Friday, December 28, 2012

the old grandfather and his grandson, a lesser known grimm's fairytale

I've been so busy working on a new novel that I've let this blog slide. I'm battling with words and with pages, which doesn't require weapons so much as it does time, and of time there's never enough. Only  so many minutes in an hour, hours in a day, days per week--though in my case that promises to change soon. Very soon. There's a riddle for you: how I'm going to stretch my hours.

When I began this blog I'd said that I would occasionally translate a Grimm's story from the book my grandfather sent when I was a child. Here I've chosen a short one... to ease myself away from the holiday mood and back to my desk.

"The Old Grandfather and his Grandson"
There was once a very old man. His eyes had grown bleary, his ears deaf, his knees trembled. When he sat at the table, he could hardly hold his spoon and spilled soup on the tablecloth, and sometimes it dribbled from his mouth too. His son and his son's wife were disgusted, and decided that the old grandfather should sit in the corner behind the stove. They gave him his food in an earthenware bowl, and even then didn't fill it. Saddened, he gazed at the table and his eyes grew wet. One time his hands shook so much that he couldn't hold his bowl and it fell to the ground and broke. The young wife scolded him, but he said nothing, only sighed. She bought a wooden dish for a few cents, and that was his now. And so they sat: the old man in the corner behind the stove, the husband and wife at the table. The four-year-old grandson was on the floor trying to fit small pieces of wood together. "What are you doing?" asked his father. "I'm making a little trough," answered the child,"that Mother and Father will have to eat from it when I'm big." Husband and wife looked at each other for a while, finally began to cry, and fetched the old grandfather to the table and let him eat with them from then on, and said nothing, even when he spilled food.

This story affected me as a child. Maybe because the simple settling of justice appealed to my child's sense of right and wrong. Maybe because the four-year-old child is the hero.
Today I found the story by flipping through the pages and looking for the illustration which I still remember.
The German is confusing with its grandfather, son, husband, wife, mother, father, grandson. The perspective changes every sentence.
I'm not sure how to translate the Tröglein, which the child wants to build for his parents. Was it a kind of dish or basin that doesn't exist in modern kitchens? Trog means trough--see the similarity in spelling--but a trough sounds more appropriate for a barn. In German the suffix lein gets added to any number of nouns to shrink the size. A Tisch is a table and a little table is a Tischlein.
It doesn't work with every noun, but if you see a German word with lein on the end, think small. That's my free blog advice for the end of 2012.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

serviettenknödel / tea towel dumpling

A tea towel dumpling is a savoury bread dumpling, about the size of football, sliced and served with stewed meat or lentils. It's an Austrian dish that probably has a cousin in Bavaria or other Eastern European countries.
I got the recipe from my Tirolean aunt who made it without a recipe. I annoyed her no end by trying to measure the ingredients as she used them, but it was the only way I could be sure that I would come home again and know how to make it. It's a tasty, cold weather meal, ideal for anyone who likes bready textures as I do.
First--and most difficult depending on where you live--you'll need 400 g of chewy bread. The best are German buns called Semmel, but I've never found what I'd call a Semmel in Montreal. Here I use a Belgian miche, a round loaf that looks like this:
The recipe calls for old bread torn into small pieces. I tear up fresh bread and let it dry it out for a couple of days. I speed up the process by putting it in the oven at very low heat. You don't want to toast it.
Next you brown chopped onion (one or two depending on your druthers) in oil and add it to the dried bread. Chopped parsley. Salt, pepper and nutmeg.
Half an hour before you want to cook the dumpling, add the wet ingredients which you've mixed:
7 eggs (yes, seven)
1/2 cup oil
1/2 cup milk
What I sometimes do is brown the onion in the 1/2 cup oil. That's either a smart or a lazy step.
You let the mixture sit for half an hour so the dry bread absorbs the liquid. Well, of course.
Now comes the tea towel stage. I make this recipe often enough that I have a dedicated dumpling tea towel. Once you've used a tea towel to make a dumpling, you won't want to use it for anything else again. It gets stained during cooking. It never quite loses the smell of onion. I suppose you could bleach it but I'm allergic to bleach and against it on principle, so I've never tried. In fact, even when I wash the tea towel with detergent after I've used it, I then boil it in fresh water to get rid of any detergent residue. There's great potential for neurosis during the choosing and preparation of an appropriate tea towel.
You fold the bottom of the towel over the dough, then fold the top over the bottom. Tie the long ends not too tightly because--with all those eggs--the dumpling will puff out considerably, and a tight knot will only be harder to unknot.
Get a kettle of water boiling and drop in the dumpling. It needs to cook at a simmer for an hour. Less and it won't be done through. More is fine.
Before serving, allow yourself a good few minutes to undo the hot knot. I usually drop the dumpling in the sink and use a knife and fork to fiddle open the tea towel. From the sink onto a serving platter where the dumpling gets sliced.
As I wrote above, this goes well with stew of any variety. Lentils too. It's bready and fluffy and tasty.
I should have taken a photo of a tempting slice of dumpling with stew and vegetables on the plate, but we were too hungry and I forgot.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

i shoulda stayed home and played with my toys

I first met Gwen in 1982. I was having a tryst with R in Kingston at a pretty limestone hotel that's since been renovated and turned into something else. R lived in Montreal; I lived in Toronto. Kingston is approximately halfway between. Rendezvous in Kingston.
My good friend RM was in Kingston visiting her parents. She and R skipped stones on the lake. We went to Chez Piggy's for lunch. RM brought us back to her parents' place where I met her mother, Gwen. What I recall about this visit was how RM sat before her mother and began to massage her feet. The natural intimacy and tenderness between mother and daughter floored me.
Gwen moved to California with her husband, but I met her now and again when she came to Toronto to visit RM, and again when she returned to Canada after her husband's death. She was light-hearted, funny, liberal with puns. She had no sense of political correctness and told jokes about Jews and gays. She would equally poke fun at herself.
She played the ukele. Her hands can't manage the strings anymore, thought she can still, as she puts it, plonk on the piano.
Music runs a deep vein through her life, and it's wonderful to see how the first lines of a popular lyric from the 30s or 40s prompts her to sing the whole song with only an occasional falter. She likes people to sing with her. Have scientists studied how people with dementia, who can't remember what they've just eaten, only need the prompt of a hum to sing a song that has several stanzas? Do songs get imprinted on a different part of the brain?
Gwen has survived the death of her spouse, one son, all her siblings. She's the last of her generation, which she doesn't always remember. When she refers to her brother or sister as still living, someone has to break it to her that the person is no longer alive. She becomes angry that, as she feels, the death has been kept a secret from her.
It's interesting that at her frail, yet stubborn age of 89 the people she speaks of most are her siblings. I wonder if this has to do with the nature of memory--whether the long-ago decades are stronger than more recent times--or the nature of the bond with the family of one's childhood.
(Is that going to be me one day, comparing my lifespan with that of my brothers?)
I'm reminded of what R tells me about clients who come to the cemetery, where he works in the office. He says many people want to be buried with their siblings and parents instead of with their spouse. I find that hard to credit. You choose your spouse. Or so goes the myth. Family is an accident, and not always a happy one. And yet, so many people, who are planning for their death, request to be buried with their siblings and parents--which leaves their spouse to be buried with their siblings and parents. Isn't that odd? Maybe I'm odd. R explains that plots are expensive and people want to take advantage of existing family plots. That still doesn't make sense to me. What a strange time--one's last home--to decide to be frugal. I don't want to be buried, but if I were to want that, I'd want to be with R.
Back to Gwen. R and I spent last weekend with RM in the Laurentians near the nursing home where Gwen now lives. RM had offered to bring her mother to church on Sunday. I'm not a churchgoer but R and I wanted to accompany them so we could see Gwen who, we already knew, wouldn't remember us.
There was a small Anglican church nearby. What I know about church harks back to Catholic school. R and I tried to stand and sit when expected, fumbled through the hymn and prayer books. Crowns and magnificence and eternity--not my usual pool of vocabulary. Gwen was especially happy with the singing. The minister had told us when we entered that he would bring communion to her, but when Gwen saw RM go forward to the railing, she tried to follow. R helped her to the front.
After church we went to a bistro/café in Ste-Agathe for soup and a muffin. Gwen was happy to be taken out, but the clamour of people laughing and talking confused her. RM and R kept singing snatches of music which got her singing. We were the musical table of American pop songs while everyone around us was eating brunch. When a couple maneuvered past our table to get to one in the corner, Gwen said, Squeeze on in there! RM left the table for a minute, and Gwen asked me if I knew her daughter RM who had a lovely voice.
It felt like a big life lesson to watch what the brain recalls and what it doesn't. Which habits stay and which disappear with only the vaguest trace.
When RM had buttoned her mother into her long wool coat again and knotted the scarf around her neck, she left to bring the car close to the door. R and I tried to lead Gwen with her walker but she kept stopping to pass comments on other diners and say hello to them. When I held open the door and a freezing gust of wind made her shudder, she made a cranky face and did a W.C. Fields voice. "I shoulda stayed home and played with my toys."

Thursday, November 15, 2012

art needs to breathe / frida and diego in toronto

I saw the Frida Kahlo/Diego Rivera show at the AGO in Toronto.
I believe the show was well-curated, temperature controlled, not crowded on the wall. I suppose, too, there's a curatorial reason for hosting the show in the dim rooms on the lower floor. I hope it's not just because people can't be trusted to walk all the way up the fourth floor which is brighter and nicer.
The show is a good representation of their work, though I'm not sure it will turn people who aren't already fans into fans. Maybe it's the dim rooms. Maybe the hordes of people. I question the wisdom of putting the captions for several paintings and photos off to the side. For those who want to know the provenance of a painting or the material used, it wasn't possible to move between the works and the captions. There were so many people. It's great to see people so eager to be culturfied, though it lends a pre-Christmas-shopping-mall aura to culture.
I saw the show but didn't get that visceral jolt in the aesthetic gut that I expect from a great painting or paintings. I did get it when I saw the same paintings in Mexico last year. In Mexico, with the bright sunshine outside, purple and pink adobe buildings, pyramids, mole sauce and fresh burritos, Frida Kahlo's nightmare paintings and Diego Rivera's squat, stylized bodies make sense. What I particularly loved about seeing the paintings in Mexico was walking through Frida and Diego's houses and seeing where they worked, the terracotta pottery, embroidery, glassware and Judas figures they surrounded themselves with.
So... yeah... the show at the AGO, which I saw on a cold, grey day, didn't measure up to that. I missed the open French doors onto the sunshine, the terrifying squawk of peacocks, the velvet embroidered pillows, the little painted wooden truck filled with crucifixes, the floor to ceiling cabinets filled with receipt books, recipes, journal notes labelled in a bold, spidery scrawl.
Which makes me question whether any collected, curated and pristine show ever really works.
We can, however, pay more attention to art at home. The sculpture portraits by Evan Penny in the lovely high-ceilinged space on the fourth floor were mesmerizing. Each one. If you go to the AGO, don't miss them.
When we were in Toronto, we visited and stayed with friends who are visual artists. When I came home again and was trying to think through how I felt about the Frida and Diego show, I realized I'd felt closer to art (whatever that is, I can't say) when I saw their walls and studios hung with paintings, sketches, collages, paper cuts, etchings.
Art needs to breathe. Or at least I do when I'm looking at it.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

shame on me (not really)

I have one of R's nudes on the wall in my room. This morning I was surprised by the memory of another nude.
It happened ten years ago. We'd just moved into the house where we're now living. The upstairs was still a separate apartment, though we'd already decided to ask the upstairs tenant to leave. She was a woman in her 20s who lived in Sherbrooke, about an hour's drive from Montreal. She lived with her boyfriend, but kept this apartment because every few weeks she would come to Montreal for a night out, pick up a guy and bring him here to have a romp. Her orgasms were multi-dimensional Wagnerian.
For most the time, since she wasn't living here, she let a friend stay in the apartment. He was a raggedy fellow who ostensibly sold jewellery on the street--and more frequently drugs from his doorway. His name was Charlie. Actually, it was Sharlie, which is Arabic, but people called him Charlie. Charlie blasted loud, garage-style music and wore boots when he was home. He sometimes disappeared for a few days at a time and left his cats hungry and locked in a room. We could hear them mewling.
I didn't like having Charlie upstairs. I could hear his least footstep. I couldn't write when he played music. Since the tenant, who had the lease, wasn't living there full-time, she expected Charlie to pay the rent, which he didn't want to. Rents are--or used to be--cheaper in Montreal than elsewhere. At that time, a two-bedroom apartment in this down-at-heel neighbourhood could be rented for $500-$600/month. The tenant had a lease with the previous owner for $250/month, with the understanding that she would strip the window frames, doors, door frames, skirting boards. She had begun by stripping the floors and that was it.
A couple of years along, she was still paying $250/month. Or rather, she expected Charlie to pay. We had to fight for the rent each month. Try to waylay him coming and going. Charlie pouted. He said he'd thought we were cool and weren't going to harass him about that. I was totally pissed that we were new home owners living with more inconvenience and noise than we'd ever experienced in an apartment. I wanted him gone. We negotiated with the original tenant--ie paid her $500--to leave. That's a long story which I won't tell here. How long it took to get Charlie out of the house, how he finally moved, but left furniture, how he still had the key so he could get his furniture, which he didn't, how he abandoned his cats, left drug-cache holes the size of basketball hoops in the wall...
What I want to write about--to confess--is the day when I heard rain falling inside in the house. I thought it was the tap in the kitchen dripping. It wasn't. I went to check in the bathroom. Ditto. But as I left the bathroom I got wet. Drops were dribbling from the top of the door frame. Water was seeping through the ceiling. WTF.
I grabbed the phone and called R at work. He reminded me that he was at work. I should go bang on the door, which Charlie never answered, and ask what was up. He pointed out that, as owners of the house, we had a key.
Water kept dripping. I imagined the ceiling crumbling. I got the key and thumped on the outside door. No answer. Of course, no answer. I unlocked the door and climbed the stairs. There was another door at the top of the stairs. I banged on that too. I called CHARLIE! Still no answer.
At this point, I was no longer my normal even-tempered self. I had images of plastering bills and plumbing bills and who knew what else enraging my blood. WTF. WTF. WTF. WTF. I bellowed, CHARLIE a few more times and threw open the door. The bathroom door was open and I could hear the shower drumming like water was a resource Charlie was determined to exhaust in his lifetime. I called again. Still no answer. From his side of the story, he probably didn't expect anyone to be standing just outside the bathroom doorway screaming his name.
Not getting an answer, the water still pumping and no doubt still leaking through the ceiling downstairs, I strode in. There was no shower curtain!!! He was having an all-out shower spree with the water spraying in every direction. He was also--of course--naked. (Nice body too.) At that instant he was shampooing his hair, shampoo all over his face, and didn't realize he had an audience. Until I yelled. You're taking a shower without a curtain, you fucking moron! Except I screeched it in French. Es-tu crisse de tabarnak fou, prendre un douche sans rideau! (Forget grammar, gender and verb tense when I'm angry.) He dropped into a contorted huddle in the tub, trying to hide, swipe shampoo off his face, see who was screaming, turn off the water and obey.
I stomped back downstairs. Called R at work to tell him that I'd found Charlie taking a shower without a curtain! R said, What? You went into his apartment, into the bathroom while he was showering? Are you crazy?
Oh, yeah, right. I shouldn't have done that. Wherever you are, Charlie, sorry.

Monday, October 22, 2012

old letters recovered

When we moved into this house, I gave R a box of old story ideas and letters I asked him to put somewhere safe. That was more than 10 years ago. I know I've outgrown the story ideas. I'd find them laborious, the characters too hesitant. Even so, I wanted to see what was in the box.
Our house, like many old houses built in the days when people had fewer clothes, and could fit what they did have in armoires, has few closets. It shouldn't be so hard to find a box in this house. But for the last few months that we've been looking--on and off, not a diligent search--we couldn't find it. The other day R was up on a ladder and saw a box on a high shelf in a cupboard.
I haven't yet looked at the old story ideas. Brittle Hilroy paper in dog-eared folders. Faded typing in 10-pt font.
I'm more interested in the bundles of letters that date back to 1980. Friends who sent letters to American Express when I was travelling in Europe. Letters with umlauts from Austrian cousins. Friends who wrote me in Montreal after I'd left Toronto. Friends who aren't friends anymore. Birthday cards and postcards. Letters from a Jewish man describing his stay in Auschwitz. He was my mother's second cousin. My mother had never mentioned him. My Viennese aunt told me about him and gave me his address. For a while we wrote to each other, but then I think he passed away because the letters stopped and I didn't know how to reach his children.
When R and I met, I lived in Toronto and he in Quebec City. Long-distance phone calls cost too much, so we wrote letters. His were often abstract. He was going through a phase of reading Bertrand Russell and Balzac. Somehow I got past the convoluted language of his letters to the fact of the letters which always began "Dear Alice", and I realized I liked him and he liked me. (Although one letter began: "Dear Alice, So what about Otto Rank?")
Later R gave me sketches, some of which I found in the box. A drawing of the view outside our hotel window in Cordoba. A still life of apples from a picnic lunch. A drawing of me reading.
I look at the one of me reading and can feel that the pose is mine. That's how I sit--though it's been years since I can get into that tight, curled-up pose with a book. My bones and joints just won't do it anymore.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

frida kahlo in toronto

Not just Frida Kahlo but Diego Rivera, too, will be featured in an upcoming show at the Art Gallery of Ontario from Oct 20 to Jan 20, 2013. I'm not sure how those enormous Diego Rivera murals, which are so impressive, are going to be transported from Mexico City to Toronto. I'm guessing there will be more paintings by Frida Kahlo.

I decided to get ready for the show by decking out my hands like Frida did. Have you seen the photos of her painting with a ring on every finger and bracelets up her arm? I have no idea how she managed to lift a paint brush, much less lift it with apparent grace. Silver and stones are heavy. I think I'll restrain myself to just two rings and one bracelet.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

on being a reader for a writing contest

Last year I was a reader for a writing contest. I was reminded of it the other day when I saw a man who was also involved in the contest. Oh yeah, we said. Remember that contest? So many submissions. I was only one of several readers and I read more than 500 stories.

It's wonderful to imagine there are so many would-be writers out there. Too bad that doesn't translate into would-be readers. One can learn so much simply from reading. I am going to shriek the next time I meet a person who tells me she wants to be a writer but she doesn't read because... oh... she just doesn't.

There is no excuse. If you don't love writing enough to read writing, don't bother trying to write. You probably can't. There's the other argument too: if you don't read, why would anyone read you? Because your writing will be brilliant? If you don't read, that's highly unlikely.

Right now I'm thinking about people who read and write and who enter contests. My advice--after having  read 500+ stories--is to write the best story you possibly can. Stick with the writing. Don't get cute. When a reader has to go through so many pages, the reader can get really aggravated by cute.

What is cute? Fooling around with formatting in the hope that will make your story stand out from the crowd. The only thing that will make your story stand out is language and how you use it, whether you can keep a reader's interest with your story and your writing. If your story is weak, using triple quotation marks will not help. Writing out the page number in gothic font will not help. Right justifying--aligning the print to the right instead of the left, as is usual--will not help. In fact, any of these gimmicky attempts to attract me as a reader is likely to make me toss a story aside. Except that when I'm doing a job, I'm obliged to keep reading.

I spent many hours--days!--reading 500+ stories. When I picked up a story decked out with bells and whistles, I read with a sour eye. Except then I read one that was very good. I mean the story, not the bells and whistles. I couldn't bring myself to toss the story onto my keeper pile because I was so irritated by the silly visuals of the presentation. I ground my teeth. No way. But the story was very good, and after I read a few not-very-good stories, I had to snatch the gimmicky one out of the no pile. Perhaps the other reader, who had the same group of stories as I did, went through a similar battle between good sense and annoyance. Almost against my will, that story made it into my final list which I submitted to the people who were running the contest, who did their own triage. I suspect that they, too, had to overcome a certain distaste for the writer's tactics. Ditto for the jury who awarded it first prize. Why do I think that? When the story was published, it didn't appear as I received it on paper.

Now I'm wondering if the writer thinks he came to especial attention because he'd jazzed up the appearance of his story. He did not. In fact, he spent half a day on my towering no pile because of the gimmicks.

It irritates me that he might hand out that kind of advice to other writers. If you really want them to take notice, use weird font. Format your paragraphs like stanzas. Etc. 

Don't. Just don't.

Fortunately, this isn't a story but a post on a blog, and blog entries are ever so much fun when they have drawings or pictures. Here's one from my Grimms' that best typifies how I feel after having written the above. It's a devil. Illustration by Fritz Fischer.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

what to keep in these pockets

A friend, M, sent me this from Berlin. It's the size of a small notebook. She has many delightful ideas as to what I might keep in the pockets: paper sleeves of needles; bits of thread; a spare button; fortune cookie messages; guitar picks... She bought it in a shop near the Museum of Things.
I want to go to this museum with its tantalizing name, as well as this shop, as well as to visit her in this city she has grown to love. I've never been to Berlin.
I keep the thing upright on a bookshelf behind my desk. When I first opened the envelope, before I read her letter with its suggestions, I thought of locks of hair. The pockets would be just the right size. I could fold the locks in tissue paper so they wouldn't get mixed up. Not children's hair. Where would I get that? I was thinking of past lovers.
This has nothing to do with numbers--whether I've had enough to fill all the pockets or whether I've had too many. It's more to do with a feeling I sometimes have that it's too bad there's nothing left from all those good and messy times. You get so involved in someone's life, listen to their stories, compliment their mother's ill-fitting dress, maybe never meet a family member and hear all about why, know whether they take sugar in their coffee or drink it black--and then, poof! they're gone.
I was once married for three years and the only object I've got left from that time is his copy of As I Lay Dying with his Grade 13 notes: "Define any words or terms that need definition. Tell clearly what the subject of essay is."
I used to have jazz LPs I bought while I was with the man with gleaming straight black hair. Where are those LPs now?
For two years I lived with a man who was going bald at twenty-two. I came home one day and found him asleep on the sofa with a cabbage leaf on his head. He'd heard that stopped hair from falling out. I'm glad he never heard the one about sleeping with a raw steak on the head. If I'd kept a tuft of his frizzy hair, it would now be a relic of something that no longer exists.
It would be nice to have a lock of R's hair (though he's not a past lover; very much in the present) when it was still brown. Some years ago, when he got a new passport, the agent at the desk crossed out BROWN and wrote GREY. I like his grey hair. Lately I'm catching up, though mine's going white.
For lack of locks, I'm keeping the pockets empty. Behind me, where I sit writing, maybe they'll catch the trail of sentences that escape me. It will be a practical version of a dream-catcher. The design does look very practical and efficient, doesn't it? Very German.
Too bad I don't play a musical instrument, because I like the idea of guitar picks best.    

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Appalachian Trail / Sentiers Internationales des Appalaches—Gaspé

On this last trip to the Gaspé, we wanted to hike along another stretch of the Appalachian Trail, which begins in Georgia and continues "unofficially" (I think that means without the say-so of Americans?) through the Gaspé Peninsula to the tip.
Years ago I climbed some of the trail in New Hampshire. Here in the Gaspé I’ve done short hikes along the coast near Mont St. Pierre, Mont Louis, L’Anse Pleureuse and Gros Morne. The views can be stunning, overlooking the water or across a range of forested hills called the Chic Chocs.
Here are some pix:

Note that the trail heads are hard to find, the locals aren't always privy, and the paths aren't well indicated, which has made me wary of trying the longer sections of trail that head into the woods. Though they might be fine. I will eventually take a chance. We do usually find the trail.
Of the sections we've done, some take advantage of an already existing back road—which is not well-travelled and can be picturesque (see above). And sometimes the trail is on the side of highway #132 with the logging trucks and traffic speeding by.

This year, as I'm still convalescing, I didn't want to climb any hills. We set out on the path from Grande Vallée to Petite Vallée—6 k one way and along the shoreline, below the cliffs. We wouldn’t have found the trail, which isn’t indicated on the road, if we hadn’t stopped at the tourist office. A very enthusiastic woman with long hair pulled into a waterfall ponytail told us the trail started behind the ice cream stand. We found the bar laitier and there, in the parking lot, was the sign for the trail.

It began as a grassy trail that opened onto beds of rock pebbles that rolled and clattered underfoot. Sounded like ceramic bowling pins tumbling. Around the base of a cliff and we hit a cove of shale plates that slid when you walked across them, sometimes cracked. Out in the bay was a small island populated by birds and plastered white with guano.

Someone had left an art installation of rocks, including a bench whereon to sit and admire them just like in the best art galleries.

Here’s a shack where—you’d never know it from the blue sky overhead--on the way back, an hour later, it started raining and we took shelter. There was a chair hanging on wires from the ceiling. Do you see the flip flop over the doorway?

Since I was taking pictures, I took one here too. Trucks dumped garbage over the cliff above. Many, many trucks. Maybe they assumed the sea would wash the garbage away. Someone came along later and dumped earth to hide the junk, but the tides uncovered the mess.

Yeah, it's gross to be walking along the shore with a breeze coming in and the waves splashing, and lo, there's a mound of compacted plastic and rusted metal that will take longer than the rocks and the cliffs to decompose. But there's something deserving and in-your-face about it too. People make garbage, dump it in plastic bags, garbage cans, off down the road in a garbage truck, and quick-quick, forget it. Do you, for example, know where your garbage ends up?
Of course, you can walk on this trail and never see the garbage. We didn't see it on our way out. Only on our way back, the tide started coming in and we had to walk closer to the cliffs.

Despite the reality check with the garbage, I would recommend this stretch along the Appalachian Trail, from Grande Vallée to Petite Vallée. It's a hike too--not just a stroll--because of the rocky beaches.
But remember to check the tides. When we asked the enthusiastic woman at the Tourist Office about the trail, she whipped around and stared at the clock. You should be okay, she said. High tide won't be in until 7. As we walked, I took note of a few coves with deep inset shorelines and not much beach. I wondered how quickly the tide came in. When we turned back, we were still three hours from high tide, yet the margin of beach was getting ever more narrow. We got to a cove where we had to climb across the boulders higher up at the bottom of the cliff. Had we waited another twenty minutes we would have been stranded on the other side.
p.s. Am I saying that the trail heads along this "unofficial" stretch of the Appalachian Trail should be better marked? Yes, I am!

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

house painting, fresh cod, sunsets, beach glass

The Gaspé peninsula is in northeast Quebec: a stubby thumb that sticks into the Gulf of St. Lawrence. We've been coming here for almost thirty yrs and finally R bought a derelict house. Sagging floor, burst water pipes, condemned chimney, broken furnace. We took a chance because the front windows look onto the sea.
Usually when we come in the fall, the weather is cooler, the trees are starting to change colour, and the tides are higher.
This year we got here early. The breeze off the water was warm with great beds of kelp swishing in the lazy waves. Two villages along there was a shack on the beach selling hand-cut fries and shrimp poutine. We bought fresh cod at a small fishery with a couple of boats out back and a window through to the room where the fish were being cleaned. We pan-fried fillets we served with lemon, salt and pepper. We get our yearly quota of mercury on these trips to the Gaspé. The neighbour told me to pick as many green beans, carrots and beets as I wanted from her bountiful garden. We’d brought wine. Wine to the tune of the coral and peach sunsets on the water.
Big plan this trip was to paint the house. I wanted a warm colour because, when we drove out two winters ago, the frozen waste of land and water was so bleak and monochromatic. Even the fir trees looked black against the snow. Snow and snow and snow and more snow. Sometimes the sky was blue and sunsets blazed--at 3:30 in the afternoon. Then it got dark.
Most of the houses along the coast are white or such pale washes of cream or beige that they might as well be white. In the winter they disappear against the frozen snow and ice. There’s only the odd coloured house.
The winter that we drove out I felt heartened by those few bubble gum pinks, robin egg blues, Irish greens—a shout of colour in all that white, grey, and black landscape.

I picked yellow. When the sun shines, the house is the same colour as the dandelions in the grass. We'll paint the front porch next trip. The edge of rusty building on the left is the shed. The house was almost that blotchy.
Funny coincidence: the car we rented happened to be a yellow Fiat. One of the local artists, Claude Rioux, a sculptor whose house you can find by the dragon out front--the size of a cow, you can't miss it--stopped to tell R that he liked how our house and car matched. R told him the car was rented, but he insisted. J'aime le concept.
A smaller project was to keep the beach glass I collected in a  jug I could set in the sunshine. The idea was suggested by Carin at

We also walked along a new section of the Appalachian Trail, which I'll write about in another post.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

cardiac surgery x 2

Tomorrow is the anniversary of my first heart surgery. On August 31, 1983 I had my mitral valve, which was damaged by rheumatic fever in childhood, repaired with a Carpentier-Edward ring which, it was hoped, would keep the valve open for the rest of my life. But the rheumatic scar tissue, which had thickened the valve so that it was no longer functional, began to grow inside the ring. Nasty stuff, scar tissue.
In January, 2012 I had a second heart surgery to replace the mitral and the aortic valves with mechanical valves. That was just under nine months ago.
I don't like convalescing. I'm a bit task oriented. In the first week home from the hospital I began walking, despite the scraped snow and icy sidewalks. I wore solid, flat-soled boots. (The post-op pamphlet recommended shopping malls for these first forays into the world, but I don't like shopping malls.)
Within a month I was cycling on an exercise bike. In fact, my cardiologist recommended that I cycle and get my heart pumping hard so that it wouldn't drum so much when I was at rest. That didn't feel correct. I thought I should rest to make my heart rest. But I trust him and so I tried.
He was right. It's good to exercise your heart post-op. Show it what it's supposed to do. Assuming, of course, that you've had a good level of exercise before you had surgery. Up until my surgery in January, I was still walking every day. I didn't walk fast, I didn't walk far, but I didn't want to go into surgery with a muscle that was flabby, in addition to dysfunctional.
I was still easily tired during these first months after surgery. I took a walk and had a nap. I went to bed early. I had to be careful about lifting because of the strain that put on my chest.
In May I started back at work 2 days/wk and discovered that what tired me even more than walking was people! Within the first hour I saw more people all at once than I had in the previous four months altogether.  
In earlier posts I've complained about the clicking that resonates from my chest. Castanets on the go. I have St. Jude valves manufactured in St. Paul, Minnesota--said to be the quietest on the market. I'd hate to hear what other valves sound like. Or perhaps other people lead noisier lives. I spend a lot of time alone in a quiet room with my writing--and the clicking. Although, with time, perhaps my innards have resettled so that they cushion my heart better. The clicking sounds less intrusive. Or perhaps I'm adjusting. Like R said, the clicking is the sound of me being alive.
I'm still taking a beta blocker to keep my heart beating regularly, though the dose has recently been halved to see how well I tolerate that.
I'm now working 4 days/wk. My job at the hospital is still, by far, the most tiring activity. I should probably have a quieter job, shut up in a room away from people, but I like the people I work with and I already spend so much time alone in a room with my writing. Having a job unrelated to writing was supposed to force me to act like a social creature (of sorts) for a few hours a day.
I decided this summer to forget about the scar that bisects my chest--arrow down the cleavage. When it got hot-hot-hot, there was no way I going to wear high necklines to hide my scar from sensitive eyes who, in any case, weren't looking. The scar wasn't as livid and swollen as the scar I had in 1983--because the surgeon followed the same incision line, instead of cutting into fresh flesh. I would have thought a scar on top of a scar would make more of a mess, but apparently it makes less of a mess.
This dress is especially neat because if anyone is curious and keeps staring, I can easily unzip it to show off more. It's too bad the scar isn't straight. Maybe future cardiac surgeons will do a rotation in plastic surgery as an elective.


Tuesday, August 21, 2012

letterbox edges and dreams

I don't know if this happens to other writers.
Not always, but often enough that I can say it happens, I have a dream with a letterbox edge along the bottom--as if for subtitles. Across this black edge a hand writes what's happening in the dream. Stage directions, description, lines of dialogue. It's not like a play. It's prose.
Sometimes the hand scratches out words and the scene has to start over again. A character gets axed or dialogue rewritten. The hand doesn't write quickly, but at an unhurried, flowing pace. Action happens at an ordinary pace too. The hand can keep up because it doesn't record everything, only what it decides is pertinent. Somehow--in dream reality--it all works out.
I don't think I'm the person writing the dream. I feel more like the person responsible for getting it down. When I have a dream like this, I wake feeling tired. You bet.
Since I write first draft longhand, I'm not surprised by the pen. However, I'm left-handed, and the dreams are always written with the right hand and in a script that is not mine. I can't get a good look at the hand because it's always moving, writing. Don't know if it's mine.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

cool sunglasses

I was looking through some old pictures this evening and found this one. Allow me to post it. Indulge me please. Who is this pudgy kid with the funky sunglasses? Can you see that she would grow up to be me?
Don't know who landscaped this lawn--which wasn't ours--but they could have invested in a sprinker and a hose.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

dhalpuri roti

Recently, I was so lucky as to get a lesson in how to make dhalpuri roti. My sister-in-law's family is visiting from Trinidad. I planned to arrive early enough at her house to help in the kitchen. I was late.
When we got there, her mom had just started to mix the dough. Her sister stood at the stove adding ground yellow split peas to geera--roasted cumin. Yellow split peas are called dhal.
I've tried to make this dhal mixture on my own. Every time my split peas are cooked too long and turn to mush, or not long enough and then won't grind into the moist powder you need to make these roti. The split peas should be cooked until they keep their shape but you can bite into them. Sounds easy, but I haven't managed to do it yet. When done right, the ground dhal should be light and fluffy like very fine couscous steamed just right.  
The dough for the roti was made with flour, baking powder, some yeast, and water. How much of each? Well, if you have to ask, you're not in the right kitchen.
S's mom mixed a great mass of dough in an enormous bowl, removing clumps she decided were ready to be kneaded, at which I was allowed to help.

The dough was formed into small balls the women called loyas which were left to rest under a towel. For how long? An hour, two? I wasn't paying attention. I do know that when making dough for breads, as opposed to pastry or biscuits, you want the stretchy gluten quality in flour to develop and so you let it rest.
Now came the tricky part: stuffing the balls of dough with dhal. A loya was shaped into a dough cup, the cup stuffed with dhal. The edges of the cup were pinched together and the ball was rolled smooth again.

These balls were left to rest again--and again, I don't recall for how long. Other foods were being cooked, there was a quick shopping trip for salt cod, a few moments to spend with my favourite niece, the prospect of swimming.
The cast-iron tawah was put to heat on the stove and brushed with oil, and we began to roll out the
roti, hoping that none of the dhal inside the dough would "bust through". S's sister brushed the roti with oil and flipped it. A perfectly made roti with all the dhal sealed inside puffed as it was cooking. Here's one:
The last step was to press the roti flat again and fold it. See that large bowl on the counter? By the time we finished, it was heaped full with dhalpuri roti.
I should now have a picture of a finished dhalpuri roti on a plate, being eaten, BUT: when we sat down to eat, I was so bewitched by the spicy smells and delicious possibilities--crispy pork cutters, accras with tamarind chutney, shrimp, chicken, curry channa with aloo--that I forgot all about my camera.
Fortunately my sister-in-law always sends us home with a care package and today I took a couple of dhalpuri roti from the freezer to have with this stewed bean dish R cooked for supper. Here you can see how the roti holds dhal spiced with roasted cumin. Tender and tasty. Good!

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

life invades writing / zwetschgenknoedel

People wonder how much fiction writers copy from life and how much they fabricate. What about when life mimics what you've written? You're in the middle of working on a piece, you ask a few questions, do some research, keep your eyes open--and what's this? What you're writing about happens.
No way, you cry! I'm writing about this. It was my idea first. Let life get its own. Life has got more resources. Life can branch out anywhere. Life can be sloppy. No one will accuse life of an implausible scenario.
And yet it happens. For example... I'll use an example from a few years ago.
I wanted to write a story around a character modelled on my cantankerous, pious, trouble-causing, never-forget-a-grudge, wrinkled, stumpy-legged Alpine grandmother. My fictional oma (like my real-life oma) was a staunch anti-Semite. I decided to have her meet a Jewish man whom she never realizes is Jewish. She's lonely, spending  afternoons in her granddaughter's Montreal apartment, and lo, there's this elderly European gentleman sitting on his balcony.
How do they communicate? I decided that they could, in the same way that I don't speak Yiddish but can understand the gist by recognizing words that are similar to German.
In the story, the Canadian granddaughter invites her neighbour to supper. When she brings out the Austrian dish she's prepared, he stares and tears begin to roll down his cheeks. It's a dish his Polish mother used to make while his family was still together, before they were sent to Dachau.
The meal is plum dumplings--zwetschgenknoedel. Whole plums are enclosed in a cottage cheese dough, boiled, then rolled in browned, sweetened breadcrumbs.

I'd written the story but wasn't sure if my Polish Jewish character was likely to have known about this dish. I could have made him an Austrian Jew, but if he spoke German, then my fictional oma would have discovered he was Jewish. It was important that she could communicate with him just enough to fantasize  about this pleasant elderly gentleman with the courtly European manners.
As it happens, I work in a Jewish hospital. I decided to ask the wife of a Jewish patient who was Polish about zwetschgenknoedel. I didn't use the name, assuming that she wouldn't know it as such. I described how whole fresh plums were wrapped in dough. While I talked, I wasn't looking at her but at my hands with which I was trying to demonstrate the different steps of wrapping the plums, lowering them into boiling water, rolling them in crumbs so they were nicely coated. I was hoping to convince her that once upon a time she'd seen or heard of these delicious fruit dumplings.
She still hadn't answered me, so I peeked. Tears were streaming down her cheeks.
What's wrong? I asked.
Her mother, who'd died in a concentration camp, used to make plum dumplings. She hadn't had them since. She'd forgotten all about them. I had just reminded her.
I felt badly because I hadn't wanted to make the woman cry. Though--as in my story--I marvelled that a beautiful memory could survive across the horror this woman (and the character in my story) must have experienced. That, for me, was the emotional truth of the story.
Still. It freaked me out when the woman began crying like the character in my story.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Prairie Fire Fiction Contest

If I can't toot my horn on my own blog, where can I?
I have a story in the current issue of the fine literary magazine, Prairie Fire. The story won first prize in the 2011 Fiction Contest.
You can buy the magazine--or you can wait until/if I ever publish another collection of short fiction. If you buy it now, there's lot of interesting reading by other fabulous writers and prize winners.
My piece is about a young woman determined to withstand the limitations of a physical handicap. It's set in Mexico City, where R and I spent a couple of weeks in 2011.
I'm impressed that I wrote a story when we returned from Mexico, revised it several times, and sent it off without sitting on it for years. It's not the first time I suspect that interminable questioning about word choice, moving paragraphs around, and diddling with commas don't always make a story better.
R tells me that if he works paint too much, the colours turn to mud. Does the same thing happen to words? Maybe.
On the other hand--in fairness to the writing I sit on for years--it sometimes takes me years to figure out how best to enter a story and let it unfold.
As a footnote: the news that I won first prize came when I was in an ICU recovering from complications after heart surgery. Wonderful to feel that the outside world still knew I existed. Spend enough days under fluorescent ceiling lights, being hoisted and rolled about, poked with catheters and needles, and you begin to doubt. A win with Prairie Fire was a better boost than morphine.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Frau Holle / Mrs Hell (this is Grimms)

It is SO sweltering and hot this past week in Montreal. I don't want to write about how miserable the baking concrete makes me feel. How the high temps keep pollution low to the ground so I feel at constant risk for migraines. My poor heart labours. I'm fair-skinned. I can't take all this sweating!
Time to escape into a Grimm's fairy tale...

This one is called Frau Holle. Not sure how to translate that. If the word had an umlaut--Hölle--her name would be Hell. I'd like to keep that nuance in the air, so how about Helle?

Frau Holle / Mrs Helle

A widow had two daughters, one was beautiful and made herself useful, the other ugly and lazy.
--already going against the trend of pretty and lazy, ugly and busy

Yet the widow loved the ugly, lazy one, who was her real daughter, more than the other who had to do all the work and be the Cinderella of the house.
--yes, yes, talk about self-referential! The Grimm's brothers were post-modern before post-modern was an egg in the ovary.

Every day the poor girl had to go into the city and sit by a well and spin so much that her fingers bled.
--I'm not sure how she did all the work in the house AND sat by a well spinning--nor, for that matter, why there was a spinning wheel by the well, but hey... I have an itchy suspension-of-disbelief button.

One day the spindle was so bloody that she bent to the well to wash it. It bounced from her hand and fell. She cried, ran to her stepmother, and told her how unlucky she'd been. Her stepmother scolded her  hard and without mercy: "If you let the spindle fall, go back and get it." The girl returned to the well with no idea how to get it. In her deep fear she jumped into the well and fainted. When she woke, she was in a beautiful meadow where the sun shone and flowers bloomed. She began walking and soon came to an oven full of bread.
--remember, this is the early 19th century. This is a wood stove, probably with a cast-iron door. The closest you'll get to this in a modern city will be a wood-fired stove for baking pizza or bagels.

The bread called: "Pull me out, pull me out, or I'll burn! I've been baked for a long time already!"
The girl grabbed the bread peel and pulled all the bread out.
--not sure how to translate Brotschieber, the tool she uses to lift the bread from the oven, so I googled "remove pizza from oven" and see that the word (makes no sense) is a called a peel. It looks like a large, flat paddle. But if I call it a paddle, you'll think the dough still needs to be mixed, right?

She kept walking and came to a tree hung with apples. The apples cried, "Oh, please shake us, please shake us, because we're all ripe!" She shook the tree and the apples fell as if it were raining, and kept shaking until not a single apple was left.
--note that this is the first mention of rain which becomes an important movement in the story. To my way of thinking, making apples fall from a tree would result in a lot of bruised apples, but that might be a cultural difference. Maybe Germans like bruised apples.

She piled all the apples in a heap and kept walking.
--this is a story, so we all know. She's got a third test coming up. One, two, three.

She finally came to a small house with an old woman at the window. Her large teeth terrified the girl so much that she wanted to run away, but the old woman called to her: "Why are you frightened, dear child? Stay with me, and when you do all the work in my house as it should be done, then all will go well with you. You only need to be sure to make my bed properly and shake it up until the feathers fly. That's what makes it snow in the world. I am Mrs. Helle."
--this is not just a duvet. When the brothers Grimm were writing, mattresses were feather too. I've slept in a bed like this in the Alps.

Since the old woman spoke so kindly, the girl summoned her courage and entered the house to serve her.  She took care to satisfy the old woman and shook her bedding until the feathers flew about like snowflakes. The old woman treated her well, never spoke a harsh word, and every day the girl ate boiled and fried food.
--??? not sure about this last as a measure of success, but I'm guessing it's a sign of luxury to eat food that's been cooked.

After she had been with Mrs. Helle for a while, she grew sad and at first couldn't tell what was wrong, until she realized she was homesick. Even if her life was a thousand times better here than at home, she still yearned to go home. "Even if everything is so much better here, I can't stay any longer. I miss my peeps."
--a laudable sentiment which might yet put this story in the running for a Hollywood movie

Mrs. Helle said: "I like that you're homesick, and since you've served me so faithfully, I will take you back myself." She took the girl by the hand and led her to a large gate. The doors were opened and as the girl walked beneath, a tremendous shower of gold rained down, and all the gold hung upon her so that she was covered in gold from head to toe.

"This is for you because you were so good," said Mrs. Helle, who also gave her the spindle that had fallen in the well. The doors shut and the girl found herself up in the world again, not far from her mother's house, and as she walked into the courtyard, the rooster who sat on the well crowed:
Our golden girl is she!

The girl went in, and as she was covered in gold, her mother and sister welcomed her. She told them everything that had happened, and of course her mother wanted the ugly, lazy daughter to have the same riches too. She told her to go sit by the well and spin. When she wanted to make her spindle bloody, she pushed her hand into a thorn bush to prick it. She threw the spindle in the well and jumped in after it. As her sister, she came to the beautiful meadow and followed the path. When she got to the oven and heard the bread crying to be taken out before it burned, she said: "Do you think I want to get myself dirty?" When she reached the apple tree and all the apples begged to be shaken free because they were ripe, she said: "And have one of you fall on my head? No way."
When she came to Mrs. Helle's house, she wasn't afraid because she'd already heard about her big teeth, and immediately offered her services.
On the first day, she busied herself around the house and did all that Mrs. Helle asked, because she thought of the gold she would get. On the second day she did less, and on the third even less. She didn't even want to get out of bed in the morning. She didn't make Mrs. Helle's bed, nor shake it up until the feathers flew about.
--there you go. That explains why some winters we get less snow.

Mrs. Helle soon tired of her and said she should go. The lazy girl was glad to leave. She thought that now  she would get her shower of gold. Mrs. Helle led her to the gate, but as she stood beneath and waited, a large basin of pitch poured over her.
--pitch is like tar. There's the expression, black as pitch. The German word--Pech--is interesting because it also means bad luck. Pech haben means to have bad luck.

"That's in return for your help," said Mrs. Helle and closed the door. And so the lazy girl returned home, covered in pitch, and the rooster on the well crowed:
our dirty girl is she!
The pitch clung to her, and for as long as she lived, she couldn't get rid of it.

If you've read this far, you deserve one of the few happy illustrations in my copy of Grimm's. It's at the end of this story. Mrs. Helle in action:

Sunday, July 1, 2012

July 1st

In Montreal July 1st is moving day. Across the city, leases run out at midnight June 30th and new leases come into effect July 1st. Try renting a truck for July 1st if you haven't had the foresight to do so in May. If you're moving into a building and count on using one of the three elevators to get your furniture to the fourteenth floor, think about the tenants on all the floors between two and fourteen who hope to use the same three elevators to get their belongings out. Hope that when you get to your new abode, the previous tenant has already gone and you can get your furniture in.
If you're walking or out on your bike today, WATCH OUT for all those U-Haul trucks being driven by people who don't normally drive a truck. If you travel by car, good luck finding streets that aren't blocked by trucks and vans parked at obtuse angles.

Today also happens to be Canada Day, but much of what used to make me feel glad to be a Canadian has come into question with its new environmental policies, refusal to provide basic health care for refugees, not allowing federal Parks officials to criticize government decisions, etc etc, so I'll let that pass.

ps Just noticed on my calendar that July 2nd is marked as Canada Day. When was that decided?
pps Okay, I googled it and discover that when July 1st falls on a Sunday, the holiday is celebrated on July 2nd. It's not another flip-this-country-inside-out change introduced by evil Bill C-38. I obviously don't listen to the radio, watch TV or read the papers. I also don't wear a watch or carry a cell phone. I prefer to live unplugged.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

living in a tit

Some years ago I was sitting with a senior writer at a prestigious writing school. She wanted to know where I lived. I told her Montreal. She asked me to draw it.
I suspected a game but I obliged. I drew the island of Montreal which lies in the St. Lawrence River.

You'll have to excuse my drawing skills which are primitive. That's the shape, more or less. I've included the north-south axis to indicate a peculiarity of life in Montreal, which is that everyone pretends the bottom end of the island points west, the top end east, etc. That bottom end is called the West Island. The bulge is referred to as the south of the island. When you're on the island--and considering that you're in an urban environment where most people don't notice where the sun rises and sets--it makes perfect sense. It's only when you look at the map on paper that you see the West Island isn't west.
But to get back to my conversation with the esteemed writer. She was quite excited when I made this drawing of Montreal. Don't you see? she insisted. This is a breast! You live in a breast!
I didn't what to say. Before coming to the prestigious writing school, I had never sat and talked with a writer of renown. People looked up to this woman and sought her advice. I, too, had lobbied for this private afternoon with her. I wanted to answer in a way that seemed worthy of her attention.
I said, Do you want to know where I live in Montreal?
Oh yes, she did.
I live in Point St. Charles which is a point that juts out into the St. Lawrence. I scratched it in for her. She was delighted.


Friday, June 15, 2012

the last day of school

Is it the last day of school today? Will I miss the thumping every morning at 8 am?
The family across the street don't have a doorbell and don't seem to hear or respond to knocking. The kid who comes to collect his buddy on the way to school grabs the doorknob and shakes the door in its frame. The steady shaking/rattling/thumping sounds like a roll of thunder that never breaks. He can keep it up for three minutes at a go. I've timed him. The door doesn't open after three minutes. His arms get tired and he takes a breather. He shakes the door on and off, sometimes for a quarter of an hour, until his friend opens it and they slouch off down the sidewalk.
Too late--because it's the last day of school and the dynamic of their you-thump-and-I'll-come-when-I'm-ready relationship might not last through the summer--I realize I should have taken a picture. But for me it was always more of a sound than a sight experience.
Instead, here's a picture of an old-style Point doorway. Two side-by-side doors, one for the ground-floor flat, the other for the upstairs. Most of the older carved wooden doors have been replaced with modern fireproof doors that are more air-tight.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

food heritage

A friend shared some of the excellent homemade ricotta her Greek neighbours gave her. Here, look, I made Kasnudeln.

They're  filled with cheese, mashed potato, browned onion, and lots of mint. Mint is what makes them taste different from pierogi.
It's been a few years since I last made Kasnudeln. It takes time to knead the dough, make the filling, form the dumplings. The fun part is pinching the "wreath". It was the nicest way I could think of to do honour to the homemade cheese. I served them with minced parsley, Greek yogurt, a green salad.
I don't often make Austrian food. Although my parents are Austrian, I didn't grow up eating dumplings. My mother preferred opening a can of Campbell's tomato soup, dumping it over a pan of ribs, shoving the ribs in the oven.
My aunts showed me how to make dumplings when I went to Austria. There's a large bread dumpling called a Serviettenknödel--a tea-towel dumpling because it gets steamed inside a wrapped and knotted tea towel. There are cottage cheese dough dumplings that enclose a fresh apricot or a plum. Zwetschgenknödel. There are dumplings made with cream of wheat, butter, and parsley, to be served with soup. Grießnockerl. Dumplings made of an eggy pasta dough dropped through a slotted metal grid.  Spätzle. There are smaller bread dumplings that can be made with different ingredients and herbs to flavour them.
Some day I'll have to write about people like myself, who don't otherwise identify with their parents' culture or heritage, but like to cook the traditional dishes.

Monday, May 28, 2012

me, too, i live in montreal

A friend wrote to express surprise that I live in Montreal, which is getting international attention for the student demonstrations and public unrest with bill 78, and I'm blogging about my loom, chicken heads, and ocean surf CDs. Well, that's my life. It doesn't mean I'm not aware of what's happening; nor that I don't stand in my window and bang on my pot at 8 pm.
I don't write about it because I can't begin to offer an insightful overview that covers all the issues. I read the news, watch the videos, see the numbers. Were there 10,000, 100,000 or 400,000 in the march? Depends on who you read. Media coverage is as polarized as the camps who bang their pots--les casseroles!--in a show of support every evening, and the camps who complain about the noise and hope the government will pass an even more stringent bill to disallow pot-banging.
I wonder that the people who complain about the pots don't understand that the racket, which disturbs their evening for 15 minutes, is a very small disruption compared to the government's bill which restricts gathering (groups of more than 50) or picketing in the entire province of Quebec without prior police approval. Talk about muffling! People watch their right of expression being taken from them and don't protest--better yet, they protest when other people bestir themselves to protest.
So, no, I can't write about what's going on because I don't understand.
Sure, me too, I had my routine disturbed by student protests. One evening, it took me from 8:30 until 10 pm to get home--and I hadn't had supper yet--because of disruptions to the subway (for which the students are being blamed, though they haven't accepted responsibility). I had a few trips across the city I had to reroute to avoid a demonstration.
So what? I still support the students' right to protest and strike. If the only way that they can get the public's attention is to interrupt the traffic--because everyone is so well insulated in their car, talking on their cell phone, or listening to their music--well, there you go.
I believe that everyone has the right to an education in the same way that I believe everyone has the right to health care. I believe that everyone should fund education in the same way that I believe everyone should fund health care. I want to live in a society which is educated and healthy. What will it take to ensure that? The government sends out riot police. No, I don't understand.
What I can write about with assurance were my few encounters yesterday. A group in our neighbourhood, Point St. Charles, staged a protest against the recent announcement of federal cuts to social housing. (I hope they got police approval.) The protesters met in the park under the trees then took to the streets. Since the Point developed before the time of city grids, the streets angle in every direction. Kettling--a recent practice adopted by the Montreal police to surround and corner protesters--would take a little cunning here. Only a local knows which way is east and west. Even then, the road you're on can start out heading east only to curve north. I never saw the protesters, because the street I was walking along never met theirs, but I heard their call and answer. There were banners strung across apartment buildings and at the entrance to the park. Someone walking through might have thought there was a picnic--except for the dozen police cars blocking the main road to the IGA, stopping people who wanted to do their grocery shopping.
Yesterday was also la Journée des musées when all the museums in Montreal are free and there are special city buses shuttling people to the various buildings. Around the corner from where I live we have la Maison St. Gabriel, a 17th century stone house that's been preserved as a heritage museum. Yesterday it hosted demonstrations of spinning, weaving, basket making, and braiding ceintures fléchées. I don't know if it's interesting or simply a coincidence that an area like Point St. Charles, with the highest percentage of social housing in the municipality of Montreal, also happens to be the oldest settled area of Montreal.
So that was happening too: buses were packed with people on the way to watch a woman in period costume spinning uncarded wool. I walked over in the morning to watch a man weaving on a 17th century loom. I had a great talk with him. There were more than 50 people gathered before the old stone farmhouse, watching the different events. I wonder if the nuns who operate la Maison St. Gabriel got police approval.
In the evening the orchestra of pots and pans marched down our street at 8:15. I added my banging from the window. (Lazy form of protest.)
My friend Alice Petersen, who's just published a very fine collection of short fiction, All the Voices Cry, calls the sound of pots and pans every evening a disjointed angelus bell, which I find an apt image: at dusk, not in time, though all in a cluster. Not too big a cluster though. Less than fifty.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

a loom of my own

I couldn't sleep this morning, so got up and finished dressing the loom. I used to call that stringing it, but a weaver told me it's called dressing.
I'm an ad hoc amateur with more love of textiles than know-how. Years ago I took a couple of workshops at a community hall to learn the basics. I got myself a small table loom and later this 36" loom which a friend of a friend of a friend had in pieces in her basement. R did the honours of figuring out how to put it together. (Merci, mon cher!)
The action of weaving is relaxing... sending the shuttle back and forth, feet moving from treadle to treadle. It's fun to watch the zillions of individual threads coming at you interlock and become cloth. Yeah... that part is fun.
Getting the loom ready is labour intensive and hard on the back. Lots of leaning in weird postures, climbing under the loom to tie up the treadles, stooping over the reed. I didn't consider a weaving project in the immediate months after surgery. It would have been too hard. About a month ago I poked through my bin of leftover spools to see if there were colours I could mix to make a length of cloth. Since I only get to the loom every so many days, it takes weeks to get a project ready. I forgot to take a picture of preparing the warp, which is that mass of threads presently on the loom. There's a method to keep the 380 threads, 5 feet long, in order. There has to be a method to keep them in order or you'd end up with a complete tangle of knots.

Each thread gets pulled with a hook through the eye of a heddle. The heddles aren't all in a row but on four separate frames. Depending on the pattern of the weaving, one takes a heddle from the first, the second, the third, or the fourth frame. You get the idea. There are looms with six, eight, even twelve frames. It sounds orderly, but when you're doing it, the skinny heddles look like a field of wiry weeds. The threads coming at you look like a field too, only this field is coloured.
Here's where I ended up this morning:
For anyone who weaves, yes, I have absurdly long tails out front. Because... oh, I had a problem and had to pull the yarn forward. I also forgot to put lease sticks at the back which will give me all kinds of grief with tension.
But I look forward to weaving--and now I'm ready to start.
I've always thought a loom a handsome piece of furniture, especially when it's dressed. But it's awkward and large and, like me, needs a room of its own.

Monday, May 21, 2012

queen and john, toronto, circa 1980

I've been working on a story that draws on my experiences working in a restaurant in Toronto in the early 80s as a bartender/cappuccino maker. (No one said barista in those days.) I was a grad student at York, trying to live on $4,500 a year. It wasn't enough, and though I should have been working on my thesis, I needed a job.
My boyfriend at the time knew someone who worked in a restaurant. Their pastry chef, whose name was Dufflet, had just left to launch her own business. I'm not a pastry chef, but I know how to make cakes and pastry and crème pâtissière. For my job interview I made a Hazelnut Torte with Mocha Butter Cream and was hired. I worked three mornings a week and made more money per hour than I did at my teaching assistantship. I had a moment of fame too. Joanne Kates praised my peach pie in The Globe and Mail.
I can't remember why, but at some point I worked at the bar as well. The story I'm writing has to do with the coffee and the drinks experiences. I've remembered all kinds of details which don't fit into my story, so let me write about them here.
The owner of the restaurant came from Thailand... if I remember correctly. His family had given him a chunk of money and sent him off into the world to play. He'd studied Engineering in Germany but had never worked as an engineer. Rumour had it that he lived in a room lined with vinyl records, which people still played back then. I never saw the room myself. He didn't invite women. The colour of his socks  matched his tie, no matter how outlandish the choice. One of the waiters told me that his jock strap matched as well.

He called the restaurant the Cow Café--because, as he said, the menu was vegetarian. The rationale is dubious. Some diners expected steak. The various chefs and cooks, who came and went, made changes to the menu, finally including beef, fish, quail, and pork. It didn't matter. All their judicial simmering and sautéing was frustrated by the owner's visits to the kitchen. He would taste a dish and immediately add several spoonfuls of minced garlic. Chefs tried to bar him from the kitchen but it was his restaurant.
The restaurant was on John St, just north of Queen St West. The neighbourhood was only beginning to be trendy. We were situated on the second floor of what I recall as a renovated warehouse. There was steel tubing, high ceilings, lots of stairs--and large windows which overlooked the doors to a chicken-slaughtering plant. Businesses in the area had forced the chicken-slaughtering people to use trucks with high sides. But our restaurant was on the second floor. Were diners to look out the window and down, which not many did, they would have seen thousands of chicken heads being jostled in the back of a truck. The possibility made the wait staff anxious. Trucks went by with great regularity. The owner hired an artist to paint fanciful fronds and flowers across the lower windows. Diners complained that it blocked the light. Why have windows only to cover them with paint? They didn't realize they were being protected.
The restaurant lost money, which didn't surprise those of us who worked there--though we were surprised one day to find a chain and padlock on the doors. The owner hadn't given us any warning. Our favourite running shoes were still inside. My recipes. Someone's sweater. The owner felt badly--as far as an aesthete ever feels for people. He called a few of us and said that the bank was giving him a day's grace to retrieve personal belongings. He suggested we come in the evening and finish the liquor. We drank trays upon trays of B52s.
I've tagged this under travel, because trips back through memory are.