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...

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

looking at the body / writing

This happened yesterday. We're still having a heatwave in Montreal and though I normally go for my long walk in the afternoon, I decided to go for a walk before the sun got into its Albert Camus mood and the air was still cool. Cool as in: tank top and shorts and not melting with sweat. (Yes, yes, I had a high school English teacher tell me that horses sweat, men perspire, and women glow. She must have been made of plastic. I am female and I sweat.)

While sitting in a café reading a novel, I stopped to consider this line: "People look more like who they really are from the back." 

A choreographer recently helped me with some pages I wrote, and she pointed out that I mostly describe my characters from the front--which doesn't work in dance. She prompted me to be more aware of a 360 degree perception.

So this line especially caught my attention. I wondered how true it was and on my walk home, started snapping pics.

This man is carrying his cane along with his groceries. Made me wonder why he had a cane if he could walk so well without it. Although that was something best seen from the front, so this isn't a case where the back view reveals more.

What can be seen? Some lifestyle choices. How a person dresses. Whether she walks or rides a bike. Carries groceries in a knapsack. A physio therapist probably has a more well-trained eye to spot people's habits, good and bad, from their posture than I can. There are cultural identifiers. There's anxiety, there's determination to get somewhere, there's confidence, there's indolence, there's simply having to get from one place to another.

There's no reason for this woman to look so impatient and tight-kneed. She's already being served. In fact, why hasn't she reached into her purse to get out her wallet since she's going to have to pay any instant?

I stood behind this woman for a very long time because the pharmacist was explaining in minute detail how she was supposed to administer the medication for her child. She didn't once move or shift as she listened, though it looked to me like one foot was about to slip off her shoe. This last observation is more a reflection on myself than her. I would fall. She didn't. She finally asked the pharmacist if all that he was telling her was on the piece of paper in the bag. Yes. Well, then, she said. Her tone was as patient with him as he'd been with her.

It occurred to me--being the kind of writer I am, interested in "story"--that I could imagine more when I see two people rather than a solitary person. Immediately there's dynamic.

This couple, for example. Quite apart from their age, I would still guess that they've been together for a couple of decades at least. They're comfortable together. Maybe even take each others' presence for granted? I'm looking at his hands. She might seem to be the in-charge person since she's doing the carrying. Though you never know. She might pass him the knapsack once it's loaded up. Real-life people--and fictional characters--can surprise you with their inconsistencies.

This is the back shot I like best. Her solitary quietness and elegance. The bicycle. This is a story I could write. I like to "place" my characters.

In some cases, I only saw the person from the back. There were times, too, when I turned around to take a pic. I'd already seen the person from the front. And... yeah, I perceived more from the front view. I wouldn't agree the line in the novel.

It's still a good pointer to pay more attention to what we can read from behind.

Monday, September 25, 2017

a long summer in Montreal / no complaints

You go away for vacation in the summer. I don't have kids. I'm not tied to a school schedule. My favourite season to travel is the fall.

During the summer I stay home and work. I don't have a/c but the dirt cellar keeps the downstairs cool. Just don't shriek when the occasional centipede ventures upstairs. They eat spiders which is good. Leave the centipedes alone. Not that they even react when you shriek.

I like being in the city in the summer, wearing a floaty dress and sandals, getting lettuce from the garden, cycling followed by bbq and wine.

This summer I finished a long and intensive bout of work. I spent so much time at the computer that I gave myself... ahem... De Quervain's Tenosyvitis from banging the space bar so hard with my thumb. Very painful. From the thumb through the wrist up the forearm. I'm still trying to teach myself not to bang like that and wondering why I ever started. Why so aggressive about making spaces?

I'm not ready to get back to blogging yet but I will. I need some time to myself for all the other things that have piled up and gotten dusty and neglected.

In the meantime, while out walking, I saw a couple of sights that actually made me pull out my phone. 

This past weekend was very hot, so we cycled across the St. Lawrence via the old ice bridge aka l'Estacade. Here, I'm facing Montreal across the river.

On the other side of the ice bridge, if you turn west, you're on a spit of land called la Petite Voie du Fleuve. The St. Lawrence River is on one side, the St. Lawrence Seaway on the other. When there aren't too many trees, you can see water on both sides. I took a panoramic shot to give you an idea--and ha! A cyclist dashed by. Neat what the camera did to him, no?

And here I'm heading home again. And yes, I know one isn't supposed to take pics into the sun.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

eating and books in Stratford / Appetite for Words festival

It looks as if, since I had the exciting news that a chef in Stratford, Ontario has designed a menu "inspired" by my novel, Five Roses, all I can write about is food.

What can I say? They asked.

Here's the example I sent. Their photographer--and clearly amazing kitchen store--did a better job.

It's also harvest season.Time to hope the beets and carrots will grow just a little bit more before winter. Wishing the tomatoes on the vines will still ripen. Will there be green beans for another meal? Will I still get rhubarb?

Thursday, September 7, 2017


This made 5 large freezer bags of sauce.

I've got another batch cooking and I still have more than half the box to go.

Tomatoes bought in the wintertime--in Canada--are so hard and dry and juiceless. I told R a few days ago that if I had Italian plum tomatoes from the market, I'd make sauce. He told his good friend who works near the Jean-Talon Market. His good friend is known for kindness and generosity. As he said when he came, What's the point in buying a basket of tomatoes when you can buy a crate?

The tomatoes smell so fresh and... fruity! The knife slides like into peaches. I chop until I almost nick myself and I stop because I don't want to mix blood with tomato juice. (I'm on a blood thinner. Believe me, I bleed.)

Tomato sauce bubbles. I work near the kitchen so I remember to stir it now and again. I have deadlines. Work I need to finish. Work I need to start. But: it's tomato season and I am grateful for fresh, locally-grown produce and good friends.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Five Roses the novel

There's no telling when you write a book what might happen. I thought I wrote a novel about surviving insurmountable loss. I thought I was exploring the historic Montreal neighbourhood of Pointe St. Charles where I've been living since 2001.

In the book I wanted to include cycling by the St. Lawrence River, writing about pastries and pastry-making, living in a cabin without running water or electricity, weaving on a loom, Trini cooking, abandoned factories along the Lachine Canal...

I didn't think a chef would concoct a meal after reading my book!

Pointe paintings by R. I use words not a paint brush.

Sunday, August 27, 2017


I was in the park drinking a takeout iced decaff. Late afternoon light with that pinkish intimation that the leaves will soon be changing colour. I was sitting on a low concrete wall that circled a green area of plants and bushes. I hadn't bothered to take off my knapsack because it wasn't heavy. Green beans, a few Ontario peaches, a bag of peppers. In the event you ever want to buy peppers in Quebec, the French word for the vegetable is piment, not poivre which is spice pepper. It took me a few years of living here to realize I kept asking for the wrong kind of pepper. There were other people sitting nearby or walking through the park. I was listening to an audio book. Yes, I listen to audio books, and no, I don't consider it cheating. I listen carefully and repeat chapters if I feel I didn't do them justice. Listening improves our ability to retain what we hear. Of course, I still read print books as well. I only mention that I was listening to a book so you understand that I wasn't attuned to peripheral activity.  

So that was the scene: me listening to something no one else could see, sipping my drink, aware that there were other people in the park, but mostly oblivious.

I felt a tug on my backpack and walloped behind me for all I was worth. I'm not tall nor heavy, but I have a lot of intent. I jumped up, ripped out my earbuds, whirled around and geez! A boy, maybe three years old, was lying on his back in the plants, bawling. I wanted to help him up--make sure I hadn't hurt him--but he did not want me to touch him--no surprise--and WHERE was the responsible adult???

Until finally a woman got off her phone and began hollering and barrelling down on me with a stroller where she had a baby. The boy scrambled up as soon as she got close enough. So good, he could move. I hadn't broken his back. English? Français? I asked. She was scolding him now in... my good guess would be one of the many varieties of Arabic. Français, she said coldly, dusting off her child, as annoyed with him as with me for having brought this incident upon them. Truly, I explained, I had no idea there was a child behind me. He pulled on my knapsack and I reacted. She said it was all right and wanted to wheel her stroller away, but the boy was still tearful and frightened of the nasty white woman, and I didn't want to leave it like that. I got down to his level and explained that I hadn't seen him. I just felt this great big strong yank on my bag and it frightened me! I thought it was a wolf in the park! I thought it was a monster who was hungry and wanted my groceries! I invented a few other scenarios, stretching my French fairytale vocabulary to the max. Maybe his mom thought I was crazy, but he was finally grinning and gave me a big wave when I backed away and waved at him.

So... I will probably still sit in the park listening to audio books, and woe to whoever tries to steal my green beans and Ontario peaches.

Here's a young friend who agreed to share his snack with me. I don't send all kids flying.  

Monday, August 21, 2017

staying sane


Crazy world and busy days. I keep myself sane with small accomplishments. This year is the first I've tried to grow garlic. I planted it last fall and harvested it a couple of weeks ago. It's been hanging--curing--in an old cupboard where I store a table loom and a 1950s Westinghouse fan.

Back to work...

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

the vintage life / cycling / la route verte

Screw the cartoon-lightning-zigzags in the forecast this past weekend. We piled our bikes in the back of a rented car and headed to the Cantons de l'Est aka Eastern Townships. It's about 1 1/2 hrs from Montreal.

Since the sun was still shining when we got to North Hatley, we went for a spin. The bike path follows the Massawippi River through rolling hills, past farmland, banks of wildflowers, even an old copper mine.

We'd rented an Airbnb that was advertised as a vintage bungalow. Given that we're in 2017, vintage could mean... a king-size waterbed with disco lights? A chrome and Arborite dining set? Vintage is a broad term. We were staying in North Hatley which is not cheap, and this bungalow was not expensive.

It was a white clapboard cottage, maybe once a small farmhouse, with a wide porch and a very friendly dog tied to the neighbour's clothesline. All wiggly and delighted at the prospect of company, she defied architectural geometry to scramble onto the porch of the vintage bungalow. We never saw the neighbour. R left a note for the Airbnb woman saying that we'd have liked to know the dog's name.

In this cottage/bungalow vintage meant garage sale bargains. Not finds, bargains--because items were already showing signs of wear and tear. Or were broken. The owner didn't want the strangers renting her place to damage anything. The soup ladle was already dented, the bedroom curtain torn, the mismatched chairs wobbly. The furniture was covered in sheets and blankets to keep it clean, but also--I looked under the blankets--because it was threadbare and patched.

There was a certain charm. The house was spotless. Impeccable. And she'd made one important investment: a first-class orthopedic mattress.
The next day the sky was overcast but there were still no cartoon-lightning-zigzags, so we set out to cycle to Sherbrooke. I took a rain jacket and kept a change of dry clothes in the car. The dry T-shirt was useful on the way back, since I donated the sodden T-shirt I was wearing when R wanted a rag to wash the muck off our bikes before putting them back in the car. But I've jumped ahead.

We knew from previous visits that there's an excellent patisserie in North Hatley. For breakfast I had not only a croissant but a pecan danoise. What is a pecan danoise? Creamy pecan pie filling enfolded in buttery flake pastry, the top studded with pecans. This is Quebec where pastry is pastry, not bread.

Energized, we set off on our bikes. We stopped along the way to look at a shingle farmhouse, walk across an old bridge, watch kids playing volleyball.

We made it to Sherbrooke (23 k/14 m) before the rain started.

R said it was only a passing shower, but it wasn't passing. Coffee turned into lunch. The sky leaked buckets. Puddles spread into ponds.

We decided to strap on our helmets and head back. As a man watching us said, "Might as well go since you have to."

You know those hypnotic rainfall videos people play to put them to sleep? That's how much it was raining. Cold rain too. I didn't see any cartoon-lightning-zigzags, but I couldn't see much. I don't have windshield wipers on my glasses. I was trying to stay upright and keep the knees pumping. I did hear the thunder. Rolling, booming, inevitable thunder.

What kept me going? I was thinking about the whirlpool back at the bungalow.

That, like "vintage", was part of the advertisement. Un bain tourbillon.

In reality it was a bathtub equipped with spurting jets. While I was cycling, soaked through and chilled to my bra, the prospect of anything hot was a much-needed dangling carrot. Over the smashing, dripping, Noah's Ark rain, I shouted to R that I wanted to stop at the general store when we got back. The general store in North Hatley is one of those old-style places where you can find everything. I hoped for lavender bath salts. I found mint epsom salts. Close enough.

You're thinking I was exaggerating about the sheets and blankets on the furniture?

You can see the linoleum tile floor too. That is bona fide vintage.

How about the gloves left well in view to encourage us to keep up the cleaning?

Oh, and this note--in French and English--posted over the toilet.

Loving home repair of a wobbly table.

We now know the dog's name. Are you ready? It's Sky-Skyla-T'es-Belle. I kid you not. Some things cannot be made up. Sky-Skyla-You're-Beautiful. Maybe Belle for short?

After my epsom-salt bain turbillon, we went for a beer and a walk by Lake Massawippi.

We cycled 70 k--20 k in driving rain--which is the most I've ever done on a weekend.