Vancouver: Reunions, restaurants, and roamings.

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Vancouver is a big city.  Filled with lots of awesome things.  It took us a while to get out here together, but we were certainly glad we did.

Reunions.

Our visit to Vancouver held some long-overdue reunions with some excellent people.

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On our westward journey, we stopped in to see Ashley & Kevin in Abbotsford, and had the chance to meet their sweet little girl, Cassidy.  

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An awesome discovery we made just shortly before our visit was that the two sets of friends we planned to visit while in Vancouver were already friends with eachother!  A group dinner was arranged.  It was so great to catch up with Jarret & Jessie (who we connected with in NZ) and Carrie & Mike (friends from Edmonton).

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So special it was to meet Ethan, Carrie and Mike’s little guy, for the first time.  He’s certainly a charmer!

Restaurants.

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We dined at Chambar one evening, upon recommendation by a friend.  We weren’t quite sure what to expect, other than being told to order the mussels. 

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We obeyed orders, and also sprung for the spiced nuts, along with some cured trout with char-grilled octopus, and beetroot carpaccio, which were complex and delightful.  The hospitality was commendable, and whole experience was entirely delightful.  A visit to Chambar comes highly recommended in our books next time you visit Vancouver.

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What a fabulous establishment Meat & Bread is.  It highlights the beauty and simplicity of a sandwich.  Quality ingredients prepared carefully and presented on a nice piece of bread.  With mustard on the side.  What more can you ask for??  

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Oh, and not into gluten?  Get your meat in a bowl!  The porchetta with salsa verde is also excellent this way.

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The communal table is a great way to meet people.  Though a few Vancouverites told us not to expect the locals to be overly friendly, we did have a nice conversation with a friendly chap who was involved in the film industry.

Roamings.

Gastown

We roamed primarily in the downtown areas, exploring the districts of Gastown, Yaletown, Chinatown, and Granville Island.

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Highlights from our wanderings included perusing boutique shops & cafes in search of gems and inspiration,

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stumbling upon some cool street art,

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running our fingers through some green grass,

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marvelling at the signs of spring,

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and breathing in some ocean air.  Maybe not the typical attractions that people come to Vancouver for, but for us, these were much appreciated.  

Overall impressions.

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The city of Vancouver has an abundance of offerings.  The bustle of being in a big city again was enticing.  We lucked out and enjoyed two sunny days, with temperatures around 10 degrees.  It felt familiar… like a day in NZ’s “winter.”  We appreciated how the downtown core was easy to navigate on foot, and how the city as a whole was so pedestrian-friendly.  We also noticed that the First Nations culture seemed to be more embraced in this seaside city, evidenced through the public display of art.  We thought this was neat.

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Vancouver, while we are only just getting to know you still, you have impressed us enough that we will likely see you again.

British Columbia: The coffee coast.

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We’ve recently returned from a week-long venture out to Canada’s West Coast over spring break.  There’s lots we’re excited to share about our trip, but where to start…

How about with coffee?

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Having recently celebrated Brendon’s fifth year in the specialty coffee community, a visit to some of Canada’s finest specialty coffee establishments was long overdue.  After being cooped up in The Deer for a little while, it was refreshing and invigorating to once again find ourselves in a city with so many options for where to grab a caffeinated beverage.

Overall impressions were very pleasing.

Knowing that specialty coffee has been established in Vancouver and Victoria a lot longer than the rest of Canada (probably due to its proximity to Seattle, where specialty coffee in North America originated), there were high expectations going in.  That being said, we were generally quite satisfied with all of our cafe experiences.

Now there are many ways to analyze or judge establishments that serve coffee.  We’ve decided to go the route of making a few special mentions in various categories:

Best pour over: Revolver.  Brendon thoroughly enjoyed his Ethiopian pour over from Heart Coffee Roasters.

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Friendliest service: Timbertrain Coffee Roasters.

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Having just opened two months ago. this place was actually not on our list, but we are ever so glad we stumbled upon this gem while strolling along West Cordova St. in Gastown.

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Brendon enjoyed a good espresso and a tasty cold brew from the friendly guys at Timber Train.  It was fairly quiet when we first went in, which we appreciated because it allowed us the opportunity to talk with owners Peter & Jeff (as opposed to Revolver, which felt a bit rushed/noisy because of how busy it was.)

Best design: Tie between Timbertrain and Nelson the Seagull, both which sport a very different vibe.

Design

Timber Train’s design was clean and slightly industrial.  We thought the seating within the mock train car setup was pretty unique.

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Nelson the Seagull was much more eclectic, filled with a bustling hipster audience and an array of vintage nicknacks, bunting, and interesting items to gaze at for hours.

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Best glutenous product: Sourdough toast with freshly whipped butter at Matchstick.

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The new Matchstick cafe on East Georgia St., which just opened up a month ago, embodied a minimalist design.  Simple touches like the blackened wood wall and the severed log tables were features that brought a natural warmth to the space.  We appreciated how how well-lit it was, with ample seating.  The intention in design was very evident.

Special mention in the glutenous product category also goes out to Nelson the Seagull for a croissant that Brendon says he will remember for a long time, (though too rich to indulge in regularly.)

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Most coastal cafe: Tofino Coffee Company.

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We discovered Tofino had their own coffee company when we saw their beans for sale in the grocery store, then asked around to find out the location of their cafe.  Out of all the cafes we visited, this one had the most West-Coast feel to it.  We loved the gigantic stumps that served as seating and also brought a rustic, natural vibe to the space.  We had a friendly chat with the owner, and the coffee was pretty good too.

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Overall good experience with good coffee:  Fernwood.  I actually didn’t take any pictures inside because initially, nothing stood out to me.  The lighting wasn’t great, and there weren’t any particular decor elements that wowed us. But overall, the service and coffee were very good, and atmosphere was comfortable.  However, this was the only cafe we visit twice, and bought a bag of coffee from, on our trip out West.  So I guess that has to say something.

If you’re not interested in coffee at all, sorry… this post post was probably a bit boring for you.  But don’t worry, we did do other things on our trip out West besides explore cafes.  Looking forward to being able to share those with you soon!

Survival guide: Making it through your first winter [back in Canada].

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We dare not say that winter is drawing to a close, but we can say that we have (mostly) successfully made it through nearly 5 months of winterous conditions.

Our first winter back has been both better and worse than anticipated- worse because of how extreme the weather has been.  The number of extremely cold days has been more than the yearly average, and along with this, Red Deer has also experienced a record snowfall this year.

According to Environment Canada, 1924 held the record November-December snowfall with 104.9 cm — until this year.  This record was broken in December 2013 when 109.9 cm of snow fell upon Red Deer soil. FYI, the average November-December snow is about 36 cm, which says something about how extreme this year was!

Overall, though, we have found that if you keep yourself busy and distracted, and surrounded by good people, the winter is bearable.

So here you have it: Breno and Mel’s guide to surviving your first Canadian winter (or the first one in a little while).

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Top of the list: Enjoy tasty food with friends.  Often.  We highly recommend the Cuban Pulled Beef.

Footwear

Invest in a few good pairs of Eastern-European footwear.  Some Albanian boots for outdoors, and some Lithuanian felt slippers for the indoors will do nicely.  The winter season is long and harsh, so treat your lower extremities right.

The Flying Canoe Festival YEG

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Take in a winter festival.  Or two.  The city of Edmonton celebrates its wintriness with a multitude of festivals throughout the winter months.  Skating, tobogganing, outdoor patios, snow and ice sculptures, warm beverages and live music are just a few of the wintery delights you are likely to encounter at such events.  This year, we made it out to The Flying Canoe Festival, which we highly recommend for the blending of the outdoor/indoor venue, excellent music, and spirited ambience.

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Find some lovely adventuring companions, and head off to explore some new territory!  The Rockies make an enchanting setting to pay a visit to in the winter months.

Snowshoes

A pair of snow shoes will make the explorations that much more fun.

Winter tires are an absolute must and will save you (probably multiple times) from getting stuck in the snow or ending up in the ditch on the side of the highway.  Don’t even think about it.  Just do it.

A remote car starter lessens the sting of the frigidness when jumping into your car on those -30 degree mornings.  Another excellent (and recommended) investment!  Keeping a blanket in the car to spread across your lap is an alternative option.

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Dawn a pair of cross-country skis and traverse a local park, river valley, or golf course!

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When it’s a “warm” day of at least -10 degrees, grab a child and take to the slopes via a crazy carpet, saucer, or sliding device of your choice!  The GT snow-racer gets our vote for ultimate control and performance.

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A cozy pair of mittens (and some Paleo Chocolate Cake topped with pomegranates) have the ability to make the winter months much more enjoyable too.

Moisturize.  Alberta winters are harsh on the skin.  There are some lovely local products that can help out with this.

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Choose a ‘winter beverage,’ whatever it may be, and enjoy it frequently.  By the fire is best.  Or by candle-light.

Seek out opportunities to enjoy some live music.  This activity needs not require one to bundle in multiple layers.

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Try not to get too hopeful when you experience a warm day.  Uttering the word “spring” prematurely could result in major devastation, so it’s best not to say this word aloud until at least April or May.  And try not to get too discouraged when the snow piles tower over you.  Take it all in stride.  Remind yourself that winter is a season (though a long one.)

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Take time to look closely and admire winter’s beauty. Don’t spend too much time fantasizing or reminiscing about beaches, but DO call to mind the days of NZ winter when it was sometimes warmer outside the house than inside.  Be thankful for central heating.

By following these suggestions and guidelines, you can take the sting out of winter and thrive amidst the brisk temperatures.

Looking back, looking ahead.

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One year ago (give or take a few days), we celebrated Brendon’s birthday with friends at Brother’s Beer in Auckland.  As Brendon’s 29th birthday came, we spent a few minutes reminiscing about this day last March, and then got caught up in other pictures from that time in life that was so incredibly rich and memorable.

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In the midst of the winter freeze, it’s very hard to not wish we were back in NZ!  It is heartwarming to look back with fondness on a chapter in our lives that we will never forget, yet we must continue to embrace our current stage and location, regardless of the lack of beaches, breweries, and meat pies.

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Brendon is in the final stages of his thesis.  These days, he writes mainly from home, although the odd time he packs up his books and heads to Dose Coffee Company, the gem of Red Deer.

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Brendon has just a month or so left… to finish his final chapter, edit, revise, and submit his thesis.  This sounds like a hefty task, and it is.  Without the companionship and support of the community of fellow scholars and students that once surrounded at Laidlaw, the task of thesis-writing has been a lonely one.  But I am really proud of the way Brendon has persevered through the challenges of solo scholarship in this foreign township.

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What is next after his thesis is finished?  Brendon gets asked this question often.  First, a trip back to NZ sometime in the next couple of months to defend his thesis.  After that, Brendon will try to get a job of some sort.  Ideally, he would like to teach at a post-secondary institution or seminary somewhere, but jobs in this realm are not exactly plentiful.  There are other projects and fields to which he could also apply his skill-set, but nothing is lined up as of yet.  It’s a little bit unnerving, but also exciting, waiting to see what kind of opportunities will present themselves.

A new abode [out on our own again].

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A year after we said goodbye to our beloved little abode in Mt. Eden, and after moving 6 different times, we finally have a place to call “our own” again.  Just 2 blocks away from my school, this little 1-bedroom apartment should do very nicely for us.

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Brendon has been continuing the writing process from home most days, which has meant that we have been able to drastically cut down on gasoline consumption during the week.

We still have a few pieces to acquire, but most of the essentials are set up for now.  Our favourite features of this suite are definitely the floors and the large patio-doors leading out to the balcony.

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Pulling out our old belongings from storage was a bizarre feeling… some items we completely forgot that we owned!  Admittedly, we have changed a lot in the past 4 years, and so have our tastes and preferences.  It is great to have pots, pans, and dishware to fill our kitchen, as well as some basic furniture to make our home functional… instead of having to start from scratch this time around!  Many, many thanks to our friends and family who kindly stored or provided a home for our stuff for us while we were away.

Having to abandon most of our possessions in New Zealand, we find we are way less attached to material possessions than we used to be.  Knowing what we know now, we wouldn’t have saved and stored all that we did… oh well!  Much easier on the bank account to sort through and down-size rather than have to acquire a whole bunch of new things.

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Since returning, we’ve become more acutely aware that the accumulation of stuff is a common practice in our society.  We are not sure how much we want to partake in this system, or how to balance obtaining functional items that will be useful and appreciated, and developing an outlook of “enough.”

We decided to venture out and meet a few of the locals here, which involved some cupcakes and a couple of quite awkward moments in doorways.  But it was nice to meet the people who do life above, beside, and below us these days.

While our place is still “coming together” in many ways, we can definitely appreciate having our own space to govern again.  We hope that this will be the beginning of a more “settled” existence here in Canada.

Cambodian cuisine: Satisfying surprises.

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More subtle than Thai food, and not quite as intricate as Vietnamese, Cambodian cuisine came as a delightful surprise to our palates mid-way through our SE Asian journeys.

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Characterized by gentle curries and warm spices, we were pleasantly surprised with the offerings of Khmer Cuisine.

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Many Cambodian dishes are based around the use of the coconut.  Above, a lady makes her own coconut milk on the side of the street by grating coconut flesh, and then running it through a press to separate out the milk from the pulp.

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Cambodian’s national dish is the fish Amok.  Traditionally steamed and served in a coconut or in a dish formed from banana leaf, this gentle but flavourful dish is a real delight for the tastebuds.

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Beef Lok Lak is another dish that Cambodia is well-known for.  You consume it by wrapping portions of the meat and salad ingredients in a lettuce leaf, then dipping that in a tasty dipping sauce (the best part of it, Brendon reckons.)

Cambodian food

Though we didn’t indulge in any of these ourselves, frog legs were a common menu item in restaurants.  We did, however, have a rather close encounter with them at a local market.

Cambodian cuisine

If you fancy some Western comfort while in Cambodia… perhaps a nice sandwich on a French baguette, a slice of cheesecake, or some gelato, look no further than the Blue Pumpkin.   This French bakery/restaurant is a haven for tourists seeking the comforts of home.  The unique white couch set-up lined with pillows is the perfect place to crash while you enjoy a yummy bite or two, use the free wifi to plan the next leg of your adventure, and take a break from the scorching temperatures outside.

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At the Singing Tree Cafe, we enjoyed an excellent mango salad, along with a generous serving of home-made kumara chips.

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Khmer soup, from the Khmer Soup Restaurant, was a bowl of flavourful goodness topped with fresh herbs.

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We found Cambodia to be extremely tourist-friendly, with many appealing dining options.

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The decor in Cambodian restaurants is usually very colorful, with napkins and tablecloths in bright hues.

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Our favorite Cambodian dining experience was at Sugar Palm in Siem Reap.  Set up in a historic villa, the restaurant had rave reviews, so we decided to check it out.

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Almost soufflé-like in texture, Sugar Palm’s Amok was quite different than most other Amoks we had tried, but lived up to the hype and won our vote for best Amok in Cambodia.

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Another culinary masterpiece that we had the pleasure of consuming was Pro-Hok Khtiss, a pork dipping sauce, similar in texture to a bolognese sauce, which is served with a plate of raw vegetables for dipping.  The sauce had fantastic flavour.

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With not as many dishes based around grains in Cambodia, I found it was the easiest country in which to stick to a Paleo lifestyle.

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It was in Cambodia that we first came across the opportunity to support local businesses trying to make a difference in the lives of the marginalized.  Friends is one example.  As a reputable restaurant, “Friends” has worked to build the futures of former street children and marginalized young people in Phnom Penh since 1994.  The restaurant employs teens who have had a rough go, and they work their way up through the hospitality chain- greeting, serving, and then working in the kitchen.  They gain valuable training from hospitality and culinary professionals that will help them build a future for themselves.

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We had a great dining experience there, and definitely recommend it to anyone looking to enjoy a tasty meal while supporting an excellent cause.  Next door to the restaurant, there is  a gift shop which sells some super cool jewelery and other products hand-made by at-risk youth.  “Friends” is just one of many organizations established to help make a local impact.  In a future post, we will highlight other local businesses trying to make a difference for their communities.

Salad at "Friends"

We felt especially inspired by Cambodian cuisine, perhaps because because of its novelty… or perhaps because of its awesomeness.  It’s not everyday you get the chance to indulge in Cambodian delicacies… but let us tell you, should you ever get the chance, indulge away!

Travel, narrative & perspectivism.

Perspectives in Cambodia

Traveling is many things: exciting, nerve-wracking, at times frightening, at times surprisingly comfortable. One thing that is affirmed time and time again through travel, is that I (we) are not from this place (wherever we happen to be at any given moment).

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This happened frequently for me, whether in subtle ways like the lack of a bottom sheet in most of our hotels, or  sometimes, in much more drastic and terrifying ways like the streets of Phnom Phen in rush hour.

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We can only ever be from where we are from. The perspective we bring to the world has been finely honed from our births. Altered, obviously, throughout our lives, but we are not simply able to change our past, or rid ourselves of memories and experiences that shape our particular point of view.

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We are unable to see things through any eyes but our own. And as you travel, you are able to get a glimpse, albeit a small one, of the insane amount of eyes that there are out there who are equally unable to grasp your perspective as you are unable to grasp theirs. Fully grasp, that is. Partial grasping is defiantly possible, due to the amazing similarities throughout human civilization. Perspectivism is what James McClendon names this phenomenon.

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The fact that we are unable to see from other perspectives (but by the imagination), is a bit unnerving. It leaves so much misunderstood, or unknown, which has an uncomfortable effect on you (well me at least).

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I found my self in Hanoi, Vietnam, in a leftist cafe, displaying old propaganda posters from the Northern Vietnamese during the war. While there, I read a interesting article in a magazine which brought on some of these questions. It was about a Westerner (Australian I think) whose father was a reporter from the end of WWII through the Vietnam war. He had leftist leanings, and was well respected by the communist groups for this fair reports of what was going on. This lead this man to grow up with a perspective that from the Western world would have seemed backwards. To him, the Communists were the good guys and Capitalism was bad. For him, the chaos of Asia, and his family etc. combined to lead to a perspective from the other side. He later moved back to the western world, but this perspective stayed with him.

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I found my self thinking after I read this article, what it would be like to have a perspective from the other side… Or like the man in this article, to be able to see things from both sides.  In what ways are my perspectives shallow, or odd?

Christmas in Rouge Deer: A Neilson family Christmas.

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The entirety of the Neilson clan (all 13 of us) congregated in Red Deer this December to celebrate our first Christmas together in… years.  (We calculated that it must have been 8 years ago that ‘everyone’ was last together, although many members have been added since.)  Being spread out over the country (and previously across oceans), it was a special occasion to have everyone come together in one place.

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Through the highs…

Low

and the lows…

A mixture of things...

and those times we weren’t quite sure what to think…

Christmas dinner

we made some great memories together.

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Marshmallow sweet potatoe mash

Nicole and Craig hosted everyone at their place on Christmas Day.  With the wood fire ablaze, we hung out and shared stories of days long ago, and sat down together for a lovely Christmas feast complete with all the trimmings, including a turkey, homemade cranberry sauce, and of course, the (Neilson favourite) marshmallow-topped sweet potato mash.

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Instead of exchanging gifts this year, we decided to opt for a “shared experience” of sorts.  What activity says “memorable Canadian family experience” more than an ugly Christmas sweater bonspiel?  (For those of you who are wondering what a ‘bonspiel’ is-  it’s a curling tournament.)

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Neilson fam bonspiel

The local curling club may not have known what hit them, but the Neilsons put on a strong display of spirit and skill, with no injuries and minimal tears.

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The shot of the game went to Fay with her ‘hit and stick’ to put the ladies on the board.

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Brendon’s eldest sister Karly took home the prize for best “ugly” sweater with her crocheted poncho, while Kendra (the youngest sister)’s vintage indigo sweatshirt was deemed the “hidden gem.”

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I was personally quite a fan of our new bro-in-law Steven’s grandfatherly find.

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Brendon and I won the “creativity” award for our DIY Christmas sweaters.  On a side note, we are considering joining a curling league.  Anyone else out there keen?

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In the Christmas photobooth contest, the Neilson girls took home the win with this merry shot.

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Runners up included Kendra & Steve with their nativity portrayal,

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and Ken, Fay & Karly with this public display of affection.

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All in all, we are very thankful that the Neilsons of the East could make the journey out West to make this one Christmas we will all surely remember for years to come.

Oh the weather outside is frightful.

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This was us, a year ago.

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Now, here we are.

As you can see, we are still not quite sure to make of all the white stuff.  We are slightly stunned… slightly in awe… and partially baffled that people choose to live in these conditions.  While we had forgotten over four years’ time what Alberta winter temperatures were like, we quickly became acquainted with -30… and -40  (with the wind chill) over the past couple of weeks.

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We’ve received a record snowfall so far in Red Deer.  With the snow piles nearly taller than me, it’s a little scary to think that winter only officially started… yesterday.  Where will we put the rest of it when it falls??

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All this being said, there are many things worse than the cold and the snow.  Our SE Asian journeys put this well into perspective.  Our favourite spot these days is sitting by the fire, enjoying the warmth and ambience of the cozy indoors. (The NZ equivalent was huddling next to the space heater- not quite as romantic.)

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We are trying hard not to think about the beaches we (not so long ago) frolicked upon, but is easier said than done, especially at this time of year.  Thinking of everyone who shared in our adventure in NZ… dear friends who journeyed closely with us, the Espresso Workshop whanau, Kaurilands and Maungawhau friends, Laidlaw crew, and students & parents who touched our hearts along the way.  Sending love to you all and holding dear the amazing times & memories shared in your beautiful land.  And to our friends and family in North America, if it weren’t for you, perhaps we wouldn’t be here right now… But it is delightful to be in your presence once again, and share this special season with you.

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Adjusting: A relearning.

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The snow has finally fallen, as we knew it would.  After nearly 4 years of snow-less living, it is time to face the reality of our Canadian roots again.

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We figured the best thing we could do to make the winter more bearable was to be prepared with the proper clothing (i.e. boots, coats, mittens, scarves, and touques).  Snow tires were also a must, and seem to be working great.

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Brushing ten inches of white stuff off of the car after the first major snowfall felt bizarre, yet vaguely familiar.

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So far, we’d say that the snow has been slightly more tolerable than expected, although we know that much colder days are ahead.

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On the bright side, shovelling turns out to be a great work out.  Who needs a gym membership when you can… clear your driveway?

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Other adjustments have included embracing my inner cowboy (or should I say cowgirl) in the city of Red Deer, where western roots run strong.  This past Friday, we had  “Western Day” at school- a day I would have been completely unequipped for if it weren’t for my good pal Heather who got me outfitted with all the necessary Western get-up.

Truck.

Massive trucks seem to be everywhere… and are especially annoying when they cut you off and spray slush all over your windshield in the process.

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The consumeristic nature of holidays has been a slight shock.  I remember how difficult it was to track down any Valentine’s Day candy in New Zealand as the date drew near.  Such is definitely not the case in Canada.  Something that’s become apparent to us is that Canadians are a people who like to celebrate.  Any occasion.  As soon as one holiday is over, stores are filled with decor, gifts, and edible goods for the next.  Don’t get me wrong- I do love a good celebratory occasion.  This is just something that I never really noticed about my own culture before.

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I am no longer getting lost in downtown Red Deer, which is a good sign. As the streets and avenues run opposite to the way they do in Edmonton, I found myself heading in the wrong direction often at the beginning, but I think I’ve got my bearings right now.

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It’s been interesting having to switch our vocabulary back to “Canadian.”   No major changes, just slight ones.  Referring to the “counter” instead of the “bench” and writing “mom” instead of “mum” are just a few of such vocabulary adjustments.  I suppose through learning to live in another society, you come to accept differences as part of life, sometimes even enriching, instead of positive or negative. I did, however, catch myself using the phrase “work do” in conversation someone this weekend.  There are probably some Kiwi expressions that will never leave us. ;)

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So perhaps there hasn’t been a ton to adjust to… The transition back to life in Canada has been more of a relearning of our own culture, and noticing more of the ways that we have changed while we’ve been gone.

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