Friday, December 17, 2010

The Best of Decisions

Last Sunday, I went to a going away party for a guy I know who’s leaving everything he knows behind to go traveling for a year.  As we said our goodbyes, I found myself struggling for something to say – some wise, all-encompassing Zen master line of wisdom from one traveler to another.  Instead, I stood there babbling nonsense.  Then, out of nowhere, it came out.  I said,
“This is the best decision you’ve ever made.”

It was actually a surprise to hear myself say it. The traveler in question, Daniel, knows something about my own adventures, and so he’s well aware that I was not reassuring him that next year will be 100% free of worry, mishap, social awkwardness and weirdosity, and that he will float effortlessly from continent to continent as if on extremely good drugs.  I hope it is, for his sake.  But in my experience, traveling for a year was – I can think of no other way to say this – the best and worst of times. It was the saddest and loneliest of times, and the scariest and most confusing of times.  But it was also exhilarating, enlightening and right-direction-pointing.

Even though I spent some that year living off canned lentil soup and cheese every day because it was all I could afford and I shared a fridge the size of a mini-bar with 6 Australians… even though I got fired two jobs and sometimes wasn’t sure how I was going to survive… even though some really, really awful things happened to me, it was the best decision I ever made.  It changed almost everything about me for the better.  I can’t imagine what my life would be like now if I hadn’t left everything I knew behind.  And being able to say so is kind of like going back in time and thanking myself for having made the decision in the first place.  But more importantly, it’s also a reminder: that the same laws still apply. 

We make big decisions all the time.  And I don’t know about you, but I spent most of my time worrying about them.  But that night, I remembered that if I made those choices in the right spirit – listening to my gut and doing what I know is right – they, too, will be the best decisions I’ve ever made.  They will point things in the right direction, even if it doesn’t seem that way right now. 

Saying goodbye to Daniel, I was surprised to notice that I didn’t feel jealous.  Well, maybe a little bit, but I didn’t want to be in his shoes.  I felt thrilled for him, and that was it.  I hope I will always travel, but in a different way.  I found what I was looking for on that trip.  And I’m pretty sure he will, too.

And I walked home in the snowy night, to everything I know.

Daniel Baylis is one of the most entertaining and introspective bloggers I know.  Travel vicariously with him at:

Monday, September 27, 2010

My Summer Vacation

Published in the Montreal Gazette on September 27th, 2010.  

Five hours into my summer vacation, I was sitting on a porch swing on Lake Memphremagog, raging.
I wanted to blame it on the roof. My husband Tony and I were supposed go on a real vacation, the kind where you travel as far away from your family and friends as possible, and eat in restaurants three times a day. But last year, we bought our first home. And one month ago, when a large puddle appeared on the floor upstairs, we discovered that the roof of that home hadn't been changed in 30 years.

Tony called his father, Papa Greek, who consulted his Hellenic Rolodex and found us some roofers, who told us how much a new roof was going to cost. After we recovered from the shock, we decided that cancelling our "real" vacation was the responsible, home-owning thing to do. So, instead of our dreamed-of road trip to the Maritimes, we'd spend one week in Montreal and my hometown of Ottawa, and one week renting a friend's cottage in Magog.

Normally, I'm the kind of person who feels that the amount of distance between me and my place of residence is directly proportional to my level of vacation joy. Curiously, though, I found myself at peace with the whole idea. We'd have a "staycation," as the kids call them these days. I could do things I never got to do, and see people I never got to see. Then we'd go out into the cottage-wilderness, under the stars, reconnecting with nature and the Earth and barbecued hotdogs.

When we arrived in Magog, Tony announced he was going to give Papa Greek a quick call. I stiffened, as according to my definition of a vacation, phone calls home must only be done in case of emergency.

"Why?" I asked.

"Because I forgot to tell him where I put the cheque for the roofers."

I tried to remain calm, as the cheque was hanging from the only bulletin board in our four-room dwelling, in an envelope marked "CHEQUE FOR ROOFERS."

"Don't you think maybe he might be able to figure it out for himself ?"

"Is it a problem if I just call him?"

"No problem," I said, through gritted teeth. "Go right ahead."

There are people who look after things, and then there's Tony. Tony replies to emails not five days or three weeks later, but at midnight on a Saturday night. He keeps entire books of lists of things to do, and whips them out at brunch on Sunday. He records voice reminders on his cellphone when he walks the dog. And one vacation day while we were still in Montreal, he committed the ultimate sin and worked for half a day.

When we got to our cabin, which was perfect and just a few feet from the lake, Tony casually mentioned that he'd invited his friend (who owned our cabin and lived in the cottage next door) and her 7-year-old son over for dinner. I don't know about you, but I tend to go on vacation specifically not to have people over for dinner. But I bit my lip, and tried to rekindle my love for my husband by giving him a back rub. He spent the entire time telling me I was pinching him or pushing too hard, and that's when I decided to say something.

"I don't feel good about the way you're speaking to me," I said.

"What way?"

"You're being dismissive!"

"Why don't you cut me some slack?" Tony asked, and I nearly fell over.


"Give me the benefit of the doubt! I wouldn't talk to you that way on purpose. You were hurting me, so I said something!"

"Well excuse me for trying to relieve some of your tension!" I snapped, and stomped off to the porch swing.

Sitting there, looking out over the lake, I could feel my blood boiling. This was it. I'd had enough. Next year, I was going away ALONE. I'd go to Madrid, or Berlin, or rent my own cottage where I wouldn't have to serve anyone dinner. He could spend every waking minute on the phone and work 20 hours a day if he wanted to.

Then, some other things started to come back to me. Like how, on our first day off, I'd scheduled a spa appointment. And a couple of days after that, I'd had a meeting with someone from out of
town. And then, since I was in the neighbourhood, I got a haircut. In Ottawa, I'd insisted we have dinner with some friends of mine and their baby, and had two doctor's appointments. And coffee with the mother of my oldest friend. And an afternoon with some of Tony's friends whom, I had insisted, we hadn't seen in forever.

And that's when I had a really horrible thought: maybe not all of this was Tony's fault.

At that point, he strolled by, towel draped over his shoulder, and informed me that he had been mistaken: our cabin-neighbour was having us over for dinner, and we wouldn't have to cook anything. And maybe it was the porch swing, but I didn't feel like beating him with a toilet plunger, recently used. As he continued down to the lake, and I remembered our last vacation, which was, in fact, our honeymoon. I'd spent the first week being furious at myself for not being relaxed enough, and it had been Tony who'd suggested I cut myself some slack and just be okay with how things were, rather than fighting tooth and nail to "be in the moment." He'd also reminded me that we'd spent the three months before the honeymoon buying and moving into a leaky-roofed house, all the while planning a wedding involving 50,000 Greeks.

I heard some quacking sounds from the lake, and, swallowing my pride, I left the porch to investigate. The sunset was reflecting in perfect waves across the water, rippling out in all directions. There were two ducks swimming past, stopping in spots to dive below the surface, their little dappled bums raised toward the sky. But it wasn't them quacking. It was Tony.

It is impossible, I learned that day, to be mad at a man who quacks.

And that's when the vacation really began.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

a short conversation with Mama Greek

Mama Greek: We miss you!

Me: I, uh, miss you, too.

MG: We see you soon. Maybe this Sunday?

Me: Um, this Sunday is our anniversary, so I was going to take Tony out for dinner.

MG: I KNOW it's your anniversary! You not want to have dinner here? Why not?

Me: (Speechless)

Thursday, June 10, 2010

The Revenge of Mama Greek

On February 4th, 2006, Mama Greek’s prayers were answered. Her nephew, Tony’s cousin Peter, had a baby daughter named Sasha.

Mama Greek loves babies even more than she loves church, and Peter was her first nephew within visiting distance to reproduce, so you can imagine what it was like: all Sasha, all the time. Sasha’s coming to visit in a week! Sasha grew a hair! Look what I bought Sasha! And indeed, thanks to Mama Greek, Sasha became the proud owner of 1200 or so miniature ruffled pink dresses, which MG ran around the house jiggling on little plastic hangers and making high-pitched noises at whenever Tony or Papa Greek were around.

As it happens, on the day Sasha was born, Tony and I had our first date. I didn’t get any pink dresses, but pretty soon a framed photo of me appeared on the wall next to one of Sasha. (It was actually a photo of me and my dog Ruble, whom Mama Greek would buy pink dresses for if she could.) I was the other new baby of the family. And I loved it.

Sasha grew into a ridiculously beautiful toddler, and Mama Greek lived for the days she could clutch her to her bosom and speak to her in Greek-English baby talk – which, incidentally, is the same way she speaks to Ruble. More photos sprung up in every corner of the house. There was Sasha, blinking adorably from amidst the lilac bushes. There was Sasha, giggling in her grandfather’s arms. There she was in her high chair, beaming through the muffin smeared all over her face.

My parents are divorced and I have one first cousin, so becoming part of Tony’s family was like landing in some kind of Nia Vardalos twilight zone. Sunday dinners… crazy, loud Christmases… holidays in the family apartment on the coast of Greece. And, yes, the food. The spanakopita. The tzatziki. The souvlaki. Cooked, packaged and loaded into the trunk of the car on every visit, and if we couldn’t make it over, it would appear, as if sent by fairy deliverymen, on our doorstep. Mama Greek hemmed my pants, pinched my cheeks, and told me at every chance she got that she’d prayed to God for me. Can you say healing of childhood wounds? Not only did I get the guy of my dreams, but I got the shit adored out of me by his parents. Yup. I’d won the Love Lottery Jackpot, and the bonus prize.

Eventually, Sasha started to walk. Much to our amusement, she used this opportunity to get as far away from Mama Greek as possible. Eventually the only way to get Sasha to come to anyone was by bribing her with chocolate. Hold out your arms and she’d zoom off in the opposite direction. Dangle a Hershey’s Kiss and she’d be your best friend. Guess what Mama Greek started buying in bulk at Zellers?

It was around that time that I began to notice: even though I still loved my mother-in-law, the novelty had begun to wear off. She was even – could it be? - starting to annoy me, what with all the worrying, and the food, the fawning, the food, the repeated advice on the importance of marriage, and the food. You’re thinking, “Oh, cry me a river. And pass along some of that spanakopita while you’re at it.”

But picture this scene at the dinner table:

Mama Greek, pointing at the potatoes: Natalie, potatoes?

Me: I already have some, thanks.

MG: Have more.

Me: I’m good for now.

MG: What’s the matter – you don’t like potatoes?

Now picture it happening every five minutes, with every item on the table, including salt. Mama Greek doesn’t speak English perfectly, and she often says, “I love you too much.” It couldn’t be more true.

And then, last summer, Tony and I got married. And a few months after that, the thing I was sure wouldn’t happen, happened. We were celebrating an aunt and uncle’s fiftieth wedding anniversary at a restaurant in Laval. Raising our glasses to toast half a century of marriage – no small feat, I’m sure you’ll agree – we clinked and yassou’d and wished them half a century more. And then Mama Greek leaned across the table and said to Tony and me: “Now you two, get busy.”

I was speechless. Only once, long ago, had she hinted at anything of the sort, and Tony had ordered her never to do it again. She’d never used a turn of phrase like - ew - “get busy”. I didn’t know whether to gag or order myself a pitcher of tequila.

“Still not pregnant, Natalie?” MG continued. “Why not?”

Fortunately Tony jumped in and saved the day, while I downed my drink and tried to forget it had ever happened.

“She won’t do it again,” he promised, later. “She had half a glass of sparkling wine. It was a slip-up.”

But the following weekend, Mother’s Day, we raised our glasses, and Mama Greek announced,

“I hope next year there will be another mother at this table.”

And that’s when I wanted to get as far away from Mama Greek as possible.

It never occurred to me that when I got whole new set of parents, I’d relive my childhood all over again in fast forward. And the sad thing is, since my first teenage rebellion against my actual birth parents was pretty lame, I’m actually getting some satisfaction out of doing it again. But even as I dress in my skinniest jeans and ugliest top before seeing Mama Greek – a weak attempt to quell her fawning as well as any illusions she might have about the state of my uterus – I’m aware that it’s all a bit ridiculous. Why am I so angry at this poor, innocent Greek lady who just wants to feed me and love me?

But that’s the thing. Sasha got bigger… and smarter. Now, even her little sister Alexa, who served as a convenient stand-in for a while, can run away. MG just wants someone to squeeze and love too much and buy pink dresses for. That ain’t me. But I’m the one who can give it to her.

It’s the oldest power-struggle in the book: mother-in-law vs. daughter-in-law. And it’s yet another thing they don’t warn you about in Martha Stewart Weddings. But the problem is, unlike Sasha, who’s moved off chocolate and onto cold, hard cash (I spotted MG hand her a fifty last Christmas when she thought no one was looking,) I have to face up to the situation - and wearing tight clothes and drinking too much at family gatherings, tempting though it may be, isn’t going to cut it. I have to tell my mother-in-law that making baby comments in public is going to achieve the opposite of its desired effect.

It’s not that I don’t want to be a parent. But I don’t want to be one yet. And to be the vessel for someone else’s happiness is a lot of responsibility – whether you’re 3, or 33. But I have to move on from the teenage years, at least when it comes to Mama Greek. I’ll let you know how it goes. Or maybe you’ll run into my kid and me in the park one day. We’ll be hard to miss. She’ll be the fat one, her pockets full of $50 bills.

(photo: author as teen, Round One)

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

On the Radio

I'll be speaking about NOT blogging, not Tweeting and life BFB (Before Facebook) on CBC's Cinq a Six with Pierre Landry this Saturday from (you guessed it) 5 - 6pm.

Catch it live here.

I'll try to post a sound clip after it airs.

New blog coming soon. "Teach Yourself Greeklish". You'll see.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Fashion Week

Ever since I’ve been part of that wonderous thing called “media”, I try to go to fashion week. I can’t tell you why. Maybe it’s the accumulation of two decades of flipping through Vogue and Elle, wishing I were cool enough to be accepted into the world of style. Maybe it’s the 4-year old in me who still, despite her best efforts, gets excited about dresses. All I know is that every time I go, I find myself mentally sizing myself up against every single woman (and most men) in the room, wishing the Lord had seen fit to give me more hair, bigger eyes and much bigger boobs. Which is not an enjoyable way to spend an evening, by anyone’s standards.

This year, I tried to do things differently. In other words, I tried not to try. I did my best not to fall victim to Lying Awake for Nights, Mentally Analyzing What in my Closet is Remotely Worthy to Wear Syndrome. When I got to the first show and realized I had a maple taffy stain on my coat, I tried to be okay with that.

“Own that maple taffy stain,” I told myself. And, mostly, it worked.

I squeezed into my seat, between a man in a knee-length, sleeveless fur coat and a women encased in leather, and thought: these are clothes. Face paint. Things you put on your feet. It’s a privilege to be able to indulge in caring about what we look like, yet the general consensus of fashion media is that the future of human civilization hangs in the balance because Andre Leon Talley has declared a “famine of beauty”. If you were an alien who landed at Fashion Week, wouldn’t you wonder: who are these angry, hungry-looking people with pointy hair? And why do they look so miserable?

And so, for the first time in Fashion Week history, I had fun. I went to the shows, then I went for souvlaki. (I had to. The only things being offered on silver platters by the Fashion Week cocktail waitresses were miniature cosmetic samples.) I got some tzatziki on my coat, just to balance things out. That was Day One.

Day Two, after shoving my aching toes into every pair of shoes I own, I wore sneakers. To Fashion Week. I decided this was a good sign. This was what they called “spiritual evolution.” Plus, I was going to see Katrin LeBlond’s show. I’d interviewed Katrin for her recent spot on All in a Weekend on CBC radio, and knew this was a woman who embodied everything I love about fashion. She would be using “real” women on the runway, because she refuses to show her clothing on a body smaller than a size 6, a request most modeling agencies can’t cater to. One of her models was even going to be (gasp!) “plus-sized.” Another would be in her seventies, with long, grey hair. I’d been to Katrin’s store numerous times, and knew she strayed from the norm, eschewing the new and old black for brilliant colours, ruffles and fairy wands. When I was four years old, these were the kinds of clothes I dreamed about wearing when I grew up.

Much to my excitement, I ended up in the front row. (I know, this ain’t London or NYC. But I get my kicks where I can.) Feasting my eyes on the row of glamazons opposite me, I spotted, draped over a man in a very expensive-looking suit, a Heidi Klum look-alike. I must have stared a bit too long (she really did look like Heidi and my brain does funny things sometimes), because eventually, the girl sitting next to her, who was tanned and wearing thigh-high PVC boots, turned and stared back at me. No, not stared. Threatened. I didn’t know there was a facial expression for, “Don’t be resting you un-Guccied eyes on us, girlfriend.” But there is. And she had it down.

I was so shocked, I couldn’t turn away. People do that? I thought. For real? It was like a Fashion Week urban myth come to life. So the stare-down continued, our eyes burning holes into each others’ retinas, my opponent shaking her head to support her point, my mouth wide open in disbelief. It is possible my face caught fire. I was too stunned to notice.

I wish so badly I’d had the courage to keep it up. To show her there’s a facial expression that said, “Girlfriend, take your ‘tude and stick it up your Dolce and Gabbana.” But after what felt like a year, I looked away. I still smiled till it hurt, refusing to let her get the best of me. I clapped extra hard when the seventy-something woman came out and bowed to the audience, as if to dare my new enemy to even think something catty.

But inside, I was physically restraining myself from running down the catwalk, jumping over the photographers at the end and bursting into tears. I felt awful. I hated Fashion Week more than ever before. Hated it. Hated fashion, period. I was never, ever, going to care what I wore again. From here on in, I’d only leave the house in garbage bags. Except even that would look like I was trying to make some kind of statement. So what to do?

I wish I could tell you I had some epiphany, and then skipped home from Fashion Week gleefully in my sneakers. But I didn’t. I left sad, tired, and jaded. I babbled to myself on the metro, about how Evil-Eye must be of those truly miserable people, who wakes up every morning hating herself. It was the only thing that made me feel better, and not much better, I might add.

Then, I laughed.

And that was the difference. Only that. I still felt small and frizzy and eternally uncool, and if that if I just had gazelle thighs and 34Cs my life would so much better. But at least see how funny that was. Not just that Bride of Frankenstein had felt it her duty to inform me of my “place” in the couture food chain, but how quickly I reacted to it. How I wanted to have her run over by a Toyota. How Fashion Week still gets to me.

I will admit I’m not counting down the days until Spring/Summer 2011. But in the meantime, I propose a new kind of celebration. Let’s call it “Fashion Freak”. Join in whenever you want, whether you’re wearing a fuschia ballgown, or jeans and sneakers, or your most maple-taffy-stained pyjamas. Walk the catwalk your way. Show off what makes you different. When you feel like you’re not enough, laugh at yourself. It’s the only thing you can do. And applaud everyone else who does the same.

Otherwise, so help me, I’ll have to get my fairy wand out on your ass.

Friday, February 12, 2010


Last November, Grandma Lois died.

Her health had been failing for the last couple of years, and that, coupled with her Alzheimer’s, meant her death didn’t really come as a surprise. What was a bit of a shocker, to me at least, was the handwritten notes she left on exactly how she wanted her funeral to go down.

Grandma Lois wasn’t my grandmother. Not completely. Until the age of 13… okay 15… okay, my early twenties, where I went through a phase of addressing my friends’ relatives as if they were my own. I called their moms Mom, their uncles Uncle, and their grandmothers Grandma, despite having my own. I latched onto normal peoples’ families the way other kids latch onto gangs or chess clubs. In my universe, my friend Emily’s parents, aunts, uncles and pets were mine, too. And under this delusion, I spent some of the happiest days of my formative years at her family cottage in Wakefield, with Uncle Charlie and Uncle David and Grandma Lois, waterskiing and tubing and being a general pain in the ass.

The amazing thing was, I was always welcome. G-Lo, as she was known in her later years, was all class. She was the Grand Dame of that cottage, and she ran a tight ship. You did not chew gum, get tattoos, grow a beard or arrive at a garage sale anytime after 9am under G-Lo’s watch. You ate five almonds a day - any more and you’d get fat. And you wore your long underwear until Victoria Day. If not, it was pneumonia. Your choice.

But she welcomed me into her Queendom, and I loved it. I loved that she was so devoted to purple and pink that her clothes, her carpeting, her car and her fireplace were one or the other – or a tasteful combination of both. I loved that she sent handwritten notes and postcards. Her husband died in 1973, but when her grandkids went through her house, they found love letters dating back to the 1940s.

Then, there were the funeral instructions:

“Pay the bagpiper $50 or a bottle of whiskey.”

“I want hymns, but no singing.”

And one for her son, Bob, which Emily’s sister, Kate, read at the start of the funeral.

“Bob," it read, "please don’t be sad at my funeral. It’s no big deal. Be happy for me. I’ve had such a wonderful life. I’m with your father now.”

Tears flowed as the minister explained that G-Lo is still alive in many ways, because of the strong, amazing legacy she passed down on how to treat others. I looked at Bob, Emily, her sister, her brother, her husband, and her sister’s husband, sitting shoulder to shoulder a couple of pews in front of me. And I realized: G-Lo even passed down a legacy to me. She gave me the family I always wanted, and in doing so, taught me how to treat people. Plus, I can now claim I’ve been to a funeral where everyone wore pink, purple, or a tasteful combination of both.

I’d spent a lot of November beating up on myself. It’s something I excel at, if I do say so myself. I wasn’t working hard enough, or fast enough, or well enough. I wasn’t getting enough exercise, or making enough money. I was eating too much and not enough (sometimes at the same time.)

Sometimes I catch myself doing it. But in November, I dove straight in, like a circus performer. I had e-mailed part of my manuscript to my friend Karen in Sweden, and she said she’d send it back in the mail. I was certain this was because she hated it, and had made several million notes and comments along the margins, in red pen.

But sitting there, as we spoke along with the hymns, I thought about my own funeral. How in all likelihood, no one will stand up and say, “Natalie took eight extra weeks to finish her manuscript.” Or, “Natalie’s jeans all had holes in them,” or, “Karen was not a fan of Natalie’s work.” Instead, at least I hope, they’ll say I was kind. That I extended my home to bratty kids with family issues. That I knew how to have a good time, and gave good advice.

Arriving home that night, there was a package in the mail from Sweden. I opened it to find my favourite chocolates, and a handwritten note from Karen. It read,

“There are 335 left until next November. Hope you’re feeling better. I really, really loved what you sent me. I thought you might want some chocolate to celebrate.”

If I have grandchildren, one day they’ll find that note. Maybe they’ll reflect on some of my own brand of wisdom, like the importance of cheerfully-coloured socks, and cocktail hour. Hopefully they’ll think good things about me, and laugh about my teapot collection.

The chocolate, though, will be long gone.