blending an assortment of thoughts and experiences for my friends, relations and kindred spirit

blending an assortment of thoughts and experiences for my friends, relations and kindred spirit
By Alison Hobbs, blending a mixture of thoughts and experiences for friends, relations and kindred spirits.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

No time to write

I'm too busy singing, playing and keeping the three men fed and happy to write my blog posts! Today I went flying with Chris while George and Jonathan were out skiing with Christine, Julia and Ian; tomorrow with six other people the four of us will drive to a Lodge at Maniwaki for New Year's Eve. Chris, George, Jonathan and I will not come straight back home on New Year's Day, but intend to continue along the road via Mont Laurier to the Mont Tremblant area for another night away, and thence back towards Ottawa via the Omega Park and Montebello on Wednesday.

Last night we sang in six parts with Bill, Jennie and Christine and even had a go at the Geographical Fugue by Ernst Koch! We're having enormous fun.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Written at Tim Horton's

Two old gentlemen at the next table have come here to escape from their families after Christmas and to pass the time of day. They aren't in any hurry to leave. The place is decorated with pictures of coffee mugs sitting in drifts of snow, wrapped in scarves. We're waiting for our winter tyres to be fitted onto our car by the Frisby Tire Company. This is a job that would have been done weeks ago, had the queue not been so long, most drivers caught by surprise by the early onset of this winter.

Just made Apple Fritters now on the shelf! These people are good advertisers. Ho Ho Ho, Happy Holidays! is sprayed onto the window in mirror writing so that it can be read from outside; we have just learned that this would be considered highly insulting to Australian mothers, "ho" being a slang abbreviation for a woman of ill repute, down under. What a minefield language is. Hence the use of euphemisms, I suppose. The Ottawa Sun has a page of advertisements for the services of such women. "Extremely friendly" or "anxiously awaiting for you" (sic), they advertise themselves either as "temporary girlfriends" or "open-minded ... Egyptian Princesses" and such.

Where was I? I can't say we accomplished much yesterday but it was great relaxation—after a late breakfast, a short ride north to the Gatineau Park information centre at Chelsea where there's an old sugar shack by the car park, now used as a shelter for waxing one's skis or having one's Christmas Dinner on the picnic table within. Elva, whom we met here, said that she'd seen a family doing exactly that the day before.

Having walked the Sugar Bush Trail on clean, white snow, across the bridge by the beaver dam, now buried in a drift, I lit a log fire in the stove that heats the shack, George having a split a log for kindling with the axe provided (I averted my eyes as he was wielding it) and smoke began to pour from the chimney. Jonathan and George took many artistic photographs, providing an impressive slide show at the end of the day.

Lunch was chilli beef previously made by Laurie at his house on the hill, accompanied by cornbread freshly baked by Elva and me, after which Jonathan and I donned the two pairs of traditional snowshoes available, George volunteering to wade after us thigh deep and with great difficulty so that we could only do a few hundred metres of bush-whacking on the steep slope behind the house. All the same, "You are adventurous, Mrs Hobbs!" exclaimed Jonathan, and I took this as a compliment. I was following the deer tracks, but we made too much noise to spot any wildlife bar a small brown squirrel.

After an hour or so more music-making back at our house, supper was cassoulet—more beans!—for which Elva and Laurie had come to join us again. The most fun for the men was playing with the remote controlled toy helicopter that Jonathan has been inspired to give Chris as a present. It keeps crashing in the Christmas tree, but no harm done yet.

Chris, George and Jonathan having been playing Mozart's Kegelstatt Trio in the background as I have been typing this up. Wonderful.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Christmas Day

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old familiar carols play
And wild and sweet the words repeat
Of peace on earth, good will to men.

Those are the words of the round we all sang at the beginning of Bill's and Jennie's party last Friday and they sprang to mind at midnight when the bells of the Notre Dame Basilica a kilometre away began to announce Christmas Day; like a small child, I was too excited to go to sleep.

Now it's Boxing Day, and we're just getting up for our family conference call over the international telecommunications network. We postponed it till now because of George's late arrival in Ottawa... actually landing a quarter of an hour early, but we still didn't have our meal until after six. The airport was surprisingly crowded, but we saw the Vancouver 'plane pulling into its gate and spotted George and Jonathan as they came down the escalator into the baggage hall with its tall Christmas tree and wall of water.

Back at the house we had a merry evening with music galore, before, during and after our very informal Christmas Dinner, the young men playing the rented violin and 'cello, George also on the piano, Chris playing his clarinet and singing, me singing and on the piano: solos, duets, trios and quartets. One of the pieces I've found is a six part round. We need two more musicians to do that one properly. Any volunteers, please get in touch!

Monday, December 24, 2007

On Christmas Eve

No shortage of juxtapositions today!

After a slow and lazy start, and a chat to my sister and my mother in Wales by 'phone, we picked up Faith's parcel waiting for us at the post office, then drove down dry roads to the Flying Club where we waged an almighty battle against our wing-covers. Had we not left the covers off our aeroplane for the last few days because of the torrential rain we've had, when the temperature dropped last night, the wet material would have frozen, the resulting ice sticking to the wings so that we'd never have got them off again. Today, we were in a position to fit them, dry, onto dry wings, but the wind gusting to 25 knots made it impossible for us to hold onto them and tie them down, so wildly did they billow. In the end Kathy Fox most kindly offered to be a third person in our ground crew; then we could just about do it.

I was intending to write another blog post about how to humidify one's basement by (a) leaving one's wing covers to dry all over the floor, and (b) having the melt water flood the carpeted area at the bottom of the stairs where George is about to sleep, but I never got round to it, so you'll just have to imagine. Here's a picture of Chris trying in vain to prevent the flood in our basement.

It was Kathy's birthday today and she managed to treat herself to a celebratory flight before the wind picked up too much and the blizzard (sorry, "light flurries") began. We sympathised with her bad luck in being born on December 24th when people are too preoccupied with Christmas preparations to party with her, but she says that as the years go by this seems to matter less and less. We felt more sorry for the African gentleman who'd come to service the coffee machine and who slipped and fell on the ice in the car park as we were leaving, banging the back of his head so badly that blood flowed and he was knocked unconscious, his boxes flying all over the place. Had he fallen a moment later we'd have driven off and been none the wiser, but luckily we saw the accident in the rear view mirror and were able to leap out of the car and hurry over to help. Chris immediately dialled 911 (it's not 999 here) for the ambulance that took a long while to arrive because of the unusual address. Meanwhile the gentleman on the ground had come round and was all for getting up and driving away, but we insisted he stay where he was, lying on his side. We used Chris' pullover as a pillow for him, before the flying club staff came to help with a real pillow and a blanket. Then we witnessed a little more drama as the ambulance men had to work hard to persuade the man to go with them. He had no health card, it transpired, perhaps because he is a recent immigrant, probably very alarmed at the thought of having to pay for all this medical intervention. His English wasn't too good, so I'd tried to reassure him in French, but hadn't thought to ask where he came from. I did establish that he lived alone at home so there was apparently nobody who cared that he'd fallen over. I hope he is all right; we are still thinking of him.

Late for lunch, we ate some soup at Piccolo Grande on MacKay Street, now run by a very nice Indian lady from Kenya who always recognises us when we stop there, and read the papers to calm ourselves down. On the way home we bought a floor mat to mitigate muddy wet footprints round our kitchen door and some of Chris' favourite Ambrosia apples from the healthfood shop, Nature's Buzz.

As we were doing all this, George and his friend Jonathan (three hours behind us) were coming through customs and immigration at Vancouver airport after their long, long flight from Sydney, and checking into their hotel, so when we came in, we had a conversation with them over the Skype link. Simultaneously, on the other virtual line, we were watching Emma and Peter with little Alexander in London, who was toddling round his other grandparents' house! What would we do without the Internet? When those calls were done, I clicked on the BBC website to hear the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols from Kings College, Cambridge. Chris ventured out into the snow again, to go running at the gym.

This evening I've contrived to dry the basement carpet, catch up with my washing and make some mini trifles for tomorrow, that entailed peeling a pomegranate and removing the lovely seeds. We practised four Schubert songs and a movement from a clarinet sonata by Vanhal. And I have sent some more e-messages to my friends and relations.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Playing and singing

Isn't this a wonderful sight? This is a corner of the violin shop from which we have hired a 'cello and a violin in anticipation of George's and Jonathan's arrival on Christmas Day.

A habit we've acquired here is to join the party at Jennie's and Bill's house to sing carols once a year, and that's what we did last night. We took my viola and Chris' clarinet along. This morning Chris sent Elva an email describing how we had

ended up at about a quarter past midnight getting lost (even with Ali in the car) trying to drive a Paris-based, Klezmer clarinet player back to the place where he was staying. He had spent the last part of the party teaching me Klezmer scales and wondering why I couldn't "just let go and let the music happen".

Other instruments at the party were the piano, a violin, a flute, a recorder and Bill's guitar. And our voices of course; the South American participants (from Columbia and Mexico)—preferred to sing in Spanish:

Belén, campanas de Belén,
que los ángeles tocan
¿qué nuevas nos traéis?

There was a French Canadian couple too; Marc Antoine demonstrating the correct pronunciation of Il est né, le Divin Enfant! Jouez hautbois... that we all repeated in chorus (sounding the Z). We sing in four parts, some of the carols very well known, some of them less familiar unless you have done a little pub caroling from time to time. A local folklorist called Shelley Posen has compiled an anthology of "old and little-known Christmas Carols", such as A Song for a Time that dates back to the days in Old England when everybody knew his place:

A song for a time when the sweet bells chime
Calling rich and poor to pray
On that joyful morn when Christ was born
On that holy Christmas day.

The squire came forth from his rich old hall
And the peasants by two and by three.
The woodman let his hatchet fall
And the shepherd left his tree.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Hindered by berms

We had a major snow storm on Sunday, which has made it difficult to get about. Bus riders for example have to clamber over berms of snow to get from their bus stop into the bus, as this news report says. "Berm", is a word I have only learned very recently but I know it now, having lost a battle with one early yesterday morning, when attempting to drive Chris to work. The car felt so out of control as we approached the heaped up snow blocking the end of our street that at the third attempt I gave up and we swapped seats; a more masculine style of driving was required to cross this barrier into King Edward Avenue before the lights changed.

If you want to go sledging though, or sledding, as they say here, the berm is a good thing, a safety feature. At Green Creek, for example, at the Orleans end of the Rockcliffe Parkway, there is a:

Very large natural city-wide hill, multi-level slope, straight run, wide open run offs, parking provided, lighting, no obstructions, well bermed away from the Creek. Placement of hay sacks on the berming at the base of the hill.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Going to fetch the tree

All photos for this post were taken by Carol Hinde.

The current weather report for Ottawa, measurements taken at 2p.m., reads as follows: temperature -12˚C, heavy snow, feels like -23˚C, wind: E 39km/h, wind gusts: 59km/h, relative Humidity: 92%, pressure: 99.74 kPa, visibility: 0.2 km, ceiling: 200 ft. So the drift of snow now pressing up against our kitchen door is up to my thighs and my flower pots and garden bench have long since disappeared. Leaning against our front door is the freshly cut Christmas tree that we went to fetch yesterday from Bob's and Tracy's property just outside the village of Bourget, in Prescott and Russell county.

Before I describe the fetching of it, you ought to click on the link to Monty Python's Lumberjack Song to put you in the right frame of mind.

John, Chris and I met three of the Buchan family at the Dynasty restaurant yesterday, setting off in convoy along Highway 17 down the Ottawa River, through Orleans and Cumberland. Chris having regretted the loss of one of his mittens as we shovelled more snow off and around the aeroplane before our brunch, our first stop had to be the Rockland branch of Marks Work Wearhouse to stock up on insulated mittens. Then we took Highway 8 south across the flat, white country fields through the lively little community of Clarence Creek and beyond. "Come back soon!" said the road signs, as we left the villages behind.

Our destination was down Schnupp Road, where the Schnupps live (Bob's German neighbours). Carol made sure we had her car in sight as she turned off this road down the long, snowy driveway towards Bob's house, the tall fir trees all around us, some of which must be felled, Christmas or no Christmas, or they would get too crowded. (We couldn't help wondering how this used to work before human beings settled here; would wandering herds of moose have to knock some over?) Above all, the trees threatening to grow into the power lines must be lopped before they cause power cuts.

Once we'd stopped the two cars in front of the house, the first instinct of all six of us was to hurry straight inside where it was warm. The house had a beautiful, light and spacious interior under a three storey high cathedral ceiling and the largest side of the house consisted entirely of windows to show the view. Deer frequently pass by and last week a flock of wild turkeys landed in the field. There's a pond that can be swept for skating, but the last time they did this three people came in with broken bones. Anyway, Tracy had made preparations to make any visitors feel welcome the moment they stepped in, with a fire in the grate, not one but two large Christmas trees lavishly decorated, greenery over the mantelpiece and red bows on the banisters, wine and cheese laid out in readiness on the tables. In the corner stood a large dinosaur skeleton made of wood which unfortunately fell in half when Kathryn examined it, but nobody seemed to mind. Their little boy of four was away visiting his grandmother.

Though some of us weren't in much hurry to choose our tree, it was felt that we should venture out before sunset in case it got too dark to see what we were looking for, so no sooner had we managed to struggle out of all our outdoor things we had to start putting them on again. It was advisable to put snowshoes on as well.

Don and Bob, truly rugged lumberjacks, brought their power saws along (Bob's was a very noisy chain saw). You're not a proper Canadian if you don't possess one of these.

The trees under consideration were not directly on the driveway, so in order to examine them we had to plunge into the deeper snow before beginning the lumberjack work. Kathryn held the Buchans' tree steady as her father sawed, but trees are heavy things. As we yelled "Timber!" down she went under its weight.

"I'd like my tree to be no bigger than me," I suggested, but as there were no suitable trees my size, a bigger one it had to be, and "we can cut off the top part for you." The same applied to John's choice. As the others were working on that, I salvaged some trimmed-off branches for decorative purposes.

Now the downed trees had to be carried or dragged back to our cars and trimmed quite a bit more before all three of them could be crammed into the back of Carol's Volvo. We emptied that car of all its removable contents, flattened the seats, decided to take an extra passenger in our smaller car, put bags round the trunks so that the Volvo's front seat passenger wouldn't get knocked out, put the smallest tree into a large plastic bag—How many pilots does it take to bag a fir tree? (the answer is four)—so that it could be slid on top of the other two trees, but they still wouldn't fit. "Only another foot and a half sticking out at the back!" someone said. "Push!" The experts pushed, the onlookers stamping our feet in a vain attempt to keep the blood flowing, but it was no good, the largest tree had to be trimmed again, Don's smaller saw the tool for this, not the chain saw which might have wrecked the car, and the deed was done to a great cheer.

Quickly, we repaired to the wonderful warmth of indoors for a celebratory glass of wine. Not only were we served refreshments; as we said goodbye, Tracy gave us a gift-wrapped decorations to hang on our trees at home, and a warm invitation to "come back soon" —which we well might.

After pushing again to rescue our car from the wall of snow that Chris had reversed into, wheels spinning, we climbed back in and drove home a different way, via Carlsbad Springs, Russell Road dark and mysterious under the lowering stratus clouds, unlit except for the Christmas lights in people's gardens and round their windows and doorways. We passed a pub called Jacques' Trap, which if you say it aloud, sounds like something none too appetising. We might take George and Jonathan for a meal there when they come.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Lunch party at Marina's

Here I am with some of my friends from our deutsche Konversationsgruppe at lunch today. Left to right: Marina (from Macedonia), Celestina (from Croatia), me, Ülle (from Estonia), Rosemary (from the States), Mayumi (from Japan), Nadiia (from the Ukraine). Another dozen or so people came along as well, but are out of sight in this picture.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Europe at peace

Carol and I went out to see Joyeux Noël at the National Archives yesterday evening, a fictional version of a historical event on the battlefields of France during Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, 1914, when British, French and German soldiers stepped out from their trenches to fraternise during a brief ceasefire. They sang together, shared drinks, played football and helped one another to bury the dead whom each side had blown to pieces. Afterwards, because it had de-motivated them from continuing to kill one another, the officers and men concerned in these extraordinary acts of military disobedience were punished by their "superiors". But the memory of their respite remained.

Before the film began we listened to violin duets (arrangements of Weihnachtslieder) accompanied on the piano by a pastor of the Lutheran Church, and sang three verses of Stille Nacht, also sung by one of the German characters on screen, and then we were addressed by the German and French Ambassadors who drew our attention to the difference between then and now. They both mentioned the turn away from emnity made by Konrad Adenauer and Charles de Gaulle when in 1963 they signed the Elysée co-operation treaty, encouraging an initiative to link the young people of their respective countries that is still going strong nowadays. In French it's known as the Office Franco-Allemand de la Jeunesse; the Germans call it the Deutsch-Französisches Jugendwerk. Something else I hadn't realised is that since 2003 (forty years on) German and French cabinet ministers have been holding joint meetings twice a year. The German Ambassador said that the men of the trenches in 1914 must have had an inkling of what Europe would one day become, once peace were allowed to flourish. The film told an optimistic story, he claimed.

The fraternisation scenes were done very well, so that the only way you could tell the men apart—even though they spoke three different languages their looks were strikingly alike—was by the hats they wore, and when the hats were taken off for the football game there was no way of telling which nationality was which.

Interestingly enough, the director of the film noticed that his groups of French, British and German actors kept themselves to themselves at the start of the filming, but once they started work on the fraternisation scenes, the barriers came down:

A family bond on the set was very much there after that.

Sunday, December 9, 2007


With less work to do at the weekend (apart from digging a wide path in the snow so that PTN could reach the taxiway) we could relax at Elva's and Laurie's house. Here's yesterday evening's view from their back window and the inside view of their fireplace.

Today we flew to Cornwall and back with a fascinating view of white fields, black trees. The flying club is gathering for its annual pot luck party, with Santa's 'plane due to land at sunset.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Merriment behind us

I think the party went well. In spite of slippery roads under falling snow at least one hundred and fifty people arrived to sit at eighteen tables with a homemade gingerbread man at each place and candles in the middle, a candle flame nearly starting a fire from one of my sheets of music that someone was studying. As the guests arrived—several dressed in their national costumes—punch was handed out (2 cups water, 1 1/2 cups sugar, 4 cinnamon sticks, 3 cups cranberry juice, 2 1/2 cups orange juice, 1 cup lemon juice and 42 fluid ounces 7-Up, plus ice cubes, frozen raspberries and sliced limes, vodka not included) while Vija played her medley of Christmas songs on the organ.

One of the Japanese ladies told me she had owned her kimono since she was eleven years old. Daniella showed me the hand-embroidered pattern on the sleeves of her Romanian blouse. Mayumi demonstrated the suitability of a fashionable snow suit for northern winters because next time we invite these people out, in January, it will be to go snow-shoeing.

I trotted around at the heels of the press photographer who has a professional knack for posing people photographically. Before they moved from that favourable position, I would take my picture too. Mrs Claus (Edeltraud, disguised in a Santa Claus outfit without the beard) followed me round the room so as to add more colour to my snaps.

There's always an element of the unexpected at such events. This year I hadn't expected a Japanese diplomat in a black suit to turn up between meetings so that he could tell us in a fine baritone solo voice that he was dreaming of a white Christmas, everyone joining in the repeat, nor was I expecting to have to sing in Estonian after taking my turn as emcee at the mike for the other musical items. The Estonian tune was easy to pick up, fortunately, and the words of the chorus went:

Tiliseb, tiliseb aisakell,
lumi hell, lumi hell,
Tiliseb, tiliseb aisakell,
kiirgab mets ja hiilgab maa.

which has something to do with sleigh bells.

I had been let into the secret that everyone would be encouraged to dance round the spread of desserts at the end, and almost everyone did, the press photographer stretching high above people's heads with his camera in hand to capture the action. The sale of my own photos didn't pick up until after the dancing was over, but as I still made $161 towards our snowshoe and mukluk repair funds, I can't complain.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Merriment and mayhem anticipated

Having packed my bags for tomorrow's party, I see I am taking two photo albums, a photo order book and money box, a shoe box full of my homemade greetings cards for sale (each of them wrapped in cellophane), another box containing 120 word sheets for the carols we're going to sing, divided into sevens tied in rolls with a red ribbon round each roll. That's enough copies for 17.1428571 tables, if you do the sum. I also have various accompaniments set aside in case Vija, the organist, needs them, and 24 x 3 copies of the melodies of three of the songs for those people who can sight-read and are willing to sing in German and Spanish as well as English and French. I'm bringing a conductor's baton, a music stand, a pair of maracas, a tambourine and some toy jingle bells to liven up that song. I have also packed a salad bowl and some salad servers to contain the homemade coleslaw I've been asked to contribute. That is still in the fridge and I don't think I have made enough; coleslaw seems to shrink when you let it lie. Perhaps I should be topping it up instead of writing this blog. I have also packed a pair of party shoes to take along (can't wear these in the snow) as well as two cameras, two spare batteries and two spare films. You are right, Faith, this is far too much fuss, but at least I'm not on the catering committee which I believe goes to even more trouble. In her car, Ülle will be bringing her accordion and four Romanians, wearing their national costumes.

Monday, December 3, 2007

High risk of conflagration

In the Guardian today, Hassan bin Talal, the former Crown Prince of Jordan, commented,

We live in a world that is so charged with anger, offence and distrust that the slightest spark can set the tinder aflame. Unless we work to quell underlying hatred and to dispel misunderstanding, we risk conflagration at any moment.

This is a comment on the news about that misnamed teddy bear in Khartoum, but he could have been referring to any case of deliberate or accidental provocation within a clash of cultures, such as last week when I overheard women of three or four different national origins (only one of them born in Canada) disagreeing over the way a specifically Canadian Christmas event should be presented. The sparks were flying. Christmas is an incendiary topic: anger and distrust was in the air and offence taken on both sides. The question was, should the "Canadian" entertainment for our annual party on Friday include any items other than the usual sing-alongs in English or French, these being Canada's two official languages? Or should we encourage contributions from other parts of the world, a Christmas carol from the Ukraine, for example? What is Canadian about Ukrainian culture, some of the old hands would like to know? But there are over a million Ukrainians in Canada out of a total population of about thirty million, and since they must have brought their Christmas traditions with them, why shouldn't they be shared?

When it comes to the point, it seems there is no such thing as a "Canadian Christmas" because every possible version of it was once another nation's, and the other difficulty is that every woman's concept of Christmas is full of very personal associations. The older she is, the more they mean to her, so any deviation imposed from elsewhere causes vexation.

As Christmas gets closer and the to-do lists pile up most women's tempers tend to flare. We've got to find ways of keeping ourselves calm, because it's meant to be the season of peace and goodwill! Well, perhaps some of us here will relax a little once we get beyond Friday afternoon. Meanwhile, here's what my view from the kitchen looks like after dark at the moment. The garden's keeping cool enough—no problem.

Been busy

As I haven't written here for over a week, I had better give some reasons. Last week, having gone into town on Monday to meet my Spanish conversation group I did some Christmas shopping. Thereafter I was busy preparing food, because on Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Sunday, one lot of people after another visited our house: Claude, Pat, Vivien, Averil to speak French round the fire, Barbara, Christine, Mayumi, Paule, Anke, Tanya, Rosemary, Nadiia, Greta, Eva, Frances, Melita and Ülle coming to sing Christmas carols in German. On Thursday evening I played the piano at Jack's (for Chris' singing lesson). On Friday two delivery men brought me a new washing machine and tumble-dryer; later that day, we treated Carol, Don, Roger and Laurie to supper and yesterday evening, David and Liz, ditto.

On Saturday, Chris took me flying.

Friday, November 23, 2007


Today there's even more snow on the ground and the wind-chill temperature minus 16, but I can't go clogging up my blog with snowy pictures. Let me tell you about Pina Bausch instead!

To quote Cathy Levy, Producer of Dance programming at our National Arts Centre, no one can ignore Pina Bausch. Trained in New York in the 1950s and now aged 67, she's a latterday Expressionist from Germany who has revolutionised the way we see contemporary dance. For example, her version of The Rite of Spring is danced on a stage covered with wet mud. Here is an extract from it. Scary, isn't it? Her choreography is provocative, political, pessimistic, but, especially since she has "mellowed", it can also be touching and funny.

Ms Levy first met her in Wuppertal in 2001 to persuade her to bring her company to Ottawa and the show she put on here in 2004, Masurca Fogo, a tribute to Portugal, was such a howling success that fans from as far away as Winnipeg came to see it. Pedro Almodovar, who used footage of Masurca Fogo in his wonderful film Hable con ella (2002) said:

I saw Masurca Fogo in Barcelona and was struck by its vitality and optimism, its bucolic air and those unexpected images of painful beauty which made me cry from pure pleasure.

Pina Bausch is a personal friend of Almodovar.

In 1997 she created Der Fensterputzer, a production the company put on in Istanbul and at one point in the performance the dancers approached the front row of the audience and showed them family photos that they had fished out of their pockets. The Turkish people responded spontaneously by showing the dancers their own family photos in exchange! Pina Bausch was so delighted by this interaction that she decided to make her next "city" project a dance about Istanbul (her aim is to capture the essence of a city after being immersed in it) and that's what I watched last night in rehearsal: it's called Nefés. This is a Turkish word meaning "breath". Pina Bausch, being "obsessed with the beauty of water", incorporates plenty of water into this spectacle. At one point dramatically spotlit water falls in a sort of cloudburst from a very great height into the shallow pool (representing the Bosphorus perhaps) that lies in a hollow centre stage and a frenetic male dancer reaches the climax of his solo by splashing around in it and getting his trousers sopping wet. I don't think they should have shown this on the publicity poster as this dramatic moment would be more effective if it came as a surprise. Our small audience at the open rehearsal were gasping all the same.

The first scene begins in a hammam, a Turkish bathhouse, with the men scantily clad in bathtowels. The background music is middle eastern. Women with long hair come and comb it over them, thrown forward over their faces, and then they fetch bowls of soapy water. Pulling pillowcases out of the water they blow them up by mouth to make balloons, then squeeze them to get the bubbles out, which fall over the men's prone bodies. This is fascinating! In another scene, two Asian girls sit side by side at the front of the stage, indulging in a picnic, Turkish honey (spotlit) streaming from crusts of bread which they hold above their heads, into their mouths. Then from the distant corner of the stage comes a sort of vision, a graceful Indian girl in a slim white dress, walking slowly towards us. On her head a long stick is balanced with a transparent water bag on either end. The water-carrier holds it quite steady as a young man lets her step up onto his hands, hand over hand, as if she is climbing steps. Later on we see the same girl in pink robes dancing to a fusion of jazz and Indian music, her movements reflecting this. She seems to float above the floorboards, absolutely amazing.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Winter's here

Nun ist die Welt so trübe, der Weg gehüllt im Schnee!

Monday, November 19, 2007

Dalhousie Street

Most days, I walk down Dalhousie which is about a third of the way between our house and Parliament Hill and it struck me as I was sitting in the i deal coffee shop (after climbing over the pair of tethered terriers at the door), drinking a cup of the potent brew they sell there (the beans freshly roasted on the premises), what an interesting street this is. At one end of the street is the busy intersection with Rideau Street with its body building supply store (selling raw whites of egg and other "sports supplements" by the bucket, literally) and beyond the quieter end looms the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, the Lester B Pearson Building. Other buildings range from the sort of traditional, grey stone house with painted balconies you would find in Normandy, to Victorian British terraces, or square Bostonian brownstone houses, to brand new apartments.

The ambiance is changing by degrees, going upmarket. A new "heritage town home" and retail development on the corner of Guigues Street is calling itself Montmartre on the Market and another popular, free trade coffee chain in Ottawa, Bridgehead, has recently opened one of its branches there with a unique air-freshening device, a green, "living wall" of tropical plants from floor to ceiling. (If the notion interests you, click here for pictures of such things.) The little shack that used to house Kentucky Fried Chicken is now the Casa do Churrasco, the cosy Portuguese Restaurant where we often spend Friday evenings and where Chris' favourite order, the steak on a stone that he can cook for himself at the table, is liable to smoke out all the other diners. Diagonally opposite is Argosy Books, whose owner, "with a preference for fine books, collectors' editions and classic literature," keeps changing his window display according to a weekly theme, with an apt and often brilliantly chosen quotation in big print placed slap in the centre to give us pause for thought. A couple of outlets sell beauty salon supplies and there's a pet shop called A guy, a girl, two dogs & a cat. Further on is a corner shop selling mystic crystal balls and the like and a "concept boutique"—The White Shop—where everything for sale is, of course, white. Where there used to be a large pawn shop is now a row of trendy boutiques. There was a porn shop too, but it's been transformed into a bridal wear outlet!

Not so long ago Ladies of the Night, as Chris calls them, used to loiter on the street corners hereabouts and accost men passing by. But yesterday I overheard one earnest young woman talking to another about the "knitting nights" held once a week on the i deal coffee premises. "We all just hang out and do crafts," she said. "It's better than hanging out in the street."


Elva took Carol and me see to a Swedish film shown last night as part of the current European Film Festival in Ottawa. In Sweden the film is known as Masjävlar; elsewhere, as The Delacarlians. Directed by Maria Blom in 2004, it won three Guldbagge awards: Best Picture, Best Screenplay and Best Actress (Kajsa Ernst, playing one of the main character's sisters). The story concerning three sisters, as in Chekhov, was supposed to be a comedy, though before the lights were dimmed the Swedish Ambassador warned us the humour would be black and that we would be reminded of the films of Ingmar Bergman as we watched it. (Ottawa's EU festival is dedicated to the memory of Bergman who died on July 30th this year.) I thought of Ibsen, too. It must be something to do with those long, dark winters. The northern europeans are a gloomy people, prone to desperate thoughts. They try to laugh at themselves, but end up sobbing.

As soon as the film got started, I knew that one of the characters in it was going to die. It only remained to be seen which one and whether it would be a murder, a suicide or a death by natural causes.

Don't get me wrong; the film was laugh-aloud funny in places. Mia, having escaped the back of beyond to become a jet-setting systems architect in the big city (Stockholm), travels back to the family home for her father's birthday party. Although she hasn't seen most of these people for the last fifteen years, nobody asks her any questions about herself because it's quite beyond them to imagine how she lives and what she does now; in any case they are too full of their own lives to think about hers. All the same, the bonds that connect Mia to her origins are stronger than she thinks.

As I said to Carol, there was probably not one person in the audience who could not relate to the theme of this film. Family tensions are not unique to the Swedish hinterland!

Saturday, November 17, 2007

How to decorate for Christmas

What you need is time, imagination and a small fortune. It helps to have a clean and pretty house to start with, too. Above all, hide your Christmas mess.

I picked up some ideas from the Homes for the Holidays tour, but shall have to rely on my memory as I wasn't allowed to take photos and someone all but confiscated my handbag too.

Greenery and vines. Wind vines around a balloon then pop the balloon to make those giant, decorative balls that can sit in the urns beside your front door, along with the your clumps of dogwood twigs and giant fir cones. Attach cypress or cedar branches to a stick to make a "tree" and dangle decorations from it. Use snippets of green cypress in all your flower arrangements, adding balls and golden wire or gilded leaves "for glitz". If you have glass candle holders that will fit inside glass vases, fill the outer space with water and drown your bits of green branch in this, along with some twigs with red berries attached, so that the candles will light them up but not set fire to them. Wedge a large branch across the top corner of a room, as long as you have a picture rail to stop it falling like a booby trap onto anyone passing below. Festoon garlands of cypress on stair rails and mantelpieces and cover your kitchen window sills with coniferous greenery. If you have garlands to spare from the indoor decorations, festoon them over your garden furniture.

Sticks and bark. Tie them together with a festive bow or create stars out of them (such a fiddly job that you are encouraged to buy some instead). If you can make flower pots out of birch bark, so much the better. You can put a row of amaryllises in them.

Feathers. A plethora of peacock feathers will enhance your flower arrangements (featuring orchids, heads of red roses, amaryllis blooms) or speckle your Christmas tree with red feathers. Wreaths made of feathers are highly desirable at this time of year.

Balls and vases. Balls can also be made of feathers. Glittery balls can become vases or candle holders, or you can cram as many red ones as possible into a vase, as a base for your dried flower & twig arrangements. Or you can fill a vase with glittery tissue paper for the same purpose. Or hundreds of miniature candy canes.

Angels, large. You see the angels and you think MUSIC, FLIGHT...! one of the ladies said. So if you're interested in either music or flight you should have them around because they'll go with your theme. Likewise ceramic birds and Santa Clauses.

Centrepieces for the dining table. It is important to have not just one centrepiece but three. Never put food on the table, or only for decorative purposes, such as red apples or heaps of cranberries. Food for eating is only to appear on the diners' plates.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Nearly Advent

It's getting chilly with minus temperatures and snow flurries in the air and although I try to avoid thinking ahead to Christmas until we have Chris' birthday (14th November) behind us, the shops here have been cluttered with Christmas decorations since October and I have started to make the usual preparations, choosing a German carol for the Konversationsgruppe to sing at our Diplomatic Hospitality party, playing with all the toys in Mrs Tiggy Winkle's toy shop, stocking up on extra postage stamps, this kind of thing.

It'll be marvellous to have George with us this year, even if his flight from Vancouver is delayed and we have to spend hours at the airport on Christmas Day, but I must be patient and concentrate on the work that needs doing first. One of his musical Australian friends is arriving with him who has never yet been in snow: Jonathan Khoo. Last year it was too mild for Ottawa's usual white Christmas; let's hope the weather co-operates this time round.

Tomorrow, Liz is taking me on a jaunt, a grand tour of seasonally decorated houses throughout the city. We'll be doing this to help raise funds for a local hospice. I'm not particularly interested in home décor, but it's a good cause and I do like being in Liz' company. More anon.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Wearing poppies for the Requiem

Whereas rock music tends to make me feel ill, there is another kind of music that has the opposite effect. Sitting on an uncomfortable pew in an overheated church last night, we attended an exhilarating performance of Mozart's Requiem by the Ottawa Bach Choir, accompanied by a professional orchestra and with four young, professional soloists. The tenor was phenomenal, we thought. Expect to hear more of Pascal Charbonneau!

The conductor, Lisette Canton, had chosen to perform Mozart's unfinished Requiem in the version Robert Levin completed which includes a substantial Amen chorus straight after the Lacrymosa; there were other noticeable deviations from the usual, Süssmayer version besides. It's debatable whether all of these were written in the style of Mozart. Emma tells me that she once sang a rather Romantic version of this Requiem by the conductor of the choir she sang in. I daresay many an aspirant composer has felt like having a go. Even so there is little danger of ruining the basic harmonic progressions which owe their inspiration to the original genius and so for the most part last night we could mentally sing along. Sitting at the side and close enough to the front to see the conductor's face, I was sorely tempted to join in a few times.

Military top brass, government officials, Ambassadors and the like, were present in the pews reserved for VIPs. This concert, coinciding with Remembrance Day, was dedicated to the fallen warriors of the world's wars, or rather, according to the conductor's Introduction in the programme notes, to

remember those both far and near who have worked to bring peace into our world.

While everybody else was wearing red poppies, Chris and I proudly wore our white poppies shipped from Britain by the still existing Peace Pledge Union and the young couple from Kanata sitting next to us were duly curious and a little shocked, I think, to hear what they signified. Worn in memory of Conscientious Objectors and for the cause of peace-making without violence, they are considered subversive here.

Notwithstanding the occasion, it's my dad I remember while the Mozart's playing, because of the choir in Crailsheim, Germany, who in 1984, the year he died, performed this same work in his memory, with the famous Crailsheim siblings, Sabine Meyer and her brother Wolfgang, participating in the clarinet section of the orchestra. My dad was a war veteran too, who according to a letter he wrote in 1945 had "learned to hate" the German POW guards during the last few months of the war, but by the end of his life I know that he saw the Germans who were his fellow musicians as beloved friends, not his enemies.

Friday, November 9, 2007

The challenge of art

This is Ottawa's Maman, by Louise Bourgeois, born in 1911 and still going strong.

The tour guide who took our Diplomatic Hospitality group round the Canadian galleries today kept telling us that certain works of art were "challenging" although the adjective she preferred to use to describe the giant spider was "interactive" because you can walk underneath the legs. The African photography exhibition I saw last week was definitely challenging as was the current display of Inuit art in the basement, which was where we started off.

After the 2nd World War, the Inuit people presented a problem for the Canadian government. What to do with these people? They were starving. The decision was made to build houses for them to replace their traditional igloos and tents, but this meant that their accustomed lifestyle would be lost once and for all, so instead of hunting and fishing for a living, they would be encouraged to put their energies into producing works of art. The Inuit had been making artistic artefacts for hundreds of years, but miniature ones from scraps of whale bone. (Upstairs we had our attention drawn to a tiny, ivory fish lure 800 years old, beautifully carved in the form of a whale.) So in the post war years, the southerners now began to provide them with the materials to make things on a larger scale—a man called James Houston was particularly involved with this—and the first ever Inuit art exhibition put on in Montreal in 1948 turned out to be an enormous success.

The art we looked at this morning was more modern, from the 1990s. The first piece to confront us was the sculpture of a small shaman curled in a grave, still holding on to his drum, his face a skull. In the next room we saw an owl spirit within a metal circle which "represents his aura". Oviloo Tunnillie's smooth torso of a lycra-clad female skier was here too, a piece that she likened to the works of ancient Greece, for it had lost its head, arms and feet. The artist was recovering from TB when she made this and another well-known piece, the marble mermaid in a downward dive who is supposed to be Sedna, the resentful spirit of the sea, whose other name is Taleelay.

Then there was the whalebone head with a stone bottle sticking up through his cranium, once seen never forgotten; it is a representation of alcoholism, the curse of the first nations. The artist Akpaliapik was afflicted with this himself, having lost his family in a fire. He also depicted Qalupiluk, the walrus-like monster who threatens to grab any small children who venture too close to the edge of the ice. It has such a sad face and children it has caught are being carried in the creature's fur-rimmed hood: the Qalupiluk doesn't really want to be a bogeyman.

Many of the sculptures were of shaman figures, one flying over an aeroplane which itself is overflying an igloo. Another less confident one was holding out his hands in mute appeal, reduced to the status of a beggar. Perhaps he was lamenting the loss of his traditions. One piece was in three fragments, showing a whaleboat breaking up and the massive head of Sedna rising angrily to split its passengers from one another, the man in one part of the boat and the bear, loon and seal in the other part, all about to sink. Another disturbing piece was of a starving polar bear, perhaps symbolic of the people themselves, with hollow ribs and a skull-like head. The Inuit have a visionary view of the world. If you have a quarter of an hour to spare, click here to watch and listen to an Inuit shaman telling his life story. In the gallery, the muscular stone figure of a Singing Shaman has a head emerging from either side of his mouth, standing for the spirits he brings forth when he sings.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

In the dentist's waiting room

It wasn't me being drilled; it was Chris. I was just waiting there on Tuesday night so that I could drive him home after his hour long surgery, poor fellow. While he was suffering in the other room, I was suffering too from the loudspeakers emitting the radio station known as Ottawa Classic Rock in the waiting room, this headache-inducing electronic beat interspersed with local adverts, also accompanied by an electronic beat, in case listeners weren't getting enough of it. I didn't find that proof-reading Chris' paper on Building Sufficiently-Available Systems was enough to take my mind off the "music". How people can find such a hideous din relaxing is a mystery I can never expect to fathom. I hope and pray that I am not going to be inflicted with anything like this on my deathbed because for sure it would speed things up; every muscle in my body tenses in revulsion.

Tidying up

In the end I couldn't ignore the surfaces all higgledy-piggledy with pieces of paper I have kept for years and I decided to start tidying up. This was about five weeks ago. I still haven't adequately pruned my four or five boxes stuffed with language teaching materials; I should probably throw all that paper away because whenever I still get the opportunity to teach something, this morning for instance, when Nadia, Ülle, Tanya and Frances came to learn some German from me, I prefer to work from something I haven't used before (this time I gave them a description of Mainau am Bodensee).

I thought I had lost the book of quotations I compiled in the 1970s, but to my delight I have found it again and have also unearthed a letter written in cursive script and sent from Upper Lodge, Linden Hill, Twyford, Berks, by my very young aunt on October 8th, 1915, that describes my father as a baby learning his first words. Sic:

Dear Winnie,
I am sending you a little snap=shot of my dear little Brother Bobby which was taken in the gardon. I hope you will Like it. Mother hopes you are all quite well. as we all are. Mum will write to your mother soon. We all hope your Brother Frank is allright. I am in the second standard now. Bobby is 8 months this Sunday. He can say Dad mum and tar. and has got 2 teeth. He is a good boy and do not cry much. I do hope you will be able to come and see him next year. now I must say good=night with love to all from Lulu Tullett.

By "tar" I think she meant "Ta!"

Probably the most precious part of my archives is my vast hoard of cards, photographs and letters. What's fascinating, or disturbing, is the thought that all of these missives were sent without foresight, and people's long-ago smiles in the photos sometimes attest to an over-optimistic view of what was to follow—or is that just my morbid imagination? Anyhow, retrieved after the interim, they can be seen with hindsight now and a good deal more can be read between the lines. As I sort through my collection of Christmas letters it strikes me how I've come to know people's life stories in these small increments. That's not an original thought. A character in Paul Guimard's Rue du Havre, is a quasi invisible old man who sells lottery tickets day by day to commuters coming and going near the Gare St Lazare in Paris:

Devant Julien, comme devant une borne, défilait une humanité ... que jour après jour il avait appris à déchiffrer, à connaître et, faute de mieux, à aimer. En dix années de station immobile, il avait levé les masques de beaucoup de ces robots qui ... le frôlaient sans le voir ...Julien pouvait alors saisir un mot, une attitude, un geste par lesquels un coin d'âme se découvrait. En mettant bout à bout ces matériaux volés, l'observateur clandestin était parvenu à une connaissance aiguë de ses personnages ... Il ne les avait jamais côtoyés plus d'une minute. Mes ces brefs contacts mulitpliés par dix années avaient acquis une surprenante densité ... lui livrant chacun une parcelle de sa vérité intime qui rejoindrait, sur d'imaginaires fiches, la masse des petits détails capturés au vol.

I love this book. On another page of Rue du Havre the narrator, comparing him to a paleontologist, comments on how little this lonely old man needs to overhear in order to be able to understand a passer-by:

C'étaient le plus souvent d'incomplètes et médiocres confidences mais au-delà desquelles Julien savait déchiffrer de plus secrètes pensées, exercé qu'il était, et depuis si longtemps, à reconsituer le plésiosaure avec un fragment de molaire.

Fénéon was good at inference from minimal evidence too and expected his readers to apply the trick to Les Nouvelles en trois lignes, as did Aubrey, when he wrote Brief Lives.

I shall carry on keeping most of the letters because like diplomats, gypsies or military families, we have said goodbye to far too many people. My clutter is a reaction to my sense of loss.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

What goes up must come down

I'm getting behind with my blog entries this week, too busy catching up with work that's been neglected, such as finishing a new article for the next edition of our Flying Club's magazine, Crosswinds (which can be downloaded). My idea was to write a series of articles From the Passenger Seat. I began with How to Stop Worrying and Enjoy the Ride and this will be the second one: What can I do to help?

At the weekend Chris took me flying while the weather was good so that he could practise some IFR approaches to the MacDonald-Cartier airport with his hood on, while I acted as Safety Pilot" looking out for "other traffic" as requested, including "migratory birds in the vicinity". Once we'd done two approaches to Runway 32 to his satisfaction, he took the hood off and we could relax, sightseeing over the Eardley Escarpment of the Gatineau Hills, the cliffs very clear to see at this time of year, now that all the leaves have gone from the deciduous trees. Chris stopped me daydreaming about what was down there by encouraging me to try to land the 'plane myself at Rockcliffe. Needless to say, I required a lot of help.

Not every leaf has fallen from the trees in town yet, though a fair number have, as I found later that day when I went to help Carol rake her lawns and driveway. Both of us worked at it for two hours and filled I don't know how many leaf bags, then we repaired to our house for supper along with Chris and Laurie.

The next morning we same four, and a dog called Niki whom Carol was looking after, went hiking along the 9km Discovery Trail that skirts Meech Lake from one end to the other. Carol and I took walking sticks made especially for us by our friend Robert Lams: they're quite unique, with a "loonie" in the handle and a pointed end for extra grip in muddy places; you can spear the fallen leaves with it.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

The Doge's Bust

Trained volunteers at the National Gallery of Canada give a series of "mini-talks" on Thursdays. Members of the public can unfold canvas stools and sit around a work of art to learn something about it, today's talk being about a bust of Guilio Contarini, in terracotta, i.e. "baked earth"—the sculptor manipulated wet clay before firing it. In 1569 this Contarini, not only Doge of Venice, but also a patron of the arts and personal friend of the artist, Alessandro Vittoria to whom he had lent some money to buy a house. Therefore Vittoria owed him a good piece of work and a marble version of this same piece eventually decorated Contarini's tomb in the Church of the Lily, Santa Maria del Giglio, in Venice.

The subject is a fine old gentleman with a long, curly forked beard, curly hair round the base of his bald head, kindly eyes, a dignified Roman nose and prominent veins and wrinkles on his brow. Very lifelike, he wears a stylised toga over his buttoned shirt, fastened with a circular brooch on his left shoulder. "A sculptor can't create light in a work the same way as a painter can," said our lecturer, but his skin gleams, almost, from the terracotta glaze that was painted on, or by virtue of Vittoria's masterly techniques. In fact some time during the history of this work of art, someone (perhaps the German prince it once belonged to) has erroneously inscribed the name TITIAN on the pedestal, thinking it was one of his pieces, or a portrait of him, perhaps.

Here is the bust itself and here are some other sculptures by Vittoria.

Vittoria was born in northeastern Italy, in Trento, in 1525, establishing himself in Venice as soon as he had become an independent artist. He was an architect, painter and interior decorator besides being a sculptor, working on the stucco decorations for the Scala d'Oro in the Palazzo Ducale.

A hundred years later, Tiepolo copied Vittoria's bust of Contarini in a series of several drawings, eventually incorporating the image into The Last Communion of Saint Lucy. The priest in this picture has the same face, or something very like it.

After the lecture I lingered at the gallery to visit the current exhibition of contemporary African photography, which is greatly disturbing. Most of the photos taken right across Africa from Cairo down to Johannesburg via Lagos and places in between were of unmitigated squalor and deprivation. No golden staircases here.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

People who do impressive things

I have joined a group of women who speak or try to speak in Spanish every other Monday. This week's hostess, Angelica, when her husband's job in Ottawa comes to an end, will soon return to Chile. Among the others present was Ralitsa (again), the professional violinist, who really enjoys her concert tours in South America, but was scared by the way her 'plane into Santiago had to descend very rapidly over those nearby mountains. Before she flies back to Argentina to participate in some more concerts soon, her next trip will be to her homeland Bulgaria, to organise a Days of Canadian Culture festival in Sofia, the second time she has done this.

Janine was planning an extraordinary trip too, a cruise she had booked four years ago on The Explorer, due to sail from Ushuaia (Tierra del Fuego) into the Antarctic, via the Falkland Islands, tracing Sir Ernest Shackleton's route to Elephant Island and visiting his grave on South Georgia on the way. Actually I know two other people who have done this trip, although they skipped the detour to the Falklands: Yiwen and Pete, who told me that it surpassed every other adventure they have had, and they are well-seasoned travellers indeed.

After our foray into a Spanish translation of a funny Hans Christian Anderson story (Lo que hecho el padre, bien hecho está), I got talking in English to Ursula, a Swiss-Canadian who used her Spanish while working for CIDA, in Mexico. She told me about the problems she'd encountered when having to recruit an interpreter to meet with a group of native Mexicans who spoke less Spanish than she did. Daphne joined in with this conversation, telling us how she'd twice been in working parties building houses for poverty stricken people in Guatemala.

I make no attempt to compete with these women's credentials, just find it interesting to be in their company from time to time.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Music at close quarters

A Sunday afternoon chamber concert took place yesterday at a private house to which we were lucky enough to be invited. Three professional musicians from Montreal, Sara Laimon (piano), Jonathan Crow (violin)—same age as our son George—and John Zirbel (horn), drove to Ottawa to perform Ligeti's Trio - Hommage à Brahms (1982), Schumann's Adagio and Allegro for Horn and Piano and Brahms' Horn Trio in E flat, Op.40.

It's not every day we get the change to listen to a solo horn although there's a good repertoire for this instrument out there. Whereas Schumann had written his (earlier) piece for a "well-tempered", valved horn, Brahms retrogressed to a valveless horn, because he wanted a bugle-like effect in the sound, where the pitch of the notes can only be changed by the horn player sticking his fist inside the instrument and subtly waggling it about (we were given a demonstration before the performance began). Ligeti, who died last year, also wrote for the "natural" horn in his Hommage to Brahms, deliberately aiming for "primitive, wild harmonics" and a "raw experience" for the listener. A western ear has to forget its knowledge of what a 7th and a 13th should sound like because Ligeti's intervals sound as if the horn is playing in quarter-tones. Anyway, we had been warned.

I have found an obituary for Ligeti that talks about his "laments" (the last movement of the Trio is labelled lamento adagio).

when he was like this the keening, and the density of it [...] could leave listeners quite wrung out.

Lamenting for what? The dislocations of a catastrophic century? The loss of living traditions, the destruction of his cultural homeland? The murder of his gifted younger brother by the Nazis? No message, and anyway not our business. The music is enough actually. But Ligeti was not a happy man.

Anyway, this was chamber music as it should be heard; I was sitting so close to Mr Zirbel's stand that I could have knocked it over, certainly close enough for me to follow the lines of music. Having watched many professional chamber musicians performing I've come to the conclusion that they actually know the pieces they play by heart more often than not, and only have the sheet music there in case their memories fails them. The vivacissimo molto ritmico pages from the Ligeti, for example, had been printed in very small font and stuck to boards, so that the violin and horn players wouldn't have to cope with the challenge of turning them!

Another challenge for the horn player was to get enough breath in his body for the penultimate movement of the Ligeti piece; we saw him deliberately hyperventilating like a diver about to take the plunge without an oxygen mask before he tackled the long note that accompanied the violinist at that point.

Our host had taken the precaution of inviting his neighbours to the concert as well as us; the decibel level must have been high enough to carry the music right down the street at times, especially since the grand piano had its lid up. The pianist had once studied with Ligeti, so wasn't inhibited by the jarring, atonal parts of his Trio. They did resolve, however. I saw Ralitsa Tcholakova in the audience and talked to her afterwards, when everybody gathered in the kitchen to feast on some homemade refreshments, asking her if she knew the two Trios. She had performed the Brahms herself and knew the Ligeti, telling me it was popular among professional violinists. I also asked one of the musicians whether they regularly played together and apparently they have done so before but don't yet have a name for their ensemble. I was put on the spot by being asked if I could suggest a name for them. The Ligeti Trio?

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Over the "Shallow Sea"?

News flash: Chris has just phoned me from the flying club to ask if I'd like to fly to the Bahamas in PTN next February.

Sounds an exciting idea to me!

How to survive

Driving down the 417 to Kanata in heavy rain on our way to supper with Alan and Sue in Kanata yesterday, Chris and I turned up the volume on our car radio and listened to the latest podcast of the BBC programme: From our own correspondent. It was a special edition with only one report: Alan Johnston's account of his 114 days spent as a hostage of the 'Army of Islam' in Gaza. From the moment his gentle voice began to read we were totally gripped; this story was not so depressing as you might suppose, because of the man who was telling it. We actually found it thrilling, inspiring. At the end of the journey, Chris said to me, "You ought to make a CD of that and send it to your friends and relations." In the meantime, until I get round to doing so, you can access the story here.

Friday, October 26, 2007

What she said about her other books

This is a P.S. to yesterday's blog post, as I'd not yet recorded all of Isabel Allende's comments.

Of the "seventeen or eighteen" books she has written (she seems to have lost count), the one that earned the warmest response from her readers was Paula, although at the beginning she doubted whether she would ever bring herself to publish it, since it was a memoir written for her daughter who had fallen into a coma and died; it was her son-in-law (Paula's husband) who persuaded her to get it published. The second volume, La Suma de los Dias, opening with the scattering of her daughter's ashes, describes the last thirteen years of Isabel Allende's life. She had to bring the book to a conclusion in 2006, because her life keeps changing and she wouldn't have been able to keep up otherwise. "It's my nature to expose myself and my family," she said, admitting that her family therefore tries to keep some secrets from her!

Isabel Allende was very candid about her novel The Infinite Plan, which is apparently not as popular as the rest. She told us that when she was divorced at the age of 45, she soon met another fellow in San José, California, one day, who "told a good story". She was immediately attracted to this man and so interested in what he had begun to tell her about himself that she claims she went straight to bed with him in order to hear the rest! On their way to the airport afterwards, when she was leaving for New York, she asked him casually, "Do we have some commitment?" and got the impression he was terrified by her question. Her 20 year old son meeting her off the 'plane asked, "Whatever's the matter with you?"—"I'm in love," she said.—"Oh yes? Who is it?"—"I can't remember his name!" All her son could do at this point was to send her straight back to California to sort herself out. In the end it took her four years to learn the whole story of her lover's life, by which time she had married him, being "as tall a blonde as he was likely to get" He fancies tall blondes and is incorrigibly vain, she says: he wanted Paul Newman to play his part if they ever made a film of the life story that his wife has turned into fiction.

The other novel she spoke about was the one I'd read, Daughter of Fortune. Having moved to San Fransisco and fallen in love with the place, "only 150 years old", she became fascinated with its origins during the Gold Rush, "driven by young male testosterone and greed". She wanted to retell the story from the perspective of Mexicans, South Americans and Chinese, because it was "an event that happened to people of colour" as well as to the white men, the 49-ers, who wrote the history books. She also searched for a woman's point of view but didn't want a prostitute for her heroine, even though that seemed to be the only feasible possibility. However, during her research (she went through the Chilean archives and found letters with far more detail than ever appeared in the history books) she discovered references to women dressed as men in those early days. Sometimes their sex was only discovered when they had to be undressed for their funeral. That was when she decided to make her heroine a cross-dresser as in Shakespeare, said Isabel Allende: "I just love that stuff!"

It's interesting to note that the first volume of Gabriel García Márquez' autobiography is entitled Vivir para contarla, Living to Tell the Tale. A good title, for that is exactly what writers do, isn't it?

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

A little grandmother

Here's Isabel Allende signing her book for me on Tuesday night. Before this picture was taken (by Angelica Risopatron) I'd been lining with most of the rest of the packed, multinational audience. "I'll sign all your books, new books, old books, books by other authors..."

At the start, she'd come on stage waving to us, her colourful jacket swinging from her shoulders, accompanied by Professor Jose Ruano of the University of Ottawa and by the Chilean Ambassador who introduced her, saying that she was a friend of his family besides being someone who had "helped to place Chile on the international stage". He had also known her as "a passionate journalist" in the days before the military coup when President Salvador Allende was killed (not her father as some assume although his daughter's name is also Isabel). It is interesting that Pinochet's coup took place on September 11th, a date that the United States now associates with horror, and the climax of Isabel's latest novel is a true historical event that occurred on that same day in 1541, when Santiago, the then new settlement of the Spanish conquistadores, was attacked and destroyed by the Mapuche Indians. During that "demented period of history", as the professor pointed out, the native warriors never surrendered, and that clash of two cultures is a cautionary tale for our own times. Ines of my Soul imagines the life of a real Spanish woman, Ines de Suarez, who lived through it, one woman among 110 men.

Isabel Allende herself began by telling us that Chile is "long and narrow like a sword at the south of the world," and proud of its democracy until the "brutal" year 1973 when forty thousand Chileans took refuge in Canada, for which she says: Gracias muchas veces, muchas gracias!

She herself lives in California now, but "the Bush administration has me seriously thinking of moving to Canada." (Applause.)

Then she talked about the book, telling us it was about a woman who refuses to be an abandoned wife, following her "slippery husband" to Peru where she "falls in lust" with a Spanish captain, Pedro Valdivia. The heroine is a dowser (as was the writer's grandfather), and "not a whiner" but courageous and smart, a loyal, fierce companion to this man who takes her to Chile for nine years until Valdivia jilts her, at which point she gets her own back by marrying a younger man. The documents of the day prove that Ines de Suarez spent the rest of her life in the colony; it took the author four years to research the background to this story which she found "irresistible." She listened to the ghosts until, she says, "I became her!" to the extent that she was surprised to see not Ines but herself, "a little grandmother", when she looked in the mirror.

By writing documentary fiction one gets to live many lives. In writing her book (she read an extract aloud to us) she tried to witness the horror of it through the eyes of this sixteenth century woman and in spite of her unavoidable admiration for the Indians she supposes she'd have done the same in her place. She realises that what the conquistadores did to the native people in South America was a "cruel genocide" which cannot be condoned, but of which she admits she is one of the products.

What she said in answer to the audience's questions was more personal. For superstitious reasons and as a form of self-discipline, she always starts on a book on January 8th (that's when she began her first novel as a letter to her 99-year old grandfather). She leads a schizophrenic life, the first half of the year in solitude and privacy, the rest in the public eye. When working on a book she spends many hours in solitude, during which dreams become very important to her. "It's a form of madness," she said. "I'd be in an institution if I weren't able to write." Asked whether her training as a journalist helps she confessed that she was not cut out to be a journalist. Doing that work, she lied all the time. "If I didn't have a story, I made it up. As many people do today," she added, mischievously. She did learn how to look for sources, how to interview people, how to make her writing grab the reader within six lines. You have to seduce your reader, she said, hold his attention till the very last line. What keeps her going is the thought of the deadline. (Pause.) And coffee.

She obviously has a lively sense of humour, but says humour is like fish: three days later it turns stale. Chilean humour is dry, cruel and black, not appreciated in Venezuela, where she had to live for a time.

"Do you have psychic powers?" somebody asked, knowing that Isabel Allende's grandmother experimented with the paranormal. Isabel didn't give a direct yes or no; she said she'd participated in her grandmother's scéances as a child and told us that spiritual forms of communication were preferable to a bad 'phone service! In answer to another question she spoke about how she used her family's upsets and characters as copy. Like Thomas Mann, she lets her family discuss what she writes, especially when it's about them, thinks it's good for them, even. People are never what you see, she says. "I stir the mud!" The confrontations that ensue "allow me to see all the sides." Sometimes she offends people, "but if I have to choose between hurting a relative and hurting a good story, the story wins. And I apologise afterwards."

She has a warm, strong relationship with her mother to whom she wrote letters every day for forty years. Her mother kept all the letters and returned them to Isabel in batches at the end of every year. I found this on her website:

Mi madre es el mas largo amor de mi vida. Nunca hemos cortado el cordón umbillical.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Patience and time ...

It's not very difficult to take a fortress: what is difficult is to win a campaign. And for that it's not storming and attacking that are wanted, but patience and time.

So says General Kutuzov, the Commander in Chief of the Russian army in Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace.

Believe me, there is no more powerful adversary than those two: patience and time—they will do it all. But the trouble is that the advisers don't see it that way.

Of course this wisdom doesn't only apply to battlefields.

Chris sent me the link to an inspiring, true story published in The Guardian today about a Jordanian woman who persevered for nearly thirty years against her father's restrictive attitude towards her; in the end her patience was rewarded.

The novel I've just finished reading (see yesterday's post) was also about the way the passage of time can very slowly change people's minds. Today I've been reading a book my friend Elva gave me about Claire and Philippe Steinbach whom she met on the Île d'Orléans earlier this year and who also sold Elva a bottle of the organic cider that comes from their orchard. (This too she brought round to share with us.) The Steinbachs have written a jointly autobiographical account of their family's move to Canada from Belgium, called L'année sabbatique. If you read Philippe's account first, "au masculin", you can then turn to the back cover, turn the book upside down and start again with Claire's account, "au féminin", a neat idea! Both these people in their different ways reflect upon the unexpected length of time it has taken to get used to living in a foreign country. However determined you are, you can't just slot in. It can be done eventually, but you must be prepared to wait until you have reached your point of stability in the new place. Or as Claire Steinbach puts it:

Nous sommes capables de nous adapter à d'autres pays, à un autre travail, de nous faire de nouveaux amis, mais seulement si nous nous sentons en harmonie avec nous-mêmes.

Anyway, Chris and I noticed a beaver swimming in the river tonight. Twelve years ago, that would have seemed a very exotic and remarkable thing to see! Now it is just part of our everyday life.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Bare arms

It's a balmy night tonight. You'd think we were in California, a part of the world that's on my mind at present as I have just finished reading Isabel Allende's novel Daughter of Fortune. Chris and I have just come home from a walk round the park in the moonlight; I saw a shooting star, too.

Apart from the unseasonal temperature, the Canadian fall is at its most colourful now with swathes of bright red sumac leaves on the banks of the Ottawa River under luminous yellow trembling aspens, such as you'd see in British Columbia. We cycled 34 kilometers through these colours this afternoon, with a rest at the Flying Club where I sat with bare arms to soak up some Vitamin D from the sunshine. I hope it did Chris some good as well, as his malaise of last week has now taken the form of a cold; he's been sneezing all day and didn't want to join the others flying to Mont Laurier in case his "head exploded" (barotrauma).

The water level in the rivers is very low. The Rideau Valley Conservation Authority were alarmed about this last month. They must be even more worried now.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

An insertion

I meant to make a note of this several weeks ago, but got distracted, so I'll insert it here.

While waiting for my mother to land in Toronto this summer, I took the opportunity to revisit the lake front Toronto Music Garden "inspired by Bach", which has grown a good deal since I last saw it; that is to say, the plants have, since they were first planted in 1999, especially the huge hibiscus in the Gigue section. This garden one of the few spots of tranquility in the concrete jungle that is downtown Toronto and I copied a few lines off a plaque in the Sarabande section from a poem on it by Polly Fleck, which included the lines:

...from under its heavy-lid concrete / asphalt sarcophagus
Reborn in sunlight it is the garden
It was meant to be ...

One is supposed to spend 70 minutes here (a "tour" takes that long, apparently), but I didn't have that much time to spare. Anyway, do click on the link and remind me to take you there one day if we get the opportunity.