Wednesday, November 29, 2017

river bathing / Gaspé November 2018

Aren’t we lucky to have this river nearby so we can wash when the pump in the house breaks! 

We always have this time of suspense after the long drive from the city and Dr N goes down to the cellar with jugs of water to get the pump used to the idea of being a conduit between the well and house again (this is calling priming the pump), but this time, though he tried and tried, and used up all the jugs of water, the pump didn’t—couldn’t?—oblige. 

There was no pressure. Maybe a leak in a pipe? Dr N got out his scalpel, sawed off the pipes, took them to the local hardware store for new ones. Hm… fellow said. Used a scalpel, did you? And advised him that heating the new pipes in warm water would make them more pliable. Easier to saw, I guess.

But it wasn’t the pipes.

A neighbour said he thought it was the clapet, which is French for…? That happened to someone else’s pump, so maybe it’s what happened to our pump. If that was the case, then we needed to dig to the well. No one's digging wells at this time of year with snow dusted across the grass and more to come any moment.

We’ve had problems with the pump before but previously our neighbour who’s a plumber has come to our aid. His curtains are closed, doors locked. We assume he’s on vacation somewhere warm where the water isn’t gun-metal grey and the sun doesn’t set at 3 pm.

Our week in the country might have gone bust—despite the long drive to get here, despite the crackling of the woodstove, the roaring of the sea at night, the sofa with view on a horizon of water, the heaps of food we brought, including persimmons, avocadoes, homemade pesto, gnocchi, yogurt, dried cranberries, brussel sprouts, clementines…

We reminded each other that we’re Canadians and every Canadian has wilderness camping experience, right? Wilderness camping means hiking into the woods and pitching a tent and hanging your food from a string between trees instead of stowing it in your tent where a nosy bear or porcupine might come looking for it. It means not washing for a few days or washing under a waterfall or in a lake or river. It means pulling down your pants and crouching over anything that doesn’t look like poison ivy or nettles, and trying not to pee on your shoes. Wilderness camping comes with the red and white maple leaf flag. So what, the wind chill is -18C and your labia are cringing?

We drove a little farther along the coast, from one scantily inhabited village to another, looking for a dépanneur that was open on a Saturday evening--not easy now that all the summer people have left the coast and even the locals flee when they can. But it’s hockey season and this is Quebec. Some déps have to stay open for people to buy beer.

We bought a mega-jug of spring water for drinking. For washing, we have the river fed from a spring in the Chic Choc mountains. Real not bottled spring water, though the real version comes with the odd spider or beetle.

Dr N very kindly offered to bring some jugs of icy water back to the house to heat on the woodstove because I’m not as hardy as he is about river-bathing in November. That’s him in the car lights, equipped with cycling headlamp, Fair-Isle hat, and gumboots.

Footnote: our neighbour the plumber wasn’t off smoking hand-rolled cigars in the tropics. He’d only gone to Rimouski for a few days to take advantage of the Black Friday sales and visit friends. He looked at the situation in the cellar and agreed that it was the clapet. He’ll come with his back hoe when we return again next summer.

That we didn’t have running water at the moment didn’t concern him. As he pointed out, old houses along the coast never did. He grew up without running water. He gave one of those Gallic c’est la vie shrugs.
Me too, I know. My family used to spend weekends and summers in a one-room cabin my father built. We didn’t have electricity or running water there. We had a Coleman lantern and the creek.

I’ve been thinking of times when Dr N and I travelled. It was common to see water trucks in Mexico stopped in front of houses that must only have the water supplied from a tank they had to fill. I’m remembering, too, how scarce water was in Morocco and Tunisia. The squat toilets. Once I stopped at a sidewalk stand for a glass of fresh-pressed orange juice. I didn’t think about the glass I was given until I was drinking the juice and watching the boy chatting up customers. He only had a small bucket of dirty water where he swished his store of three glasses between customers, dried them on a stained towel. Well of course, what other access to water did he have on a sidewalk? Disposable cups weren’t in his budget. I had a moment of squeamishness but the juice was delicious and I’d had my shots before leaving home. Water was scarce.

I remember, too, how we stayed with my Tirolean aunt and grandmother in the old Zorn house in the Alps. A pipe had been installed to bring water into the kitchen (though not out; it drained into a bucket), but there was no bathroom. Every day I had a washcloth bath from a basin. I complained about my hair being dirty—I was younger then, more secure in my inalienable privileges—but my aunt and oma paid no mind. UNTIL I was about to leave my mountain family and travel across Austria to my more well-to-do, town family. It was no longer a question of my comfort but family reputation. My aunt and oma decided to send me off bathed and with clean hair. They built up the fire, heated pots of water, rigged up blankets for privacy, hauled out a tin tub. What luxury!

Yesterday when Dr N and I had a drive farther down the coast (see next blog post), we stopped a couple of times to make purchases and each time used the bathroom and lavishly soaped and rinsed our hands in warm water that gushed from the tap.

My hair looks clean enough here, no?

Monday, November 13, 2017

death and cemeteries

I'm writing a story about death. It's not a sad story. But it is about death.
Thinking about the story has led to interesting talks with R who works in a cemetery.

So it can happen that when we're in another country, we visit cemeteries. Not to look at famous people's tombstones, but simply to see how it's done.

We were remembering Cuajimoloyas, a small village in the Sierra Norte mountains in Mexico. A man who passed us in the road asked how many hours it had taken us to get there from where we lived. I said we'd come the greatest distance by plane. He said to include that too. I tallied up the hours of our trip from Montreal to Mexico City to Oaxaca--by plane--and the drive to Cuajimoloyas. He grinned hugely, delighted to inform me that his son who had gone to Japan had travelled even more hours! I was as delighted to tell him he was right.

While we were there, we took a walk in the cemetery. At one point I heard voices and we discovered five men digging a grave. One was in the hole with a spade and shovel. The others sat nearby, talking so that he wouldn't be alone in the hole. They were surprised and a little annoyed to see white tourists wandering through their hallowed ground. I told them that we were having a look-see because R worked in a cemetery and wanted to see what theirs looked like.

They wanted to know how their cemetery compared to the one where R worked. I said the trees were different and that it wasn't possible to dig holes when the ground was frozen. I don't think they believed me when I said how high the snow could get in Montreal. I said machines were used to dig our graves which they didn't think respectful of the dead.

They asked how big R's cemetery was. A million dead, I said. Un millón muertos. Whoa!!!! They crossed themselves and gaped. They wanted to know if R wasn't terrified to be among so many dead. He told them the living were more of a problem. They liked that. They said it was okay if we took a few pics. We wished each other un buen día.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

visiting Ontario / memories (mine) of the 70s

If you've never heard the song "Signs" (1971), have a listen. It begins: "And the sign said Long-haired freaky people need not apply / So I tucked my hair up under my hat and went in to ask him why..."

The musicians called themselves the Five Man Electrical Band and they're from Ottawa. "Signs" was their international hit that sold over a million copies--back in the days of 45 rpm discs. A 45 had one song on one side, another on the reverse. You put the disc on a turntable and lowered the needle. Or if you had a more expensive turntable, you pushed a switch that raised, swung, and lowered the needle automatically. If you wanted to listen to another song, you removed that disc and put another on the turntable. Am I dating myself?

I've been looking at the pictures I took while in Stratford and Hamilton, walking by Grindstone Creek and the shore of Lake Ontario, and visiting St. Mary's. I took a lot of pics of signs.  

Some are obvious, some absurd. This sign was over a storefront that was abandoned. I wonder why.

Some sings are so obvious that they're absurd. What would warm-scooped ice cream be?

Some are memories like this one because it's the street I lived on for a year or so while at McMaster. It was a low-ceilinged attic apartment over a folk singer and pianist who was blind. I don't recall his name but we heard him perform in coffeehouses and festivals. I liked hearing him practice below us. That would have been in the late 70s. Before I moved to another attic apartment on Hollywood Rd where I looked into the parking lot of a Tim Hortons. Another Canadian institution. Or used to be before Burger King bought it in 2014.

Here's a sign from what's now a microbrewery but used to be a coffeehouse in Stratford. I'm pretty sure I saw Stan Rogers perform there, though it's possible I heard him at Smale's Pace in London. One memory that's definitely from The Black Swan is that it was the first place I ever tasted a toasted whole wheat sandwich with peanut butter and banana. I returned home, bought peanut butter and bananas, and lived on that for the following two years. I made my own bread. Of course. It was the 70s.
They don't serve peanut butter and banana on whole wheat anymore. But very good beer!

Did you ever wonder where the original barber was? I found him. Unfortunately I didn't take note of the address. He might be in Hamilton.

Another hair sign--in Stratford.

Which makes me wonder why more hair salons don't refer to Rapunzel? She's their folkloric heroine, no? It's their story.

I'm pretty sure this was a car wash--it looked like a car wash--but I don't see the rapport between calling a car wash a dog wash. Does there have to be a rationale behind putting a name on a sign? Maybe not. Maybe it was a dog wash with self-serve, coin-operated bays. For dogs.

Memories of a tasty quesadilla lunch.

Does graffiti count as a sign? You bet. Though in this case I think I was taking a pic of the old wooden shutters. Age, too, was what attracted me to the metal sign still in place for a launderer.

I'm posting this one because the angry man behind the counter told me I couldn't. He seemed to feel it was illegal for me to have a camera in the market. What if I were competition coming to check his prices. I told him I was not. But what the heck. Even if I were. It was a market, not his living room.

Friday, November 3, 2017

more Five Roses / more sweets


Another fun evening with a book-loving crowd who also love to bake. Here's a pic from when all the homemade desserts hadn't even been brought yet. Note the plate of wholewheat bread, sliced and buttered--nothing simpler, nothing better. Made with Five Roses flour, of course.

Where? At the Bibliothèque de Brossard.

Indeed, we talked books. Here I am with librarian, Michèle Tibblin, who led the discussion--though participants had much to say as well.

A great crowd! Thank you to all of them. Thank you to the Quebec Writers' Federation who sent me. Thank you to the lovely Maria-Ana for taking photos.
And NOW I know how to get from Montreal to Brossard by public transit. Horizons expanding.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Five Roses in Ontario / no appropriation of cuisine

We had fun, Five Roses and I in Ontario. First, gourmet nibbles and wine with enthusiastic book clubbers in Stratford at the Chefs' School

then a pastry chef showing us how to make cream puffs and inviting us to try our hand at piping whipped cream, followed by me talking about the role of food in characterization and fiction. This, too, was with the Stratford Writers' Festival under the auspices of the Chefs' School. Imaginative programming, right? Not your everyday writer's gig!

As a footnote--something to consider?--there were more male participants at this pastry/writers' event than I usually see when I speak about a novel. 

then a most interesting interview at the Westdale Library in Hamilton with Jennifer Gillies, artistic director of gritLit. Perceptive questions and comments from the audience.

and THEN, in honour of the working-class setting of my novel, an upscale Québécois-themed supper hosted by the Appetite for Words Festival in Stratford. I've been to many réveillons and cabanes à sucre, and wow! Stratford's chef Randi Rudner topped any version of the old-timey pea soup and tourtière I've ever eaten. Luscious salmon, julienned celeriac, fresh puréed peas, chunks of smoked ham, poached egg, tourtière, spicy baked beans, sauteed brussel sprouts, red cabbage chutney... There was more! As well as wine pairings--some of which I had to refuse, poor me! because I don't drink red wine. (That's a joke, right? I was so happy that evening I could have drunk tap water.) Randi, I should note, although she has now lives in Ontario, is from Quebec so there is no appropriation of cuisine. 

The back wall of the dining room of the Chefs' School is in glass, so diners can see the chef and cooks concocting the meal. I walked by the school earlier in the afternoon, and prep was already well underway. I was familiar with the scene since I worked in restaurant kitchens in another lifetime, when I was a grad student in Toronto. 

Between tourtière and dessert, Theresa Albert and I had a lively interview about Five Roses.

The food was so fine! But of course the best part of all these events was meeting readers and would-be readers. Hearing the comments, observations, and questions readers have. Even hearing what people didn't like because that's worth talking about too.

Several wanted to know the practicalities of how a wannabe writer goes from scribbling on pages to getting them published. You keep at it. Beginnings can be humble. The other day I walked past the decrepit brick building behind a garage where, up on the second floor, I saw the dirty windows of the editorial office/kitchen of the magazine that first published me. I don't think the magazine went past two issues. I've just googled the name of the itchy young man who was the editor and can find no internet trace of him. Mind you, that was years ago. Years for him, years for me too. With years between publications. That's how you get published. You keep doing it despite the years.

This morning, in my reading, I came across this: "...the most worn-out clichés traverse time for generations, all the while the most beautiful poems fade to oblivion." (from La petite et le vieux by Marie-Renee Lavoie) Maybe that's what it means to be a writer: you persist in trying to beat the cliches and the silence, even when you know they're destined for oblivion.

Thank you to the wonderful people in Stratford who invited me; Jennifer Gillies at gritLit; Dundurn Press; the Quebec Writers' Federation for their unflagging support of getting Quebec writers out into the world; and R who ferried me about in a rented car so that I could bring as many pairs of shoes as I wanted.