Exploring Montréal ~ Day 1

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My wife and I love to travel and, in fact, we’re fairly convinced it’s a become a necessary foundation for our careers in the arts. It helps get us out of our routines and see the world from  different perspectives by being exposed to different cultural attitudes, languages, and situations. I’m pretty sure I’m a better author because of all my travels. And I know I’m a better educator and person.

The last three years, Marcie and I have been lucky to double-dip Europe and Asia through a combination of work and personal trips. This year is the first time since 2013 we haven’t made it to Europe, so we decided to do the next best thing: Montréal and Québec City.

There’s just one hitch!  Just a week before we were to leave for our trip, Marcie ended up booking an important acting gig for a national American commercial—and when you are two self-employed people bobbing along in the uncertain waters of the arts industry, you don’t turn down those sorts of jobs. So, Marcie will join me later in the week and we’ll make our way to Québec City together. In the meantime, I’m left to my own devices in Montréal.

I’m not the sort of person to get in much trouble; however, I will say that I’ve become used to (read: lazy) other people sorting out my travel. For personal trips, Marcie is the master planner and organizer and if I’m going abroad for work, I invariably have all sorts of people to pick me up or arrange transport. So my first big challenge was to get myself from the Pierre-Elliott Trudeau airport and into the city. It turned out to be very easy, so after a night’s good rest in a room and bed far too big for one person, I set out to explore Old Montréal.

It turned out to be a rather mercurial day, both in terms of weather and activity. I found the early part of the morning to be loud and distracting. Turns out the 375th birthday of Montréal is coming up and so they are busy refurbishing Rue Saint Paul and many other areas of the old city. That means a lot of stuff is under scaffolding (even the gates to Chinatown) and there is a lot of drilling, grinding . . . well, you get the idea. Thankfully, this died down as my way further into the core and the construction sounds were replaced by the buzz of tourists.

I had pre-booked myself a tour of the Basilique Notre-Dame in the afternoon, so first, I just wandered the old cobblestone streets, without much aim, delighting in the many details. As usual, I found a few doors to photograph! (My friends and followers know that I am a collector of doors . . . especially old doors. Who knows where they might lead? They provide great inspiration for stories.)

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Eventually, I made my way to Notre-Dame and Place d’Armes, which is an old square where you can find a monument in memory of Paul de Chomedey. I confirmed my registration for the tour at the gates of Notre-Dame, then wandered around the outside to look at the architecture and explore the square in more detail.

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The pigeons in particular like the fountains beneath Monsieur de Chomedey’s feet. I kept waiting for one of them to get eaten by the face. Because, in my imagination, it’s just a lure . . .

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As for the tour itself, I’m glad I signed up for it. Our guide was very informative and it turned out that it was her first time leading one. (She only admitted this at the end, but you would have never guessed). Going on the tour permitted us to climb the steps and enter the upper level of the church, which afforded us a better view of the gallery.

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Of course, I love the details of a place, and found a few things to capture my eye throughout the church.

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Afterwards, I was pretty tuckered out (and still feeling a bit out of sorts from jet lag), so I had a quick nap back at the hotel before returning to the old city to enjoy some poutine and then go on a ghost tour.

I love going on ghost tours, especially in old cities. I’ve been to them in Prague, York, Philadelphia, and even in my home town of Vancouver. I find it’s a good way to get to know a part of a city and to learn about history from a practiced storyteller. The ghost tour in Old Montréal had us weaving through back alleys and while none of the stops were particularly specific to the stories, the stories themselves were quite good. My favourite story involved the beleaguered Marie-Josèphe Angelique, a Portuguese-born black slave who was tortured, tried, and convicted of setting fire to her owner’s home, which in turn burned much of the old city.This was in 1734 and—as our guide assured us—the ghost of Marie-Josèphe still haunts the streets.

Here’s a picture of our guide, by the way. I enjoyed her characterized approach to storytelling.

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Well, that’s all for Day 1. I’m not entirely sure what Day 2 holds . . . possibly St. Catherine’s Street and the Museum of Fine Arts.

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Playing tourist in my own town: Inspiration in Vancouver

I love to travel and discover inspiration in different corners of the world, but this week I had the opportunity to play tourist in my own town and rediscover some favorite spots.

The impetus for the day’s exploration came with the arrival of a friend’s daughter, Lucy, from Ottawa. I got to know Mark and his family because of their love for my Kendra Kandlestar series. Lucy was perhaps the biggest fan in the family and I had an opportunity to meet her in person several years ago when I presented at the MASC conference in Ottawa. Now Lucy is all grown up (though, a bit surprising to me, she still wanted to talk a lot about Kendra Kandlestar)! When Mark asked me if I was up for spending the day with her and showing her some of the city, I readily agreed; it was the least I could do for this wonderful family who has been such a supporter of my career.

Lucy and I started our day by a visit to Macleod’s bookstore, which is located at Pender and Richards in downtown Vancouver. I’ve mentored many creative writing students over the years, and this is a place I like to take them for inspiration. The store is stuffed and stacked with books. There is an order to all this chaos, I imagine, but one of my favorite aspects of the store is that it seems such a randomly arranged library of the old and even older. It’s hard to escape this bookstore without some treasure.

Myself, I nearly ended up buying an early edition of  The Road to Oz (I coveted it the moment I saw it), but I decided I would come back for it later . . . we had a whole day ahead of us and I did not want to pack it around.

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The next stop was Salmagundi West on Cordova Street. This is also a favorite stopping point for me on the Vancouver “Let’s-find-inspiration” tour. Let’s just say that the sign says it all . . .

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My favorite part of the store is the basement. They have this old cabinet from the Orient that holds all manner of bizarre items.

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If you’re the least bit obsessive-compulsive, then you’re going to have to go through every drawer and discover things like . . .

Glow in the dark cats . . .

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. . . culturally insensitive dolls from a bygone era . . .

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. . . plastic eyeballs and New Kids on the Block bubble gum cards . . .

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. . . and plastic 45 rpm adapters.

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The store also sells a lot of items designed by local artisans. I ended up buying this wooden potion “spoon wand.” It looks just like something that would be used by a character that’s currently coming to life in a book I’m writing.

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After escaping Salmagundi, we continued on into historic Gastown to look at the sights. I think, by law, if you are a tourist visiting Vancouver, you have to see the steam clock:

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After the steam clock, we continued down old cobblestone streets, such as Blood Alley (once upon a time, this is where you went to buy fresh cuts of meat) and Gaoler’s Mews, which was the location of Vancouver’s first jail. Apparently, public hangings were held there during the last quarter of the 19th century.

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It’s all very friendly and inviting these days, full of trendy restaurants and, on this day at least, sunlight. I also showed Lucy the statue of Gassy Jack, the “father of Gastown.” Captain John “Gassy Jack” Deighton was a famous saloonkeeper in the area.

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Next, we left Gastown and headed into Chinatown for lunch at the Phnom Penh Restaurant on East Georgia Street. I had never been to the restaurant, so I got us a little turned around at first. That gave us a chance to look at some other interesting sites in the area, such as Shanghai Alley, which was the site of the 1907 anti-Asian riot.

The Phnom Penh restaurant had a line up out the door, but Lucy and I took that as a good sign, so we decided to wait in line. The restaurant serves Vietnamese and Cambodian food. I had heard good things about the chicken wings so I went straight for those—I was not disappointed.

After our tasty victuals, we headed to the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen classical Chinese garden. Lucy loved the tranquility of the place and the beautiful design. We were both particularly entranced by the heron that took up roost on one of the rooflines and stood vigil during our entire visit.

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Our day ended with a visit to the Storm Crow tavern, back in my own hood, rejoining Marcie and Lucy’s dad to enjoy some Romulan ale and other treats. We got my favorite seat, right under the foreign-edition Empire Strikes Back poster.

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Now, back to work! I’m off to tour libraries in Squamish and Whistler . . .

Steampunking books for the Summer Reading Club

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I just wrapped up a busy summer of book-building workshops at local libraries, which was all a part of my role as official illustrator for the BC Library Association’s summer reading club.

My illustrations for the program featured a steampunk book, which I call a “portal passport.”sensa book a trip blk

As soon as I drew the book, I knew I would end up building a version of it, which I did back in the spring. It turned out pretty well, with a spinning dial, a rotating bulb, and a button that can be pushed:

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When local libraries started contacting me and asking if I would come in to do workshops, I decided I wanted to roll up my sleeves and do some prop building workshops. I knew this would be an ambitious project, because it’s one thing to putter away at a prop for a couple of weeks—it’s quite another to help twenty kids build one in the space of an hour!

So, I designed a less-intensive model as a test:

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After this prototype, I decided the project would be achievable, and the libraries agreed—as long as I could keep the costs within their limited budgets.

So, it was just a matter of collecting supplies. As it turned out, I could only get a limited quantity of the books I had used for both of my prototypes. So I had to source another style of book. I eventually ended up with ones that were a little more “glitzy,” but I think the kids liked them better this way.

I spent many weeks collecting gears, jewels, and “greebles”—household objects such as caps and soda pop lids, which I then spray-painted black. I also purchased many of the pieces from a  great store on Main Street in Vancouver called Urban Source, which sells reclaimed and recycled household objects. You can fill up a paper bag of goodies for under ten bucks!

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I thought I was well prepared for this endeavor. I had all my supplies partitioned out into individual plastic containers. I had white glue, hot glue, pins, tacks, brads, beads, wires, gears, and gems. I had a plan: maximum twenty-five students, minimum age 8 years old, and no one gets to use hot glue or pins except for me.

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Then, during the first event, 30 kids showed up, and many of them six years old. I’m terrible at being a bad guy, so I let everyone participate. As it turned out, I ended up running an hour over time.

I re-jigged my plan slightly, and then made sure to get help. Thankfully, because it’s summer time, my goddaughter Charlotte and some of my long-term creative writing kids are all on break from school, so they agreed to help me with the construction process. Between them and my wife, Marcie, I did most of my events with a helper and we got the constructing process down to a fine art!

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One of the challenging things about such a project is keeping all the kids occupied. Let’s face it, kids aren’t exactly known for patience, especially when they are anxious to have all the goodies on their books pinned and hot-glued. I had the kids do some drawing if they were waiting and feeling impatient. There are many animal characters I illustrated for the summer reading club, so I had the kids design an additional animal hero—and a villain to menace them along the way! This kept most of the kids occupied.

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Marcie became known as “glue girl” to the kids, and was even immortalized in one little girl’s drawing!

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Well, this workshop turned out to be a resounding success. Over 150 kids ended up with little notebooks that are all steampunked up and are ready for recording thoughts, dreams, doodles, and stories.

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The other thing I had to do during these sessions (which hadn’t occurred to me at first) was to sign posters and books. Or course, no author or illustrator ever really complains about that, but I had just forgotten to leave time for it!

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I think one of the most fun aspects of this project for me was seeing all the different displays around the libraries, promoting the summer reading club. In many cases, my artwork was reproduced and blown up, or someone redrew their own versions of the characters. I loved seeing these displays!

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Of course, I can’t post all the pictures . . . so I post a sampler below from all the different kids who participated in libraries in the communities of Surrey and Burnaby.

Thank you to all the libraries who hosted me and my assistants: Marcie, Charlotte, Jamie, and Chelsea. And thank you to Michelle Andrus from the Surrey Library for letting me use her photo in this post (all the artistic, high quality ones are hers).

 

Making friends with Canadian authors in Seoul!

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I’ve been back from a dynamic trip to Korea for a couple of weeks. I discussed some of my adventures around Seoul last week, but am finally getting round to posting some details about the exciting event I participated in at the Canadian Embassy with fellow authors Kallie George and Dan Bar-el.

The event took place on Saturday, July 23rd at the Embassy’s Schofield Hall, with over a hundred students and parents from Canadian curriculum or international schools in attendance. Dan, Kallie, and are each involved with the Creative Writing Society of Canada, based in Vancouver, so our company as a whole was hosted by the embassy.

Dan, Kallie, and I had just landed the night before, so it’s safe to say we were a little bleary-eyed from the eleven-hour flight and the seventeen-hour time difference! In my experience from traveling abroad, however, I find it’s best to get right to it. And, after all, that’s what adrenaline is for!

I’ve done many presentations and workshops before, but there’s always something a little tricky about speaking to audiences with different cultural and linguistic backgrounds. Even though the kids attending our event were fluent in English, I knew it didn’t necessarily mean that my well-rehearsed jokes or anecdotes would connect. So I will admit to having some trepidation as I was preparing for the event. Thankfully, I had many friendly faces in the audience; since I’ve been to Korea many times before, I knew some of the students in attendance.

I did have the unenviable task of speaking first. Though, in retrospect, that was probably a good thing. My colleagues Dan and Kallie gave such amazing speeches, I didn’t have to fret about trying to outshine them. (If you have ever seen Dan Bar-el in action, you know that he is particularly difficult to outshine.)

Two other speakers were interspersed between myself, Kallie, and Dan. These were two of my long-time creative writing students, who each spoke a few minutes about the power of creativity and how writing has played an important role in their lives. It was pretty humbling to hear their words to imagine that I had played some small role in their exploration of creativity. I plan to post the transcript of their speeches in future posts!

After the speaking part of the event, the students in the audience broke into three groups and Dan, Kallie, and I each led one in a short creative writing activity. I had carefully packed and transported my dragon egg prop all the way to Korea for this very event and asked the students to imagine what would hatch out of it—and how. As you can imagine, there was quite the variety of descriptive responses!

This was also an opportunity for me to show the students some of my brainstorming journals (which, of course, go everywhere with me).

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The final thing was to do a book signing. Here’s the three of us busy at work!

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After the Embassy event, we were chaperoned to the KF Global Center where we were hosted by the Korean Reading Foundation, and spoke to a second audience of parents and students. This group was not fluent in English, so we had to deliver very different types of presentations, with each line being translated for us. Of course, so much about presenting is about timing, but when you need to accommodate the translator, it can really throw you an extra curveball or two! Still, I’m happy to report that everything mostly went without a hitch.

Dan, of course, made sure to greet the audience in Korean and then demanded that the translator translate his words into English! That’s Dan, for you. He can make anyone laugh!

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It was a real honor to get to participate in these events, and I am really thankful to the Canadian Embassy for hosting us.

Note: All photos featured in this post were taken by the Canadian Embassy.

Poo-dough, doors, and other interesting adventures in Seoul

After wrapping up an event with the Canadian embassy and teaching at a creative writing camp in Korea, I had a couple of days to explore Seoul. Even though it was my nineteenth trip to the city, it is so vast that I’ve long ago learned that you won’t run out of new nooks and crannies to discover!

In addition, I was there with fellow authors Kallie George and Dan Bar-el. It was Dan’s first trip to Asia, so I had the extra fun of seeing things anew. One thing that Dan really struggled with was the heat and intense humidity! He also found the spicy food a bit challenging, which happily filled our hosts’ expectations. (As for me, I love spicy food and so am somewhat of a disappointment in that department—I can usually tolerate the spice level of anything they stick in front of me. Of course, they also serve a lot of eggs in Korea, and that’s where I run into problems. You know. Because eggs are disgusting.)

The first night back from our creative writing camp, Dan, Kallie, and I wandered the streets of Jongno-dong and Insa-dong (dong means “neighborhood”). This area is my home away from home and I know it pretty well, so it was fun to show Dan some of my regular haunts. One of the first places we went was the Story Café for mugs of iced persimmon tea (delicious!). In this café, you can doodle and write in beautifully bound traditional notebooks and leave your message behind. It kind of reminds me of sending a message in a bottle!

Insadong Stories.

Insa-dong itself is a beautiful market street full of artisans, craft stores, and all sorts of shops. Here you find the traditional snuggled in between the modern city bursting up around it.

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Insa-dong is also the place to sample all sorts of treats, from the sweet to the savory. My favorite is “Poo-dough”, which is a variation on the traditional “bungeoppang”, which is a fish-shaped pastry filled with bean paste. Poo-dough is shaped like . . . well, poo, and comes in either bean or chocolate flavor.

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It may seem like a strange marketing ploy, but I assure you, poo-dough is delicious and there is often a long line-up for the stall!

Afterwards, we sauntered around Jongno-dong and I showed Dan the Bosingak belfry. This is actually a photo I took the following day on my way to the local bookstore—the belfry was particularly beautiful during the quiet morning calm of a Sunday.

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The following day, my friend, Joon, met us at our hotel and took us off to eat lunch at Kwang-jang market. We walked there, which meant meandering through some narrow traditional streets in Insa-dong. I found many interesting doors to add to my ever-expanding photo collection:

 

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Kwang-jang market was a feast for the senses. I’ve been on the outskirts of this market before, as it is very close to the famous shopping district of Dongdaemun. On this day, Joon took us deep into the “hive” and we saw all sorts of interesting goods and different types of food.

These dried fish are apparently used as part of a funeral ceremony:

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This is just a photo of all sorts of interesting things, including octopus tentacles and a pig’s head (it’s the reddish-brown item in the back).

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This, apparently, is a good market to sample live octopus. Which I didn’t. Instead we settled on a lunch of traditional Korean pancake, called “jeon.” My favorite is “pajeon”, which is a green onion type.

That evening, we met up with one of my former creative writing students, Jane. She is currently studying English Lit at Brown University in the States, but was in Seoul for the summer. She took us through a neighborhood that I’ve never visited before: Samcheong-dong.

What a quaint and beautiful place! There are many narrow, winding pedestrian-only streets here (well, you might have to dodge a motorcycle or two) where you can explore artisan jewelry shops, have your “ugly” portrait sketched for a dollar, and get your fortune told.

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With Jane at our side, both Kallie and I had our “Saju” fortune told. Saju involves providing the specifics of your birth—year, month, day, and time—and then learning about your personality and future. Apparently, I’m a “gem in winter” and, surprise, surprise, a creative and stubborn person.

After having our fortunes told, we continued exploring the neighborhood. Similar to Insa-dong, you can find many examples of traditional architecture tucked between the modern buildings and stores.

As the sun set and the temperature cooled (slightly), we took dinner on an open-are patio overlooking the elegant buildings of old and then went further up to enjoy tea on a roof-top deck.

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Of course, I’m a person who always loves the small details, so I found another door and some beautiful stone reliefs during our explorations.

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After this beautiful night, we trekked back to our hotel in Jongno. It was only about a half-hour walk, but the heat caught up to us by the time we reached home and I was glistening with sweat—well, that’s what happens when a gem in winter gets caught in the summer heat!

It was fun to explore some new parts of the city and visit some old favorites. Until next time, Seoul!