AberdeenWith jet-lag a distant memory and my stomach full of delicious Western food, I took the train up to Edinburgh (noting that trips of five or ten hours seem easy after places like India and Australia), briefly caught up with my aunt, boarded a bus going further north and stepped off in Aberdeen for a rendezvous with a campaigning and aikido buddy from my(not-so-distant) university days. I only had a little time, so we caught up over lots of food, wanderings around the city and hanging out in his rather swish flat. I left for England less than 24 hours later, and somehow got caught up in a police manhunt at Newcastle – they locked the train doors so we couldn’t leave, then swept the carriages with stun guns out while dog and armed units waited outside. The station had also been locked, but we were allowed to leave after ten minutes or so and just made our connecting bus heading south.

Unappetising fudgeWith the majority of my holiday (that is, time spent doing things not directly productive or relevant to my upcoming job) time in the UK over, I settled down to make an effort at planning my curriculum for the coming semester. My university had kindly supplied me with the names of some relevant textbooks, though they were nowhere to be found in Huddersfield Central Library and I turned to the local institute of higher education for help. It turns out that one can get a guest user pass for Huddersfield University Library, and so I was soon rubbing shoulders with busy students for the first time in many months. I managed to bash out reasonable course outlines, and will tidy them up in consultation with the rest of the faculty once back in Korea.

Despite some not-quite-unexpected flooding (I had to totter long the top of a wall when walking home one evening to avoid the waters), I made the trip out to North Yorkshire to see my grandparents and spent a thoroughly pleasant day catching up and hanging out. That weekend, we drove up to York to do a bit of shopping and meet my brother, which concluded my sojourn in the North.

All packed, I wrestled my unreasonably heavy suitcase (borrowed from Amy for the specific purpose of moving to Korea) down to Birmingham and looked up some old friends still there (through further study, work or general inertia). Sarah was kind enough to offer me her floor (covered in comfortable cushions) to crash on, and I saw university perennials 360 (finally with some new material) the night I arrived. The following day, we mixed up some crumble topping and strode over to see the inestimable Matt. The day, and most of the night, was then spent seriously hanging out, cooking delicious food, musing over the state of the garden and compost bin, walking in the park, putting the world to rights, meeting other campaigners from my P&P days and generally enjoying ourselves.

I left for London shortly afterwards, having stopped off at Gloucester to see my other grandparents, discovered that my sister had acquired a tufty guinea pig, did some shopping (including, finally, shoes that don’t leak through the soles) and prepared my luggage for the trans-Atlantic trip. On arriving at Gatwick airport, I was unceremoniously hit with a $120 excess baggage fee (undoubtedly due to three enormous chemistry textbooks I had included at the last minute) and fell foul of the 100 ml liquids limit by trying to take an empty bottle on board. Apparently it’s not the actual liquid that is a security risk, but the containers themselves. The flight was tolerably short, if rather bumpy, and I arrived in Toronto in good shape despite the on-board staff continually trying to give me meaty meals. On landing, the temperature was a balmy -8 C, setting the scene for a Canadian holiday in winter.

Amy had trekked out to the airport to meet me, and we hugged our three-week separation away before making our way downtown on the 50s-style subway system, complete with period tiles, typefaces and trains. We went out for Ethiopian food (at one of the hundreds of Ethiopian restaurants in the area) with Amy’s sister, then slept off the worst of the rigours of travel (Amy had just arrived from Korea) at a local hotel run by a cheery Rwandan guy. We awoke to bagels and a warm (by Canadian standards) day, met Maria for lunch, then hung out with her in the bustling Chinatown and Kensington Markets before heading out to a different suburb. We were going to meet Amy’s friend Jaclyn, but were sidetracked by a comic-and-board-game shop and ended up arriving with a new game in tow. After much fussing over the house rabbits and an indescribably spicy Indian meal, we broke out The Dungeon of Dorukan (a The Order of the Stick-inspired board game that I’d picked up in Leeds) and battled monsters in a comical fashion until the wee hours.

BernadetteIn a not-entirely-unpredictable turn of events, a giant snowstorm had swept in overnight and dumped several inches of snow on most of Ontario. We battled our way through the slush to the bus terminal, found the bus going to London (that’s London, Ontario), waited around an hour for it to show up and then got stuck behind three snowploughs clearing the road ahead. While this was undoubtedly the safest way to travel on a dark and snowy night, we arrived late and tired, and were heartened to see Julie (one of Amy’s friends who’d previously worked in Korea). Over the next couple of days, we saw two bands (including Twilight Hotel, from Winnipeg), slept on satin sheets, made a brilliant lasagne, tired out (and were tired out by) Julie’s hyperactive kitten Bernadette and, you’ve guessed it, did a lot of hanging out.

Snow blocksThe next stage of our trans-Canada trip was the bus journey to Winnipeg – two hours from London to Toronto, and then a further thirty-two to the Prairies. We had puzzles, books and snack food aplenty, but hadn’t reckoned on the back of the bus being populated with hosers who chatted loudly about stealing skidoos, punching people in the nose and how Tim Horton’s (a popular national chain of coffee shops) doesn’t take debit cards and is therefore the worst thing since being mistaken for an American. Also thrown together with us were a Cameroonian who had a habit of taking photos on his digital camera at night and then reviewing them (sending loud electronic beeps echoing around the bus), a guy with some kind of phlegm problem and a nineteen-year-old comic and computer game fan on his way to Saskatoon. We were grateful to disembark in Winnipeg, having driven through the rock- and tree-filled Canadian Shield for what felt like an eternity. We were immediately asked for cigarettes by a young man just out of jail (he eventually got them from another guy just out of jail), and were whisked away by Amy’s parents a short while later.

Ice towerAfter thoroughly settling in, our attention turned to activities during our short time in Manitoba. We went out for a brief walk in the park, which, the outside temperature being -15 C with wind chill taking it down to -25 C, necessitated all kind of precautionary measures like wearing pyjama bottoms underneath our trousers and wrapping up in a thick Saskatchewan RoughRiders jacket. Humid exhaled air tended to hit my scarf, rise up and condense on my glasses, so I had to alternate between being able to see and having a cold nose, and being warm yet vision-impaired. The park was snowy and bright, with sparkly ice particles suspended in the air, and I began to appreciate just how cold the winters are.

Pumping stationThe next few days were a blur of activity, with lots of indoor time spent playing board games (including Candamir, the one we picked up in Toronto), testing out the Wii (fun), reading (Amy’s father has a copy of The Complete Calvin and Hobbes) and eating delicious home cooking (including perogies, a Canadian staple of Ukranian origin). We went out for blueberry pancakes with Amy’s friend Sean, and took a look round parts of Winnipeg preparing for the Festival du Voyageur (which we’ll miss as we’ll be in Vancouver). Huge cubes of compacted snow were lined up ready to be turned into sculptures, an ice tower was in the process of being frozen and a gigantic mound of snow had been shovelled onto the University of Manitoba campus ready to be dug into a bowl so students can play “Ditchball”, a rough sport where a giant ball has to be moved around and other players beaten up.

Bird apartmentsOne place we’d both been eager to visit was Fort Whyte, a nature centre just to the west of the city proper. The whole place is extremely frozen during the winter, but this made for a fun experience walking round the trails trying to identify animal tracks in the snow and spotting squirrels and deer between the leafless branches. There is a herd of bison on site, but they were (understandably) huddled far away from the viewing area with not very much to do until spring. We took a second walk over the frozen marshes, tried out a sledge run which launches you onto the (frozen) lake and visited a room full of migratory birds who, due to injury or laziness (really), winter at the centre as they’re unable to migrate. In an interesting parallel with British swans (owned by the Queen), the wintering swans at the centre were owned by the Richardsons, one of Winnipeg’s super-rich families (the airport is also named after them).

Misspelled scienceThe next day, we had a huge brunch at The Forks (a meeting point and shopping centre where Winnipeg’s two principal rivers meet) consisting of potato pancakes, apple pancakes, vegetable pancakes and blueberry pancakes and then toured the Manitoba Museum. There were nature dioramas aplenty depicting Canada’s multitude of fauna, including humans, and hundreds of artifacts from pioneer days (including a replica of the Nonsuch, the trading vessel of the Hudson’s Bay Company). We also took in a very hands-on temporary exhibition of ice age animals, with a mammoth tusk and nearest-equivalent hide (muskox) to feel. That night, the temperature dropped to -32 C (-42 C with wind chill), and so I went outside to experience it and thus get perspective on what I had previously considered to be “cold” temperatures. The first thing I noticed was that my nostril hairs froze on breathing in, with a kind of crackling feeling. Other than that, it just felt extremely cold – I went back inside after a little while as frostbite onset time is around eleven minutes.

On Sunday, Amy and I went out to visit her friend Sean again – he was hosting his back-to-basics church (dubbed “Sunday morning Bible party”), which has at its core fellowship (hanging out) and breaking bread (food) as well as teaching and prayer. It was very laid-back and welcoming, and his cats provided continual light entertainment. Afterwards, we did a little shopping, picked up a board game based on building the Paris metro system, played it, ate pizza and cookies and finally had a brief tour through part of Winnipeg’s seedy underbelly. Today we’re relaxing a bit – we have an overnight bus journey to Moose Jaw and the next leg of our trans-Canada trip.

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