Monday, December 30, 2013

living in a snowy city / snow removal

If you live in Montreal, then you know the sound of snow removal. When it happens in the night, you hear the grumble and scrape of trucks in your sleep for what seems like hours. I wondered how long it took and timed it yesterday (since I was at my desk anyhow).

At night, signs are put out to tell people to move the cars that are parked in however-the-snow-could-be-shovelled spaces hacked into the snowbanks. During the day, a horn truck drives down the street at the stately speed of a royal procession, broadcasting an alarm that sounds like a 1940s idea for a French ambulance siren. If you don't hear it the first time, you'll hear it again on the next street and the next street. It's a piercing, continual bleat.

After the horn truck comes the tow truck to haul away cars that haven't been moved. Yesterday, within 15 min, everyone had moved their cars. No one wants to have to try to recuperate their vehicle from wherever the tow truck took it. How does one even find it again? It's not like the tow truck can leave an address under the windshield wiper.

After the tow truck comes the first of the scrapers. Anyone who's ever played in sand knows how that goes: you push a straight path and the sand slides to either side. You push through the sand that's slid, and it slides to the side. Snow is heavier and more compact than sand, so the sliding is more deliberate and bulky. In the city--with sidewalks and houses and people needing space to park cars--it's not only a question of shoving the snow to the side until you have a road again. The sides of the street are finite. The snow has to be plowed into a furrow that gets collected in a truck.

I stopped counting how often the plow passed--because I didn't want to count, not because I couldn't hear it. With each pass, it's amazing the street doesn't get torn away, especially the way the plow barrels along.

Finally come the snow trucks in a nose to bumper chain. Next to the first truck drives a chewing machine that chomps through the mound of snow plowed down the street. The mechanism is so heavy and large it could equally chew a small car. Okay, I'm exaggerating. The person driving the machine would notice a car. But not a bicycle or a bush or... a pet.

Snow gets spewed into the back of a truck.

When one truck is filled, the next moves into place. How big are these trucks? Some of them, very.

Where do they take the snow? It's filled with gravel, salt and whatever else the city has strewn in the past week to keep cars from sliding.

The plow returns to rescrape the snow that was missed. The chomping machine and the snow trucks too.

Six hours from the horn truck's first pass until the last snow truck left.

And when is it going to snow again?

Sunday, December 22, 2013

winter solstice

Yesterday, Dec 21, was the shortest day of the year. Here's a colour picture I took at 3:30 in the afternoon.

Given how grey and white the season is, I'm happy when people string up coloured lights. I don't mean the new-fangled dripping icicles nor the gargantuan displays with balloon Santas and reindeer. I like the bottled sparks of colour when everything else is drab.

Sure, they're Christmas lights, but I wish people would keep them up all winter. We need coloured lights to help withstand the cold of December--but boy oh boy, we need them even more by March. Lights make up for all the colour that's missing when we're blanketed in snow and the nights are long and cold.

When I'm trudging along the squeaky snowy sidewalks of Montreal, I'm even happy to see stoplights.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

rapunzel reads in pointe st-charles

Here's the link to a video of me reading from my novel Arrhythmia. As well, you can see some highlights of life in Pointe St-Charles... other people who live here, the rail line that separates the Pointe from the prettier neighbourhoods of Montreal, the underpass--that belongs to the rail line--where my voice echoes.

(Note: if the above link doesn't work, this one does: )

Many Montrealers don't even know that there's a residential district below downtown, the Ville-Marie highway, the rail line. You have to cross the Lachine Canal, find a detour under, over or around the rail line, pass the derelict factories and keep going. Here are the row houses where the labourers who dug the Lachine Canal lived--the industrial history from which Montreal sprang and which helped open the country. From the Atlantic, up the St. Lawrence River, along the Lachine Canal, to the rail lines, to the Great Lakes and beyond.

When I'm not in the underpass reading, I'm standing against my favourite wall of graffiti. It's the long north wall of the arena, where kids play hockey and go swimming, and where adults vote when there's a referendum which--you never know--can always happen in Quebec. About a week before my rendezvous with Elise Moser and Leila Marshy, someone had painted a long washing line with many pairs of mismatched socks and pretty underwear hung against a clear sky. I hoped no one would paint the Hulk or a locomotive or amorous messages over the laundry before my shoot. Maybe we were helped by the rain--because a couple of days later the underwear got covered, bit by bit, by other statements. It's the fate of all graffiti.

Elise Moser and Leila Marshy have organized a series of videos of Montreal writers reading in their neighbourhoods. There are a few us in the Pointe, so I feel especially lucky to have been chosen. Perhaps the project will continue? There are so many writers in Montreal. The other videos can be found on the Montreal online arts and cultural magazine, The Rover.

Monday, December 2, 2013

how you know you're getting older / discovering i was cath'lick

If you're lucky, you keep getting older. Well, sure, it's lucky. Otherwise you're dead.

Luck aside, our vanity often resists the notion of getting older, even though each year we have a year to prepare ourselves for the next number.

The round numbers--the ones that end in zero--are always a jolt because you flip from one decade to the next.

But even as you're getting older, your own age feels like a pair of jeans you've been wearing for a while already. They might have a spot where the denim is wearing through but that's okay, because they're still so comfortable. You might even think you still look sexy in these jeans.

But then all of sudden your youngest sibling turns 50!!!

Ouch. That's when you know.

For me, the day my youngest brother was born heralded another revelation. As my mother was rushed off to the hospital, my siblings and I were divvied up among the neighbours. Was this arranged ahead of time or did my parents go knocking on doors in the middle of the night? No idea.
In the morning, before school, the neighbour lady informed me that I had a new brother. After school when I returned to the neighbour's house, where my 18-month-old brother had spent the day doing whatever 18-month-olds do, I was intrigued and delighted by the lovely smell of bacon frying. I had never had bacon for supper. Perhaps never at all. I don't recall that we ate bacon in our house. It smelled so good!
But when we all sat at the table, my brother and I were given mashed potato and salmon patties. I didn't understand. The patties were bland and mushy. I felt my brother and I were being punished because we were unwelcome. I didn't dare ask.
But the neighbour's children did. Their mom said, Because we were Cath'lick. Her kids didn't know what that meant. Nor did I. I'd always thought that my parents had me bussed to a different school from the one all the other kids in the neighbourhood went to for their own perverse reasons. Religion wasn't explained to me. Our family didn't go to church or do anything else that I recognized as religious. (Not until one of my grandfathers from Europe came to visit and then we all had to dress nicely on Sunday and go to church.)
The other kids asked what Cath'lick meant. Their mom said it meant my brother and I had to eat fish on Friday.
Of course, at school I'd learned about the Pope and priests and nuns, but I assumed everyone had to learn about those things at school. I didn't know it had anything to do with being Cath'lick. I'd never heard of this fish rule. I didn't like being Cath'lick. I couldn't understand how and why the neighbour had decided that my brother and I weren't like her kids--that we were Cath'lick.
In retrospect, it was very kind of her to accommodate our differences--which we didn't even know about--but at the time it was confusing.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

to be or not to be / shakespeare in spanish class

In my Spanish class we are now attempting to learn when to use the verbs "ser" and "estar", both of which translate as "to be".

In English, we only have one verb, "to be". I am Canadian, you are thin, he is fashionable, she is exhausted, we are firemen, the cups are on the table. It's all "to be".

Spanish has two forms of "to be", which are used in different circumstances: defining location, inherent physical characteristics, transient states of being, psychology, identification of nationality or profession, idiomatic expressions, etc. It's not one of those half-empty/half-full conundrums where you say POtato and I say poTAto. The wrong "is" in Spanish is just plain wrong. A mistake.

So one student, who likes to lighten the mood in the class, asks the teacher how she would translate "To be or not to be"? The teacher isn't sure. The class begins discussing whether the question is about a state of being or something else. Although the student who asked the question is a Francophone, he said, "To be or not to be" in English. The teacher speaks only minimal English. She asks what the line is in French. "Être, ou ne pas être." That doesn't help her, since French, too, only uses one verb for "to be". (Why is it that everyone claims Spanish is the easiest language to learn and here we have two forms of the most common verb, where other languages only have one?)

A bumbling semantic discussion ensues. We don't yet understand how to differentiate between the verbs "ser" and "estar", and the teacher isn't sure about the greater context of the line. She clearly doesn't spend her evenings reading Shakespeare in translation. Up until a certain point in the discussion, the name Shakespeare isn't even mentioned. When it is, a genteel, older woman says Shakespeare took the line from French. No, he didn't, I say. He wrote it. She shakes her head. It comes from French. From where, I ask? She doesn't know, but some of the other students wonder too now. They know Shakespeare made the line popular, but was it his? I insist that it was first written in English by William Shakespeare.

This all goes back to a deep-seated French conviction that all things beautiful and expressive are évidemment French. Anglos are clumsy louts who don't know how to dress or enjoy themselves, and speak a bastardized, predominantly practical, flat-footed language. Any of you who are English writers living in a French milieu will at some point have met a French speaker, who may or may not be a writer, but will still affirm with great aplomb that French is the more beautiful language with all the poetry.

Back to the Spanish class: the to-be-or-not-to-be question was never resolved by us. I've just looked it up. Umpteen translations available, but each begins, "Ser, o no ser..."

The woman who'd said the line was taken from French never admitted that I was right. She shrugged and said, En tout cas... which is the well-bred version of Whatever.

I didn't dress R up in costume to pose for this pictures. It's Edwin Booth acting Hamlet in 1870.

Monday, November 11, 2013

The Devil with the Three Golden Hairs / Der Teufel mit den drei goldenen Haaren

I'm leafing through my grandfather's copy of Grimms, looking for a fairy tale to translate. I want a happy one--not the come-through-trials-and-tribulations and end-up-happily-ever-after kind, but a story that's happy-go-lucky from beginning to end.

This one has the special treat of an at-home portrayal of the devil--in case you ever wondered how the devil relaxes in the evening after a day of wreaking mayhem. I'll give you a hint: he has an itchy head.

The Devil with the Three Golden Hairs

There was once a poor woman who gave birth to a son, and since he had a caul it was prophesied that at fourteen years old he would marry the king's daughter.

--Cauls were a feature in novels as late as Dickens and Hardy. Folklore held that if a child was born with a piece of amniotic membrane over its head, it would be lucky throughout life. In some cases cauls were auctioned off in the belief that good fortune might still be attached to the skin. Nowadays, I guess it gets plucked away without comment. My computer spell-checker doesn't even recognize caul as a word. In the Grimms it's called "Glückshaut" or "lucky skin".

Shortly after the boy was born, the king happened to pass through the village. He asked the people for news, and since no one knew he was the king, they told him that a child had been born with a caul. "He will be lucky for the rest of his life. It's foretold that at fourteen years old, he will marry the king's daughter."
The king, who didn't like this prophesy, visited the parents and with a friendly manner said: "You poor people, let me take your child and I will care for it."
At first the parents were unwilling, but since the stranger offered them so much money for the child, they thought: It's a lucky child. Everything will turn out for the best. And so they agreed and gave the king their child.

--parents who give away, sell or lose their children are a recurring feature in Grimms. I'll have to watch a Walt Disney rewrite of a Grimms to see how they gloss over this.

The king put the child in a box and rode away until he came to deep water where he threw the box in. There, he thought, I've rid my daughter of this nobody.
The box, however, did not sink. It floated like a little boat. Not even a drop of water got in. It floated until it was two miles from the king's capital city, where it got caught in the weir of a mill.

--a weir is a low dam built across a river to control the flow or raise the water level. At that time it would have been made of stones--nothing like modern-day concrete structures for hydro-electric projects. And yes, the word in Grimms is Meilen, not Kilometer. Germany did not go metric until 1868-1872. Germany, in fact, wasn't a country until 1871. Before that, it was a collection of dukedoms and principalities.

The miller's apprentice happened to see the box and drew it in with his hook, hoping to find treasure. When he opened it, there was a hale and hearty, beautiful boy. He brought the child to the miller and his wife, who had no children and were delighted: "God has blessed us!" They took care of the foundling and he grew up to be a good boy.
It happened then that one day, during a storm, the king took shelter in the mill and asked the miller and his wife if the boy was their son. "No," they said, "he's a foundling. Fourteen years ago a box that was floating down the river got caught in the weir, and our apprentice pulled it from the water."
The king realized that the boy must be the child he'd thrown in the water. "Good people," he said, "could your boy not bring a letter to the queen? I'll give him two pieces of gold in payment."

--they should have been suspicious. Why did the king phrase the sentence as a negative? And two pieces of gold is way-ay-ay-ay too much payment for carrying a letter. But fairy tales would never advance if it weren't for the obliging simplicity of gullible characters.

The couple told the boy to get ready, and the king wrote a letter: "As soon as this boy arrives with this letter, kill and bury him, and have it all done before I return home."

--peremptory, don't you think? Isn't this a letter to his wife?

The boy set off on his errand but got lost along the way, and in the evening found himself in the forest. Through the trees, in the darkness, he saw a light which he followed to a small house. He walked in and startled an old woman who was sitting by the fire alone. "Where do you come from and where are you going?"
"I come from the mill and I must go to the queen to give her a letter. But I got lost in the forest and would like to sleep here tonight."
"You poor boy, this is a robbers' house and when they come home, they will kill you."
"I don't care who's coming," said the boy. "I'm not afraid. I'm so tired that I can't walk another step." He lay down on a bench and fell asleep.
Soon after the robbers came home and asked angrily who the strange boy was.
"Oh, he's an innocent child who got lost in the woods and who has to bring the queen a letter. I let him stay because I felt sorry for him."
The robbers found the letter, opened it and read how the boy, as soon as he stood before the queen, would be killed.

The hard-hearted robbers felt pity for the boy, tore the letter and wrote another that said that as soon as the boy arrived, he should be married to the king's daughter.

--Isn't that a great drawing of three big meanies having a thunderstruck moment of understanding and compassion? Fritz Fischer's illustrations complement these stories so well!

They let the boy sleep until morning and when he woke, gave him the letter and showed him the way to the palace.
When the queen read the letter, she ordered a magnificent wedding feast to be prepared and married the lucky boy to the king's daughter. Since the boy was handsome and friendly, the king's daughter was happy and satisfied to be his wife.
But then the king arrived in his castle again and saw that the prophecy had been fulfilled and the lucky boy was married to his daughter. "What happened?" he asked. "That's not what I ordered in my letter." The queen handed him the letter and said he could see for himself what was written. He read it and realized the letter had been exchanged with another. He asked the boy what had happened to the letter he'd entrusted him with. Why had he brought a different letter?
"I know nothing about that," said the boy. "Someone must have switched it in the night when I was sleeping in the woods."
Full of anger the king said: "You're not getting my daughter so easily! Whoever marries her has to go to hell and bring me three golden hairs from the devil's head. Only if you can bring me that, can you keep my daughter." The king hoped that would rid him of the lucky boy forever.
The boy answered: "I'll get the golden hair. I'm not afraid of the devil." And off he set on his quest.

The path brought him to a large city where the watchman at the gate asked what trades he understood and what he knew. "I know everything," said the boy.
"Then you can do us a favour," said the watchman. "Can you tell us why our fountain that used to flow with wine has dried up and doesn't even give us water now?"
"That you'll find out," said the boy. "Just wait until I return."
The boy continued on his way and arrived at another city, where the watchman quizzed him on what trades he understood and what he knew.
"I know everything," said the boy.
"So can you do us a favour then, and tell us why our tree that used to bear golden apples doesn't even grow leaves anymore?"
"That you'll find out. Just wait until I return."
The boy went farther and came to a lake he had to cross. The ferryman asked what kind of trade he had and what he knew.
"I know everything," said the boy.
"So do me a favour and tell me why I have to ferry this raft back and forth and can never be rid of the task?"
"That you'll find out," said the boy. "Just wait until I return."
On the other side of the water the boy saw the entrance to hell.
It was dark and sooty. The devil wasn't home but his grandmother was sitting in a broad armchair. "What do you want?" she said--abrupt but not mean.
"I would really like to get three golden hairs from the devil's head," the boy said, "or I won't be able to keep my wife."
"That's asking a lot. If the devil comes home and finds you here, you're already dead. But I feel sorry for you. Let me see if I can help you." She changed him into an ant and said, "Crawl into the folds of my skirts. That way you'll be hidden."
"Yes," he said, "this is great, but listen, there are three things I need to know." He told her about the well that used to be full of wine and now was completely dry, the tree that used to bear gold apples and now didn't even have leaves, the ferryman who wanted to be released from his continual back and forth route.
"Those are hard questions," she said, "but you stay still and quiet and listen to what the devil says when I pull out the three golden hairs."
In the evening the devil came home. He'd hardly stepped inside when he noticed that the air wasn't clean. "I smell... I smell human flesh! Something's not right here." He looked in all the corners but couldn't find anything.
His grandmother scolded him: "I've just swept and put everything right, and you have to throw everything upside-down again. You and your human flesh up the nose! Sit down and eat your supper."
After he'd eaten and drunk, he was tired and lay his head in his grandmother's lap and asked her to delouse him a little.

--this is the only fairy tale I've ever read where lousing is not only mentioned but plays a role in plot development.

It didn't take long before he fell into a doze, breath whistling and snoring. The old woman grabbed a golden hair, tore it out and lay it next to her.
"Ouch!" screamed the devil. "What's the matter with you?"
"I had such a bad dream and then I grabbed your hair."
"What then did you dream?" asked the devil.
"I dreamt of a well in a marketplace that used to run with wine and now it's dry. There's not even water in the well. Why could that be?"
"Huh," the devil said. "If only they knew. There's a toad under a stone in the well, and if they kill it, then the well will be full of wine again."
The grandmother began to pick through his hair for lice again until he fell asleep and was snoring so that the windows trembled.

Then she ripped out the second hair.
"Hey! What's up with you?" screamed the devil.
"Don't take it wrong. I didn't know what I was doing. I was dreaming."
"What did you dream now?" he asked.
"I dreamt there was a kingdom where a fruit tree stood that used to bear gold apples and now not even a leaf will grow on it. What could be the cause of that?"
"Huh, if only they knew," said the devil. "There's a mouse gnawing at its roots, and if they kill the mouse, the tree will bear gold apples again, but if the mouse keeps gnawing, the tree will wither up and die. But leave me alone now with your bad dreams. If you wake me up again, I'll box your ears, I will."
The grandmother calmed him down, scratching his head and finding the lice, until he fell asleep and was snoring again. Then she took hold of the third golden hair and tore it out.
The devil jumped in the air, screamed and threatened to hit her, but she calmed him down again, saying, "What can I do if I have bad dreams?"
"So what did you dream?" he asked because he was curious.
"I dreamt of a ferryman who complains that he always has to go back and forth across the water. What can he do to be free?"
"The idiot!" said the devil. "All he has to do is put the rudder in the hand of the next person who wants to cross the water. Then he'll be free."
Since the grandmother had ripped out the three golden hairs and gotten the answers to the three questions, she let the old dragon in peace and he slept till the morning.
Once the devil had left, the old woman took the ant out of her skirts and changed him into a boy again. "There you have your three golden hairs, and you must have heard what the devil said in answer to your questions."
"Yes," said the boy. "I won't forget."
"So you're on your way again," she said.
He thanked her for her help and left hell feeling pleased that he'd been so successful.
When he got to the ferryman, he asked him to take him across the water before he gave him his answer. On the other side, he gave him the devil's advice.
When he came to the city, he told them about the mouse they needed to kill. In thanks, the watchman gave the boy two donkeys laden with gold.
Lastly he came to the city where the well that had once flowed with wine was dry. The boy told the watchman what he'd heard the devil say about the toad which would have to be killed. The watchman thanked him and gave him two donkeys laden with gold.
The lucky boy wanted to get back home to his wife now. She, too, was happy to see him again and hear how fortunate he'd been.
He went to see the king to give him the three golden hairs from the devil's head. When the king saw the four donkeys laden with gold, he was pleased and said, "Now that all the conditions are satisfied, you may keep my daughter. But, dear son-in-law, tell me where you did get all this gold? That's a tremendous lot of treasure!"
"I had to cross a river," said the boy, "and there's gold in the sand on the other side. I took some."
"Can I take some too?" asked the king.
"As much as you want. Get the ferryman to take you across and you can fill your sacks as much as you want."
The greedy king hurried to set off and when he got to the river, he waved to the ferryman to take him across. The ferryman came and told the king to climb on, and once they reached the other bank, the ferryman gave the king the rudder to hold and the ferryman sprang off. The king now had to cross the river from side to side in punishment for his sins.
"Is he still doing it?"
"What do you think? No one will take the rudder from him."

--that's the end. It's not the only Grimms with rhetorical questions but I don't think there's another in my copy that ends as if two readers are discussing the end of the story.

What's the moral of the story? Some people are born lucky? It's all in the attitude? Even the devil can help you out unwittingly? You can't thwart fate? Meanness deserves meanness?
There's a group of readers out there who really want to know the moral of a tale. I keep seeing search strings looking for the moral of Rapunzel or Hansel and Gretel.

There *is* a nice parallel between the king throwing the box with the baby in the water and ending up imprisoned on water himself.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

end of october... hallowe'en

Do you see the cat in the window?

I write Hallowe'en with an apostrophe which was how it was spelled when I was learning how to write. It must be another of those UK/US things. Colour, travelled... all those words Blogger and Word claim not to recognize. My texts are sprinkled with red squiggles. (Mind you, I write 'recognize' instead of 'recognise', so I'm not even consistent with my spelling allegiances.)

Everyone asks everyone whether they hand out candy on Hallowe'en. I don't, which (I'm sorry) is too bad for the kids in my neighbourhood, but I can't bring myself to hand out all that white sugar in whatever caramelized, chemicalized, glazed, crunched and chewy form it comes in. Homemade goodies with real ingredients would be acceptable, but if my child came home with homemade anything, I would throw it away. That's sad but that's that. It's the world we live in.

I do love the pageant of carved pumpkins and costumes. I wish Hallowe'en were a day when everyone disguised themselves in costume. Though then I suppose I would wonder about the fantasies and alter-egos people were acting out.

Here are some pix I took today when I was downtown. I like how the man dressed as a manikin didn't just do his head but his hands too. The young woman with the bloody dirndl painted the teeth over her black lipstick. The woman in the towel with Batman was still there an hour later when I walked by.


Sunday, October 27, 2013

big bend national park, texas 2008

For various unconnected reasons I've been thinking of a trip I did with R five years ago to Big Bend National Park in Texas. Dry and rugged terrain unlike anything I'd ever seen.

We flew to San Antonio. What struck me first was the sprawl and breadth of the streets, the overall sense that everything had melted and spread under the blaze of the sky.
Next I noticed the Day of Dead shrines. Día de los muertos. There are lots of Mexicans in Texas (which used to be Mexico) and they've kept much of their culture--for themselves, not just for touristic reasons.

The Day of the Dead was three days earlier, but the shrines were still in place: beribboned and draped, piled with photos, flowers, madonnas, candy skulls and wax skeletons grown soft after three days in the bright sun. We drove past cemeteries we might not have noticed except for the gravestones decorated with balloons and banners as if for a big family party.  

While in San Antonio, we visited the Missions which were compounds built by the Spanish from 1690-1730 (approx) to protect/civilize/colonize the natives. The churches are shells now, with sometimes only a single wall left standing. At one we saw a bride waiting for the photographer to arrive.

Here's a Madonna--not the usual slim and pale Caucasian we see in Canadian churches. Also a crucifix in a bed of cacti.

We'd been told that San Antonio is the hub of culture in Texas. Perhaps it is. I spent a couple of days looking for a bookstore, thinking to pick up a few small-press American books that weren't likely to be sold in Canada. Finally I asked in the Tourist Office. A woman with a big smile informed me that there was NO bookstore in the center of San Antonio--BUT there was a Borders on the outskirts. What a lousy reason to smile. The outskirts of a city in Texas means many miles. It assumes that people who buy books have cars. Borders is like Indigo, right? I went, since it was on our way out of town, but they had the same mainstream books I could have bought at a chain bookstore in Montreal.

On the drive to Big Bend National Park, we saw lots of fun things. For example, in Texas you don't even have to get out of your car to buy a drink or hydrogenated, garlic-powdered, fried snacks. These red barns are drive-through convenience stores.
Notice the sign for deer corn? People like to feed deer. Lots of other places have signs for dressing deer. Once you've fattened them up...

We chose not to drive through the Beverage Barn, but then we were thirsty. We pulled in at a place called The Hog Pen. Despite the rusted car carcasses out front, there seemed to be a building where one might buy drinks. Inside there were no lights. A voice drawled from the darkness, You lookin' for help? R said yes, we wanted cold drinks. How about a root beer? the voice suggested. We said that was fine. I asked if there was a washroom. The voice said, Billy, show the lady the toilet. A skinny kid with freckles jumped from the shadows and brought me outside to a door. He opened the window, reached in to unlatch the door from the inside and gestured for me to make myself at home. When I got back, the man behind the voice had appeared to take R's money for the root beer. He was amused that we were Canadians. He asked what it was like to live with snow all the time. We told him it didn't snow all the time--that, in fact, in the summer we went swimming. The kid with the freckles was agog.

Here's another shot of Texas Hill Country.

It's not all Southern Gothic. We also spent a lovely afternoon at Becker Vineyard where we sat on an enormous veranda with twirling ceiling fans, sipping excellent wine and eating fresh pecans. (Pecans weren't supplied; we'd brought them ourselves.) Behind the veranda were lavender fields, which were not in bloom in November, but still beautiful.


The drive to Big Bend was long and flat. Mile after mile looked just like this.

Stopping for food always felt like a social/cultural experience. At one place the counter was already decorated for Christmas--with tiny fairy lights inside coloured shotgun shells.
Sometimes I felt that when we stepped through a doorway, we'd time-travelled too.

It took the longest time before the mountains of Big Bend finally appeared on the horizon, and even when they did, it still took hours before we got there because the land between us and them was so stretched and flat. See how the road does that perspective line thing off into the distance? (Okay, it's only 6 hrs of driving from San Antonio to Big Bend, but we took all those interesting detours.)

We spent a night in the motel that was in Wim Wender's film, Paris, Texas, which in itself was neat. The motel isn't advertised as such, but we watched the movie a couple of years ago, after going to Texas, and recognized the whitewashed cinder block cabins with the corrugated roofs. Looked it up and yeah, one of the set locations was in Marathon, Texas.

So here are some pictures from Big Bend, an 800,000 acre park with mountains, deserts, buttes, mesas, canyons. On a single hike, we saw miniature palm trees, fir trees, blooming cacti, an armadillo, a road runner, gigantic kamikaze grasshoppers. We looked down onto ancient volcanic crowns. The silence of so much dead rock was astounding. We hiked through a canyon where the marsh grass towered over our heads, and the sand was so dry, it had cracked.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

police on the phone

I came home this afternoon to a message on the answering machine from the police. They were doing an enquête. How bizarre.
But even more bizarre their question: what did the middle initial on my Ontario driver's license stand for?
I moved away from Ontario in 1986. I haven't driven since then. The world should be thankful. I was a reckless driver. Kept forgetting that I was supposed to be in control of the vehicle. Too short to keep my eye on both the road and the speedometer.
But what's this assumption that I used an initial on my Ontario driver's license that I'd never used previously and haven't used since--that can't be found elsewhere in my documentation? For example, my birth certificate.
I mean... if the police are calling me to track down the name that belonged to my middle initial back when I had an Ontario driver's licence, they presumably have access to the rest of my paper trail. It's the only initial I use--when I use an initial.
The police did explain why they were doing their investigation. A couple of months ago I volunteered to work with children within a certain organization, which I cannot name; nor can I write about what I'm going to do there. At the time I agreed to a police check. They seem to be getting around to it. So that's good. People can't simply walk in off the street and infiltrate innocent minds.
I'm looking forward to it. If somewhat taken aback at how thorough the police check is. Or perhaps that's a sign of how insignificant I am... that they had to go looking for evidence that I exist as far back as 1985.

This is an illustration from my old Grimms' fairy tales. Thank you, Fritz Fischer.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

kaiserschmarrn or emperor's mess

By an emperor's mess, I'm not referring to politics or history--a Kaiser is an emperor--but an Austrian dish called Kaiserschmarrn. It looks like scrambled eggs except that it's made with pancake batter.

I grew up knowing that if you wanted pancakes, but didn't feel like standing at the stove and flipping them, you could dump the whole bowl of batter in the pan, let the bottom brown, and then scramble the mess, turning the bits and pieces until they were browned. It makes for a chunky mess but it's faster than making pancakes and it tastes the same. It's served with jam, compote or sprinkled sugar. 

It's called Kaiserschmarrn because it was a favoured dish of Kaiser Franz Joseph I (1830 - 1916). He wasn't the Austro-Hungarian emperor whose assassination led to WWI, but close. He helped botch relations with Serbia and it was a Serbian nationalist who assassinated the Austro-Hungarian heir presumptive, which, if you follow the thread, led to WWI. That's a loose interpretation. I'm talking pancakes here. Whatever else History wants to remember Franz Joseph I for, he was also fond of these messed-up pancakes.

Schmarrn might mean folly or nonsense. Or it relates to the simple messed-up pancakes peasants in 800 B.C. made with hand-milled flour, eggs and rendered fat, and called schmer.

Amazing how linguists earn a livelihood discussing the possible etymology of a word--and what people ate so long ago. I'll have to remember to become a linguist in my next life. I'm getting ready by learning how to say "pen" in four languages. Pen, stylo, kugelschreiber, boligrafo. One of the rare words that's the same gender in all the languages that (so perversely) assign gender to inanimate nouns.

A few weeks ago, when R and I were in the Gaspé, we found a plum tree laden with plums. This is unusual because it used to be believed that the summer on the coast was so short, there was no point in growing anything as delicate as raspberries. Forget fruit trees. However, our neighbours are devoted gardeners who plant all kinds of vegetables and fruit in strategic locations where the plants and trees get a maximum of sunlight and a minimum of exposure. Their's was the plum tree, but they had already boarded up their house and left the coast to return to their winter home. R and I grabbed bags and picked the plums. I cooked some of them down to a thick compote--and remembered Kaiserschmarrn.

I didn't have a recipe--and no access to internet--but it's pancake batter, right? As with pancake batter, there are simpler and fancier versions. You can use cream instead of milk. You can brown them in butter or in oil. You can separate the eggs, beat the whites and fold them into the batter.

I decided to do the egg white thing because it gave me a chance to use the vintage eggbeater a friend had bought for me at a flea market a few years ago when I didn't have $3 in my pocket and he did. Since we have no mixer in our house out in the Gaspé, I brought the eggbeater--in case I ever want to... make piles of whipped cream?

I took a picture of the Kaiserschmarrn too, but it looks so messy--and perhaps unappetizing unless you've smelled it cooking--that you'll just have to take my word for it: it's a great way to make pancakes all at one go. Try it. Just keep turning all the pieces till they're all cooked through. Serve with peach jam, plum compote, maple syrup...

Okay, fine, here's a picture I took off the internet.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

my history of crochet / or: you can probably crochet too

In July of 2012 I went to a lovely wedding, in which this yellow shoe featured.

It was held in the country by a lake and I thought the evening might be cool. I'd decided to wear a blue dress and to make myself a shawl to wear with it. I thought it would be fun to crochet it.
I didn't know how to crochet. When I was growing up, I thought of crochet as a fussy activity that resulted in fancy borders and antimacassars. I like the word antimacassar but wouldn't want any on my furniture.
More recently I was watching a friend who crochets. It's relaxing to follow the path of her hook plying in and out of the pattern she's knotting. Her string of yarn spools off a heathery nest she bought when she was in Edinburgh, or from a funky yarn store close to where she lives in Montreal. She makes all kinds of things, even dresses.

One advantage to crochet is that you can drop your hook or lose it in your bag, pick it up, find a loop and keep crocheting. Try that with knitting! You'd have a disaster.

Did you know that E.M. Forster crocheted?

I watched a few Youtube videos on how to crochet and taught myself how to do stitches. It's not hard if you already know how to knit. I bought a linen/cotton blend and started my shawl.

So it took a while. I wore a red dress to the wedding.

Good thing the bride and groom didn't wait. I finished the shawl last week.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

the sea calls in september

Since we first started coming to this stretch of coastline—before R bought Madonne’s old house and we were still renting a cabin—we used to walk along the beach and wonder about this abandoned bus. It sits at the bottom of a cliff.

We saw it for a few years running when we noticed that someone had put up curtains and blinds. Sometimes there's a kayak in the grass. Last fall we snuck up to look in the windows, expecting a primitive kitchen, maybe a camping cot—and were surprised to see a front-loading washing machine. This past week, we saw that a gas barbecue and a television had been added. R wanted to figure out how the electrical appliances were powered—from the bus engine? with a generator?—but I thought we’d done enough spying just by looking in the windows.

Usually I come to the sea to look at the sea. Water out to the horizon. Sky.
But this time I kept my eyes on the hills where the poplar and birch were starting to change colour. Sept 21, the hills looked like this:

For the next three days, it rained—but not in the way it rains inland. The way it rains by the sea. Wet blew, drizzled, dripped, misted, drummed on the roof.
We still went for walks because that's just something we do. The paths had turned into streams.

Pretty, but wet.
I got fed up. I was wet down the neck of my NOT-rain-proof jacket, wet up the sleeves as far as my elbows, boots sodden, socks squelching.
I'd thought a skirt and tights wouldn't get as wet as trousers. Ha. Ha. Ha.

We spent a lot of time by the fire. It’s a slow-combustion stove, but the general workings of a fire and how to tend it are the same since forever. Do you recall nineteenth-century novels where characters are always raking up the coals? I learned about raking up coals. You waste a lot of heat if you don’t know when and how to aerate. Granted, it’s not something one needs to know how to do in a world of furnaces and stoves. Nowadays, a wood-burning stove is a luxury—and I feel duly pampered when I’m sitting next to it with a book, writing, some yarn, a mug of tea.

The sky eventually lifted and lo, the leaves had turned while they were hidden.

I could go rock clambering along the shore, which satisfies my yen for the sea and my inner mountain goat.

We had two days of brilliant sunshine and went for drier walks up into the hills. Ate cod that we bought at the fishery where you can watch the women cleaning fish through the porthole window behind the cash. Drank wine. Picked plums, which don't normally grow in the Gaspé but our next-door neighbour is a gardener par excellence.

Here’s R at low tide during low tide.