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Paris & Barcelona

For our honeymoon in October 2011 we explored the museums and famous landmarks in Paris, then strolled around the Gaudi-inspired architecture in Barcelona, and finally returned back to rent a car and drive to Loire valley. Nothing’s nicer than the French countryside, dotted with castles!

Click on the montage below to explore Paris & Barcelona.

Paris & Barcelona
Paris & Barcelona

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Banff in 9 Photographs

As I sit and write on today, Canada Day, I’m reminded of a recent Canada Day adventure. In July 2009 we vacationed in Banff and Jasper National Parks in Alberta, spending a week hiking and trekking the Canadian Rockies. Keeping with tradition, I’ve distilled all the photographs down to nine that I especially like. Coincidentally, they’re all from Banff. (Sorry Jasper, but you had all the thunderstorm days.) So call this Banff in 9 Photographs.

Banff in 9 Photographs
Banff in 9 Photographs

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California in 12 Photographs

Instead of the usual dreary post-vacation monotony, I’m going to try something new. From over twelve hundred frames snapped during a February jaunt in California, I’m going to summarize my trip with just twelve. Call it California in 12 Photographs. It’s taken a few months to find the twelve, but it’s done, finally done… Read on for a flavour of the trip that they try to capture.

California in 12 Photographs
California in 12 Photographs

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Hello, iMac.

I bought a Mac. Shocking.

I have a history of running my computers into the ground. I’ve been needing a new computer for a while now. I’m currently using a Pentium 3 – 1.2 GHz 12″ Sony Vaio with a broken cooling fan (and a tendency to overheat), circa 2003. Prior to this was my 1999 Pentium 3 – 450 MHz, now acting as a Linux-based file and print server. Before that was 486 DX2 66 MHz PC, circa 1993, which wasn’t retired until 2004. (It’s still sitting under my desk, plugged in.)

I’ve been complaining about super-slow Photoshop and I’ve been muttering about a switch away from Windows for a while now, so I finally jumped on the newly updated 24″ iMac. Some thoughts on my new Mac, from the newly converted (please take with multiple grains of salt).

Hardware. The display is astounding. Some of the best color reproduction that I’ve seen; bright and vibrant right out of the box. 1920×1200 resolution, great for those downloaded HD TV shows. I’m pleased with form factor of the iMac; I love how it looks sitting, un-cluttered, on my desk. It’s also super quiet. Everything’s well designed yet functional — with the exception of the not-so-ergonomic standard keyboard. It’s also difficult to type at full pace on its shallow keys.

Operating System. As a former Linux devotee, OS/X is great. I love the native UNIX-based operating system, with the ability to pop open a terminal to do whatever file-moving, bash-scripting, dirty-work that needs to done. I find OS/X incredibly smooth and polished, definitely a breath of fresh air after working on a Windows PC all day.

So I’m happy after my first five days. But will the Mac stand the test of time? Will the switch to Mac be permanent? We’ll find out for sure the next time I upgrade computers, which, if the past sets a precedence, should be sometime in 2013. Stay tuned.

Reflections on Rome

The sun was setting on our first day in Rome. We’d just arrived earlier that afternoon, leaving just a few hours to explore the city in a relaxed, unscheduled fashion.

We’d braved the Roma Metro, infamous for teams of thieves and pickpockets, and made it to Piazza di Spagna, the Spanish Steps. From there, it was a short walk to the famous Fontana di Trevi, the Trevi Fountain. Built during the Renaissance era, both are pretty, and full of people. But quickly boring: a few minutes and pictures and you’ll be wanting to move on.

We started to get hungry. At about nine o’clock, the umbrella-covered al fresco tables lining the streets started to fill with energetic diners, drinking wine and nibbling on overflowing plates of antipasto. We found a restaurant recommendation in our guidebook, and proceeded to get lost in Rome’s twisty labyrinth of side streets trying to find it.

A few turns later, still solidly lost, we found ourselves walking down a narrow street lined with gelaterie and trattorie, and the occasional bar. In the distance, white marble emerged into view as the buildings on the narrow street yielded into a wide piazza. One Corinthian column, followed by another, eight in all, the white marble glowing in contrast with other buildings lit with yellow-tinted incandescents. A beautiful triangular portico framing enormous doors, in front of a wide dome that seemed to dwarf neighbouring buildings, set against a beautiful twilight sky. With each and every step, more of the meter-high block letting slid into view. “M. AGRIPPA FECIT…”

I became rooted to the very spot I was standing, my feet firmly affixed to the cobblestone pavement, my mouth agape as I gawked at the pantheon, beautiful in its simplicity and perfect symmetry. My knees weakened and threatened to buckle. A sea of locals and tourists flowed past me, as a brook parts around a newly placed pebble. Juxtaposed against the umbrellas-lined ristoranti, the hustle and bustle of the piazza, and a street busker playing stereotypical Italian music (for the tourists, of course), the Pantheon surely did not belong. It felt as if the two-millenia old building had been rescued from the past and unceremoniously dropped in the middle of the piazza.

How fragile human life and human civilization are! This building, this mass of marble and stone, has existed on that very spot for a hundred generations of man. It’s witnessed the fall of an ancient thousand-year-old civilization, centuries of turmoil, and recently, the dawn of “modern civilization”. We are but insignificant blips when measured against this relic, a behemoth of time. Where will you or I or “Western civilization” be in two thousand years? I don’t know; but the Pantheon will be in Rome.

A few minutes later, I finally remembered to take a photograph. It’s the one you see at the top of this page. We visited the Pantheon a few more times over the course of the week. Any routes we picked would inevitably detour to the Pantheon, just because “it’s so close” (everything’s close by in Rome). On the eve of our departure from Rome, the final destination of our night walk across was the Pantheon, “one last time”. But even after we forlornly walked away, that magical image of the Pantheon, and all it embodied about Rome, accompanied us on our long trip home.

Recently…

Well, it’s been an awful long time since I’ve written anything on this blog, so I figured I’d throw an update.

Recently addicted. Addicted to Facebook. I’ve been avoiding social networking sites like the plague for the last few years, refusing to sign-up on Friendster or MySpace. Then along came Facebook. And now I find myself checking it multiple times a day, like everyone else. You’re probably reading this blog entry as a syndicated note on Facebook, you addict you.

Recently purchased gadgets. I finally bit the bullet and bought that lens I’ve been eyeing for the last few months: the Canon EF 70-200 f/4L IS USM telephoto zoom. I love it. It’s oh-so-sharp, and I’ve been taking it around on walks around Toronto. It takes beautiful portraits, and great photos of random people, which has been nice with all the nice weather! In the past, I’ve never been able to take pictures of random strangers, but it’s much easier with this lens since you’re usually standing 20-30 metres away. See recent photos, amongst others, at photos.grchiu.com. I’ve also recently loaded up on 10 gigabytes of compact flash. This should be sufficient for about 1400 photos in Rome… enough, I hope?

Recent reading. In preparation for an upcoming trip to Italy (next week!) I’ve been reading Rick Steves’ Rome and Rick Steves’ Italy. Both excellent reads, packed with information and lots of nice maps of the different sight-seeing venues. The Lonely Planet Best of … guides are also nice and small for carrying around.

Before that, I rediscovered the public library system and borrowed Conspiracy of Fools: A True Story by Kurt Eichenwald, a surprisingly gripping and outrageous true store of the boom and subsequent demise of Enron in its corporate accounting scandal. It’s a great read, offering a unique look into the politics and inner workings of big corporations. On the lighter side, Spin, the 2006 Hugo Award winning novel by Robert Charles Wilson, is captivating, with an interesting premise and memorable characters full of vigour. Also recently read was the classic The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins. I’m looking forward to reading The God Delusion.

Recent Listening. In the past few months I’ve started listening to vocal/instrumental jazz. It all started when I saw Melissa Stylianou, a Toronto jazz vocalist, perform at Hugh’s Room on the home stretch of her tour. Her latest album, Sliding Down, is great. Check it out.

Italy next week. Some stories and pictures to follow when I return. Arrivederci!

a minor inversion, or a major diversion?

The mass e-mail was terse and to the point. I have a daughter who is starting piano lessons, it read. Is anyone interested in selling an old upright piano?

So for what would be the first time in years, I sat down today and played the piano. The piano and I have always have some sort of love-hate relationship. I love to play the piano. I just hated to practice.

I started playing the piano at the age of six under the tutelage of Mrs. Zilberman in her North York home. Eleven years and three piano teachers later, I’m taking my grade 10 exam. I remember preparing half-heartedly for that exam: it was the end of May of 2000, one month left in high school, worrying about university responses possibly lost in the mail, or final final exams. And a few weeks before a departure for Shad. Piano exam? Frankly, I don’t remember practicing at all.

I remember walking out of that exam with a sense of release, a sense of freedom. Never having to practice that goddamned instrument anymore. I also remember passing with honours — barely, as just one mark lower would require me to take supplemental exams before attempting ARCT. Hah, ARCT. Yeah right.

And I didn’t touch my piano for a few weeks… months… years.

So for what would be the first time in years, I sat down today and played the piano. A little Chopin, some Bach, and little Brahms. Some hacky attempts at Rachmaninov. Some Norah Jones, for good measure. I love to play the piano. But my fingers are brittle and slow, now adapted and practiced for the keyboard of a computer rather than of a piano.

So I sit there for an hour, hammering out bar after bar, repeating left hand until perfected, and then right. I get out the wind-up metronome, but discover that it’s broken. For the first time in years (and probably years while I was still playing), I’m really practicing. And hey, it’s not so bad. I manage to play a Chopin prelude almost up to speed. I sight-read the first few bars of a Beethoven Sonata. I finish, like I used to, with a rousing rendition of God Save the Queen, with powerful thundering chords that resonate through the house.

Me? Sell my piano?

I took a picture, my piano and I. We’ve always had some sort of love-hate relationship, and it looks like we’ve finally made our peace.

back and forth

So I’m back from my little jaunt in Atlantic Canada: 9 days, 2700 kilometers, 3 provinces, 3 national parks, countless provincial parks, lighthouses, 20 km of hiking total, 6 lobsters and 28 oysters later. It was fun. If you’re a fan of nature and hikes, beautiful scenes, fresh seafood, well, the maritimes are for you. Memorable events from the trip include hiking Fundy, PEI National, and Kejimkujik National Parks. Walking on the ocean floor at Hopewell Rocks. Seafood. Lots of seafood. Lots of pictures.

It took us a day or two, but we figured out the best way to eat seafood while in the Maritimes. Avoid expensive restaurants. What you really want to find is a “fish market”. Look for them near harbours or wharfs at cities, or ask a local. When driving around in the country side, look for bays or inlets where you see fishing vessels. An authentic fish market is just around the corner. Buy a pair of lobster crackers and forks, an oyster shucking knife, a cooler bag, a few rolls of paper towel and some dry ice. Throw them in your trunk, and when you come across a fish market in the morning you can “brown bag” your lunch (and perhaps your dinner).

Speaking of seafood, we went to the maritimes intending to eat a large number of lobsters, but only ended up eating six. Instead I developed a new craving: Malpeque oysters. Be sure to learn how to shuck oysters. It’s a life skill that everyone should know. A nice guy showed us at Carr’s Fish Market, just off Stanley Bridge in PEI. Home of the best (and cheapest) Malpeque oysters ever! Most fish markets will sell choice Malpeques for about $0.75 per.

Regrets? Few, thankfully. Not spending more time in Fundy National Park, which is gorgeous and has wonderful beaches and trails (we didn’t have time to finish the challenging Coastal Littoral trail). Not being able to kayak: our expedition was cancelled due to winds. Not having time to go to Cape Breton Highlands National Park (next time!). And not eating enough Malpeque oysters. Have you any idea how hard they are to find in Toronto?