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.

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.