Нино Петриашвили

Fresh out of Vilnius, our cousin took us on a genealogical adventure retracing the steps of our great-grandparents to where her sister now lives, in a tiny hamlet just outside the village of Svir in northern Belarus. We paused there for a few days to take in the atmosphere of a forest cottage where the wild boars roam and where the only way in is by foot. Between laznia evenings and storytelling nights, we finally got a glimpse a little further up — and across — our family tree.

… buuut after a few days’ rest and we were back on the road again, with one night in the capital where, one speedy sleep and one hasty marshrutka ride later, on October 10th I met with Nino Petriashvili at her office at the Belarusian State University of Physical Culture.

Meeting Nino in Minsk

Nino’s textbook, available online if you can google Cyrillic.

Nino was born and raised in Georgia to a Belarusian mother and Georgian father, fleeing with her family to Belarus during Georgia’s bloody civil wars 25 years ago. She vividly remembers, “I know what war is, and it’s awful, it’s really awful, when the war machines are on the street… when people with armour are on the streets and it’s kind of normal for you.”

Nino with some of her board games.

She really hit her stride in academia as she grew up. Nino’s first education was foreign languages, learning Russian, German, and English on top of her native Georgian, but now all these are more hobbies — she hadn’t practised English for 15 years before our interview. She completed graduate studies in psychology and then in pedagogy, accepting a post as senior instructor at her university where she has been working for almost ten years now and where she’s already written one manual, Fundamentals of Psychology and Pedagogy. Her current project is developing interactive games and workshops to teach sport psychology, most recently on the topic of anti-doping.

Defining sport

Nino differentiates between athletes for whom sport is a profession and usually even a job, and those practising “physical culture” or “fitness for your usual life” solely for pleasure… reminding me of both Lina’s distinction between an athlete and an “exerciser” and Dace and Irina’s emphasis on the work element being attained before a physical activity is deemed a sport.

This intensity/work factor has been mentioned often enough that I’m realizing the term “athlete” and “sport” is not something attained lightly, and that I should keep it in mind as I continue to formulate this definition. At the same time I feel I may be missing the forest for the trees with all my focus on solidly tying this meaning down.

Sport psychology in Belarus

Just part of the Belarusian State University of Physical Culture.

With the definition above in mind, it’s very clear that Belarusian athletes are serious about their work — and it is work for them. Many of the students at this university are world-calibre competitors — and even champions — at the height of their careers. Indeed, the ice rink on campus was used for the world hockey championships a few years ago. In line with professional standards, the country pays for high results, with top athletes making a living from their performance. However, similar to Canada, the more popular sports get rewarded, well, more. “It’s more convenient to be a hockey player,” chuckles Nino with a sigh.

As in Lithuania, athletes are heroes in Belarus. This was taken at the airport in Minsk.

Despite performance being key, sport psychology still hasn’t quite taken a hold in the country. Most coaches do not want to employ a figure who they fear may undermine their authority, and the stereotype of psychological training only being for the sick is still very strong. Because of this, it is very difficult for Nino’s graduates to find work, generally settling for fitness club or school posts and only rarely for positions with professional teams. Paradoxically, many athletes are slowly opening up to psychological training and even support for their sport, but only in training cycles and not during competition. Because of this lack of a framework in a particularly rigid system, end-of-sport transitions are very difficult. “It’s a trauma,” notes Nino, “a kind of finish of their life. They have nothing to live for.” However the same can very aptly be applied to probably most countries in the world. It is only in recent years that we have started caring for our heroes beyond their medals.

Final thoughts

Gorbunov (L) and Alexeev, portraits from Straub et al’s top-10 article.

Because I didn’t have much more time with Nino we had to wrap up the interview here, with a promise of my returning in the future and stopping by again to continue the conversation. She did, however, have time to recommend two authors. First was the sport psychologist, pedagogue, and 13-year FEPSAC Managing Council member, Gennadi Dmitrievich Gorbunov, who became known for his applied work with the Soviet national swimming and cycling teams. His acclaimed work, Psychopedagogy of sports (Психопедагогика спорта, 1986), immediately came to Nino’s mind as a solid basic resource. Second was the psychiatrist Anatoly Vasilievich Alexeev, famous for his work with the Soviet national weightlifting and shooting teams. He wrote Overcome Yourself! (Преодолей себя!, 1978) where he outlined how to find and then enter the “optimal psychophysical competitive state” (reminiscent of Hanin’s IZOF model). He also developed the AGIM system (Система АГИМ) where he encourages the coach to:

“… see his athletes’ mistakes and not be irritated by them, but to look into their brains if he wants to achieve the result desired by all. After all, it is in the depths of the psychic apparatus that both the origins of mistakes as well as the means of overcoming them lie. Modern trainers simply have to completely operate with the mental capabilities of their students; not shouting at them, but calmly and soberly analyzing the reasons for their failures and successes.”

This rational, seasoned approach is a refreshing offset to the Cold War-era images of my youth. Perhaps it is not a surprise, then, than both men are generally considered top-ten minds in Russian sport psychology today.

Wrapping up, Nino shared her life philosophy of the boomerang: “Everything you do, comes to you again. It is not specific to sport psychology, but I think that it works!” Then she herded me into her classroom for a brief Q&A with her sport psych students, perhaps to underline that our field is certainly growing very fast.

Impromptu sport psych talk with Nino’s students.

A fraction of the interview is presented below, but like with the Baltic interviews prior, it too was garbled up so only the clear, important bits made it through the editing process:

Lina Vaisetaitė

October 5th: a day out of Riga and we immediately head out on a 4h bus ride for Vilnius, Lithuania’s capital. That evening we’re already at the National Olympic Committee office downtown on the river Neris, where Lina Vaisetaitė is ready to greet us. Lina has a very impressive CV, with posts as a university lecturer, as a senior manager of Olympic programs at the NOC for almost a decade, as a member of FEPSAC’s managing council, and, perhaps most impressive for me, as the author of a comprehensive website where she introduces Lithuanian visitors to sport psychology. She also has a rich history with ENYSSP which, combined with all her other posts and experience, has turned her into something of a hub in the Baltic network of sport psychologists… you’ll remember she was the initial point of contact for this Baltic blog series after all.

Interviewing Lina at the NOC.

The first unique thing about Lina, as compared to most sport psychologists I’ve met thus far, is that her academic pedigree is psychology through and through: both a BSc and MSc in the field from Vilnius University, the latter specializing in clinical psych. But this isn’t what hits you when you meet her; it’s that she’s one big smile behind which peeks a quick, gentle-but-probing mind.

Defining sport

We dove right into this question, where Lina quickly brought up games like chess, “What do I do with that?” she chuckled. We quickly achieved consensus realizing that sport, at its heart, is about striving to win, generally as measured through competition. Lithuanians frame this difference through the use of two words: sportininkas and sportuotojas, or “athlete” and “exerciser”, with the latter doing the same activity as the former but in the absence of competition.However, the “exerciser” is not really a term one meets outside of a dictionary, and this distinction has somewhat been taken over by that between a professional v. an amateur.

The idea of agreed-upon rules also floated up, where we wondered at what point an activity gets branded a sport. Taking the development of football from a basic game between villages hundreds of years ago to the plethora of official sport variants that exist today, we realized there’s generally no one defining moment when an activity becomes a sport, but rather more of a communal realization that this has already happened long after the fact.

Sport psychology in Lithuania

The general rule of thumb was that participants would go Lina’s route: get the appropriate BSc/MSc training in psychology and then start working in sport because of passion. In general, Lithuanian psychology studies emerged from psychiatry, which in Soviet times was a very strict discipline that often had political or overly conservative overtones (eg: dissenters or those thinking differently were often sent to psychiatric wards either as punishment or with a goal of conforming them back to the status quo). Then there was a pause as the USSR crumbled and Lithuania emerged as an autonomous country once more, wherein Western and especially American standards were slowly adopted. Currently, dedicated sport psychology programs are starting to pop up both in Lithuania as well as abroad, from which education is honoured back in the country.

Lina remembers when she had just started work in this field, when information on it was not freely available and there existed a strong stigma against psychological training for athletes who thought themselves “not crazy”, perhaps stemming from the psychiatric origins of the field. But things have since really developed: she sees athletes as being much more open to using techniques in the field and to googling their own sports heroes to discover what techniques they use in their training… and the media much more open to discussing it all, especially after the last Olympics where sport psychology received a lot of attention. “My phone has been buzzing since the games,” she notes, “a lot! But I’m still surprised that elite athletes — people who have gone to World games or even the Olympics — they are only beginning to train mentally now. When they tell me that they are stressed during final rounds and sometimes they even choke in them I wonder, ‘Where were you in the months before the Games? Why weren’t you training psychologically?'”

Consulting approach & current work

The question above has so plagued Lina that she’s turned to study the phenomenon of choking under pressure, having tagged it as a common problem in her athletes. When an athlete arrives for their first session with her, Lina first assesses their visions and perceived problems, but then also how they are acquainted to sport psychology: what was their first experience with it, and have they already tried some things? Secondly, she is careful to be realistic and to avoid excessive positive thinking, and to underline that the client is free to choose the path they will ultimately take.

Echoing Irina’s advice that the best tools are a pen, paper, and eyes, Lina also finds herself not focusing much on performance profiles or specific questionnaires, rather on being present during work with a client. She does take pre- and post-session notes at times, but these are primarily used to orientate her than to be any definitive markers for progress. If she has some concrete doubts then she may administer a RESTQ-Sport or TOPS questionnaires, and she uses mindfulness tools often to help her athletes deal with intruding thoughts like those of escape.

On Lithuania

Since many concepts come from American sport psychology, the problem of translation often pops up as in the concept of mindfulness. There is no real word for this in Lithuanian, the closest being pilnaprotavimas… which is immediately associated with pilno proto, or “full mind”, itself being another way of saying “not being crazy”, enforcing the stigma of sport psychology only being effective for those with mental problems. Lina gets around this through using other phrases that carry meaning better, like sąmoningas dėmesingumas or “aware attention” for example, or through simply using English terms and then explaining them, so “mindfulness” simply becomes “being here and now”.

Just part of the pathway honouring some of the country’s Olympians throughout the decades, decorating the pathway leading to Ozas shopping mall.

And something I noted personally was the quiet but persistent presence and honour given to the country’s top athletes. It was not uncommon to see Olympic champions of even the least famous sports lining pathways or smiling from ads throughout the capital; this in direct contrast to home in Canada where it’s generally Hollywood faces we see, with the odd Big-Four’er here and there… but generally only if they’ve entered pop culture in some way.

Additional resources & tips

We talked about the difficulty many of us have in accessing scientific papers and I mentioned Alexandra Elbakyan’s contentious work in this field or, as she is sometimes called, “The Robin Hood of Science“. Lina was quick to quip that the best resources currently are Google and YouTube, both for athletes and practitioners. She’s used Dr. Forlenza’s sport psychology film database before, but notes that — contrary to what you might think — not all athletes enjoy sports movies. In a related vein when asking for a good book recommendation, Lina shared the wise insight that for a book to be good it must not only match the person but also catch them in the right time in their life, to teach them something they don’t know yet:

“I realize that when I read a book maybe it made a big impression when I was in that situation in my life, but maybe another person is in a different situation – maybe if I shared it with them they would be like, ‘I’ve known this for twenty years already!'”

… a good example of being ready to receive a concept is Lina’s history with mindfulness. When she first read of it she wasn’t particularly impressed. It took another two years for her to be ready for the concept, “I had to grow!” she now understands.

However, after some poking and prodding Lina shared that, like her Rigan colleagues, Weinberg & Gould’s Foundations of Sport and Exercise Psychology is a solid resource: it holds all the basics that you will inevitably forget but really need upon graduation. She also recommends finding supervision or mentorship at the beginning of a career and her best practical advice is getting your feet wet with practical work as soon as possible. When pressed for a movie, Lina admitted to really enjoying Peaceful Warrior, thinking it cheesy at first but finding a lot of valuable lessons within when she finally caved in and watched it after hearing about it so much:

A final piece of wisdom? Again following Irina and Dace further north: be wary of media, they have an uncanny way of twisting your words. Journalists are skilled in lulling you into a sense of relaxation and security so you’re thinking you’re speaking sincerely and commonsensically, but the quotes you’ll read afterwards could certainly get you into some hot water. Wrapping up, Lina shared with us her favourite quote, most often attributed to Mark Twain: “They did not know it was impossible so they did it“.

Our interview

As with our Rigan friends, Lina’s interview was largely garbled up but I was able to salvage about 15m of it to put a voice to the beaming smile up top. My sister makes a presence here as well, but Lina’s voice is immediately recognizable right from the outset.

Wrapping up, here are some photos from our brief but delightful stay in this wonderful city (further reading includes the Gate of Dawn, Užupis, the Writer’s Wall of Lithuania, St. Casimir’s, the Presidential Palace, the Vilnius Cathedral, Šnekutis’ restaurant, and Milda):

Dace Eikena & Irina Simoņenkova

Guiding us we had our dad’s old army map.

Last fall I traveled with my sister through northeastern Europe, convincing her to turn her Euro tour into a genealogical and semi-professional adventure. In under two weeks we powered through Tallinn, Riga, Vilnius, Minsk, Kaliningrad, and Gdańsk, getting a smattering of flavour throughout as we inhaled our way through the Baltic States.

Genealogy and culture aside, our adventures were unforgettable for the simple reason that I interviewed leading sport psychologists in the majority of the countries visited. Hearing I was heading north, a prof-turned-friend, Antonis Hatzigeorgiadis, put me in touch with Lina Vaisetaitė from the National Olympic Committee of Lithuania, and what a godsend she was! Within days of reaching out to her I’d received the contacts of a small handful of sport psychologists throughout the region. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to make contact with Estonia’s Aave Hannus from the University of Tartu, nor with any sport psychology professionals working in the Russian oblast of Kaliningrad — no one I met on this trip knew of any sport psychology activity in the exclave. But the remaining discussions were plentiful enough without adding anything extra to the schedule.

We arrived first in the Latvian capital of Riga, on October 4th, and almost immediately met with Dace Eikena and Irina Simoņenkova from the Latvian Sport Psychology Association. Dace had previous training as a pediatrician and only later went into clinical psychology, and is now working for the Latvian Olympic team and studying the Limbic Coaching Method. Irina, originally a student of mathematics but now a psychologist, maintains a private practice in the heart of Riga.

Kicking off the Baltic interview tour between Irina (L) and Dace at Irina’s downtown Riga clinic.

Both women we gifted with the warm hospitality that is a staple of the region. They immediately sat us down, pulled out chocolates (and when we finished those, more chocolates), and started sharing their stories. They were surprised someone had made such a long trek just for a chat on our shared passion, but then the conversation just flowed: I pulled out my questions and we dove right in. Unfortunately, upon revisiting the recordings I made of our 3h+ conversation, it became clear my phone had garbled up about half of it at random intervals. What I’ll be sharing here is what I could remember from our encounter and piece together from the recording.

Defining sport

We started with defining sport. As always, no clear definition emerged, but certain parameters did: “level” was an important one. It seemed a hobbyist who only trains intermittently is not performing sport as much as a professional athlete who trains their sport upwards of 3-4 times a week. This led to the second demarcation, that of conscious intent or purpose: that an athlete is an individual who is consciously putting in effort into their training and not performing these acts simply for fun (something Côté calls “deliberate practice“). Interestingly, Irina didn’t think competition was a necessary marker for someone to be performing sport, though we all agreed it’s often in the background anyhow — be it officially with others or unofficially with the self and chasing personal bests. Reading Wikipedia or Google‘s definitions on this topic later I noted the main element does indeed seem to be the idea of improving oneself in a specific physical activity bound by rules agreed upon by others also performing it, and where the goal is not the creation of something external with that activity (as in art or engineering) but rather of perfecting the activity itself, reminiscent of the Japanese art of ensō. This definition draws in all the secondary characteristics of competition, spectator presence, organized association, enjoyment and even slowly begins to edge me towards an answer in the common physicality-versus-game argument (eg: darts, bowling, bridge, and chess, the last of which I was surprised to learn is a discipline supported by our sport psychology friends in Latvia). I suppose, revisiting this now classic quandary of mine, I can comfortably say sport is the pursuit of excellence in a physical activity bound by specific, objective rules and sharing a community that maintains these standards. I suppose it’s no coincidence Terry Orlick named his classic book what he did.

Working in the field

Administration-wise, I was surprised to learn that psychological studies were unavailable in Latvia until the fall of communism in the early 90s, lending credibility to most Latvian athletes’ distaste for seeing a sport psychologist (the typical “I’m not crazy, I don’t need any psychologist” phrase). Still, as in Canada and most of the world, funds for sport psychology are few and far between, with both ladies supplementing their incomes through more clinical work. Sport psychology is now a branch of psychology in the country, with practicants in the recent past needing a general psychology master’s degree and then completing some sport science work. Now Latvia is adopting EU standards and more and more practitioners are coming in from a sport or teaching backgrounds, with the same issues of sport-versus-psychology polarity being raised as Dr. Davis did in his 2007 interview that helped me contextualize my own trials and tribulations of breaking into the field back home.

After a quick discussion of the detriment caused to athletes who are forced into their positions as portrayed in Friday Night Tykes or Trophy Kids, Dace shared an important nugget of wisdom: it is very helpful–if not crucial–to first understand yourself, and then to help your client understand themselves. From there you can spring into the problem areas. Both Dace and Irina work with members of their athletes’ support networks — coaches, parents — right from the outset, understanding the key role they play. And an easy takeaway for dealing with hesitant coaches who doubt your expertise in their sport: that’s fine, it’s in sport psychology that you are an expert, and that psychology is always the same. And a warning too, of not talking to media, no matter how much it makes sense at the time. Journalists have an unfortunate way of twisting your words to fit their agenda so it’s better to keep a back seat and just watch the ride unfold rather than become a part of it in the national discussion.

On Latvia

We then sprang into a discussion about issues specific to Latvia: that in the past 5 years the 2 million-strong country lost about 500,000 of their youngest, most motivated and energetic citizens to the European job market, and that Latvians generally lack confidence, wishing to be complimented by others instead of going out and bragging about themselves (or, as Dace noted, “I do, but not say.”). This in direct contrast to the 30% Russophones comprising the country — Latvians with Russian, Belorussian, or Ukrainian descent who generally speak Russian at home. Athletes with this background tend to be very confident, so a balance needs to be struck when working with a team that is made up of members of both groups. That for many Latvians being the best in the nation is often an adequate goal is another limitation their psychologists are finding.

An interesting insight was the strong role women play in Latvian culture, from the idea of “Mother Latvia” to freedom being feminine in the country to the figure of Māra in pre-Christian Latvian mythology, and how this matriarchal spin still bleeds into the country and family life today. This insight paired with the fact that Latvian is such a tough language to learn, with its subtleties often floating under the surface such that what is said is sometimes not exactly what is meant, showed Latvia to be a still water with deep currents underneath that beg deeper understanding before just blindly diving in.

Additional resources

Speaking of favourite techniques for working with athletes, both ladies agreed that the performance profile is a good start, especially because it gives an athlete an immediate visual of what’s going on and requires very little interpretation, but Irina then laughingly added that “the main tools for a sport psychologist are a paper, pencil, and eyes”. Speaking of valuable resources, Irina continued that there are very many great articles and books on the topic of sport psychology, but that for very many athletes, the gross majority of them are simply not interesting. She continued noting that very many sport psychologists are not very quick to share their methods, which she found unfortunate. Dace was quick to laud Nideffer’s 70s classic The Inner Athlete: Mind Plus Muscle for Winning (though her Russian translation didn’t have the chapter on hypnosis because the USSR was doubtful of its efficacy and so it didn’t end up getting translated) and Pargman’s Psychological Basis of Sport Injuries while Irina nodded to Weinberg & Gould’s Foundations of Sport and Exercise Psychology. Both however agreed that Andersen’s Doing Sport Psychology is a must. Movie-wise, Irina recommends Legend № 17, a recent biopic on the ’72 Team Canada v. Team USSR Summit Series that won the best Russian film of the year in 2013, and is immediately reminiscent of 2004’s Miracle on Ice:

… subtitles available directly via YouTube, you just have to enable them. This movie made me especially excited because, so far, I’d only grown up seeing Russia — and especially the USSR — cast in a particularly evil light. There were good people on both sides of history though, and I love seeing others skating as well as our homebred Canucks. Of course, there is a Canadian counterpart that I now want to get my hands on as well.

The interview

Here is a short outtake I was able to salvage from our interview, where we discuss some of the main points above (Irina is the first voice you hear, Dace the second, and the other lady with the Canadian accent is my sister).


And finally some photos from the trip to wrap things up (further reading includes Stalin’s birthday cake, Memento mori, and the Zeppelin garage) and Irina’s favourite quote: “If you can jump the bar, it’s not good for you.”

Turning forests into seas

The past decade or so I’ve gotten into some real deep identity-, ethnicity-, and — more recently — genealogy-diving. I was extremely lucky in my search, the timing of it coinciding with the advent of the Internet as a true publicly accessible technology. I started with Poland but very quickly found myself in Germany, Israel, Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Serbia, Croatia, Lithuania, and Belarus… so far. In retracing my family’s footprints I developed what I think might be a new type of family tree: a “wave chart”.

Karol Józef Wojtyła’s wave chart (just a sample draft; factual errors to be expected)

The original Word file can be downloaded here. At the far right is the focus of our study, Karol Józef Wojtyła aka Pope John Paul II. Receding leftwards are his ancestors, females touching down and males lapping up. This because families were generally patriarchally organized Central/Eastern Europe, and surnames were received from and passed on through the male lines. On the extreme left, following the colour gradient, the journey of a surname through individuals can be clearly seen. Siblings of direct ancestors are a separate colour in each box, with sisters’ married names entered in italics. Additional marriages follow a similar format but in much smaller font, including any progeny. Additional information like birthdays and locations can be easily added, space-depending.

The biggest drawback I’ve found so far is the potentially tremendous waste of space as descendants get added, but this can be quickly fixed through chopping up the wave into smaller ripples:

Wojtyła’s individual parents’ charts

I find this format tremendously useful in beginning my genealogical research, contextualizing myself in the information I know and firmly understanding what basics are still missing. Interestingly, the same chart can be made in reverse to trace a single individual’s progeny moving forward… for anyone adept at programming, it might be neat to combing the two so selecting any name in a chart would offer the option of popping open forward- or reverse-wave charts. I’m sure there’s more to come, just this new organizational tool was too exciting to not share!

The name was inspired by Hokusai’s 1833 painting, The Great Wave off Kanagawa. I toyed with going with “pipe charts” because of the shape, but the mention of water swelling up conjured up a much more vivid, fluid, applicable image to the tumultuous way family trees often form. And why JPII? Well, family history suggests he might just be a great-…-great-uncle and I’m trying to get to the bottom of this rumour. This wave is helping.

Why genealogy?

I am often asked why I’m so into family tree research, why I’m as deep into it as I am, why my research is so comprehensive and far-reaching as possible. Why not just plan for the future and let generations past stay buried where they are — what’s the point, anyway? Sometimes I’m asked rudely, as if I shouldn’t waste my time, but more often it’s in a bored way, as if it really doesn’t matter. This second is the far more frustrating of the two. Well, here’s an old piece that really resonates:

The Chosen

“We are the chosen. In each family there is one who seems called to find the ancestors. To put flesh on their bones and make them live again. To tell the family story and to feel that somehow they know and approve.

“Doing genealogy is not a cold gathering of facts but, instead, breathing life into all who have gone before. We are the storytellers of the tribe. All tribes have one. We have been called, as it were, by our genes. Those who have gone before cry out to us: Tell our story. So, we do.

“In finding them, we somehow find ourselves. How many graves have I stood before now and cried? I have lost count. How many times have I told the ancestors, “You have a wonderful family; you would be proud of us.” How many times have I walked up to a grave and felt somehow there was love there for me? I cannot say.

“It goes beyond just documenting facts. It goes to who I am, and why I do the things I do. It goes to seeing a cemetery about to be lost forever to weeds and indifference and saying – I can’t let this happen. The bones here are bones of my bone and flesh of my flesh. It goes to doing something about it. It goes to pride in what our ancestors were able to accomplish. How they contributed to what we are today. It goes to respecting their hardships and losses, their never giving in or giving up, their resoluteness to go on and build a life for their family. It goes to deep pride that the fathers fought and some died to make and keep us a nation. It goes to a deep and immense understanding that they were doing it for us.

“It is of equal pride and love that our mothers struggled to give us birth, without them we could not exist, and so we love each one, as far back as we can reach. That we might be born who we are. That we might remember them. So we do. With love and caring and scribing each fact of their existence, because we are they and they are the sum of who we are.

“So, as a scribe called, I tell the story of my family. It is up to that one called in the next generation to answer the call and take my place in the long line of family storytellers. That is why I do my family genealogy, and that is what calls those young and old to step up and restore the memory or greet those who we had never known before.”

Della M. Cummings Wright, 1943
Rewritten by her granddaughter, Dell Jo Ann McGinnis Johnson
Edited and Reworded by Tom Dunn

A Patriotic Man

A Patriotic Man (Isänmaallinen mies, 2013, 97m, 6.3) is a Finnish comedy-drama following one man’s journey in balancing morality with patriotism while complicit in a serious doping conspiracy, loosely based on a true true scandal. It centres on Finnish Nordic skiers’ doping strategy to come out on top after a few years of unsuccessful results in their national sport. Their Olympic ski team discovers and subsequently hires an average, recently unemployed man with particularly iron-rich blood to serve as an emergency doping bank for their athletes, lavishing him with gifts and guilt to keep him on hand as needed. Pressures from his wife to be someone she can be proud of encourage him to tuck his morality away as he does “what’s best for the country”, ergo the title. Eventually he’s visiting strip clubs and dealing with drug traffickers, becoming embroiled in an affair with the nation’s sweetheart skier, and even almost dying through a botched blood transfusion in a tale that still manages to pull off a near-Disney ending.

Some context first: blood doping, the “drug” of choice here, is the injection of extra blood cells before competition to increase muscular oxygen supply. It was a very useful technique because it was nigh undetectable since the athlete was often injecting concentrated volumes of their own blood back into themselves. And then there is guilt and shame: the first is the acknowledgement of fault, the second is the blow to self-worth resulting from it and, in the case of Finland, largely based on the perceived perceptions of the world.

Finnish headline reads "Shame" over Jari Isometsä, one of the disgraced skiers.

Finnish headline reads “Shame” over Jari Isometsä, one of the disgraced skiers. I cannot imagine the pain of living through something like this.

The movie is lighthearted but it must be underlined that the blow the original scandal dealt to Finland was huge, with the country reeling still a decade laterJari Isometsä, a national legend, was the first to be caught, but he built up a plausible story explaining his use of a banned substance. But then a bag with doping supplies was found, spiraling Finland into a deep state of communal shame, with Mika Myllalä, one of the other legends involved, never fully recovering. Mika battled alcoholism, unsuccessfully tried to re-enter the sport without any real success, ultimately going through a divorce just four years before dying at the young age of 41.

The country had built a precarious national identity around her sporting power to cover up something approaching an inferiority complex regarding the rest of Europe: Finland only attained autonomy in 1809 and independence over a century later, didn’t really have a particularly rich history full of glorious exploits and no real tradition of fine arts, and had developed a tendency of accepting “European” (mostly Swedish) stereotype of themselves, but in the worst possible form. For example, their honesty became stupidity, their excellent work ethic workaholism, their modesty a lack of civil mannerisms. It was therefore natural that athletic prowess, the one remaining cultural marker, became a solid rallying point in developing a national Finnish identity. Of all the sports the Finns excelled in, skiing was the biggest deal because of its association with the Winter War and with the Finnish philosophy of sisu, a persevering quality that what must be done will be done, regardless of cost. Just reading how this perfect storm formed, I wouldn’t be surprised if sisu might well have been an element that drove these top-level Finns into the scandal to begin with.

Aino, the skier at the heart of the movie.

Aino, the skier at the heart of the movie.

Now a few thoughts. First, on the unfortunate leapfrog cycle of doping, alluded to by Aino in the film: that passion and skill is what brought her to the national level, but at a certain point she plateaued. It was then that she starts noticing murmurs of other skiers taking performance enhancing drugs, leading her to the rational conclusion that that’s her next step too. “If they’re cheating and winning,” she justified, “and I don’t stand a chance otherwise, then I need to do what they’re doing because it’s working.”

She takes a first substance, then a second to mask it, then a third to augment the first, then a fourth, fifth, sixth… until she’s “on a locker-room bench, watching them pour blood into you. And always you’re afraid you’ll be caught. And when it falls apart, you’re a traitor and the media spits on you.” We quickly see how this skier’s personality and lifestyle choices are shaped directly by the cutthroat atmosphere of elite sport: she juggles relationships as resources, with only a near-death experience bringing her true colours out in a moment of real vulnerability… but she immediately creeps back into the shell of success she’s built for herself, her castle of support. And the strange thing is, you feel happy for her. She’s selfish, but also an underdog throughout the whole film. And this somehow makes a difference.

Toivo and Arno hook up take gold.

Toivo and Aino hook up for gold.

This points to a previous allusion I’ve made: is not some blame to be laid on us, the public, for demanding ever more from our athletes? Or on the systems creating disparity in the world, driving athletes in desperate situations to close their eyes, grit their teeth, and make some very risky moves in hopes of huge payoffs? I really think so. That the strategy to stop doping in the event that inspired the movie was based on surprise capture rather than on developing practices to reduce doping itself points to our world’s reactive rather than preventative approach, an approach that I think needs revision. Why not create programs where athletes are taken and shown the serious, comprehensive facilities where drug testing occurs? This alone might deter many of them.

Wrapping up this point is the interesting phenomenon of doping often occurring bottom-up: top tier athletes often are playing catch-up with those below vying for a medal, reminiscent of the Pumping Iron line, “the wolf at the bottom of the hill is not as hungry as the wolf at the top”:

In the end perhaps the world should balance the Olympic hendriatis with de Coubertin’s own alternative Olympic motto: “The most important thing is not to win but to take part!”

And now onto patriotism. I’ve examined related issues before: cultural identity and the almost evolution-driven competition that results when these fight for prominence. As I continue critically examining the issue, I see these structures as increasingly man-made and therefore arbitrarily assigned at birth. This does not negate their power, however. Despite seeing the havoc competing for one’s country brings — always resulting in unhappiness and emptiness because the public’s eye quickly moves on to the next high literally the moment the winner steps off that podium — I still caught myself tearing up when Aino tore it up on the slopes… all the whole purposely looking for a “POL” in the winner’s tables, despite knowing the country of my ancestors was certainly not going to be represented. Patriotism carves a deep hold indeed.

Toivo, our protagonist, with the most conniving film still of Coach Ilmo I could find.

Toivo, our protagonist, with the most conniving film still of Coach Ilmo I could find.

And the national coach in this film, Ilmo, definitely realized the power of using such rhetoric. Whenever he uses the words, “Are you a patriotic man?” — no less than thrice in the film — you can be sure subterfuge is coming next. I am not sure if Ilmo is selfish, an idiot perpetually caught in a perfect storm, or outright evil, though I’m leaning towards slipping him into the first box. Regardless, the movie is worth watching just to see how eagerly people serve themselves up for exploitation whenever event a hint of patriotism is mentioned — I mean, even Toivo’s wife comes to terms with his affair because he is ultimately serving their country.

Final thoughts: Toivo is much stronger than many of us, originally refusing to cooperate despite very real threats of violence but only coming on board when serving the country was perceived as a greater good than his own moral code. The scenes with the Russian drug traffickers made me genuinely uncomfortable, that Ben Johnson made a cameo was neat (especially given the topic), and a scene involving a heart attack reminded me of a golden rule: if ever a friend looks sick and retreats to a quiet place in the middle of a social gathering, follow them! This advice can be the difference between life and death. And some trivia: turns out Toivo & Aino jokes are quite popular in the Nordic country. Additionally, the Finnish word for Finland, Suomi, likely means ground (as opposed to the “Fin-” derivatives used by most other languages).

Rating time: ★¾. Characters are not special but this makes them totally believable, with the lead split between a great match of a simple hero and a misguided heroine. The plot kept me genuinely interested from start to finish and the complexity was just right. Half a star for all three. Originality: ¾ for the believable, non-Hollywood elements that pulled empathy for our imperfect heroes right out of me. Recommendability: half a star. It’s good for people who like Scandinavia (especially Finland, obviously), sport, ethics, or skiing, and would definitely make for a good high school class leading to interesting discussions on doping afterwards, and even a neat flick for a comedy drama with friends who like foreign films.

Masha and the Bear

I just received an invitation to watch a neat video from a friend I made while still active in our university Polish-Canadian cultural association during undergraduate years. I was initially wary of the lightsaber battle because that’s just been waaay overdone, but when I realized the metaphor behind it, it suddenly didn’t seem as bad. Watch the short clip first because I write a bit of a spoiler at the end; I’m curious if you notice the same:

After seeing the video I immediately took to writing a quick note to Filip congratulating him on a job well done… but the ink just flowed. So I’m posting it instead; lots of rumination here. Grab a tea and off we go!

An ad for the Leipzig exposition (important: “die” = “the”).

An ad for the Leipzig exposition (important: “die” = “the”).

The video reminds me of my recent studies in Germany, where I saw just how Americanized they are over there. Reading up on German-American relations sheds lots of light on this, particularly looking at how much the US has helped Germany after the war. Artefacts of this special relationship exist everywhere, from Munich’s river surfing hotspot in the middle of the city (the story goes Californian soldiers posted there in the 70s first started this tradition), to Germany’s maintenance of their opinion that the US remains their most important ally in spite of the US spying on Merkel, to their having regular shows and expositions on this relationship (one was on permanent display at the museum in downtown Leipzig throughout the entire semester I was there), to even the majority of their social events. One day I remember seeing an 80s party advertised in the street in Nuremberg, and literally every single thing on the poster I knew from my own childhood, from Ninja Turtles to Power Rangers to Salt-N-Pepa.

Surfing the Eisbach

And this made me sad. Because this “liberation” from a dreary, oppressed world into one of vibrant colour and action presents a problem. Local culture can quickly fade as cultures of great empires take over, leaving in its wake whole swathes of people who feel very closely tied to — but awkwardly not completely at home in — the empire’s culture. After all, they didn’t really participate in it apart from merely gazing in.

"Real men love unicorns"

“Real men love unicorns”

I’m reminded of a Biggie vs. Tupac Christmas party we organized with an American friend while studying in Greece, with many foreign students in attendance. I found it hilariously strange how the Romanian, who made himself out to be very worldly and a huge fan of American culture in particular, didn’t actually know how to act when it came to even pretending to be of that culture. He tried to look a rapper, but ended up looking something like a farmer, with an undershirt neatly tucket into his jeans and a streamlined bike racing cap he couldn’t decide if he should wear backwards or forwards. Our Dutch friend knew that tats were big with rappers and so commissioned our Indian friend to draw a rainbow unicorn along the full length of his triceps. To this day we’re not entirely sure if this was some sort of joke or if he was serious. It was as if these guys knew all the words but not the tune. Of course, the Romanian continued blaring heavy rap music in his room for the duration of the semester.

Just another hip-hop Christmas (4) (Large)

Just another hip-hop Christmas. Sadly, no photos of our Romanian friend exist. Flavor Flav, Nicki Minaj, and Tupac did make it though, along with some Portuguese and Greeks who were just there for the food.

There is also the worry that children growing up in such restrictive settings end up tying their views of freedom and even of life meaning to the culture presented in the “good guys'” media. These become new cultural norms, and people can quickly get caught up with this new value set to the exclusion of exploring other lifestyles (or even just values) that may actually be better, something that is especially true if it has been lived in the mind for years while the real world continued to oppress. Between growing up first-generation here and traveling quite a bit throughout these past few years, I started seeing that it’s not all rainbows and butterflies beyond our silver screen. And I’m sure I’m not the only one who didn’t really get that Gary Cooper Solidarność poster (“Why don’t they use their own guy?” I kept wondering).

Tomasz Sarnecki Solidarnoœæ. W samo po³udnie 4 czerwca 1989, 1989 Warszawski Komitet Obywatelski Solidarnoœæ, Warszawa 100x70 cm, offset barwny

Here’s that cowboy poster.

Now I’m thinking of all the Polish families I know who came to Canada with nothing and who worked tremendously hard to finally buy a house, a car, furniture, appliances… and how many of these I now see almost addicted to the tremendous problems that are inherent in capitalism without even realizing it: overconsumption, exploitation of people and resources, apathy regarding the developing world… just to name a few quick but glaring examples.

A final thought on this topic is from when I was home and saw a huge billboard advertising a local lawyer. After seeing it a few times around town, I could easily name the lawyer and, worryingly to me, felt as if I knew him. I’d been thinking a lot about Dunbar’s number at the time and I quickly realized that what was happening here was he was trying to get into my brain as an acquaintance, taking up a spot even at the periphery of my 150. And he was succeeding. This, after a few days of mulling-over, led to the realization that business, and indeed culture, takes two forms of payment: cold hard support (cash and other more materialistic forms that allow it to grow), and attention — or even just awareness from an audience. The latter gives it a reason to keep growing, and both rely on the other. This is why it makes sense to shell out sizeable sums of your first pile, of cash or time, for example, for things like advertising or community engagement. Without your second pile growing at a matching speed, your first pile will inevitably wither away to ashes because no one will care about its continued existence. This idea neatly explains things like celebrity sex tapes, 24-hour news networks, and Donald Trump’s political campaign.

Why is this so natural?

Why is this so natural?

Flash forward to the media phenomenon in this video. It is very clearly a case of an exceptionally successful billboard lawyer entering a drab part of town. Everyone looks to him and knows a better life is possible, even if that better life is a dream right now. But of course, the billboard lawyer will not be advertising any of his failures through this window you view, no… and so he shines on with an otherworldly radiance. The whole scenario points to Dawkins’ interesting theory of culture evolving just as frenetically as biology, with memes of cultural behaviour constantly fighting each other for prominence and, in the end, existence. With empires’ ever-growing resources, their stories will inevitably become better and better: better crafted, better scripted, and now, better tuned to subtle cultural differences so they can more easily be consumed by an ever-widening audience. And the consumption of an empire’s culture goes hand-in-hand with the eventual recognition of that culture’s increased value in the eyes of the world.

Criticisms of American policy creeping in.

Criticisms of American policy creeping in.

This can be seen in recent years with Russia. Up until recently the country was openly viewed as something of an untrustworthy, quietly looming enemy, just biding its time for the right moment to cause more havoc in the world. Putin was called a whole rainbow of names, from dictator to fascist to the devil himself. Well, since the inception of Russia’s official, state-funded English- (and now Arabic- and Spanish-)language TV program in 2005, public opinion regarding the cold bear of the north has very much thawed, and criticisms of American imperialism and neocolonialism have started trickling into mainstream news, commanding a consistently increasing presence (despite the West’s continued denouncement of RT as an untrustworthy news source). Russia’s protection of Edward Snowden, its recent apparent victories in the Middle East, and how delicately the country sidestepped being painted as aggressor in the EU during the post-Crimean invasion years all point to their finally having mastered PR… and a key to this success is no doubt simply having their culture consumed by the other side, by us. That one of the top YouTube videos of all time is a Russian children’s story speaks to the success of this strategy.

Adorable. It makes you want to learn Russian, with close to a billion views encouraging this decision.

With more and more countries realizing the power of global relevancy in changing global politics, I’m only curious when other voices will start emerging from currently exotic places, showing us they are the same as we are, and that maybe some of our own policies beg questioning. Have you ever had a chance to consume news from France, Germany, or even the Arabic world? Or even read the same Wikipedia article in a different language? It’s a real change, both the fresh perspective as well as the surprise that awaits you when you see what each linguistic community focuses on, and how they go about presenting their information. France, for example, has a huge amount of resources dedicated to African communities, something we never really hear about here unless there are pirates or starvation or rebellion or other such disasters… which, no doubt colours our view of that part of the world quite negatively. Conversely, Germany tends to have a very comprehensive, logical approach that makes you wonder where the balance is in our news teams.

Iran's recently come up as a big, bad guy... what if they can spin the story their way as the Russians have?

Iran’s recently come up as a big, bad guy… what if they can spin the story their way as the Russians have?

In the end, this culture-as-bridge phenomenon is great for linking us across communities. I’m reminded of the Iraqi lady who owns a kebab shop near my work. She has ladies working for her from Afghanistan, from Iraq, from Syria… but whenever they can’t understand each other they switch to Egyptian Arabic. Why? Because, even though the Saudi Arabian variant is said to be closest to the “standard” in that tongue, Egypt is the region’s Hollywood and so this culture is consumed by all others in the region… naturally becoming an immediate lingua franca, sneakily carrying with it many other trappings of Egyptian culture.

I wish this was more our reflex, integration.

I wish this was more our reflex, integration.

Now the spoiler: the shaking of hands at the end of that first video is an honourable, happy end to the bitter rivalry, not unlike what happens in a successful migration story. But that Reagan was shown being the underdog, then winning the lightsaber match, then suing for peace at the end just goes on to show how the “winning culture” continues being viewed as such, long after the conflict is over and new conflicts emerge. History quickly redraws into different polarizations, and happy reminiscences though watching American comedies in difficult times may be, it’s important to remember that everything isn’t perfect on the other side of that billboard either. For this reason I applaud the use of foreign culture as a bridge, but I remain wary of making that bridge my home.

THIS is key.

THIS is key.

To finish on a light note, Filip’s video was great in showing different perspectives of people growing up through oppression, really focusing on the solidarity felt by them in first believing that a better world is possible, then in making it so. I am grateful for people like this who share their stories; they show us that the struggle is not only real, but ultimately winnable.

My Erasmus Mundus

In a nutshell, this was the past two years of my life.

My two-year Erasmus Mundus program is rapidly coming to a close. This adventure has taken me through a big chunk of Europe and has taught me more than I ever thought possible. I’ve raved over this program before (as well as writing summary posts about many of our profs: Schneider, Côté, Watt, Hagger, Smith, Van Raalte (1, 2), Hanrahan (1, 2), Weinberg, Dawson, Wright), so here I’m simply posting a few of my favourite videos from the past two years. More can be found on Vimeo. First, well, our first days upon arriving in Greece.

Then of course there were the pains of integrating into a new culture.

Trikala being the small, isolated town it was, we quickly became something like local celebrities.

When we moved to Leipzig for our term abroad, things went from “there’s no way life can get better right now” to “omigoodness it totally has, how is this even possible!?!”:

One of the best parts of our Leipzig period was certainly the access we had to top-notch professors from the world over. Here, Stephanie Hanrahan leads a disability seminar:

… where students took to the exercises like fish to water:

Traveling through Europe is a big part of the Mundus initiative, and cultural immersion bigger still. Here Tom teaches Iris some Dutch, which sounds just enough like her native German to prohibit her from taking him seriously.

Lastly, my EMSEP adventure wound down to a close with a very warm pre-Christmas Christmas in the same Big Apartment where it all started in late 2013.

And that’s it. Now I sit here — an official sport psych intern with the national Polish rowing team at Gdańsk University — reflecting on how much a different person I am from the eager greenhorn who left for Yellowknife midsummer three years back. Back then my goal was simple: miraculously make enough money to make ends meet in Europe. But so much more has happened than just this!

Now I am slowly readying myself for writing this thesis, the only real thing standing between me and convocation. Life has taken so many twists and turns and has served up so many surprises that I don’t even know what to say. What I can say — and this without even a glimmer of a shadow of doubt — is a heartfelt thank-you. Thank you, Trikala; thank you, Leipzig; thank you, Lund and Jyväskylä; but above all, thank you, EMSEP and all the faces behind this marvellous program. Were it not for you my life wouldn’t be nearly so exciting and chock-full of opportunity and friends and knowledge and understanding as it now is.

Ευχαριστώ πολύ, und lebt wohl, bis wir uns wiedersehen : ).

2014.12.7 Goodbye, Trikala

The EMSEP program

People often ask me why I moved all the way to Europe for grad school (“But doesn’t Canada have any good programs?”) and my replies are never really sufficient, always boiling down to something of an, “I can’t possibly imagine myself doing anything else right now in the whole, wide world”… and no one likes this vague optimism when they’re looking for a decent answer.

Well, I was recently interviewed for a project promoting the EU-sponsored series of higher education programs that is Erasmus Mundus, and the resulting video finally properly answers this question. It neatly encapsulates all my excitement and vigour regarding the European Master’s in Sport & Exercise Psychology that I am now halfway done across Trikala, Greece and Leipzig, Germany, while also providing ample justification for why I am here, and why exactly I couldn’t possibly be doing anything better with my life right now.

More on some of our lectures: Peter Schneider, Jean Côté, Anthony Watt, Martin Hagger, Alan Smith, Judy Van Raalte (1, 2), Stephanie Hanrahan (1, 2), Robert Weinberg, Kimberly Dawson, Paul Wright.

The UK (8d, $750)

A rare sight in England.

A rare sight in England.

Aaand another trip, this one to the lovely Isle up north. At the behest of a great friend I flew in to take part in the seventh annual Congress of Polish Student Societies in the UK. My main drive was to compare British Polonia to the Polish diaspora I had grown up with in my native Canada, to meet people, to gauge how school in the UK might feel… aaand of course to scratch a few more countries off my list. My trip consisted of three distinct legs: Cardiff, Oxford, and Edinburgh. I wanted to squeeze the Isle of Man in there too but this would have just been too much. Next time.

Getting there

From what was then home — Trikala, Greece — I took the train to Macedonia International Airport in Thessaloniki (€20 return, student rate). I know what you’re thinking: “But isn’t Macedonia a successor state of the former socialist republic of Yugoslavia? What’s one of Greece’s major airports doing stealing a name like that?”

Regional Macedonia highlighted.

Historic Macedonia highlighted.

Well, yes. And no. Not really. Kind of. See, “Macedonia” is the name of  a historic and geographical region encompassing much of the southeastern Balkan peninsula. It’s been this way since the prominence of the 4th century B.C. Greek Kingdom of Macedon, which covered much of what is now the Republic of Macedonia plus a sizable chunk of northern Greece (and small bits of Albania, Kosovo, and Serbia). This Greek region is currently also called “Macedonia”, and encompasses three administrative regions: West Macedonia, Central Macedonia, and half of East Macedonia and Thrace, only adding to the confusion.

"Alexandros O Megas" in Thessaloniki. You got it: Alexander the Great.

“Alexandros O Megas” in Thessaloniki. You got it: Alexander the Great.

Both Greeks and Macedonians have claim to this land and there is a bitter feeling on both sides as to who gets ownership of the name. Matters are further complicated when people refer to folks like Alexander the Great as “Macedonian”. I mean he was — in the ancient sense — and his hometown of Pella is still in Greece, just north of the port city of Thessaloniki… but his Macedon hasn’t existed for almost two millennia. To weave around this diplomatic bump, Macedonia the country is officially called the “Republic of Macedonia” outside of and “FYROM” within Greece, the first two letters standing for “former Yugoslav”. And there you have it, a small geographical tidbit to brighten your day.

Ο Φούρνος του Λάμπρου

Ο Φούρνος του Λάμπρου: this is it!

Now the trip. I first must spill some ink recommending my favourite bakery in all of Thessaloniki: Ο Φούρνος του Λάμπρου (“O Fornos tu Labrou”, or Lambros’ Oven). For under €2 you order an entire pizza, and they have as many types of cookies and cakes as you can count. Delicious!

And a note on Thessaloniki airport, though this applies to Athens as well: do not waste your time getting there early. Especially if you are flying within the EU. The flights always leave (miraculously) on time however, if you show up, oh, say four hours ahead of time, the customs officer will suspect you of being up to something-slash-not being right in the head. Showing up 1.5 h pre-flight is more than sufficient. From the train station (west of downtown) to the airport (about 15km away, on the other side of the bay), you can expect to travel 45-60m by bus. This is traffic-dependant, so in rush hour you’d probably want to leave an extra 30m early. Fare is negligible — something like €2 or so. If you have big bags though, take a taxi. Not much room on the city buses!

Rule, Britannia!

The UK travel plan in context.

Context. UK: purple, not-UK: green.

When you arrive in London, be prepared to wait some time before entering the country. Even though the process is automatized and very efficient, there are just so many people that you will likely spend at least an hour just waiting to pass through passport control. And it is a bit creepy — everywhere you go, there is a camera watching you. This is true in all of England, though. Regarding transport within the country, try and book any intercity trips via bus (the train will cost you an arm and a leg). Megabus is excellent and very affordable. Alternatively, carpooling might be even better if your route is available. Whatever way you decide to move about the country, just remember to look everywhere before you cross the road. For one, they drive opposite to what we North Americans are used to. For two, the streets in Europe are much more curvy than our grids. You’ll be walking when — suddenly! — road. And even more suddenly — car!! You’ve been warned.

"A Private View" sculpture

“A Private View” sculpture on one of the main roads leading into the city.

Quickly adapting to this can save your life.

The quicker you adapt, the longer you survive.

Upon touching down, I immediately sped off to Cardiff to spend a day seeing Wales. It was… alright. Admittedly though, the weather wasn’t conducive to sight-seeing and I didn’t properly research all the things I could have seen. I made friends with an older German vegetarian at the hostel (£9/night) and we wandered the city a few hours as the rain picked up. I quickly discovered that Brits don’t like to be touched, especially by strangers. This is in stark comparison to southerners in, say, Greece or Italy, or even to the Slavs out east. You will not appease a Brit by calmly patting his shoulder or placing hand on her arm to show solidarity. They will twitch and wriggle a bit, but will be too polite to withdraw. Actually, this is a fun game over time: seeing how long you can make an Islander squirm before they finally pull back into their bubble.

The highlight of Cardiff was definitely a late night ghost tour of the famous castle, though arriving in the city at 2AM and seeing half-naked students, mostly girls (alright, only girls) laying on the street giggling as the effects of alcohol wound down… that was pretty funny. The closest thing I’ve seen to real Geordie girls, that.

Now why did I mention that my hostel friend was vegetarian? This is important, and stems from my own Canadian politeness: “Oh, yeah, sure, we can go to a vegetarian spot. Oh yeah, man — let’s do Indian, that’s a good idea. I mean I usually can’t stomach the surprise spices, but maybe this time it’ll be different.”

Yeah. I overpaid for pain, that’s what happened. Never again (I say now, but it’s easy to be brave in theory).

After Cardiff: Oxford. The only way to get there was train and it was tragically expensive: ten times as much, in fact, as the London-Cardiff journey, which is twice as long. This didn’t make any sense to me; I thought Oxford was kind of a big deal and everyone would be going there, ergo cheaper. Not so.

I wrote a separate post about what transpired in Oxford, but suffice it to say that it was an amazing, inspiring experience. Here’s the video invitation so you can get something of a feel of what it was all about:

Family meeting in London.

Family meeting in London.

After Oxford, I went directly to Edinburgh via London (100km, then 650km to the Scottish capital). This was a bad idea, especially given the lack of sleep suffered during my Oxonian weekend. A Swedish berry-based beer did not help things. By midnight after the conference, I had already met with a cousin living in London and was up on the bus when my stomach started rumbling. This is the second time something like this happened, the first being almost an exact replica in Turkey not a month prior. By the time I arrived in Edinburgh I just went right to bed, luckily this time at a friend’s place and not at a hostel with strangers. After a few days the sickness abated and I was back on my feet, just in time for my flight back home to Greece.

Edinburgh: it all looks this majestic.

Edinburgh: it all looks this majestic.

A note on Edinburgh: what a wonderful city! Oxford was a bit too small and, well, “short” for me. There aren’t many buildings over five stories and the city is literally just a university campus. Granted, probably the most famous campus in the world, but a campus nonetheless. Edinburgh, on the other hand, is like something out of a Batman story. All those gargoyles and cold, stone arches, and sculptures and buildings and shrines to the past cropping up everywhere you look almost foreshadow a Bat-Signal’s appearance in the clouds always blanketing the city. If it weren’t so cold up there, and so far away from the rest of the metropolitan hub that is England, I would strongly consider this a place to settle down in for a bit longer. As it was though, Edinburgh remains a place to revisit in warmer months, especially given its predisposition to festivals as the weather sneaks towards sunny. And any future trip up north will have to be marked by a visit to the Yellow Bench, a neat Polish restaurant I can’t believe I didn’t visit while walking past it.

The Yellow Bench

The yellow bench in front of the Yellow Bench

Things I learned

When booking a trip involving something intense like a conference or a series of parties or lots of local travel (or all three), be sure to book a few rest days here and there just in case you need to heal. For me, this was Edinburgh — three wonderful days walking and exploring the city and blending in with the crowd, combined with ample time for recovery. You can get a feel for the vibe of the whole experience below:

Also, be sure to bring a change for each category of clothing for any trip longer than a weekend, ie. don’t just bring one pair of pants or shoes. There will come a time when you’ll need a second and forking out money on surprise expensive necessities is not fun. And two things to bring with you no matter how long your trip: a pair of flip-flops and a flashlight.

Now let’s talk money. This was an expensive trip: at just over a week, I spent something like £100 on travel within the UK alone. Arriving at Stansted airport, I exchanged money at a rate of €1=£1.4 — about £0.2 higher than the posted rate but still similar to how it was throughout the rest of the country. Returning to the eurozone, I exchanged my pounds back to euros at the outrageous rate of €1=£1.1. What does this mean in actual numbers? Well, I came in with about €465 and lost €56 in that first transaction. This was still better, I think, than gambling on a better rate in Greece. I was told later that you can get much better deals at the British post office or at Marks & Spencer (a department store). Leaving, I exchanged £179  for €164, a loss of about €15 , bringing my total losses in currency exchange to €70 (a lot!). In the future, I would do more research on where to get the best bang for my euro.

Add all this to a €150 Thessaloniki-London return flight, a €30 Trikala-Thessaloniki return train, €200 worth of food/gifts/lodging and we’re looking at $750 CAD spent in the end. Bear in mind I spent six nights sleeping at friends’ houses, saving a ton this way. However, the UK has enamoured me, strengthening my resolve of applying to British schools for graduate work in physiotherapy once this sport psychology master’s tapers to a finish. And of course, it’s upped my country count quite a bit:

New count; new map. 17!

Now a note on the Traveler’s Century Club

On telling some friends about my goal of joining the TCC, many immediately look at the mission in a negative light. This likely on account of two things. First, when I talk of my travels, it is often with joining this club as the underlying framework. This makes people think this is the sole reason I travel (obviously not so, but I am always excited at having visited another country and so this element of my story always receives an extra boost of energy when related).

Secondly, there is the semantic problem of what a “country” is. It is surprising how hung-up people get on the issue of Hawaii not being a “real country”, and even more surprising how difficult it is to actually define what a country is. When I was creating my geography quizzes a long, long time ago, I ran across the same problem and it took me a few months to finally nail down a solid solution: set clear standards right from the start and then stick to them — no exceptions! You let one exception in and, before you know it, you have a whole conga line of them piling in through the door.

And the TCC does just that. They’ve come up with a list of countries and territories that is detailed and comprehensive , leaving out nothing and taking all factors into account. If you think it’s easy to define a country, then I encourage you to clearly divide this list into countries and non-countries. And disputed territories are just one example of where borders get blurry! There are also dependant territories, the nation v. nation-state distinction, semi-autonomous territories belonging to old colonial superpowers (is Greenland a country?), areas that are — for all intents and purposes — uninhabited, territories with limited recognition,  and the categorizational mess that is the United Kingdom. Is England a country? If no, why not? If yes, then how about Britain? If no, they why not? If yes, then how can a country be made up of other countries?


Back home

Say what you want about the glorious benefits travel, it was fantastic to return to Greece after a second intense trip in such short succession. I had time to mentally (and actually) prepare for a third great trip of 2014: moving to Germany, from where I now write. More on this culture shift soon; now, work. And a picture of Holi celebrations during our last days in Trikala : ).

Why graduate school is awesome.

Why graduate school is awesome.

Athens-Istanbul ($800, 10d)

Snowshoeing in West Vancouver (I, 2014)

Snowshoeing in West Vancouver (I, 2014)

My plans of funding European grad school with Canadian employment continued this past Christmas season, where I returned home for 5 weeks to catch up financially and rest a bit before returning to school in Greece.

Party rockin' with Tom (Waterloo, I.2014)

Party rockin’ with Tom (Waterloo, I.2014)

My time in Canada was exceptionally busy: working three very intensive weeks in Vancouver and then spending the next two weeks immersed in chores and paperwork in Hamilton, with an awesome surprise Christmas skate orchestrated by my sisters in Toronto and a last-minute Gzowski Club reunion with Kac and Tom in Waterloo thrown in for good measure. It was simply fantastic seeing all my friends and family after such a long time away.

Annual Christmas cousins photo (XII, 2013)

Annual Christmas cousins photo (XII, 2013)

After a whirlwind of a Christmas “break” I returned to Greece to complete all my assignments and to cap off my first term as a grad student. It felt good, so good, to have half of the most intensive part of my studies behind me. It felt even better to have gotten through not only financially unscathed but also ready to face the rest of the year without busting the bank, even though this meant missing Christmas with the family for the first time in my life.

Toronto with friends (I, 2014)

Toronto with friends (I, 2014)

Leading a massage workshop for grad students (Greece, XI, 2014)

Leading a massage workshop for grad students (Greece, XI, 2014)

Aside: I remember reading a general consensus online where one of the top travel careers named was massage, both for its freedom and financial stability. Having been living my life this way since the late 00s, I can confirm that yep, if you want to travel and not scrape the barrel to make ends meet, check out massage therapy as a potential career. Especially if you’re willing to put in 2 years to become a registered therapist in a regulated province. It’ll take 2-3 years before you figure out your routine after school but, once you do, you’ll be set.

"Home", sweet home.

“Home”, sweet home.

So a few weeks after returning to Greece, my sister came to visit and we did Athens for four days and Istanbul for three, separated by day trips to Thessaloniki and to my hometown of Trikala along the way.

Prices below are in dollars, lira, and euros, with the following conversions: $1.00 CAD = $0.90 USD = ₺2.00 TYR = €0.65 EUR.

Athens, Attica Zoo, and the Temple of Poseidon

Athens tour.

Athens tour (II, 2014).

Athens was remarkable, as always, with its Free City Tour being a highlight. A friend from my program, Nikita, joined us for this leg of the trip. It was simply fantastic having her along — she did her research and knew exactly what to see in Athens. At her behest, a full day was dedicated to seeing Attica Zoo (third largest bird collection in the world!) and the famed temple of Poseidon on the tip of Cape Sounion, where Lord Byron allegedly carved his name into stone.

At the zoo.

Making friends everywhere.

We left early for the zoo. The whole Athens-Attica trip was done using local transit — a combination of train and bus, and involved close to an hour of transfer time between the two. We arrived at the zoo in the late morning and stayed for 4-5 hours, easily. The biggest highlight was certainly the vast array of stock, well, in stock, and just how close you could get to the animals. An escaped meerkat even latched on to our party for a few minutes! Entrance fees were around €10, but this was a 50%-off special Nikita had found. For an extra €4 we went to see the dolphin show, but this paled to shows like Niagara Falls’ Marineland or Vancouver’s Aquarium.

The Temple of Poseidon at Sounion.

The Temple of Poseidon at Sounion.

You can get right up there.

You can get right up there.

From there we took a taxi to get to the Cape — significantly more expensive, but also the only option. We were lucky to arrive at the temple right between the departure of a Japanese tour bus and the arrival of an Indian one, giving us close to two hours to romp the grounds virtually unencumbered.

Anytime is yoga time.

Anytime is yoga time with Nikita.

Changing of the guard.

Changing of the guard.

This temple is definitely a must-see for anyone in Athens for more than a day. You can scamper up and down the cliff side, exploring the numerous little caves and coves that dot where the hill meets the Aegean. Bonus: you can catch an intercity bus to get back to Athens for just €6, and they leave every two hours.

The Acropolis.

The Acropolis.

Upon returning to Athens, we saw the changing of the guard at Syntagma Square, crept up to the base of the Acropolis (note: the Acropolis is the hill, the Parthenon is the temple up top), and tried eating the bitter oranges that fall from the trees all over the city (don’t do it — not the same thing as an actual orange!).

Athens graffiti.

Athens graffiti.

While in Athens we stayed at the Neos Olympos for €9/night each (including breakfast!). Off-season prices, probably. This has to be my favourite Athenian hostel because it is cheap and is just a five minute walk from Larissa Station, the main hub for both inter- and intracity trains. All told, we spent something on the order of €100 for three days and two nights in Athens, including all the attractions above. A great deal! We would have likely spent closer to €150 were it not for the fact that Nikita and I had student IDs. Attractions like any of the temples or museums in Greece cost around €3-5 entry each, something that is half-off if you’re a student and completely waived if you’re studying in Greece.

Don't eat them!

Don’t eat them!


The route.

The route.

Following Athens, we took the train up to Trikala where I needed to be for school. Mags took this time off to rest and recover from her jet lag. One night here followed by my seminar the next day, and then back on the road again, this time to Thessaloniki where we had a night booked with a great CouchSurfing friend. Luckily, on the way it hit me that I’d forgotten my passport which translated to more bus time for me.

Destination: Asia!

Destination: Asia!

We stayed one night in Thessaloniki where I caught a nasty bug after falling asleep close to 2AM. Six hours later I was on the bus heading home to retrieve my passport. I returned to Thessaloniki at 5PM, only €25 poorer (thank you student ID!) but definitely much worse for wear. We grabbed a coffee with some friends, packed up, and headed out for Istanbul that night. I was dying at this point: I had a fever, the chills, and was really fatigued. I knew it wasn’t anything serious; I just needed to rest and maybe some hot tea, and 24 hours on the road out of a possible 36 certainly didn’t help.

Arriving in Turkey.

Arriving in Turkey.

Made it!

Made it!

By some miracle we survived the 10h, €45 bus ride without incident and I was on the road to recovery when we arrived at our destination. Taking the night bus was a great idea and highly recommended, especially if you’re not sick: you save money on lodgings and you save time that can be better spent sight-seeing. Visas are calculated in USD but you can pay in euros or Turkish lira as well: Canadians pay $60, Americans and Poles $20. You can take care of this online but if you’re taking a bus in, you may as well pay in person as this is what everyone will be doing anyway.

Inside the Hagia Sophia.

In front of the Blue Mosque.

I’m going to be honest here: though Istanbul is indeed a world-class city with much history and culture peeking at you from around every corner, our main goal in visiting was mainly checking off two more “countries” in our race. If you look closely at the official list, Turkey counts as two states if you cover both its European (East Thrace) and Asian sides (Anatolia, aka Asia Minor). And Istanbul is at the heart of this division, with the Bosphorus Strait dividing Europe from Asia running right through it. And we did it!

Inside the Hagia Sophia.

Inside the Hagia Sophia.

Arriving in Istanbul, Mags booked a hotel in the heart of Sultanahmet, or the Old City, using her points card. Though I wanted to go to our second CouchSurfing appointment, as planned initially, I quickly conceded that the hotel would be a much better idea given my condition. And good thing we did this too. We got fleeced by a taxi driver for €25 to make the 5km trek from Taksim (the centre of the “New City”) to where we were staying, but we were in no condition to haggle the price (it was surprising how few people spoke English in that city). We showed up at the hotel where I happily got ripped off again, this time €30 for an early check-in fee but, again, I had no options. I spent that whole day in bed while Mags went out on the town to be offered carpets for $4,000 at the Grand Bazaar. For such a price, she was adamant the carpets should fly.

The Egyptian obelisk.

The Egyptian obelisk.

The next day was fun. We visited the Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, the Obelisk of Theodosius, took the ferry to the Asian side (₺3, 20m), and saw whirling dervishes perform their ritual, trance-like worship (₺45 + coffee/meal if you’re so inclined). Not being a huge fan of museums and crowds and other things typically touristy, the best part of this day was by far our impromptu shopping escapade in Üsküdar.


Shopping in Üsküdar. Exceptional services gets exceptional tips!

On the boat.

On the boat.

Getting to Asia was simple: a short walk from our hotel brought us to the port at Eminönü, from where we caught the ferry to Üsküdar on the Asian side. Walking 5 minutes into the city we came upon a huge market with great prices: €100 got me two sweaters, two dress shirts, and two pairs of pants. What a deal! Food was plentiful and cheap here as well — future Turkey visits will likely include much more exploration on the Asian side instead of expensive, tourist-packed East Thrace.

On the ferry back to Eminönü.

On the ferry back to Eminönü.

Yep, even here.

Yep, even here.

Our final day was a bit of a rush: finished packing, I went for a traditional Turkish bath (₺50) before being whisked off by our airport shuttle (₺30). We decided it a better idea to pay the €80 to fly back to Athens (2h) rather than pay around the same and spend 15h taking the train/bus back. A note on this: if you are flying out of Istanbul be sure which airport you choose. There is one on the European side (Atatürk) and one in Asia (Sabiha Gökçen). Shuttles are quite cheap regardless of airport but may take more time if you have to cross the Bosphorus Strait, especially during rush hour.

Whirling dervishes.

The dervishes.

A bit more ink must be spilled regarding my hamam experience. It was amazing! I should have gone there everyday for at least 2-3 hours. As it was, the hour I was able to sneak in just before my flight was perfect, if a bit rushed. You show up and are given a locked change room in which to get undressed and leave your things. Then you go into the sauna, where you spend 1-2 hours unwinding. This time is perforated with trips to little cubicles where you cool down with cold water from a font. Then, when you’re ready, you find your masseur — usually a big, burly, mustachioed man who looks like he was once in the circus — and he washes you with a scrub cloth, then lathers you up with soap, which you then wash, and then he follows this all with a deep massage. All of this is performed on a hard marble surface, but you don’t even feel the rock because you are so relaxed and the treatment is pretty intense. This ritual, as far as I could tell, is only available for men. The strangest thing about this is — as with all of the Old World — how this ritual is tucked in between the ordinary: the hamam is usually a small building pressed in on one side by the likes of, say, a police station, on the other by a shawarma grill or post office.

All told, expenses getting to, living in, and leaving Istanbul from Athens amounted to $600 each. An expensive 3-day trip, but worth it for all that we did there.

Istanbul at dusk.

Istanbul at dusk.


The flight from Istanbul to Athens was uneventful, except for the high turbulence I’ve come to expect when flying low over islands. We spent one last night at the Neos Olympos and went for dinner in the Plaka district again, a place a friend had taken us to when my sister first arrived. Best food I’ve found in Athens so far, and sufficiently far away from touristy places like Monastiraki or Syntagma so you can expect many locals and much better prices. If you’re inclined towards vegetarian fare, your only options in the whole city are Rosebud and Avocado, the latter right downtown and surrounded by sushi bars.

Things I learned

Ten days and around $800 spent in the end. This would have been at least double if I had flown in from Canada. Lots of adventures, a few surprises, and another two states knocked off the TCC list. Here are the pearls of wisdom gleaned this time around.

First, I am going to work hard never to miss important holidays with the family again. It was financially necessary this past winter, and I wouldn’t have done it any other way, but not being home for Christmas really sucked.

Next, relating to this most recent trip in particular, it’s good to pepper day-stops along a journey with many destinations. This saved us when I forgot my passport. It’s also wildly important to have a cell phone while traveling: mine broke but we were able to make some much-needed changes in plans thanks to Mags’ having hers on hand. It’s also important to research where you’re going thoroughly beforehand, as Nikita did, and future trips should be marked by much more time spent getting to know a place and relaxing and less time in a travel rush, even if this is just between cities. Ten days for four cities — two of them world-class capitals in two countries across two continents… this was a bit ambitious. And planning: planning takes a lot more time than you think. Future trips should be planned thoroughly weeks in advance, with a minimum of one week allotted to basic planning and a second week set aside to take care of any straggling details. There are always surprises!

Updated TCC count: 14 with Turkey highlighted. And a renovated map!

Would I go back to Turkey? Yes, but not in a heartbeat. And I would probably go back with more money and time (10-14 days feels about right), and would avoid the European side and the capital, instead opting for deeper forays into Anatolia to revisit the great food and shopping experiences I had there this trip.

Next up: Cardiff, Oxford, and Edinburgh. Next week. Wow, that really came quickly. This will raise my TCC count up to 17, finally edging my sister out of the lead spot!

Athens-Gothenburg (4d, $1K)

Flying out of Athens with a stranger. Ask a Greek friend to translate.

Making friends at the airport (ask a Greek to translate).

One of the best things about living in Europe is the ease with which I can travel. Seriously, only $400 to fly from the bottom to right near the top of the continent, whaaa?! And that’s a return ticket?? Crazy. Europeans don’t know how good they have it. Last month a bunch of us from the EMSEP program capitalized on this and flew up to Sweden for a sport psychology conference (and to get a fleeting taste of what weather many of us are cleverly avoiding living in Greece).

First impressions

King Karl.

King Karl.

Everything was so big and open. I’d gotten used to Trikala by now — the cafés spilling out onto the boulevards, the constant people swirling about, sipping coffee and watching the game well into the wee hours of the morning as a mix of Greek Traditional and Top 40 fills the air. Gothenburg? Not so much. Just a quiet, cobblestoned Scandinavian space with the odd Swede scurrying against the wind, seeking asylum from the elements. And what wind! At least King Karl IX still watches from his copper mare over the city he founded.

So much space!

Look at all that space!

Our trip in context.

Our trip in context.

Sweden, or what little I saw of it over the weekend, reminded me of a quieter, more European Canada. People are reserved, polite, and calm. There is a clear social order that everyone follows and queues are something of a normalcy. Let’s talk about this for a minute, just to prepare any reader who is hoping on coming to Greece. In Greece the concept of lining up for something — anything — just.does.not.exist. Don’t even try it, you’ll never get anywhere. The way things work here is if you see an open space, you slide into it sans eye contact. It takes practice and dedicated training for the guilt to subside, but it will happen. And it’s important to understand this behaviour is not rude, it’s just how things work. If you’re in a hurry you press forward, if you have time you let someone in front of you.

In Sweden, lines are still very much in use. An awkward moment and a whole lot of shame at an exchange kiosk made sure I understood this.

Where our conference actually took place. Look, more space!

Where our conference actually took place. Look, more space!

EMSEP Canucks.

EMSEP Canucks meet Poseidon.

We didn’t get a chance to meet too many locals so no portraits of the good Gothenburger. Our exposure was primarily to others like us; internationals with a whole lot of international experience and cultural awareness. Succinctly: few faux pas. Except for my attempt at muscling past the granny at the ForEx kiosk. That was awkward.

The conference

There were close to 100 of us, enough to pack the bus.

There were close to 100 of us, enough to pack the bus.

… was amazing. It was my first professional conference. And these guys are hella passionate about what they do. The age group must have been 20-35 and the energy certainly flowed. Widening my network was clearly a big plus, but there were two other reasons this trip was worth the time and money: potential and potential. Let me explain.

Pep's presentation. More about it in a sec.

Pep’s presentation, more soon.

First, I saw how young and fresh the field is. In Polish we say “pole do popisu”, literally “a space to shine”. Sure, sport psychology has been “around” since Norman Triplett’s groundbreaking 1898 paper, and accepted as a science since Coleman Griffith opened his sport psych lab at the University of Illinois in 1925. Still, all the theories gleaned thus far haven’t seen mainstream use in elite athletics since perhaps, I don’t know — the end of the Cold War? And widespread use has only taken place even more recently, man — within my own lifetime! I remember the lack of structure in gym class and after-school sports growing up: everything was run by the well-meaning intentions of an altruistic, often underpaid coach who just loved the game. Or, unfortunately, by a similarly underpaid coach who loved the extra hours.

ENYSSP Conference (14)

There were very many hands-on workshops with skills we could immediately apply in our work.

Gothenburg = Canada

Gothenburg = Canada

Then, when I was getting my judo coaching certification in the late 00s, I started hearing something about a Long-Term Athlete Development plan. I brushed it off as yet more unnecessary bureaucracy in sport and left it at that, returning to the mats with perhaps a few cool new approaches but otherwise not overly fazed. Now here in Europe they’re rolling out with something called the Promoting Adolescent Physical Activity project and I’m slowly noticing the institutionalized trend to make sport more popular and more accessible to a much wider audience than ever before. My guess? Money. The answer to any high-level government changes is always money (obviously, and this is not something negative). The simple truth is people who play sports are less of a burden on the healthcare system. And people who develop positive associations with sport at a young age have a much higher chance of continuing this habit through life than those who only get exposed to sport much later. So initiatives like LTAD and PAPA are saving money in the long run and leaving a happier populace in their wake. Win-win!

Photobombing like a pro.

Photobombing like a pro.

The second bonus that made it well worth the trip was Pep. Well, more Pep’s presentation (though he’s awesome too). Pep was on my team for the ENYSSP challenge (a relay race, which it’s important you know we won) and, like many inconspicuous faces throughout the crowd that day, Pepijn Lochtenberg was also a presenter. His presentation, “Training police officers in sport psychology techniques“, set off so many possible applications in my head I almost saw stars. Pep works for the Dutch applied sport psychology company, ProTask, where one of his audiences is the country’s police force, slowly branching out into firefighters and paramedics as well. Pep leads daily workshops and training in a wide array of topics very useful in policework and his sessions are in very high demand. Who knows where the wind’ll blow, but this knowledge is great to have as I consider a career in this field.

Here’s a great summary of the weekend, made by ENYSSP’s very own Peter Schneider:


Polish people!

Polish people!

I was exceptionally lucky to get into the Greek EMSEP program. I got to hear a bit about the Swedish and Finish programs during the weekend and it seems our degree will cost less in the end (three free meals a day, a bike lent from the uni, much cheaper living costs, more temperate weather) and we have much more access to leading scholars in the field. This was confirmed when one of the main papers presented ended up being based on the research of a prof we had literally just dined with the night before in Greece. This point was really hammered home when I received a post-conference email recommending I check out a new sport psych textbook, of which the main editor is none other than the director of our program.

Statues abound.

Statues abound.

When I burst with the news to my family that I was going to Greece for (gasp!) two whole years a few months back, everyone was understandably concerned. First, countries like Finland and Sweden look really good on a resume. Second, Greece was (and still is) very much in the heart of an economical crisis. But man am I glad I followed my heart with this call.

Leaving Sweden.

Leaving Sweden.

And some practical advice: it’s easy to spend a lot in Sweden. So watch out, especially if you’ve barely transitioned to euros (ie: me): $1 CAD is about 6kr SEK; €1 is about 9kr. So you see the prices for things like sweaters are in the hundreds of crowns but then your mind quickly convinces you to buy them anyway because, come on, it’s actually like one-tenth that!

Do not do this. It’s actually not.

Almost home. See if you can spot the dog.

Almost home (see the dog?)

A final thought on the logistics of the trip: we stayed at a hostel for the four nights at $40/night. This was the cheapest option we could find and still blew my previous Expensive Hostel record. An ordinary sushi dinner came out to $15 — this is how much an all-you-can-eat sushi buffet costs back in Toronto. Wow.

New TCC count.

New TCC count.

All told, I spent close to a thousand dollars on this conference: $400 for the flight, $400 for room, board, and a few souvenirs, and $150 for the ENYSSP membership & conference fees. Ouch. But I still maintain that it was worth it, for all the reasons above and because I’m now one country closer to fulfilling a dream.

Home, sweet home!

Home, sweet home!

Were I to do this again, I’d definitely not buy plane tickets ahead of time: friends bought tickets at a considerably cheaper rate than me just a few days before leaving, and I bought mine a whole two months ahead of time. I would also take a(n intelligent) gamble and probably CouchSurf. A few people have told me this is a bad idea for conferences but I don’t know, I’m pretty confident it would work like a charm.

Next up: Warsaw for some more SLP adventures. Until then, greetings from ENYSSP!

ENYSSP conference group photo (Gothenburg, Sweden)

The gang salutes you.

The summer side of life

Gold and green and lush and preen.

Gold and green and lush and preen.

Wandering through my music, iTunes plucks Gordon Lightfoot from among the throng. Suddenly I am back on the bus from Burnaby to Ladner. If you’ve ever been, you know there’s something magical about the half-year when it doesn’t rain in Vancouver. The landscape whispers green and gold as everything exhales.

It seems everyone is running late when the bus suddenly… breaks.. dow-n-n-nnn. People get grumpy and worried in the normal, quiet, Canadian way. You know, you can feel the tension but everyone is feeling “fine, how are you?”

Except for, let’s call her Beth. Beth, let me paint her for you as my mind did for me, is a 50-someting office worker, complacent in a happy-go-lucky way about her middle management job somewhere in the numberless cubicles of public service. She’s been this way since getting “carpal tunnel” in the late 90s, shuffling from department to department as successive higher-ups saw she overlooked more than oversaw. But she has a good heart and she’d be the first to help you in a pinch. Beth is oblivious to everything, learning long ago that taking care of number one is kind of important. Overweight — but happy! — and quick to correct (but sincerely), she’s a hoot at the bar and makes you excited to reach her age of gruff independence.

Some moments are magic.

The Moment.

Beth takes command.

“Who likes some radio, eh?”

We shuffle uncomfortably. You just don’t make announcements like this on the bus.

“How about some Gordon Lightfoot, huh?”


“I love this guy.” And so we listen to Beth’s portable radio. Three thrills through and suddenly: a replacement bus. The magic mutes. A holy hush, thick, languid, welcome. Wordlessly, the experience dissolves into memory as each stranger melts into the golden afternoon.

I reach my stop, glance at Beth and nod cheerfully, thanking her for this human moment. Looking at me she doesn’t see me, immersed in her own summer side of life.

But I am happy.

Western Canada (7d, $800)

L-R: BC, Alberta, Saskatchewan & Manitoba (dark), Ontario.

L-R: BC, Alberta, Saskatchewan & Manitoba (dark), Ontario.

After a year of working in beautiful BC it was time to head home to rest before starting grad school. I swore to myself that the next such trip would be by land for two reasons: one, I hadn’t been to Manitoba or Saskatchewan yet, and two… I don’t like turbulence. So when a chance to take a train from British Columbia right through the Rockies, then the prairies, then home to Ontario came up, I was all in! I’ve since learned I don’t mind turbulence that much after all.

Setting out

The first thing you need to know about trains in Canada is that there is only one and it is prohibitively expensive. $800 one-way is about average for the 4500 km, near week-long Vancouver-Toronto trek, though you can find seasonal deals for under $500. Compare this to a six hour return flight for $600 and you can see why our trains travel half empty. The second thing to keep in mind is that your journey will be sloooow. Bring that Dostoevsky you’re always putting off or that family tree you’ve always wanted to get started. A last protip: if you buy a direct pass, you’re only allowed to stop once anywhere along the way for longer than just an hour… but you can buy individual legs of the trip separately (this also applies to the aforementioned deals), thereby still breaking up your trip without having to pay any extra fees. Win!

My own trip was broken into two rail legs and a series of smaller bus routes through the prairies:

The trip.

The trip.

  • Train (A-B-E): Vancouver-Kamloops-Jasper-Edmonton (1200 km, 26h, $186)
  • (D): 3-day trip to Calgary to visit friends and family (300 km, 3h, drove with cousin)
  • Bus (E-F): Edmonton-Saskatoon (500km, 7h, $50)
  • Bus (F-G): Saskatoon-Regina (250 km, 3h, $42)
  • Bus (G-H): Regina-Winnipeg (575 km, 9h, $56)
  • Train (H-I): Winnipeg-Toronto (2000 km, 36h, $186)
  • Bus: Toronto-Hamilton (70 km, 1h, $10)

Regina: Saskatchewan, ✓!

There were, of course, stops along the way for food where I used local transport but, all told, these costs didn’t surpass $150. I was lucky to make this a “Tour de Friends” and so had showers, beds, and meals available for much of the way. Protip no. 2: bring a sleeping bag and buy cheap food at grocery stores along the way, especially for the 20h+ train rides. Food on board is not cheap and not particularly good, and sleeping sucks in economy class. You can do two nights before you start looking like Quasimodo.

Winnipeg: Manitoba, ✓!

Winnipeg: Manitoba, ✓!

I did need to ship two additional pieces of luggage via Greyhound (119 lbs, $146) and this ate up some cash as well. This last not recommended though; Greyhound was particularly unreliable. My baggage was close to a week late and I was unable to reach their customer service line for three whole days. Definitely looking for an alternative next time.

Total damage: $800, 7 days, 5 provinces.

Things I learned

You will meet some interesting people on board who will make you think about life. There is always at least one old man on the train who’s on his way to die somewhere and who wants to make friends with everyone on board. Be prepared for small talk.

Be prepared for some real jewels as you cross Canada.

Be ready for some real jewels as you cross Canada!

One meeting that really caused me to sit back and reflect on life was a 4-hour conversation I had with a cycling Dane who was just coming back from finishing biking the Top of the World Highway. He was easily approaching forty and his life consisted of spending alternate years traveling and then working to pay for his travels. Talking with him I realized that this sort of life is empty; always on the move. I am curious how such a person’s golden years look. Curious, but not enough to find out first-hand. I’d like to build something and have many good friends whom I have known for years as I approach this time in life. I realized then, somewhere near Kamloops, that the true nomadic life is not for me.

Cities: Vancouver is one of the jewels of Canada. Jasper is gorgeous, but small and touristy, Calgary is sweet and full of friendly faces, what little I saw of Edmonton and Saskatoon was run-down, and Winnipeg has a blue-collar, cramped feel that just wasn’t me. Saskatchewan’s capital, Regina, was the big surprise of this trip. It was exceptionally clean and going through the vast, empty spaces was not nearly as boring as I anticipated. The downtown core is small but exceptionally nice and they have some really neat statues right in the middle that add a cool, artsy flair to a city where you definitely don’t expect this. A second surprise was just how mindbogglingly huge Ontario is. I mean, 17 hours to get from Hornby-something to Toronto? Crazy.


Top: Calgary with friends and family. Bottom: Edmonton & Regina with high school pals, Winnipeg with an old university roommate, and finally Toronto with Tom from the Gzowski Club, with Olenka at the Starving Artist, and with Polish friends right downtown before GO-busing home to the Hammer.

Would I do this again? Not unless I wanted some away or catch-up time. Otherwise it’s just too expensive and time-consuming. The landscapes are neat but it’s much better seeing them on a calendar than going through entire days of mountains-then-prairies-then-forests-then-lakes.

Additions dark: AK, NT, YT, SK, MB, HI, WA.

Why was it worth it? Yes, definitely. My mind settled as this trip prepared me both for my upcoming graduate work in Europe as well as starting to project further, into post-MSc plans. My budget formed, emails got caught-up on, the computer desktop became almost clear, and finally a neat mobile/desktop integration solution seemed to present itself just in time for syncing my calendar, contacts, and documents across devices. Visiting each friend in all major cities also had its perks. Visiting Tim in Winnipeg was especially neat because he flashed Paranoid Android onto my Nexus 4. I’m excited to play with something that’s not an iThing. With other friends, it was a nice closing, with my realizing I probably won’t see some of them ever again; life is tugging us in different directions. And my goal of visiting all the Canadian provinces and territories, along with all the States down south, is slowly edging into reality! This year alone I added seven to this list, including four of the more remote locations. The rest will be a piece of cake.

A final badge I earned this trip was shedding Mr. Nice Guy with customer service reps. For some it’s easy; for most native Canadians, not so much. I had to be firm with Greyhound and was surprised to be called “Sir” in a respectful way, and even more surprised to see the efficacy of this approach. Verbal strongarming actually goes much further than the mediocrity of not wanting to hurt someone’s feelings. Who knew?


Wine-touring in Niagara-on-the-Lake.


A final note needs to be said about finally making it home. It was really great cruising my old haunts again but the moments definitely had an air of the ephemeral. I knew it was going to be a quick stop, and I knew that, from this moment on, all my stops home will be quick ones. For the next few years at least. Still, as with all times I visit, I fell in love with the Golden Horseshoe all over again. The orchards, the fruits, the warm summer winds, the calm dozing towns along the lakes… home is home, after all.

Monica showing me around where she calls home.

Monica at home.

Visiting Monica, a cousin completing her internship in Niagara-on-the-Lake, was especially gorgeous. If ever you find yourself near Niagara Falls be sure to make a day trip of visiting this region’s best-kept secret: take a walk through the lovely orchards, buy fresh peaches and apples right from the farmers’ stalls that line the roads, and certainly book yourself a wine tour. Then go catch a theatre production to cap off the evening. If you can, do all this in late August/early September. Canada truly turns magical as summer leafs into fall.

Hanging out with Young Rival after the show.

Hanging out with Young Rival after the show.

And then Supercrawl! Supercrawl started a few years ago as housing in downtown Hamilton got cheap and artists started moving in. Once a month we’d have what was called an “Art Crawl”: artists would open up the doors to their studios and show their work to locals. In September of each year, a Supercrawl was organized. Main streets were closed, stages were put up, and things generally just got fun. This year I got to see Young Rival, a band fronted by an old high school friend, and then walked into a random building with my cousins to find a room full of books. Three hours and a new friend later, we were out to catch Passion Pit’s concert as the festival closed. All in all, a most excellent way of saying bye to home yet again.

Doing the Supercrawl with some really awesome people.

Doing the Supercrawl with some really awesome people. Here’s that library room I mentioned.

Here, before you go, check out how awesome Young Rival is (also worth a peek is their single Your Island):

… something else I learned? Don’t put blogging off; adventures quickly add up. Coming up next: my life in Greece. Hang tight!

Top flight sites

Here’s a quick reference of the best sites I use for finding cheap flights, in order of preference:

  1. #jetset

    #jetset: This could be you.

    rome2rio: Hands down the best one. It not only shows you the cheapest flights between destinations, it also factors in everything else like buses/trains/taxis/ferries — and leaves you with a very solid budget for your complete trip.

  2. Skyscanner: Worth a peek just to compare with the above.
  3. Google Flights: Great for visually showing how flight prices change over time, but doesn’t support important locations such as Greece (yet).
  4. FlightHub: Like Skyscanner only not as good a user interface.

If you’re specifically looking at travel from Canada, these are worth a visit (beware luggage and cancellation limits with Air Transat):

  1. Air Transat: Europe direct.
  2. Air Transat: Athens/Istanbul direct.
  3. Air Transat: Europe one-way.
  4. Chris Myden shares great, random deals to all over the world from all of Canada’s major cities. Go to his site, click the “From other cities” tab, select your city, then sign up for its mailing list. Or just visit his Facebook page.

I have also used Allegiant Air for very cheap Washington-Hawaii tickets ($400 return!), and have been recommended but haven’t yet used the following sites:

  1. From Poland (in Polish): Fly4free and Loter.
  2. Within Europe: easyJet, Darwin Airline, and obviously Ryanair.
  3. All over: Matrix Airfare Search and Red Tag.

Lastly, I highly recommend flying with WestJet here in America, especially within Canada. They have customer service that blows anything you’ve ever experienced out of the water and they have a credit card you can use for even greater discounts. I’ve saved over a thousand dollars flying with them the past year alone, over $600 of which happened since getting their credit card not six months ago.

I’ll update this as I can; please let me know of any resources you love!

Vancouver-Yukon/Alaska (6d, $900)

Welcome to Canada's north.

Welcome to Canada’s north.

Hawaii done and still losing the race to join the Traveler’s Century Club I had challenged my sister to years back, I needed to step things up a notch.

The plan.

The plan.

Plus, it had been a pretty busy season at the massage clinic and I needed a break. So I looked north for my next adventure: Alaska would get me a TCC point and the Yukon would be my second Canadian territory checked off. And flights up there from Vancouver are much cheaper than from anywhere else in Canada — realistically, if I didn’t go there now, I likely never would. The plan was simple: fly to Whitehorse, bus through Carcross (Yukon) and Fraser (BC), take the old gold miners’ train to Skagway, then ferry past Haines to Alaska’s capital, Juneau. I know, right, not Anchorage as everyone thinks. So I convinced an old roommate to come with and so the adventure began!


The city, 30m walk from the airport.

The city, 30m walk from the airport.

Whitehorse is the capital of Canada’s Yukon, a territory straddled between Alaska and the Northwest Territories, bordering BC to the south and the Arctic Ocean to the north. Famous for the 1980s Gold Rush, where men found gold but lost digits, it’s certainly a piece of Canada worth seeing if you’re into traveling off the beaten road. It’s a great place for peace of mind and for seeking inspiration, to commune with nature in a way you just can’t do down south.

Our first night's lodging: Beez Kneez.

Our first night’s lodging: Beez Kneez.

WestJet got me a return flight to Whitehorse for $360.41, but even booking well over a month in advance I had to split my time up there between two hostels because the cheaper one had already been booked by a planeload of Germans. Seriously, Germans love to travel. And they always pre-book. Like years in advance. The north is sparsely populated (Whitehorse, the “big city”, has just over 20,000 residents) so amenities like hotels — and especially cheap spots like hostels — get booked quickly. We spent our first night at the Beez Kneez hostel, $20/night if you don’t mind sleeping in a shed or a VW camper, $30 for a bed in a dorm, and up to $65 for something more private. We clearly did the camper.

Campers saving $10/night: Lead Dog.

Campers saving $10/night: Lead Dog.

After our Alaska trip we came back to spend our final nights at the Lead Dog Backpackers hostel for $30/night ($20 if you want to pitch your tent out front and sleep there). Of the two, I preferred Lead Dog. Beez Kneez was a bit cramped and we felt awkward going into the house because the owner very much lives there and has locals over for card nights and such. We felt like we were imposing when we went in to leave our phones charging for the night. Lead Dog, on the other hand, has a much more international flair — lots of French travelers in addition to the Canadians and Germans who frequent Canada’s north — and it definitely felt like a hostel and not a house. It had that revolving feeling I like with travel: people coming and going, a neat community events board, great, warm beds, easy access to the kitchen and fridge, ample outlets near my bed, four showers and at least two toilets. Something like 30 people can stay there when it’s absolutely full and the bathroom is rarely occupied when you need it.

The SS Klondike.

The SS Klondike.

Transportation in Whitehorse is easy: though there are like two city buses and a taxi service, you can walk to the city from the airport in under an hour (free!). Moving around within the city is even easier: it’s flat, bordered by hills and a river, and everything you need is within 30m of everything else. There is an Extra Foods where you can buy groceries but be warned, food in the north is expensive. You can get neat northern fare like reindeer and fresh salmon at a few restaurants but there was nothing that stood out for me. Then again, I tend to make my own food to cut back on expenses so restaurants aren’t high on my list of things to check out when traveling. Total expenses for hostel ($20/1 night at BK and $60/2 nights at LD) and food was something around $100. Added to this some small gifts and watching a few movies — Wolverine had just come out and I couldn’t think of a better place to watch it that the Yukon — and $150 is about fair for three days spent in the city.


Overall, I wasn’t too impressed by this part of the trip. The cities in this part of Alaska are full of mostly just tourist shops with very little else to offer. They reminded me very much of smaller versions of Niagara Falls with all the kitsch and glam and tourists buying tee shirts.

White Pass & Yukon Rail.

White Pass & Yukon Rail.

We took the White Pass & Yukon Rail train which consisted of a bus from Whitehorse to Fraser, BC through Carcross, and a scenic train from Fraser to Skagway, Alaska on the old gold miners’ route. The return trip was a bus straight from Skagway to Whitehorse: this is much better than doing the train again because, though scenic, it’s mostly full of snowbirds. The whole trip was $175 USD, it would have been $50 cheaper or more expensive depending on if you didn’t take the train or if you took it there and back (more train = more money). Not worth doing it twice though, once you’ve seen it once, you’ve seen it all.

Alaska Marine Highway ferry.

Alaska Marine Highway ferry.

From Skagway is where the disappointments began: we took the Alaska Marine Highway ferry and not only was it late 1.5 hours, causing us to miss our 11PM hostel check-in and having to buy a night at a much more expensive hotel, but they were not very helpful along the way. When we talked to the purser at the end of our trip (the person in charge of customer services on the ship), she only repeatedly told us the ferry does not have any policies to aid customers in our circumstance. Emailing them later with a formal complaint, asking for confirmation of the ferry’s lateness for an insurance claim, I received a curt note saying they cannot provide me with this because the delay had not been logged by the captain (only delays longer than 4 hours are). Not cool. And for all this headache, a trip from Skagway to Juneau is $50 so $100 USD return. Total Whitehorse-Juneau transportation costs: $275 USD (we had bought food in Whitehorse, luckily, but were sure to eat it all before we passed US customs).

Winging it

The conductor who got us to Skagway.

The conductor who got us to Skagway.

So here we are, Tim and me, docked in Auke Bay (ah yes, the Marine Highway neglected to mention that, since the cruise ships pay more for docking fees, ferry docking has been relocated 13 miles north of Juneau). The only silver lining here was I got a chance to wing things under pressure. Luckily there was a very nice server on board, Nate. When we explained our predicament to him, he lent us his cell to make a few calls. We called the hostel and were told we’d have to find lodging elsewhere as the place closes at 11PM and it was already nearing midnight. We called a few hotels but rates were exorbitant: upwards of $180 USD for a single room. We then placed one last call to get a cab to our ferry and went down to talk with the (very unhelpful) purser. Again, luck had our backs and there was a construction fellow talking to her as well who informed us there was a courtesy phone we could use inside the terminal. From there, as Tim was placing a call to more hotels, I went outside to see if our taxi had arrived. After having left the ship and talked with the purser, something like 10 minutes had gone by. Immediately upon hitting the parking lot I saw how tricky our situation was: there were around 30 others just like us, late and not sure where to go, and everyone eyeing a lone, circling taxi like vultures.

I suddenly heard, “Are you Paul?” from my right. Glancing over, a middle-aged lady with a guitar slung over one shoulder appeared.

“Yes,” I replied.

“That taxi’s been driving in circles for five minutes looking for you. He won’t take anyone else on board. Hey, if you’re going downtown, can I come with?”

I quickly gathered Tim from inside and, along with guitar-slung Gin, piled into the cab. An unshaven student from Missouri also saw the opportunity and jumped in with us: he was going to the airport and this was on our way. In the cab it was time to make some quick choices: we’d be at the airport in ten minutes and in Juneau in twenty more and we needed to have a place to sleep by then. Using the Rick the Cabbie’s cell, the lowest rate we could scramble was $160 at a motel. Still a bit much, just for one night. Gin came to the rescue again: “Hey, why don’t you guys just stay at the Alaskan?”

Tim not impressed with the Alaskan.

Tim not impressed with the Alaskan.

“Oh, the Alaskan. Used to be a brothel, and a strip bar before then. Not a bad place if you don’t mind being in the heart of the night life,” Rick broke in.

“Let’s do it.” A quick call later and we had a night for $100 USD in Juneau’s downtown core (ie: an intersection and about 500m of bar-lined streets). Sure, it was tough sleeping because people were making friends below the whole night, and the bathroom had no door and we kept remembering the $13 USD/night rate at the hostel, but whatever.


I need to know what goes on in here.

I need to know what goes on in here.

Though Juneau had a purported population of over 30,000, it feels much smaller and more cramped than the city-tucked-in-a-blanket-of-hills Whitehorse. There is an IGA in town where we did our grocery shopping, there are tours to see a local glacier, you can hike or take the tram up Mt. Roberts, and this seems to be about it. Each costs about $15; we did neither, just spending the 1.5 days there catching up after not having seen each other for around 3 years. We did see St. Nicholas’ Russian Orthodox Church, but it was tiny and very much rundown. After our previous night’s experience, we mostly just wanted to rest and get back to Whitehorse. There was an IGA right in the city where food could be got for cheap (meals on the ferry are expensive and not too good so packing a lunch for the road is smart).

This was actually super cool.

This was actually super cool.

The hostel was exceptionally nice and clean. The only points it loses are with service: they should expect that ferries are late (turns out every local we asked knew of their horrible track record) and so have a 24-hour arrival policy. As it stands, you can only check in at like 8-9AM and then 5-11PM or so. They were also understanding and let us move our registration one night forward, meaning we didn’t have to pay for the night we missed because of the ferry. That was nice.

Total expenses in Juneau included $13/night in Juneau, $100/night at the Alaskan (we each covered half), and then around $50 for food and chocolates, delicious, delicious chocolates. Add to this the unidirectional $35 taxi fare twice (again, split) and total Juneau costs ran up to around $150 USD.

What I learned

Distinct Whitehorse Native art.

Distinct Whitehorse Native art.

First, total damage: it was a bit more than the $800 I anticipated but, from leaving my front door to when I crossed that threshold again, my purse was only $950 lighter ($900 if my insurance claim goes through; more below). Taking into consideration how much transportation costs bloated this figure ($670), this is not a surprise at all. Were we to take the more conservative bus route from the Yukon to Alaska, and were our ferry not late, I’d only have shelled out $850.

No guns at a bank? Come on.

No guns at a bank? Come on.

I also learned the value of having a good credit card and of charging all your travel-related items to it. Like everything. This way if things go wrong you can claim many unplanned expenses via their insurance. My favourite is the WestJest RBC World Elite MasterCard: I’m currently filing for a $100 return to cover our unanticipated hotel expense and this looks promising. It’s hard and boring reading through all the details your credit card insurance covers but doing so is a smart move. This particular card costs $99 annually but also offers additional perks: you automatically get $250 WestJet dollars when you sign on as well as an annual return flight for a companion for $99 so long as they are traveling with you to anywhere WestJet travels. This is pretty huge considering WestJet covers pretty much everything north of Panama. There is a “light” version of this card if you don’t meet the qualifications for the elite one (or if you want a smaller annual fee), and some really good friends of mine who travel often recommend the Visa Avion from RBC (Infinite or Platinum, I forget which). With both these as well as the WestJet cards you get a small percentage of your purchases back in Avion points or WestJet dollars as well.

The world's smallest desert (Carcross).

The world’s smallest desert (Carcross).

All told, I’ve saved over $500 since getting MasterCard in like February, plus having around $100 WestJet Dollars accumulated just from daily shopping. In the end, the main reason I went with this card is because I saw myself traveling within North America (mostly Canada) a lot this year, and I hate any “points”. WestJet dollars are simple: you have one, it’s worth one actual dollar on a WestJet flight purchase. Easy. And I like it this way. Plus, WestJet is awesome.

Tim in Carcross.

Tim in Carcross.

In a completely different vein, I was pumped Tim came along for the ride this time. I remember lamenting that my Hawaiian memories were only shared with strangers: it’s nice having a good friend out there whom I can call to reminisce about how I slept with my feet huddled around a gearbox or about how he almost missed the first day of dental school because of a late ferry.

Current TCC success.

Current TCC success.

Would I do this again? The Alaska Panhandle, nope. Whitehorse, probably. I’m thinking a cross-Canada roadtrip might be in order these next few years. But like a real cross-Canada one, not just the typical Vancouver-Halifax trip every student “finding himself” does. Before then, though, I’ll have to do all the continental United States. And, of course, much of Europe just because I’ll be there for the next two years. Watch out, Mags, I’ll beat you in our race yet!

Off on another adventure!

Off on another adventure!

But my next immediate adventure will be a Vancouver-Toronto road and rail ride, checking off Edmonton, Calgary, Saskatoon, Regina, and Winnipeg all along the way, leaving in ten days. It still hasn’t really hit me that this is about to happen yet. And then Greece in less than a month, wow.


Sometime in these next 5 years…

This past weekend 20 Polish high school students from across the GTA met with around 30 mentors: recent grads, professionals, graduate students—curtly, people who had just gone through the same things that await these greenhorns. The entire event (“Iskra”, or “spark”) was a raging success. I invite you to brief through the 150-picture gallery to get a feel of the fresh vibe present throughout the entire thing. Below I’ll just post the quick speech delivered at its commencement, digging deeper into the point of this whole project. But first, this:

And there you have it. Next up: the speech.

This is actually how it works.

This is actually how it works.

Sometime in these next 5 years, the image on the left will happen to you. It happened to us and, trust me, you’ll need a bit of support in the rocky road ahead. It might be you’re called to jury duty, it might be you have to file your own income taxes for the first time, it might be you need to take out a massive loan when you suddenly realize, oh my goodness, I am an adult. Every moment hereafter will be you scrambling to wing adult things like paying student loans, buying cars, getting a mortgage, raising kids. And the entire time you’ll feel like below.

How it feels like the rest of the way.

How it feels like the rest of the way.

Welcome to adulthood.

We at PISK started the Iskra Project because we wish we had something just like this going into university — a network of people that had gone through ahead of us who could help us out from time to time. We didn’t, so we built PISK on shoulders bigger than ours, and now we offer you those same shoulders (plus our own!) to stand on. I’m sure you all feel super nervous right now and are completely unsure about everything around you. Good. The best advice I can give you is to be vocal, be heard, ask questions, make sure everyone knows you by your first name at the end of this weekend. And hey, don’t let this end there: carry this habit on throughout life. Your career will thank you.

The sooner you learn this, the quicker you'll get to where you're going.

The sooner you learn this, the quicker you’ll get to where you’re going.

You all enter this room with something unique: every one of you is a bright, young individual with the world at your feet. But there are billions like you. You are all talented and en route to becoming educated. But again, there are millions in the same boat. You all are geographically blessed, living in one of the richest, safest countries in the world, and many of you also have a secondary citizenship good for chasing down further opportunities in Europe. Again though, for every one of you there are a thousand others. So what makes you special, what sets you apart? Simple. Take a look around you: support. Community. For one, your parents, the people who brought you here. We know that of your own accord you wouldn’t have even thought about crawling out of bed on a Saturday morning for anything less than Polish school, and even that would be reluctantly at best. That your parents care about your future enough to spend money to bring you here shows they are passionate about where you’re headed and will be there to help you all along the way. Which, if you think about it, is actually a pretty solid retirement plan for them.

You're not the only one straddling the Atlantic.

You’re not the only one straddling the Atlantic.

For two: us. Family can only help you so far, eventually you’ll need mentors to guide you down whatever path you take. We might not be those exact mentors, but chances are pretty good that we know someone who can, all the while giving friendly advice and stories of experience painfully learned along the way. Add to this the fact that we all share a particularly special story and you can speedily see how this becomes important. When you hit university and adulthood, you will quickly note how important community is, and how much tougher the road ahead stands if you’re going down it alone.

Wherever life does take you, remember this: there is more than one way to hold a flag… but it’s always more fun holding it with another.

Full event archives are online, including some history, team bios, event schedule, promo videos, 2011-12 photos (that’s right, this project is actually in its third year!), and a brief post on why we do this. We also have a glowing interview posted with the Cosmopolitan Review, which I really recommend reading to find out more about the philosophy of this movement. The full Iskra 2013 delegate handbook is available, as is our 2013 sponsorship package.

Vancouver-Hawaii (5d, $1K)

Hi there. By way of introduction, I’m a massage therapist set to soon start graduate work in sport psychology across Greece and Germany, and I cannot wait to get that adventure rolling. Until then, I’m living out here in BC, working hard and traveling as much as possible.

The jewel of the Pacific.

The jewel of the Pacific.

This post is about how I did Hawaii for cheap, replete with tips and tricks to get you there too. First, some background. It had been a long, loooooong year of hard work that saw me move from my native Hamilton, Ontario, to Yellowknife in northern Canada, and then out to Vancouver before finally settling in Burnaby, BC, to work out of four locations: three clinics plus the local massage college. Curtly put, I was pooped. After close to a year of being in pure hectic mode, I needed to get out to a place where clothing was much more optional and sunshine much more available.

Bet you some of these are volcanic.

Bet you some of these are volcanic.

It was at this time that I read a post by a great mutual friend (and Gzowski Club co-founder). Somewhere in there he challenged me: “But remember, if you keep doing what you’re doing, you’ll keep getting what you’re getting. Are you happy about it?” No, Kacper. I wasn’t. I mean, I wasI was saving up money for school as plannedbut my skin had been too long without colour. And, as Tom deftly points out, if you want it, you’ll find a way; if not, you’ll find an excuse. Plus, I had challenged my sister to see who could join the Traveler’s Century Club first a few years back and she had close to twice my tally of 10… and yep, you guessed it, Hawaii counts as a “country” on the official list. Everything pointed to the land of leis and luaus, so off I went!

Some quick notes: all prices below are in Canadian currency, which at the time of writing was pretty much the same as American dolladollabillzyo. And I travel light, quick, and cheap: my focus is checking things off and “me time”, in that order.


A man I passed heading to BLI international.

A man I passed heading to BLI international.

So at 2AM, April 6th, I booked a non-refundable ticket for two weeks distant. I’m extremely lucky in that work caters to my schedule so booking time off was a cinch (but of course, no vacation pay as a subcontractor). Unfortunately, $426.10 in the hole only got me a return flight from Bellingham, WA to Honolulu (already a savings of around $200 had I booked straight from Vancity; Alaska Air is a clear win over my preferred WestJet hereAllegiant is a good choice too). I still needed to get to Bellingham though. No fret, BoltBus to the rescue: for just over $7.00 you can make the 3-hour trek; return, this was $14.55. There were two downsides to this: first, since my bus left at 6AM I had to taxi from Burnaby to the terminal. That was $20. Two, BoltBus goes not to the airport, no. Once in Bellingham you must take a taxi or do what I did and take two local buses ($1.00 each“Transfers? Oh we don’t do that here.”), and even then you have to walk about a mile to the airport. Total time this way is 2-3 hours depending on bus availability. Bellingham has a quaint downtown where you can grab a coffee but, were I to do this again, I’d probably fly out of Seattle instead to enjoy the cityscape more. As it was, I had 4 hours to lounge in Bellingham so I ended up buying a hot chocolate ($3.00) and a lunch from PitaPit ($6.00), which I was told is the cheapest food available near the central bus terminal.

Waikiki beach vibes.

Waikiki beach vibes.

Transportation covered, I did a quick search for hostels a few days after booking flights (so way before the pita mentioned above). HostelBookers was a great help, where I snagged three nights for $70.64 at the Polynesian Hostel Beach Club, easily the cheapest hostel in Honolulu (and a $15.00 30m direct shuttle away, or a $2.50, 40m bus ride that drops you off a short walk from the hostel, if you can carry your baggage). Book early thoughit’s right on Waikiki so booking too late gets you nowhere. There is the Hokondo Waikiki, literally two buildings awaywhere I ended up getting an extra night, but at $32.52 it was definitely a shoddier deal.


Kalakaua Avenue, right on Waikiki beach.

Kalakaua Avenue, right on Waikiki beach.

Cash and food: I had $300 USD with me for the 5 days I was there and it was all spent by the time I was through. On a really tight budget, I’d still recommend having $100 USD when you land for your first 1-2 nights. Food: there’s a Safeway twenty minutes’ walk from the PHBC where prices are as high as they normally are at Safeway (except for the cheap fruits in Hawaii!), which is still cheaper than most of the local food places. Five days saw me buy buns, meat, and cheese for sandwiches, some oranges and some juice every second day for a total of $40.00. The hostel had more than enough fridge space to accommodate and there is an ABC grocery store just beside it where you can get necessities quickly (I got food there one day: dry soups, some juice, razors… all for around $15.00. Ouch).


The first thing that hit upon landing me was the humidity (fresh though—even pleasant, not invasive like what I was used to in the Hammer), the geckos on the sidewalks further in the residential areas, all the floral scents everywhere, and the fact that, despite it feeling like you had just walked into a butterfly conservatory, there are no bugs in Hawaii. The second thing that hit me was just how incredibly small the place was. With only about 400,000 residents and 30,000 tourists in peak season, it’s tiny. Nothing like small town Canada or rural Europe, but definitely no Toronto or even Vancouver. Just to give you a taste of what I mean: I ran into Andreas from the hostel thrice in the morning of my first day, just walking around Waikiki. The second day when I went for my lomilomi massage course, it turned out the girl I was massaging was not only staying in the same hostel as me but in the same room. And when, on my final day, I was heading out to the airport, who do I run into but my seatmate from the flight in, also returning to the continent!

Hawaii (6)

Entering Diamond Head State Monument.

Things to do: the first day I walked around the city, went to Mass at St. Augustine-by-the-Sea (7AM daily plus Sunday services, complete with a lovable Filipino priest who says things like “In this parbar Christ is our seperd and we are his seep, his tsurts.”), hiked up Diamond Head ($1.00 entry fee), and then surfed the evening ($10 beginner board rental at PHBC). The second day I took an intro to lomilomi massage course ($80, but only because I have some experience) and then met Manuel at the hostel, a super cool German dude who came out with me surfing that evening (boom, $10). The third day, Manuel and I took the hour-long bus ride from just outside our hostel to Pearl Harbour ($2.50, but the driver was super laid back and gave us a 4-hour transfer that we used to get back later). Others told us to get there early so we were on the bus by 7:00AM and there by 8:00 that morning. This is because, though the tickets for the super neat US Navy tour to the USS Arizona Memorial are free, they dry up quickly and the place gets crowded by noon. There are three other tours you can take, but they’re not as neat nor as cheap ($10-20). That evening we surfed again ($10!) and I caught my first wave!

The fallen USS Arizona.

The fallen USS Arizona.

Protip: if you’re decently athletic (ie: your reaction is to catch a ball and not slap at it wildly like a girl), don’t bother with a surf lesson. I spent my first afternoon surfing floundering, then I watched a video that evening that taught me the trick: don’t just wait for the wave to come and then stand up; do paddle like a fiend once a decent wave is 5m behind you until you catch it and are riding it. Then it’s a quick hop to your legs and you’re up. Also, don’t be afraid of the rocks and corals below you. Ignore them and, like on a snowboard, look where it is you want to go. It took me three 2-3h sessions to finally catch a wave and mount the board, but I immediately hopped off once I looked into the water and saw all the jagged rocks down there. Ignore them! And when you fall (“when”, not “if”), do a spread-eagle belly flop so the wave doesn’t take you under too deep where the sharp rocks are, especially if it’s shallow (Wakiki is super shallow and has loads of rocks, but is a great place for noobs).

Expensive smoothies with Manny.

Expensive smoothies with Manny.

My last day, Manuel and I just lounged by the beach, found some great outlet deals at Ross‘ ($113.01 got me Tony Hawk pro elbow & knee guards, three pairs of sport casual shortsincluding some sweet CKs and Nikes, three Nike belts, and 11 undershirts: Reebok, Nautica). This would easily have come up to over $250 in Canada, and way over $300 anywhere else on Kalakaua Avenue (the main street along Waikiki). We then made it to the International Marketplace (highly recommended!) where I bought around $40.00 worth of gifts for family and friends, including some epic postcards for only 25¢ a pop! If you do make it to the market, go further in to buy coconut bras, kukui nut leis, backpack patches, and the like. The stalls furthest back have the same merchandise for half the price of anything along Kalakaua Avenue. Yes, I actually compared. Add all these purchases to the $50.00 I doled out my first night on gifts for the family at the same place I bought my razor (pearl necklaces, silver earrings, a lot of postcards) and I’m still batting under $100 for gifts.

Flying over Bellingham.

Flying over Bellingham.

And that was that. $2.50 once more got me back to my planewhere lunches aren’t complimentary, by the wayand then twice $1.00 again in Bellingham got me to my prepaid BoltBus shuttle (on the walk back from the airport where I stopped by Jack in the Box’ to get two delicious burgers for a mere $4.00, right on the highway) which got me to Vancouver, from where I spent one $4.00, two-zone ticket (wisely tucked in my wallet for just this purpose) to get me home to Burnaby. A note on duties with bringing swag back to Canada: if you’ve been gone 24 hours, you can claim $200 exemption; 48 h = $800 max claim. Higher than this and you’re paying our lovely government its share of the moola.

I'm the one with the long hair.

I’m the one with the long hair.

Net Expenses? All travel (taxi, flight, bus): $472.15. All food: $77.6 (including taking friends out for smoothies twice, just to get rid of extra American bills). Hostel: $103.16 (could have been $94 had I managed to book my last night at the PBHC). Entertainment (surfing, Pearl Harbor, lomilomi course): $111. Shopping & gifts: $203.01. Grand total: $970.92. This of course doesn’t include money lost by virtue of not working during this time.


Making friends is easy in Hawaii.

Making friends is easy in Hawaii.

Things I would do if I were to go again: snorkeling in Hanauma Bay ($15) and rent a scooter ($25/day, $5 to fill the gas tank) and ride around the whole island of Oahu. Likely spend less time on Waikiki, except for attending at least one firework show on the beach (every Friday night) and go to a luau. Ideally, make it out to Maui or Hawaii (“The Big Island”) where there are fewer people and more nature, or Molokai where there once was a leper colony. Maybe some surfing on the north shore of Oahu, where the waves are bigger and the surfers more territorial. And probably go with someone (traveling alone leaves you with unsharable memories), likely stay in a hotel/motel where we’d have our own room and not have to share it with 7 strangers, and eat a lot more fruit!!!

Thing’s I’d bring: spray-on sunscreen to make sure I cover every part of my body, aloe vera or a similar moisturizer in case I get burned, and a combination lock for the hostel locker. And probably come out for closer to 10 days; five is just not enough to take it all in!

The classic shot.

The classic shot.

Things I learned: I should budget and plan better. I often do things last minute, trusting myself to figure it out when I’m there instead of fully researching everything. I always do figure it all out, only it proves unnecessarily costly both in terms of time and money. On the positive side, I learned the value of vacations. I’m able to put my nose to the grindstone as long as need be, but forcing this isn’t good. I’ll be taking more vacations regularly, with better planning and budgeting in the future. I’ll also try and actually come back with a tan. Sure, I came back darker, but it was nothing like the bodybuilder-verging-on-Oompa-Loompa-but-not-quite-Jersey-Shore that I was going for.

Next up: Alaska & the Yukon (you got it, one of these counts for the race). Now let’s see if I can’t do it all for under $800…