Sunday, May 26, 2013

Tapas in Chinatown

Sometimes a good, stark contradiction makes me giggle.

Like in the rainforests of the Amazon you wouldn’t expect to see someone wearing a parka with a hot pink boa, or in snow-filled Antarctica you wouldn’t expect to see a giraffe. It’s the unexpected that catches my attention, making me giggle, “To see a giraffe, here, in Antarctica of all places, and wearing a cravat!” And then I would roll on the ground laughing at the absurdity, yet at the same time embracing and reveling in the uniqueness of the situation. Plus, it would be rather funny for me to be in Antarctica in the first place.

When my sister recently came to visit from a land far away (an hour-and-forty-minute ferry ride away), we stopped in Chinatown, downtown Victoria, BC. We picked our way around crates of vegetables for sale on the sidewalk, sidestepped store owners and shoppers arguing over prices, and hustled past restaurants with cooked chickens hanging in the window. Its unique atmosphere packed into one street is in sharp contrast to the rest of downtown humming with old English heritage. But as much as I love Chinatown, I was anxious to show my sister a special place I once happened upon among the chaos; a place totally unexpected among the crates of imported vegetables and spices; a place dripping with serene peace and calm typically found only when having high tea.

When you walk through the white doors of Venus Sophia Tea Room and Vegetarian Eatery, you wonder if you are in the English-influenced Empress Hotel. Collections of dainty tea cups in well-lit curio cabinets greet you at the door, and doilies and cushions grace the chairs and loveseats in the eating area. Antique bikes – yes, bikes – hanging from the ceiling with their baskets full of silk flowers make you want to hop on for a leisurely bike ride in the countryside.

But you’re in Chinatown. Step outside the French-looking white doors, and you’re in the hustle and bustle of what feels like the Far East. Step back in, and you forget the sharp cultural difference just outside.

High tea is high on the menu - literally. Three-tiered plates adorned with vegetarian finger sandwiches wait for the dainty to dive in. For me, my growling stomach cancels out any grace or restraint, and finger sandwiches would be washed down the gullet with a mouthful of tea before I could lift my pinky. But I love the girly atmosphere, and what a perfect place for two sisters to gab!

But we wanted ‘lunch lunch’ - high tea wasn’t our forte for the afternoon. Our grimy sweats we wore for trudging around all day was not exactly ‘high tea’ attire, anyways. We perused the menu, and given that I'm not vegetarian it was all Greek to me. Soy this, tofu that, and vegetable concoctions I had never heard of. My more-worldly-than-I sister suggested tapas. I don’t get out much, so the ‘tapas’ concept was foreign to me, but given that one of the options was the all-too-familiar hummus - my fave - I knew it was gonna be good. Olives and feta cheese was another option, and the best part? Baba ghanoush. Not only is it fun to say, but the dish had been elusive in my life-quest to try new things. My house of straight-up meat-and-potatoes men makes trying new foods a challenge. All three dishes were divine; my mouth waters in remembrance.

So there we sat in Chinatown, wearing filthy old sweats, in a tea room fit for an English princess in the countryside. As we ate pita bread with hummus, babba ghanoush, and olives with feta cheese, foods likely straight out of the Middle East, for a minute we were culturally confused. Not only did we not have tea in the ‘tea room,’ but with all that was going on, where the heck were we?

But as I shoved another olive in my mouth – I never knew I was an olive person – I knew where we were. We were right where we should be – together, doing something different, and enjoying the contradictions of life that make the world a spicy, delicious place to be.

Be sure to check out Venus Sophia Tea Room and Vegetarian Eatery right in the heart of Chinatown, Victoria, BC. Vegetarian, Vegan or Gluten-free delights are sure to make your mouth water!

Monday, May 20, 2013

Chasing Trains for Fun

I`ve been recovering from my second abdominal hernia repair operation in two years, and have been feeling kinda....glum. Okay, alright, I’ll admit it – been kinda feeling sorry for myself. Being a very active person by nature, getting out there and doing fun stuff has been on hold during my recovery, and as for the future? Who knows. Body-building, bungy jumping and sky-diving are out, and even though I never really had great aspirations to do any of those things anyways, it’s the thought of NOT being able to do those things, if I ever wanted to, that has gotten me down. So while the recovery has been long, my future of doing stuff a bit bleak, I have been focusing on finding stuff that I CAN do – because hey, that’s what life’s all about, right? Getting out there and doing - stuff!

When I noticed a sign on the highway outside the Saanich Historical Artifacts Society at Heritage Acres in Victoria, BC, I knew what I could do! Added to that, I was sure it was something I could get an ever-growing teenager out doing with me!

So on that sunny Victoria Day long weekend (in these parts, it`s the May 20th weekend), I packed us a lunch and with a promise of a surprise, we headed out to Heritage Acres.

A woodsy place adorned with weeping willow trees, trails through the woods, and a pond abundant with lily pads, the grounds house replica buildings from `back in the day` of blacksmiths, schoolhouses, and a chapel. Among the heritage farming equipment donated from local farmers, a museum boasts antiques – everything from treadle sewing machines, to tools, to printing presses. A fun and educational place to look around, but honestly, that`s not what we were there for that day.

We were there to ride trains.

The Vancouver Island Model Engineers, a group of model train enthusiasts maintaining trains of all sizes as well as model aircraft and boats, host train ride days throughout the year. Decked out in traditional train engineer gear, members not only work on their model trains that are bigger than your average dog, but they maintain much bigger trains – trains you can ride!

With a donation, we hopped aboard. Sitting astride our car, our feet mere inches from the ground, off we went. With the engineer on the front, we toot-tooted and whizzed along foot-wide tracks, through tunnels, over bridges, around ponds, even past a garden gnome display! The 10-minute ride had us back at the station all too soon, where we promptly dropped in another donation into the cash box, got our `ticket` punched again, and away we went! With a whistle and clank of the gears, my son in front of me and my arms clenched tightly around his middle holding on for dear life, through the forest we went again. Though the log ride at Disneyland it was not, a scream through the darkened tunnel was duly called for!

As we had our lunch under a massive weeping willow tree, to stop later at the Whistlestop cafe for a freezie, I realized – I have lots to do, lots I can do, and no amount of hernias were going to stop me from having some kind of fun. Those trains clackety-clanking over the tracks reminded me to focus on what I COULD do, and not on what I couldn`t.
So be sure to hop aboard a train, even if it`s no bigger than a bike, and get riding!

The Vancouver Island Model Engineers are based based at the Saanich Historical Artifacts Society site at Heritage Acres, 7321 Lochside Drive. Be sure to check out their website at for upcoming train ride schedules and be sure to get your ticket punched! Who knows what kind of fun you`ll have!

(Pop over to my photo gallery to see more pictures of the trains!)

Monday, May 13, 2013

Stamp Collecting 101

I’m a patron of the postal system. Yup, it’s true. Even in this world of ‘e’ everything, nothing beats mail. The act of sending and receiving something, the anticipation, the cute little stamps – I love it all. It’s like Christmas morning every time the mail carrier arrives. True, the mail isn’t delivered right to my door, but checking our postal box is just as fun. Even more exciting is sometimes finding a box sitting on my front door! Many times, however, there is disappointment – ‘nothing good in the mail today, dear’ – but then I always rev-up my excitement for next time.

Except, of course, when receiving a bill in the mail – now that’s no fun.


And I am actually disappointed when someone tells me to send something electronically. Yes, it is cheaper and responses are quicker, but what fun is there to be had by not buying a stamp?

Aside from my addiction to sending and receiving mail, I recently realized that my patronage for all things postal ran deeper than I thought.

One day while waiting in line at the post office, I saw it - a shiny catalogue of newly designed stamps and coins currently for sale. Historical themes from everything to ’The Princess of Wales’ Own Regiment’ to ‘The War of 1812’ were gracing the pages. Then to add to my interest were sets titled ‘Adopt a Pet,’ ‘Chinatown Gates,’ ‘Motorcycles’ and fittingly, given my new-found interest, ‘250 years of Postal History.’

And that tingly feeling resurfaced from too many years ago. I had a need to collect and save.

When I was a kid, my cousin and I were big on the stamp collecting front – right up there with sticker collecting. True, we weren’t ‘professionals,’ steaming and soaking with tweezers in hand, but we loved saving stamps from near and far. For Christmas my Aunt gave me my OWN stamp album – a book fashioned with little pockets to store the treasured stamps. It filled pretty quickly because as word spread through my family I was collecting stamps. Every aunt, uncle and grandmother was sending me stamps torn from envelopes. I was a PROFESSIONAL.

And the bug never left me. Over the years, I would sometimes save a cool-looking stamp as I found one, and those who knew me would bring me stamps from their travels afar, and I would save them all. But I didn’t consider myself a ‘stamp collector.’ I would save them in a drawer, my nightstand or even my jewelry box. True stamp collectors everywhere are likely cringing at my less-than stellar preservation techniques, but this is what I did. As a mother of two boys – who over the years I desperately tried to get them on the hobby and without success – I didn’t have time to be a ‘true’ stamp collector.

Yes, I could have put them in a book, but I thought collecting was for...‘other’ people, not me. People who knew this history and worth of many stamps, never mind the proper-preservation of the tiny little squares. People who had time and patience to learn about each one.

Flipping through the catalogue, I was inspired, intrigued and suddenly itching to get my hands on a few - but not to use, of course, despite my postal system patronage. And I realized right then, I had to get an album, just like I had as a kid. It would be a relatively cheap hobby, and really, how hard COULD it be to throw a few stamps in a book? Waiting for new stamp designs to come on the market would give me a kick – just like waiting for the mail to arrive. I could put all the ones I had saved over the years in the book, and heck, if anything, they might be worth something to my kids one day.

So, on a Friday I finally got myself a brand new stamp album. Outside the main post office downtown, I flipped through the pages bearing little pockets in which to slide in my precious stamps. I couldn’t wait to get it home and start filling the pages. The day I picked up the catalogue, I had purchased two sets – just to start my new-found hobby on the right foot. I had saved them for when I could get an album, and I was itching to get home to those freshly minted stamps, and start scouring around my drawers, nightstands and jewelry boxes for stamps lovingly saved.

And I did insert my new stamps that night. I couldn’t wait to get it all together and show my kids, and maybe inspire them to get started. I re-traced my steps in my memory of where in the house I had ‘preserved’ all these stamps. I had to find them, and I had all weekend to do it! I could do it! How much time could it take to just find the stamps and slide them in the album?

But I should have known better. A busy mom whose weekends are often a blur with errands, kid duties, and preparing for the coming school/work week has no time for the quiet, slow hobby of stamp collecting. Despite my best efforts, I never got a chance to race around my house finding all the stamps I had saved. Next thing I knew Sunday night snuck up and my shoulders slumped like a soggy stamp. I never got around to finding all my stamps.

But, I brightened as I consoled myself, at LEAST I had a new book in which to save the precious little gems. All the stamps in the world weren’t going to magically disappear if I didn’t fill my book that weekend, and the ones stashed around my house weren’t going anywhere, either. There would be other times. Yes, my life is too busy for many things, but I took my re-entry to the stamp collecting world as another sign to slow down. Stopping to slide in a fresh, un-used stamp would take barely a few minutes. I could do that.

So my album sits on the shelf, waiting for my return. The stamps are stashed around the house, waiting for me to find them. The mail carrier is gearing up for the day, readying him/herself to bring me (hopefully) good mail – with hopefully good stamps. And in the end, am helping support and preserve the postal system that the ‘e’ world is threatening to extinct.

I am glad I started - I wonder if the mail will bring me the time I need?