Archive for December, 2010

December 25, 2010

Ode to Buenos Aires

buenos-aires-travel-tips[I loved my stay in Buenos Aires so much I really do intend to look into moving there! Here is an excerpt from the article that appeared in the Star on November 27, 2010.]

BUENOS AIRES — We fall madly in love with places for the same reason we do with people: Because of an instant connection and a need to find it. After a challenging trip in another South American country, I arrived for a four-day stay in the capital of Argentina expecting a city snarled with traffic headaches, poverty amid ostentatious displays of wealth, overpriced everything and long stretches of grime. Another one of those “Paris of …” places that don’t live up to the City of Light.

Instead, I found an energetic yet easygoing city rich with character. Buenos Aires may be called the Paris of Latin America, but it’s no knock-off. If anything, it blends aspects of several great cities into a copasetic mix. There’s a touch of New York with all the pizza parlours and artsy neighbourhoods, a bit of Rome in the Colon Theatre, plenty of Barcelona with its never-ending nightlife, a hint of London in a smaller, 100-year-old replica of Big Ben that the British capital presented to Argentina on its centennial and, yes, a lot of Paris, including the 9th of July Avenue, a Champs Elysees-type thoroughfare that’s the widest street in the world.

Occupying the city are three million people mostly of European descent who’ve weathered all kinds of political and economic upheaval. In the last 60 years alone, Argentina has survived dictatorship, war, the devastation of its currency and the soiling of its reputation because of the sympathy its leaders showed to defeated Nazis.

With the Argentine peso bouncing back and the economy emerging strong from recession, the country’s capital is in a groove. The streets of Recoleta, the city’s affluent neighbourhood, are filled with opulent hotels, high fashion and outstanding restaurants. The historic Alvear Palace Hotel — the Royal York of Buenos Aires — plays host almost every day to gala events, weddings of dignitaries and meetings for ultra-powerful business leaders. One of the city’s major attractions is the Recoleta Cemetery, where Eva Peron is entombed in a mausoleum. The cemetery has nothing resembling a traditional grave. Tiny palaces to the city’s dead elite fill its walls.

At night, the streets around the cemetery teem with life as music and laughter clamour through Recoleta’s clubs, bars and cafés. Even in Buenos Aires’ less vivacious neighbourhoods, you sense the confidence of a world-class city that knows it can survive any turmoil. You also feel people’s pride in living here. While walking with map sometimes held to my face, I was approached four times within two hours by someone wishing to point me in the right direction. Of course, each Porteno (the nickname for Buenos Aires’ residents) also wanted to know where I was from. Despite a language barrier, an adios would be withheld until he or she had gone on about an experience in Montreal or a friend who’d enjoyed Toronto.

“The people are so friendly,” says Sonja Hirsch, a Minneapolis vacationer who was celebrating her birthday. “I was in a restaurant and I bumped elbows with the man beside me. I apologized and they were so nice we ended up spending the rest of dinner talking.”

Sonja and her husband, Tom, raved about SottoVoce, the restaurant they dined at that night, while another American visitor singled out a nearby Recoleta spot for its beef.

“It’s the best steak I ever had,” says Ned Mozier, a Kansas native now living in St. Louis, “and I know my steak.”

With such an endorsement, I had to visit Fervor, one of the many places that serve up large varieties of Argentina’s renowned beef that comes from cows fed with natural grass. I ordered a 350-gram serving of tenderloin that cost 68 Argentine pesos, or about $17. I paired it with a good half-bottle of Alta Vista Premium Malbec that ran 33 pesos, or $8 and change. As for the quality of the steak, it was great, but Ned should’ve wandered a few blocks along the same street toward where the 9th of July Avenue begins.

Beneath a highway underpass, diners take up chairs at fine restaurants while cars slowly pass through a brightly lit corridor that’s decorated with artwork and flowers. It’s a scene that immediately makes a Torontonian ponder what it might be like to linger at an elegant table below the Gardiner Expressway. At El Mirasol, I ordered another 350-gram tenderloin that was so soft a butter knife sliced through it. It cost 30 per cent more than the steak at Fervor, but was worth the premium.

“The city’s overwhelmingly impressive,” says Brian Gabor, a Torontonian who was enjoying an afternoon snack at La Poesia, a café in San Telmo. “There’s architectural grandeur that a lot of other cities have, but there are other things that are unique to it. People here don’t go to dinner until 10 at night, they don’t go to the bar until 1 a.m., and that’s just not Toronto.”

December 23, 2010

Evoke All the Senses in Your Writing

Many aspiring novelists and short-story practitioners are advised in their creative writing classrooms to imagine a camera on the shoulders of their characters as they lead readers through scenes. The thinking is this practice forces the writer to add detail while also understanding the tactile surroundings of their story.

It’s not bad advice, but it’s far from complete as far as a technique for character development goes. The reason for the shortcoming is because characters are supposed to be three-dimensional. That means when writers rely predominantly on describing what they see they may fail to develop fully drawn characters who experience life in a truly profound way that makes them come to life.

David Morrell, who taught for many years in the esteemed English department at Iowa University, advises aiming for a ratio that will force you to add senses beyond the visual. For every visual sense, you should have two others present, says the author of “First Blood” (a novel whose literary merits have been tarnished because its lead character was transformed into a one-dimensional killing machine in the “Rambo” movie series).

Strict adherence to any formula isn’t good. In this case, it could cause you to overwrite. But if you craft your story well, then putting Morrell’s advice into practice makes your characters more fully developed than if you simply treated them like robots being filmed.

Many excerpts could be chosen to illustrate this example of writing, but I picked the following passage because it is short and comes from a great piece of fiction. It is the second paragraph of “The Chrysanthemums”, a well-known John Steinbeck story about internal conflict, isolation and sexual frustration. Notice the variety of senses the Noble Prize winner incorporates with the nouns and verbs he chooses here:

“It was a time of quiet and of waiting. The air was cold and tender. A light wind blew up from the southwest so that the farmers were mildly hopeful of a good rain before long; but fog and rain did not go together.”

December 16, 2010

Moscow impresses with its reverence for writers and the arts

[From “Moscow’s warm and poetic heart” published in the Toronto Star on December 9, 2010. Pictured below is a statue of Alexander Pushkin from the town near St. Petersburg that bears his name.]

MOSCOW — One of the great victims of the Cold War’s propaganda was the reputation of the Russian man and woman. Icy, serious, malicious, mechanical, soulless is what we were told about them. Arrive in Moscow and see flowers placed at the foot of statues erected in tribute to the nation’s writers, visit a classical music performance at the Bolshoi Theatre attended by people of all walks, learn about the conflicts endured and how this nation’s World War II memorial museum is decorated with 27,000 glass tears because it couldn’t hold 27 million to honour every life lost, and you will never again perceive Russians as anything but a people with heart; and one that’s perpetually mending at that.

December 3, 2010

Adoration for the Magnificent Hermitage

[Got a chance to visit St. Petersburg for a second time and just like my first time, the Hermitage mesmerized me. It one most awe-inspiring building. Here’s a story from the Toronto Star’s Grand Tour series on the museum and city.]

ST. PETERSBURG, RUSSIA — Even if the Hermitage didn’t possess any paintings or sculptures, its walls alone would make it a place you have to see. The halls of the Winter Palace, the largest part of the complex, are laden with gold, malachite, silver, bronze, marble and ornate mouldings framing vaulted ceilings in this one-time dwelling of Catherine the Great. To stand in the airy armoury, surrounded by gilded pillars and hardly anyone is to be amazed by grandeur on an audacious scale.

Then, once you’ve taken in the walls, you can be mesmerized anew by what’s on them: Rembrandts, Da Vincis, Raphaels, Titians, Tiepolos, Monets, Picassos. The icons of art, whose names we all know and whose works we have seen in high school and university textbooks, are gathered on the banks of the Neva River in this museum founded in 1764. The Hermitage owns the largest collection of paintings in the world and has a total of more than 3 million pieces, only a small percentage of which are on display.

“Forget about what’s on the walls, look up and sometimes the rooms themselves are more amazing than the artwork,” says Eric Weiner, a student at Vassar University in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., who is spending this semester in St. Petersburg studying art history and Russian culture.

Read more in the Toronto Star.