SOL: Commemor-8

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I have been wracking my mind for days trying to decide how I can possibly write a succinct review of the past eight months. On my last day in Spain I was in a state of detached shock and felt incapable of being able to summarizing my time here.

I was asked if I regret any experiences while I’ve been here and I can honestly say that I would not change a thing about this trip. While there have been several terrible days and weeks, and a few instances where I wanted to pack up and leave, ultimately I can say without hesitation that while I have been here I have felt more alive than ever before. Whereas during my trip to France last year I felt that it was a metamorphic experience it was extremely static; I spent the majority of my time alone, whether it was running, reading, or working, I was isolated without realizing how detrimental it was to my happiness. Within Spain I allowed myself to open up to the world and as such I have had the luxury of witnessing the best and worst life has to offer. In Spain I created a slapdash life and while it was messy, chaotic and at times completely ill-advised, it was entirely my creation and therefore I have cherished each moment.

At my core, and it is perhaps one of my most reprehensible traits, I find I am a selfish person. I fiercely guard my independence to the point that I often shut others out without the intention of being malicious – I simply feel I am better off accomplishing my goals on my own. While in Spain I spent my working hours constantly interacting with people of all ages, nationalities and from multiple walks of life. I left several ill-advised love affairs in the past and focused my time and energy on including another person in my dreams and my life. Most importantly, I have been making the conscious decision to do so. In making these choices, I am learning to accept full responsibility for my fuck-ups (there have been many) and my small mistakes. Self-awareness has taken chunks out of my ego, however I think acknowledging our shortcomings keeps us grounded and perhaps more likely to exude caution in the future. I feel as though each month here has brought me a new lesson, sometimes in the form of a curse and other times as a blessing.

In April, I feel that I tackled my irrational fear of children. When I told people that I was going to be teaching English to a four year old, many looked at me with thinly veiled surprise and some expressed the general sentiment of, “Don’t take this the wrong way but… I can’t see you being good with kids.” Fair point all around, I don’t think I’ve spent time around kids since I’ve been one myself, and even then I found it painful. It took all of April and most of May before the child began to understand me, and after that we fell into a happy balance of him testing his boundaries and me being easy-going enough to let him get away with most of his insane antics. I doubt I will ever fill an au pair role again, but while I was teaching him English, he in turn was teaching me to be more patient, more nurturing and more playful.

In May, I learned the value of trust and honesty. I often view life as a highly idealistic and romanticized version of reality, and in my second month of Spain I realized the error of my ways. Upon departing for a six month sojourn, I expected to stay involved and connected with someone back in Canada. Upon discovering the perceived monogamy was (and had been) extremely one-sided, I immediately severed contact and realized that by harboring feelings for someone in Canada I had eliminated the possibility of meeting someone in Spain. In the beginning of May I applied online for several language exchange boards and was inundated with people willing to help me practice Spanish and probably several other skills. After weeding through the weirdos I came away with a few people who improved my Spanish and filled my social calendar. By mid-month I had gone for two job interviews and by week three I was training at a restaurant in the neighbouring town. I was lucky to finish my second month in the country with a visit from my best friend so I was able to show her what little I had gleaned of Spanish nightlife and the major tourist stops in Barcelona.

In June, I would like to say I learned about love but really I learned about lust and the mistakes we make in the pursuit of companionship and self-serving happiness. In attempting to forge connections I embarked on several haphazard and shallow endeavours. After realizing that European men are even more indifferent to fidelity within relationships than their North American counterparts, I decided to forego Spaniards and try my luck with Frenchmen (hey, it worked for my mom!). Gross miscalculation on my part, as I had a Frenchman declaring love and proposing marriage within weeks of meeting. I prefer to avoid confrontation when possible however I was forced to inform him I did not see us raising les enfants in the north of France. He did not take it well, and I learned a valuable lesson about ensuring your partner is emotionally and mentally stable before inviting them to stay with you. The more you try and push yourself towards someone the less likely a relationship is to flourish; the best connections seem to happen when you least expect it and are barely paying attention. Such is life.

By the time July rolled around I was learning a valuable lesson about time management. As my young charge finished school in the end of June, in July he spent his mornings at summer camp but I had him for an extra two and a half hours every day. The decrease in free time left me biking to work at the café in the morning from and then biking back to Sant Pol to ensure I was ready to pick him up on time. In the evenings I tentatively began to devote my time to visiting a British native in the next town over, which meant hopping back on my chariot of choice (yes, a mountain bike) and spending nights and mornings at his place. As a result of this wildly irregular schedule July passed in the blink of an eye and I was extremely burnt out by the end of the month. I spent several days in Paris and the change of scenery gave me a bit of a second wind vis-à-vis the traveler’s life.

In August I learned the importance of moderation. The month started with a drunken late-night dip in the ocean and a man choosing to abscond with my belongings (namely my keys, cash and brand new cell phone). I can chalk that lesson up to numerous factors – never spend $600 on something that can be taken that easily, never leave your clothes out of reach when you’re in the sea at 5AM and probably don’t drink to the point that you can’t chase down the dude who stole your shit. I had three weeks off from work with the child, so I filled my time with several beach days, more shifts at the bar and trips to Lisbon and Madrid. After nine-hour bar shifts I would typically bike home to nap for a couple of hours, then bike back to party with coworkers until six in the morning and then repeat the following day. In Lisbon I met up with a group of fellow traveler’s and once again drank to excess, which resulted in several afternoons in a haze of tequila sweat and hugging porcelain. Self-control has never been one of my strong suits, and August was yet another wake-up call that the emphasis on alcohol on nights out will never bode well for me. As such, this month was my “party month” and it passed me by quickly, greased as it was on its alcohol wheels.

As the summer months ended and life as normal resumed, I found myself being taught a lesson in levelheadedness. I was thankful to be able to resume a fixed schedule with the child in September as he started school the second week of the month. After realizing how quickly the summer passed I decided to quit the bar mid-month in order to have free time on the weekend again. After several unexpected events unrolled, I noticed my penchant to completely fly off the handle at the slightest inconvenience or unexpected occurrence. I was lucky to have my Brit throughout it all who was able to keep me as rationally calm as possible, and in overcoming obstacles I discovered the importance of inner strength. I don’t believe there are any insurmountable problems, it is simply necessary to maintain calm amidst the chaos.

By October I was being lulled into the steady rhythm of a rigid work schedule during the week and ample free time on weekends. Just in case life got too boring, I taught myself a valuable lesson in stepping outside my comfort zone. By the second week of October I had booked flights to take me and my Brit to Asia. The rest of the month resulted in me over-googling travel alerts for Southeast Asia and him reminding me to simmer down. As such, we both took a huge leap of faith and are hoping to continue our adventures together on the other side of the globe. I was initially torn between the safer option (relocating to Spain permanently and finding a job, apartment and all the other adult necessities) and this wild card draw. As it is, I’m glad to have someone who is encouraging me to feed my travel addiction and I can’t wait to finally cross that off my bucket list.

It seems fitting that my last month abroad resulted in a culmination of all the previous month’s lessons along with a few final twists to keep me on my toes. I walked away from my eight months abroad realizing that the most important thing you can do to overcome life’s little obstacles is to roll with the punches. In November I truly recognized how important it is to surround yourself with people who genuinely and unconditionally support your choices. The quality of the relationships you bring into your life have a huge impact on your quantity of happiness. While it is crucial that your close family and friends have a positive impact on your life, entering a romantic relationship with someone who constantly inspires you to be the best version of yourself is a huge factor in determining the direction your life will take. More than ever I realize that I am surrounded and supported by amazing people who will stand by my every inane endeavour. I am slowly, albeit reluctantly, accepting that for all my over-planning I cannot control everything that life will throw at me; at times I simply have to accept that I will be dragged through good and bad scenarios, but it is up to me to glean the lesson and move on.

I started writing this post on my train from Barcelona to Paris; I edited it during my flight from Paris to Toronto and now, safely ensconced in my cozy house in the suburbs of Mississauga, it seems insane to me that only a few days have passed since I left Europe. I feel like pieces of my soul have been perpetually scattered this summer and I feel fortunate to have had the opportunity to meet such amazing people in such a beautiful country.

I will never forget the past few months spent in Spain. My character and the very fibre of my being remains forever changed as a result of my trip. As I resume life in Canada for the winter, I am already dreaming of Bali beaches…

Safe travels,
AS

SOL: Tourist Indulgences, Cooking Like a Spaniard & Self(ie)-Loathing

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Tourist Indulgences

I celebrated my birthday on a Thursday in a low-key fashion, but I was determined to do something to mark the occasion on the weekend. As it was, I found myself getting up at 6AM on Saturday and hitching a ride with my hosts to Barcelona. While they went off to take care of work and exams (i.e. real-life problems) I wandered off on my own to explore the city.

I had two hours to kill before things began to open so I grabbed a tram from the port and made my way towards Plaza Catalunya. After a short walk I found a café appropriately named TapaTapa and downed two coffees while using their WiFi to map out each destination. The last time I was in Barcelona was a year ago and I never made it to the Sagrada Familia – an error I intended to rectify this time around. After a quick 25 minute walk I was stumbling into throngs of tourists and knew I had reached my destination. Construction of the Sagrada Familia began in 1882 and it became Gaudi’s pride and joy in 1883. It’s still heavily under renovation and I found that the scaffolding and cranes subtracted from the overall impression of the cathedral. I wandered around to the opposite side and noticed it was older and had a lot of character, which can be seen in the photo above. Ultimately I’m glad I went to see it and I will revisit it over the course of my stay here to gain further appreciation for its history.

After posting a photo of the cathedral to social media, a friend recommended that I read The Shadow of the Wind, a novel by Spanish writer Carlos Ruiz Zafón that takes place in Barcelona. I was a bit skeptical but I ended up reading the nearly 500 page tome in a matter of two days. The story is a gripping criminal narrative full of twists; all of which is accomplished while name-dropping plazas and streets within Barcelona. I am more than a little excited to venture back into Barcelona this weekend (an hour away by train) to check out a few of the streets mentioned in the book as well as wander through the Gothic District.

Spanish Cooking Lessons

One of the few sentences I have learned in Spanish is “Soy vegetariana.” In a country full of meat-lovers and greasy carnivorous tapas, finding vegetarian food has presented the occasional challenge. One of my hosts is a food enthusiast and is constantly trying to find bio and organic alternatives for me. As it is, I learned how to cook rice à la València methods this weekend using an oven and soup broth. How it’s done is simple: In a pan, heat soup broth to a low boil and then reduce. In a baking pan, drizzle uncooked rice with olive oil until it is lightly coated and then cover it with the broth in a 2:1 ratio. After that the additions are at the mercy of the chef: I added chopped zucchini, pine nuts and garlic to my first dish and it turned out wonderfully. Everything is put into the oven at about 280 degrees for 25 minutes or until all the broth evaporates. Once it is done remove it from the oven, mix it together, and let it cool.

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I made another dish on my own today and went wild with the seasoning; this batch had brown rice, onion, tomato, zucchini, chili peppers and some curry flavour. I tossed it in the oven and due to the larger batch it took about 50 minutes to cook all the way through. It tastes amazing and now I have a week’s worth of meals ready to go (preparing several meals in advance does not seem to be a popular concept in Europe). Next up for my cooking lessons is the local favourite of paella.

Self(ie)-Loathing

I can confess to occasionally indulging in a few habits that are asinine and downright vain. Before embarking on this trip I was determined to document it more than the last time, so I invested in what has become the bane of my existence – a selfie stick. Now, before you cast judgement (which, by all means, do, I can hardly blame you) before purchasing one of these “monopods” I regarded them with a scoff and barely disguised disgust as well. That said, for a solo-traveler and a narcissistic millennial, it is a technological godsend. Considering I have been cursed with T-Rex arms, the length of the selfie stick alone has come in handy more than once. After slight deliberation (and self-loathing, as mentioned) I purchased THIS brand from Amazon.ca.

It arrived a week before I left, and admittedly, I was smitten with it upon testing it out. It extends up to one metre and it doesn’t require you to connect it via wire or use a remote; all you have to do is link it to your Bluetooth and press the shutter button on the handle. One downside is that it needs to be fully-charged every time you plan on using it but otherwise it’s incredibly convenient and if you don’t mind bemused looks, it will definitely come in handy when you visit national monuments on your own (though several museums and public areas have banned the use of the sticks on the premises).

That said, taking pictures of ourselves was popular long before some jackass decided to coin the term “selfie,” thus condemning the action to pop-culture phenomenon hell. If you need to find me this weekend I will be the obnoxious tourist reeking of North American influence, brandishing my selfie-stick with an inane mixture of loathing and pride.

Safe travels,
AS

BODY: Review of BeHot Yoga Toronto

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Location: 43 Colborne St, Toronto, ON
Website: http://www.behotyogatoronto.com

One of the perks about living in the GTA is that there’s no shortage of yoga enthusiasts. Much like the ever-present Starbucks, throw a rock (or a yoga mat) in downtown Toronto and it’s more than likely you will hit a studio.

I started doing yoga in my early teens and after a bit of research into different practices I decided to branch into Bikram Yoga. Non-heated yoga has never held much appeal to me and there’s a masochistic pleasure derived from watching rivulets of sweat pour down your body. To each their own, though – any yoga style is an excellent way to ensure athletic longevity as you age.

Bikram Yoga, created by mega-douche Bikram Choudhury, is a practice that incorporates a series of 26 postures and two breathing sequences for a total of 90 minutes in a climate-controlled environment of 105 degrees. It’s sweltering and often painful, but it does yield results.

Bikram Yoga, not to be confused with “hot yoga” is essentially trade-marked and therefore incredibly costly to practice. As it is I was lucky enough to find BeHot Bikram in downtown Toronto with an offer to new students for $49 for 30 days of unlimited yoga. Considering a drop-in class costs $25 all you have to do is go to TWO classes in one month to get your money’s worth.

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This studio is right in the downtown core and is approximately a five minute walk from King Subway Station. The studio has been running for 10 years and the owner Paul McQuillan has not only literally written the book on yoga (seriously, check it out HERE) but he has also created a welcoming atmosphere for yogis of any skill level to practice in. During my month of classes I was instructed by several different teachers and by McQuillan himself; all of whom were knowledgeable, encouraging, and some were even able to make me laugh while I was contorted and praying for the sweet release of death.

While the benefits of Bikram are a source of heated debate, I did notice that I shed a bit of weight (which may be contributed to expelling a gallon of sweat at each class), my flexibility and posture improved, and my mood was better. The list of potential benefits will vary from each practitioner but the detoxifying benefits are a guarantee.

For first-timers, be forewarned that the heat will get intense. Drink a litre of water in the hours leading up to your class, hydrate during the practice and make sure you have water afterwards! Avoid eating a heavy meal beforehand and dress prepared to sweat. Lots of the die-hard yogi’s will be rocking speedos and not much else so don’t feel embarrassed about shedding layers – you’ll sweat through everything anyway.

BeHot rents out mats and towels, and sells water for a nominal fee; they also offer small lockers to store your valuables during class. The changing room gets busy quickly so getting there early is in your best interest. The doors to the studio are unlocked half an hour before each class starts.

I encourage anyone in Toronto who is looking for a change in their fitness routine to take advantage of this offer!

“Yoga is not a religion. It is a science – science of well-being, science of youthfulness, science of integrating body, mind and soul.”
// Amit Ray

SOL: Shall We Dance?

I started taking dance classes when I was 8 years old. I was a precocious child from an early age, so instead of pirouettes and pas de bourrées I hit the floor and started out with hip-hop, then later branched out to street-style dancing, belly dancing and even break-dancing. Throughout my adolescence it remained an after-school hobby that boosted confidence and kept me in touch with my body.

Unfortunately, throughout my early 20’s my integrity fell by the wayside and I became more focused on shallow endeavors rather than actually improving myself as a person. As a result until this October it had been roughly five years since I had attempted choreography or entered a studio.

As part of my resolution to enjoy my life outside of work, when I returned from France I purchased a Groupon for 16 dance classes at O.I.P Dance Centre in Toronto for a steal of $18. The studio is located at 190 Richmond St E, a happy 1KM walk from my office. The first class I went to was taught by the owner himself and it was amazing. I figured I’d aim low and take a beginner class so as to spare my ego and I am so glad that I did. While the teacher was incredibly skilled at pacing the moves, I still found myself hauling ass across the floor and scrambling to remember what came next. The teacher was yelling “Muscle memory! Dance FULL OUT!” and I was on the verge of dislocating my shoulder as I attempted to nail each move. I was not even close to being the best in the class, but I had a lot of fun.

The thing I love about dance is that I find more so than any other activity I do (running, intervals, weights, yoga) it pulls me very much out of the typical fog I operate under and plunks me into the NOW. Akin to monk-level meditation, for one hour my mind was filled with nothing except counts of eight and the occasional muttered curse as I learned the choreography. The teacher insisted that the class was not meant as a workout, it was strictly a dance class, but I still left with a sheen of sweat on my skin and a smile on my face.

I recommend O.I.P dance studio and the pursuit of anything that makes you smile – but dance is a great place to start.

Health benefits from dance include:

  • improved condition of your heart and lungs
  • increased muscular strength, endurance and motor fitness
  • increased aerobic fitness
  • improved muscle tone and strength
  • weight management
  • stronger bones and reduced risk of osteoporosis
  • better coordination, agility and flexibility
  • improved balance and spatial awareness
  • increased physical confidence
  • improved mental functioning
  • improved general and psychological wellbeing
  • greater self-confidence and self-esteem
  • better social skills.

Health Benefits info from: http://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/

BODY: Workout Review

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I mentioned in an earlier post that since I’ve been at my second placement I’ve been doing a lot of running. I initially started up with an easy 5KM per day, but I’ve slowly increased to a 8KM to 10KM loop. I like running; I’ve always enjoyed it and the numerous health benefits it bestows upon me.

That said, cardio is not enough.

I like workout videos because they’re easy to pop in at home without having to trek to an expensive gym or aerobics studio. I’ve been purchasing workout videos for years (because I prefer having the physical DVD, most are easily downloadable these days) and some are worth the money while others are downright cheesy or impossible to follow.

I brought along a few workout videos with me on this trip, one of which being Jillian Michaels “Banish Fat Boost Metabolism.” I noticed that after a few weeks of solely running, I wasn’t getting the muscle mass or toned look that I wanted. I popped this DVD in on a whim – and instantly regretted it.

The first time I did this workout my chalet was approximately 30 degrees. Jillian’s circuit training absolutely murdered me; I was dripping with sweat and swearing like a sailor by the second circuit. This woman means business.

The workout is 45 minutes long, plus a warm-up and cool-down and consists of seven circuits. Every muscle on your body will be targeted throughout the workout and there are variations for every move depending on your physical ability. The first few days after starting this workout I noticed my legs were tighter, my abs more defined, and my upper body ached as muscles were being formed. I felt amazing!

I’ve also noticed that since supplementing my fitness regime with strength exercises, my cardio has improved drastically. My legs and hips are stronger during my running route and I am able to run longer, faster and better.

I highly recommend trying this workout!

Namaste,
AS

SOL: Solo Travels

There came a point in my pre-departure lifestyle where amongst all the planning and saving I realized that I should probably start telling people that I was leaving. Those closest to me had known for several months, but as I told more people there was one sentence they would all invariably utter, “You’re going alone?

They’d lower their voice as they said it, as if taking this journey solo was too troublesome to say out loud. Alone – as if it was a dirty or unpleasant word. Then they would raise the topic of my safety, (because a young woman travelling alone is apparently a target) or tell me that I would get lonely and want to come home within a week. I politely listened to all of it, while within my head all I could focus on was the gentle, reassuring thrum that was pushing me out the door and propelling me to a foreign country.

I feel like it’s important to address these inaccuracies. I’m rapidly approaching my one month mark in France and I can honestly attest to the fact that I have not once felt lonely. If anything, I’ve felt swamped with company and I find myself constantly surrounded by friendly faces. I’m not sure if it’s an auric radiation or France in general, but even my quiet moments result in new acquaintances, whether it’s an elderly gentleman in a café (who overheard I was Canadian and promptly whipped out photos of his own daughter who is teaching in Toronto) or a young American woman (who heard my “accent” and quickly bonded with me over our mutual interest in Thailand and discussed the best places to get Thai food in France). Each interaction leaves me feeling charmed and blessed by life. I am never lonely, but I relish the moments when I am alone.

Even while in Barcelona, which is notorious for pick-pockets and chock-full of warnings for young women, I never once felt threatened or worried about my safety. In fact, as a young woman I find people are more likely to take you under their wing and protect you. As we checked into our hostel we experienced a brief moment of panic because we had booked into a “Mixed Dorm” (8 bunks, male and female). We agreed that if we walked in and felt unsafe or threatened, we would demand to be switched to an all-female dorm. As it turns out, we were in a room with two couples and one 22 year old Dutch guy who turned out to be excellent company while we stayed in Barcelona. Hostels are great places to meet like-minded travellers and I could have easily stayed a few extra nights for the social aspect alone.

Travelling alone can be more stressful, and I can certainly see the benefit to splitting the costs of luggage lockers and taxi’s, but successfully arriving at each destination fills me with a sense of pride and independence that I can scarcely put into words.

As much as I love the people in my life, I cannot imagine taking this trip with anyone but myself. I’ve been incredibly lucky thus far to have had my experience enriched by so many colourful characters.

I’m looking forward to the next few months of travel I have ahead.

Namaste,
AS

MIND: The Alchemist

MIND: The Alchemist

I recently completed The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho, and I’m still processing it.

Honestly I’ll need to reread it several times because there are many life lessons to be learned. One of the messages that resonated with me is the theory that we must always follow our passions and respond to each call that ignites our soul.

The small things that we enjoy are our calling, and ignoring these small “nudges” towards our destiny can be fatal to our dreams.

As someone who has recently started an extended “soul-searching” trip, this book came to me at the perfect time. Coelho explains how our soul thrums at peace when we are on the path that syncs with our dreams. I believe this. I feel in my core that I’m supposed to be traveling – the minute I took off on my journey I felt a huge weight lift from my shoulders. I hestitate to agree with his use of the words fate and destiny because I’m not entirely sure I agree with that way of thinking. He also explains that when you’re on the path of your dreams, the universe will conspire to help you achieve it, though not always in the most direct or obvious way. Does the universe work with and against us? I haven’t decided.

It’s a good read, I’m going to keep rereading it as I travel because it makes me feel things, as all good books should. I highly recommend it to all – it’s a quick read with a long lasting impression.

Namaste,
AS

SOL: Backpacking Essentials

My first major item for Europe – I purchased the Cragalot 48L pack through Mountain Equipment Co. for an unbelievable $60! They shipped it out immediately and I LOVE it.

The size is perfect for those who are petite, the straps are supportive and padded – the true test will be the few months it’s put to good use! I especially love the side zipper access as well as the top opening – it gives me a feeling of security with the pack. I got the all black version – looks are still important and I was wary of purchasing a pink and purple sack. The lime green accents brighten it up a bit without making me feel like I’m wearing a neon sign that says “target me, please.”

Because it is 48L and the dimensions are (in centimetres): H70 – W39 – L34, I’m not worried about space to fit my stuff. On the way over, I initially wanted to be able to check this bag as a carry-on, but after reassessing my itinerary I will be checking this bag and bringing a smaller backpack as a carry-on. Packing light has never been one of my fortes!

One downside is that it’s not waterproof, but MEC.ca has cheap waterproof covers for their packs which will come in handy. In terms of durability I think it is built well, and Mountain Equipment Co. has an excellent reputation.

Very excited to bring this with me on my trip next year!