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Note To Self: Be Here Now

Friday, April 10, 2015 by Chris

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photoVacation

Today, while touring the magnificent temples of Angkor in Cambodia, I was struck by the degree to which us tourists seem hellbent on getting a great photo rather than actually enjoying the experience of being in a place.

I was nearly finished my tour of the astonishing Ta Prohm – the Tomb Raider temple – when my guide and I found ourselves in a quiet courtyard, no other tourists around. I asked if we could just sit and take it in, which we did. The stillness and mystery of the place washed over me and I really breathed for the first time since arriving at Angkor.

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Ta Prohm (above) was our second stop following a sunrise visit to the big kahuna, Angkor Wat. I admit I felt a bit let down by the majesty. It may be the largest religious shrine in the world but after touring Rajasthan two years ago, Angkor Wat felt a bit ho hum. And the pushy crowds and petty bureaucracy of the place did nothing to enhance my enjoyment.

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Ta Prohm was different. I was really captivated by the way nature has taken back what man tried so hard to foist upon it. According to my guide, the massive trees devouring the temple are the result of simple bird droppings bearing seeds that were permitted to take root in the stone.

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A crew composed of Indian and Cambodian archeological experts is working to reconstruct some of the looted temple but it will be a long, hard job judging by the piles and piles of toppled, broken stones. There’s no way they’ll mess with Mother Nature, not now that she’s become the star attraction.

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And tomorrow as my guide and I tour a couple more temples I’ll try and remember that the edifice and the history are what I’m there for, not a great photo for my blog.

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Phu Quoc Beach Bum

Wednesday, April 8, 2015 by Chris

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I haven’t had a beach holiday in years, decades, in fact. So I was really looking forward to a week or so on Phu Quoc, a Vietnamese island off the southern coast of Cambodia; I longed to lounge and bake in the sun after a frigid Canadian winter. Unfortunately, or fortunately for me, the travel Gods had other ideas; there were few available flights to my next destination so I ended up with just two days and three nights in this languid paradise.

As a rule, I’m perfectly happy traveling solo but on Phu Quoc I felt lonely. City vacations are full of distractions and activities but beach holidays demand company, ideally close company. It was meditative and pleasant but in the end I’m glad to be moving on to the Indiana Jones leg of my adventure, the temples of Angkor in Cambodia.

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Phu Quoc is sunny and hot (between 30 – 35 degrees Celsius) but the ocean breeze keeps it comfortable. Being fair and winter white I had to be careful in the sun but my hotel, the laid-back, inexpensive Beach Club (about $40 USD per night), had plenty of shade in which to languish.

A friend of my host in Saigon recommended a guide/driver on Phu Quoc to show me the sights. Vo spoke little English but he certainly got the job done. I saw the main town, Duong Dong, from the back of his motorbike and he took me for lunch at a local cafeteria, which was genius because all I had to do was point to the items I wanted.

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My delicious lunch of baked fish with rice, veg and soup cost less than $2 USD and I certainly got an authentic al fresco dining experience sharing tables with the locals. The best advice I’ve received about eating in Asia is to follow the crowds; if the locals flock to a joint it must be pretty good. At this particular spot every table but one was full of hungry, happy eaters.

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My island tour culminated at Bai Sao (below), the most beautiful beach I’ve ever seen. The sand is white as bone dust and nearly as fine as icing sugar; standing where the water lapped the shore it felt like hard clay beneath my feet, there was hardly any give at all.

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South Beach is sparsely populated, mostly by locals enjoying a day out; it’s 30 or 40 minutes from Duong Dong and most tourists are satisfied to simply enjoy the beach in front of their hotels. As we drove south on a bumpy, red-dirt road that hugged the shore we saw at least five major new resorts under construction, one of them the Intercontinental Phu Quoc. My guess is the island’s tourism profile is about to explode so I’m glad I was here before the really big guns arrived.

I will mention that as beautiful as the beaches look in photos they’re actually littered with refuse much of it plastic and to my horror, a good deal of medical waste: this hypodermic was not an isolated encounter.

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So paradise is not perfection. But it’s damn fine, all things considered. I feel refreshed and ready to move onto stage three of this fantastic adventure. Angkor Wat, here I come.

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Welcome to Vietnam

Monday, April 6, 2015 by Chris

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restaurant workers take a moment to work out the kinks for each other

Some quick impressions from my five days in Saigon before I take off for the island paradise of Phu Quoc today. I’m in Ho Chi Min City (its official name, although nearly everyone still calls it Saigon) as the guest of my Canadian friend Mark, who’s working here on a two-year contract related to education. Mark lives on the outskirts, which has been its own kind of blessing: Saigon is dirty, noisy and intensely frenetic, so to have a respite from the chaos is most welcome.

boat and barge on a Saigon River tributary

This is my view every morning as I sip tea on Mark’s balcony, steeling myself for the marvelous melee of District 1 (downtown). Because the river feeds into the ocean — HCMC is a major shipping port — the water level rises and falls twice daily with the tides, exposing muddy flats that fishermen scour for clams or snails or God knows what else since the Vietnamese appear to eat just about anything.

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A trip through Mark’s local market, which was far too gritty for my taste, revealed cages, flats and bowls of live fish, eels, frogs, chickens, all of which the seller kills and/or skins in front of her customer. If it’s not fresh, the Vietnamese don’t want it, which probably explains why the food here is so delicious. The country boasts more than 2,000 km of coastline and seafood is the staple, in addition to liberal use of fresh herbs and vegetables. Delicious, if also a bit confusing for an English-speaker trying to decipher a Vietnamese menu. But I have managed just fine.

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On my first night in town we connected with Mark’s friend Phong and we ate street side at a BBQ stand, one of the thousands of street stalls that keep Saigoners sated. I’m dubious of eating street food, having been warned against it so vehemently in India, but Mark has been here for nearly a year and says he hasn’t been sick yet. So we dove into skewers of vegetables, chicken, beef, pork short ribs and massive king prawns, all of it scrumptious beyond words.

saigon street food, bbq king prawns

The street scene was just as enjoyable as what was on our plates. Tourists and locals mingled in the tight alleys laughing, carousing and dodging motorbikes.

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Saigon is a city of motorbikes, it’s the way nearly everyone gets around. My taxi driver from the airport said HCMC has a population of 9 million people and 7 million motorbikes. Apparently, there’s a very high tax on cars so the motorbike is the only affordable mode of mass transport.

motorbikes in Saigon

Unfortunately, this torrent of bikes runs on leaded fuel, so riding and even walking in streets is sometimes enough to choke you. Consequently many, if not most people wear face masks.

face masks required in Ho Chi Min City

You can’t imagine the chaos of all those bikes navigating intersections and roundabouts, it is MADNESS! Drivers frequently ignore traffic signals and just as frequently drive directly into oncoming traffic if that’s the quickest route from A to B. It’s hair-raising and thrilling and I loved every minute of my time on the back of Phong’s bike or on one of the many xe om (say ome) drivers who seem to be everywhere, ready to make a quick buck by chauffeuring you here or there. If Saigon is defined by any singular feature, the motorbike is it.

motorbikes whiz past the historic first post office in Saigon

I have been diligently collecting images to accompany a design-related post (stay tuned) but Saigon has not made it easy. This is not a beautiful city. There are some gorgeous buildings and parks, many reflecting the country’s colonial past, but more often the streetscape is weathered and grey as you might expect in a communist country that has struggled against multifarious foes over centuries of turmoil.

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And yet there are moments of beauty and charm sprinkled like diamonds in the dirt.

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The Vietnamese love birds and you often see caged songbirds enjoying the shade outside a shop. In Tao Dan Park there’s a “bird cafe” where bird lovers bring their feathered friends and sit and admire and talk birds, usually during the morning hours before the heat of the day becomes too oppressive.

birds outside shops in Saigon

My time in Saigon has been unlike any other city vacation. I haven’t toured a single museum or gallery, although I did make my way to the Jade Pagoda, below, built in 1909 in honour of the supreme Taoist god, the Jade Emperor.

jade pagoda, saigon

For me, Saigon has mostly been about shopping and eating and getting around, all of which have been far too entertaining to bother with touring musty buildings or pondering the grim remnants of the American War. Saigon is a young, vibrant city where 40 per cent of the population is under the age of 24 and the median age is 29! All that youth and vigor translates into a city that thrums like no other place I’ve ever been.

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After a too-brief sojourn on Phu Quoc I’ll be off to Cambodia to tour the world-famous temples around Siem Reap and then on to Hanoi, Halong Bay and the ancient coastal city of Hoi An; please join me on my journey.

I’d like to express my deepest gratitude to Mark, below, for hosting me and kicking off this wonderful adventure; thank you, thank you, thank you, Mark!

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If you’re traveling to Saigon and require a guide I highly recommend Tran Thanh Phong: +84 (0) 908 50 88 11 or thanhphong_tp@yahoo.com.

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A Fresh Take on Taxidermy

Wednesday, March 18, 2015 by Chris

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bearProfileWalking past the newly re-opened Peter Pan Bistro on Toronto’s Queen Street West (No. 373), I was stopped in my tracks by this art/decor installation from UK artist Debbie Lawson. The restaurant has installed three, large, would-be taxidermy animal heads, each upholstered in Persian carpet. The pieces are beyond striking.

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Chef/owner Noah Goldberg, pictured below, saw Lawson’s work on a trip to London and tracked her down. The Peter Pan installation is the artist’s first North American showing.

I love how the deer, above, disappears into the carpet when viewed head on. Now you see it, now you don’t.  I also love how Lawson goes the extra mile when it comes to details like the curling tongue in the bear’s mouth. Genius.

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In an email Lawson explained that she models the heads in plasticine then constructs them out of steel and a water-based resin called Jesmonite. The real challenge is finding identical carpets with which to work since she needs at least two for every sculpture.

“Sometimes,” she says, “I manage to find identical, real, handmade Persian rugs from random warehouses in far-flung corners of London or other parts of the UK. One time, I tracked down some nice antique Shiraz rugs from an old guy who had collected a shed full over the course of a lifetime of travelling in the Middle East and North Africa.”

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Re-opening today after an 11-month renovation, Peter Pan has been a Queen Street institution for nearly four decades. In fact, there’s been a restaurant on the corner at Peter Street since the 1930s, back when it was called The Savoy.

Goldberg and designer Jessica Ingwersen have lovingly refurbished the original art deco booths and tin ceiling, and installed deco sconces saved from the old Captain John’s restaurant. The mix of old  and new — with Lawson’s fresh take on taxidermy — revives a Queen Street stalwart and promises a new lease on life for Peter Pan.

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Faithful readers know this blog has been dark for many, many months. I’m not promising a return to active blogging, however, I am going traveling again and will be using styleNorth to keep you abreast of my April adventure in Asia. I’ll be spending three weeks in Vietnam and Cambodia and look forward to sharing with you some of the design flavour of the Far East. Stay tuned.

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Rolling Out a Hollace Cluny Exclusive

Tuesday, May 13, 2014 by Chris

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On Thursday I dropped into the new Hollace Cluny showroom in Toronto’s Designer’s Walk where owner Susan Fowlie threw a hopping little soiree to celebrate an exclusive, new wallpaper line, the Hollace Cluny Collection by RSSD X ROLLOUT. Designed by Robert Sangster in partnership with ROLLOUT, the Cluny Collection “is about the combination of handmade and digital processes,” says Sangster, who’s been profiled on styleNorth before (pictured above is Poured and below is Saigon).

“The focus of the collection,” says the designer, “is to capture the spirit of the Hollace Cluny brand which is tasteful and contemporary but at the same time always adventurous, not afraid of innovation, not afraid to take risks. The Hollace Cluny sensibility is what provided the inspiration.”

I’ve missed Cluny since Fowlie and partner Kathy Janules decamped from their long-established location on Yonge Street near Roxborough. And while the shift to Designer’s Walk has resulted in more focus on “the trade,” the shop still welcomes consumers and home decorators.

“I would never turn my back on the public,” Fowlie assured me Thursday. “We were in Rosedale for 17 years and the public was very good to us. But our business was coming more and more from the trade so this move made sense.”

The new Cluny showroom is twice as big as the combined floors of the old shop with lots of light and space to really show off the goods. In addition to RSSD X ROLLOUT, Cluny is now the exclusive distributor of furnishings by Carl Hansen & Son, in addition to an extensive selection of other chic, contemporary brands.

A stroll through the new Hollace Cluny is like slipping into the pages of Dwell or LivingEtc. The space is beautifully styled without being fussy, great inspiration even if, like me, you can’t afford most of what’s on offer. The vignette below features Looking Glass wallpaper from RSSD X ROLLOUT.

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