Thursday, October 9, 2014

Today I Feel Different...

This morning I slept through my usual 7.30 AM alarm and I didn't even feel bad. I took my sweet time with the morning yoga practice and wasn't checking for time. I didn't rush from going to dentist's emergency service or to my Chinese teaching appointment. Then it occurred to me... it almost seems like that I am ... relaxed. For the first time in the three months that I have arrived in Sweden, I am actually r-e-l-a-x-e-d. :)

And I think I know exactly why. After 6 months for Q and 3 months for me, we finally finally, YESSSS FINALLY, have a space that is completely and utterly livable and all to ourselves. A home we call our own. Here is the journey we took to get here...

BEFORE coming to Sweden, Q has done some hard work and found an apartment for us to live in. The contract was signed and we were all set. I shouldn't have laughed so hard on my flight to Sweden because -

A WEEK after my arrival, we were informed by the landlord that the apartment has been, surprise surprise, SOLD! We were back to look for a place to live. This would have been relatively easy in a lot of part of the world, but not in Sweden, and definitely not in August. Allow me to explain:
- Not in Sweden: There is some really messed up rental apartment supply and demand situation here. I don't get the whole gist of it, but it is something of a government-controlled rent control. We put ourselves on several waiting lists and were warned that it could take years before we get to have a rental through "proper" channel. Read more in these news reports: here and here.
- Not in August: August is the time when a lot of the Swedes take their month-long vacation. There is even a law in place to make sure companies allow employees to take month-long vacations in July and August, and the employees sure all do. Top to bottom. In and out. That means housing market is slow and we had a real hard time finding anyone or anything!

ANOTHER WEEK passed and we realized that us finding an rental apartment was like Rob Ford quit drinking. It just was not going to happen. Okay, at least not in the near future. So we had to change our strategy. We decided to take the plunge and buy an apartment. Yep, just like that, two weeks into the country, I am faced with my biggest purchase ever. I cannot speak for Q's reaction to this, but hey, Q loves shopping. :)

Sleeping on borrowed mattresses in an unfurnished apartment temporarily while looking.

TWO MORE WEEKS passed, and we found an apartment that we like. Okay, I am probably brushing over the apartment shopping effort here considering we are new to the city and didn't speak the language, but we did just that. We found an apartment that we fell in love with. It was love at first sight... Mind you, we were oh-so desperate either one of us could marry someone with an apartment! But I digress. On my one-month mark of moving to Sweden, I, my dear friends and family, I made a bid for us on the apartment following the Swedish way - with an SMS. Yes, a short short text message that read something like this,"Dear agent, we would like to put a bid for the apartment we saw for the ###### amount. Thank you." If you do the math, each character was worth essentially thousands of dollars. If hitting that "send" button doesn't get one high, I don't know what would.

ANOTHER WEEK's back and forth negotiation, yes, mostly by text messages. Some phone calls and emails on our part, since I can't stand sending texts. Anyway, we got the final agreement and a loan from the bank. That is another situation that is unique to Sweden. You can get a huge loan, and don't need to pay the principle ever, like EVER. Fine, don't believe me, read this.

WHEN we finally got the keys to the apartment, I wish I could tell you that I was happy as a new home-owner, but I wasn't. I really felt like we were forced into this commitment. A little sad, right? But no time to dwell in that, we literally got our shipment from Toronto the next day. Yeah, let's just say we went from no apartment, to an empty one, to one with just boxes, a lot of boxes. So many that Q and I were playing hide-and-seek. I still haven't found him yet.
But hey, at least it was a livable place, right? Uhm, NOT quite. The living room ceiling was falling apart and we had to get it fixed. That turned out to be a BIG job. Who knew. Okay, newbies here, remember? ONE WEEK, for one whole week, we tried to remove the old paint with friends' help. Oh that was so fun. I wish more of you were here, so we could share some of the fun with you, and have a little less fun ourselves. Really.

Then it comes to the moment of realization that we couldn't simply repaint it over ourselves because of the cracks in the concrete - apparently normal in these century-old buildings. Well, since Q had to work during the days, it fell on me to find a painter. That was real fun with the language barrier and cultural differences. Reading back at my notes, we contacted a total of TEN painters. Yes, that was a lot of Google Translation. And the quotes we got were all over the place. When we finally decided to go with one reputable company, it quickly became a communication nightmare. I was getting second hand information from Q, who was the initial contact with a home renovation store, which has a contract with a painting company, whose boss sent his staff to assess the job. When we realized the assessment wasn't done correctly, the staff informed his boss, who informed the store manager, who then emailed Q and Q told me. And this went back and forth a couple of more rounds, and I gave up. I found another painter, and worked with him directly. The new painter did a quick and fabulous job. ONE WEEK later, the living room was back to normal. And that was just in time for our first house guests' visit. Yay. :)

That was ONE WEEK ago, it was nice to have our visitors, but it was very well deserved when Q and I got to enjoy our apartment for the first time in its normal state just to ourselves. Ahh... home sweet home. Today I feel more relaxed, thanks to you.

p.s. Come visit us here. :)

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Help Me, Help You!

(Take two on posting this to include video link and fix up the formatting... Previous posting will be deleted. Thanks.)

Hello hello, you... I find it very difficult to talk about what has been happening to us here in Sweden, only because there are too many things going on and my head feels very big these days. Q thinks that I make things hard for myself sometimes. I have to agree, but that's me. I am very driven and focused about things that I deem important. Below is just one aspect, specifically around the language study.

This update will come in the form of a 6 minute speech video. For those of you who prefer to read, below is the script, more or less, but you would miss my awful awful rapping, in Swedish nevertheless! Enjoy and feel free to share your feedback!
(Note: The Speech title is Help Me, Help You. It was presented at Malmö Toastmasters club's humorous speech contest, and I won! So I will go on representing the club at the area-level on Sept 20th competing against other club winners from Denmark and southern Sweden.)

Video link:

I have been here in this beautiful country for six weeks. Jag talar lite svenska. I speak a little Swedish. I realize that I have this deep, strong, fundamental need to learn more.

It is not because I need to find a job and make money. Nah. That's what my husband is for. It is not because that I want to understand people. Don't tell anyone - I don't like people. And it is not because I need to understand the postings, the signs, the newspapers... "Blah blah blah". I sit on the beach. I get my drink. I enjoy the sun. Every day has been like a vacation in Thailand or Vietnam. Fantastic!

So why do I need to learn Swedish? Well, to help you. You want to help me with my Swedish to help you! I am going to give you three reasons.

First reason. Help me with my Swedish will help save you money! That's right. Let me tell you what happened when I first got here. I was told to go to the old city area, to this street with a very loooong name. It's hard to read. You know what. I am pretty smart. I will remember the first part and last part of the street name. I was sure I would find it. Walk my way there. There is my street. "Nor... Gatan". Another "Nor.. Gatan". And another "Nor...Gatan". I am confused - why are so many streets start with "Nor" and end with "Gatan"??? (N.B. "North...Street") I am pretty desperate when I get lost. Do you know what I do when I get lost? I look for the police officers. Smile. "I am lost. Would you please take me back to my home?" What do you know. The Swedes are very polite and helpful. The police officer took me home... on your tax dollars, or, kroners. Now I get lost a lot, so that is a lot of police taxi rides, as I call them. That is a lot of money that you can help save if you help me with my Swedish.

Second reason why you want to help me with your Swedish is to... Save you time! Do you see those long lines at the supermarkets? Do you know why they are there? Me. I find it very intense when it is my turn to walk up to the cashier. It is like smuggling hundreds of bottles of liquor into Sweden and walking up to the Immigrations. I get really nervous, and I try to stay calm. The cashier just casually scan the items and says in lightening speed,"Var du bra så?" (N.B. "All good?"), and continues scanning. I on the other side, am completely stunned. What just happened?! I scratch my head and think to myself, I must be careful with my answer now. I don't want to get charged double for that chicken! "Ja...? Nej...? Ja..? Nej..?" (N.B. "Yes...No?") Wait wait, I signal to the cashier. I quickly pull out my smartphone and look up the dictionary, "Igen?" "Again?" And that was only the first question. By the end of this immigration-like or cashier session, the line almost goes out of the supermarket door. And everyone looked a bit upset, understandably. Some of them might have been you. And guess what? I quite like shopping. I do that many times a day. So if you do the math, you want to help me with my Swedish to save you time that you can use to line up somewhere else!

The last reason why you want to help me with my Swedish? To bring you entertainment. Yah! Have you noticed that Swedish has a very nice rhythm to it, beautiful language, singsongy. I quite like that when I listen to the Swedish language audiobooks. It gets boring listening to them over and over, but you know what, I can feel the rhythm. I can get it. And the more I listen to it, the more it becomes clear to me. There is some serious music talents under this Chinese skin here. Yo yo yo! "Jag, jag, jag heter Shu. Jag, jag, jag kommer fran Toronto. Jag, jag, jag bor i Malmö!" That's right. Now you can see if you help me with my Swedish, next year, at the Eurovision Song Contest, I think I have a shot!!! I can go out there and represent Sverigeee (N.B. "Sweeeden")! Are you with me? Yesss. :)

So help me with my Swedish to save you money. Help me with my Swedish to save you time. And finally help me with my Swedish to bring you yo-yo-yo entertainment. Help me, help you. Help ME, help YOU! Tack så mycket. (N.B. "Thank you very much!")

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

The Middle of Middle East

Do you hold onto many email or post drafts for years? I do. Below is one from June 2009. I probably wanted to add some meaningful photos, but screw that. Here they are, my raw thoughts from our trip to Damascus, Syria - while it was still peaceful.

p.s. It doesn't mean the postings on life in Sweden will come in, uhm, 5 years. It will be sooner. I promise to reflect faster this time around. Okay, I try, okay?


As Yamen, a fellow CouchSurfer, claims excitedly that Syria is in fact in the "Middle of the Middle East", I can't help but agreeing with him. In the middle of Syria is Damascus, and that's where we spent a three-day weekend trip. Here are some more random notes from the trip:
  • I am here at the Damascus airport bathroom. I am squatting without toilet paper in sight. I am smiling. The strange comfort of inconvenience reminded me how much I love travelling.

  • Lying naked on the grey-white checker marble floor, I'm getting scrubbed down by a rather rough-looking motherly-looking woman. I was too afraid to open my eyes. The whole Hammam experience is already bizzarre enough - can I handle more? As I opened my eyes slowly, the sight is intimidating - a 12th century house is making me very self-conscious: am I worthy of showing my body to it?

  • From the many screaming kids on the plane, to the house cat spraying in Esfan's room, to the variety of local fruits, "fertile" is the word to describe Damascus.

  • The city feels so old. In fact, it is hard to find something that looks new!

  • Unlike Cesky Komolove, a fellow UNESCO old town, which is well-restored and essentially frozen with a 17th century look, the old city of Damascus is still very much living and aging. Families gathering in court yard, groups of seniors playing board games, kids never seem to get tired of playing tag-chase with neighbour friends. All among houses that are so old that you wonder if they would last another car scratching past it. I wonder if the lack of plastic surgery is of choice or lack of funding? Either way she is a beauty one would always be intrigued by.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

We are Moving, Again!

This is the news update part of the blog posting: We are moving from Canada to Sweden! Q found a job as an air traffic control training specialist in Malmo, Sweden, and has been working there since this April, and he's loving it! Thank you, Sweden! :)

March 26, 2014 - When Q left Toronto for Sweden with his bicycle!

I really want to blog about Q's job searching journey - with his consent of course, but that will be for a different day. Today I want to talking about how I feel about leaving Toronto.


Moving from Toronto is harder this time than I experienced last time - that was seven years ago.

I realized that when I tell people about our move this time. I find myself holding back... Holding back on what I call Toronto. Toronto is so wonderful. I was simply intimidated to call her home. I carry a Canadian passport, I live in Toronto, but to call her home? Someone commented, "Ahh, you were 18 when you immigrated to Toronto? So you didn't grow up here? That's not too bad then." Does that mean I don't qualify? So I doubt, so I hesitate and so I question...

But then in recent weeks this separation anxiety and sadness just keeps on building up, and I realized I just have to honour my feelings towards Toronto by calling her what she is to me - home.

The city. The supportive friends. The traffic jam. The road rage. The polite apologies. The sweet air. The colorful leaves. The extreme political correctness. The occasional loud American tourists. The family gatherings. Yes, our infamous mayor. The authentic cuisine aroma. Wow, Toronto, you are such a mad house and such a comfortable home. 
Korean Town on Bloor
Home is special. It is inside of me. It is inside of us. As much as I don't have the absolute confidence on my Canadianism, I must find courage to recognize my roots, ground and heart. I may be physically away soon, but a part of my heart will be always attached by a long loooong invisible yet strong string to Toronto because home is where my heart is.

Sometimes It takes a move away from home to realize how precious home is. I would like to think that we all have a place, sometimes many places, that we call home. Where are your homes? Where is your heart? Don't be afraid to say it out loud. Don't be afraid to show it proudly. Don't be afraid to love it passionately.

I love you, Toronto. You are my home. Always.

Hart House Library at University of Toronto downtown campus - one of my safe havens in Toronto.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014


Going up north from Toronto into ‘cottage country’ is a favourite past time for many Torontonians, summer or winter. We rented one such cottages close to Algonquin Park in February of 2006 and did a myriad of winter activities, including barbecuing at –23° C, snowmobiling, snowshoeing and ice skating. We considered going dog sledding, but, for whatever reason, we didn’t do it then.
This video was shot using a GoPro action camera strapped to my chest. You can see me dismounting and running at one point, and Shu had to get off as well when we were going uphill because the dogs can't burden the weight of people on the slope.

This winter, being one of the harshest in the past few decades, was an excellent opportunity to finally do it. And we couldn’t have picked a better day; the sun was shining, the temperatures were positively mild at just above freezing. Check out the photos below:

The day started with a 45-minute introduction on what we were about to set out to, including instructions on how to pick up the dogs, harness them, prepare the sled and all the commands to make the dogs go, stop, turn right or left. Then we went out to fetch the dogs and do everything that the guides had taught us.
A loud and excited ‘Readyyyyyyyy, let’s GOOOOOOOOOO!!!’ will make the dogs start. They actually go like crazy! There’s nothing more these dogs want to do but run! Most will even do their business while running, doing a very funny running squat position.
‘Eeeeeeeeaaaasyyyyyyyywooooow’, said in a subdued way is the way to stop the dogs. That and using the brakes… One tries, but the dogs are so excited to go that you have to fully step on the brakes to get them to stop!
Here's another video, shot with our compact weatherproof Panasonic. You can see the dogs from the sled following us up close.

This trip was amazing! We loved every minute of it. I would recommend doing an overnight trip as opposed to the one-day trip we did. It involves camping in a remote area and should be nothing but spectacular.
We did our trip with Chocpaw Expeditions, the people were nothing but kind and  professional and I cannot recommend them highly enough.
How was your winter? What are your plans for the spring? Let us know!

Sunday, December 23, 2012

A Moment of Reflection

  • Always have at least one crazy goal in life.
  • Surround self with positive energy and that could be friends, hobbies, places, activities...
  • Generously share positive energy, even with strangers. 
  • Use love as a theme to string up life, not anger nor regret. Apply laughter generously.
  • Appreciate food and the source of food.
  • Health (physical, mental and spiritual) is the most fundamental enabler to a good life. Not money.
  • Seek help if overwhelmed. 
  • You deserve a good bed.
  • Listen to Pet Shop Boys.
Enjoy the last few days of 2012 and many happy days ahead, everyone!

Shu, Sara and Q in Barcelona in Nov 2012. We love you, Sara!

Thursday, April 26, 2012

In between Los Antiguos and Bajo Cararacoles

*Video Flashback*

Before we hit the southern most tip of the American continent we were on the (in)famous Ruta 40 in Argentina. Some people drive the road all 5000 km (making it one of the longest roads in the world, together with U.S. Route 66), we chose not to do that.  We had crossed the border with Chile the previous day and had stayed the night in Los Antiguos. We'd driven on another part of Ruta 40 before, but that was asphalt and all smooth sailing. We knew this part would not be as easy.

View Larger Map
After turning off at Perito Moreno we were on Ruta 40 again, the beginning was beautiful new asphalt, and not that many cars. But then... the road ceased to exist, they were in progress of upgrading the road, and during that time all traffic was diverted to an improvised road next to the old/new road. This was one of the worst pavements possible, not only was it unpaved, it consisted of larger rocks as well. Too be honest, I was quite surprised I made it through without falling.

The video was shot on that road, and as you can tell, my mood was not the best. I was even talking in Dutch to Shu at one point! (and for those who don't know her, she doesn't speak Dutch...)

We ended up in a small village called Bajo Caracoles. The local 'hotel' owner knew we had little choice so tried to charge the 'hoofdprijs' as we say in Dutch (=fortune), but we managed to find a little other place with quite the reputable hygiene, but it was cheap. And the owner made delicious empanadas :)

(if you read this post through the mailing list or Facebook, you’ll have to go to our blog and view the video there)

Somewhere on Ruta 40, Argentina from Q on Vimeo.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

The clouds over Torres del Paine N.P.


We’re talking late 2010, we had rounded the southern most tip of the American continent and were on our way up north to take a much deserved break from traveling and spend two weeks with friends.

But, before that all we still had to visit the Chilean National Park of Torres del Paine. And what an awe-inspiring place it was. Absolutely one of the highlights of the trip! And one extra special thing, the CLOUDS! Have a look at this video (around the 22-second mark) and see those cloud formations! Stunning and gorgeous :)

(if you read this post through the mailing list or Facebook, you’ll have to go to our blog and view the video there)

Chile - Torres del Paine from Q on Vimeo.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Dance performance

My niece Olivia was in a dance performance, here are some photos.

The full gallery is here.
(gosh, it’s nice to be taking photos again with an SLR…)

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Music by the River

Worst Couchsurfing experience. That is one of our most popular conversation topics with friends and family. Just to clarify we don’t “surf” nearly as much as it appears - maybe occasionally at most, i.e. about 5% for those of you engineers. But it’s true that I like to talk about surfing because they often make more memorable experiences than boutique hotels. This is one of the stories I told many times. I think it is time to share it on the blog with everyone.

It was along the Trans-America highway called Carretera Austral in Chile. Gorgeous scenery and weather that we couldn’t get enough of. We pulled into the city of Coyhaique in an early evening and found the house according to the address given by our Couchsurfing host, Javier.

2010-11-24 14h10m57s DMC-TS2 P1040851

To call it a house is an over-statement - it was actually still under construction with fences and pit holes everywhere. We were confused - maybe we were at wrong place? So we circled about the town, asked around, circled about some more and asked around some more. Fifteen minutes later we found ourselves back at the same spot. Luckily Javier answered our prayers and showed up a few minutes later: he indeed lived at the location, but in a little cabin by the riverside further into the property, the front of which would be developed into some hotel. 

After tip-toeing around the construction site, we found the cabin hidden among trees. Really it was just a small bachelor pad. Besides the kitchen and bathroom, Javier’s drum set took up about 1/3 of the living space and his sleeping mattress another 1/3. It felt a little tight for all three of us, but “we will manage somehow”, I tried to comfort myself in my head.

To our annoyance, the cabin was also a bit dirty and messy, so five minutes later, I rolled my sleeves and started cleaning out the dishes in the sink. Since it was still early, Q and I decided to wander around the town before dinner. Javier told us he was off to meet up with two other Couchsurfing travellers. He mumbled something about they would set up a tent for camping, but I subconsciously ignored the trouble sign.

We came back at around 9 at night to a cabin full of travellers and backpacks and a smiling Javier. By the way, we met a total of four Javiers in South America: one in Paraguay, one in Chile, one in Uruguay and one in Colombia, and all of them have this perpetually-cheerful look – a bit like the Sri Lankans.

Anyways, I digress, back to the cabin, the five of us chatted away. We found out the other two travellers were German university girls who had been trekking in Patagonia for several months. We were thoroughly impressed with their perseverance, and secretly wish we were younger and could do something similar.

Anyway, I digress again. Then it was getting late and way too dark to set up any tent so I felt it was necessary to address “the elephant in the room”. “What is the sleeping arrangement for tonight, guys?” I asked.

A complete silence of uneasiness momentarily froze everyone. Then the smiley Javier started scratching his head as if the thought hasn’t occurred to him.

“Well, my bed is a stack of three mattresses. So we can pull the bottom two out,” Javier finally broke the silence.

“But where? There is no space.” I continued my practical questioning.

“We will move the drums to the storage hut next door.”

So at eleven at night, the five of us carried the drums away like pack of diligent ants. Actually not all fit in the hut, so some were left blocking the entrance to the cabin. Fire hazard I know, but it was the best we could do under the circumstances and we were all getting sleepy, so I saved my safety speech.

It was a miracle that the three mattresses fit in the floor space. In fact they filled the entire space with no gap in between. So there we were, like a row of piglets, lined up nicely across the cabin.

2010-11-24 23h38m44s DMC-TS2 P1040940 Five of us lining up like piglets.

After everyone settled and lay down, Javier turned off the ceiling light. Suddenly all my senses were so heightened. I felt I was holding my breath and I received the same vibe coming from the whole room of tired travellers. With the darkness blanketing us, it finally dawned on us that we were going to spend ONE WHOLE NIGHT IN A ROOM FULL OF STRANGERS. Just like that we all held our breaths, too afraid to fall asleep.

Then something truly magical happened.

Javier turned on his record player, and next thing we knew, mellow and soothing jazz music flew out of it. Our ears were the first to start breathing again. I got up to capture this moment. My eyes just melted when they made out the sight outside the window – a river dancing under the moonlight! And next my nose found the faint scent of the wooden cabin. Just like that, everything became rustic and everyone was peaceful. I will never forget that feeling of excitement and relief that night. Then I passed out before the first song was over.

2010-11-24 23h59m50s DMC-TS2 P1040942

The second day morning before leaving Javier’s house, we ensured the German girls in private that it was not a typical Couchsurfing experience, and they should not be deterred from trying it again.

Whether they did again or not, we don’t know. But we do know we tried Couchsurfing again and again since then, and treasure it every single time.