Self-care

I wrote a post for the Fitness blog last Friday about getting exhausted while do all the flying around over August.

How do you take care of yourself?

And a bonus image of chilled out cats

 

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Big Hill Trail (Yellowknife)

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The trail is more of a route than a demarked trail, twisting through root-y trees, up over lichen covered boulders and down sheer sides, jutting sideways and over any place feet can safely be placed on this pre-Cambrian rock, among these northern trees.  The trail is unserviced but marked by community members, mostly with tape, an occasional cairn.

 

Everyone who marked it used different tape — yellow and pink trail tape, green painter’s tape, occasionally, white and blue stripes.  It’s the kind of trail where there is no just settling in and walking — after every marker, I have to lift my head and scan for the next marker.  In the 9 km or so I walk (far further than the estimated distance, maybe because of all my back and forths looking for the trail!), there are maybe two straight stretches of 50 m or so, both of these on boulders where the path was scraped by glaciers eons ago.

IMG_9777I hike alone, tempering my nervousness about the barely-there trail, the lack of map, with the reassurance that the trail is mentioned on the official visitors’ site for Yellowknife.  Just finding the starting point was a challenge, just a rough pullout off the highway about 23 km outside the city, the only sign that I’m in the right place a trailing pink piece of tape entering the forest.  I’m not sure why I was so determined to do this particular trail instead of the flat prospectors’ trail in the territorial park closer to the city, but I only have one day here, and I’ve never been to the Canadian North before, and I want to feel inside it, feel its bones and spine, just a little bit.

The first part of the hike is sunny, and I’m completely present, my feet moving nimbly over the roots, my scrambling up the boulders as graceful as that can be.  It’s not warm, and the geese feel it, honking in giant vees flying south overhead.  Their trajectory is partly how I know I’m going in the right direction.  They are the only noise I hear, and I’m completely alone on the trail, almost alone in the entire vast area I can see.

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I come to a high point, flat boulders where I can see in every directions.  Trees, rocks, small lakes, darkening sky.  I meditate for a bit, bask quietly in the sun.  Gratitude practice.  When I stand up, I have the deep restfulness of waking after a good nap.

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I walk and walk, just me and the rocks and the spindly trees and the clouds.  One scramble up, and the lake the hike is named after.  I sit on the edging rocks, eat an apple, look skeptically at the dark clouds that are appearing.

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The only description I had of this trail called it a “hidden treasure” and a “6 km round trip trail.”  Somehow I had it in my head that it was a loop, so I spend about 15 minutes looking for the alternative entry.  I don’t find it, and as I start back the way I came, it starts to rain, first gently, then pouring.  The boulders become slick as the lichen gets wet, and the trail tape gets less jaunty.  I go off in the wrong direction several times, and at one point, lose track of the tape entirely.  Good lord, I’m lost in the northern woods, I mutter out loud.  Twice, I step into marsh I managed to bypass on the way out.  But I stay calm, and I backtrack, and every time, I find the trail again.

Winding my way back is less full of wonder.  It’s harder to find the markers in this direction for some reason, and the slippery rocks make me a little anxious.  I try not to think about the story I heard recently about someone’s friend canoeing on her own who broke her arm on a portage and had to wait 3 days before someone came along who could help her get out. (Who just told me that story?).  Mostly, I think about how a hiking trail , like everything else in the world, can be summed up in one terse sentence — unserviced 6 km round trip trail, beautiful view of small lake —  but walking it requires step-by-step presence, is a whole world in every moment, a world filled with the honk of geese, the slick of rain, wet shoes, the focused scan for the next marker — and brief elation and relief when it’s spotted, giving way immediately to scanning for the next, endless sweep of trees and jutting rock, low heavy cloud, the distant sound of occasional cars, slight ache of foot, an unexpected deep sigh, fogged glasses, planting every footstep with caution and certainty.  Here, now, where I find myself.

 

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Microholiday: Halifax

Sunday evening I finished riding 125 km as part of a three day fundraiser I’m a key part of making happen, and promptly tossed my clothes in the laundry as I turned around to pack for Halifax.

I am doing a cross-country tour for a project that’s taking me to six Canadian cities in august, doing some focus groups on a pretty tough topic. I spend a fair bit of time talking to people who’ve been close to horrible violence, including people whose children have been murdered. And this time, I’m physically and emotionally weary to start with. The event, a fundraiser for the Uganda project, took a lot to pull off.  I’ve been traveling a lot.  And my phone reminded me, as I was packing, that I was about to get my period.

For breath and space, I looked for slices of time that could be micro-holidays in Halifax.  I had booked an air bnb, which turned out to be lovely. I arrived, changed and walked down to the waterfront, far enough away to be a significant walk.  I was on the hunt for something to sleep in, since my 10 minute packing job somehow omitted both a not-sports bra and jammies.

The Halifax waterfront is always soul-soothing.  The cram of ice cream and beavertail huts doesn’t take away from the lure of the sea, the sense of a very real port with Real Things Happening.

 

As I wandered, I almost immediately found a shop in a shipping container with bike rentals.  I was more focused at first on the tshirts — jammie tops! — and then it dawned on me that I could rent a bike for my time here.  Ride to my meeting, have some wheels.

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I chose a sweet red vintage-replica city bike with a sagging basket.  While we were doing the paperwork, I got into a lovely conversation with the young woman about the project in Uganda, her yearning to do more.  She studied environmental science and is now studying music.  Suddenly she said, “have you seen the eclipse?” and handed me a pair of glasses to put on.  Without expecting to, I joined everyone across the continent in marvelling at the bite in the sun.

 

I took my bike and, wandering, found myself at what turned out to be one of the most recommended restaurants in Halifax.  I ate shrimp and linguine with lobster and watched the sea.  Then rode my sweet bike back to my air bnb, where I had the perfect bath, set up by the best hosts I’ve encountered.

Micro-holiday in the middle of jangled time.  The moments that create space and grounding.

St Petersburg 1

I’m only here in St Petersburg for two days, and I booked a driver and guide to go to the palaces outside the city for tomorrow. With one day only, it was a moral imperative to spend most of it at the Hermitage.

Like most people, I suspect, I had this notion that there was “a lot of art” here but I really had no clue of the scale. It’s as if the British museum, the Louvre and the Vatican tossed everything that wasn’t a headline artifact into a slightly crumbling version of Versailles.
I don’t usually spend a ton of time when I travel in the places where clumps of people disgorged from tour busses shuffle along following a person with a held up flag, but sometimes it’s inevitable. And the thing about the Hermitage is? Even with rows and rows of squatting busses waiting in Palace Square, it’s still not crowded.  The museum is in the former Winter Palace, partly in a specially built gallery that was created in the mid 19th c, and partly in the royal apartments. So it’s a squash of Rembrandts and DaVinci madonnas Medieval holy art and all the Italians of the Renaissance, ancient artifacts from all over Asia, along with tiny glittery dresses, suits of armour and walls and walls of portraits of emperors and noblemen and soldiers.
In the great hall crammed ceiling to floor with portraits punctuating enormous — and I mean enormous — images of Peter the Great and his ilk, I was momentarily overwhelmed. I sat down on a bench and read a couple of chapters of Anna Karenina on my phone to right myself, while the Chinese ladies who never take off their wide visors milled around me.

The tour groups were good because I got to pick up some tidbits of info without the strain of shuffling in a claustrophobic clot. This gold peacock clock was commissioned by one of Catherine the Great’s lovers to win her favour. When it chimes, the peacock tail fans out.  They only let it chime once a week now to preserve the mechanism.


I’m surprised Trump hasn’t had a replica made, but bigger.

Even after just two hours, I was glutted in the Hermitage. I felt like a foie gras goose stuffed to the gullet with stimuli. I kept looking until I found the gold encrusted, recently restored golden chapel (a degree of  gilt I’ve only ever seen before in SE Asia). That

That was enough. I took myself off for a simple lunch. More beets — I’m about 14 % beet at this point — then I went in search of tampons, because I keep forgetting I’m the woman menopause forgot.

They keep them behind a little locked cabinet in the tiny pharmacy.  As I was prowling around looking for them, I came across a pretty young woman in a pristine short white dress and high wedges retouching her look. This included sniffing under her arms, applying deodorant and generally reprinting her face.  I was glad when I saw her put the deodorant back into her purse — I thought it was a tester.

I wandered over to the Church on the Spilled Blood (high noon, so the truly astonishing colours of the edifice don’t show up in my photos). Mosaics everywhere. Astonishing centuries of human time handcrafting this church.

As I wandered out again, I came across three wedding parties doing photo shoots. Brittle young brides teetering carefully across cobblestones. One set doing a carefully choreographed dance in front of the Winter Palace with a violinist and three photographers. Faux-aristocracy.


I had read that they had recently moved the French Impressionists to the General Staff building across from the Hermitage. This move is clearly recent since the vast building, which I entered with the same ticket, was almost empty if people. But stuffed with French art. Whole rooms full of Matisses, Picassos, Rosina, Cezanne, Degas, Monet, Gauguin. Along with a few Van Goghs, Kandinsky, late 20th c Russians and galleries full of porcelain I ignored. A feast, still being created.


Tomorrow, Pushkin and Peterhof.

Bring your own sticks

Today I ate wild Estonian mushrooms in an Oriental duck salad, had an excellent thai massage and flagellated myself with birch leaves in a Russian sauna with naked old women and small children.

It was a very improvisational day.

Yesterday I realized that I’d misplaced my dates a bit and thought I was leaving for St. Petersburg tonight, but it’s actually tomorrow. I was a bit at a loss at what to do with the found time. I put the question to my FB hive, and the majority opinion was to take the ferry to Helsinki, with a strong undercurrent of “simmer down and do nothing.” My sister asked me a good question — what will you be happy you did a month from now? — while advocating for not cramming too much in. Bonne describing the ferry as “basically a booze cruise” where a man belched right in her face was another point in favour of staying put, but I was still open-ended when I went to bed.

I woke up at 7 to the orchestral song that wakes me up and sends me to sleep every night. The first night I thought I was imagining it, but then I recognized that it happened every night. I tried googling “what is that music I hear at 10 pm in Tallinn” but that led me to apophenia, hearing music that isn’t there. I was pretty sure I was hearing it, but this place does feel like there are a lot of ghosts about.  The woman at the hotel desk finally told me this morning that it’s the national anthem, which they play when raising and lower the flag on the tallest tower of old town. Tonight maybe I’ll stay up late enough to see them lower it. I should find out more about bits history.

This morning, sore from my run yesterday in worn out shoes, the anthem was a soundtrack for supreme gratitude that I had so much choice, completely unfettered time. The sky was grey and any remaining intention I had for the ferry dissipated. I started making plans, but was quickly thwarted from doing anything. The spa where I wanted to have a massage was fully booked, the excellent restaurant I ate in the first night was booked for dinner, it was grey and looked potentially rainy so I didn’t want to rent a bike. So I just decided to wander and to make up my day as it unfolded.

My first stop was a bookstore on the edge of Old Town for a new journal (channeling my friend Grace), one made up delightfully from the cover of an old children’s book. The title means “Far off over the river,” which seems about right.

Wandering back toward Teliskivi, the design-y, hipstery creative cluster where I hung out yesterday for a while, I passed the Thai Orchid Massage spa, and, channeling my sister Melissa, impulsively went in. A self-appointed doorman let me in, clearly vetting me based on the sign on the door that they provide REGULAR massage. They had room right then and I had an excellent thai massage, focusing on my poor feet and legs and neck. She was gentle and put magical healing ointments on all of my bruises.

After restorative tea, I headed for the food trucks in Teliskivi, and had an excellent salad with chicken while christening my new journal. I then found a coffee shop and wrote and read for a bit more.

Then channeling my friend Jessica, I headed for the authentic Russian sauna. Men and women separately, with beer and sodas available downstairs. As utilitarian as it gets, but right in the heart of history.

The ritual is simple: you can rent a towel and get a little sitting on mat, for about 3 euros. You walk up two flights of stairs, past some ancient faux leather loungers. There’s a steel door, and inside, a sagging changing room with wooden lockers. Beyond that, a room filled with benches and taps and plastic basins, a couple of showers and a seriously questionable jacuzzi. Beyond that, another small version of the shower/basin room, and then the sauna. That’s it.

There were about 12 people there — a small naked blonde family and middle aged and old Russian ladies. Everyone was very practiced, with plastic baskets of soaps and unguents, loofahs, shower shoes.

I cannot over-emphasize enough the importance of the shower shoes.

I watched for a bit in the basin/shower room, but basically people were just washing themselves. I followed the old woman with the toque who came in at the same time as me, and went into the sauna with my watch, a bottle of water and my little mat.

It was… searingly hot. Dark, hissing, like the breath of a dragon hot. In my usual way, I crawled up to the top bench, my feet generating new words for “zowie that’s hot” as I climbed — and then I scampered right back down to the bottom bench. My old lady companion with the toque began to whack herself with a bundle of leaves. Another woman came in with her own bundle of leaves, and little droplets flew off them as she whacked. Back, front, legs, thighs, whack whack whack.

It was unbearably hot for me, and after 5 minutes I went out, let a cool shower wash over me. Two women were covered in mud. BYOB and BYOM. Bring your own branches and bring your own mud.

I went back into the source of all that is true, lasting about 6 minutes this time. I once outlasted all of my colleagues in a (culturally appropriative) sweat lodge in a misguided leadership ritual in the late 90s. These russian ladies were another-species level of more stoic than me.

After my second turn, I was kind of at a loss. I was baking from the inside out, like being heated in a microwave. In the small basin room, I just sat on my little mousepad mat, unmoving and absorbing. The second, non-toque lady, sat across from me, both of us just… sitting.

I showered again, and decided that I was done. Some kind of heart exploding event felt very possible. I wrapped myself in my towel and went to sit in the locker room. Five minutes passed and I couldn’t stop sweating. I felt good, but.. boiled dry, like a teakettle left too long on the stove.

I went downstairs to return the towel and I saw the basket of birch branches I’d missed on my way in. Sticks! I could have my own sticks! I paid for a second towel and a bundle of sticks and went back up.

I waved my sticks at the old ladies. “I have my own sticks!” Now they were my friends. One nudged at me that I should put my (truly gross) keens in the locker so no one would steal them. The toque lady showed me how to soak my sticks before using them, and kept saying massag! She pushed a basin toward me and said Foot.

I went into the sauna with my wet sticks and started whacking myself.

It was blissful. Like flossing the outside of your body.  With nature.

Whack. Whack. Whack.

I did three turns through the sauna with my own sticks, and was then both thoroughly baked and basted. Between the thai massage and the russian birch leaves, all of my blood had visited the edge of my skin over the course of the day and trembled back again.

I sat in the chair in my towel for a while , watching a few more Russian ladies come in. After their saunas, they just sat in the change room for a while, just being. Steamed, whacked, whole.

If I lived here I’d come here once a week. With shower shoes.

Wandering in Tallinn 1

“Are you happy?” I asked my cab driver after a delicious meal tonight.

“NO! he said.  “I am happy in Espana!” He was born and raised in Tallin and had just finished telling me that everyone in Estonia has a vitamin D deficiency.  Considering his English wasn’t super high level, it was a very sophisticated train of thought to wander down.

I fell into the trap yesterday of making a generalization on Facebook about Latvians vs. Estonians based on my vast 10 days experience here.  Several people commented that they knew a lot of nice Estonians — and I have encountered many nice individuals.  But there was a huge contrast between total exuberance of encouragement and helpfulness I had in Latvia (see my post from my first day of riding), and much more stoic acceptance of my presence since I crossed the border.  Of course individual people have been kind, and I never had a bad experience in a single place I stayed, with the mild exception of indifferent, slow service in a restaurant in the more touristed town of Haapsalu.  And I think the Estonians I’ve encountered have less English than the Latvians, and are just relieved to make it through a conversation. But on the whole, no one expressed joy at my riding alone from Riga, and no one offered to help.  That was fine — just interesting, in contrast.  And since I’ve been in Tallinn, I’ve met lovely people — a young server in a restaurant last night who is about to go study at Imperial College in London, and who drew a maple leafs/heart icon on my bill; another server who ran after me to make a suggestion for a non-touristy coffee shop.  But there is just an air that is less… joyful. Exemplified by my cab driver, and the weariness of the town I spent the last night of my ride in,

It’s a curious thing — according to the world happiness Index, Estonia is way down the list at 66.  Particularly interesting when you realize that Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Finland and Iceland (and Canada) are in the top 10.  (Latvia is 54th, which isn’t that far off so statistics mean nothing really lol). I suppose this is a result of history, and edginess at the uncertain state of the world given its role as a buffer between Europe and Russia.  Karl-Ander, my lovely young server explained to me that the huge amount of restoration going on right now in Old Town is for two reasons — it’s Estonia’s turn to be part of a presidential trio of leadership of the EU in the second half of 2017, and next year is the 100th anniversary of the Republic of Estonia — “but with Brexit,” he shrugged, “the future is uncertain.”

What is certain is that Tallinn is a remarkably lovely city.  The medieval old Town is miraculously preserved given all of the backings and forthings of history, and even though parts of it are a bit thronged with tourists fro cruise ships and the like, they stick to certain spots.  There are parks everywhere, and I stumbled across an amazing installation of plants in one of the parks for the Tallinn Flower Festival.  The weather has been perfect, and there is a visible spirit of contemporary design everywhere.  Really interesting jewellery and clothes everywhere.

Today was a recovery day for me, more in spirit than in body.  I walked more than 18 km, tromping around the city on a self-guided walking tour through old town and on a shopping quest.  I needed a new bag because I threw away the cheap duffle I brought as a carry on after my flight over, and I wanted some clothes that weren’t completely scruffy.  I found the fringes of Estonian design, and bought a really interesting … garment … (kind of an indoor coat), some tshirts, a bracelet and, at the Estonian equivalent of the Bay, a very sturdy carry on bag.  I also found an excellent bookstore with good English books, now that I can take a couple of paper books with me instead of just my ipad. And at the end of the day, I went for a run through the park around the medieval wall, chasing some children through a hedge maze.

I had dinner at a well-reviewed place that would take me out of the touristed area, and I went perhaps a bit too far — it was a beautiful restaurant in an old manor house on the edge of the park named Kadriorg (Catherine’s Valley), after the czarina.  Another reminder of the Russian history of this place.  The food was excellent but the service a bit lonely — at one point I was the only person left on a freezing terrace, shivering under a blanket, and my server had disappeared.  I did not feel like a princess.

The wanderings, the finding interesting things I needed, a short but settling run, good food — this all put me back in rhythm for another day to get ready to go to Russia on Tuesday night.  I realized I have a blip in dates on my visa (my train gets in at midnight of the day my visa is for, but now I’m worried they might not let me board), so I’m trying to make a plan B without fretting.  And continuing to read Anna Karenina.  Is it wrong that my favourite character is Levin?