Wednesday, October 15, 2014

another Grimms fairytale: clever Else / die kluge Else

This Grimms fairytale, "Die kluge Else" or "Clever Else", always tortured me a little as a child, because when my name is pronounced by a German speaker--as were my parents and their friends--it sounds more like Else than the English Alice. (Only in later years did my parents learn how to say Alice the English way.)
As well, as a child, I sort of hoped I was clever. But did that mean this miserable creature might by my fate?

Clever Else

Once there was a man who had a daughter called Else. When she grew up, he said, "We want her to marry."
--right to the point, those German fathers

"Yes," said her mother, "if only a man would come she would consent to have."
--nice that her mother rights the balance, though she does it by making Else sound difficult

Finally a man by the name of Hans came from far away. He decided he was interested, though he made the condition that clever Else also had to be wise.
"Goodness," her father said, "she's so smart, you can hear her thoughts whirring."
 --is this a compliment or a nuisance? In German the literal words are: she has thread in her head.

Her mother said, "She sees the wind in the alleys and hears flies cough."
"All very well," said Hans, "but if she's not wise, I won't take her."
--I thought Else was the difficult one, but so far we haven't heard her say a word. Hans is making all the conditions.

Once they were finished eating, Else's mother said, "Else, go to the cellar and fetch beer."
Else took the jug from its hook, went down the stairs, and on the way opened and shut the lid so the time would pass quickly.
--this is the first we've seen of clever Else and I'm not overly impressed with how she amuses herself. True, the clapping sound could be a cover for deep philosophical rumination, but I dunno.

If you're not familiar with beer jugs or mugs with lids, here's an example:

In the cellar Else fetched a little stool and set it before the beer tap so she wouldn't have to stoop and strain her back or otherwise hurt herself.
She held the jug under the spout, and while the beer poured, she didn't want her eyes to be idle so she began to examine the wall, looking from side to side, and finally noticing the pickaxe that hung over the barrel.
Clever Else said, "If I marry Hans and we have a child and it gets older and we send it down to the cellar to get beer, the pickaxe will fall on its head and kill it."
She began to cry with all her heart over this impending misfortune.

Upstairs they waited for their beer, but clever Else did not return. The mother told the maid to go to the cellar to see what was keeping Else. The maid found her sitting and weeping before the barrel.
The maid asked why she was crying.
"Why wouldn't I cry? If I marry Hans and we have a child and it gets older and we send it down to the cellar to get beer, that pickaxe might will fall on its head and kill it."
The maid was astounded at how smart Else was, sat down next to her and began crying about this poor child who would have such misfortune.
After a while, when neither Else nor the maid returned and they were thirsty at the table, Else's mother told the servant to go see what had happened.
He went downstairs and saw Else and the maid sitting together weeping. "Why are you crying?" he asked.
"Of course we're crying," said Else. "If I marry Hans and we have a child and it comes down here to get beer, the pickaxe will fall on its head and kill it."
The servant said, "Oh, Else, you're so smart." And he, too, sat down next to Else and the maid and began sobbing.
Upstairs they were still waiting for their beer and no one had returned.
--not getting their beer seems more important than the curious fact that they've stayed in the cellar

The man said to his wife, "Go down into the cellar and see what's keeping Else." His wife found all three lamenting in front of the beer barrel. When she asked why, Else explained that her future child would be killed when it came to fetch beer and the pickaxe fell on its head.
Her mother threw up her arms at this clever deduction, exclaimed at how smart Else was, and sat down to cry with the others.
Upstairs the man waited for a while longer, but his wife didn't return and his thirst was great.
--again: beer. He's got his priorities.

He said, "It looks as if I'll have to go see for myself what's keeping Else downstairs."
But in the cellar, when he saw them all sitting and weeping and the reason for their dismay was explained to him--about Else having a child and the child growing so big that it would be sent to the cellar to fetch beer and the child would stand right here where the pickaxe would fall on its head and kill it--he cried, "Else is so clever!" And sat with the others and lamented with them.

For a long time the groom sat upstairs alone. As no one returned, he thought: They're waiting for you in the cellar.You should see what's going on.
--this last sentence is so bizarre--him thinking about himself in 2nd person--I translated it as is

He climbed down the stairs and saw all five of them, each one weeping louder than the next.
"What great misfortune has happened?" he asked.
"Oh, my poor dear Hans," Else said, "if we marry each other and have a child and it gets older, and we send it to the cellar to fetch beer, well, look! That pickaxe up there is going to chop off its head! Is that not reason enough to weep?"
"Wow," said Hans, "a more brilliant mind than this I don't need for my household. Since you are such a clever Else, I will have you." He took her by the hand, brought her outside and married her.
--the plot takes forever repeating the scenario with the as yet nonexistent child and the pickaxe but once Hans is brought up to speed, things move fast

When they were married for a while, Hans said, "Wife, I will go work and earn some money. You go into the field and cut some corn so that we can have bread."
"Yes, my dear Hans, I will."
Once Hans was gone, she cooked herself some porridge.
--in German she cooks herself Brei which translates as mash. It might be a very healthy mash made with... what? What did they have in the kitchen if he hasn't been working and she needs to cut corn and mill it to make flour before she can even bake bread? Porridge is poor enough. I don't want to say mash. And of course, it's true, Brei might have been a more substantial dish in the 1800s.

She took her porridge into the field and when she got to their allotment, she wondered out loud, "What do I do? Do I cut the corn first, or do I eat first? Gee, I think I'd better eat first." She ate the whole pot until she was full, and then said, "What do I do? Should I take a nap first or should I cut the corn first? Gee, I think I'd better sleep first." She lay down in the corn and fell fast asleep.

Hans had long been home and Else still hadn't returned. He said, "What a clever Else I have. She works so hard that she doesn't even come home to eat." But as she still didn't come home and it began to get dark, Hans went to see how much corn she had cut. Nothing was cut and she lay on the ground, fast asleep.
Hans ran home as quickly as he could and grabbed a net for catching birds that was hung with little bells and draped it around her. She kept sleeping.
Again he ran home, shut the door, sat on a stool and worked.
Finally, when it was already very dark, clever Else woke, and when she stood up, the bells in the net began tinkling. The sound frightened and disoriented her until she wasn't sure if she was truly clever Else. "Am I or am I not?" But she didn't know what the answer was and stood for a while in confusion.
Finally she thought, I will go home and ask if I am who I am or if I'm not. At home they'll be able to tell me.
She ran to the house door but it was closed. She knocked on the window and called, "Hans, is Else in there?"
"Yes," said Hans. "She's in here."
This alarmed Else who said, "Oh god, then I'm not me!"
She ran to another door but when people heard the bells, they wouldn't open, and she couldn't get any help. She kept running until she'd run from the village and no one ever saw her again.

The end.

What to say to this? I suppose Else can be seen as the folkloric version of a questioning Hamlet--and as such, she's the butt of the story, more ridiculous than practical.
Hans is the one who bothers me. He decides to marry her and then... does he trick her? Is he mean? Is he vengeful?

When I read this story as a child, I could never understand why no one suggested taking the pickaxe off the wall.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

cycling in montreal / lachine canal / st. lawrence river

The weather was grand this weekend and we decided to go cycling.
In Montreal you don't have to leave the city to cycle next to water and trees--and if you take the Lachine Canal path, even some industrial history. The narrow trail here is for pedestrians. The bike path is to the left.

The Lachine Canal was dug in the 1800s to bypass the rapids in the St. Lawrence River, thereby opening the interior of North America to commerce and manufacturing.

Here's a picture I took of Canada Malting last November. The complex has been abandoned since 1989. As a footnote, I became curious about the shiny surface of the silos. They're covered in glazed ceramic tiles which kept the temperature lower for grain storage. The silos are a rare example of this method of insulation. Not rare enough, though, to have kept the factories from being abandoned or, like the Redpath Sugar Refinery farther along the canal to the east, to convert them to luxury condos.

If you cycle to the end of the canal, you come to the wide open river.

From my place, that's about 15 k, at which point you may feel you deserve a treat.

From here you can hook up to the river path and head back toward the city. After about 8 k, if you squint down the river, you might just make out a downtown skyscraper. The other bumps are small islands with trees.

Usually when I do this trip, I go with my all-time favourite cycling buddy.

He toodles along ahead or behind or beside me. Throughout the week he cycles to work--from river level to the top of Mount Royal. The climb is 200 m or 650 ft. When he cycles with me, he doesn't even break a sweat--and I exude enough salt to rival a kosher pickle.
When we get home, he goes for a jog. I rest.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

swinging by the sea / september 2014

September by the sea. The first day was cool. I dressed in layers, though R wore shorts--on principle. By the last day, it was so warm I wished I’d brought shorts too.

I take endless pictures of water. I can't help myself. I take videos, too, so that when it's January and the deep-freeze has set in, I can remind myself of what moving water sounds like.

According to lore, when there are this many clusters of fat berries on the mountain ash trees, it will be a long winter. Except I think Climate Change trumps the Farmer's Almanac, so who knows?

One of the errands we had to do while there was pay the man who cuts the lawn during the months our house sits empty. He keeps the number of times he cuts the grass written in a small notebook. We aren't sure if he charges by hour or by the number of visits. Every year--the longer he knows us--the less it is.
R had gone to the side door of his house to ask his wife where he is or when he'll be back or if she has an idea of how much we owe him--though she always says she can't make heads or tails of his scribbles to do with grass and keys and cords of wood.
I sat in the car, watching a cloud cross the ridge of the mountains. The wind was so high the cloud was moving with the dogged headway of a man who wasn’t late for work, but would still just make it in time and couldn’t stop to say hi to a friend. I could see him want to stop in the way the cloud wisped around the edges. On the clothesline shirts ballooned and snapped. Those weren’t dollar-store clothespins like the ones I use in the city. There must be special Maritime-grade clothespins that grip clothes tight.
I could have gone with R to the door, but sometimes I'm lazy about trying to understand rural French. The wife is friendly and always has lots of gossip—about the boy who lives in the next village who was exorcised when his grandmother's cut-glass sugar bowl and creamer jumped off the shelves and crashed, about the bipolar couple who’ve taken refuge from society by living in a yurt (which she calls a yogurt) in the woods. This year was full of news because—we’d heard it on the news in Montreal—Hurricane Arthur had touched the coastline.
Ramparts of clouds had cleared the mountains, the laundry still hadn’t torn off the line, and finally I got out of the car. The neighbour very nicely spoke more clearly for my benefit. The washing machine chugged beside the door. The house is a large square box with many rooms. Only the two of them live there now that their children have grown up and moved away, but she must have decided that having the washing machine right next to the door was the most practical arrangement for getting out to the clothesline.
Her front windows face the sea and the house across the road where his parents once lived and where his older brothers were born. It looks like a storybook setup, but it's not. It's a real house where a family of four used to live. Right behind the house drops the edge of the cliff. For scale, that's me standing in front of it.

He keeps it whitewashed because tourists stop to take pictures. Once, in Montreal, we saw a calendar featuring scenes from Quebec with this house on the cover and we got it for him. 
She told us her husband was out at his camp cleaning up the damage from Arthur. The rain had come down so hard and so fast that a deluge of water roared down the mountain, tearing up trees, taking the most convenient path which was the old logging road.

Work had been done on the road in the two months since Arthur passed, but we still had to park and walk two miles into the camp. (Canada uses metric, but old-timers, even Quebecois, still talk in miles.)
We found our neighbour working with another man, attaching heavy cables onto tree trunks and hauling them to where he would take a chainsaw to them. The violence of the damage was appalling. He said he had a path of wrenched and crashed trees all the way up through his ten miles of land into the mountains. I was surprised by how specific the path was: gaping holes in the earth where trees had been upended and only a few feet away, a whimsical bridge—built from old barn doors—across a trickling stream.

I don’t look sure I’m going to trust the bridge, but I did.
His camp, too, wasn’t damaged.

He stopped working to give us a tour of his chalet. In Quebec, cottages are called chalets. It's built of recuperated barn board. Inside, it's one large room, about twice the size of the home his parents and brothers lived in, with linoleum flooring, and many rockers and chairs because the whole family—all 26 of them!—come for Christmas supper. There’s a sink with running water that works on gravity (water coming down the hills), a gas stove, several tables pushed together, Christmas lights permanently strung across the ceiling, an oil painting of a deer in the woods.
R supposed out loud that the little white shack behind the chalet was an outhouse. Nope, there was a proper toilet. With a flourish the neighbour opened what I'd thought was a closet door. He was proud of how organized his chalet was.
Beds? R asked. The couch folded out, but it was rare anyone slept there with the big house so close by.

We spent the rest of our days reading by the fire, tromping along the beach and exploring the coastline.

This house is in the village of Sainte-Madeleine-de-la-Rivière-de-Madeleine. Just in case you get it confused with another Sainte Madeleine.

Here I found a kiddie swing and squished myself onto it.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

homegrown = idiosyncratic

It's wonderful to come home after a week away and see that my garden has been progressing, albeit slowly in the cool weather. True, the last melon was scooped hollow by some large-mouth creature or an industrious army of voracious beasties, but overall the melons weren't a success. They tasted like round peach-coloured cucumbers. Arugula and hot peppers did well. The last tomatoes are still green. I brought home a bouquet of red and cream carnations. And a heap of radishes.
I'm not sure how the lovely bundles of radishes at the market are all the same size and shape--or do the radishes that aren't the correct size and shape get thrown away as retards? Even at the organic stalls the radishes show more radish solidarity. Mine... well, I guess they're mine.

More on the week away later.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

pianos outdoors in montreal

I love these old pianos on the street or in a square. I have no idea if they're kept tuned. How can they be, exposed to the weather? This one looks like it's seen a few sleepless nights.
There are several throughout the city. This one's in Verdun on Wellington across from a store, Ardene, that sells plastic jewellery and other fine accessories, and a Thai Express. It's next to the church that I think of as the de l'Eglise church because it's next to the de l'Eglise subway station, though that makes no sense since "de l'Eglise" means "of the church". Who would call a church Of The Church? Sounds overdone even for Catholics.
Anyone who walks by can sit down at the piano and start playing. I've heard mini-concerts. Or people can just horse around. That's okay too.
I am not musically adept and can only play one piece on piano--Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star. It was taught to me by a musical prodigy who could hardly talk yet, but refused to believe me when I, an adult, told her I couldn't play piano at all. She taught me Twinkle Twinkle. It's true, anyone with five fingers on one hand can play it. It requires the minimum of coordination.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Dear Ebay

Dear Ebay,
You may think I'm looking for a deal. Otherwise I'd go to a store and buy a new camera. Everything new is better, right?
But listen, I bought a new camera and I don't like it. It takes pictures with all the texture flattened.
I understand a picture is 2-D: technically flat. I don't understand the physics or the optics or whatever it's called, but there should still be some sense of what's closer, what's velvet, what's concrete. With this new camera, a woman at a cafe table looks like a cutout doll stuck onto the flowers behind her. She isn't sitting in sunlight but the colours are bleached.
I want a camera like the one I had stolen last spring in Mexico City. That camera took this picture.

You can tell who's 93 and who's 56. The colours haven't been doctored. It wasn't an expensive camera with fancy lenses. It was a simple snapshot camera that cost $125 in 2011 and it took pictures that had depth and texture. That's what I want in a camera.
Small enough, too, that I can slip it in my pocket. I'm not a photographer. I only take snapshots--but I want them to be snapshots worth looking at again or I wouldn't bother taking a picture.
There are ever less decent snapshot cameras available because people use their phones. So, okay, I'm behind the times. I have a phone that stays at home and takes messages.
I also want a viewfinder. Remember that little eye that you look through? I don't like taking pictures with a display screen. In fact, you can't use the display screen if you're outside or in the sun--all those times when you might want to take a picture. Sure, I can do what everyone else does, point my device and take a picture. Who cares if it's in the frame or not? Take a few pix and pick the best.
I still want a viewfinder where I can... get a view.
At the moment there's only one inexpensive snapshot camera on the market with a viewfinder. It's a Canon. Canon used to make a good camera too. That's the camera I had that was stolen.
The model currently in the stores is the A1400. It is shit. Plastic shit. From one to ten, with one on the lower end of the scale, I would give it a two because it does actually take pictures. However, it's been so simplified it should be marketed as a toy, not a camera. WTF, Canon???
So that brings me to you, Ebay. I have reasons for not trusting you. I don't like having to pay duty for a secondhand item that is supposed to be exempt under NAFTA. I don't like gambling that the item might be shipped by UPS and I'll have to pay UPS a sum at the door for some trumped-up UPS charges. Blah-blah-blah...Customs...blah-blah...fill out a form and get a reimbursement...blah-blah-blah. Is it worth it?
But at this point you're my best bet. I'm looking for a camera like the one I used to have. It could even be the one I had stolen in Mexico City that--who knows?--made it to some enterprising person in West Virginia who wants to sell it on Ebay.
Wouldn't it be funny to buy a camera that has all the pictures I took in Mexico City still on the SD card?
Ever hopeful.

Thursday, August 28, 2014


Three guesses what this can do.

I'll give you a hint: it's not used during surgery.

Another hint: I have a friend who can do what this does using a wooden gadget.

It doesn't push corks into wine bottles, though I've seen wine-bottle-corkers that look like this.

It doesn't ambulate. It's not a robot. No artificial intelligence hidden in those levers and handles.

But there are moving parts that rotate in circles.

If you stereotype genders--I called my friend a he--you might not expect that this is an implement for cooking. Here he is using his wooden press.

He's making individual nests of pasta called stringhoppers--or idiyappams, which is what his Sri Lankan parents call them. There are other names throughout south-east Asia where they're served in a variety of ways.

The dough is made of red rice flour. It's forced through a press to make noodles that are twirled onto baskets which are set inside a larger basket then steamed.

I apologize for the angle, but you get the idea:


He was telling me how his mother always made extra so they could have them in the morning for breakfast with sugar. He wants his boys to have this experience too--the idiyappam experience in general, idiyappam leftovers with sugar for breakfast. But the boys clamour for sugar the moment they see them. Forget waiting till breakfast.

The adults ate them with curry. They were delicious. A delicacy. But labour-intensive, which explains the attempt to invent a machine that forces out noodles it swirls into nests.

Made in the machine, would they be as good though? I have a friend who says bread is best when made by hand. Gluten won't develop as it's meant to if you don't knead the dough with your hands, stretch and pummel it. When I lived in Toronto, I used to work in a kitchen where the chef made the bartender stand in the refrigerator (obviously a walk-in fridge; their relationship wasn't that weird) to beat cream with a whisk. He didn't believe in whipping cream with a machine. I think I remember that the hand-whipped cream stayed stiff longer.

On another note entirely: does anyone remember Marianne Wiggins? She was Salman Rushdie's second wife. I was looking for a book on my shelves and found her short story collection, Bet They'll Miss Us When We're Gone (1991). Isn't that a good title? I'm on a streak of reading short fiction and think I'll reread this next. I wonder what she's written since. To be a writer, as well as the partner of a writer with outstanding notoriety, must complicate the questions and doubts that often characterize the writing process. I'm not referring to the notoriety of the fatwa but that Rushdie had already won the Booker when they were married.

The weather is changing. Getting cooler. The wood in the house is creaking, resettling.