Monday, November 13, 2017

death and cemeteries

I'm writing a story about death. It's not a sad story. But it is about death.
Thinking about the story has led to interesting talks with R who works in a cemetery.

So it can happen that when we're in another country, we visit cemeteries. Not to look at famous people's tombstones, but simply to see how it's done.

We were remembering Cuajimoloyas, a small village in the Sierra Norte mountains in Mexico. A man who passed us in the road asked how many hours it had taken us to get there from where we lived. I said we'd come the greatest distance by plane. He said to include that too. I tallied up the hours of our trip from Montreal to Mexico City to Oaxaca--by plane--and the drive to Cuajimoloyas. He grinned hugely, delighted to inform me that his son who had gone to Japan had travelled even more hours! I was as delighted to tell him he was right.

While we were there, we took a walk in the cemetery. At one point I heard voices and we discovered five men digging a grave. One was in the hole with a spade and shovel. The others sat nearby, talking so that he wouldn't be alone in the hole. They were surprised and a little annoyed to see white tourists wandering through their hallowed ground. I told them that we were having a look-see because R worked in a cemetery and wanted to see what theirs looked like.

They wanted to know how their cemetery compared to the one where R worked. I said the trees were different and that it wasn't possible to dig holes when the ground was frozen. I don't think they believed me when I said how high the snow could get in Montreal. I said machines were used to dig our graves which they didn't think respectful of the dead.

They asked how big R's cemetery was. A million dead, I said. Un millón muertos. Whoa!!!! They crossed themselves and gaped. They wanted to know if R wasn't terrified to be among so many dead. He told them the living were more of a problem. They liked that. They said it was okay if we took a few pics. We wished each other un buen día.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

visiting Ontario / memories (mine) of the 70s

If you've never heard the song "Signs" (1971), have a listen. It begins: "And the sign said Long-haired freaky people need not apply / So I tucked my hair up under my hat and went in to ask him why..."

The musicians called themselves the Five Man Electrical Band and they're from Ottawa. "Signs" was their international hit that sold over a million copies--back in the days of 45 rpm discs. A 45 had one song on one side, another on the reverse. You put the disc on a turntable and lowered the needle. Or if you had a more expensive turntable, you pushed a switch that raised, swung, and lowered the needle automatically. If you wanted to listen to another song, you removed that disc and put another on the turntable. Am I dating myself?

I've been looking at the pictures I took while in Stratford and Hamilton, walking by Grindstone Creek and the shore of Lake Ontario, and visiting St. Mary's. I took a lot of pics of signs.  

Some are obvious, some absurd. This sign was over a storefront that was abandoned. I wonder why.

Some sings are so obvious that they're absurd. What would warm-scooped ice cream be?

Some are memories like this one because it's the street I lived on for a year or so while at McMaster. It was a low-ceilinged attic apartment over a folk singer and pianist who was blind. I don't recall his name but we heard him perform in coffeehouses and festivals. I liked hearing him practice below us. That would have been in the late 70s. Before I moved to another attic apartment on Hollywood Rd where I looked into the parking lot of a Tim Hortons. Another Canadian institution. Or used to be before Burger King bought it in 2014.

Here's a sign from what's now a microbrewery but used to be a coffeehouse in Stratford. I'm pretty sure I saw Stan Rogers perform there, though it's possible I heard him at Smale's Pace in London. One memory that's definitely from The Black Swan is that it was the first place I ever tasted a toasted whole wheat sandwich with peanut butter and banana. I returned home, bought peanut butter and bananas, and lived on that for the following two years. I made my own bread. Of course. It was the 70s.
They don't serve peanut butter and banana on whole wheat anymore. But very good beer!

Did you ever wonder where the original barber was? I found him. Unfortunately I didn't take note of the address. He might be in Hamilton.

Another hair sign--in Stratford.

Which makes me wonder why more hair salons don't refer to Rapunzel? She's their folkloric heroine, no? It's their story.

I'm pretty sure this was a car wash--it looked like a car wash--but I don't see the rapport between calling a car wash a dog wash. Does there have to be a rationale behind putting a name on a sign? Maybe not. Maybe it was a dog wash with self-serve, coin-operated bays. For dogs.

Memories of a tasty quesadilla lunch.

Does graffiti count as a sign? You bet. Though in this case I think I was taking a pic of the old wooden shutters. Age, too, was what attracted me to the metal sign still in place for a launderer.

I'm posting this one because the angry man behind the counter told me I couldn't. He seemed to feel it was illegal for me to have a camera in the market. What if I were competition coming to check his prices. I told him I was not. But what the heck. Even if I were. It was a market, not his living room.

Friday, November 3, 2017

more Five Roses / more sweets


Another fun evening with a book-loving crowd who also love to bake. Here's a pic from when all the homemade desserts hadn't even been brought yet. Note the plate of wholewheat bread, sliced and buttered--nothing simpler, nothing better. Made with Five Roses flour, of course.

Where? At the Bibliothèque de Brossard.

Indeed, we talked books. Here I am with librarian, Michèle Tibblin, who led the discussion--though participants had much to say as well.

A great crowd! Thank you to all of them. Thank you to the Quebec Writers' Federation who sent me. Thank you to the lovely Maria-Ana for taking photos.
And NOW I know how to get from Montreal to Brossard by public transit. Horizons expanding.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Five Roses in Ontario / no appropriation of cuisine

We had fun, Five Roses and I in Ontario. First, gourmet nibbles and wine with enthusiastic book clubbers in Stratford at the Chefs' School

then a pastry chef showing us how to make cream puffs and inviting us to try our hand at piping whipped cream, followed by me talking about the role of food in characterization and fiction. This, too, was with the Stratford Writers' Festival under the auspices of the Chefs' School. Imaginative programming, right? Not your everyday writer's gig!

As a footnote--something to consider?--there were more male participants at this pastry/writers' event than I usually see when I speak about a novel. 

then a most interesting interview at the Westdale Library in Hamilton with Jennifer Gillies, artistic director of gritLit. Perceptive questions and comments from the audience.

and THEN, in honour of the working-class setting of my novel, an upscale Québécois-themed supper hosted by the Appetite for Words Festival in Stratford. I've been to many réveillons and cabanes à sucre, and wow! Stratford's chef Randi Rudner topped any version of the old-timey pea soup and tourtière I've ever eaten. Luscious salmon, julienned celeriac, fresh puréed peas, chunks of smoked ham, poached egg, tourtière, spicy baked beans, sauteed brussel sprouts, red cabbage chutney... There was more! As well as wine pairings--some of which I had to refuse, poor me! because I don't drink red wine. (That's a joke, right? I was so happy that evening I could have drunk tap water.) Randi, I should note, although she has now lives in Ontario, is from Quebec so there is no appropriation of cuisine. 

The back wall of the dining room of the Chefs' School is in glass, so diners can see the chef and cooks concocting the meal. I walked by the school earlier in the afternoon, and prep was already well underway. I was familiar with the scene since I worked in restaurant kitchens in another lifetime, when I was a grad student in Toronto. 

Between tourtière and dessert, Theresa Albert and I had a lively interview about Five Roses.

The food was so fine! But of course the best part of all these events was meeting readers and would-be readers. Hearing the comments, observations, and questions readers have. Even hearing what people didn't like because that's worth talking about too.

Several wanted to know the practicalities of how a wannabe writer goes from scribbling on pages to getting them published. You keep at it. Beginnings can be humble. The other day I walked past the decrepit brick building behind a garage where, up on the second floor, I saw the dirty windows of the editorial office/kitchen of the magazine that first published me. I don't think the magazine went past two issues. I've just googled the name of the itchy young man who was the editor and can find no internet trace of him. Mind you, that was years ago. Years for him, years for me too. With years between publications. That's how you get published. You keep doing it despite the years.

This morning, in my reading, I came across this: "...the most worn-out clichés traverse time for generations, all the while the most beautiful poems fade to oblivion." (from La petite et le vieux by Marie-Renee Lavoie) Maybe that's what it means to be a writer: you persist in trying to beat the cliches and the silence, even when you know they're destined for oblivion.

Thank you to the wonderful people in Stratford who invited me; Jennifer Gillies at gritLit; Dundurn Press; the Quebec Writers' Federation for their unflagging support of getting Quebec writers out into the world; and R who ferried me about in a rented car so that I could bring as many pairs of shoes as I wanted.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Quebec roofs / Pointe cornices

Where I live in Montreal, the streets are lined with row houses, predominantly brick though there are a very few grey stone facades. The houses that have siding on them, are brick underneath. That's how they were built in the late 1800s. The roofs are flat--which I've always thought an odd choice in a city that gets so much snow, but the Irish and English who settled here were nostalgic for County Cork, Dublin, Manchester, London...

This particular house has the rare advantage of a strip of lawn and fence. Most of the houses (including ours) have front steps that abut the sidewalk.

That doesn't mean there aren't roof details. The house above has a plain, wood cornice. But look up and notice the ones with more interesting woodwork or paint.

That's Montreal, more specifically Pointe St. Charles.

When I used to come from Ontario to Quebec to visit my in-laws who lived in a village farther northeast along the St. Lawrence, I had a different sense of Quebec roofs. They're high and steep. Some have what I call a ski jump curve. On a trip to the country a couple of weekends ago, I took pics of roofs.

This house has the traditional tin roof. Dormer windows are extra.

A fancier roof has cedar shingles.

Here's the resto where we were returned at sunset to watch the apricot colours fading over the water that grew ever darker, and had lamb brochettes on homegrown salad greens in a yogurt dressing.

This roof (red-painted tin) is an interesting variation, but I'm not sure about the brick reno. Question of taste.

And of course, this is Quebec.

Next to the big old river, under the big old sky. Big old mountains on the other side.

Friday, October 6, 2017

dear stranger

Dear Stranger on the Subway,

When I offered you my seat, it was because I could see that although you're probably my age--maybe even younger--you weren't as steady on your feet. I don't mind standing. You were holding a cumbersome bag. I had a knapsack I could easily carry on my back. I had my earbuds in and was listening to a New Yorker fiction podcast. I like these podcasts because in addition to hearing an author read a story by another author, the fiction editor and author discuss the short story. These can be downloaded free from i-Tunes.

Whether I stood or sat while travelling a few subway stops didn't matter to me in the least. Or as we said as kids in southern Ontario where I grew up, it "didn't care". I was reminded of that expression the other day when talking to my brother on the phone. I didn't even think that offering you my seat was a particular expression of kindness on my part. I simply did it. Here, look: have my seat, sit down. No more than that. A smile, a nod, you sit, you nod, you smile, life continues. No one looking to get brownie points from the sky nor to get an award for civic behaviour. We live in the city and are taking public transit together. That's all.

So listen, I did not like that you answered my simple, almost unthinking gesture with the card you thrust at me before getting off the subway. You Need to be Saved! You Cannot Save Yourself! Jesus Can Save You! Trust Jesus Now! With accompanying small print to explain why my "work of righteousness" wasn't enough. I would still "perish" because although I "doeth good", I also "sinneth" and "must repent".

What can I say?

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

frigidaire littéraire / St. Lawrence River

I have to love a place where a fridge tells me to take a book and leave a book.

Where the window frames, doors and roofs of old barns are painted red and pink.

Where people make plant pots that scream against depredations to the environment. There's a poem to that effect beside the posts. These are pots crying for oxygen, clean air, clean water. Les Crieuses.

And there's that big, old river, the St. Lawrence. 

In Montreal, I cycle and walk and gab with friends by the river. The banks are green with willows, poplars, maples. There are islands and rapids and herons and ducks.

Last weekend we drove four hours northeast, following the river past apple orchards and cornfields, past Quebec City, to where the land broadens and flattens to marsh and agricultural land. Across the river are the Charlevoix mountains. That's a beautiful region too, but I'm loyal to my side of the shore.

We stayed a couple of nights in L'Islet in an auberge that was posh and comfy because it was my birthday. Lovely room, luxurious bed, tongue and groove walls, inset cabinets.

For my own personal tastes, there was a surfeit of knickknacks, fabric flowers, cushions and other gewgaws piled, hung and fluffed about. In our room alone, I counted 14 cushions, not including the pillows for sleeping. Six bouquets of cloth flowers, not including the many sprigs tucked here and there.

I like wall painting. And yeah, geese flying in a V formation especially near marshland. But... sideways?
R said I was being too literal. So I was. So I am. Why would a birthday make a difference?

Breakfast was excellent! Two slabs of French toast made with homemade bread, served with homemade apple jelly, garnished with a homegrown nasturtium. Maple syrup on the side. Lace tablecloth too.

The auberge was across the street from the extremely well-curated Musée Maritime du Québec. My interest in the river extends to the stories of what's been lived upon it. (And in the river, but that's a different kind of museum.) There was a barn full of boats, videos of ships' pilots talking about their adventures, a sewing machine half my height for the sewing of sails, maps of where ships had foundered along shores of the St. Lawrence, tales of how villages were settled and named after ships or shipwrecks, a video of a man caulking the seams of a boat with oakum.

Caulking... oakum. The resonance of those words alone make me want to write a story.
Ditto the thick glass of a brass-ringed porthole that was smashed during a shipwreck.
Did you know that it's an omen of death to dream about a ship entering a harbour that's frozen?

Everything has to fit onto a boat, so non-ship-specific items are of necessity compact and small. Look at the size of this captain's typewriter, 1904.

Outside was a ship--an icebreaker in coast guard service from 1940 to 1978--that we walked through. Notice the difference between how the officers and ship's crew were housed.

We went for a hike in the hills, walking along their sleeping backs.

And back down to the river...