Wednesday, 15 November 2017

5 favourite coffee shops

Inspired by the coffee houses in Budapest and Vienna, I’m writing about my five "go to" coffee shops in Toronto where I’ll take my visiting family or friends to share a cup of coffee or tea, and maybe some pastries.

Although we have many Starbucks and McCafe’s in Toronto, these five are Canadian or Toronto-specific. They all have good coffee at reasonable price and something unique to offer beyond coffee.

Here’s my favourite five local coffee shops by alpha order:

1. Boxcar Social for a nice ambiance, and the open lake view from the patio of this coffee shop at Harbourfront location will make you linger longer than you think.

Boxcar Social

2. Cafe Balzac’s for its European feel, and their Market Street location is right by the iconic St Lawrence Market district, great for people watching, strolling, and shopping.

3. Dineen Coffee Company for its floor to ceiling windows in a Toronto Heritage building, facing famous Yonge Street, right in the heart of the city.

4. Second Cup, a Canadian coffee franchise, for its nice interior decor, and several downtown locations like this one in the Entertainment district:

5. Tim Hortons, a Canadian coffee franchise started by the famous Canadian hockey player in 1964, for its casual settings, availability almost everywhere, donuts and timbits.

Your turn...What unique coffee or tea place in your home town would you take your visiting family or friend?

Wednesday, 8 November 2017

Exploring Central Europe

I’m so excited to go to Central Europe with my sister. We’re flying to Budapest on Saturday. A new adventure awaits!

We’ve booked an eight-day tour package and most of the logistics and meals are included in it. I know this trip is just a quick introduction to four of the great cities in Europe. Both my sister and I have full lives so to find a suitable time to travel together is a big score. An escorted tour will allow us to focus on enjoying the sights and conversations at meal time with each other.

Our itinerary as shown on the above route map includes:
  • Outbound flight Toronto-Budapest
  • 2 nights in Budapest, Hungary (Point A)
  • 2 nights in Vienna, Austria (Point B)
  • 1 day tour in Bratislava, Slovakia (Point C)
  • 2 nights in Prague, the Czech Republic (Point D)
  • Return flight Prague-Toronto

All four cities are new to my sister, and three of them are new to me, with the exception of Vienna. I have very fond memories of Vienna and a re-visit will be lovely. I look forward to seeing historic sights, smelling new scents from local spices, hearing foreign languages, tasting traditional food dishes, and touching local arts and crafts. Oh we're also packing our swimsuits for the thermal baths in Budapest!

I’m loving life for having this opportunity to travel with my sister, and creating new memories in our lives.

What fun activities did you enjoy this week? Have you been to Central Europe before? I’d love to hear about your experience while there.

Sunday, 5 November 2017

Day of the Dead festival

I was at the 14th edition of Day of the Dead/ Dia de los Muertos festival at Harbourfront Centre this weekend. Day of the Dead is a celebration of the life of the deceased people, their memories, their achievements, and their impact on the coming generations. This year’s festival edition is dedicated in honor of the victims of the earthquakes in September 2017 in Mexico.

The festival showcased a number of contemporary and traditional ofrendas. By talking to the ofrenda organizers, I learned that in 2003 the Mexican Day of the Dead is recognized by UNESCO as Intangible Cultural Heritage. I also learned about the various elements of La ofrenda and their meanings:
  1. Candles: ascension of the spirit, symbol of love that guides the soul to the altar.
  2. Bread of the Dead: represents the generosity of the recipient and the gift of the land itself.
  3. Toys or personal objects: the dead person’s preferred toys or personal objects.
  4. Incense and copal: to move away the evil spirits.
  5. Photo of the deceased: a framed photo of the dead person to whom the altar is dedicated, usually positioned in a prime spot on the altar.
  6. Papel picado: these decorative pieces of cut paper are draped around the altar’s edge or hung from above.
  7. Banquet: to celebrate the arrival of the souls the favourite dishes of the deceased are offered to them.
  8. Glass of water: to quench the thirst of the soul and to strengthen him or her for the return.
  9. Sugar skulls: they represent the deceased relatives of the family.
  10. Flowers: yellow-orange flowers, also called cempasuchitl.
  11. Images of saints: or other role models who were important in the dead person’s life.
Below are pictures of some of the ofrendas on display at the festival.

1. Homage to the celebration of Day of the Dead in Lake Patzcuaro by Edgar Alejandre Perez:

"Janitzio Island, in the middle of Lake Patzcuaro, is the site of one of Mexico’s most celebrated Night of the Dead observances. Legend has it that the “veil between darkness and light” is the thinnest around this island. Each year on November 1st, the islanders and their neighbours take to their boats to enact the candlelight ritual enhanced by the flames reflected in the water, the boats laden with flowers, and the boaters chanting."

2. This ofrenda represents the lake region in Michoacan where the tradition of waiting for spirits of the departed include flowers, corn, fire (candles), food, water, incense (Copal) and are key elements that will feed the soul of those who have passed away for a whole year.

3. Large ofrendas are made in houses of the departed where the community visits with offerings of bread, fruits and candles. Visitors are also fed with foods made from corn.

4. The ofrenda below by Ilyana Martinez, is made up of many niches or nichos, to create a whole. With paint, paper, and cardboard the artist alludes to some of the artisanal traditions of handmade objects in Mexico: papel picado (colourful tissue paper banners which have been cut out and punched with shapes, figures, or letters), and cartoneria (objects made with cardboard or paper mache).

Ofrenda by Ilyana Martinez

5. The ofrenda below by EXATEC Ontario is dedicated to the earthquake victims of Mexico:

Ofrenda by EXATEC Ontario

The market at the festival featured Mexican vendors offering unique jewelry, home d├ęcor, crafts, clothing, Day of the Dead items and treats such as the edible skulls made from sugar, known as calaveras, and Bread of the Dead (Pan de Muertos) which I was told is orange-flavoured.

Day of the Dead decorative skulls
Day of the Dead items
Pan de Muertos and Calaveras
Images of Catrinas
There were Mexican cooking sessions held by some of the most exemplary cooks in Mexico, as well as Mexico's traditional music played by Mariachi Azteca, one of Toronto’s pioneer mariachi bands.

By attending the festival, I've learned a lot about the Day of the Dead celebration.

I’m dedicating this blog post to my dear friend, Thekla, who died too young. I miss you and our friendship very much. On this day, I celebrate your life, your achievements, and your legacy.

Wednesday, 1 November 2017

October in a sentence a day

Greetings! Today I’m writing my month of October in a sentence a day, and linking up with several fabulous bloggers who also share their October in sentences. I had an outstanding October with many fit and fun activities, two blog-related milestones, and a trip to Ireland. I'm loving life and would like to share the following highlights with you.

October in a sentence a day:

1. Happy Sunday with a 5K morning run and family time the rest of the day.

2. Exercised in the gym and had a fun lunch with a friend.

3. Enjoyed yoga time and a visit to the Magic of Latin America art exhibits where I learned about the Olmec civilization.

4. Exercised in the gym and started packing for my trip to Ireland.

5. Practiced yoga and stretched during the day before flying overnight to Dublin.

6. Happy Friday with a smooth arrival in Dublin, some rest, and walking around to explore the city.

Trinity College, Dublin

7. A lovely day starting with a fun 2.5-hour Dublin waking tour, followed by lunch at Books Upstairs with a new friend, a leisure visit to the National Gallery of Ireland, and ending with a yummy dinner.

Dublin Castle

8. Took a relaxing morning train ride from Dublin to Cork, had lunch break, and walked around to explore Cork city centre in the afternoon.

St. Patrick's Bridge, Cork

9. A full sightseeing day, starting with a reflective view of St Patrick’s bridge in Cork, green scenery along the way, dense fog at the Cliffs of Moher, delicious seafood lunch in Doolin, and ending with a visit at the Bunratty Castle.

Bunratty Castle, Ireland

10. Happy 1st blog year! Took another relaxing and scenic train ride from Cork to Killarney in the morning and spent the rest of the day exploring the lovely Killarney National Park with a 5K hike, a tour of Ross Castle, Killarney House and Gardens, and seeing red deer up close.

Killarney National Park

A lovely baby deer

11. Experienced a full day of amazing scenery at the Dingle peninsula and various towns that are part of the Ring of Kerry.

12. Traveled by train from Killarney to Dublin in the morning, had lunch break, spent the afternoon strolling in St Stephen’s Green, shopping for gifts on Grafton Street, and a fun evening Irish pub crawl with live music and drinks.

St. Stephen's Green, Dublin
13. Happy Friday with a smooth flight home.

14. Unpacked, laundry, and general post-trip catch up.

15. Ran 5K in the morning and relaxed with my family for the rest of the day.

16. Exercised in the gym, organized my trip pictures, and shared a pumpkin pie treat.

17. Enjoyed yoga and writing a post about my exploring Ireland.

18. Exercised in the gym and contacted my friends to schedule our meet-ups.

19. Practiced yoga and re-organized our second bedroom.

20. Exercised in the gym and stayed outdoors to soak in this gorgeous sunny Friday.

21. Swam 45 minutes in the morning, and chatted with my sister about our upcoming trip.

22. Cheered on my family members who ran the half-marathon and 5K at the Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon in the morning, ran 5K myself (not in the race), and enjoyed happy family time the rest of the day.

23. A fun Monday exercising in the gym with a friend in the morning, and having a coffee date with another friend in the afternoon.

24. Practiced yoga, and went out to see the World Press Photo Exhibition 2017.

25. Spiced up my time in the gym with some new exercises.

26. An amazing day starting with yoga, then meeting Mr. Robert Bateman, the extraordinary Canadian painter, at his Travel exhibit, and ending with a delicious Thai dinner with my family at Pai.

A close-up of Robert Bateman's painting

27. Exercised in the gym before attending a piano and cello recital by two talented musicians Benjamin Smith (piano), and Dongso Julia Kim (cello).

28. Felt good this Saturday after swimming laps for 45 minutes, stocking up our fridge with fresh groceries, laundry, and home cleaning.

29. Ran 5K in the morning and enjoyed interacting with readers of my first guest post on Donna's blog the rest of the day.

30. Exercised in the gym and read about multiple new travel destinations.

31. Wrapped up an outstanding October with yoga and writing e-letters to my friends who live overseas.

I look forward to taking a trip to Central Europe with my sister, and making more progress on my Fall fun list of 20 activities in November.

What fun activities did you enjoy in October? Please share below.

Sunday, 29 October 2017

My first guest post

Happy Sunday! Today is a special day for me since I’m guest posting on Donna Connolly’s fabulous Retirement Reflections blog.

I’ve enjoyed Donna’s writing and other guest bloggers’ writing in her Sunday Guest Post series for a while now. I feel humbled to be part of the series, and for my very first guest post to appear on one of the Top International Retirement blogs in 2017.

I also enjoy the fact that this guest post is featured in the same month that I celebrate my blog’s 1st anniversary on October 10th, and on another Canadian blog (Go Canada Go!).

Whether you're a retiree or not yet, I'm sure you'll find great insights from Donna's posts, her guest bloggers' posts, and her readers' comments.

Please hop on over, check it out, and make new connections. If you could leave a comment there, it would be greatly appreciated! 

I look forward to seeing you there. 

Wednesday, 25 October 2017

Cheering on at 2017 STWM

I was up bright and early on Sunday to cheer on three family members who ran the half-marathon and 5K at the Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon (STWM) event.

About 25,000 people from 70 countries took part in the marathon, half-marathon, and 5K. The marathon and half-marathon started at 8:45 a.m., while the 5K started at 8 a.m. We’ve had a good stretch of warm and sunny days leading up to the event, and perfect weather on Sunday with temperature at 11C (or 55F) at the start of the race and high about 21C (70F) by mid-day. The annual event raised funds for over 180 local charities, and contributed millions to the local economy.

This was the 28th edition of the STWM event and it was once again well organized. For runners, the race course was clearly set with kilometre markers and water and Gatorade stations. For spectators, there were 12 Neighbourhood Cheering and Entertainment sites along the race course. I saw many volunteers with cow bells, bands playing music, and police re-directing traffic.

If you have been a spectator at a big international running race before, you know the energy that thousands of runners generate, and the inspiration to see runners crossing the Finish line. Running a race is definitely a physical and mental challenge where first time runners want to do well, and repeat runners want to beat their own personal record and create a new personal best.

As a supporter, you'd want to find a spot where you can easily spot your family or friend who is running. It is not that easy when there are hundreds of runners passing by in waves. Even if you are not a runner, if there is a race where you live, I'd encourage you to come out, feel the energy, and cheer on the participants.

I ran the 5K course in this event a few years ago and am familiar with the race course. On Sunday, I walked up to the 200m mark before the Finish line with my plastic clapping hands. There are actually three hands attached to a handle. The outer two hands are flexible while the centre hand is fixed so when you wave, the hands make loud clapping noise and really get people's attention. I estimated my family members' run times, and found a spot with great visibility to locate them. I was there to see the first finisher of the 5K,  and my family members soon after. I definitely got their attention with my loud cheering and hand clapping!

The Finish line and Friends & Family meeting zones were right by Toronto City Hall. Runners had lots of post-race refreshments available to help them recover from their hard work. Congrats to all STWM race finishers! My family members did very well. I’m so proud of their achievements.

I'm loving life at the moment as everyone in my family is healthy. Each one of us has a finisher's medal with good run time this year. I've got mine at the Island Girl 5K in September as posted here.

What fun activities did you enjoy this week? Please share below.

Saturday, 21 October 2017

Fall fun list update #1

Greetings! Today I'm providing an update on my Fall fun list, and linking up with several fabulous bloggers who also share their updates. It's a good exercise for me to go through, not only to remind me of my good intentions, but also to feel grateful for all the fun that I've been experiencing. Thanks, Leslie, for organizing the link-up.

My Fall fun list of 20:

1. Exercise in the gym 3x per week, one hour each time. In progress. I exercise in the gym 3x per week, except when I was in Ireland. Without access to a gym, I walked, and modified my exercises using my body weight and a resistance band.

2. Yoga 2x per week, up to one hour each time. In progress. This is an enjoyable activity so I have no trouble to continue.

3. Swim 1x per week, up to one hour. In progress. I swim every Saturday, except when I was in Ireland and did not have access to a swimming pool.

4. Run short distance 1x per week, up to 5K. In progress. I run 5K every Sunday, except on September 24, I walked 5K in lieu of running due to a heat warning.

5. Celebrate Thanksgiving and my blog's 1st anniversary with a pumpkin pie. Yes! It was yummy. I can get a pumpkin pie most of the time where I live but saving it for Thanksgiving in October makes it more special.

6. Enjoy a therapeutic massage. Yes! It was a very nice self-care treat.

7. Travel to Ireland in October. Yes! I had a wonderful time exploring Ireland.

A taste of Ireland landscape

8. Visit Dublin, capital city of Ireland. Yes! I explored Dublin on foot and enjoyed the city very much.
Dublin Castle
9. Explore the landscapes along Ireland's wild Atlantic side. Yes! Ireland's natural landscapes along the Wild Atlantic Way were amazing. I'd love to return for more exploring.

Skellig Michael, Ireland

10. Write my first guest post on another blog. Yes! My writing is done. The guest post will be featured on Sunday, October 29 at 9 a.m. Toronto time. Please check back on that day for my reveal and join in on the fun.

11. Email my friends who live overseas. In progress. One done, a few more to go.

12. Meet my local friends for coffee. In progress. Even better than a coffee date, I had lunch with one of my girlfriends. I have a coffee date next week, and another lunch date with two girlfriends in early November.

13. Watch a new-to-me movie. Yes! I watched Wonder Woman. I'd like to see more movies this year.

14. Attend a concert. Yes! I attended the Red Slam concert. I'd like to attend more concerts this season.

15. View a new art exhibition. Yes! I viewed several art projects at Nuit Blanche, saw the giant Olmec head display at the Magic of Latin America art exhibition in Toronto, and world-class art work at the National Art Gallery of Ireland.

The Giant Olmec Head

16. Take a trip to Central Europe in November with my sister. Pending.

17. Explore Budapest, capital city of Hungary. Pending.

18. Visit Bratislava, capital city of Slovakia. Pending.

19. Re-visit Vienna, capital city of Austria. Pending.

20. Explore Prague, capital city of the Czech Republic. Pending. 

I counted nine completed items, six in progress, and five pending. I intend to continue with my fitness activities #1 to #4, do more of #11 to #15, and definitely look forward to completing #16 to #20 in the coming weeks.

Tuesday, 17 October 2017

Exploring Ireland

Greetings! I’ve been back from Ireland for a few days, and finally got around to write my trip recap with selected pictures.

I had a wonderful time in Ireland. Most of what I day dreamed about Ireland came true. I feel fortunate that I was able to explore a lot there before Hurricane Ophelia, the worst storm in recorded history on the island of Ireland, arrived.

My Top 10 Great Experiences in Ireland:

1) Friendly and welcoming Irish people: The Welcome sign in Gaelic and English is everywhere in Ireland. I was impressed that the local residents are still so friendly despite the high number of tourists arrives in Ireland year after year.

2) Lively Dublin with amazing sights that are free to visit: I walked to explore Dublin on my own, and also joined a free walking tour which was excellent. I visited all the major sights such as Trinity College, Dublin Castle, Molly Malone statue, Ha’penny Bridge, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, the General Post Office (site of the 1916 Easter Rising), Grafton Street (main shopping street), the Temple Bar area, and many more. I met a graduate student from Germany and we spent a wonderful afternoon enjoying tea and browsing books at a place called Books Upstairs, as well as viewing world class art collections at the National Gallery of Ireland for free.

Trinity College

Dublin Castle
Molly Malone statue
Ha'penny Bridge

3) Comfortable train rides from Dublin to other counties and back: I had ordered my rail tickets online before my trip. It was straightforward to print the tickets at the train stations. The trains were on time, with stop announcements and monitor displays in Gaelic and English. The rides were all so relaxing.

4) Lush green scenery dotted with sheep, cows, and horses: It was a real visual treat to see one green rolling hill after another. I liked the sheep with paint on their backs for the farmers to know which sheep belong to them.

5) Beautiful landscapes in Killarney National Park and the Ring of Kerry: The mountains here are soft in appearance. Killarney National Park was simply lovely. I think I could easily spend at least a week there to hike, or go boating, or go on a buggy ride. The Ring of Kerry had amazing scenery for miles.

Killarney National Park

Ring of Kerry landscape

6) Deer seen roaming in Killarney National Park: It’s always a thrill for me to see wildlife in their natural habitat, without looking threatened by human visitors. I was very close to a mother deer and a baby deer while hiking on a trail, and saw a stag with big antlers at a distance.

7) Delicious seafood and all kinds of “Irish weather" along the Wild Atlantic Way: I had salmon and seafood chowder at different pubs and they were all delicious. On one day, the local weather changed quickly from sunny, to cloudy, to rain drizzle, to heavy rain with strong winds, and back to sunny at different parts of the Wild Atlantic Way. We faced dense fog upon arriving at the Cliffs of Moher and the Burren but had fairly good weather everywhere else.

Bunratty Castle
8) What I learned about Ireland from the tour guides: I was on a walking tour in Dublin, a day tour from Cork, and a day tour from Killarney. All three tour guides were very helpful, knowledgeable, and humorous.

Ladies View

9) The friends I’ve met in Dublin and Killarney: Even in shoulder season, there were many international visitors in Ireland. I met and made new friends from Germany, and Canada.

10) The rich literature, poetry, and music throughout Ireland: What can I say? This is the country of James Joyce, Oscar Wilde, Samuel Beckett, and other world famous writers. The live music at Irish pubs was memorable fun.

St. Stephen's Green Park, Dublin

Note to self: Next time I go to Ireland, I'll definitely spend more time at Killarney National Park and along the Wild Atlantic Way.

I hope you enjoy my recap and pictures of Ireland. Please feel free to comment.