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Day 15: Charlottetown to New York, via Montreal [my favourite airport, and the place I single-handedly spent more time than any other while visiting Montreal! See previous posts.]
I’m in New York! And in the languid and iconic ballad as performed by Alicia Keys:
Concrete jungle where dreams are made of.
And a jungle it is. I am exhausted today, but I absolutely need to share the place that I am staying!
I am staying the the Library Hotel in New York, a themed boutique hotel where there is free continental breakfast, free daily wine + cheese afternoons, unlimited tea, coffee, water, fruit + pastries, and free access to the New York City public library.
But the COOLEST thing?! The rooms are themed. Each floor corresponds to one of the hundreds in the Dewey System. And each room is actually furnished with books + pictures corresponding decimal identification that it would be in a real library.
I GOT LEVEL 7: THE ARTS!
And the absolute cherry on the cake; I’m in room 700.003; PERFORMING ARTS.
Day 11: Montreal to Charlottetown
There are no traffic lights in Charlottetown on Prince Edward Island. You just cross the road and the cars figure it out, as well as figuring themselves out.
MIND. BLOWN. 😳
The convenience store looks like the one in Stars Hollow from Gilmore Girls. One brand of everything, like it or suck it up! 🤣
I just walked along the waterfront against a glorious sunset, watching the sun make shadows out of the ships in the harbour.
On my way back to the cottage I am staying, an elderly man sitting in a rocking chair on his porch dipped his invisible hat at me, all the while softly singing Gershwin’s “Summertime”. 😎
Oh my goodness, I think I’m going to love it here.
Day 10: Montreal
And I continue to digress from my little journalling formula, but I was inspired to write this post today.
The Gratitude In Travel
We are so lucky in life, the travellers. To be able to travel purely to reconnect, discover, or learn is such a privilege, the thought of which has overwhelmed me in unexpected moments over the last few days. We get on a plane, somehow we fly thousands of miles and we appear on the other side of the world because we have the means, the technology, and the inclination. Me, as a first generation Chinese-Vietnamese Australian living in “country Adelaide”; I have access to the whole world. I am allowed to see all of this. And I am overwhelmed with gratitude. I feel like a tiny star in a constellation, moving around in this extraordinary expanse of universe.
What is it about us humans that makes us long to discover? Where does this need to find out, to follow, to figure out, and to be free come from? It’s so much easier to be safe and small. But left to our own devices, we rarely choose it. We keep wanting more. And once we find out “more”, we keep longing for a “new type of more”.
I am overwhelmed with gratitude for my health, because to travel you need to be healthy. To be able to be tired and sore at the end of the day, smelly and sweaty with blisters and aching body is a sign that you have embraced all that a city or place has to offer. That your body and health have afforded you the strength and mobility to see all that you wanted is a blessing. That you had a chance to choose where you went during a day, and how much time you wanted to spend there. And for no other reason other than to experience it. No escape, no pain, no hunger, no war. This gives me pangs of both overwhelming gratitude and compassion for those who do not have what I am allowed to have.
I am overwhelmed with gratitude for my work, which gives me a daily mirror and moral compass to be the best person that I am able. When you’re a teacher of teenagers, you have a mirror held up to you EVERY DAY. Good or bad, it’s all right in your face. You will KNOW if you’re working with integrity, because teenagers live for the smell of it, even if they don’t know how to “do integrity” fluently themselves yet. Teenagers don’t take shit, and they have crap detectors that are the world’s most finely tuned, non-electronic sensory devices. And then, to be able to take this moral compass out into the world and test it out for real, with people of other nationalities, countries, ideas, cultures + experience and figure out a different city? Truly amazing, soul-changing, shaking, affirming, and life-giving. The learning and shaping of yourself and your values doesn’t get better than that. How rich you become when you have the means to travel.
My work also allows me the monetary means to travel. I have enough money to pay for food, the flights, insurance, postcards, shopping, souvenirs, presents, experiences, entry fees, and emergencies. I have access to a world outside my own, that my own life may be stretched and enriched by what I experience. In other words, I have money to spare beyond the essentials that I can travel for the sake of travelling.
I am overwhelmed with gratitude for the love of my friends and family, who hold me like a strong secure net in my adventures. Without their trust, love and support, I would not be able to venture out so joyfully and freely. Without my Dad’s encouragement as a teenager, and quite against the usual Asian-stereotypes + thinking, I would not have begun to test my wings. Now, my wings and sense of adventure are strong and supple. And I cry tears of gratitude for the worry that both my parents must have endured in my earlier years of travel, when I made some stupid-arse choices for lack of experience and money, and that they still let me take flight.
I cry for joy at my freedom.
I am overwhelmed with gratitude for the chance to learn. Travel, as they say, changes you. And it does. How it changes you depends on what inside you needs changing, and what is vulnerable and malleable to the world at that point in time.
So, here, many thousands of kilometres away from home I say…
T H A N K Y O U.
Day 6: Toronto
The heat-wave continues. Somehow, I have inadvertently become the poster-girl for the hot weather. The moment anyone I’m talking to realises I’m Australian, I become the one-stop outpouring station for the heat wave that Toronto is experiencing. Now if I’m being truly honest, the heat is uncomfortable and muggy, but TOTALLY survivable from an Adelaide point of view. It’s not the searing, burning, oven-heat that threatens to take off your top layer of skin. It’s sort of mid-range Darwin hot. It hasn’t stopped me on my explorations, but it’s certainly slowed me down. Combined with the last vestiges of jet lag, it’s a veritable sedative. But not enough of stop me!
But rather than say, “Oh, this is NOTHING! You should feel the oven-roasting dry heat of Adelaide in the middle of January!”, I thought I’d cheer on the Canadians and just say, “Yeah, it’s pretty bad. I’m from Australia, and it’s pretty bad today.”
Thought I’d be encouraging.
Steps taken: 22,111, and what started off as somewhat of a rest day where I took the morning off after my delicious brunch at Early Bird Café ballooned out into an afternoon of non-stop wanderings. I re-emerged around lunchtime and finally ventured into downtown Toronto properly, having a second wander through the Toronto Eaton Centre, the St Lawrence Market, Toronto City Hall, Saint Andrews Church, and a mini-wander around the University of Toronto. Met up with Robs + Em to wander through the Art Gallery of Toronto, which was GLORIOUS for the cultural as well as the air-conditioning aspect.
One memorable meal or food item: My brunch at the Early Bird Café on Queen Street West this morning. Touted as “Toronto’s Top 10 Most Instagrammable Brunch Spots”, not only did it deliver in aesthetics, but the food was absolutely sensational. It was healthy and locally-sourced, but tasted delicious. I had a breakfast bowl with avocado, roasted tomatoes, sweet + white potatoes, mushrooms, kale, pickled radish and miso-flavoured “polenta congee”. Drool! And because it sounded so cool, I also ordered the “Blue Life Smoothie”, which was a blue spirulina, coconut water + flesh, banana, honey, and cacao-topped delight. The photo does not do it justice; this wasn’t a sort of blueberry-smoothie blue, it was a robin’s egg, baby-blue colour like no other.
One special photograph: Not sentimental, but definitely very cool; look at how these shoe displays have been organised!
One decent coffee: I didn’t have a coffee today. The smoothie took its place!
One amazing moment: Realising that I could pick the Canadian accent over the American! I chose people who very obviously looked like tourists to practise on, but there’s this wonderful mellow softness to the vowels in the Canadian accent that you don’t get from an American one. Go, those musician’s ears!
One unplanned detour/adventure: Deciding to take 5 extra minutes in the St Lawrence Markets, which led me directly to the maple butter tarts, the same ones that are mentioned in Anthony Bourdin’s Toronto Layover episode. So of course I had to have one!
20 minutes reading: A very Kinfolk-ish looking magazine called “Cereal” that was at the Early Bird Café this morning. There was a great article about the quality of living + sustainability in Tasmania!
30 minutes composing: Not so much composing, but composing-related. I’ve been invited to do a fabulous project where I will be mentoring + guiding up-and-coming composers, and this is right up my alley, my bread and butter. I LOVE the process of working with secondary and tertiary students, finding their voice, and linking individuality, sound, nuances, and practicality in their compositions. As a passionate educator who composes, I have seen and heard too many ensembles become vehicles for composers to show off their voice. While this is fine in one sense, I believe that the most relevant and satisfying experiences for ensembles, particularly children and youth ensembles, requires connection and understanding from the composer writing for them of their personality, their abilities, and where they need to develop. Not writing to be clever, but writing to deeply inspire and connect. An excellent composer who has full command of their language will be able to write and make an ordinary ensemble sound lifted up, nurtured, well-fitted, and musically extraordinary, because they are maximising every bit of their potential rather than writing for the sake of being clever.
So…I am constructing the framework for all the things I would like to teach in this project, all the things that I would like these new composers to consider, as well as how I think as an educator, and how all encompassing it is.
And I am loving it.
Day 4: Toronto
I’m meeting my FUR-NIECE TODAY! Oh, and catching up with Robs + Em, my brother and sister-in-law. But THE PUPPER! THE FUR-NIECE!
Steps taken: 22,587, mostly around the incredibly trendy + hip areas of Queen + King Streets. Think Newtown, or Rundle Street East. With the hipsters, and the kale chips, and the deconstructed coffees, yes, they are all there as well.
One memorable meal or food item: The salted peanut butter cookie dough JAR CAKE! Brunch was also delicious. Just off leafy Dovercourt Road, Toronto’s answer to Adelaide’s tree-lined Victoria Avenue, is Luna Café which specialises in local organic food. I had poached eggs with the yellowest of yellow jokes, home cured salmon, sourdough, locally sourced greens, oven-roasted cherry tomatoes, and avocado, lemon + mint. After yesterday’s slim pickings, I relished today’s fare!
One special photograph: Indi, my fur-niece! “Indi” is short for “Indiana”, as in “Indiana Jones”. My sister-in-law’s last name is “Jones”, therefore Indi’s full name is “Indiana Jones-Kwok”. Hyphenated. Who takes after her Mum, Emily, with the curls!
One decent coffee: This was a cracker. I am still a bit jet lagged, but not the sort of jet lag that renders you semi-drunk. Just a milder sort of “drool-for-half-an-hour-at-lunch-time” sort of jet lag that is almost possible to cure with a decent coffee. Enter Sam James Coffee Bar, suggested to me by Robs. This minimalistic, sleek coffee shop would not be out of place down a Melbourne alleyway, with the quality of coffee to match. I can imagine it being filled to the brim during the morning rush, but when I arrived it was virtually empty, which meant that I could sit on their window ledge and while away a delicious half an hour with my equally delicious coffee.
One amazing moment: The history + love behind the amazing loft apartment I am staying in. A family of four was raised in this apartment: Mum, Dad, and two daughters. When Baby. No. 3 came along, the family finally decided they had to move further outward, despite how much they wanted to stay downtown. This apartment is like a super-cool, hip, modern Scandinavian apartment, filled with tiny, thoughtful alterations and utterly surprising uses of space. Totally up my alley. The fact that I can walk around this apartment and see evidence of such care and connection – things such as the heights of the two girls etched into the staircase, the hollowed-out sections of the walls for their books, and tiny little hooks where their necklaces and treasures would have hung – makes me love it all the more.
The hilarious thing?! It’s on the doorstep of the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.
How very convenient!
One unplanned detour/adventure: An unplanned reaction for me. I thought I’d love the downtown Toronto area, full of the usual shops and haunts, the buzzing heart of the city. But, much to my surprise, I really didn’t! I found it impersonal, overcrowded, and a complete assault on the ears and self. I loved, wholeheartedly, the quirky edginess of King + Queen Streets, the boutique stores, the interesting characters, the one-of-a-kinds, the quality, the care, the uniqueness. The space between shops + people. The older I get, the more I seek out the unique, as well as time + space enough to savour them.
One act of kindness: I thanked the girl who made my coffee and told her it was ABSOLUTELY Melbourne-coffee-snob-standard, which made her grin from ear-to-ear.
“We’re catching up. There’s a real culture here!”
20 minutes reading: Didn’t get there.
30 minutes composing: Didn’t get here either. Better START here tomorrow!
The Kwokkie Diaries: A Tiny Chinese-Aussie Abroad
Day 1 + 1.5: Adelaide to Melbourne to Auckland to Vancouver.
Flying Backwards In Time
I love these days. The Virgo sensibilities in me find it indescribably satisfying to effectively time travel and gain back time. See, look?! I made it to Canada and did it in 6 hours! I am invincible! Well, not so much, as I found out in Auckland Airport, somewhere in the TSA screening line…!
Steps taken: 15,347, quite extraordinary seeing as my bare minimum per day was 15,000 on non-flying days, and I flew. For many, many hours; 18 hours + 26 minutes, to be exact, spread across 3 flights.
One memorable meal or food item: The CHAMPAGNE I received when I was UPGRADED to BUSINESS CLASS, AWW YEAAAAAHHHH! This peasant guuuuurl’s goin’ places! Does lightening strike twice?! Apparently so, as in 2014, wearing my very non-business class “I Love Vegemite” t-shirt, I was upgraded on a flight from Tokyo to London. I must have looked like a complete country broad and overly excited as the air-hostess came out specifically to show me how to use the seat controls, and brought me out a Cathay Pacific teddy. Today’s upgrade was to Business Premiere in Air New Zealand, and AH-MAY-ZING! To actually be able to sleep horizontally as opposed to some wierd-arse yoga position is the difference between arriving at your destination in a pissed-off, jet-lagged haze, or some semblance of a normal functioning human being. But I still smell, and I’m rocking the Astro Boy hair. Nothing’s changed there after 18+ hours of flying!
One special photograph: I have two for today; the sunrise as I was flying out of Melbs, and the moon coming into Auckland.
One decent coffee: The exemplary flat white that I had in the Melbourne International Air New Zealand Business Class Lounge. Yes, there is a theme here. Yes, I’m an over-excited peasant girl.
One amazing moment: I have Stevie Wonder’s “Sir Duke” as my ringtone. Very, very few people, if any, will have this as their ringtone. Over-enthusiastic and nerdy music teachers like me, and Stevie Wonder junkies, maybe. And never shall the two come in contact. Until today! The lady sitting next to me in the Air New Zealand lounge had it as her ringtone. Her phone rang and I instantly thought, “My God, my phone is loud!” and immediately startling rummaging around for it. And she took hers out, hurriedly apologised for the volume, and raced off to take the call. Upon return, I find out that she is a Year 7-12 classroom music teacher from Auckland who also thought that no-one else in the world would have that ringtone.
One unplanned detour/venture: When Nick Brice had to message me from Pulteney to ask me for my Year 12 Music marks that I’d done weeks ago, but didn’t go into Synergetic. And I got this message in right in the middle of the epic TSA line check in Auckland, when I was trying to do the whole “liquids-laptop-rubber-glove-pat-down” shit and had a minor hernia going through that screening checkpoint, while already hating life because I was GOING through that checkpoint. Fast forward an hour and I read those marks out to Nick from the floor of the transit lounge with my laptop propped up on my backpack. I yelled out marks while concerned passengers made a wide berth from me, all the while listening for the announcement for this one connection that I couldn’t miss. Yes, this was certainly a new and unplanned experience for me, and one I would like not to repeat.
One act of kindness: A pair of absolutely gorgeous 4-year-old twins were looking at my stripy beany + scarf and decided to say hello. I went trekking around the plane with these two beautiful girlies so that Mum + Dad could have a little bit of dinner. And honestly, I wouldn’t sign up to do this with any kid. These were seriously lovely girls from a lovely family who were a healthy balance of curious, confident, playful, and polite. The only thing that hit me to the very core was when Little Miss Twin No. 1 proclaimed, “Excuse me, but you have a funny accent!” To which Little Miss Twin No. 2 replied, “Shhhhhhhh! That’s impolite! I think it’s lovely. And anyway, she can’t help it.”
Oh man. I’m dying.
20 minutes reading: Strength in Stillness [Bob Roth], a book on the art of transcendental mediation + focus. Very interesting!
30 minutes composing: Complete fail. Stared at the screen, squeezed out 16 crappy bars, put Sibelius away. I’ll survey the damage later.
My daily goals in my travel journal. Created this page today whilst procrastinating doing my school reports.
I’m about to take flight for Canada and USA in exactly 2 weeks. Setting up my album ready to receive photos, and here’s the shot I took:
Caption: “A pint-sized Aussie released into the Canadian and US wild…!” 😉
(Disregard the fact that Bega is an Australian brand, and Cadbury a British! Vegemite, however, can be decidedly Australian AND Vegemite.)
Life really IS what you ask of it.
How you look at a minute, and what you decide to do with that minute, those 60 seconds, dictates what you get out of life.
It’s not advantage, or opportunity; and it’s rarely just luck. It’s what you choose to ask of that pocket of time. What you choose, with perfect clarity, to use that moment for.
There is such a fine line between existing and living, and as I get older and walk more steps, the more completely I realise this. Comfortable and engaged is so easily accessible. It’s SO comfortable, that you don’t realise sometimes that you are not really living. Not really asking all you can of a moment. However, squeezing a moment for all it can give is not living, either. Chasing down a goal, a dream, and aspiration, and beating it into submission MAY get you want you want, but there is no truth, no light, no life-blood. It’s an inert and lifeless achievement, empty as a shell when you get there.
The difference between a life of existing, a life of living, and a life of demanding is quite simply a breath. Smallest width of an eyelash. The flutter of a butterfly’s wings. In order to SEE it and KNOW it, you need to be alert and alive in the soul, every day.
There are no easy answers. You simply have to WALK. Deliberately, joyfully, honestly, completely, fully.
I look at those who are happy and hardworking, and I realise that they have not received a better deal in life. They live a unique combination letting go but holding on and valuing. They do not labour a point, but they BRING UP points that need to be brought up. They love with a fierce intensity, and yet they can open their fingers and let go with grace the moment that it is needed. They do not have a guarantee for anything, and yet they seem to make value from the small moments. They have no materialistic backlog of memories, they simply HAVE memories, fully-formed, lasting, and real, to celebrate their humanity.
I love so many things, and I’m afraid of so many other things. I find it easy to be joyful each day. Yet I wonder if this attitude to life will change when I get older, when I have to rely more on others, when I am not as capable; will I become irrelevant, or will I be misunderstood? More importantly, will I have the grace and the courage to know when I need to move on from one mindset and embrace another? Those who live a full life know when one chapter has ended, and they need to go forward into the next. They do not grieve change, but rather they learn about it, embrace it, study it, live it, laugh and struggle with it, BECOME it. They do not look back at what was, or mourn what they “should have, could have, might have” been, they simply ARE.
Again, you won’t know until you hit that path.
There are no easy answers.
There is no guarantee.
All you can do is WALK FORWARD, ready to embrace each day.