Friday, February 27, 2009

I like sports, but I might be in love with soccer

It will come as no surprise to many that I like sports. A lot. And not just because they serve as a diversion to real life. They are to me, in fact, as real as it gets in life. And this is not to wax poetically about men and women rising above the odds, meeting the challenges head on, being beaten but not defeated, or even having God on their side - although I'm pretty sure God, or whatever you believe in, is on your side all the time. The better question is, are you on your side? Anyways....

The reason I love sports so much, is that it gives you a glimpse into the soul of where you are, in that moment. Unedited and unabashed. Whether it is parents rising at 6 am to get the kids off to practice, a coach giving their time to be in the gym, some athlete lifting themselves to unforeseen levels, or a fan giving up two or three hours to yell, cheer, stomp, and curse their team to victory, you are seeing what people hold dear to them - human connections.

These connections transcend time and space. How else do you explain me not being the only one to miss the first day of teacher's college in Australia because Canada finally won Olympic hockey gold? Or the fact that three guys who'd just learned about this weird game called cricket nearly get evicted for noise complaints - in the middle of a Saturday afternoon - as they watch a Canadian smash his way to the fastest century (100 runs ) in Cricket World Cup history??
Blogger's note: Yes I was as surprised then, as you are now, to learn cricket had a World Cup, and even more surprised to learn Canada had a squad in it!?!

Sport brings people together, removing class dinstictions (except at the Air Canada Centre) and giving everyone a chance to be themselves. And so it why in my brief appearance on his planet, I believe nothing unites people more than sport, and in my even brief-er(?) sojourns around the world, nothing unites like soccer, umm futbol, umm, football...oh whatever, soccer!

The country I find myself in now, Korea, first fell in love with the beautiful game right around the same time as I did. It was 2002 and the world's eyes were on Korea and Japan as they were hosting the World Cup. And boy, did they ever. World Cup fever gripped this nation, and in fact you can still get "Be the Reds" (ahhh, Korean English) t-shirts around town. I was in Australia. I had never given the game much thought except to laugh at my Canadian-Italian buddies when Italy choked in 1994, or cheer along with my Canadian-Croatian friends as they made an improbable run in 1998. In fact, even with the U.S. hosting it in 1994, I really didn't care, outside of the aforementioned choke by the Italians, and I certainly wasn't old enough to understand the significance of Canada's first and only entry into the tournament when Mexico hosted in 1986.

This time would be different. I was traveling, the tournament was in the same time zone as where I was, and school was out. A recipe for sport watching success if there ever was one, but then add living on the very beaten backpacking track of eastern Australia and I was in for a treat. This backpacking trail brought people from all over the world to my little corner, and with them, a permeating excitement I had never witnessed. The clincher came when I headed north to Cairns for some traveling and we wound up watching the England-Brazil semifinal game on a patio that had three giant TVs and about 600 people. But it wasn't just the bar. It was the city. The whole place shut down, but at the same time was electric. And when the final whistle went, and with it, just about every Englishman's pint, I was in for life.

But sadly, after that, there would be no outlet for this new passion for years. In the next year or so I would have love affairs with cricket, rugby, and Aussie Rules Football - which nearly won me over - but something about soccer just stuck with me.
Blogger's note: I still consider myself a hockey guy and then a basketball guy, but soccer has probably moved to #3, just ahead of the football (CFL first, NFL second)...which all take a backseat every two years to the Olympics. Oh, and lacrosse is in there somewhere, and I don't mind golf when Weirsy or Woods are up to something, and the tenth end of curling can get pretty damn dramatic - did I mention I like sports?

But it all changed in 2006 when it was announced that Toronto was getting it's very own, shiny, brand new Major League Soccer franchise. Now I must admit, I was skeptical. The MLS was an American version of soccer that had failed so many times already, and Toronto had no proven track record for supporting it (we had the Blizzard and we have the Lynx, but neither have ever captured the attention of the fickle Toronto sports fan). But with the unveiling of the team in early 2007, I was hooked, and that passion I had first discovered in Australia came bubbling to the surface. And with Toronto hosting the FIFA Under-20 World Cup, I was ready to rekindle the romance. That summer, I made it to the first ever TFC game (thanks Lids), a couple of those World Cup games where we got to see what real soccer fanatacism is (thanks Chile) and witnessed the historic and electric first ever goal for TFC. But just as this love was blossoming, I was again on the move.

This time though, I was going to South America, to where soccer really is a way of life and likely a religion - I believe in Ecuador about 95% of the country claim to be Catholic, 100% ARE Ecuadorian soccer fans. I was in for a true education in soccer. Stepping off the plane sporting my Toronto FC jersey, I was immediately spotted and knew from that moment I was in a different sporting world.

Ecuadorians live and breathe soccer the way Canadian live and breathe hockey - except they continue to live and breathe it when they're aren't even the best team on their continent, let alone the world - I think we'd do the same, wouldn't we?

As part of my Soccer 101, I took part in marches across the city...I stood in a line that wrapped the entire stadium just to get tickets...I got out of the way when the crowd surged through the security doors (after they had jumped the fences to get in) for a club match...I stood in the rain for three hours to hold our seats during World Cup qualifying, only to be told to sit down once the game started...I sang songs, singing words I didn't know or understand...I drank beer...I hugged strangers...I hung my head and yelled Spanish obscenities at the referee...and I loved every second of it!

And now with my imminent return to Canada this summer, I am thrilled with where soccer has gone in our great, multi-cultural country in just two years. Sure we still suck as a nation, but Toronto FC has added more skill (incidently, two major additions are Canadian) and Montreal just hosted 55,000+ people in the 'O', in freaking February, to wacth the Impact battle it out in our continent's Champions League (Blogger's note: while I am cheering for Montreal at this stage in the game, they are now Toronto's arch-enemy having defeated them earlier in this tournament, and this will be the last time I cheer for them!). Should Montreal manage to get through to the semi-final, they are talking about 60,000+ screaming, flag-waving, drum-beating fans. Unheard of! And I love it. And if you can, you should go. It just may be a part of our nation expressing itself that hasn't been given the chance.

Sports. Unbashed. Unedited. Loved.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

What's with Korea? Part I

I feel like I've been slagging Korea a bit in my early posts - you know, small apartments, lots of people, EVERYWHERE, tons of concrete (even on the mountains) - you know, those sort of things. So I wanted to set the record a little straighter and try to give a little insight into this Korean adventure of mine.

And in my quest to keep things short, I will be presenting, "What's with Korea?" in several parts, just no idea how many at this point.


So while it is true we live in a very tiny apartment surrounded by hundreds, if not thousands of other tiny apartments, that also means that we have everything we need, literally out our front door. In fact we don't even have to leave our building to eat at two great restaurants (one is Korean BBQ and the other is raw fish place) and have a drink in little dive of a piano bar that is literally in the basement of this place (which is why we haven't done that). If there is one thing I will commend Koreans on - there are more, but that's for another post - is that they know the value of space and will squeeze every inch out of something.

And although it does seem we have everything in our building, we do from time to time manage to wander out (especially now that we've watched the four seasons of The Office we picked up in Beijing), and when we do there is no shortage of anything within walking distance. We've got restaurants, movie theatres, more restaurants, three grocery stores, a 6-storey mall, and singing rooms - yes karaoke is huge here!!

There's even one in our building as I believe it is mandated that every building gets one and a computer games room. But we also get an indoor driving range (on the 5th floor), that I can't use because everyone in Korea is right handed. Same goes for the batting cages just across from us!! But we are also a 15 minute walk in one direction to a hiking mountain with those paved trails all over, and another 15 in a different direction we are at a pretty sweet beach.
The one thing I can't get used to though, even after 6 months, is that everything here, is up. But when space is at a premium, I guess there is no place to go, but up. I hope we figure that out in Canada before we encroach on anymore of what makes Canada special - our unbelievable amount of space!

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Odds, ends, and green words

So I've completed one week on here and what I can say at the very least, is this has gotten the writing juices flowing. And I am pretty happy about that. I've got loads of ideas about what to write, but for most of my posts here, I will try to keep it to what I've experienced or am experiencing through my travels, and will try to not blather on, on just any topic (as many of you know I can).

My other goal for this blog is to shorten things up. I am known for being a tad long-winded in just about everything I do - emails and meetings are where I aggravate most - and am attempting to NOT add blogging. There is a wonderful function on this blogging thingy that allows me to hyperlink my text, which basically means, if you see a word in my blog that is green, you can click on it and it will take you to another web page to give more detail, should you desire. This should help shorten things up considerably and help me with my need to explain every little thing - twice.

BUT, having said that, I will end this week and this entry, with some comments about one of my first entries (hey, I'm taking baby steps).

In the days that followed Ontario's Family Day there was at least one article stating the loss of productivity as a result of this day off. There were also comments from readers talking about the negative effect the holidays have, as they "had to make people work". While I am all for productivity, the truth is, we live in a time at the highest levels of production in history, and where has it gotten us?

Sure we've got floors that heat up (standard in most Korean apartments), but we also have a technological world on hyper-speed with things like cell phones, blackberries, and now twitter (I really have no idea what this is, but my man Chris explains it quite eloquently....but I still don't quite understand why). We also have cameras that can take a photo of every single person in a pretty large area - this is a photo of Obama's inauguration, zoom in, and give it a sec, it's crazy. YOU CAN SEE EVERYONE!! I can somewhat understand the reason behind this technology but it worries me no less.

And if it does cost you too much to be open on such a day because of the justifiable increase in wages you have to pay, then close. And if you do have to be open, then paying your employees more shouldn't be a worry as you are open because you are making money.

So to everyone, I say, slow down. Relax. Breathe.

And if it weren't for holidays like the Family Day, we'd miss out on good times with our family and gems like this, which are truly needed in "These Economic Times".

Friday, February 20, 2009

Really, I miss this??

We've been on the road for almost two years now. From South America to Southeast Asia, and a few places in between. It has certainly been a memorable adventure. As a rule, we really try to immerse ourselves as much as we can in the place we are, because really, why else we would we be doing this??
(Blogger's note: we broke this rule in Beijing, going to McDonald's twice as the grease from the Chinese food was getting a bit much. Seriously. But the duck was good.)

In Ecuador though, it was living in a glorious barrio called Guapulo, with unparalled views of a massive valley and mountains, and even a volcano in the distance. It was enjoying things like some ceviche on a Sunday afternoon after a night of drinking Pilsener, Ecuador's answer for beer. It also meant becoming an ardant Sporting Deportivo Quito fan, squeezing myself into the stadium to watch World Cup of futbol, umm, I mean soccer qualifying between South American rivals, and even going so far as purchasing some goalie gloves so I could backstop our team to a 5th place finish out of six teams in a league where games were played on concrete!!

In Korea, it's been hitting the beach when everyone else is hitting the beach, hiking the paved trails of the mountains when everyone else is hiking the paved trails of the mountains, becoming accumstomed to living in a box in a building full of people in their little boxes, next to and across from other buildings full of people living in their little boxes, trying to avoid Soju after my first couple of encounters, all the while enjoying the Korean grub. And in fact, if I am to believe what I've been told, I've significantly added to the overall quality of my life and its health by consuming loads of Korean food, especially kimchi, a delightfully spicy, fermented (yup, fermented) cabbage.
(Blogger's note: I do have to say everywhere I've gone we've always managed to find great food, and in fact will try to make that an entire section here one day.)

But in all these travels, it is sometimes nice to have those small touches from home. I mean, it's not like I am completely out of touch with what's happening (Did you hear Obama was in Ottawa??) as I make conscious efforts to keep up with the news and events of the Toronto area (Oakville Funkfest). With the internet, it seems at times as if I'm just around the corner or in my old bedroom at my parents house, although I am pretty sure my bedroom was bigger than the apartment I am sitting in. I can't even begin to imagine what it would have been to travel 15 years ago with limited or no internet or email. That seems so adventurous!

But as soon as I step out the door or turn on the TV, I am immediately reminded that I'm not in Kansas anymore, or southern Ontario as the case is. However, from time to time, it seems the world will smile on me and give me some tangible aspect of home that I can hold onto for a few hours. And for me, this generally means live sports of some sort on TV - although the recent discovery of poutine at the local watering hole is nice too.

In Ecuador, it was a little easier to get my fix as Quito and Toronto were in the exact same time zone, which was surprising and a little confusing ("Really? Are you sure?", was asked a couple of times as I had never bothered to check before arriving) to learn. The only difference is Quito does not have day light savings being at the equator and all getting the same 12 hours of sunlight everyday. While we didn't get any Canadian television, the three major American networks fed Ecuador with their Miami affiliates which meant (and this was the truly exciting thing for me), I got every single Miami Dolphins game for the first time ever on my own home television!! Of course, as fate would have it, the one time I was guaranteed the opportunity to watch all 16 games of my favourite NFL team, they go on to lose 15 of them!! They would of course rebound this year, becoming AFC East champs and making the playoffs for the first time in years, of which I did not see one single second action, just so the sporting gods could remind me I need to be thankful for what I have - I don't think I expressed much gratitude watching my team go 1-15 even though I was WATCHING my team.

Ecuador also meant having to sit through NBC's coverage of the hockey playoffs (amazing what you will put up with in desperate times), although we did manage to find a hostel owned by a dude from Detroit that had a slingbox, so we got to watch CBC's Stanley Cup coverage as those dastardly Red Wings won again (three or four too many times in my lifetime already). But the day that stands out for me was the perfect storm of ABC showing the Toronto Raptors on some Saturday, which was followed up by hockey on NBC. We managed to host a little sports day in Canada in Ecuador in our tiny apartment, complete with poutine, wings and nachos. I think I even managed to squeeze in a little Toronto FC (truly Toronto's premier sports franchise at the moment) on the radio over the internet. It was great.

In Korea, things have been a little tougher to come by as we sit 14 hours ahead of Toronto. While not as soccer mad as Ecuador, the sporting choice for television is the English Premier league, followed by baseball, neither of which I want to spend any amount of time watching with Korean announcers, especially as the language continues to elude me, outside of an-yung-a-sayo (hello) and kum-sam-nee-da (thank you). But that all changed today as I got to wake up to watch the Raptors getting their collective butts kicked by the Knicks.

See, they are trying to grow the NBA here in Korea, to go along with the burgeoning Korean Basketball League, which sports two imported players from the US that are usually washed up ex-college players from top programs avoiding something from home, and show the Friday night ESPN feed here (which means it's being shown Saturday morning here). And with little Nate Robinson of the Knicks winning the dunk competition last week and the Raptors making some deals, it meant this game became the featured ESPN telecast, which is probably the last time the Raptors get that distinction for a long time after that stinker.

But making it even more like home was the fact that instead of producing their own telecast, the Korean channel picked up the Raptors feed from TSN, meaning I could sometimes make out the ramblings of the Raptors guys just under the still incoherent to me, Korean announcers as they ooh-ed and ahh-ed their way through. It also meant I got to see Air Canada, President Choice, and Ford commercials. It was amazing to me the excitement I had leading up to the game. I was restless from about 7:30 am onward for the 9:30 am tip, believing somehow I would miss it! But what was bewildering to me were the subsequent reactions of those damn commercials and the feelings of nostalgia they conjured up in me. I felt kind of sick. Even after all this time away, I am little more than Pavlov's dog!?

I've got to get me some more kimchi.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Holidays...gotta love'em!!

It will come as no surprise to many, but I love holidays. Yes, I know I am a teacher and get loads, but it doesn't diminish my love for them at all. And it's not just because I am a slacker to the N-th degree (although that argument can be made) that I love'em so. Mostly I love them because of the general good feelings of everyone that surround the times when we don't have obligations outside of family get-togethers, eating, and relaxing. People are easier to deal with, there is more smiling at work, in the store, on the road, just about everywhere you go. And those feelings should not be under-estimated, especially in these 'tough' economic times.

But my current travels have got me thinking about holidays even more than usual. The newest holiday in Ontario is Family Day , being celebrated on Monday, February 16 - celebrated with Alberta and Saskatchewan...and by extension Manitoba with their celebrating Louis Riel Day -giving Ontario a grand total of nine holidays, which is slightly above the average of eight for the rest of Canada (Saskatchewan and NWT get 10, Nova Scotia only 6), but well below other places I have visited and celebrated.

Ecuador gets to celebrate a wonderful 16 holidays nationwide. And if you were to live in Sri Lanka, you'd get a whole year's worth of holidays in Canada on top of that, for a smile-inducing 27 public holidays. It is no wonder when I visited in 2006, Sri Lankans everywhere were smiling and hosipitable beyond measure - I can honestly say I've never been anywhere where the locals have been anything but hospitible, but Sri Lanka stands above them all. Is it the holidays?? I think so.

For both Ecuador and Sri Lanka, the numbers are bigger because of the multi-day celebrations, turning their holidays into true festivals. Times the whole country gets together and lets off a little steam. This is especially important for Ecuador as the country is experiencing tough economic times that make Canada's situation look like...well, look like a holiday. And then you've got the civil war in Sri Lanka that keeps citizens indoors and fearful at all times, that any excuse to gather and share time with family and friends is not only welcomed, but needed.

And then in my current country of exploration, South Korea, we seem to have the opposite - at least this year. See, while the Koreans do get 13 public holidays, the rub is, if it falls on a Saturday or Sunday, there is no extra day tacked on - of course a lot of Koreans work Saturdays, but I do not. And 2009 is going to be one of those years work-aholics dream of, as only Children's Day in May falls during the week in the next six months. One holiday for six months?? Yikes.

But this comes from a country where students go to school six days a week, for six hours a day. They then finish their day with another three-plus hours at academies doing extra stuff like English, Math, Science, and even a study hour. And then, during the much beloved school holidays (essentially January and August here), what do the kids do? They go to those same academies for three or four hours each day.

And the teachers I work with? They got annoyed when I took my contracted five days in December to go visit Beijing. I later learned, Korean teachers don't get the same benefits as me, in fact, they don't get anything. Not one extra day off of work. Nothing. Two teachers I work with haven't had a day off outside of the public holidays for four years!! I feel sick for them.

But more than just time away from school and work (or not as the case may be), holidays can also serve a great way to educate others and ourselves about our country, they can also provide a unique economic stimulus (yes, I'm using this buzz word on purpose) for these trying times.

In Ecuador, days of independence are celebrated for the various cities, giving you the idea that their struggle for freedom from colonialism was brutal and is woven into the fabric of the people much more than that of our southern neighbours (who have 11 days off by the way). But with all the celebrations, national and religious, people are much more aware of their country, its history, and the role people (and by extension, they) play in shaping their country. Plus the little extra money spent on the parties et al., and you've got yourself a tidy little boost to the sagging economy.

Take this in contrast to many Canadians not knowing much of our history or even the way our current government works (or does not). How about the fact that Koreans see South Korea as the least desirable nation in Southeast Asia to visit outside of China and North Korea!? How would they know? They never get to leave.

Holidays, even the short long-weekend can encourage people to get out and spend some time and money on things they may not normally, without missing the mortgage payment. A trip to a counsin's house, or a quick getaway to cottage county brings your money to place it doesn't normally go. Or it gives you the opportunity for a day of skiing you've wanted to take but haven't found the time. Couple that with the opportunity to maybe learn a little about the history and culture of a nation (or your neck of the woods) and you've got ingredients for a good time.

In Canada, we can start by making Rememberance Day a national holiday (joing British Columbia who already celebrates it). I disagree making important days holidays lessens their impact, and in fact can serve to give more reason to remember why we celebrate such a day in the first place.

Second, lets make Canada Day a true celebration, extending it to the 3rd of July just for fun. A time when Canadians from all over the country and the world, go home and celebrate the founding of our wonderful nation with BBQ's and fireworks (who doesn't love a good BBQ and some fireworks??).

And lastly, since we thankfully don't have the bloody history many other nations do, we can look at celebrating something uniquely Canadian, our environment. As the second largest nation in the world we have a lot of environment to celebrate, and it's impact on us in engrained, from freezing winters to wonderfully (sometimes oppresive ) hot summers. So let's take three days in June to celebrate the summer solstice with street parties and outdoor activities, and then another three in December to hide from the winter solstice. No one wants to work at that time anyways and the kids are already out of school.

These additional days will also help save those precious holiday days we've saved up, allowing us to extend our time away. And maybe, just maybe, it will encourage us to get out and explore everything our wonderful country has to offer....and doing it with a smile on their face.

First crack

Have been thinking about adding my voice to the millions already out there for some time now, and so this is the result - The View From Here.

Loads of people, each day share their opinion, righlty or wrongly, about everything and I thought it was high time I got in on the act. Will I be any different from anyone else? Hard to say at this point.

There is not going to be one single theme that runs through the blog, but I hope to write on all subjects from my limited point of view.

Truly what I hope this blog turns out to be is something that entertains and maybe even enlightens you on a semi-regular basis. But mostly, I hope it is something that entertains and enlightens ME on a semi-regular basis.

See, I am in the process of trying to get a book started, and am hoping this blog and the writing required to keep it going, will get those writing juices going once again, to get me started on what should surely be an interesting journey of getting my thoughts down in a way that others will actually want to read them from time to time. (Holy run on sentence, Bat Man...this could be a very brief experiment!!)

So enjoy, and please, comment/suggest/critique. Let me know what you think. My hope is to evolve as a writer and a thinker.