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.

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.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007


There's a certain appeal for my husband Chris, these days, in the thought of freedom from work. Today he was unwell, so he stayed at home and sat in the park for a while enjoying some peace and quiet.

Theoretically, he could do this almost every day if he decided to take the early retirement option. However, there'd be no need for him to lapse into idleness. I've got a little list of the jobs that will still need doing in and around the house, viz:

  1. Clean bathrooms
  2. Empty wastepaper baskets
  3. Make bed
  4. Change bedding
  5. Put clothes away
  6. Sort washing, load washer
  7. Hang out or tumble dry wet washing
  8. Ironing
  9. Fold dry laundry
  10. Put clean laundry away
  11. Do sewing jobs
  12. Keep upstairs drawers and wardrobes in order
  13. Dust, upstairs
  14. Vacuum bedroom floors
  15. Clean upstairs windows & frames
  16. Skirting boards and stair rails
  17. Vacuum stairs and landing
  18. Keep guest bedroom in order
  19. Make guest beds
  20. Keep desks tidy
  21. Keep landing shelves tidy
  22. Organise wrapping material
  23. Buy gifts and cards
  24. Wrap and send gifts and cards
  25. Keep accounts
  26. Bank spare coins
  27. Process photos
  28. Keep sheet music in order
  29. Keep CDs in order
  30. Clean wooden floors downstairs
  31. Clean tiled floors downstairs
  32. Clean porch, sweep doorstep
  33. Shovel snow from steps
  34. Make log fire and keep hearth clean
  35. Clean downstairs windows inside
  36. Clean downstairs windows outside
  37. Clean garage door
  38. Dust / polish living room surfaces
  39. Tidy up books
  40. Tidy up newspapers, magazines and mail
  41. Water indoor plants
  42. Water garden plants
  43. Weed garden
  44. Prune plants in garden
  45. Shop for plants
  46. Do planting jobs
  47. Sort out recycling
  48. Carry rubbish to kerb
  49. Bring boxes / bins in again
  50. Return beer / wine bottles
  51. Cook meals
  52. Shop for wine & beer
  53. Shop for groceries
  54. Keep shopping list updated
  55. Clean kitchen surfaces
  56. Clean oven
  57. Clean fridge
  58. Clean top of fridge & other high surfaces
  59. Put groceries away
  60. Keep kitchen cupboards tidy & clean
  61. Set table for meals
  62. Clear table
  63. Washing up
  64. Empty dishwasher
  65. Keep utility room tidy
  66. Put outdoor clothes & shoes away
  67. Send emails
  68. Write letters & postcards
  69. Shop for stationery
  70. Take mail to P.O.
  71. Pick up parcels
  72. Make & answer routine phone calls
  73. Arrange for house maintenance calls
  74. Get carpets cleaned
  75. Shop for hardware & furnishings
  76. Shop for clothes
  77. Take car for service
  78. Fuel & wash car
  79. Change light bulbs & electrical fittings
  80. Other DIY jobs
  81. Clean basement floors
  82. Keep basement shelves in order
  83. Clean & fill bird feeders
  84. Get gym clothes ready
  85. Research travel & accommodation
  86. Make bookings for trips away
  87. Pack for trips away

Monday, October 15, 2007

Conversación español

This morning I got on my bike and joined some people in a high-rise appartment building (block of flats) by the canal who had met to practise their Spanish with Angelica from Chile. We came from Britain, Switzerland, Romania, the Ukraine, Canada, Jamaica and the Netherlands and spoke with varying degrees of fluency, my own Spanish very poor because I haven't attempted it for the last year or two. It will be a long while before I'm up to reading books by Isabel Allende in the original, but in the meantime, here's a stroke of luck. She is coming to speak to interested people at the National Art Gallery next week and I have acquired a ticket, not available to the general public, courtesy of the Chilean Embassy. Furthermore, she's going to give her lecture in English, so I'll be able to follow it without any difficulty.

Au sommet

We discovered a new walk yesterday. Having driven to Wakefield (Quebec) for the spring water that gushes from a pipe by the roadside there, we parked opposite the bakery and set off for a favourite walk of ours, up the hill behind the village school, towards the little cemetery where Lester B. Pearson is buried. Half way round, at the corner where we usually start making our way downhill again, a new signpost has been erected marking another trail that's marked Au Sommet. We couldn't resist and followed it, clambering over the rocks, to emerge from the trees into a clearing from which there was a sensational view of all the hills around, covered with colour, the village below and the Gatineau River; along the banks wound the steam train, making its unmissable entrance into Wakefield by blowing its whistle. The sky was mostly grey, but the trees seemed to glow underneath it all the same, and the stratus clouds looked as if they'd been painted onto the scene with heavy sweeps of a brush.

Because I tend to overuse the word "beauty" I looked for a synonym in my electronic Thesaurus, which came up with a long list, among which:

attractiveness, prettiness, allure, loveliness, charm, appeal, eye-appeal, heavenliness, exquisiteness, splendour, magnificence, grandeur, impressiveness, gorgeousness, beauteousness, benefit, boon, blessing, good thing, selling point.

"Selling point"? Oh dear, I hope not. The chairman of the NCC told us last Friday that no part of the Gatineau Park would be for sale to private purchasers, but you never know what might happen to its edges.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

"Don't fence me in!"

Last Tuesday's meeting with the neighbours was ostensibly convened to discuss whether or not to do away with a garden feature that graces our mews' courtyard, or, in the opinion of some, is a disgusting eyesore. That's by the way as far as this blog post is concerned, because what I found far more disturbing than the rather acrimonious discussion that ensued was an incidental remark by one of the neighbours wondering whether we shouldn't really be discussing something of much higher priority: how to make our row of houses more secure from unwanted interference by having a gate erected across our driveway.

A couple of bikes have been stolen from this driveway recently, probably by somebody desperate for drug money, and people fear break-ins or the possibility of drugs and used syringes being dumped or concealed amongst the plants in our driveway gardens.

Several of us had attended another meeting last month at our local community centre concerning people's perception that homeless vagrants, drug dealers / drug addicts and prostitutes were threatening the safety of the neighbourhood. There's a concentration of "social services" nearby for such people who tend to wander over to our park and get up to no good there.

The police we met, admitting that this was "a hot button issue", were very matter-of-fact and made some practical suggestions. We should send more letters and emails to the politicians that represent us to ask them to do something about tightening up the legislation, join our Community Association or start a Neighbourhood Watch. We could have a safety audit made of our park and encourage the city council to get the bushes trimmed (this has already happened). Perhaps we might consider "adopting" our park. We should report any suspicious activity by phoning the police at once. Dial 911 if the situation seems to be life-threatening, but otherwise dial 230-6211. We should be aware that the park is out of bounds to the public after 11p.m.

The trouble is that the police already work night and day without being able to solve much. 98% of the phone calls they respond to are false alarms. Even so, there are always three squads of police on patrol in this district (divided into "quadrants" of surveillance) working 10 hour shifts. Recently an undercover operation took place lasting five days, on or around a street near here that was described as "a vein of addiction" (interesting metaphor), which entailed weeks of preparation. Of course the court procedures that resulted from the nineteen arrests they made are still on-going. Some law-breakers "ask to be arrested" because as a result of their convictions they will be forced into treatment.

This is not a problem with easy solutions and even though I appreciate the neighbours' anxiety (one of them seemed to think I'd feel more strongly about it—i.e. be less naive!—if our own house was broken into) I'd still refuse to live in a gated community like the Californians who want to keep "the Mexicans" out. Maybe I have been influenced by T.C. Boyle's The Tortilla Curtain, and by my daughter's decision to move out of her London flat when the decision was made to have a security fence erected there. Whatever, Chris and I too shall put our house on the market at once if it comes to that in our neighbourhood. Whatever the risks, I do not want to live in a cage.

Just ask the Berliners.

Robert Frost put it far better than I ever shall:

Before I built a wall I'd ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That wants it down.

Friday, October 12, 2007

A few days later

Missed a few days, there, because Chris has been off work, which means we've been going out more often than usual. We would have flown to somewhere distant, but there was too much bad weather in the forecast for this to be a good choice. Therefore on Tuesday we simply went for a day's drive to the Rivière Rouge and back, doing half of this journey in the rain, which didn't matter. In the evening we had a condo meeting. Wednesday turning out to be a dry day, we cycled along the river banks almost as far as Orleans, and in the afternoon Chris went flying while I worked in the house and garden. Yesterday was very dull, cold and wet, a good day for catching up with jobs about the house and various errands on our walk into town. In the evening I went to the Bytowne Cinema to see the tongue-in-cheek film, Molière. This morning, a walk in the Gatineau Park around Lake Fortune with a couple of dozen diplomats' wives and a chance to meet the chairman of the National Capital Commission in the hut (the "Chalet des Érables") where we assembled for lunch afterwards. I had a lady from Adelaide in my car, the Australian wife of one of the German diplomats.

Maybe I'll expand on some of the above in my next blog post. In the meantime, here's a picture showing you how beautiful Ottawa looks at the moment, a view of Birch Avenue taken from the final approach to runway 09 at Rockcliffe airport last weekend:

Monday, October 8, 2007

Who was St Donat?

Or Dunwyd? Nobody on the Internet seems to know much about him, though there are two places named after him in Canada and one in Wales. He may have been one of the first to bring christianity to Wales, may also have helped to deter the Vikings. St Donat's castle in Llandunwyd, Wales is quite famous, being the home of the Atlantic College.

There is some speculation that St Donat was one of the first to bring christianity to Wales and help deter the Vikings. Chris, irreverently mispronouncing his name, calls him the patron saint of Tim Horton's.

We did not fly as far as St-Donat-de-Rimouski yesterday, but we did fly to the other St-Donat (above), in the Laurentian Mountains north of Montreal. The reason for that destination? Several of us in four aeroplanes wanted an excuse to fly in the calm weather, while it lasted, so that we could look down over the coloured trees in this lovely area. The higher hillsides are already beginning to lose their vividness, beginning to acquire that "soft grey" of late autumn that my friend Elva loves so much, whereas the valley woodlands have not got that far, as you can see from the colours in the two pictures below.

In the town itself, stuck to the wall of a "quincaillerie", I came across an intriguing piece of artwork, made entirely of pieces of hardware, reinforcing my opinion that the inhabitants of Quebec have a decidedly artistic streak:

Chris and I did not have time to see the art exhibition at the parish church; we had to walk back to the airport for a speedy departure over Lake Ouareau, because we were expected at David and Elizabeth's house to share their Thanksgiving Dinner. That turned up to very enjoyable too. It does seem we have a great deal to be give thanks for (not least our family and friends).

Saturday, October 6, 2007

Dynasties, elephants and clouds

A rumble of thunder and the sound of falling water woke us up to the realisation that the blue skies of yesterday would be full of cloud today, so we wouldn't be going flying. Instead we met our friends at the usual rainy day spot, an eatery on Montreal Road, with the unlikely name of Dynasty. I had a very good, crispy waffle with fresh fruit with my coffee, but that's by the way. Now that I've been to that exhibition I wrote about in my other blog, I'd normally associate dynasties with the history of China—Zhou, Tang, Mung, Ming, Song, Qin, and so on.

I wanted an excuse to come back to this topic, so as to record some more of what I learned about the ancient Chinese. How at around the time of Plato, Chinese philosophers were proclaiming:

Let a hundred flowers bloom, a hundred schools of thought contend.

What a demonstration of confidence that is. It would be nice if more of us thought like that nowadays. Confucius, explained the exhibition notes, was the Chinese people's guiding light for some two-thousand years, who advocated a sense of responsibility, obedience and loyalty, championing meritocracy.

Imperial China endured from 221BC until 1911AD, and I'm ashamed to say I know hardly anything about it beyond their building of the Great Wall at the time of Hannibal and his elephants in Europe and the burying of the terracotta warriors at the time of Julius Caesar.

I know nothing about the ten schools of Chinese Buddhism, either, and as it says on that website, "if one tries to talk about Chinese culture without touching on Buddhism, one will be in the position of a blind man as told in the story of the Blind Men and the Elephant". The Chinese are a poetic people. The Dharmalaksana sect claims that "Everything is void, like the reflection of moonlight on water."

Which brings me back to clouds, because, "according to ancient Hindu and Buddhist beliefs, Cumulus clouds are the spiritual cousins of elephants" and "eighty elephants weigh about as much as the water droplets in a medium-sized Cumulus [...] would if you added them all together." I got that fact from the eccentric and unforgettable book, The Cloudspotter's Guide by Gavin Pretor-Pinney, which Chris and I bought in England earlier this year and which my mother read from cover to cover while she was staying with us.

Mr Pretor-Pinney says just about all that can be said about clouds, but one thing he doesn't include in his book, though I see that he does quote from it in translation in the Cloud Appreciation Society's manifesto, is a favourite poem of mine by Charles Baudelaire, from his Petits poèmes en prose of 1864, which goes as follows:

- Qui aimes-tu le mieux, homme enigmatique, dis? ton père, ta mère, ta soeur ou ton frère?
- Je n'ai ni père, ni mère, ni soeur, ni frère.
- Tes amis?
-Vous vous servez là d'une parole dont le sens m'est resté jusqu'à ce jour inconnu.
- Ta patrie?
- J'ignore sous quelle latitude elle est située.
- La beauté?
- Je l'aimerais volontiers, déesse et immortelle.
- L'or?
- Je le hais comme vous haïssez Dieu.
- Eh! qu'aimes-tu donc, extraordinaire étranger?
- J'aime les nuages... les nuages qui passent... là-bas... là-bas... les merveilleux nuages!

Friday, October 5, 2007

As the sparks fly upward

At the flying club last Saturday, Tony not only presented us with a lavish barbeque with which to end the summer BBQ season, but also jazz as background music from live musicians who sang and played to us on trombone and keyboard under the stars. A convivial atmosphere soon developed under the willow tree in spite of the chilly air, especially when (well away from the aircraft and fuel tanks) someone lit a small bonfire and people began to cluster round it to chat or sway to the music and warm their hands, throwing in rolled up pages from back copies of the COPA newspaper to keep the flames going and watching the sparks disappear into the dark. Which brought to mind:

man is born to trouble as the sparks fly upward
a line that must have had more of an immediate impact on the people who read it first, because wood fires were such a familiar part of everyone's life in those days.

You think of inevitability when you listen to Beethoven. A couple of days before she left Ottawa, I took my mother to a lunchtime concert at the National Gallery, where the Miró Quartet, an energetic and competent young group, played his Op.18, No.3 and his Op. 59, No.2.

The programme notes said:

The String Quartet became the first really serious form in which Beethoven took on the establishment, as he transformed himself from young pianist to famous composer. He wanted badly for his quartets to be absolutely new and outstanding, for by this time his career depended on them in more than one way: he had been hiding from everyone for the last two years the terrible secret that he was going deaf. Fighting depression, he saw his social life starting to unravel; and by the age of 30 he knew for sure he wouldn't be able to perform live much longer. The question of the rest of his career, really the rest of his life, seemed to depend on the answers he gave in these string quartets.

Beethoven is full of a sense of doom, but his music fights back with determination and often with exuberance, too. That's the spirit!

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

A Change of Scene

I have decided to switch to a new website for the blog I have been writing since October 2006 and which until now has been posted here.
This is my fresh start, illustrated by the photo I took of the autumn leaves—Nature's Garland, as Tom Thomson called them—hanging over the Rideau Falls.