31 July 2012

Vancouver Visit

I finally made it to Canada after 25 years of living in North America. I would've had a week in Montreal years ago, but I got called for a job interview a couple days before my flight and even though I got the job, I still harbor bitterness over that episode. Daryl and I chose to spend a few days in Vancouver because it was an easy flight from home, in the same time zone, and would be sufficiently interesting to give us the feeling that we were on vacation. The two hour flight provided some terrific views. This was a view of Mt. St. Helens. Before that, the snow capped cascades were clearly visible. Just before landing we had excellent views of the islands off Seattle and Vancouver.
This was our hotel - the Executive Hotel Vintage Park. We were near False Creek, close to the sea wall. The best feature of this pretty comfortable hotel was the daily wine tastings - free for guests. Every day they served wines from various British Columbia wineries.
The wines were pretty decent. I especially enjoyed the Cabernet Sauvignon. Sitting out on the terrace provided an enjoyable setting. In our four days in Vancouver we had outstanding weather. Warm, sunny, and comfortable enough for strolling through the various neighborhoods.
After sampling the wines on our first afternoon we strolled through the downtown area of Vancouver. There was a summer vibe in the air. Robson Square (below), outside the Vancouver Art Gallery was especially lively - with a large outdoor cafe, a tourist information booth, and a skating rink. People were sitting on the steps of the beautiful gallery building. Others just milled around. We continued our walk down to the waterfront. 

The building with the sails, vaguely reminiscent of Sydney's Opera House, is Canada Place. Cruise ship terminal, fancy hotel, convention center are all here in this glitzy building. We got our first good views of North Vancouver from here.
Most fascinating to us at the waterfront was watching seaplanes taking off and landing. This would be a pretty cool way to get to the islands.

I was amazed at how mellow this most touristic part of the city was. Again and again I was aware of how laid back this city is. Even in the peak of summer the city wasn't overrun with tourists. The locals also seemed relaxed and notably friendly. 
We did our research on restaurants before leaving home and number one on our list was VIJ's. Jamie Oliver claims it's the best restaurant in all of Canada. This Indian restaurant with a modern, avant garde menu, doesn't take reservations. It's always packed and typical wait time is an hour and a half. But they make the wait an experience too. We sat out on their attractive, atmospheric terrace with cold beer and they served us hot from the pan appetizers every so often. We struck up a conversation with a young couple who were sitting next to us. We learned from them that VIJ's wins all kinds of restaurant awards in Vancouver all the time. After our long, but enjoyable wait, we were seated inside the elegant restaurant. The menu was unlike anything we'd seen before. Daryl had some combination of vegetables and dumplings in a pomegranate curry. I had shitake mushrooms and other seasonal vegetables in a creamy sauce served with some sort of pilaf involving rice, almonds, and spices. We were totally transported to heaven. Clearly a lot of thought and creativity went into the flavors, textures, and variety. After the meal, as we sauntered across the Granville Street Bridge back to our hotel, we felt satisfied that  Day 1 had worked out so incredibly well.

We started Day 2 on Granville Island. We stumbled upon the Pacific Institute of Culinary Arts. We noticed their bakery was open and decided to have breakfast there. Turned out to be a most memorable breakfast. The coffee was strong and hot. I had an almond croissant which was so unbelievably light, flaky, and not too sweet. Daryl had a healthy scone studded with seeds and nuts and it was also superb.

We spent the morning wandering through picturesque Granville Island. Loved the views of downtown across False Creek. We truly felt far away from home poking into the shops and arts and crafts galleries displaying Canadian and Northwest native products. Out in the park the totem poles, conifers, and canada geese were further reminders that we were in Canada.
Most prominent on Granville Island is the produce market. Colorful, huge, and vibrant. All the fruit and vegetables in season available in vast quantities. Cherries, blueberries, and raspberries were at their peak. We bought a huge bag of each for our lunch. There were also numerous little restaurants and other specialty food stalls (cheeses, olives, breads, etc.) We sat outside beside the little harbor and ate our sweet, juicy cherries and blueberries. Fringing the water across from us were attractive restaurants and hotels.
We spent the afternoon walking along the seawall promenade in Stanley Park. We saw this iconic northwest "sculpture"just as we entered the park. It's called an Inukshuk and was used by the Inuits as a navigational tool. Entering the park you feel like you've entered the wilderness - in some sense. The park is so big and heavily forested with various pines. Along the promenade you look out to English Bay. Then as you go around Prospect Point you get a terrific view of the Lions Gate Bridge. Now you face the Burrard Inlet and the mountains and skyscrapers of North Vancouver look back at you.
Other highlights of Stanley Park were two lakes - Beaver Lake and the Lost Lagoon Lake.
See that hump in the middle? It's a Beaver lodge. Behind it we saw a beautiful great blue heron.

We started Day 3 in Gastown, where we had a so-so breakfast at a place called Brioche, which did not have any of its namesake. Sigh! The gas powered clock is this neighborhood's most famous sight. On the hour it releases steam and makes a steam engine type noise.
It was a perfect summer day and we decided to head out to North Vancouver.
The views from the ferry we took to get across Burrard Inlet were quite sensational. Vancouver has such an incredible setting that every photo you take of the city is going to look great. Cape Town is similar with its setting at the foot of dramatic mountains beside the sea.

In North Vancouver we stocked up on cherries and blueberries at the lovely London Quay Market, then took a bus to Capilano Suspension Bridge Park. We'd been on some pretty memorable suspension bridges in Costa Rica so this park didn't knock our socks off. It was incredibly crowded. Even though the scenery made us feel like we were in the wilderness, the crowds reminded us that the city was close. I have to say the place had a Disneyfied feel to it. Still, it was pretty remarkable to be immersed in a rainforest, trekking beside sheer cliffs, with views of mountain peaks, appearing above the lanky conifers.
After Capilano we hopped on a bus to Grouse Mountain. In the winter Vancouverites come out here for the day to ski or snowboard. In midsummer the main purpose of going up this mountain is to take in the views of downtown Vancouver. We got on a gondola, along with 90 others and were lifted 4000 feet up. Then we got on a chairlift to get to the actual summit of this mountain. Since it was a cloudless day we had great views of the city and the water around it. Downtown, across the Burrard Inlet was a bit hazy, but it all looked beautiful anyway. We were disappointed at the lack of hiking trails at the top. 

However, we did get to meet a local. I got to see grizzly bears at a sanctuary up in Grouse Mountain.

Before leaving the mountain we had a beer at a café. Sitting on the terrace we had an excellent view of Burrard Inlet and downtown.

For dinner that evening we had a decent wood fired pizza in Gastown. Back at the hotel we relaxed in the jacuzzi, which was on the terrace of the 9th floor. We could see the sails of boats in False Creek between gleaming skyscrapers. The water was a bit too hot for summer so a five minute soak was all we could handle. But it did cap off a pretty pleasant day.

I'll call this part one of the Vancouver trip. Part 2 should appear in the very near future.

12 July 2012

Another School Year Over ...

It’s been well over a month since the school year ended and it’s about time I got my act together and wrote a reflection about the year. Hmmm, that word “reflection” sounds a bit pretentious, not to mention ambitious considering my lethargic state of mind. Now before you start passing judgement on what a lazy sod I am for taking such a godawfully long time to get around to jotting down a few lame words, let me assure you that I have been very occupied these last few weeks. But more on that in a different entry. Before the 2011/2012 year completely disappears into the nethersphere of my memory I want to capture what still lingers in my mind.

This past academic year undoubtedly ranks in the top 5 of all my teaching years. It was one of those years that reminded me why I chose this demanding and often thankless profession. 

My third grade students were all so sweet, so adorable, and so respectful. They loved me on the first day of school. Previous years’ kids and parents had raved about me and so these new kids entered my class with super high expectations. I found this a bit scary. I didn’t want to disappoint them, but at the same time I wanted to establish a disciplined environment right from the start. It all went well in the end. The kids were eager to please and receptive to my requirements.

A year like this one makes me feel immensely grateful to be in a career that brings such joy and satisfaction. Way back when I was a college student and worked at various dull summer jobs I knew I had to be in a profession that I found challenging, and that allowed me to be creative. Teaching at an elementary school satisfied those needs in the early years, but I needed more challenge. More stimulation. This led me to writing – novels, blogs, etc. But, I digress …

The last day of school is always a strange day for me. Usually, the weeks leading up to the last day are incredibly busy, leaving no time to prepare myself for the termination of relationships I had developed over a period of nine months. I find it weird to spend months nurturing a bond with kids and then to abruptly say goodbye to them. For the three summer months they are completely out of my life. Then a new school year begins and they move on, to new adults in their care. A brand new set of kids burrow into my heart and the old kids fade away. All of this feels so unnatural.

Anyway, it was certainly a terrific year. The last month of school was especially enjoyable. A third grade tradition at our school is to put on a play performance, a musical, for parents and other classes. This requires a lot of practice and rehearsals. The kids always enjoy doing this and it’s a fun way to bring the year to a close. This year’s kids exhibited far more enthusiasm than I ever remember. They eagerly learned their lines and very quickly perfected the dance moves. The kids with the lead roles worked really hard on their solo songs. Putting on a play like this that involves the whole class and a range of skills, is indeed a most enjoyable way to differentiate instruction. The kids with strong academic skills found great joy in challenging themselves to excel in different ways, like singing complex melodies in tune. Quieter kids who fade into the background during normal school days were taking leadership roles, offering valuable suggestions for improvement, and helping other kids hone their performances. It was a fantastic way to get the whole group working together, and taking pride in the finished product.

On the last day of school I asked the kids to write me a letter describing what makes them unique. I said, “In my new book I’d like to use one of you as a character. Tell me about yourself and give me reasons why I should use you. What makes you unique?”
Well, even though it was the last day of school, the kids got silent and wrote for close to an hour. 

I’m looking through these letters now and am utterly struck by how every single one of them is different. It was gratifying to see that they could all write, not just reasonably decent subject/verb/object sentences. But sentences with interesting content, providing the most salient details about them.

Here’s a sample:

I like to do drawings. When I grow up I want to be an artist.

What makes me special is that I can move my thumbs off the bones.

I enjoy reading, archery, and basketball. I like inventing new names for dives and basketball shots.

I am different from other people because I was born a month early. I had to stay in hospital for weeks. I would not eat, but it wasn’t that bad.

I love to swim. I want to be a lifeguard. I like surfboarding.

I like to go outside to write about nature and play “wet my fence”. I love helping my mom with chores, especially washing the bathrooms.

What makes me special is that I love school. I don’t play video games or anything like that like most kids. In my free time I like to read. I love writing and I think I am good at it.

I don’t like wearing pink and cute stuff. I usually play violent video games while girls brush their hair. I am an adventurous gal.

There are four things that make my name unusual.

My favorite team in the NFL is the Chicago Bulls. I was born in Chicago. I love swimming in the deep end.

One thing that makes me special is that I know how to be helpful.

When I grow up I want to be a golfer, singer, and dancer.

I love to travel to places. I love museums, and I have an interest in math.

I am special because I like to swim, I love animals, and I like to play hard songs on the piano.

What makes me special is that I was born in Switzerland. I can ride tandem with my dad on a surfboard.

I like to daydream while I am at school. When I grow up I want to be a scientist and study marine life.

I want to be an actress and a writer. I like making up stories for everything. I even make up stories for games.

I am unique because I love homework, absolutely, positively love math, and I love going to school. There isn’t a better place I could be at.

I can do a 360 on my bike and I can climb trees that are really high.

Away from the kids for over a month now, I smile as I think about their beauty and innocence. Is it human nature to remember the good stuff and forget the many challenges, annoyances, and irritations we, teachers, deal with daily?