And now the end is near

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Well, that’s it. At 23.40 EDT tonight, I will be on a plane back out to the UK. We have one more trip to Buster’s Sea Cove planned and one last trip to see my lovely, lovely Lake Ontario.

It has been an amazing 180 days. Six months gone in a flash. I haven’t written half of the blog pieces I wanted to because, to be honest, we were out having too much fun. We haven’t done half of the things we planned, neither. Instead, we’ve just gone with the flow and enjoyed ourselves (oh, except that trip to Niagara Falls. Here’s a tip: if you want to go, drive there, get out, see the falls and then leave. Quickly. Do not, I repeat, do NOT waste any time in Niagara or the horribly commercialised area around the falls). Plus, since March, we’ve slept in ten different beds and the constant packing and unpacking is quite frankly too tiring once you hit my age, which is why other trips got knocked on the head.

And anyway – we need something to do when we come back 🙂

We are gutted to be leaving Toronto. Some things still bug us – I will never be convinced that the tipping culture is a good thing and guests to my new home in London, rest assured your shoes can stay on – but this is a fantastic city and I would highly recommend it. Don’t waste your time on Downtown, however; head off to the barrios where you’ll find true Toronto. (Oh, Montréal – great city but it rained non-stop.)

I have to give a big, big, big thank you to Rosie and Dave. Your advice, nights out and friendship have helped enormously and I will miss you very much. I hope this is hasta luego and not adiós. And of course, massive hugs to my family in Calgary for an amazing week.

It’s also eight years and eight months since Ged and I left the UK. It has been an amazing time and I have learned so much. Everyone should live in another country for some part of their lives.

So, that’s it. I’m stopping writing now before the tears start. Plus, my halibut is waiting to be fried. Thanks for reading my blog and for all the positive comments you’ve sent me.

It has been a truly AWESOME experience.

xxx

Alberta’s animal magic

Wondering where all the wildlife action was in my posts about the Rockies? Well bear with me (see what I did there?)

As I said here, nature is everywhere in Canada, coming right down to the doorstep in Toronto. Canadians are quite blasé about their wildlife – “Yeah, I’ve seen a bear,” said my friend Rosie casually.

A bear, for heaven’s sake!

I, however, am a little more excitable and when we hit Alberta, I was on all-eyes-alert for anything. ANYTHING.

And I was rewarded pretty early on, with this stunning close encounter with this mule deer in Banff. Leaving Colin to get the photos, I merely stood and watched this magnificent creature – who had no idea she was the focus of the animal paparazzi – eating grass and then calmly walking away.

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Now I know it was only a deer, but I spent every trip to the Highlands of Scotland trying to find one and never seeing anything so this was quite something. Plus there was the stillness of the animal juxtaposed with the busy tourist centre we’d left a few minutes previously. We meant nothing to this animal.

Not too much later, driving through to Lake Louise, Colin and I were given an even better treat with the sighting of a beautiful stag walking through the forest. The road was busy and we couldn’t stop for photos but the image is burned onto my memory.

Of course, me being me, I got excited at anything: the many hawks riding the thermals or peering down from telegraph poles; the mountain goat by Canmore: the gorgeous little chipmunks and the gophers we saw on the prairies – the one pictured was obviously used to being photographed and posed like a red-carpet star. Plus there were the dinosaurs at Drumheller.

(The bears remained elusive. The closest we got was several hundred metres where we were told a black bear had gone into bushes. We waited but the bear never reappeared. I did see a cowboy, however, complete with leather chaps standing at the entrance of his farmland.)

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But the best came not long after the mountain goat, after my cousin Vicki, in a perfect tribute to The Terminator, announced there was a storm coming in. We decided to get home before it hit and were heading out of the park when something frolicking in a clearing grabbed us all. Vicki slammed on the brakes.

“Could be cougars,” she said, looking back at the three animals.

I swear, if I’d had a tail it would have stared wagging.

And then she said: “Nope. There’s too many. Cougars are loners. They’ve got to be wolves.”

God bless her, storm gathering pace, she reversed the car back to where the animals were. That’s where this picture was taken. Stepping out of the car and viewing the creatures more closely, it was obvious that these were large animals and everything about them looked like wolves.

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So why the bad photo? As I lifted my camera up, Mother Nature showed that she’s more than wildlife. Within seconds, the rain came hurtling down and the wind picked up, literally knocking the camera as I tried to hold it steady. I had no choice but to run back to the car, already soaking after less than 30 seconds.

It was the beginning of August yet we were in the middle of a hailstorm so loud and violent you would have thought someone was bombarding us with golf balls. I expected the windshield to shatter at any moment. Vicki had told me about cars being damaged by hailstones. Now I understood (and also why the car insurance is so expensive in Alberta compared to the UK).

The car was silent (we wouldn’t have been able to hear each other anyway) and Vicki received a round of applause when we emerged at the other side of the storm. That was serious driving.

This was the end of my Rockies adventures and they moved me more than I had expected. My author friend Douglas Jackson – who writes a brilliant blog – once talked about going up on the Borders of Scotland and England and seeing views that the Romans had seen almost 2,000 years ago. Watching these animals in their natural habitat, I understood perfectly what he meant: the sense of timelessness and unity as I watched a scene that the First Nations would have seen; a Canada from long, long ago. This was compounded by the storm – we were powerless, nature was in control. After all, only a few weeks earlier, Calgary and the surrounding areas had been devastated by heavy rains.

I’ve always hated the idea of borders and nations and visas and immigration quotas and my experiences in the Rockies made me see even more how we don’t own the earth, it does not belong to us, we only share it with all the rest of its inhabitants, we’re all just lodgers on this land. Perhaps we should send the world’s politicians to Alberta so they can learn this lesson too.

I can’t thank my family in Calgary enough for an amazing week filled with laughter and love and many, many memories (Vicki, I still feel guilty for the black eye I gave you when you were a little girl). I love you all and I hope it won’t be another 20-something years before we meet up again.

Go-karting with dinosaurs

After the grandeur of the Rockies, it was time for the openness of the Canadian Prairies and the Albertan Badlands. I didn’t think anything could equal the mountains and lakes we’d already seen on our trip to Calgary but the Prairies have a magic of their own. Driving through, all I could think of was The Orb’s Little Fluffy Clouds. The sky truly goes on forever and I knew exactly what Rickie Lee Jones

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was talking about. One of the things we noticed on our trip back to the UK in December was how low the sky felt in comparison to Madrid. It felt even higher here than in Spain. So there we were, the four of us in the car, with field upon field of farmland, the occasional building, blue skies and those little fluffy clouds. I now know why this is such a cliched tracking shot in films. The flatness and the homogeneity is quite hypnotic and meditative.

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There are communities out there, of course, towns where 1st and 4th Street salute you as you both enter and leave because they are so small. At Beiseker, we were welcomed by Squirt, the school mascot, and locals spending the long weekend throwing horseshoes. We also passed a Mennonite community enjoying a simpler way of life (their produce is second-to-none, I was informed).

The peace and tranquility was intoxicating.

From the Prairies, we headed out to the Red Deer River Badlands and the spectacular Horseshoe Canyon (pictured), where layer upon layer of rock reveal more than 75 million years of geological history. The First Nations were the first people to discover fossils here and believed the bones belonged

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to the giant ancestors of their bisons. In truth, they belonged to the gigantic dinosaurs which once roamed the land. The lush conditions of Alberta – the forests, rivers and mud deposits which now make up the Badlands – made it an ideal spot for preserving their remains and more than 150 complete dinosaur skeletons have been discovered in the area with 40 species discovered, including the Albertosaurus, a smaller relative of the T-Rex but still measuring up to 33ft long.

Dinosaurs are everywhere at Drumheller, our next stop (although they had to wait a few more minutes while my cousin Colin and I had a race-off at the nearby go-kart attraction. He won. It wasn’t my fault

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– I couldn’t reach the pedals properly #shortarse). Anyway, as well as the kitschy ones on the streets, the Royal Tyrrell Museum is an incredible collection of bones, many found in the nearby Dinosaur Provincial Park. I was interested but the museum proved more than worthy of a visit. It is a fascinating place, filled with skeletons, recreations, gardens, educational attractions – much, much more than I

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expected (and the Ontario Science Centre should learn a lesson from it). We spent the afternoon there. You need a whole day to see and appreciate everything.

And then it was the drive home, past more Little Fluffy Clouds. I hope to see more of the Badlands in the future. And I’m taking a cushion with me next time so I can reach those damn go-kart pedals.

It all gets Rockie(s)

Those of you who know me will know I am rarely stuck for words. Well, I am now. And the reason? There are simply not words enough to describe how beautiful and emotional I found the Canadian Rockies. In fact, I was reduced to a mere: “Wow” and an open mouth every few hundred yards.

We started off in Banff, which is a pretty if formulaic tourist town filled with shops selling dream

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catchers and expensive art. You kinda expect George Bailey to come running along the main street. However, it is a living, working town and most of its residents – who have to prove a need to live there – are there full-time as opposed to second-homers, which goes some way towards dulling the chocolate-box feel. (It was also a bank holiday weekend so the place was teeming with tourists. Like us.)

But to be honest, if you’re visiting Banff, you’re not really bothered about houses and homes and dream catchers (or if you are, you need to get a life). All around you stands the beauty of the mountains, sharp and jagged and magnificent with the biggest blue sky behind them and lakes of turquoise below.

SAM_2858I almost forgot – there were two places of note on our way to Banff: first of all, this signpost, which needs no explanation as to why it should be on every Brits list of places to visit, and then at Lac des Arcs, where even a concrete plant (they mine the area) couldn’t detract from the beauty (below).

DSCN4906But it doesn’t matter where you stop in the Rockies. We pulled into a small car park to sit by the water for lunch and it was wonderful. The stillness and the feeling that you are so far away from everything…

We had wanted to visit Sulphur Mountain but the bank holiday traffic meant a sharp U-turn and so we were forced to visit Lake Louise earlier than planned. What a hardship.

And now I am going to shut up and let the photos do the talking (the nicer ones are courtesy of my cousin, Colin, who has missed his calling).

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From there, it was time for dinner. Sadly, not us. We went on a trail along Johnston’s Canyon where we discovered that organic mosquito lotion is crap for keeping the buggers away. With the constant slapping of our bodies, it looked like we were auditioning for Germany’s Got Talent with our performance of the Schuhplattler. “They’re attracted to dark colours,” Colin warned us. Too late in the day, mind you…

I cannot, hand on heart, hide the fact that we were in agony the next day from the bites. But the trail was magnificent and I would recommend it to anyone wearing Persil-white clothes and with enough kill-the-planet strength mossie spray on them to destroy the little gits forever.

The canyon has been formed by thousands and thousands of years of water erosion to form spectacular walls, tunnels and waterfalls. The waters are crystal clear and that amazing blue (which is something to do with the sediment. I was never that good at geography so although it was explained to me…)

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It was late in the afternoon when we went so thankfully, there were very few people around and we could see the canyon’s two waterfalls – the lower and the upper – without any obstructions. We’ve still to go to Niagara and this made me even more eager – the spray and noise from the lower falls was incredible. And then there was the stillness of the water merely yards away. Yeah, I said: “Wow” again. Many times. The trail to the upper falls takes you past cascading water and amazing rock formations.

Too late to continue on to the Ink Pots (pools of mineral waters), I vowed that someday I would come back. I mean, you’ve got to go through Moose Meadows to get there. I HAVE to do that.

From then it was back to Banff for bison burgers and a beer before heading home, via a trip to the countryside to try and see shooting stars (we didn’t). An amazing day.

Yee-haw! We’re off to see the cowboys

Canada, to paraphrase Douglas Adams, is big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist’s, but that’s just peanuts to Canada.

Okay, a slight exaggeration, but only slight. This is a big country and while you know that inside, it’s only when you’re here that you realise its enormity. Or rather, it’s only when you try to book

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAtickets to go somewhere and you’re faced with travelling for more than two days by train (not such a rarity with Network Rail, I admit) or flying for five hours just to visit another city. And don’t even get me started on prices. How can a country with petrol at 80p a litre justify almost £400 for a return flight the equivalent of London to the Canaries? My nephew’s flying from Budapest to Milan for a little over 10€. TEN EUROS.

Anyway, to get to the point of today’s blog, when we were leaving Spain, one of the questions I was often asked was what I was most
looking forward to. And there was no hesitation – seeing the second cousins I used to play with as a little girl and, apart from a fleeting get-together in Montréal Airport in 1999, had not seen since 1989. Margaret Thatcher’s Britain had sent them to St John in search of work and from there, they’d ended up in Calgary.

I also had another reason for wanting to see this part of Canada – my Great-Uncle Walter had been here during the Second World War and loved it. It would be very special to go somewhere with so many family connections.

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My trip sadly started off with a poignant moment – a visit to my cousin Sid’s grave. He died last year after a valiant fight against cancer and one of the first things I wanted to do was see where he was buried and pay my respects. It was a strange feeling, to see the grave of a boy who’d grown up in the back streets of Byker and was now buried in a land far, far away. However, he’d adored living in Alberta and his spirit was never far away in the many loving tales his family shared with us.

His wife, my cousin-in-law Anne, has maintained her Geordie accent but their children, Vicki and Colin, now speak with a strong Canadian twang (and I did hear the A-word several times). But they still have British sensibilities and, just like when I was a child, laughter and gossip were always on the go.

Calgary itself is not such a pretty city. The downtown area is small and Vicki told me it’s practically dead at the weekend. Being a relatively new city – it was a town in 1864 and a city 30 years later – there are very few places of historic importance to see. Okay, practically none outwith Stephen Avenue, the Canadian Pacific Railway HQ and, of course, Stampede Park. However, it sits nestled into the Bow and Elbow rivers which provide a gorgeous, lush oasis in the middle of this very dry land (it wasnice to escape Toronto’s humidity). Too lush, sadly, as the debris and damage from this July’s Alberta floods could still be seen. There are families in the area still without homes and as we travelled the region, it became clear just how devastating it had been. The floods also showed a

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true outpouring of the human spirit, however, as thousands of volunteers turned up to help in the aftermath.

Back to the city, most people seem to live in the suburbs so there’s not a lot to see, although highlights of our visit included a look at their beautiful Chinese centre and the shops for cowboys.

SHOPS FOR COWBOYS.

I mean, how great

is that? We tried on all the hats and oohed at all the Dolly Parton-esque blouses and shirts not just in one of them, but in every cowboy shop I could see.

And of course, from there we had to visit Stampede Grounds, the home of the legendary Calgary Stampede, and…

“What’s that building? Looks like a giant twisty-turny place for skateboarders to practice on.”

“That’s the Saddledome stadium, you divvy,” replied Ged. “Look, it’s shaped like a saddle. It was on the telly all the time because it had been flooded and they didn’t know if they could get it ready in time for the Stampede. And you, a journalist…”

(They did get it ready but repairs are continuing so we couldn’t see much.)

Even though there was no Stampede, it was amazing to walk around the grounds (see gallery below) and see this tribute to Alberta’s colonial past. I have seen First Nations in Toronto – we stumbled onto a pow-wow by the waterfront on our very first weekend and were able to witness the singing and drums, as well as overhear how Velcro was the best thing to use for fastening dresses – but this era of Canada’s history seems very far away in Ontario. In Alberta, it is a living, breathing part of the everyday world and my cousins routinely discussed the conditions on the reservations and the problems facing the First Nations. Their dog, the sloppiest animal in the world, even came from a reservation (and has, according to a vet, some coyote in her. But more on Alberta’s wildlife to come).

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The strangest thing about Calgary, however, is how much it reminded me of my native Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Stephen Avenue at times felt like walking down Northumberland Street – that part just around the Haymarket and BHS – and I could see why my cousin and Great-Uncle Walter loved it and felt so at home here. But the next day, we headed into the Rockies and Newcastle and Northumberland were left far behind.

And for that, you’ll have to tune in to the next episode of Canadian Wry 😉

Finding Toronto’s soul

When we first came here, there was one thing of which I was certain: I would never want to live in Toront. This was a city with no soul, no emotion, and certainly nothing much to recommend it. We even chatted about this with a friend who OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA coincidentally was here on a press trip. “I asked the PR guy why people in the UK should choose Toronto when New York is so near and he said New York was obviously miles better – then he realised and went back on what he’d said,” our pal told us.
The problem was that at that time, we were living in an area called Victoria Village, although it’s better known as “Where?” Here, to be exact. Not knowing Toronto, we had taken faith in a description that said it was 20 minutes from Downtown, not realising that the description was written for superheroes with their own cloaks. Mere mortals relying on public transport had on average a 45-minute trip. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe photo above shows Downtown in the distance – our admittedly not bad view from the supermarket. Also, apart from a Tim Hortons and a very nice pizza place, there was nothing around except a school and lots and lots of houses. This is clearly car country, with the nearest supermarket and signs of life being a 25-minute walk away. There’s not even a pavement to walk on, turning our evening paseos into a daredevil venture as 4x4s went shooting by us. (The manicured lawns come right down to the road and as you can’t go into someone’s house without taking your shoes off, we dreaded to think what the reaction would be if we walked on the grass in our boots.)
The worst moment came when we were spending an afternoon in a OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAlocal park (pictured). There’s a huge greenland area next to Victoria Village, with parks rolling into forests and then back to landscaped areas again. We’d gone for a wander a few days previously and had found a nice spot to rest just outside one of these woodlands not far from our apartment. It wasn’t until we were leaving that Ged pointed out some of the rubbish on the ground. “Drugs,” he said. Sure enough, our return to that area turned into a walk home as we saw a group of young men on what I’d hoped to call “our seat” smoking a variety of substances. Which is why we ended up in the landscaped park, determined to enjoy the rare sunshine in what had turned out to be a wet cold and very disappointing spring.
But our enjoyment was not to be. Resting on a bench after competing with each other to go higher on the children’s swings, I noticed a young man close by muttering to himself.
“Pyschos always come from quiet suburbs,” joked Ged. “All the mass murderers lived somewhere like this.”
We kept on chatting, with me keeping one eye on the young man – who brought out a meat cleaver and started throwing it into the grass, angrily shouting at it all the while.
We left. Quickly. And never went for a walk again.
It wasn’t all bad, however. One of my abiding memories is the advert OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAfor a car salesroom (above). The woman on the swing moves backwards and forwards and for some reason, I always felt like Marty McFly was about to land right next to it. Also, about 20 minutes walk away was this gorgeous little church, which dates back to the 1850s. Wandering around the gravestones and seeing all the history of this little area was amazing.
We were there for six, looooooooong weeks before transferring – via Montréal, which yes I will get round to writing about – to our present place in The Annex, right here. We’ll see out the rest of our time in Toronto here, and wOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAe couldn’t be happier.
Apart from being a little hipster hub – thank you Yelp for confirming this. We’re exactly on this little orange spot in between Bathurst Street and Spadina Avenue (which is pronounced Spah-diner, not Spad-eena) – this is a brilliant location for a holiday in Toronto. It’s filled with bars, restaurants, take-aways, delis, coffee shops, music stores, health food stores… The local neighbourhoods hold farmers’ markets and street fairs and the streets are always busy. Waiting for Ged one night, I got into a lovely conversation with this amazing Colombian, who showed me the badly mangled legs a motorcycle crash had left him with and how the doctors said it was a miracle that he could walk. “No miracle,” he added. “I wanted to see the beautiful ladies so I had to walk.” If you’re in Madrid, think of Lavapies without the fear you could get mugged and the mounted policeman; if you’re in Edinburgh, we’re talking Newington meets Marchmont meets the buzz of Hogmanay; and if you’re in Newcastle – well, there’s nowhere like this, which is something the city councillors might like to think about.
Above is the view from the end of our street, showing where we buy our bread (Cobs, which has heavenly cinnamon buns and the best lemon tarts ever) and KO Burgers, where we may also have sampled one or two delights. Or four or five. I lose count.
Far from being miles away from Downtown, we can now walk to the Y OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAin 25 minutes, through the beautiful greenery of Queen’s Park (below) and the impressive buildings (here) of the UofT (that’s the University of Toronto, for those of you not in the know). The Beaches are 30mins by subway, Koreatown and Little Italy lie close by but best of all – or perhaps worst – we’re within staggering distance of Kensington Market and the Cloak and Dagger.
Kensington Market – I may have disOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAsed you when we were still living in the Hellmouth (actually, I did, here) and for that I am eternally sorry. Now the sunshine is here and we no longer are flying visitors but near-enough locals, I love you. Yeah, it’s hipster-tastic and wanky things regularly go on, but it’s alive and buzzing and still has the best tacos and I’ve also found a place that sells pear cider. Best of all, I get to practise my Spanish when we buy tomatillos for green chilli. “Ahhh, you’re British,” they say, “That’s why your accent is so… different.”
I still think Downtown is very bland, with poser pubs and no atmosphere, but here in The Annex, I think we’ve found the real Toronto. And it’s going to be very, very sad to say goodbye to it at the end of September.

Young men – and women – here’s a place you should go

First of all, I’m sorry that you’re going to be singing THAT song for OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAthe rest of the day, but the YMCA is definitely worthy of a post. (Furthermore, I’ve never seen any cowboys or construction workers in it, although a nice policeman smiled at me as I went in the other day. What is it about those uniforms…?)

One of the things Ged was adamant about during our time in Toronto was that we would attend a gym. However, there was the slight problem of membership – although gyms aren’t particularly expensive, you are tied in for a length of time far outwith the six months we’re staying here.

It was a TV show where the kids were going down the Y to shoot hoops (see how with the local lingo I am now?) which gave us the idea of investigating a little further. And we are very happy we did.

For $109 CAD (about £68, if Mr Osborne stops mucking around with the economy and the pound doesn’t slide again. Thanks for that, Chancellor), the two of us get full access to the Y with a membership policy which we can cancel with a mere two weeks’ notice.

And the goodies in store are amazing. Forget all the ideas we have about the YMCA in the UK. This is not a drop-in centre to help those down on their luck. Not only is there a gOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAym for those hoop-shooting kids, but there is a full programme of classes, a weight room, cardio machines, running track, swimming pool and workout machines. It also gives us free entry into some of the talks and programmes the Y runs.

Best of all, however, is the rooftop garden: an oasis of wild Canadian plants carefully tended by the volunteers who help make the Y so special. Surrounded by the skyscrapers of downtown, the garden OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAmakes a unique spot to escape, with the gentle tinkling of a water feature making a lovely backdrop to yoga practice.

Yeah… I just said that. I think Toronto’s hipster vibe is getting to me.

Despite the many hipsters in this city, the Y’s gym-goers are a wide range of ages, shapes, races and sexualities – a true melting pot, in fact – and thankfully far removed from the nightmare stereotype of fit bods in competition with each other to have the best six-pack going. I’m fairly sure that for several of my fellow workout buddies, the best six-pack going is Molson Canadian.

That’s not to dismiss the amazing work that you see going on around OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAyou. It’s not much for some, but at my grand old age, it was at the Y that I finally ran 5k, inspired by the middle-aged people lapping me on the track. I think that makes me the first in my family to do it. I also have some decent guns going and as for that six-pack – Keith’s IPA is better than Molson Canadian.

Special thanks go to Jess, my kettlebell instructor, a volunteer at the Y who I can truly call awesome. She planks and lifts weights at the same time, for heavens’ sake! That is worth the A-word. And also to my Thursday night cardiofit-arriba (ie. zumba) instructor, Karina. This class is fantastic. Not only could she teach Shakira and Beyonce a thing or two, but half the class would be in her backing group. I sometimes think I should be paying for the entertainment value as hips shimmy and legs lunge.

I can’t get “pumped” or “stoked”, as Jess seems to think we should be by the prospect of exercise (I mean, do I look crazy? I’m in agony here), but the relaxed atmosphere makes exercise a lot more bearable. And I’m already sadly thinking: “Only ten more KB classes to go…”