Thursday, January 10, 2019

shrink-wrap struggle

It's not an ethical/ecological struggle. I have a cupboard full of tubs with lids, parchment paper, waxed cheese cloth, jars, old yogurt containers. Lots of reusable or recyclable options. But I wasn't at home.

Yesterday was my first stint at the non-profit, community coop grocery store in my hood.



In order to be a member of the coop and benefit from the lower prices, one has to work in the store for three hours a month. I opted not to tackle cash because I don't like handling money. I would have liked to work in the kitchen where about-to-expire vegetables are turned into soups, stews and pickles, but those slots are filled well in advance. I decided to work "on the floor". That meant keeping the shelves stocked, the apples and oranges and grapefruits heaped, bagging carrots, spinach, arugula, cutting and packaging pieces of cheese.




There are many things I can do but yesterday I discovered that I can't make air-filled plastic balloons to keep greenery loose and fresh. I got the spinach and arugula into the bags no problem. I got the twist ties on. I punched the correct code into the scale, weighed, and tore free the sticker for the bag. But my bags all sagged. I watched the person training me, but he simply seemed to have the knack. Bingo, he closed a bag and there was air trapped inside. How did he do it? Comme ça, he said. No matter how many tries, my bags looked lousy.

Okay, then, let's try this. Cutting cheese off a slab and wrapping the pieces in shrink wrap.

Oh no! Not shrink wrap! Small boxes, big boxes, the teeth never work for me. The large boxes with the little plastic button that's supposed to force the film onto the teeth are the worst because I only end up with more possible film to ruin beyond use. And this box had lost its button! I tried every sleight of hand I could think of to tear the wrap across the teeth. I even considered putting the box on the floor and straddling it. I grabbed a knife to stab the wrap. I pulled every which way, gave up trying to make nice squares of plastic wrap, settled for jagged towels of it, bundled pieces of cheese inside, smushed the leftover edges around the back. Cheese on a cling film cushion.

The fellow stopped by to see how I was doing. Okay, I said. He picked up a piece of cheese to see why it didn't lie flat. I told him I was shrink-wrap handicapped. Joke? Ha-ha? I got a weak smile. He showed me his technique for getting the buttonless teeth to make nice, neat squares of shrink wrap. It looked easy, it looked good, but I knew the teeth wouldn't oblige for me. Then he showed me how to fold the film across the cheese. He explained the film had elasticity so that if I pulled it just so, it would stretch smoothly. I said I would try.

I packaged nuts, no problem. Tamari almonds don't have to be in balloons like spinach. I kept the oranges and lemons and apples and grapefruits heaped. I cut some day-old baguettes into cubes for croutons. Why there are baguettes left at the end of the day, I don't understand. The bread at this store is fabulous!


Shrink-wrap challenges aside, I'm happy to play a small (very small) part in the coop which is part of the Bâtiment 7 project in Pointe St. Charles in Montreal. A repurposed CN train workshop, Bâtiment 7 is now a community centre with art space upstairs (painting, pottery, metal, wood), and so far a grocery and tavern downstairs.

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

my most necessary writing exercises


Whether or not you celebrate the upcoming holidays, this is the time of year when the North Pole begins to tilt toward the sun again. Those minutes of daylight we lost incrementally from October through November and December--until we were waking in darkness and eating supper in darkness--will slowly seep back again. That's worth celebrating.


I'm looking forward to staying home this year, hanging out with my favourite guy, going for walks, cooking, having wine, eating.

Our tree is decorated with ornaments from my childhood--small, rusty-around-the-edges, crusty-with-glitter, 1960s gewgaws. Also a few ornaments that might or might not belong on a tree but friends have given them to us over the years. A broom, an angel, a heart, a wooden boat...




While home, I won't be working as hard but I'll be revising a manuscript, since I'm at that stage when taking a complete break would mean having to go back to the beginning to pick up the momentum again. So it's better to keep working, if only a few pages of revision a day.

And when I write, I do my writing exercises. They're not the kind that need a computer, paper or a pen. In fact, anything but.


One is a sideways stretch a FB friend recommended. My neighbour in the Gaspé got me doing forward bends, arms hanging to the floor. I have a routine of neck stretches, including the all-important chin tuck because writers suffer from "writer's head"--that peering-at-the-page/screen posture. I have a yoga mat beside my desk and lie there and knot my legs. Since I don't notice how quickly time goes by--I'm STILL working on same fucking paragraph!--I set the alarm to go off every hour. That was on the advice of a physiotherapist. I don't always stop every hour but mostly I do. I have a standing as well as a sitting desk and divvy my workday between them. It could be age, it could be the cold climate, it could be a propensity to creakiness, but in my experience writing is *not* the best activity for the body, and so I do what I can to compensate.


Another exercise is the long walk I do mid to late afternoon when I go see what's happening in the city, maybe meet a friend, sometimes take a few pics. In the one of the Lachine Canal above--can you see?--someone got onto the slushy ice to scrape letters. To spell what, I don't know but it must have felt worth risking breaking through. ??


I like walking at sunset, in dusk and darkness, so I don't mind that the days are short in winter. I especially like when it's snowed and the snow reflects light into the air. But I equally look forward to the days getting longer and walking in daylight again.

There's the writerly wisdom I have to share at the end of 2018: it's not all about words. Take care of your body.

Here's a mulberry tree in holiday dress. Joyeuses fêtes et bonne année!



Tuesday, December 4, 2018

tomato water balloons

It seemed like a good idea. Why not? Who wants to stand at the stove when it's muggy and hot, cooking tomatoes down into sauce? Why not freeze the whole tomatoes--easy peasy--dump them in freezer bags--and make sauce in the winter when I want it? Hm, hm? Why not? I looked online and could find nothing that said neither yay nor nay. Though maybe that should have given me a hint.

Hard to believe, but since September when I froze 20 bags of Italian plum tomatoes, I haven't once made tomato sauce. Today I took a bag from the freezer. Nine lovely Italian tomatoes bought at the Jean-Talon market, delivered to my door in the Pointe by a good friend who works near the market.

I let them thaw. Tried to chop one and splatted water all over the counter. Tried another. The same. Devised a new strategy whereby I snipped off the tip and squeezed all the water into the sink before chopping the tomato flesh that remained.

So this is what freezing whole tomatoes does: the skin gets tough and is hard to cut. The insides of the tomato---the flesh and water--separate. The tomato turns into a water balloon. The flesh that remains still tastes like tomato but doesn't make a very convincing sauce.

Next year, next summer, I'll be making sauce--which, even in a hot muggy kitchen, I prefer to do because I know where it comes from.

Sunday, November 18, 2018

going to the book fair / Salon du livre de Montréal 2018



How many people go to Montreal's book fair? I don't know but wow. There are more than 2500 authors invited for signings and other events.

Above is the view from my table,and here's me watching the streams and streams of people passing at 11 am on a Sunday morning!

The longest lineups are for children's books. For one author there's a lineup of parents and kids down the alley and up the stairway and around a corner three or four abreast. When R comes by to see if  I need anything, he asks if maybe I want to write a children's book.

I'm watching how many people meet my eyes as they walk past. I sometimes get a smile and even a Bonjour. A woman asks if my book is for adolescents or adults. Another asks what my book is about and says she'll keep it in mind. She comes back 10 minutes later and buys it. Nice!


I love watching the kids who walk past swinging or hugging the bag with the book(s) they've been allowed to choose. Some return my look solemnly. Some look away. Some smile. One asks her mom if I wrote a book too. Yes, I say. It's important for kids to know that ordinary-looking, talking, walking people write books. When I was young, I loved to read but hadn't the least idea who wrote books. I thought you had to be born in England and have a snooty accent. 

I get questions that have nothing to do with my book. "I have an 11-year-old and a four-year-old. Can you tell me which children's authors are at the Salon right now?" She's holding her phone and I suggest she pull up the site and look. We do that together. And then from left field: "Madame! Madame! Why is this book $39.95 here and in my bookstore in St-Hyacinthe it's $34?" I say I'm not the manager, I'm an author. I don't normally say that I'm an author. It sounds so la-di-da. (See snooty accent above.) But being here makes it okay somehow. The woman apologizes and leans in to hug me. Glances at my book but doesn't buy it.

The publisher stops by now and then to see if I need anything and to chat. I appreciate it.

A friend underhand-pitches me a piece of sucre à la crème--like fudge--through the crowd. To my surprise I catch it. Keep your blood sugar up, he says. 

 
I step across two seats when I realize that a new author who's come at noon is Sylvain Neuvel, who also lives in Pointe St-Charles. He was at the Salon yesterday too and said that he had another writer from the Pointe beside him. Good writing vibes in the Pointe these days! 


I stay long enough to cross paths with Eric Dupont whose recent book, La route du lilas, I've started reading and admire hugely. Before he even arrives, he has a lineup. The woman at the head of the line has a list of questions. I ask if she hesitated before undertaking to read a 600-page book. She's very surprised. The more pages are only the more pleasure! she says. The whole day so far has been an Alice tumble into a world where words and books reign.


But I'm ravenous for lunch and R recalls the smell of fresh bread when we were walking to the Salon from the Pointe, and we head off to find the bakery-café he's positive exists. 









Thursday, November 15, 2018

visiting the swamp


What is it like for people who can never see their once-upon-a-time home again because they cannot return? I ask myself.


My own relationship with past homes is considerably softer, but still elusive.

I was born in Hamilton, Ontario. My parents had only just emigrated to Canada a year before I was born. They obviously hadn't yet assimilated North American values. In fact, as a child I often wondered why we were in Canada since I often heard my parents say that European quality--Qualität--was so much better. My mother found the neighbours schlampig. Say that out loud. You don't need to speak German to hear that it's not a desirable trait.



Our relationship with our neighbours, most of them from the Maritimes come to southern Ontario for work, was coloured by recent history. Not so long previously their fathers and uncles had fought against the Krauts, and goddamn! if we weren't Krauts living in their midst now.

You think that as a child I couldn't have understood these distinctions? I might not have understood what they meant, but I heard Kraut often enough and I was aware we were disliked. I knew I didn't look like the other kids with their pedal pushers and short curly hair. I had long braids and handmade dresses.

However, when I finally met my family in Austria, it turned out I didn't fit in there either.

It was easy when I finally decided to move to Montreal where I didn't "come from", but that's finally become home.

At some point in my timeline of growing up in Ontario, my parents bought land that included several acres of swamp. Behind the swamp was a forest where my father built a one-room cabin--no electricity, no running water--where we camped in the summers and spent weekends. Here it is in the late 1960s. It took several years for a humongous pond to be dug in one corner of the swamp to heap up enough land to get permission to build a house on top, more time again to build it.

When we moved into the house I was fifteen. It was the family home I returned to for visits and Christmas until the house and land were sold twenty-five years later.

Do I have fond memories of the cabin, the forest, living in a house surrounded by a swamp? No. I was a strawberry blond, pale-skinned target for mosquitoes, black flies, horse flies, deer flies, blood suckers. I couldn't figure out how to climb a tree. I wanted to be in a city.

The memories were a mine, though, when I began to imagine a life for Thérèse and Rose in my novel Five Roses.

This, too, is a surprise: among the different landscapes of my past, swampy land feels familiar, the unruly growth and wreckage of it even beautiful.

A couple of weeks ago R and I visited family in Ontario and I wanted to take a drive to the old house, though I was told that the couple who bought it didn't "keep it up".

The house looked abandoned even before I opened the outside screen door to knock and ask permission to walk around.


Here's the creek we used to float down in inner tubes or paddle kayaks or a square boat my father made from scrap lumber. Don't get bitten by a snapping turtle, eh? It'll take your finger off.






R remembered picking green beans and tomatoes in the garden that used to be enclosed by these trees--that used to be a hedge.










Here's the 30' high tower we used to climb. It was more solid in those days, although it was 30' in the air and you had to throw yourself over the wall from the ladder to get inside. Also dangle in the air while finding your footing to get down again. Mind you, it wasn't built as a toy. It was meant to... sight herons? I'm not really sure.












It's sad to see how decayed and abandoned the old place is, though equally impressive to see how tenaciously Nature reclaims its own. My father built a boardwalk to cross the swamp to get to the forest. This moss-covered wood is what's left of it.

And yes, by the way, I KNOW that swamp is more properly called wetland now, but I have my particular relationship with what I assure was and still is a swamp.


Making our way past the swamp to the forest, all my old landmarks rotted or overgrown by thorn trees and alders, I wasn't always sure which direction or how far to go. A distance that seemed far as a child isn't the same as an adult. In fact, it might be farther. In the forest I felt lost at the same time that I recognized the wet leaf scent, the softness of decomposing pine needles underfoot, the brush of the trees.

And here, faded but still nailed to a post, one of our old handmade signs.



The windows of our old cabin were smashed, the inside wrecked. The rope swing my father hung between two pine trees was gone. No trace of the driftwood fence, the outhouse, the benches, the birdbath.

Well, of course not.

Back at the house, walking around it one last time, I saw the bird's nest on the sill of my old bedroom window.


Saturday, October 27, 2018

october 27th / not at the opera

Two years' worth of home compost turned into the garden by shovel, then changed stinky shoes and walked to the market--no pics of pumpkins but two coffee-loving, Day of the Dead skeletons. Over to Verdun, along the river, and home again. 
Right now, outside my window on October 27th at 7 pm it's started snowing. Eh oui, Montreal. Winter's on its way. 

















Thursday, October 25, 2018

book launch in Old Montreal



Last week my Quebec publisher, Marchand de feuilles, hosted a lovely book launch for their fall titles--Eric Dupont (in the public eye just now with the English translation of his novel La fiancée americaine--in English, Songs for the Cold of Heart--shortlisted for the 2018 Giller prize), Simon Paradis, Adam Leith Gollner, and myself.

The venue was the Chapelle Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours in Old Montreal. The church is also called, more simply, Chapelle des marins or Sailors' Church given its situation in the port, close to the river. Included in the church's long history--rebuilt in 1771 on the site of an older church that burned down--it gets a nod in Leonard Cohen's song "Suzanne" (1968): "And the sun pours down like honey on our lady of the harbour..."


Looks good, but I actually only spoke for a minute. The gifted Catherine de Léan, beside me, read the excerpt from my novel.

After readings at the altar, there was a cocktail in the crypt.





B&W photos by Justine Latour. Colour by Mélanie Vincelette.