North America Trip: Like, The Whole of Toronto

So I flew into Billy Bishop Airport, got through customs and emerged to a waiting room for the ferry to Toronto (the airport is on an island) in which an a capella group serenaded us with happy tunes and handed out free passes. So far: all Canada expectations being met. I got onto the ferry and gleefully eyed the bald old guy with twinkling blue eyes wishing everyone a hearty good morning. All Canadian expectations still being met.

And then… I got to Union Station. If you are a Toronto native or familiar with the area, you will know that Union Station is currently under construction. It is dirty, poorly signed and hard to get around, particularly with a 20kg bag in tow. I also arrived as a Blue Jays game was starting, and had to wade through hoardes of sports fans in blue shirts. I asked for directions on multiple occasions, and had to work pretty hard not to admonish people that they were explaining things VERY POORLY.

Canada: not exactly what I expected.

But here’s the thing: it really grew on me, not unlike mould or a mushroom. It’s expensive, the subway drivers all seem to play Passenger Skittles (they brake far too damn hard) and the water, when not refrigerated, tastes like mud… but it’s really multicultural, the food is excellent and the weather (for the nine days we were here) was perfect.

There are a lot of douchebags here. I was completely shocked on a long bus journey when a guy got on and proceeded to yak away at full volume in the otherwise silent bus… and then another two people got on and did the same. (Dear Massive-Asshat-Who-Sat-In-Front-Of-Me-And-Spoke-For-Like-An-Hour: You ignorant twerp, your Russian girlfriend is obviously having you on. I’m fairly certain “parlez-vous what should I do?” does NOT mean “I’ll find the vodka” in Russian. Of course as you pointed out, she was born in Kazakhstan, which I must reluctantly inform you WAS in fact part of “Soviet Russia”, but is no longer, largely on account of Soviet Russia no longer existing. Also well done on getting 91% on that one test that one time – from my overall impression of you that must have been one of the highlights of a short and blissfully ignorant life. Also: YOU LEFT YOUR STARBUCKS CUP ON THE BUS.)

But I dunno, the presence of rude, ignorant people here was kind of refreshing. As a foreigner in Japan it’s kind of easy to get caught up in the idea that Japanese people exercise a special brand of willful ignorance and general lack of cosmopolitanism… but they don’t. I feel oddly relieved about this.

Highlights of the trip included some really good times visiting with friends and family, the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) and the Niagara Falls. The latter was kinda tacky and touristy but in a really fun way – I had a really good time!

I’m about to fly back to New York and I’ll blog more about Toronto later, but I will say I’m going to miss it quite a bit I think. Laters, Toronts.

North America Trip: Last Bit of NYC, First Hint of Toronto

Bit of an image-heavy post – so sorry about that. I decided to be brave this trip and only bring along the iPad – from a carrying perspective it’s worked out OK, but from a photo-editing and blogging perspective… well, there’s still a part of me that’s kinda cringing. Nonetheless. Sorry for the radio silence – I shall now continue to recount my adventures. Onwards!



Went to Midtown with my friend Niki to check out MoMA. Major-league rubbernecking for me. New York’s architecture is dizzying and almost inappropriately beautiful considering the density and what a relatively young city it is. I love that. South Africa doesn’t have a lot of beautiful architecture and with the exception of really old temples and whatnot, Japan has almost no beautiful architecture. But New York – just beautiful.

We managed to catch MoMA on a free entry day (sponsored by Uniqlo! I’m happy the many thousands of dollars I’ve spent there over the last few years are being put to good use!). It was insanely crowded, and we decided to skip straight ahead to the really famous stuff on the top floor.

I pretty much entered every room with saucer-eyes and a drawn-out, “Woooooow!” MoMA is home to the icons, the paintings I used to stare at for hours in encyclopedias and art textbooks. The Van Goghs and Picassos (ALL the Picassos) and Rousseus and Matisses and Renoirs and how BIG they all are and how magnificent! It was kind of unreal, but in the best possible way.

I was unshocked by the guy in flannel pyjamas, but I was initially pretty horrified by the laissez-faire attitude on taking photos – and flash photography was happening (I found it terribly ironic that a guard completely ignored this but barked at me to wear my backpack on my front >_<) On one hand, as a photographer, I feel like this is kind of awesome – you can interact with art in this breathtaking, unaccustomed way. But on the other hand… I don't know if I get it, really. Sculptures maybe. But paintings? What are you going to do with your shitty iPhone photo of Starry Night? What's the point of it?

Anyway. I got over it eventually and took a picture of this cute Picasso statue, just to see how it would feel.

So… yeah. MoMA was pretty good. We went out for amazing Neapolitan pizza and caught some improv comedy at a thrilling little Tiki bar – it was nice to imagine what life might be like as a young 20/30-something New Yorker.

And then off to Toronto in the morning. I got bumped to an earlier flight (ooh yeah baby) and basically spent the whole time staring at the countryside unfolding beneath the plane. And then we landed.

DUN DUN DUUUUUUuuuuN! Tune in later for more.

North America Trip Day Three: In Which New York Gets Good

My primary goal for the day was to find some shoes. It varies, but shoes in Japan are almost always too small for me – to this end I packed only one pair for the trip and set out yesterday to buy MOAR.

It was a nice day. People were strolling around the streets and everything seemed calm and pleasant. And finally, here was the feeling that I had wanted – that I’d suspected I’d feel: a sense of lightness and excitement, that first inkling of being in sync with a place, as opposed to an alien in a hostile environment.
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North America Trip Day First-Day-In-New-York

An astute friend of mine observed that New York is like America distilled. It’s like learning to drink on tequila. As the rest of my experience with America is exactly zero, I cannot vouchsafe the accuracy of this statement. But I will say it’s pretty goddamn intense, particularly because I’ve been in Japan for so long.

I made the cheapskate decision of taking the subway to my destination. Although it’s pretty grotty (I will never complain about Nagoya’s subway again, until next time I ride the Higashiyama Line), the subway itself was fairly eas… no, it wasn’t. It’s a weird incomprehensible rabbit warren. Everyone looks like the star of a TV show (or at least a major character). A guy with earlocks and a yarmulke came and sat near me and a group of Sikhs sat at the other side of the carriage. There were mutterers and chewing-gum-jawing nail-cleaning women making bad fashion choices. I needn’t have been so concerned about my wardrobe, it seems.

People here are pretty fascinating. Sometimes I can’t tell whether they’re speaking English or not. Everyone seems extraordinarily defined, although it might just be me matching patterns and seeking out the stereotypical. It’s really nice to be around people of all races and body types.

Anyway – to continue – after an excruciatingly long subway ride, I got out of the station and got really, really lost – being unaware that xth street East and xth street West are distinctly different places and very far apart. This culminated in me stopping to ask a guy who was holding a box cutter and doing something to his garbage for directions. (In retrospect this makes it sound quite hazardous, but he looked friendly.)

I told him my predicament. “Awww honey,” he said, and it was the nicest thing anyone had ever said to me. He explained the route but suggested, full of the milk of human kindness, that I should get a taxi, because I had clearly been travelling for a long time. (I was lugging along all my stuff.)

So I tried flagging a taxi.

This did not work very well. I’m not sure how you’re supposed to do it but I tackled it by looking as conspicuous as possible and waving. Eventually one stopped (in the middle of the road, not pulled over), rolled down the window and yelled something at me. I tried to explain where I needed to go; he clearly had no idea what I was saying. At this point for no apparent reason he drove away – just drove away, without any kind of end to the conversation. He just looked away and pulled off.

I sort of may have slightly started tearing up a little. The stress and distance and lugging a tonne of luggage kinda got to me at that point. Of course, if you’re going to have a mini nervous breakdown on the street, history and Hollywood would indicate that New York is a pretty good place to do it. But I gave myself a mini talking-to, donned my big girl panties and soldiered on. I survived. Huzzah.

My hotel is in a pretty little street near a pretty little park. It’s quite old fashioned – lots of brown stone and architectural fussiness on the facades and elaborate railings and whatnot. It’s not too bad so far, although I’ve got a shared bathroom and there are old dudes on my floor. Hrmph.

Oh yeah, and for dinner I had a 1/2 pound beef burger (they didn’t have smaller ones; I asked.) I went to the place because it was convenient, although they had reviews up indicating that the place was quite well thought-of. It was pretty bland and not as good as Centre 4 in Takayama, so bam, take that. The waiter seemed perplexed by my refusal of coffee refills (everything in moderation guys).

Tomorrow I reckon I’ll got shopping and try to get some new shoes, and maybe also some yarn. Maybe I’ll hit up Barnes and Noble. Yay, America.

A for effort but C for taste:


North America Trip Day One and Day One again – The Flight

Because of the international date line see? I basically got to live through Wednesday for 50% longer than everybody else.

The flight started out alright. In fact, it was the most perfect take-off I’ve ever experienced – I didn’t even feel the wheels leave the runway. I was in Premium Economy, I got to watch the rest of Death Comes to Pemberley (which I’d started on my previous flight) and the food was decent.

Then they switched off the lights. The young Chinese lady sitting beside me switched on her reading light, which was really bright. Alright, thought I. No worries. She appeared to be reading the Bible from cover to cover, while making chewy mouth motions. Each to his own, thought I, willing to be patient. Except she never switched it off. At all. I really struggle to sleep in brightly-lit environments, but not even the eye-mask and headphones helped. To make matters worse the one time I did manage to doze off, I was woken by Bible Betty, unable to find her TV remote control.

About 5 hours in I looked at the clock at flipped. 8 hours plus to go. For the first time in my life on an airplane I felt a violent revulsion for where I was and a desperation to be elsewhere.

It just got worse.

I don’t know why. I’ve not generally had problems with the long-haul plane rides I’ve done to date. I was just seriously uncomfortable and unhappy and sleep-deprived, and it culminated in kind of this weird, freaky state of mind where part of me seriously fantasized about marching to the cabin and demanding to be let off. (Of course, at this point we were flying over Mongolia, and not even my fantasies go that far…)

The funny thing is, there were a few empty seats. I probably could have swapped. There was also quite a nice big space in front of the loo where I could have stretched. But the paranoid, Japanesified part of my brain revolted against the thought of being stared at, of doing something out of the ordinary, and so I stayed put, wondering even as I did it why I was doing it. This is clearly something I need to work on.

It ended, as these things do. I veritably bounced through the featureless labyrinthine corridors to immigration, then off to the baggage carousel.

As a final insult, my torturous plane neighbour kept coming to stand right in front of me, searching for her bag with the same frenetic vagueness that she’d displayed on the plane. I moved – twice – but she kept moving in front of me. I seriously considered chewing her out for her utter lack of consideration, but thought better of it and posted about it on the internet instead.

Actually, I want to end this on a slightly more positive note: I got upgraded for the trip from Nagoya to Hong Kong and it was the single best travel experience of my entire life. Not even exaggerating. It was AMAZING. Super kudos to Cathay Pacific. The food was awesome (I tried a cheese called Camzola and it changed my life), the service was incredible and I got addressed by my name throughout the flight. It was just too delightful.




North America Trip Day One: Hong Kong

Not all those who wonder are lost. Sometimes they’re looking for a Starbucks because it’s really really early and facing Hong Kong airport without much sleep is really quite a lot to ask of a person.

I’ve been really bad at blogging this year. I’ve been in training to become the understatement champion of the world. Not really. I just haven’t – let’s leave it at that.

But now I’m travelling and if there’s ever been a really good excuse to start back up, this is it.

Right now I’m in Hong Kong. It’s very different from Japan. It’s full of pushy people (no really guys, please respect my personal space) and guys with DSLRs taking bad pictures (I know this because of what they’re pointing them at – taking random shots of airport boarding gates or a hundred flash shots of two people talking is unlikely to produce a hot picture.) [Addition: as I’ve been writing this, this annoying teenage boy has been lolloping about in that awkward chicken way that most boys going through puberty seem to have about them, taking sneaky shots of the girls sitting opposite me with what looks like a Canon. Little shit.]

I had a 17-hour layover (I do seem to get those a lot), so I stayed here overnight – stayed at a swanky airport hotel which was really delightful until I couldn’t work out how to turn on the showerhead. I would have called someone, but I was in a hurry – needlessly, as it turns out. Nonetheless, I think I look and smell fairly good considering I washed under the bath tap, which was about 30 centimetres from the bottom of the bath. Fun times.

Aforementioned swanky hotel room (offending shower not pictured):


Last night I thought about going out and interacting with the locals (or at least other human beings), but they keep warning people about bird flu (or avian influenza, let’s be formal about it) and there are a lot of people who sneeze without much in the way of, say, a hand in front of the mouth. It’s not exactly encouraging. (Also on that note, what is up with Chinese men just belching like nobody’s business? At Nagoya airport I sat next to this Cantonese guy who let out the most incredible series of low, rattling burps – uuuurrrrrp, uuuurrrrrp, uuurppp, uurrrrrrrrp, he went, and immediately fell asleep. I was dumbfounded.)

Flying out soon. Will keep you updated.

The entire extent of my Hong Kong sightseeing:




New Year's Shrine Lanterns, Osu Kannon

New Year’s Shrine Lanterns, Osu Kannon

Alright, so it’s been kind of a sketchy year blog-wise. In fact, for all the opportunities and free time I’ve had this year, it’s been kind of a sketchy year in terms of creativity. Oh, I completed a novel for NaNoWriMo. I got a lot of practice taking photos of people, which is basically the subject I would most like to be good at. I even got my first paid photography gig. But somehow I still feel really unsatisfied with my creative output for the year.

It’s sort of got me thinking about what circumstances best promote creative output. My immediate instinct is to say free time, or at least time that you have control over. One of the most frustrating aspects of my previous work situation was having to spend hours and hours of inactivity at work without the freedom to engage in activities that I felt would be productive.

But as I’ve discovered this year, free time just isn’t enough. What you really need is stimulation, as well as a little bit of stress. And people. People who give you ideas, people who give you constructive, detailed criticism. And at least one or two people who shamelessly stroke your ego, because artists might be able to go without food or income but it’s really, really hard to go without praise. (My tongue is firmly in my cheek here.)

So here’s my resolution for this year: I’m going to write the shit out of everything. I’m going to take pictures EVERY DAY, or at least three times a week. I’m going to say yes to invitations, even though I’m an introvert and it’s actually pretty difficult for me. And I’m also going to say no to invitations, because this year my priority is to write, write and write some more. I’m going to get involved in “Projects”. I’m going to travel more, listen more and watch fewer TED talks. (!) SO THERE. Twenty-fourteen, which incidentally is my vision acuity measurement. LET’S DO THIS THING.

How I’m Planning to Survive NaNoWriMo…

…in an Unspecified Number of Steps of Varying Difficulty

Shibuya Crossing

It’s coming! IT’S COMING! Brace yourself!

After my previous article on Why Everyone Should Be Doing NaNoWriMo, I’m hoping that a tonne of people rushed to sign up to participate, or at least forwarded the article to that friend they’re always saying should write a book. (Everyone has one. You know it. Do them a favour and push them.) As Beyonce says, if you like it then you shoulda put a link on it.

So anyway. As promised, here are a few ideas on how to slay this thing. I hesitate to call them advice because 1) all too frequently people on the internet who dispense advice are condescending underachievers and 2) I don’t like to get advice, so why would I give it? Look at these as my ideas that you’re free to disagree with or put into practice with as much modification as you please.

There will not be a test.

1) Have a PLAN, have a STRUCTURE      This article by Ali Hale on the 8-point story arc is basically what saved my butt last year (if the link ever breaks, please Google it!). I’d really, really recommend you read it. I’m an avid reader and consider myself well-versed on what creates narrative tension, how a story should be paced and what shape it should take, but I’m definitely not above using these to help organize my thoughts.

Here’s a very practical guide to what I did. First I wrote down all the points. Then I wrote down what all the points meant – i.e. this is what happens in the trigger, this is what happens in the climax. Next, I made a list of the chapters (I chose to have 10 chapters of 5,000 words each.) Then I decided which point(s) would occur in each chapter. THEN I went through and outlined the details of each point – what would happen in the story. I wasn’t too detailed – maybe 200 words per chapter. Remember that you’re not going to devote equal space to each plot point and DOUBLE remember that even if you’re devoting a chapter to a plot point you need to have other stuff happening that leads up to it. Unless you want your story to be eight sentences long, of course.

2) SHOW and TELL      Actually, just show. We all know the tired old gag about describing how

Billy walked into the room and wiped the rain off his $400 coat before realizing that not one, but two of his ex-wives were watching him with faces like tigresses startled in the act of love

…is a lot better than writing about how Billy was a rich man who had blown through a number of marriages that had ended badly.

But really, take this into account. Unless your narrator is a character, they shouldn’t even have a voice. They shouldn’t even exist. Never make observations about your characters – let them do it. Let the other characters do it, and even then be circumspect about it. People who are always both absolutely truthful and absolutely honestly do not exist, and if they do, they shouldn’t do it in books.

3) Write the way you speak! No, really!      I hesitate to make stylistic recommendations because that’s what the post-writing editing process is for. But if you’re writing in a voice you’re not fully comfortable with, you’re going to come off as pretentious. Worse, at some point you’re going to realise that it all feels foreign and awkward and alienating.

Be sparing with your adjectives, especially if you’re writing fantasy fiction. Seriously. You do not need to follow every character introduction with a description of how her shining, pale platinum blonde tresses fall in delicate, silky waves to her tiny waist – unless you’re writing a parody. That’s old and a cliche. You’re better than that.

4) Sharpen your Google Fu! (Or do your research beforehand!)      There’s still a lot of time before NaNoWriMo, which means you have a lot of time to read up on those factoids that are necessary for your salient plot points. Last year I spent a lot of time researching weather, Scottish property prices, the interior layout of cottages, driving distances, and other trivia of that nature. I’m not saying it’s absolutely necessary for everyone to do that, but I felt a lot safer knowing that my entire plot wasn’t going to unravel because of some tiny detail. I didn’t spend hours every day looking stuff up, but I did know where to go for it.

5) Meal-Planning      I am not even kidding about this one. NaNoWriMo is a bit of a time-consuming endeavour, but it’s also a great chance to inject a lot of structure and planning into your life. I reckon it’s best to set aside time every day to do the stuff you need to do, do it quickly and efficiently and spend the rest of the day writing. I managed to get my 50,000 words written by day 26. Funny thing is, I did the bulk in the first two weeks, and then really struggled with the last bit, probably because I was running out of clean clothing and needed to scramble to take care of the backlog of chores. This year I’m planning a massive spring clean (or late autumn clean, anyway!) at the end of October, which will be followed by four weeks of one-pot meals (to minimize on the dishes), carefully planned in advance.

That’s me. If this sounds like rubbish to you, it might be useful to identify the areas of your own life that could be reorganized to fit in MOAR WRITING.

6) Rewards      Whether it’s an episode of a TV series you like, a block of chocolate, a cookie, a piece of vintage Irish cheddar – have some kind of carrot to dangle in front of yourself so that you can give yourself a reward when you hit your daily word count. (And remember to buy it beforehand so you don’t have to waste time leaving the house when you could be writing.) This is the time for counting words, not calories!

That being said, get comfortable when you’re writing. Having a warming mug of the beverage of your choice on hand (or a refreshing cooler if you’re in the southern hemisphere) can help you get in the mood. Last year my poison of choice was cocoa with a wee dram of whisky – to get in the mood, y’know. (Also, it was incredibly freaking cold. I bought fingerless gloves and wrote most of my novel huddled under a duvet.)

7) Stop reading      (It’s just one month.) I put my reading on hold for a month. This is a personal choice because one of my biggest fears is that my work will resemble an author I admire. So I keep other fiction out of my head. It also helps free up time and headspace.

So anyway. This is just an offhand outline of how I like to organize my life before and during NaNoWriMo. If you have any advice/ ideas, feel free to share!

My Sunday for a Song! Two Trees – “Home”

Discovered these guys this week on Twitter. (Who knew? Twitter can be useful for more than just hearing about Stephen Fry’s ongoing feud with the British press and getting Alain de Botton’s twee messages of the day in batches of seventeen at a time!)

I think there’s something in the water in Sweden that magically turns a really high percentage of the population into incredibly wonderful musicians. (No, stop thinking about Abba. I’m talking about The Cardigans, Peter Bjorn and John, First Aid Kit, jj, The Perishers… um… Roxette… Ace of Base… let’s stop now.) ANYWAY. My point is, Sweden has produced a lot of kickass musicians.

Two Trees are clearly still a young band and I’d love to see more of their stuff and watch as they mature, but I really like the smooth peacefulness of this track and will be keeping an eye on their future progress.

Have a smooth Sunday, delightful people.

NaNoWriMo – Why Everyone Should Be Doing It

Be inspired by this completely unrelated picture of bug-eaten lettuce in aesthetically pleasing shades of green and purple.

Be inspired by this completely unrelated picture of bug-eaten kale in aesthetically pleasing shades of green and purple.

If you’re unfamiliar with the term NaNoWriMo, I would like to take a brief moment to introduce you. National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) is an incredible 30-day challenge to write a 50,000 word novel in 30 days. The novel can be about anything you like: historical romance, speculative zombie horror, crime thriller – all is cool in the land of NaNoWriMo. At the end of the month, you paste your efforts into a form, the website officially verifies your wordcount and if you’ve exceeded 50,000 words, you get a cute downloadable certificate and a freaking novel. (You can read up on the official rules on the website: mostly it’s just don’t write anything before the 1st of November).

Wait, this sounds torturous! you say. AND YOU’RE RIGHT. (Savour the feeling; who knows when it’ll happen again?) Writing 50k words in a month is no small feat. Works out to 1,667 words per day. Depending on how prolific you are, that’s… quite a few words. Writing takes time, too. I don’t want to give up my social life/ obsessive working out/ three hours of video games a day! So why on earth should I do this thing? Continue reading