Sunday, April 9, 2017

Five Roses goes to Quebec City

Who would not want to talk about their book in such a lovely library, in front of an attentive audience? Thank you to CBC's Julia Caron who interviewed me, the Morrin Centre and ImagiNation 2017 who invited me, the people who came and listened with such interest.

Note that if you're at all interested in Canadian history or the history of old buildings in general, the Morrin Centre in Quebec City is well worth a visit. The stone building was the meeting place for Canada's first learned society; it was Quebec City's first jail; it was the once-upon-a-time Quebec City campus for McGill University... among other things, and not in that order. There are tours to take you from the chemistry lab to the ballroom to the jail cells.

Although there are more academic ways to discuss the age of a building, I like to look at how wood, stone, and metal are worn. Here's a doorstep on the fourth floor. That's a lot of foot traffic.

I had my interview in the library, overseen by a statue of James Wolfe--Wolfe of Wolfe and Montcalm fame, Battle of the Plains of Abraham, 1759.

Afterward, I went up the stairs to have a closer look at the statue, which has a long history that includes vandalism, a sea voyage around the world, a stint holding up a sign outside a tavern in London, England. I'm assuming the statue is not life-sized.

R and I spent some time at the festival and enjoyed ourselves, but we were also looking forward to walking around Quebec City where he was born and lived until his mid-20s. That's a few years ago now. He was telling me the stories of how it used to be.

This building was once a Kresge's where, as a high school student, he sat at the lunch counter and ate fries.

The yellow brick building across the street was a brothel. The staff ate at Kresge's too.

This large boulevard figures in a story his mother used to tell about living at the bottom of the hill. One day a delivery cart was going too fast and the horse crashed through the kitchen window and ended up with his hooves in the sink.

Quebec City is known for its steep roads.

And, of course, the Plains of Abraham where the fate of Canada--English or French--was decided.

Yes, that's snow. Early April but it will be a while yet before anyone sits on this bench.

In memory of Kresge's, we had some fries.

Though I had mine with a glass of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

montreal april 2, 2017

This, too, is Montreal.
A 30-min walk from where I live, four subway stops from downtown.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Oaxacan dogs / Mexico Jan 2017

He's not dead. He's just hanging out.

When I was in Oaxaca, Mexico in January, I took a lot of pictures of dogs. Why? They have perfected the art of relaxing even on a busy street or with a constant pedestrian traffic mere inches from their bodies.

You might think they're flaked out because it's so hot, but in January, on the hottest day, it wasn't over 28C (82F). These dogs were simply a-okay where they were.

The owners of these dogs are clearly very good to them. I always like a person when their pet is good-natured.

Even the guard dogs keep their cool, watching but not barking if not necessary.

Mexicans have a long tradition of appreciating canine company. Ceramic dogs have been found in archaeological burial sites. These were in the Rufino Tamayo Museo of Pre-Hispanic Art in Oaxaca.

Here's a dog asleep, then having a good stretch. Not all bothered by the foot traffic on market day.

I also took a lot of pics of VW bugs. I think I wrote in a story once that Mexico is where old VW bugs go to retire, but in fact they keep running for a few years yet in Mexico because the dry climate and those VW engines allow it. It might be more accurate to say that Mexico is VW bug purgatory.

Here I got a pic of a dog + a VW bug + a mop.

Why is the mop on the car? Good question.

Friday, March 24, 2017

leap of faith / planning a garden when there's snow on the ground

At the beginning of the winter a friend, who moved to Canada from a warmer climate, called with some alarm the first day it snowed. Sure, she knew about snow. But this kept coming down and coming down, and she was watching the garden she'd planted freeze. How could her plants survive?
I explained that, except for perennials, they wouldn't. She would have to plant a new garden next spring. She thought that was ridiculous. I agree. But there it is.

A couple of weeks ago, when it was -25C and the city hadn't cleaned the sidewalks yet and going for a walk meant floundering and slipping through snow, I decided what to plant in my garden this year. Ordering packets of seeds even though there's still snow on the ground, feels like an existential, yet necessary exercise.  

Understand what I'm saying here: I'm not even a very good gardener. I do it for the idea--and the taste of what I do manage to harvest. I believe, too, in eating what's grown locally.

I don't even live all that far north in Canada, but most of the vegetables and fruit I buy from November until the first harvest the following summer is imported. Fruit has often been picked unripe so it can be shipped thousands of kilometres to get here. How can you compare asparagus from Peru versus asparagus cut less than an hour's drive away?

Last September I took pics at the Jean-Talon market. What a wealth!

When I was growing up, we ate buttered bread with sliced radishes on top. It made for a crisp, peppery sandwich.

At the market, some stalls had a cauldron of boiling water and a bowl of melted butter for cobs on the go. 

My father-in-law once told me that Shepherd's Pie was invented in Quebec. Not true, I know, but his rationale was that in Quebec we had beef, corn, and potatoes. Shepherd's Pie was the dish that resulted. He had no explanation for why it also had an English name. He called it Pâté Chinois which translates as Chinese Pie. I think that has to do with the dish being layered. Instead of meat, veg, and starch being served in distinct piles on the plate, it's mixed. For a rural mindset, that means it's exotic. I base that linguistic deduction on experiences in my own family where food that was tossed or layered or mixed was considered to be weird.

I never saw ground cherries before moving to Quebec. Here, they're popular. You can buy them in a regular grocery store. They taste like a mixture of tomato, mango, and...? They taste almost too tropical to grow in Canada.

Cauliflower comes with a flower in its name, but this was the first time I ever saw it sold in bouquets.

In my garden, I'll be planting lettuce, green beans, arugula, tomatoes, snow peas, parsley. I keep it simple. With luck my rhubarb fared well this past winter and will be there again once the snow has melted.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

plumed weaving / Museo de Textil de Oaxaca

I have a long-term passion for fibre: what it's made from, how it's spun, dyed, woven, what's done with it, what can be done with it.
In another life, I'd have devoted myself to textiles entirely. In this life, I got waylaid by words, reading, languages, books, writing. No regrets.

The yarn detail above and the sculpture below by were made by the fibre artist, Judith Scott. I had read about her and then saw her work at the Oakville Galleries in Oakville, Ontario in 2016. Judith, in particular, interests me because of research I'm doing for a new novel.

Ditto clothing by Jean-Paul Gaultier who designed the pink corset with the cone bra Madonna wore during her 1990 Blond Ambition tour. I'm lucky there was an exhibit of Gaultier's créations at the Musée des beaux arts in Montreal in 2011. I took LOTS of pictures. I mean... a dress with suction cup/button nipples and sequined pubic hair? Who wouldn't?  

More recently I spent an entrancing afternoon at the Museo de Textil de Oaxaca in Mexico. They were hosting an exhibit of weaving that incorporated down from various indigenous birds. One doesn't usually think of feathers as yarn, but down has the flexibility to allow it be spun and twisted with another fibre such as cotton.  

Plumed weaving is a technique that was almost lost. There are only six known pieces of weaving with down, all of them Mexican, dating from 300 years ago. Contemporary weavers have resurrected the process and I was astounded by the beauty of the hangings on display in the museum. The pieces were accompanied by an excellent video. A small but unique and well-curated exhibit. 

What I also appreciated about the exhibit was how the space was divided with textile walls. Fitting, no?

Did I mention that the fibre artist up top, Judith Scott, had Down Syndrome? It shouldn't matter when looking at her work, though it raises the interesting question about the relationship between intelligence and the making of art. 

Sunday, February 26, 2017

snowshoeing in the mist

If you happen to have lost your yellow enamel cooking pot, I can tell you where it is.

The forecast was rain but we decided to go snowshoeing because that was what we'd planned to do. Rented a car, booked a room in a B&B, packed an overnight bag.

R asked why I was snowshoeing in a dress but that's not a dress. It's one of those jumper thingies that adds a layer of warmth and gets pulled over leggings.

We were lucky. It didn't start raining till 2 pm when we'd already been scraping along on the crusty snow for hours and were ready for a cup of hot tea and a thick-cut sandwich. The fog was so heavy that if I lagged too far behind, I lost R lost among the trees.

There was a constant patter like rain but it was only the ice on the branches melting: a syncopated water percussion through the hush of the fog.

The tender colours of birch bark in the winter break my heart every time. Strip the bark away, and yes, you are peeling skin.

The morning among the snow and the mist was magical.

You can't always listen to the forecast. Just go.

Monday, February 20, 2017

sierra norte de oaxaca/ cuajimoloyas/ Jan 2017

There were lots of things I didn't expect to be doing in Mexico.
Sampling dried grasshoppers. (Only one, thank you.)
Happening upon an impromptu jitterbug contest.
Meeting a woman on the side of the road whose husband had worked on a farm in Ontario.
Explaining to men digging a grave with pickaxe and shovel--the proverbial six feet down--that we were visiting the graveyard out of professional curiosity. R works in a cemetery. They wanted to know if he wasn't frightened of los muertos.
Sitting by a fireplace at an altitude of 10,400 feet which is almost three times higher than the Alpine village where the Zorns were born.

Do you see that nice fire we've got going there?

Outside, the sun had set over the peaks and valleys of the Sierra Norte mountains and the village of Cuajimoloyas below. The sheep, goats, turkeys, dogs, and roosters that had been bleating, baaing, crowing, barking, complaining, and gobbling throughout the afternoon quieted with the waning light. The crescent moon wasn't upright as I had always known it but sideways: smiling.

Our cabin was one in a row at the upper perimeter of the village of 1,000 inhabitants--small enough that when the afternoon community announcements were broadcast on the loudspeakers, I think everyone heard them, including us. (Ditto the next morning at seven a.m. as the sun rose, waking the sleepy roosters.) Behind us were pine trees. We were already more or less at the top of the mountain.

We were driven from Oaxaca up a winding road via Tlacolula. I still can't say that without seeing it written, though I can say Cuajimoloyas unaided. At slow speed. A guide was waiting for us at the Ecotourism Office to take us on a 3-hr hike. R found walking at that altitude hard, although at home he jogs and cycles. Strangely, I didn't. I'm the one with the health issues.

This isn't an elegant picture (me in red, the guide in blue), but I was very proud of myself to be doing anything like this at all. The drop behind us was steep, I'm not physically courageous, and I did have heart surgery five years ago. There were no footholds, only toeholds. I wished I were wearing proper hiking boots, but we didn't know that we would be hiking in Mexico.
At one point I asked the guide what would happen if we had an accident. She crossed herself and asked me not to say that. Then she patted her bag where she had a radio. Oh, I said, you can call for a helicopter. No, she said, I can call for men to carry you out. So... it was better to be careful.

I was having a hard time understanding how high we were because there were still trees, and I'm a northerner, expecting the trees to stop growing at a certain altitude, but in an arid climate there's more vegetation as you climb.

When we got back to the village, we were very hungry and happy to have lunch. The woman and her daughter who cooked it gestured for us to approach her wood-fired, brick stove and show her what we wanted.

We had potatoes cooked with a leafy green, champignons, for which the region is known, cactus and tomatoes, chili rellenos stuffed with cheese. (There was meat. We chose not to have any.) And avocados. Of course, avocados. I begged her for a large cup of any kind of tea that was available. She stepped outside and returned with a handful of leaves and made me an excellent tisane. The next morning when we returned for breakfast, I asked if she could make that tea for me again.

We had another hike the next morning with a new guide. I asked both guides, and in fact all the people with whom we had dealings through the Ecotourism office, what they did when they weren't taking tourists into the mountains or ferrying them from Oaxaca to the mountains. The guides both worked on the land. A truck took them to wherever farm work needed to be done--potatoes, corn, cactus, and other vegetables with names I didn't recognize. One said she also had a small herd of goats. Another that she knit. She must knit more quickly and efficiently than I do because I could never earn enough to feed me. One man who drove us worked on an agave farm.

Agave, also known as a century plant, only blooms once, then it dies. It's a fierce plant that can be used as a fence. In Mexico it's farmed to make mescal. BIG business.

These agave plants look decorative, but each is taller than I am and has the circumference of a small room. And no, you would not want to walk into it.

Here we are, me in my floppy hat that looks funny but it keeps the sun off my face. We're on the path back to the village where we spent a couple of hours strolling and eating tangerines under the pine trees.

Our stay in Cuajimoloyas was a fortuitous coincidence. R saw a sandwich board outside a shop in Oaxaca. We discovered we could be driven there, stay in a cabin, go for hikes with a guide. The guide was necessary since we would be hiking on indigenous land and the trails aren't marked. This adventure was offered by  We highly recommend it. Not only was it an unforgettable experience, but profits are given to the indigenous villages who host these trips. Cuajimoloyas is one of several tiny mountain villages working to sustain itself with agriculture and ecotourism.