Renting in Vancouver = expensive + depressing

Basement suite available in Vancouver near Langara College

Hey suckers! Come pay $1,200 a month to live in somebody’s basement! Act now! This offer won’t last!

If you are not familiar with the price of renting in Vancouver, B.C., allow me to enlighten you. Vancouver has the highest rents in Canada and some of the highest in the world. The latest report from the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation says the average two-bedroom apartment in Vancouver is around $1,200. (Toronto comes in a bit lower, Calgary at around $1,100, while Montreal, which has the most beautiful freaking apartments in the country, weighs in at a paltry $700. Damn I wish I could speak French).

Right now, M and are I paying the average, exactly $1,200, for a 900-square-foot suite in a character building in Mount Pleasant. The suite is great, except for the hideous mixed-beige – was there ever a more disgusting non-colour? – carpet. And the price. It’s too much for us. Oh, we can afford it, but just barely. Before this we lived in a 1,000-square-foot apartment on East Hastings for $750 a month. We loved that place, but had to flee to due to filthy noisy neighbours who filthiness caused a cockroach infestation.

So. Anyway. We have decided it’s time to go. We have started to look for a new place to live. Our criteria:

  • no carpet
  • two-bedroom or one-bedroom-and-den or one-bedroom-and-alcove (we need room to fit all our shit, of which we have a lot)
  • max price $1,000 per month
  • must be in Vancouver (but not on southernmost or easternmost fringes)
  • must not be below ground

Does this sound unreasonable? As any Vancouverite will tell you, yes it does. Because if you check the listings on Craiglist, you will see that $1,200 is actually at the low end for a two-bedroom apartment in this maddeningly expensive city. Which means there are a lot of crappy to half-decent places for this price, and a lot that are way more.

And don’t get me started on all the basement suites out there. It seems every homeowner is renovating their basement into a rental suite so they can get some poor slobs who somehow tolerate living underground to pay their mortgage. Whenever I see a listing for a basement suite I get instantly depressed. They’re all the same: tiny windows you have to stand on tiptoe to see out of, everything a uniform off-white to beige. And they use all the same description: Every basement suite is somehow “bright,” even though zero light comes in. The landlords often try to sweeten the deal by providing a washer and dryer, and they all mention the suite is self-contained and has a private entrance. Like what kind of suite is not self-contained and does not have a private entrance? Sheesh.

Oh yes, and they are getting creative, too. Even though I filter out “basement” and “bsmt” from my Craiglist searches, the sinister below-ground accommodations sneak in, because hopeful landlords are now calling them “ground-level” – I suppose that’s fair, if it’s referring to the fact that your eyeballs are level with the ground – or the incredibly euphemistic (and optimistic) “garden level,” which makes it sound all nice and green and viney and dripping with tomatoes and stuff.

Because finding half-decent digs for a half-decent price in this town is such a Herculean task, M and I have decided to make a game out of it. We have three things going for us: we are cheap, we are determined and we love to win (the opponent being Vancouver, of course). So let the game begin. And may the better … entity … win.

Confessions of a Local Celebrity: A Tale of Rags to No Rags

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Have I got a deal for you. My dear husband wrote a memoir called Confessions of a Local Celebrity: A Tale of Rags to No Rags (by Mike Soret), and you can buy it on Amazon for the miniscule amount of $2.99! 

The book is an account of the Vancouver swing music scene of the late ’90s as told by the infamous and usually drunken frontman (my hubby) of the Dixieland punk band The Molestics. It’s a wild and wonderful ride, filled with dry, cynical, self-deprecating humour, personal stories, accounts of bands of the era, and the challenges facing small time touring acts in Canada.

Mike’s mom read it and said she couldn’t put it down. 

But why trust what the women in his life have to say? Here’s some reviews from real reviewers:

An acrid, profane, and viciously funny book.” – Adrian Mack, Georgia Straight

Thanks to Soret’s Montreal theatre background and ache for the bottle, the Molestics’ chatty gigs across Canada were hilarious, sloppy and wild – legendary to some. And his newly published book is a relatable, relentless and relentlessly entertaining tale of drinking, friendship and low-level Canadian fame (is there any other kind?). – Fish Griwkowsky, Toronto Star

Mike Soret’s seriously impolite and unabashedly original Confessions of a Local Celebrity: A Tale of Rags to No Rags is more playful and revealing than most readers will be able to handle—which is more or less its validation…This is a very, very funny book by a clever writer.” – Alan Twigg, publisher, BC Bookworld

Memories of Burma

A Burmese woman rows a wooden boat down the canal leading to Inle Lake, Burma, Myanmar.

Ma Kyi Nnunt, my Burmese friend, wears a retro track jacket hipsters would kill for.

A few years ago – all right, it was like 15 years ago – I spent a month in Burma. I loved it. I wrote this account of something that happened there, but it never got published anywhere. So I thought, why don’t I publish it on my blog? Then I remembered my blog is supposed to be about being cheap. Then I remembered that Burma is the most inexpensive place I’ve ever been. In one month I spent $125. No joke. And it cost me about $100 to get to and from there from Bangkok by air. Cheap, right? All right then, here we go:

Her name was Ma Kyi Nyunt. She was 37, thin and straight, and her black hair, streaked with white, was pinned into a bun on the crown of her head. She wore a traditional Burmese sarong and an Adidas-style polyester track jacket, such as what was all the rage in the West a few years ago. But Ma Kyi Nyunt had no idea about what was in and what was out in the world of fashion. She was just trying to survive.

She lived on the canal leading to Inle Lake, a serene, ethereal body of water where tourists were chugged out at dawn in speed boats to see the fishermen row their boats with their legs, one leg wrapped around the oar while they perched with the other on the sterns of their little wooden crafts.

Early one morning I was walking along the canal taking pictures. I sat down on a dock to change the film in my camera and noticed a woman in a tiny rowboat coming towards me. When she got close, she asked me in halting English if I wanted to take a tour of her village. I said no thanks and finished loading my film. She brought her boat alongside the dock and stepped up onto the dock, and sat beside me as if we were old friends.

She asked me who I was and where I was from. She said she lived just across the canal and that she made her living taking tourists to the special places in her village. She had such quietude about her and such an easygoing, unassuming demeanor, that I changed my mind and told her I would love to see her village.

We got into her boat and she rowed us across to her home, an airy wooden house on stilts. It looked like a giant crate and the windows had shutters but no glass. The toilet was outside, a hole in the ground surrounded by woven reed mats for privacy. The toilet paper was pages torn out of an old English novel.

She invited me inside her house and we sat on the floor, as there was no furniture. She showed me pictures and postcards that tourists had given her as gifts, and a photo of an Italian named Giorgio whom she called her boyfriend.

Two Burmese women in sarongs and rice picker's hats row a wooden boat down the canal to Inle Lake, Burma, Myanmar.

Ma Kyi Nnunt (back) and her mother in their little wooden boat on the canal leading to Inle Lake.

Ma Kyi Nyunt told me she was the main breadwinner in her family. Her father was dead. Her oldest brother had had a boating accident the previous year that left him unable to walk, and he earned a little money by weaving baskets, which he did sitting cross-legged on a mat underneath the house. Her other brother tilled a piece of land just up the canal, but the land itself belonged to someone else. Her mother, who was in her 60s, had stomach problems and couldn’t do any kind of labour.

While we were talking, Ma Kyi Nyunt often looked out the window that faced the canal. She told me this was how she spotted tourists. If she saw someone walking along the canal, she would get into her little boat and row across to them, just as she had done with me. But Ma Kyi Nyunt’s glances on this day were furtive, and she had a worried look on her face.

She told me the previous day she had taken a French tourist out on her boat. She brought him to see the Buddhist temple in her village, the animist shrines, the cigar rolling factory and finally the papaya plantation. There, amid the protection of the papaya trees, he grabbed her and asked her how much she charged for an hour of sex. She pulled away from him and said she wasn’t a prostitute. He persisted, but she managed to stave him off.

As she told me the story she began to cry. She was so distraught she could barely get the words out. She insisted he hadn’t done anything more than grab her by the arm, but I wasn’t so sure.

No sooner had she finished relating her story than she looked again out the window, and in a voice devoid of emotion said, “There he is.” I jumped up and peered out the window, and sure enough, there was a middle-aged, paunchy man standing across the canal looking at her house.

I shouted at him, “What do you want?”

“Is she there?”

“You stay away the hell away from her,” I screamed, “and if you don’t, I’ll call the police.”

He didn’t move. “I want to talk to her.”

I let out a string of curse words and threats so vitriolic he didn’t dare say anything back. He shrugged and reluctantly turned and walked back toward town.

Ma Kyi Nyunt thanked me in a small voice and said it was time for us to take the tour.

She took me to the animist shrines, where the people made offerings of fruit and prayed to the nats, or animist spirits. We visited the tiny Buddhist temple, where a white-faced Buddha sat peacefully on top of his altar in a nest of incense sticks, and the cigar rolling factory, where young girls and old women sat shoulder-to-shoulder on the ground hand-rolling cheroots.

We walked to the boat and Ma Kyi Nyunt put on a conical rice-picker’s hat, and gave me one to wear, too, against the burning sun. I sat in the boat and she got up on the stern, and began rowing with her leg.

We travelled up the canal until we got to the papaya plantation, the scene of her shameful encounter with the Frenchman. On this day it was just her and me, and row upon row of green leafy trees dripping with still-green fruit. This was the end of the tour.

When Ma Kyi Nyunt took me back to the dock where she’d found me, I tried to pay her for the tour, but she shook her head and started to cry, waving away the bills in my hand.

“No,” she said. “You are my sister.”

Two days later, I went back to see Ma Kyi Nyunt. I walked back up the canal, this time my arms full of bags of fruit and cookies. I stood across from her house and waited. Her mother saw me and rowed across in the little wooden boat, and took me back with her. She was delighted with the fruit and cookies, not because she wanted to eat them, but because she had something to offer the nats. She communicated this to me through smiles and gestures, her English as lacking as my Burmese.

She took the things into the house and emerged with a rice picker’s hat, which she gave me to put on. She got back into the boat and we travelled up the canal, and after a few minutes she brought the boat alongside the bank. We got off where there were some men tilling land under the hot sun, and I understood that we had come to see her son, the one working the fields that were not his. His mother gave him a tin bucket containing his lunch, and I smiled and shook his hand.

As we were heading back to the boat, Ma Kyi Nyunt appeared. Somehow she’d heard I was there – perhaps a neighbour had told her – and she’d come to find me. The three of us went back to the family’s airy wooden house on stilts. Her mother fed me a simple but tasty meal of vegetables, curry and rice, and of course tea, which is as popular in Burma as it is in China. When Ma Kyi Nyunt left the room to look for some pictures she wanted to show me, I took money out of my pocket and tucked the folded bills between the pages of a book that was lying on the floor. I put more money under the little rug I was sitting on.

When she came back into the room I asked her if the Frenchman had returned. She said no. She also said that all of her neighbours had heard me scream at him that day. I couldn’t tell if she was mortified or grateful.

I left Inle Lake two days later, and Burma soon after. I sent one letter to Ma Kyi Nyunt, but I don’t know if she ever got it. I wondered if Giorgio, her Italian boyfriend, had come back to fetch her and whisk her off to Europe, like he’d promised. I doubted it. The world is full of romantic-minded travellers who promise to pull the less fortunate out of the morass of poverty and repression, but never make good on it. Also, it is next to impossible for a Burmese to get a passport.

At that time, Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the National League for Democracy, was still under house arrest in Rangoon. She urged tourists not to visit Burma, as an act of protest against the brutal military dictatorship that ruled this hermetic, deeply religious country.

I felt pangs of guilt when I booked my plane ticket there from Bangkok. But when I met Ma Kyi Nyunt, who depended on tourists to help her and her family survive, I saw things in a whole new light. I hope the money I left in the book and under the rug brought them food, or offerings for the nats, or new conical hats to wear while rowing the boat. But mostly I was happy I’d been there to scare off the Frenchman, who had so callously assumed that because she was a poor woman living in a poor country, Ma Kyi Nyunt would be willing to sell her body to make a buck.

The death of Toyota

This photo shows a 1995 Toyota 4Runner

Oooooh, what a feeling to scraaaaaaap, Toyota.

Not the company, but our 1995 4Runner, may she rest in peace.

We lost her a couple weeks ago on a trip to Vancouver Island. We were planning to sell her – had in fact already bought a zippy and fuel-efficient Honda Civic to replace her – but wanted to go on one last jaunt with her.

We decided to sell her because, let’s face it, 4Runners are pigs on gas.  Continue reading

How to fix a gramophone spring without killing yourself

So, yeah, M loves gramophones but does not necessarily want to pay full price for one in pristine condition that actually, you know, works. Well, a little while ago he bought a lovely little tabletop model from a yard sale in White Rock for $40. Did it work? Of course not. The spring, aka the motor (how’s that for analogue?), was broken. In this case you have two options: a) hand it over to a qualified gramophone repair person who will do the job right and charge you $150 or b) repair the spring yourself and risk being decapitated/severing your fingers if the spring, which has super sharp edges, decides to, well, spring (I’m not making this up – every site M checked said: DO NOT ATTEMPT TO DO THIS YOURSELF).

As Caesar said, “Veni, vidi, vici.” In other words, M tried and succeeded, head and fingers intact. If anyone out there aspires to fix a gramophone spring, watch these videos:

Part 1

Part 2

Black widows included

This photo shows a vintage china cabinet with rose details, from Mexico.

Does it come apart? It does now.

Warning: the following contains scenes of destruction, waste, illegal dumping and potentially lethal eight-legged creatures. Viewer discretion is advised.

M and I are minor hoarders (you should see our respective shoe collections) and one day we decide we need a shelf-cum-cupboard to house our increasing collection of footwear, and books. Continue reading

Cheap Mac repair

This photo shows a rotten apple sitting on grass.

Sometimes, Apple can be really rotten.

I’ll cut to the chase. Recently I turned on my beloved MacBook Pro (c. 2007) to find that, though the machine powered up, the screen remained black. After doing a few tests, I read up on the problem and it seemed like it could be the logic board. And bonus: if it was the logic board, and it had failed due to the graphics card, Apple would replace it for free. Continue reading