Sunday, August 28, 2011

Wagons East: Knight to Remember

We had talked about going out to dinner Tuesday night with some of our Mimico chums for quite a while, but only as the dinner hour drew nigh did the girls begin to express any interest as to exactly where we were eating. Since Audrey and I had decided early on to make it a surprise, I took no small measure of enjoyment in refusing to directly answer their inquiries, and instead agreed to answer 20 yes or no questions.

"So, let me see if I have this right," Fenya summarized afterwards. "We are going somewhere to eat old-fashioned Spanish food, with our hands, in dim lighting, and where there is entertainment while we eat, right?"

I worried that perhaps we had given it away. "That's correct," I told her.

Fenya shook her head. "I have totally no idea."

A moment later we drove into the parking lot near the CNE grounds and they saw the billboards and began to squeal with delight: "Medieval Times!"  They also found the toll free number (1-888-WE JOUST) to be delightful.

In case you have never seen the movie The Cable Guy or are otherwise unfamiliar with the Medieval Times concept, it is a chance to chow down Henry-VIII-style on chicken and ribs while watching costumed actors on horseback joust and duel in an ersatz tournament. It is more than a little cheesy, and it is not so much a reenactment as it is a hybrid of a commercialized renaissance fair and professional wrestling.

I love it. In fact, this was the fourth time I had attended. The first time was in Los Angeles, when Audrey and I were on our honeymoon. We had arrived later than I would have liked, and I was completely underwhelmed by the plastic artifice of the whole affair, and the colour coded cardboard crown that designated both your seating area and which of the six knights you would be cheering for.

Ten minutes later I was cheering with the rest of the crowd and having the time of my life, and I explained this to Fenya, as she was looking very uncertain about things in the way only a girl on the cusp of adolescence can muster. She very quickly grabbed on to the core concept that one can either be a jaded spectator or engaged participant, and sure enough, ten minutes in, she turned to me and said, "Okay, this is cool."

For the third time in four visits, I found myself cheering for the douty black and white night. His backstory speaks of him as being a warrior-priest of sorts, and between my fondness of the cleric class in D&D and the fact that we were attending with friends we'd met at church, that seemed altogether appropriate. He was also the only one of the six with a proper haircut instead of flowing locks (which Rimmer from Red Dwarf will inform you makes one historically predisposed to victory), which disappointed a number of the women in our party.

There was a bit of plot given to add spice and context to the tournament, which involved the King's son being ambushed and kidnapped by the perpetually villainous and disdainful green knight of Lyonne (which was boisterously dramatized by the players) and then the royal family and their chancellor opened the tournament.

Prior to the commencement of combat, there are a number of contests displaying the very real skill of these stuntmen and actors, including mounted spear throwing and using a lance to hit a two inch ring suspended by a string, while galloping the length of the arena. It serves as a nice reminder that even staged fights require both ability and practice.

After each contest, the princess tosses some flowers to each successful competitor, which they then dutifully toss to the ladies in the crowd. I fully thought Glory was going to burst when she caught one, and she immediately went from admiring our black and white knight to being pretty much smitten. "He's so dashing," she hammed it up later.

There are also a couple of very impressive demonstrations of horsemanship, including Andalusians brought through their paces using the long reins, and an excellent display of falconry that had a gorgeous and swift bird of prey soaring within a few feet of our heads; close enough, in fact, that I found myself hoping it couldn't smell the chicken on my plate.

Soon, though, the knights reappeared arrayed for battle, and the jousting commenced.

Although the fighting is all clearly staged and bloodless, there is still an exhilaration to be felt as the competing knights thunder towards one another at a full gallop, their lances shattering upon each others shields. The first knight unhorsed then has to defend himself against a mounted opponent for a pass or two, but every match seems to end with both combatants on foot, fighting with swords, maces, flails and even a halberd.

Unfortunately, our gallant black and white knight (Huzzah!) was the first to fall to the unscrupulous green knight (Hisss!), but in the end, this villain was defeated by the yellow knight, the kidnapped prince rescued, and peace returned to the realm.

Everyone enjoyed themselves greatly, and I certainly wouldn't object to returning to Medieval Times for a fifth time if the opportunity presented itself.  I did find myself wondering what it might be like to present the evening's entertainment in a Game of Thrones setting, with characters like Gregor Clegane, Jaime Lannister and perhaps even Brienne of Tarth battling it out.  Pseudo-historical Spain is probably a safer bet though, and if a couple of starstruck kids come away with a bit of an interest in history or a hankering to read Ivanhoe, so much the better.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Wagons East: Boat & Bus

There comes a time on any vacation when it becomes paramount to let someone else do the driving, and to give one's feet a rest. In our case, this was Tuesday in Toronto.

There are a number of bus tours available in Toronto, including the Hippo Bus, which is amphibious and can roll right into the harbor for a short tour of the shore. We chose instead a double decker tour with hop-on/hop-off privileges, and which also included a short boat excursion. Before boarding the Harbour Star, we had a chance to explore Queen's Quay and the newly revamped harbourfront, and to see some other boats, like the schooner Kajama.

This wavy sculpture brings a bit of verve to a formally drab section of sidewalk near the quay.

The boat tour itself was only about 40 minutes, but gave me a different view of the harbour islands, and even taught me a couple of things. For instance, I had no idea that the islands were actually a peninsula until a huge storm in 1850 broke it off.

Best of all though, the boat ride gives you a wonderful opportunity to view one of Canada's most distinctive skylines.

After returning to shore, we took about a 90 minute guided tour of Toronto on an open topped double decker bus, seeing lots of old buildings, and learning a bit more about the city Audrey and I called home for four years in the nineties.

In the old distillery district we saw an area that has been used in a number of movies, including Magneto's parents being taken away in one of the X-Men films.

This building is reputed to be one of Canada's skinniest, although I couldn't really tell you precisely how they determine that...

We also got to drive past Toronto's own castle, Casa Loma, which you might recognize from the first X-Men movie, or from seeing Scott Pilgrim thrown against it.

I was also surprised to see exactly how much Dundas Square had changed since my last time seeing it, and how it really is beginning to look like Canada's Times Square. The jury remains out as to whether or not this is, in fact, a good thing.

All in all, the bus tour was a great way to explore a great city. Unfortunately, we didn't really have time to really enjoy the on/off privileges, as we had to rush off to our dinner engagement, but we did get to stretch our legs in front of the Metro Toronto Convention Centre and get some ice cream. I'm somewhat jealous that Edmonton has so few ice cream trucks that can serve soft ice cream like this, but maybe that's for the best.

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Thursday, August 18, 2011

Wagons East: Going Home Again

Audrey and I spent 4 great years living in Toronto from 1995 - 1999 when I worked for Games Workshop, moving back to Alberta shortly after Fenya was born because, well, Toronto is a darned expensive place to raise a family.

While we were there we made good friends with a number of people we met at Wesley-Mimico United Church in Etobicoke, including Cy and Karen, who kindly put us up in their hundred year old home for a couple of nights. They also arranged a barbecue Monday night for a number of the people we used to chum around with back in the last century.

We don't keep in what you would call tight contact with the Wesley-Mimico crowd, but we pass along the occasional e-mail or blog post and the like, as well as exchanging the Christmas cards and attendant newsletters. Still, having been gone for three times as long as we'd ever lived there, you wonder if the personal connection is still there, or if the correspondence is serving as some sort of relationship respirator no one wants to be responsible for unplugging.

It turns out that Thomas Wolfe is at least somewhat full of poo, and that you can not only go home again, but it can also be a wonderful experience. We were a bit below the median age of the crowd we hung around with, so quite a few of them are now in various stages or retirement or semi-retirement, but we were still able to pick up right where we left off after our last visit in 2005, while catching up on the many changes of the past few years.

We commiserated and congratulated, laughed and gasped, and generally carried on as friends should. I wish I had taken some photos, but I felt like a wildlife photographer afraid of scaring off something elusive and shy, rare and wonderful, so I chose to leave the camera out of the equation, and I only regret it a little.

The strangest part was that since some of the old crowd have relocated to other areas of the GTA, or are traveling the world, or are busy keeping up with their grandchildren, many of them thanked us for giving them the opportunity to come together again. When Audrey mentioned how easy it was to reconnect with everyone, she was told, "You guys belonged here, and went through some challenging times with us, and you will always belong here, as long as you want to keep coming back."

Given the extremely high quality of these folks, and the considerable regard and esteem in which we hold them, I suspect it may be quite some time before we hear something as flattering as that again.

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Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Wagons East: Towering Accomplishments

Monday morning, we deployed to Toronto and headed straight to the CN Tower. I was sure to take a moment to stand at the base of it and direct Fenya and Glory's attention up, waaaay up, Friendly Giant style to give them a sense of the general massiveness of the structure, as well as to point out the location of the infamous Glass Floor.

We were advised that since the line-ups we still fairly tame, we should consider heading straight up to the Skydome observation deck after the 58 second elevator ride to the main observation level. We did this, and it is a good thing we did, as the line got positively Brobdibnabian later on, but it still meant that from the girls' perspective, the first 40 minutes of the CN Tower experience was all about waiting in line for an elevator ride.

Once we exited the second elevator and proceeded onto the world's second highest man-made observation platform, things began looking up. Well, down, mostly, but you know what I mean. It was a sightly hazy and overcast day, so we weren't able to see New York state or Niagara Falls or anything, but so long as you can look down and say to yourself, "My word but those people look small down there," you are getting the bulk of the tower's significance and effect.

From there we headed down to the glass floor, where I convinced to girls to jump onto the clear surface from the opaque area, something I have always found disorientatingly thrilling. Fenya did minimize the effect by looking forward instead of down as she leaped, so I don't know if that should count

Out tickets also included admission to a 3D movie about the ultimate wave in Tahiti, which was not too bad, and a movie-ride called "Himalamazon" which was fairly standard but did spice things up by spraying a bit of water into the cabin to give the effect of crashing into the water.

There is a new attraction at the tower called Edgewalk, which, for $175, will enable you to walk around the top of the tower from the outside (!), while safely harnessed and wearing something suspiciously close to prison coveralls

At the end of the day, I suppose it is easy to be blasé about the CN Tower; after all, it's been around for almost four decades, it doesn't really do anything except be really tall, and thanks to a tower in Dubai, it isn't even the world's tallest freestanding structure any more.

Still, it was the champ for something like 32 years, which is quite a feat given the competitive age we live in, and it still towers over the tops of the other skyscrapers in the skyline of Canada's largest city. Maybe you can stand at it's base, or near it's summit, and say, "Well, it's big and all, but I remain unmoved," but I would certainly hesitate before calling that degree of jadedness any sort of victory. I remain solidly impressed.

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Monday, August 15, 2011

Wagons East: This Old Treehouse

Years ago, Nick built an exceptionally sturdy treehouse for his boys in an apple tree in the yard. The sturdiness is hardly surprising, as the man is an accomplished carpenter, but discovering that the treehouse is wired for both electrical power and telephone was a bit unexpected.

Nick had floated the idea that the girls could spend a night in the treehouse, and it was met with initial excitement, but a doubt snake crept in later and laid worrisome eggs that had the girls second-guessing their decision.

Then Auntie Vera suggested the girls could perhaps paint the treehouse before deciding on bunking down, and Fenya and Glory leapt at the opportunity. Some water-based paint was dragged out of the cold room, some painting shirts were found, the sleeves rolled back and held in place with elastics, and they practically raced off to begin redecorating.

While Audrey and I were off at the outlet mall in St. Jacobs finding sandals for her, they painted with barely a break for lunch. By the time we returned, a thunderstorm was passing through the area, but they were practically finished.

Glory had originally campaigned for mixing red and white paint to make pink, and totally girlifying the place, but Fenya suggested that with it really being a boy's treehouse and the two of them being guests, a more unisex design might be in order.

Frankly, any points they might have lost for finesse they more than earned back for boldness of design and speed of execution (less than seven hours). Also, full marks for remaining so productive without direct supervision.

There appears to be room for improvement in the personal cleanliness department however, with the tip of Glory's ponytail looking like it had somehow gotten dipped or perhaps been used as an improvised paint application device.

Still, with the paint being water-based and all, this kind of minor mess is a small price to pay for a memory I am certain the girls will keep for the rest of their lives. Next week they may even sleep in it...

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Saturday, August 13, 2011

Wagons East: From Taters to Cabers, and Back Again

Another full day began with our attending Guelph's Farmers market. We were not about to second guess Nick in the provision department, but we did want to get some non-grainy bread for Glory, and the girls bought some jewelry and art.

Fenya got a print of a wolf in front of a west coast aboriginal wolf totem, which should look awfully good framed up in her increasingly wildife-themed room, and Glory got some paper bead earrings from Uganda. Audrey got a pair of earrings and a pendant featuring the Celtic Tree of Life, which I mistook for the Norse world-ash, Yggdrasil, due to its nine branches (and the Tyr song, "Nine Worlds of Lore").

We meandered about Guelph a bit, a pretty city with a lot of artistic activity and some gorgeous architecture, and ended up at Riverside Park.

Audrey only wanted me to take this picture so she could have Vera identify the plants, but it seems a shame to only use it for that. The park is perhaps not as 'fresh' as it might have been, but gardens are still lovely, and they have one of those floral clocks we don't see too much of in Alberta.

Down by the riverside itself, they have a miniature railroad and antique carousel, but neither of them are a patch on the ones at Fort Edmonton. There are more gardens and a wonderful tile mosaic though.

I am having a terrible time with my sense of direction, which is normally pretty decent. I wonder if the differing height of the sun makes a difference? At any rate, it turns out we had stumbled on to the park completely by accident, and once we re-oriented ourselves, we headed back to the farmers market for a light lunch of turkey pepperettes, vegetable samosas, and some absolutely brilliant potstickers from Feng's Dumplings. We sat outside to eat, drinking fresh-squeezed orange juice and hibiscus iced tea, and after we finished, Fenya tipped the busker who had serenaded us while we ate.

We returned to Magda Farm to pick up Vera and made our way to nearby Fergus for their annual Scottish Festival and Highland Games. We missed the hammer throw, which I like quite a bit, but were in time for my favorite, the caber toss. The day's winner managed a nearly perfect toss of 12:15 (12:00 is the goal).

I love how so many of the Olympic events are peaceful derivations of warlike behavior, like the javelin and discus, while the Highland Games appear largely to be the kind of things one drunken Celtic would dare another to do, like hurling a heavy weight above a bar directly over one's head, or flipping a telegraph pole end over end while looking for geometric accuracy.

They were nice enough to bring the weight around that these burly men were hurling 17 feet into the air. 56 pounds, and they have to fling it one handed, while hiking their kilts out of the way for good measure! Fenya was able to get it to her knees, but not much further.

There is also a fairly huge pipe band competition, and for the finale they have ALL the competitors come out and play en masse, and let me tell you, that is some kind of impressive, especially when they play Amazing Grace and I start thinking of Mr. Spock's funeral in Wrath of Khan...

We were unable to find the 'haggis on a stick' that Nick had assured us would be there, but all other manner of unhealthy fair fare was there. Onion rings, poutine, deep fried Mars bars, we shot the works. We even had time to pop into the beer tent for a cold one (Coors Light and Creemore Springs? That's it? At a Scottish Festival?), while my mates were simultaneously on the patio enjoying one back home in Edmonton. Slainte!

They even had a whole area set aside called the Avenue of the Clans, where over two score Scottish clans had troves of genealogical information as well as all manner of family name knick-knackery. When I see the length and breadth of all this heritage and pride, I'll be honest with you, sometimes I'm maybe a wee bit jealous of the Scots...

..but then I remember St. Patrick's Day, and I feel a whole lot better.

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Friday, August 12, 2011

Wagons East: Capital Ideas

Vera had intended to loan us her Subaru so we could visit Ottawa, but Nick lent us his newer Volvo wagon instead, and even packed us a lunch for the road. (It needs to be said that Nick is really raising the bar for me in terms of hospitality standards!) It's about a 6 hour drive to the nation's capital from Magda Farm, an hour of which is simply traversing Toronto on the 401, and even longer if you go at rush hour.

By mid afternoon we had reached the home of two of our college friends, Jim and Pam, and their two children. After a fantastic supper of ribs and corn on the cob, they suggested we all go to the nearby beach at Mooney's Bay, and we swam in the Rideau Canal just downstream of the rowing club, on a sandy beach.

The following day we all just managed to make it to Parliament Hill in time to see the changing of the guards. I've always had a soft spot for this sort of military tradition, and the girls got to sit on the ground in front of the crowd for a comfortable and unobstructed view.

Afterwards we rode up to the top of the Peace Tower and also visited the Memorial Chamber. We had to wait before going up as there were a number of Afghanistan veterans involved in a page-turning ceremony, so we were only too happy to accommodate that.

Afterwards we said farewell to our hosts and wandered off to the National Gallery. We didn't have as much time as I would have liked, but if your kids go to an arts school, you at least want to make an appearance, right? We also got the obligatory picture of the girls cowering underneath 'Mother', the enormous, spider-shaped sculpture outside the gallery, but I took it with the camera and not the iPad, so I will have to wait before sharing that one. On the way back to our car, we also came across the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

Next, we were off to meet our friends Rob and Caro and their baby Maya, who has got to be the pudgiest, happiest and generally most laid back 6 month old I have ever encountered.

The next morning, Rob joined us as we ventured off to the Canadian War Museum, which has got to be one of the best museums I've ever visited. A fantastic collection, well presented, and lots of interactive bits for the girls.

I took most of my pictures here with my regular camera, as the iPad is not that great in low light. Still, I did want to share one picture from the Cold War exhibit that Rob found especially interesting:

If it isn't already taken, I think 'Armageddon- Push Button to Start' would make a great album title, or maybe even a band name.

Should you get the opportunity to visit the War Museum, and I certainly hope you do, take a moment to visit the Memorial Hall. There they have mounted the original tombstone of the Unknown Soldier in such a way that it is struck by a beam of sunlight at 11:11 on November 11, and it is also a lovely space to reflect or pay one's respects.

We then made our way over to Gatineau for the Museum of Civilization, to explore the Canada Hall, which covers a thousand years of Canadian history. We also toured the Japan exhibit, which showcases that country's ability to accommodate innovation and tradition, as well as they have had robotics since the Edo period, over 300 years ago. The exhibit is a nice counterpart to the Zen garden just outside the museum.

There is not a while lot to be photographed inside the museum itself, but I did take a photo of this roof mural, mostly because I found the colours mesmerizing and also because I thought it might make a nice wallpaper for the iPad.

I also managed to snap one of this sculpture, which should look familiar to anyone who's looked at a $20 bill.

This made for a pretty full day, but nary a word of complaint from the girls. We returned to Rob and Caro's for some Asian take-out and a welcome dip in their backyard pool, before collapsing into bed in preparation for a long drive back to Magda Farm the next day. As insightful and inspiring as the exhibits and ceremonies were, the real treat was re-connecting with distant friends and their families.

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