Eating Edmonton: Juniper Cafe & Bistro

Eating Edmonton: Juniper Cafe & Bistro

Ah, the old Strathearn Pub, we hardly knew thee. You definitely won’t be missed. An eyesore on the neighborhood, filled with some fairly questionable clientele, and being shut down for running drugs through the bar? Not the type of thing that the actually pretty nice Strathearn neighborhood needed.

Sure, there were some crazed nights of poor decisions there, but really, the area deserves something better than a poorly run, sketchy, cocaine-trafficking pub.

Enter the Juniper Cafe & Bistro, who have recently opened their doors after revamping the space formerly occupied by the bar (9514 87 st).

Walking in to the Juniper, it is hardly recognizable as the old Strathearn. Which is definitely a good thing. They have gone through great pains to completely revamp the space, and now instead of a dank pub where the bigger fear is getting stabbed over quality service, the Juniper is a bright and airy cafe, lined with small tables and a walk-up counter to place your order, filled with delicious-looking treats.

juniper2At first, the Juniper had some small growing pains, such as not taking debit when they opened, or only having photocopies of the small menu, or not having their liquor license in place, but those are hiccups that small businesses have to deal with. Upon return visits, they have definitely been ironing out the kinks.

For the menu, the Juniper offers a small selection of choices for each meal. I have frequented there most often for breakfast, so at this point I am unable to speak to the dinner options. But the brekkie is…good. Upon my first visit there, I was offered a free order of their signature breakfast sandwich, a pulled pork Eggs Bennie sandwich. (The price is $10, which is a little steep, so a was more than happy to take one for free!)

I was unsure at first, since the food was a combination of things I never really cared for. Then I absolutely devoured it. It was delicious. They wanted feedback on their food, and I provide it happily here. It was one of the best breakfast sandwiches I have ever had. So, it would definitely be worth the price.

juniper4As for the other things I’ve tried, the scones are delicious. Blueberry and rosemary? Good. Raspberry and white chocolate? Good. A simple cup of coffee? Good. The Juniper has been all hits for me so far, and I look forward to the short stroll from my place to them on the weekend, to pick up something to snack on.

I truly hope that the Juniper is able to succeed in their location. It is a quiet spot, tucked away from the main traffic of the city, but it serves as a great little local cafe. Each time I have been in there, it seems to be doing good business so far, which is great to see. With an incredibly friendly staff who truly care that you like their food and their place, and increasing efficiency each time I’ve gone in. It will be a place that I will visit, whether it is for a meal, or quick coffee.

The Juniper is a breath of fresh air for the Strathearn area. It is exactly what the place needs, and does wonders for the small, decrepit, mostly abandoned strip mall that it locates. Perhaps the success of the Juniper will draw other small businesses to open up in the area, and bring the place back to life. (As long as Ralph’s Handi-Mart is still around- best fried chicken in the city- not even kidding, it is something of legend in the area.)

If you’re in the area, stop by the Juniper. It is a nice little place for those who have never been around Strathearn before, and a shock to the system for those who remember the days of the Pub, or actually dared to step inside there.

Best of luck to the Juniper, and I hope that they are around for a long time, so that I get the chance to eat more of their delicious stuff!

Eating Edmonton: Tzin Wine and Tapas

Eating Edmonton: Tzin Wine and Tapas

Any time there is an item on a menu simply called “Bacon”, I am sold.

Tzin Wine and Tapas in Edmonton (10115- 104th street, right by the Blue Plate Diner) is a tiny hole-in-the-wall wine bar that can hold about 30 people at a time in a warm setting in the downtown area. What is provided here is a nice atmosphere, a very friendly staff, a cozy setting, and some good wine selections.

tzin3
For food, Tzin doesn’t have an extensive menu, which is nice, and should be expected. It is tapas style, serving small portions so that you are able to try a few different things. And from my experience, those different things are quite tasty, and perfect for sharing.

We ate the Bacon and the Shrimp (I just love the simple names!), and both were very delicious, providing some tasty snacks in between sips of the main star of Tzin, which is the wine selection. A very good selection of both reds and whites should do the trick for wine lovers of all sorts. There isn’t much in the way of description of the wines, which would have been kind of nice, but it is more a place for someone who knows what kind of wine they like, and would like to try something that you can’t always get at the local Liquor Depot.

The prices aren’t bad, although Tzin isn’t exactly the kind of place one would go to if they were on some kind of budget. For two appetizers, and two glasses of wine each, the bill came to $100. Not insane, but not somewhere that could be frequented on a weekly basis on my income. But for the time there, it was well worth it.

tzin4The wines we tried were both delicious, and we both really liked the food that we had. The cozy atmosphere was quite nice, and despite the proximity of the tables to one another, it does feel like there is some sort of privacy. Even though they may be a couple of feet away from you, it is not like you have to hear every word that your neighbors are saying, and there is no need to up the volume on your conversation because the other people are too loud. It is quite nice.

Tzin’s decor definitely looks like a wine bar. The cramped quarters, the heavy velvet curtain upon entering the main door, the friendly server, all adds to the atmosphere of Tzin, and helps make it a pleasant evening there.

This is not a restaurant where I would recommend going for a full meal, but it is a good place for an after-work drink, or a quick bite and glass of wine with friends. It can also serve as a good date location. There is nothing but positive things to say about this place, and I would definitely recommend it, as well as frequent it again myself.

Eating Edmonton: Izakaya Tomo

Eating Edmonton: Izakaya Tomo

I’ll be the first to admit that I am extremely picky about Japanese restaurants. Having lived in Japan, I want it to be as authentic as possible, without having to absolutely break the bank in order to get some good sushi, and other delicious Japanese cuisine.

In Edmonton, there are some very solid sushi restaurants. Many of them will annihilate your wallet before leaving, and others will leave you with a reasonable sushi experience, but nothing great.

tomoPrior to going, I had heard nothing but positive things about Izakaya Tomo, located on 99th Street, near 34th Avenue. It is pretty innocuous in a small strip mall next to a hot yoga joint.

Walking in, Izakaya Tomo provides a genuine izakaya feel. It’s not hidden booths and crammed with tables like many Western restaurants, but open, and filled with picnic-style tables, similar to the styles that would be more commonly found in Japan. The decor has it down, and if anything, that is a really good start.

There is an excellent selection of alcohol, including a good variety of beer and sake, and although the menu is not massive, there is a nice selection of Japanese fare to be had. Sushi, rolls, some rices, along with some traditional hot dishes make up for a good opportunity to do some sampling.

IMG_2811The best part about izakayas in Japan (izakaya simply means “pub style”) is that there is always a variety of food, and it is cheap, so that you can order a bunch and share. It is not typical to order yourself a meal. The idea is to order a ton of things, get to sample a little bit of everything, and pay a small price for each dish. Izakaya Tomo does most of this right. Some of the prices are a bit high here, and it is definitely easy to rack up a pretty impressive bill. Such is a problem with getting “foreign” cuisine at Western prices. People are willing to pay it, so there is no reason that it needs to be cheaper (for example, an order of maki rolls will set you back about $4.50, whereas this is generally filler food in Japan, usually to be had for little more than a dollar per order).

But, the food is worth it.

tomo3Everything that we tried as a group, was good. The negitoro was beyond delicious (to the point where we went through five orders of it), and the rolls were excellent (except for the California rolls, which used imitation crab, similar to what you would find at Safeway, making it the only disappointing thing about the restaurant). The fried rice was good (especially the one with the pickles in it- seems weird, but trust me). The okonimiyaki-style dish got rave reviews. The gyoza was solid. The beef tataki was fresh and full of flavour. The fish was fresh and tasty, making it a very good meal.

The atmosphere inside is nice, to along with the good food. It is a fun, laid back place, with a good hubbub from the customers, and a nice buzz to the place.

tomo5In the end, there were five of us, and we racked up a bill of over $170, including drinks (can’t say no to the massive beers!). At about $40/person, we ate until we were full and had enough drinks to keep us happy. Not the best deal in the world, but still, it is nothing out of the ordinary for dining out in Edmonton, especially on Japanese food. And again, the food is absolutely worth it.

Izakaya Tomo is now my favorite Japanese restaurant in Edmonton. It comes the closest to recreating the pub experience in Japan, the food is good, it’s a fun place to go, and despite the perceived high prices, it is really no more expensive than any other sushi joint in town.

I would definitely recommend Izakaya Tomo for anyone in Edmonton looking for a good evening, good drinks, good food, and a relaxed atmosphere.

Eating Tokyo: Genki Sushi

Eating Tokyo: Genki Sushi

It’s difficult to choose a restaurant in Tokyo to choose to review, since there are just so many of them. It has to be one that people will specifically make an attempt to visit, and Genki Sushi, in the Shibuya district, is just that.

genkiA take on kaiten sushi, where plates of sushi pass you by on a conveyor belt, and you simply pick the plates that you want to eat and are charged based on the number (and colour coded prices) of plates that you eat, Genki Sushi makes the kaiten experience even more…Japanese.

Might as well make the sushi eating experience a little more futuristic.

genki5At Genki Sushi, once you have found it, lined up with the other foreigners who want to try it out, and found a place at either the plentiful counters or few booths (for larger groups, there are about 3 booths that can seat 6 each), you start to scroll through the computer screen, where you can build up your own orders. You are able to order 3 items at a time, and once you have selected your food, you get to wait for the fun part.

It comes to you on a trolley on a conveyor belt. I have to admit, it is pretty fun to see your food making its way towards you, at a pretty quick speed, on a little table that is like a train that brings sushi. Taking your plates from the trolley, you push a button to send it back, and then dig in and enjoy. You are able to make as many orders as you like, but only 3 items at a time.

genki4The sushi menu itself is pretty expansive, and you will struggle to find a kind of fish that you want, and not see it on the menu. Many Westerners tend to enjoy the rolls quite a bit, as they are some of the most common elements on North American sushi restaurant menus, and there are a few choices here. But the main draw is the fish itself.

Typically, kaiten is your low end option for sushi. It is fast, and cheap, and gets the job done. Genki Sushi is simply better food, for the same price, along with fun put into the whole thing. The choices are strong, the sushi is good, and the entertainment value is second-to-none.

It is very possible to eat a large sushi meal here for under $15. Again, it all depends on how much you want to order. On my first visit, 4 friends and I created a pile of plates as tall as we were (seated), had some drinks, were full by the end of it, and it cost us each about $12. You can’t beat that.

There are some especially delicious choices on the menu that you won’t find at a regular kaiten restaurant: the trout is excellent, as is the mackarel. There are also some “grilled” salmon options (meaning they’ve spent a couple of seconds under a blow torch), that come with onions and mayo that are quite delicious.

genki3It makes sense why Genki Sushi has become such a popular place among Tokyoites and foreigners alike. It is good, cheap food, with a unique twist. This is something that we simply do not have back home (although apparently there will be a Genki Sushi opening in Seattle soon), therefore making it a destination place in the heart of Shibuya. Considering the hundreds of restaurants in the area, it is pretty easy to find, and well worth it in the end.

Genki Sushi was good enough that I took the time to make more than one stop there, and was satisfied with each trip. Delicious.

Ski Report: Panorama Mountain Resort

Ski Report: Panorama Mountain Resort

Panorama Mountain Resort, just outside of Invermere, British Columbia, is a favorite ski spot for its very consistent conditions, and beautiful mountain village. With a ton of condos right on the hill, or (worse case) just a short gondola ride up a hill, everything is close and within reach in the village. There are a handful of very good restaurants and the Great Lodge always makes a good place to relax after a few hard runs down the hill.

This year, the ski conditions weren’t at their best, as Panorama needs one thing right now: a massive amount of snow.

pano2Most runs were open, and generally, there was decent snow coverage, with only the occasional rock or exposed chunk of land, but it really could use a big dump to get a little bit of powder going, to cover up the icy spots and return Panorama to its normal skiing glory.

The resort does well with what it has, having the runs nicely groomed for each day on the hill, and one of the best features of the mountain is that each run is generally big enough that you are able to find a route down that is relatively untouched, or without traces of ice. Despite our concerns for the lack of snow, it provided a couple of days of very solid, if unspectacular, skiing.

A couple of things that have changed in Pano over the past year:

1. There is no longer hot breakfast being served in the Great Hall until 11 AM. This came as a bit of a surprise, since it had always been busy in there for breakfast before. In fact, the Great Hall served no more made-to-order meals, instead relying on churning out burgers and fries and having them sit under heat lamps until they are grabbed by a customer. This created a lot less traffic in the cafeteria area, since it was always a very long wait for food before, but it does create a lower quality meal.

2. Employees tend to be very confused on the locations of things that probably should be a part of their job. It took me asking three different employees where the Ski Patrol station was, so that I could check on an injured student. None of them knew where it was, and I had to rely on some good wandering in order to find the place. I had just assumed that people who worked there would know where certain things were located. I was incorrect.

pano53. The condos at Panorama are always very nice. They all have nice, large balconies, and are quite spacious, and have rooms available for various sizes of groups. This year, a couple of the rooms were not as prepared as they could have been, or have been in the past. Missing bedding for pull-out couches became hard to come by, and there was more than one instance where there was a lovely stash of smelly garbage in a room. These are small things that can be easily remedied by housekeeping and guest services. We were happy to be in the perfectly located Panorama Springs building.

4. This year, Panorama has changed their ideas around for storage, insisting that no skis or boards enter the rooms. They now provide lockers on the first floor of the building where you can store your stuff. But this raises a few issues, with one locker being assigned per room. The lockers are the size of your typical high school locker, meaning there is little chance of fitting a snowboard in there, let alone six. At best, you could get two pairs of skis in there, but nothing more, and even that requires a degree in engineering to figure out. Locks are provided by the front desk, with a $20 deposit if they are not returned. Somehow, this new locker usage feels like a money grab, since it provides far more inconvenience that needed. I see no issue with leaving skis and boards on the balconies of the rooms, as it has always been done before. Another issue is that the locks have the combinations attached to them on a small, easy-to-lose card, which of course could lead to a whole other whack of issues.

Panorama is a definite favorite spot for skiing. This year, it was not perfect, but perhaps that is more to blame on mother nature and her refusal to snow much this year. The weather was absolutely perfect, hovering near the freezing mark for much of the time. It offered a perfect day outside, and warm enough to sit outside on the large patio at the Great Hall, to enjoy the spectacular views, some good times, and some good skiing.

I will always recommend Panorama to others as an optimal place to ski. Despite the little foibles that we found this year, it is still a great place to go. Maybe wait, and be sure to check those snow reports, before heading out.

Long Way Down (TV Review)

Long Way Down (TV Review)

Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman are back for another incredible motorcycle trip in Long Way Down, the follow up to their incredibly successful, and amazingly watchable, Long Way Round. In this journey, the two friends decide to bike from the very northern tip of Scotland, all the way to the most southern point of South Africa, seeing as much as they can on the way down.

long3The series’ made by these two are so fun and interesting to watch, that I can only hope there are going to be more on the way. (There are talks that they are going to be making a third version of the series, another monster trip from the south of South America, up to Alaska, called, of course, Long Way Up.)

So many interesting things happen to these guys on their trips, and it is of course surrounded by incredible natural scenery, as they make their way through Europe and then criss-cross the African continent.

  • The friendship between McGregor and Boorman is what makes this show tick. They are very likable people, and they are endlessly watchable.
  • It is always cool to see a famous actor just being a regular person, and this very much is how McGregor is. He doesn’t play on his fame, and really does seem to be just a normal guy. He is funny, and relaxed, but gets worked up over the same things as anybody else would.
  • There is conflict in the series, just as there was on Round. Nothing while traveling is ever perfect, and disagreements happen. They are open to them.
  • They always stop to do charity work along the way. This is great to see, and gives their trip more than just the “rich actors wanting to do cool, crazy stuff” idea.
  • I love the planning episodes. It is like a travelers dream, to be pouring over maps like that.
  • Incredible scenery.
  • The chance to experience so many things. The people they meet along the way, the tiny villages they stay in, the local flavours of Africa. They aren’t just high-tailing it across a continent, they want to be able to experience it as much as humanly possible.
  • The riding itself looks incredible. They go from solid blacktop roads, to brutal deep sand. Even them, being very experienced riders, spend a lot of time falling off their bikes, but still pushing forward in fairly undriveable conditions.
  • Their love of motorbikes is infectious. It would be hard to watch their series without some part of you craving to get your licence, and start learning how to ride a bike, if you don’t know how already. It really does seem like complete freedom. The open road, the views, having your own thoughts all day. Incredible.
  • The human factor: our two main characters get tired, they get grouchy, they want to quit, they need a day off. All of these things happen on any kind of road trip, and they are not immune to it.
  • Respect: they are always respectful of their surroundings, and they don’t just come roaring into town expecting the best of everything because they are making a TV show. They are happy to be treated well, and are content with often meager amenities. Boorman and McGregor do not act like primadonnas, which is great.
  • Excellent camera work. With personal video diaries, helmet cams, and a couple of camera men along on their journey, it is captured and edited very well. Not much is missed, and it is put together in a nice, entertaining way.
  • For those who have also read the book that came out before the series, like Long Way Round, this is another great way to accompany it, with the visuals that go along with the descriptions in the book.

longFor travelogues, Long Way Down is top notch. Although I have never held a particular interest in Africa, seeing their adventures has definitely opened my eyes to how incredible the place can be. This is another fun show from these two guys, and would definitely recommend checking it out on Netflix.

Maidentrip (Film Review)

Maidentrip (Film Review)

Films about sailing are awesome. I always enjoy watching people take to the seas, and undertake these massive, often solitary, journeys to the far reaches of the world. There are some really good films out there about sailing, and there are some mediocre ones.

One of the best that I have seen is Maidentrip, a documentary about the sailing travels of Laura Dekker, a (at the beginning of the film) 14-year-old Dutch girl who wanted to sail solo across the world, over the course of approximately two years.

maiden3There are many great things about this documentary. First, all of the footage at sea was shot by Laura herself. She was not followed around on her journey by support boats, planes, of helicopters. She really was out there, all on her own. Secondly, there isn’t a ton of information prior to the beginning of the trip. We don’t have to take all the time to learn about the sponsors and whatnot, but we do get to see the issues with her voyage. The Dutch government actually tried to prevent her from doing the trip, trying to prove that is was neglectful parenting to allow someone so young undertake such a dangerous journey, all by herself.

The filmmakers don’t let the legal wranglings slow the story down, however. They provide nice amounts of background information, without preventing us from getting to the part that we really want to see: the sailing.

With no media fanfare, Laura eventually pushes off to sea, to start her two year journey. Only her father is there to see her off. It is strange to watch, actually, considering the fanfare that many other journeys like this have received. An example of the opposite can be seen in Wild Eyes: The Abby Sunderland Story, another sea tale about a young girl trying to circumnavigate the globe on her own.

At sea, we truly get to learn about Laura. And she definitely undergoes a transformation. While she begins by missing things from home, and wanting to see people on her occasional stops, she slowly stops missing things, and truly embraces and loves being on her own. Even during her longest stretches at sea by herself, she is quite satisfied with it. She doesn’t crack; she doesn’t go insane. She keeps moving. And we, as an audience, respect her for it.

Laura’s maturation on the the waves of the world is impressive, and interesting. She stops missing her father, she explains the separation of her family from a very young age, and while we may think that she has a somewhat cavalier attitude towards it all, we often forget that she is just a teenager, figuring out her place in the world.

Eventually, Laura turns her back on the Netherlands, no longer flying their flag off the back of her small boat. She claims that she no longer has anything in common with the Dutch people, aside from speaking the same language. She instead flies the flag of New Zealand, the place she was born, but never got to spend any time there. New Zealand became a place of dreams for her, somewhere she had never really been, even though it was the place of her birth.

maidenShe struggles with the massive issues of her identity, and she does it all alone. And she does it impressively.

There are so many impressive things about this kid. Her reasons for being out on the seas are not for fame, or the record of being the youngest solo traveler to go around the world. She is doing it because she loves to sail.

So much so, in fact, that when her trip is concluded, she doesn’t stop.

She keeps on sailing.

This is a kid who knows what they want, and is going to stop at nothing to achieve their goals, and find what they are looking for. Her time at sea made her wise beyond her years, and at the end of the film, as a sixteen-year-old, she has truly become independent, mature, intelligent, and fearless. To have the chance to watch this journey is amazing, making Maidentrip such a good film. She really does get to that point where she doesn’t need anybody else to help her. She knows that she can do it on her own. And so she does.

This documentary is definitely a must watch for those who like films about sailing, like Wild EyesDeep WaterKon-Tiki, and the like.

Just a head’s up, much of the movie is spoken in Dutch, so there are subtitles. But Laura also speaks English in parts of the movie, specifically with the people that she meets along the way, on her stops in various parts of the world.

Mile…Mile & a Half (Film Review)

Mile…Mile & a Half (Film Review)

This adventure documentary, which can be found on Netflix, is about a group of friends, artists, photographers, filmmakers, and sound technicians, who set out to hike the John Muir Trail (JMT) in California. The hike is over 200 miles, crosses snow and desert and mountain passes and rivers that are bigger than they might seem. It will take the group 25 days to cross the entire trail, and show us their adventures along the way. 

Mile…Mile & a Half works for two simple reasons: 1. the scenery is absolutely incredible. Having talented people on the hike means that there are beautiful panoramic views of waterfalls and mountains throughout the film. It is incredible to see the untouched nature that lies in California, a place we often imagine with only beaches, surf, and bustling cities. But there remains a massive part of the state that is open to those who want to see it, and the JMT is a great example of that. The second reason this film works so well is because of the people. They are fun, and enjoyable to watch throughout the film. These are not jacked-up adrenaline junkies, doing crazy things that normal people could never pull off doing. They are regular folks, who love the outdoors. This is not a life-testing hike, and despite a couple of dangerous spots, we know that they are going to come out alive on the other side. There is nothing terribly extreme about the JMT, just a ton of natural beauty, enjoyed by some pretty fun people, that by the end of the film, we totally wouldn’t mind meeting along the way on a hike. 

mile2Perhaps the best part of the documentary is the other people that the group encounters along the trail. They aren’t making a film selfishly, about themselves, and about overcoming the obstacles of nature. They are making a film about being in it, and loving it. And a part of that is the lives of the other people that they meet along the way. They give them screen time, and we get to know their stories as well. The teachers from Colorado who join up with their group. The young painters, who hike every day with heavy loads of canvas and paints on their backs so they can get some incredible views in the early morning light. The musicians, who they meet near the end of their journey. And the Japanese woman, who is doing the trail alone, but in the end realizes that she really wants to share in her success, and wants the camaraderie.

While the film is about nature, it is about people too. And that is what makes it such a fun watch. While they challenge themselves, they remain real people, and they like to have fun. They get goofy, give each other nicknames, make bets, and play games along the way. 

For those who love nature, and perhaps have never seen the incredible, pristine beauty that California has to offer, Mile…Mile & a Half is a worthy film for you to watch. 

The Drifters (Book Review)

The Drifters (Book Review)

When I first read The Drifters, maybe 15 years ago, it became an instant classic in my mind, and a book that I had always considered in my top-3 favorite novels of all-time. It was incredible, and encompassed everything that there was for the traveler, for the person who was not quite sure where their place in the world was yet, and was willing to go and find it. Among travelers, The Drifters should be considered the bible. While a book like The Beach did its own thing for a new generation of backpackers, The Drifters has always been there for us to take along on long train rides, time at the beach, or lazy days between bar hopping, in whatever locale you could think of.

drift2Since I first read this James A. Michener classic, so many things have changed. Then, I was first starting to travel, having completed my first six-month journey across Europe. But I never felt complete after that first journey, and knew that I needed to be back out there, my life strapped to my back, and looking for more. The Drifters was a book that resonated with me, because I no longer had to feel out of place among my friends, who had chosen their life paths at 20 years old, and knew what they were going to be doing. I had no clue. But there were many, many others like me, so I felt good in my need to keep searching.

I started reading The Drifters again while I was in Honduras, figuring the tropical setting would be a good place to see again what the characters that I had grown to love got up to during their years of travel across Europe and Africa. To relive their trials and tribulations, their glories and successes, and their soul-crushing failures. I again wanted to sit with them in The Alamo in Torremolinos and listen to music, run with the bulls with Joe and Mr. Holt in Pamplona, or watch the elephants with them in Mozambique.

Reading the novel again, it was easy to once again become engrossed in their lives. And seeing them now from the perspective of an older man, one who has lived, and one who has pretty much found what he is looking for, allowed me to see these characters as they truly were, to see their innocence and views on the world in a different light. Maybe upon my first reading, I was more like one of the characters, whereas now, I am probably in between one of them and Mr. Fairbanks, the older narrator of the novel who is connected to each of the six young people in different ways, and keeps meeting up with them at certain points in their journey. Reading it again allowed me to recapture some of my own feelings from being on  the road for all those months and years in my youth, remembering how I looked at the world in my younger days, remembering the need to find something more important than the typical life that home offered me. Sure, my motives may have been different from the six characters, and the time of their travels was during one of the most intense moments in American history (the book was published in 1971, during the Vietnam War, and this conflict plays a major role in the novel), but the result was the same: we all left home and hit the road to find inspiration.

I am going to write about the characters in the novel as though the reader of this review has read the novel as well. Since it is not a new book, I am going to assume that most people have already read it. So there will be spoilers throughout this review, but I wanted to make sure that I was able to completely write about the characters, instead of cutting myself off, trying not to ruin anything. I am just going to focus on the central six, even though there are other great characters in this novel that play a smaller role, like Big Loomis and Jemail in Marakech, Clive and his purple satchel full of new records, or Jean Victor, who really gets things started in getting the six together. I won’t make specific mention, except in passing, of Fairbanks and Holt, either.

Joe: Joe has been drafted by the American military, and if he reports, will be shipped off to Vietnam. He does not believe that the war is a just war, and he refuses to comply, therefore becoming a draft dodger. His method of escape is to go to Europe, where the military can’t find him. He understands that this decision comes with severe consequences, namely that if he ever returns to the States, he will be imprisoned for dodging the draft. He has such strong convictions about this, that he leaves the US, probably forever. With the help of Mr. Fairbanks and a girl who turns out to be Gretchen, Joe ends up in Torremolinos, Spain, a haven for young people at the time. Plane loads of people would end up in the Spanish beach town, typically for 15-day all-inclusive vacations, that for many people, ended up lasting much longer. It was a place full of beautiful girls, typically German or Scandinavian, and the party scene was non-stop. It doesn’t take long before Joe, pretty broke to begin with, starts work as a bartender at The Alamo, a tiny, dingy bar in Torremolinos, that becomes the central hangout for the drifters during their time in this part of Spain.

Joe is in a way, a prototypical American boy, but at the same time, his strength comes from his silence and his convictions in his belief. Throughout the novel, he is one of the more sturdy characters. He manages to play a steadying role in the lives of the gang, since he seems to be one of the more emotionally stable, and his life tragedy that got him to Spain is something that he continues to believe in. He is not shy about telling people that he is there to avoid the draft, and will verbally battle anybody who feels that he is a coward for stepping out on his country. This is only a point of view held by the older characters, as the young people all agree with him, that the war is unfair, and he should not have to sacrifice his life for a decision (that they believe is poor- I don’t want to get too much into the conflict of Vietnam, and whether it was right or wrong) made by his government. While Joe is doomed to never return to his home, he easily makes a life in whichever spot that he lands in. There is always the awareness that even if the other drifters find what they are looking for, and decide to one day return to their homelands, he will not be able to do so. He will be a drifter forever, or he will need to go to jail. This adds a certain cloud of doom over Joe, one that he impressively never lets interfere with his life, and his living of it.

The issue of his draft status comes up a few times during the novel, and he must make further decisions on what to do about it, to get the government off his back. They manage to track him down in Mozambique, and this leads him to choosing if he should take the drastic draft dodging tactics known as Little Casino or Big Casino. Joe is willing to do anything to not go to war, further endearing us to his position, as he definitely sticks to his guns throughout, despite the outside pressures he must face and defeat in his avoidance of the war. Joe is strong enough to not be beaten by his own government, even if it means severely damaging his future.

Joe’s quest is different from the others, because for the majority of the novel, he is not actively seeking inspiration. He is avoiding something back home. In the end, however, he finds what could become his passion while they travel around Africa, and at the end of the novel we get the impression that this is something that he will pursue in his future travels, as he will begin his journey across Asia, trying to get to the Shinjuku district of Tokyo.

Torremolinos, the first stop for the gang.
Torremolinos, the first stop for the gang.

Britta: It is difficult to read this novel and not consider Britta to be one of the favorite characters. She is the beautiful Norwegian girl from the northern town of Tromso, who is simply tired of the darkness, and needs to always be in the sun. She is trapped by her environment in Norway, and saves up her money to go to Spain in order to escape it. The descriptions of Britta make it easy to understand how the majority of the people who first see her, fall in love with her. She grabbed the attention of nearly every male in the novel, and typically from the first time they laid eyes on the impeccably blonde girl with the amazing figure. And to top it all off, she is as sweet as she is beautiful, making her the perfect girl to fall in love with.

In her desperation to escape the dreary and sunless winters of Tromso, she immediately knows that she wants to stay for longer than the 15 day escape she paid for. Immediately upon arriving in Torremolinos, she starts looking for work. A difficult prospect, since there are hundreds of beautiful girls that want jobs so that they can stay in Spain a little longer. Luckily for Britta, she meets someone who is leaving her job, and sets Britta up as a waitress at The Alamo, and she starts sharing the tiny apartment with the unique sleeping arrangements and the famous sleeping bag on the floor. It is not long before Britta begins her long affair with Joe, taking the most gorgeous girl in Torremolinos off the market, to the chagrin of every man who has laid eyes on her.

It is easy to cheer for Britta throughout the novel, because she manages to maintain her innocence throughout it, and in a way, manages to stay true to herself. She wants the sun, and to have fun, and to see the world. She knows that she may not be destined for great things, and that married life would be a good life for her, but only if it is on her own terms, and not simply out of obligation or desperation. She is partially driven by her father’s lifetime obsession with the island of Ceylon, a place he never visited, but became obsessed with, and she takes on this goal of his, determined to make it there at some point, by whatever means necessary.

For a time in the novel, she breaks apart from the gang, because she falls in love with the much older Holt in Pamplona, and she stays behind after he is gored by a bull and must spend some time in a hospital. Eventually, she rejoins the group in Morocco, and we see that her dream of getting to Ceylon will come true. She has even sent a ticket to her father, to meet her there, at the end of the novel. Britta has achieved what she wanted from the road, and all of her adventures. Despite her young age, she matures quite a bit during the story, even getting to end the novel with one of the more poignant quotes, encompassing the theme of the whole story, that “I now believe that men ought to inspect their dreams. And know them for what they are.” This rings true with the reader long after the book is finished, because she is right. That the dreams are often just that: dreams. And that they are not perfect, and that even on the adventure of a lifetime, tragedy, and real life, can often get in the way.

Cato: Cato is an interesting character, as he brings in a more embattled attitude to the group. A young black man from the US, he flees to Europe after a violent incident at a church, from which he gained a certain level of fame/infamy due to a picture of him in a newspaper, wielding a machine gun. Cato is consistently aggressive, and carries with him a massive chip on his shoulder. His concerns is with the plight of African Americans in the States, and the brewing tensions that were gripping major cities at the time. He felt that there was a war coming, and he would educate himself in order to be one of its leaders.

Cato is interesting, because while he lives the carefree life of the other drifters, he also carries with him a hostility that none of the others share. He is forced to deal with racism, even in the free living spaces of Europe, and especially due to his relationship with the white Monica. There is a darkness to the character of Cato, and as readers, we know that he is ready to blow up at any moment. Cato is a true revolutionary, ready to take to the streets to get what he believes his people have earned, and that makes him scary. He is willing to push the boundaries, and he is willing to fight with whoever he needs to, to get his point across.

By the end of the novel, we are almost appalled with his behavior, specifically towards his friend Yidal, as Cato becomes more involved with Islam, starting to believe that a major step for blacks in America will be to push away the Jews.

His tenderness comes from his torrid relationship with the uber-volatile Monica, the most dangerous character in the book. He truly falls in love with her, and is controlled by her, managing to live through her passions and increasingly rage-induced mood swings. He wants to save her, even if she cannot be saved. He is along for the ride with her, and he is willing to experiment with her along the way, specifically with drugs, which I will discuss later on.

Cato is looking for a solution to his problems back home, and he believes, that by the end of the novel, he has found them. He will reinvent himself, and return to the States and become a force to be reckoned with, for good or for bad, in the battle that he feels needs to be fought in his homeland.

Yidal: As Yidal nears his 21st birthday, his central conflict is to decide which country to remain a citizen of. He hold three passports, and must decide which one he will keep, and which other two he will abandon. He has the choices of the US, Israel, and Britain. Growing up splitting his time between Detroit and Israel, Yidal is a brilliant student in engineering, and gained fame in Israel during the Six Day War, in which thanks to him, a small group of Israeli soldiers were able to hold off and destroy several Egyptian tanks. Yidal’s conflict is interesting, because he needs to decide who he is, and which country he truly belongs to. He knows that there are problems for the Jewish people all over the world, and must choose where he can be the most safe, and the most help, to the cause of his people.

Yidal battles frequently with Cato, and all of the other external pressures in his life. Everybody has an opinion on which country he should officially be a part of. He feels pressure from his family, and his grandfather, as well as the experienced opinions of Holt and Fairbanks. But it is up to him to decide, and he wavers back and forth on his decision.

In Yidal, we also have the one character who leaves the gang more than once. He is forced by his grandfather to go with him while they are in Pamplona, and he is also forced to quickly leave Marrakech after it is discovered by outsiders that he is Jewish, a crime punishable by death in Morocco. He is also the one character that does not get a love interest within the group. Yidal gets plenty of girls over the course of the novel, including a nice string of Swedish girls while in Torremolinos, but Yidal is never able to get over the initial love he felt for Britta, upon first laying eyes on her. While Cato felt the same thing, he moved on quickly when he met Monica. Yidal never moved on, and was never able to be with Britta, even though she was always in the back of his mind. He takes this mild heartbreak in stride, as all of the drifters are able to do. They can move on from relationships with a carefree attitude that never seems to stop confusing Fairbanks.

In the end, Yidal is also able to find his solution. He decides on Israel, primarily because of a savage beating he gets at the hands of Cato. He knows that America is no longer the place to be, especially if Islam becomes the religion of the African Americans who are angry at the state of things in the US. Leaving Marrakech under hasty circumstances, he leaves for Israel, and his new life as a citizen of only one country.

The yellow VW pop-top. You can't read this novel and not want one.
The yellow VW pop-top. You can’t read this novel and not want one.

Gretchen: Even though she is introduced early in the novel as the girl who helps Joe escape the States to dodge the draft, Gretchen is the last of the characters to get to Torremolinos, and become a part of the gang. A highly educated, and brilliant girl, Gretchen made waves in the US before her eventual leaving. She was a part of political campaigns, and was someone who was fighting the good fight in the States. She becomes increasingly jaded as real-life events impact her views on what America is becoming, specifically the assassination of Bobby Kennedy.

Almost too smart for her own good, Gretchen is wrongly accused of a crime, and is faced with an abusive night in prison at the hands of the police. She is held without crime, and is sexually assaulted by the officers. While she goes against the wishes of several people, including her family, she makes the incident public, and is faced with a police cover up to protect themselves. Without the support of her family, Gretchen decides to leave it all behind, and heads to Spain as almost a broken person, simply needing to get away from the increasing wrongs that she sees in her home nation.

Gretchen is the one who buys the legendary yellow pop top Volkswagen bus, that almost becomes a character of its own in the novel. She does some wandering of her own, even before arriving in Torremolinos, willing to meet new people along the way, and spending all of her nights in her little van, designed with bunks for sleeping. Eventually she wanders into The Alamo, and meets up with the gang, becoming a part of them. Gretchen is always guarded, especially when it comes to men, due to her incidents with the police, that have left her mentally scarred. She does rediscover her love of singing, as she entertains the crowds with her large repertoire of haunting ballads by Child. She always announces her songs with a simple “Child 107,” or whichever number the song may be in the collection of works that was given to her by Fairbanks earlier in her life.

While Gretchen does indulge, like the rest of the gang, she always seems to have a maternal role among the group. She is extremely smart, and is looking for her inspiration on what to write about. She first went to Europe to study the 100 Years War, but eventually lost interest in this, causing her to become one of the drifters. She needs something new to become engrossed in, and to write about for the furthering of her education. She eventually finds this upon learning more about the Children’s Crusades, and upon gaining her moment of enlightenment, she knows that it is time for her to return to Boston and live her life. Having her give the pop-top to Joe is one of the sadder moments in the novel, since the car was so much of who she was. But after what she saw during her time in Africa, she knew that the journey was over, and that she had to move on. When something bad strikes, it shatters the illusion of the dream, and Gretchen is smart enough to know this.

Despite her guarded nature, Gretchen does find love, in the case of Clive, and eventually, Joe. She is not a promiscuous girl, as so many were at the time, but she chooses her romances carefully. We are happy when she gets together with Joe, as they are both solid people, and go make a real go of a relationship. But like all good things, and all things in The Drifters, it must come to an end.

Gretchen found what she was looking for, and she stayed true to herself in her pursuit of it. Sure, she may have given into pressure from Monica to try new things, like LSD, but she does these things on her own terms, and with purpose. She is the most driven of the drifters, since she truly knows what she seeks.

Marrakech, home to wonder and tragedy.
Marrakech, home to wonder and tragedy.

Monica: From her introduction in the novel, we know that Monica is the true wild card in this story. The daughter of an English lord in the fictional African nation of Vwarda, Monica becomes too beautiful, too quickly, and she is always dangerous. From smoking pot at a fairly young age, to flirting with visiting dignitaries, Monica has sex with one of her teachers, and causes problems wherever she goes. She is forced out of boarding schools in England, and creates trouble in Vwarda, including a not-so-secret affair with a powerful Vwardian official. She is driven towards escape, especially through drug use. Monica essentially runs away, and she is the member of the gang without any real purpose. She just wants to have a good time, and be away from her family, and the expectations they have placed on her.

Monica never needs to work, as she has money from her family, giving her more time to be a wild child. She hangs around The Alamo, and quickly hooks up with Cato, for what will be an affair that lasts until the end of the novel.

Even from the beginning, we know and understand that Monica is doomed to be the tragic character of the novel. She is too carefree, too vicious, and too wiling, to be able to escape this journey unscathed. She has a way of being manipulative, and of getting her own way. She craves action and desires adventure, and will stop at nothing to get it.

Monica smokes more weed than anybody else, and is the first to try LSD, convincing Cato to come along on her trips with her. It is easy to tell that she does not just use drugs recreationally, but is using them to achieve an escape. To find some kind of perfect euphoric state where she can feel bliss all of the time.

One of the background issues that looms over the entire novel is heroin. A drug that gained a surge in popularity during this era, it always stands as the ultimate in drug abuse. Once you go to heroin, there is no going any further. And it looms in the back of Monica’s mind, and we know that at some point, she will dabble with “Big-H”, probably with terrible results. She even taunts Fairbanks one night, stating that she would guarantee that all of the drifters would end up trying heroin before the end of the year. Well, she was wrong about that, but those that did use it faced the tragic consequences of the drug.

In Mozambique, Monica and Cato begin snorting heroin, a pastime that is looked at with shocking indifference from everyone. When Gretchen and Joe start to notice track marks on Monica’s arm, they learn that she has begun popping, the act of injecting heroin under your skin, leaving marks on her pale, beautiful skin. They are concerned with her use, and know that it will be only a matter of time before she begins mainlining, which is shooting heroin directly into your veins. While they try to get her to stop, Monica is blase about the whole thing, knowing that heroin was the natural progression, and natural end point, for her. She tries to convince them to join her and Cato, because she claims that it is the best drug out here, and that she has control over it. This is one of Monica’s issues, believing that she always had control over things that were far out of her control. And this, of course, leads to her downfall, but also allows us to see how she really is.

When Cato nearly dies of an overdose after trying to mainline to please Monica, she never stops, and never even slows down in her use. She begins injecting her veins regularly, even creating an unhealthy abscess on her arm that could become infected and cause the loss of her arm if it had not been treated by a woman in Mozambique. With a drug so powerful, it is not long before she is addicted, causing her to have violent mood swings, and lashing out at the people who care most about her. She will not listen to any voices of reason, including Fairbanks, whom she had trusted for the majority of her life. Nobody can save her, regardless of their attempts. Curiously, Fairbanks describes how she almost became more beautiful during the initial days of being strung out, more slender, and her paler skin being even more luminescent. She has chosen the path, and we know that it will end in her doom. The wild child has found her passion. Unfortunately, it is one that will cost her her life.

Monica dies. Not from a heroin overdose, as we would have expected, but from hepatitis caused by her using her dirty syringe too often. She could have been saved, had the others been paying closer attention to her. In a way, I found it odd that the gang took the blame for her death, thinking that they could have saved her, even if they had given her a clean needle. But Monica could not be saved, because she did not want to be saved. She was reckless with everything, including the hearts of those around her, and her own life. She spend her last weeks in Marrakech strung out on heroin and the potent hash cookies that made their ways around the hotels. She ostracized those around her, including Cato, and fled their hotel for a wild few days, high all the time, and being used sexually by a shocking number of men. When the gang manages to track her down, they only find her body, grotesque from the drugs and the malnutrition, a faded version of the wild Monica they had all loved over their time traveling together.

///

It is the death of Monica that brings an end to the dream for the drifters. While they could have continued traveling together, waxing philosophy about the state of their lives, and of their world, everybody knew that it was over. Monica dying had crashed them back to reality, no matter how hard they had tried to escape it. Real life always found a way to creep into their dreams, but now, it had come crashing through the wall, and the could no longer avoid it.

It was selfish of Monica to do what she had been doing. Nobody truly expected her to become a junkie, but we also must look at her actions as being the completion of her quest, and her journey. She was looking for the true escape, and she found it. Perhaps even she never imagined that it would be as a skeletal version of who she once was, being passed around by men for money, strung out to the point where she was mostly catatonic, every day breaking the hearts of the people who loved her dearly. But did she ever really love them back? Was Monica as good a friend to the others, as they had been for her? Would she have worried as much had it been someone else who fell under the spell of heroin?

We will never know, but we do know that by her dying, by sticking the rusty needle into her arm too many times, she broke up the gang.

driftGretchen found her inspiration, and was going to return to Boston. Probably to change the intellectual world. Cato was going home to start a revolution he could see in his mind. Yidal was going to Israel to be who he really was. Monica was dead, hastily buried in Morocco, never letting us know what her true potential could have been. Britta found her dreams, heading towards Ceylon with Holt, and undertaking part of Joe’s journey. She would stay in the sun. Joe had to keep moving, to keep drifting, as he headed towards Japan in the yellow pop-top that Gretchen simply gave him.

All in their own way, they were done. We are left never knowing if Joe got all the way to Tokyo, or if the tender friendship between Gretchen and Britta was continued, or if Britta ever convinced Holt to marry her, or what it was like for her father to be in the place he had dreamed of his whole life.

Dreams were realized, and dreams were shattered, partly because of the ultimate freedoms they had been able to experience.

The Drifters is an amazing novel, just as much now as it was when I first read it. We love the characters, all for different reasons, and we also fall in love with the places they visit. This novel is a true classic, telling us about the wonders of the road, but the dangers of unchecked freedom.

Imagine what could have happened if Monica never used heroin?