/library run by three women writers that also doubles as the home of the Zagreb Literary Association.  As it turned out, the eccentric meeting place for local creative folk also happened to have some earl grey tea!

Sufficiently warmed by a tasty cup, I ventured back into the rain to seek out the famous Dolac market.  Unfortunately, by the time I arrived (at 1:30 PM) it was already closing for the day, so I had to settle instead for watching the vendors pack up their carts from the terrace of Kerempuh restaurant.  A local institution, Kerempuh uses the market’s fresh ingredients to make classic Croatian dishes, and was named after a character made famous by Zagreb’s controversial writer Miroslav Krleža.

My waiter did not seem to agree with me that the patio umbrella would provide sufficient protection from the drizzle, and he tried on multiple occasions to urge me inside.  We battled it out, me insisting on sitting where I could watch the dismantling of racks full of painted souvenirs and produce, and him snarling back at me, “why outside?!”

He remained agitated throughout my meal, scurrying to the table and wiping it furiously each time a raindrop made its way onto my calamari or štrukli (dumplings with a brown, gritty sauce.)

Knowing that I was leaving for Canada the following morning, I decided to give him a handful of left over Kuna (about $10 worth.)  It was a generous tip, epecially given the semi-hostile service, but I got the distinct sense that this guy could use a break.  When I handed him the bills and said “keep the change,” his face softened.  First there was astonishment, and then appreciation, followed by a huge, surprising smile.

“Doviđenja,” I said.  See you later.

His parting look was one of pure joy; a big reward, I thought, in exchange for such a small gift.  All I hoped for in return was to remember the feeling of the Adriatic against my skin, to hold on to its deep blue calm, even long after I had returned to my desk.

Diamonds are a girl’s BFF: Microdermabrasion at Clinique Modica

For those who are looking for a serious facelift without the cosmetic surgery, microdermabrasion may be an interesting option to consider. Due to the profound restorative effect that the procedure can have on aging or damaged skin, dermabrasion has been steadily gaining momentum since the mid-90s as a safe and effective facial treatment. Particularly effective at abolishing fine lines and acne scars, it was listed as one of the top five treatments for women and men in 2010 by the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery.

Diamond dermabrasion is a form of exfoliation that uses a mechanical wand to remove and vacuum dead skin cells from the face, cleaning out clogged pores, and increasing circulation to reveal a more youthful complexion. While there are different types of wand tips available (crystal, diamond, and nylon/bristle) it’s no surprise that diamond wands are often seen as the most effective.  After all, who wants the cheap stuff when it comes to your face?

Diamond dermabrasion machines come with an assortment of tips of varying sizes, allowing the treatment to be customized to the patient’s individual skin condition. The more traditional crystal tips, while still commonly used, have been shown over time to pose potential health hazards, with shards occasionally remaining in the pores or being inhaled. Side effects are rare, although people with sensitive skin may experience some redness and or soreness for an hour or two after the session.

Treatments should be painless, and with a good skin care professional they should even be relaxing. It is important to go to a reputable spa or clinic to ensure that top quality equipment is being used.

Clinique Modica in Westmount offers a luxurious diamond dermabrasion and Champagne facial package, which takes about 90 minutes and treats the face, neck and chest areas. After exfoliation, the skin receives an application of high quality oxygen cream that penetrates deep into the skin’s cells and works to revitalize the dermis and cleanse the pores.

If you are looking for a quick fix and instant results, this is not it. 3-6 treatments are normally required to fully remove scars and to achieve optimum “healthy glow” results. Even so, for many this process beats surgeries or chemical peels hands down in terms of cost and safety.  If you think of all of the years of stress, sun tanning, dirt, and the makeup you’ve put your skin through, a couple of hours seems like a small price to pay for radiant skin.

For more information visit www.modica.ca

Price: $215 (Diamond Dermabrasion & Champagne Facial)

Holiday Gift Ideas #3: Ovarium, Flotation Bath

For the workaholic on your holiday shopping list, why not invite them to take a load off, literally?  All they need to do is slip into one of Ovarium’s personal flotation baths and their body will instantly become weightless (thanks to the help of 2000 cups epsom salts.)   These soothing baths allow the body to completely relax and float free without the trip to outer space.

Being in a weightless environment frees up 90% of the central nervous system, allowing it to function at optimum levels.  The proven results: harmonious communication between the two hemispheres of the brain, improved sleep patterns, balancing of emotions and increased concentration and creativity.

Ovarium offers a half day package called “The Essential” which includes a one hour flotation bath followed by a one hour massage.  After floating isolated in a silent, womb-like tub for sixty minutes, the body achieves a heightened sense of perception, making the massage feel all the more enjoyable.

Ovarium offers another interesting treatment called Pulsar which will supposedly trick even the chronically busy mind into a state of submissive relaxation, similar to the alpha or “dreaming” state.  In this state of mind, one is able to solve complex problems and visualize clearly, while adrenaline levels are reduced and positive endorphins are increased.  A session is likened to meditation, with all of the benefits and freshness of mind, but none of the effort.

For more information visit www.ovarium.com

Price: $122 (Essential)

 

Top 5 Ways To Cure The Winter Blahs

With limited sunlight and sub-zero temperatures, the long months of winter can be taxing on the body and mind.  Try these all-natural remedies to lift your spirits and make the winter season a little warmer.

1. Get cooking.  

Make a big pot of healthy soup and invite some friends to come over for a bowl.  In winter, we tend to eat heavy comfort foods that leave us feeling sluggish. Making a lighter meal with plenty of vegetables will boost energy and help the immune system fight off those seasonal colds.  There’s no shortage of soup recipes to inspire you.

If you know others who enjoy baking, set up a cookie exchange group.  Each person makes a large batch of their favourite cookie dough and gives one roll to every member of the group. Open the freezer and voilà: a variety of fresh homemade cookies ready to pop in the oven any time.  Try festive recipes like cranberry pistachio biscotti or chai biscuits and enjoy with a cup of mulled apple cider or chili and spice hot chocolate.

2. Light up your life.

Ever have a hard time getting out of bed in the winter?  This problem is often caused by a lack of light. Our bodies’ natural response to darkness is to slow down, so one simple way to wake yourself up is to turn on bright lights in the morning.  For those who need a serious jumpstart to the day, you can even simulate dawn using full spectrum light bulbs.

In the evening, light up the room with scented candles, and warm up in a bubble bath with spicy essential oils like cinnamon, ylang ylang, vanilla and sandalwood.  If you have a fireplace, this is a great way to save on heating costs and create a cozy atmosphere.  No fireplace?  Try the next best thing, a free screensaver of a crackling fire.

 

3. Go outside and play.

Scraping ice from the windshield, shoveling, and driving in slow road conditions…it’s easy to let the mountains of snow get you down. Skip the car or bus, bundle up, and go out on foot.  Getting some fresh air and exercise will help invigorate you and increase circulation.  Go for a brisk walk, snowshoe, go skiing, or try figure skating in the beautiful Old Port.

For those who enjoy the spa experience, going to a Scandinavian spa is one of the boldest and most satisfying ways to face the winter head on.  Dare your friends to dunk in an icy river at Polar Bear Club.

4. Entertain yourself.

Make some popcorn, curl up on the couch with your partner, your pet, or a fluffy blanket and watch an old classic or a comedy film.  Studies have shown that people who read are generally happier than people who watch TV, so skip the reality shows and pick up a good book.  Music can provide you with an instant pick-me-up – try putting on snappy jazz, or something that gets you moving like hip hop, or salsa.

Here are a few ideas to help you combat boredom and cabin fever:  call an old friend and ask them how they’re doing, work on a new skill like knitting, or learning a language, trim and water the house plants, give yourself a manicure, clean out a drawer, research a topic that interests you, plan your next vacation.  The possibilities are endless.  Winter weekends are perfect for hibernating and starting on those new hobbies or finishing projects that you’ve been putting off.

5. Give.

The holiday season is a great time to reflect on the year, and make a list of the things you are grateful for.  Taking a few minutes to appreciate the positive things in your life will significantly improve your mood.  Take an emotional inventory and make a list of the important things you would like to do in the new year.

The holidays are also a perfect time of year to give to those less fortunate.  Donate old mittens and sweaters, help organize a food drive, volunteer your time for a cause you care about.  Even the smallest acts of kindness can warm many hearts so take the time to write a thank you note, or shovel the neighbour’s walk.  All you have to do is hang a bird feeder outside your window and you’ll soon be reminded how giving brings even more beauty back into your life.

Holiday Gift Ideas #2: Spa Ginza, Chocolate Body Wrap

Chocolate lovers can indulge in the good stuff without counting any calories this Christmas.  Spa Ginza offers a luxurious Chocolate Therapy Wrap that is suitable for all skin types.  The sixty-minute treatment will boost the spirits of even the most stubborn, saggy cellulite.

The treatment begins with an exfoliating sea salt scrub and gentle massage, after which warm, dark chocolate is spread over the body and left on the skin for twenty minutes to work its magic while you drift into sweet dreams of candy land.

While chocolate was once thought of as a junk food and blamed for skin problems such as acne, beauty and health professionals worldwide have started acknowledging its positive attributes, and a wide range of chocolate skin products have started appearing on the market.

The caffeine found in chocolate works as a powerful anti-oxidant, fighting wrinkles and firming the skin.  The cocoa butter softens and moisturizes skin, leaving it supple and smooth, not to mention sweet smelling.  Imagine basking in the scent of chocolate brownies, truffles, and hot cocoa all the while tightening and toning your butt.  Who needs a treadmill when you’ve got chocolate?

Price: $95

Twenty-Four Hours In Taipei

Danshui Seaside At Sunset

Within hours of arriving in Taipei, I had shed my fifteen-pound laptop bag, my bulky Canadian sweater, and my fear of public nudity.  It was heavenly.

When you travel twenty-three hours to get somewhere and you only have twenty-four to explore, you want to make the most of it.  There was no time for standing in lines, so I skipped some of the more popular tourist attractions including the Taipei Fine Art Museum  (TFAM) and the city’s signature skyscraper, the “101“, and headed straight for the hot springs in Beitou.  I wanted to immerse myself in the deeper spirit of the city, to soak in 1000-year-old water that had been warmed by the heat of a 200,000-year-old volcano.

People have long recognized the therapeutic properties of natural hot springs, and Taiwan’s hundred plus sites are ranked amongst the best in the world, containing rare minerals that are said to provide a wide variety of health benefits.

With temperatures reaching as high as 200°F, some visitors find the water uncomfortably hot, but there is one place where you can enjoy nature (and naturalism) a little more comfortably.  Nestled behind a stone wall on an otherwise bustling mountainside, only the rising tendrils of mist give away its best kept secret: Villa 32. Located in the Zin (or “new”) Beitou area, this discreet and luxurious spa hotel boasts a mere four rooms for rent, and has cleverly filtered the area’s natural hot springs into eight temperature-controlled pools, each retaining its natural color and unique blend of healing minerals.

While the cost of a private room might scare the average spa-goer away, anyone can enjoy the public hot spring pools (which are divided into men and women’s areas) for $60 USD. The luxurious amenities alone are worth the price of admission.

After shedding the constraints of street clothing, I donned my white robe and sandals and curled up in the reading lounge to savour a cup of delectable TWG Grand Wedding tea.   I then began my first cycle through the eight hot spring pools: four indoor, four outdoor, Azure, Jade, and Crystal, named after their colours.  Some of the baths were hot, some warm, cold, bubbling, still; each had its own unique complexion and combination of calcium, sulfur, sodium and iron.  My skin was soon tingling from the sheer goodness seeping in, minerals from deep within the earth’s core fizzed around my ankles while stress escaped from every pore, and worries lifted from my mind like the steam rising up off my wet shoulders.

I indulged in a very thorough Chinese massage, and then completed another cycle through the hot springs, this time my body even more at ease and ready to receive the benefits of a soak.  When I finally melted into that last pool of milky turquoise water, I decided that paradise was definitely not lost.  In fact, from downtown Taipei, it only takes 45 minutes to get to there, and if you use the city’s excellent high speed train system (MRT) it will cost you $2.

I was pleasantly surprised by how easy and inexpensive it is to get around in the city: you can take a taxi all the way across town for $20.  Just make sure you have any addresses written down in Chinese because most cab drivers don’t speak English.  The staff at my hotel were happy to help with this, or you can also print the addresses from Chinese web sites.

English travelers will find the MRT very easy to navigate, and many of us could take a lesson from the “waiting lines” where people line up nicely to get on the train as opposed to the rushing and pushing that I’ve experienced just about everywhere else.  As an added bonus, many of the trains run both below and above ground so you can take in some sights along the way.

There is no shortage of things to see: massive green mountains and towering skyscrapers compete for height, palm trees sway over endless rows of tin roofs, and motorcycles whiz past under a flurry of eye-boggling billboards and flashing signs. The city has a mystical way of interweaving chaos with serene calm. But no matter how busy the city seems to be, people always take time out in the afternoon for a cup of tea.

As a great tea lover, I thought I honored my daily cup to a fairly rigorous extent, but my staple method of preparation (dipping a tea bag directly in a mug) is considered near sacrilege in Taipei.  The drinking of tea in Asia is an artful ritual, and there is a meticulous step-by-step process for both the preparation and serving of tea that is carried out with great care.

I began my education at Wisteria Tea House, a charming and homey spot where tea can either be served tatami style (sitting on the floor) or at a traditional table in the cozy interior or outside in the peaceful garden.  The historic tea shop (as seen in Ang Lee’s film Eat, Drink, Man, Woman) has an extensive tea menu, and each table is equipped with its own candlelit burner and a clear glass pot so you can watch the water boil.

Wisteria Tea House

I opted for Chrysanthemum tea, a blend of small purple and white flowers,  which I was told is “good for the eyesight.”  The tea had a dense flavour, not unlike chicken broth, and eating the floating buds (which I was instructed to do) took me quite a while.  The waitress and I were equally surprised, I think, when she looked at my empty cup and said, “you’re done already?”

After leaving Wisteria, I had the good fortune of stumbling upon a local tea merchant right around the corner, Dignitea Garden. The owner invited me to share several cups of Oolong tea with her in the back of the shop, and had personally picked the leaves only a couple of weeks earlier on her own farm.  She gave me a small packet of tea leaves from each harvest of the year (Winter, Spring, Summer, and Fall) so I could compare how the taste of each was subtly different, even though they had been grown in the same soil.  I realized quickly that I was now in the company of a real tea connoisseur.

I learned here that tea should never be poured directly from the teapot into the cups.  First, hot water should be poured into the cups to warm them up and then discarded.  Second, the tea should be poured into a second pot (without any tea leaves) before being served to into the cups to ensure that everyone’s brew tastes exactly the same.  Who knew?

I showed the woman a teapot I had bought earlier on my trip, which is precisely when I learned lesson number two: teapots should never be painted.  Tea purists only use raw pottery or earthenware pots (and only one pot per kind of tea), because the clay will gradually absorb the flavor of the tea.

I wonder how she would get along with the staff at the Wedgwood Tea Room, where they take tea equally seriously but serve it up in heavily decorated and frilly pots along with designer finger sandwiches.  These teapots are so dressed up that they are practically ready to go out with you for a night on the town in their cute tea cozy outfits.

This British-style high tea room sits pretty, and looking slightly out of its element, on the top floor of the massive SOGO shopping complex (connected to the Zhongxiao MRT station.)  I probably looked equally out of place sitting on the ornate cushions in a sea of baby blue and white, sipping Earl Grey and eating a square of crustless, smoked chicken sandwich off of a floral plate.  Maybe it was criminal to be enjoying so much decoration on my chinaware, but it was glorious.

SOGO was full of pleasant surprises, and no one who enjoys shopping should miss out on this nine-story spread of boutiques, including an obsessive compulsive’s dream store, Muji, which is full of organizational solutions for even the tiniest, neatest parts of your life.

For any shop-a-holic, there are equally exciting, and far more gritty treasures to be found at one of the city’s many night markets. I started off with one of the smaller ones: Tonghua Street.   Let’s just say it’s not a good place for vegetarians to go.

The market’s singularly meaty fares included liver and heart kebabs, lollipops made of congealed pig’s blood, and crunchy chicken feet (legs included.)  Looking closely at the leathery skin and nails, I couldn’t understand why anyone would want to eat a chicken’s foot, much less how they could digest one.  A local merchant explained to me that chicken’s feet are to be eaten on a rainy afternoon because “it takes a long time.”

Tonghua Street Market

In front of every market stall, there were metal pots bubbling over with bobbing bits of pig knuckles, and tiny, smoking grills covered in rubbery squid tentacles.  I was woozy from the sheer meatiness of the place, and the medley of fishy smells wafting through the air, but I would have been disappointed in myself had I not at least tried to indulge in some of the culinary excitement.

I swallowed my fear and bought some unidentified soup which was served to me in a small plastic bowl.  I don’t know what the white or grey meaty bits were – that may have been for the best – but it actually tasted pretty good.

I preferred the seaside market, in Danshui, where I found delicacies like cranberry frozen yogurt, fresh seafood, and plenty of fun souvenirs as well.  The vendors along the waterfront are lively, yelling the price of wares into megaphones while children play carnival games, trying to win teddy bears and burst water balloons, with noisy bells and whistles announcing their success.

There are some amazing traditional Chinese sweets on offer on Danshui’s Old Street, which I discovered only thanks to a local pointing to a hidden door in the wall.  That’s the thing about being a foreigner in Taipei: you can look things up, but you may not necessarily know how to pronounce 那裡乾酪.   You won’t find many of the best restaurants on a Google search, but I kind of like this problem because it renders the internet impractical and useless and forces you to go out and explore.

Even the most avid planner and itinerary-maker will likely come to the conclusion that the best thing to do in Taipei is walk around and see what you find.  Unless you have mastered the 47,000 plus characters in the Chinese alphabet before your trip, you may have no choice but to let your spirit guide you.