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.

Saturday, May 31, 2008

The ultimate collage

"A city," says Geoffrey James, a Welsh Canadian, "is the ultimate collage. In order to see it you have to walk..." and for the last thirty years or so he has been walking around various cities, in Italy, the USA, France and Canada, taking photos of the contrasts and contradictions he observes.

I went to see the exhibition of his mostly black and white photography at the National Gallery this afternoon, entitled Utopia/Dystopia because Mr James, like T S Eliot, knows that

Between the idea
And the reality [...]
Falls the shadow

Having been a journalist once, he's still a documenter, most recently taking pictures on the edge of Toronto which he sees as "fertile farmland" being turned into "sterile exurbia." Uncharacteristically he has dispensed with black and white film for this project; the vulgarity of these housing developments "seems to demand colour." Previously, he'd photographed the Bain Housing Co-op in a more central part of Toronto to show how that utopian bit of town planning (inspired by Ebenezer Howard's Welwyn Garden City and the like in England) had not lived up to the planner's expectations. (Nor has Welwyn Garden City, by the way. Nor has Philadelphia lived up to Penn's vision of a "greene Country Towne, which will never be burnt, and always be wholesome.")

In 1988, Geoffrey James became interested in the idealistic landscape architecture of F L Olmsted (1822-1903) who designed New York's Central Park and other such famous green spaces in Washington, Buffalo, etc. What fascinated the photographer, who really appreciated the point of the parks and spent the next seven years cataloguing sixty of them, was the inevitability of their modification. No matter how rigorous or robust the original plan (as the exhibition notes put it),

...most of what [Olmsted] has done has been profoundly altered by neglect, fashion, changing social needs, and the passage of time.

In the Boston park for example, intended as a meadow in which sheep should graze, latter day planners have incorporated exotic flower beds, a golf course, sports fields and a zoo.

Mr James' other projects have been to create panoramas of European formal gardens, to take pictures of the area around Lethbridge on the "desert-like" prairies, of asbestos mines (scars on the landscape in eastern Quebec), and of places that caught his eye in Paris. He loves to be in "places where things are rubbing together", the old and the new, the ugly and the beautiful. In Paris he homes in on geometric shapes, taking bridges and other edifices from unusual angles, making the most of lines of perspective, contrasting surfaces and shadows, reflections in puddles and the complexity of trees. There's a series of tree portraits in one of the galleries, interesting to the photographer because of their "infinite variety."

The most striking photographs, I thought, were the ones he took in San Diego and Tijuana of the U.S. border fence and its immediate surroundings. Made of corrugated metal strips left over from the Gulf War, he says:

What drew me to it was its great incongruity. It doesn't look as if it has been made by the world's only superpower, but rather by some Mexican body-shop guys ... so crazy and contradictory that I had to photograph it.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Cautionary tales

When my Spanish group came round we learned vocabulary for warnings and roadsigns and very useful it will be too, if I'm ever in a Spanish-speaking country. The German group on the other hand, whom I joined after a pleasant half hour riding my bike beside the canal today, read a nineteenth century children's book in rhyming couplets: the story of Max und Moritz and their "seven boyish pranks," by Wilhelm Busch. Very famous in German-speaking countries, these "pranks" are actually quite nasty (grausam!) in places, as is the naughty boys' come-uppance in prank the seventh and last, when they get eaten by some geese.

Max and Moritz weren't the only ones of their kind. They call to mind Till Eulenspiegel, Hoffmann's Struwwelpeter, and Hilaire Belloc's Matilda, Henry, Rebecca and Jim.

The other cautionary tale I read this week was the Manitoban author Margaret Laurence's novel, The Stone Angel, describing the death of a wilful old lady in her nineties. That one was not so funny.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Joie domine ces hauteurs

We revisited St-Donat by air today with Elva, Laurie, Carol and Don, landing on the narrow runway whose threshold is on the shore of Lac Ouareau and walking down the road into town where we lunched (crêpe aux épinards for me) at Le Montagnard. A beautiful day for views both at ground level and from the sky; never mind the wobbly air!

After lunch Chris and I bought a garden chair from the furniture store opposite the restaurant, then the six of us went to sit in the sun for a while by Lac Archambault.

Click on the pictures to see them enlarged.

Friday, May 23, 2008


The old dairy farm that stood near the corner of Upper Dwyer Road and Old Almonte Road is now a Herb Garden. Gerry, who didn't enjoy working as an "executive recruiter" in Toronto, brought 'George' here six years ago to live with her in the adjoining farmhouse and to run the place as an agritourism enterprise. They got married in the garden, too.

I took three diplomats' wives to the Herb Garden today where we and our friends had an hour's tour guided by a herbalist (Shannon Gale of Mountain Maiden Herbworks), herbal tea and cake served by 'George' as well as a PowerPoint presentation by Gerry in the log cabin, dried flowers—statice, cornflowers, yarrow—hanging in bunches from the rafters, after which I drove my passengers to Almonte for lunch. This is a picture of Stella (from Bucharest) and me by the weir by the mill at the centre of Almonte.

The remainder of this blog post is a recording of all the things I learned about herbs today.

The word herb comes from the Sanskrit bharb, or the Latin word berba (fodder). When you make your début as a herb gardener, you should grow two of each of the plants you fancy, but before chosing you had best decide if you want your herbs to be used for medicinal, cosmetic, artistic or culinary purposes. (I mostly want to eat mine.) Apart from calendula, basil, coriander, dill and fennel, nearly all the other common herbs are perennials, so don't need much work. Plant basil near your tomatoes and it'll protect them from pests. In fact all pungent herbs act as a natural alternative to pesticide and many of them are deer-resistant too, because animals are too overwhelmed by the smell to come close enough to destroy them. You can pot basil with parsley, dill with cilantro, or rosemary with marjoram or you can grow clumps of similar plants together in beds. A combination of grey-green horehound, lavender and artemisia looks wonderfully silvery by moonlight, said Gerry.

There are nine-hundred species of sage whose botanical name salvia comes from the Latin salvare: to salve, or heal. It's a hard type of plant to kill (although the scarlet sage that hummingbirds like doesn't cope too well with Canadian winters). Sweet woodruff, a shade loving plant, is also fairly indestructible but needs a compost of dead leaves to grow well. Most herbs grow best poorly fertilised soil though there are a few, like basil, that won't tolerate drought. These should be watered in the morning. If you bring pots of them indoors, a hydrometer will prevent you from over-watering.

Lemon balm makes a tea for insomniacs. Lovage enhances soups and many other meals. Feverfew (which spreads like crazy) is said to cure you of a fever. Southernwood and rue ward off infections. Using the flowers of herbs in your salads is even better than using the leaves, because more of the essential oils are concentrated in the flower heads. The flowers of garlic, for example, can be preserved in vinegar, which colours the vinegar pink and makes a tasty dressing.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

The screening process for volunteers

I had an email from a teacher called Sarah, this morning:

I hear you are interested in being a volunteer at York Street School - that's great!! We definitely need them. You seem to have a lot of experience that would be very suited to our school...
Whether you'd like to come into my classroom of small people (Gr.1/2) - you are MORE than welcome - or help out in the older grades, that's up to you. I'll put you in touch with the principal ... and she'll be able to find out who else might need volunteer support.
In the meantime, you do have to go through OCRI in order to be an eligible volunteer in the school... And if that gets sorted soon enough - or not - feel free to pop in and introduce yourself!

And she points me to this link. So it's OCRI again, the Ottawa Centre for Research and Innovation, the people who also give advice to entrepreneurs at City Hall, whom I mentioned last week. The on-line application to be a volunteer in a school requires that I first "solicit a personal reference" from "two adults who are in a position to comment on my character, temperament or work habits" and an up-to-date Police Record check entailing a visit to a police station, a $12 fee and a three week wait.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Many lives in one

Writing a letter of recommendation for someone applying for associate membership of the CFUW this week, I've had to ask for some details of her history, and have been really impressed and humbled by the answer. As she says, she has a "rich and diverse background." Growing up in Brazil, where her German parents spoke German, her other first language was Portuguese (many years later she also spent four years in Portugal), but having met and married someone who worked for the Canadian foreign service, she has also become fluent in English, French and Spanish, not to mention the Asian languages she needed to master while living in Indonesia, Thailand and India. She tells me she always "sought to understand the culture of her host countries", joining Jakarta's Ganesha Society where she became very knowledgeable about ceramics, or joining an opera appreciation group in Berlin. She worked as a bilingual secretary, a mother, an Ambassador's Wife and an administrative assistant at the Foreign Affairs office in Canada. Now that she and her husband have retired from all those other lives, she's tackling her garden and getting to know people like me.

I'm diversified too, having lived in six different countries with no fixed identity and no actual career. I bet, like me, this lady has often perplexed herself with the questions: what's (been) my role in life? where do I belong? who am I?

Monday, May 19, 2008

Things to do

I missed a good blogging opportunity yesterday by not joining four friends who discovered log-truck races taking place at Mont Laurier airport. Instead, Chris and I were wandering around Wakefield with Laurie and Elva, along the road by the rushing stream, across the bridge by the mill and up the hill to the cemetery once owned, like the mill, by the MacLaren family. Wakefield's a relaxing place where you can draw water from the spring and have some lunch in the room above the General Store.

This week's going to feel shorter than usual because today's Victoria Day. I have another article to complete for the Crosswinds magazine. Chris, who gets on with things better than I, has already finished his own article for our next edition and has been spending the rest of the day polishing up his Flight Operations workbook for aspirant commercial pilots; I've helped him proof-read it.

I have to prepare another German lesson for next Thursday and later this afternoon I'll be talking to a German lady who has never attempted to teach her own language before, and wants some tips. Chris meanwhile will be advising two other young ladies how to design educational computer games for a start-up company.

Next Friday our Diplomatic Hospitality group is inviting diplomats to the Herb Garden at Almonte, where I'll be responsible for the photography. The previous evening, there's a vernissage of mixed media artworks by an artist called Andrea Dankaninova at the Embassy of the Slovak Republic. I'll have to leave early, in order to play the piano at Chris' singing lesson.

Thanks to our friends who helped repair our oven, I can do some baking in advance before the arrival of my Spanish speaking friends, when it will be my turn to provide some refreshments. Besides which I'd better re-lay the wobbly bricks on the steps of our porch that a family of chipmunks has undermined.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Back to familiar territory

Enough about entrepreneurship; I feel far more at home with German Lieder.

Tanya and I introduced our German conversation group to some recordings of songs by Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert this morning, sung by Elizabeth Schwarzkopf, Nicolai Gedda and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. We played recordings of Das Veilchen (full of pathos), Der Floh (funny), Ich Liebe Dich (tenderly romantic) and Erlkönig (spine-chillingly dramatic—click here), three of which were settings of poems by Goethe. Our friend Melita, who has just turned 80, is a good enough accompanist to be able to sight-read the accompaniment to Schubert's setting of Müller's Der Lindenbaum as well, to which which eight of us sang along (before hearing Fischer-Dieskau's rather better performance, with Gerald Moore accompanying).

Then I came home and took some photographs of spring flowers.

P.S. For a comic recital of Erlkönig, click here!

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

For budding entrepreneurs

Business acumen is not my forte; nor do I have much of a burning passion for business studies of any kind (and that's an understatement), but as my husband is creating his own company as a retirement venture, I thought it was about time I showed willing and took an interest. Therefore, for the last couple of days I've been writing a Business Plan for the files of Farmhall Aviation Training Limited, just registered as a new enterprise in the province of Ontario.

It reminded me of writing Lesson Plans in the days when I used to be a teacher. I remember thinking at the outset what a waste of time those were, but having been forced into writing down my Aims and Objectives, etc. for each class, in the end I was forced to admit that the requirement did impose structure on my ideas and probably led to some insights I wouldn't otherwise have had.

Last Friday, what's more, I spent an hour at a free seminar—a STARTING YOUR BUSINESS INFO SESSION—at the Entrepreneurship Centre, run by OCRI at Ottawa's City Hall. I found the power point presentation boring, but that was probably because I hadn't done my homework before going along and couldn't even remember whether our business was supposed to be a sole proprietorship or a partnership or a corporation (we are a corporation). Also, some of it was irrelevant to a one-man consultancy run on-line from our basement. We do not have to worry much about workplace safety or about regulations concerning the signage for our waiting rooms, nor about having to register with the municipal authorities before we are allowed play background music in our chip van! That's one blessing.

My Business Plan for Farmhall Aviation Training consisted of:

  • an Executive Summary
  • a Company Profile
  • a Trends in General Aviation page
  • a Market Research analysis
  • a definition of the Target Market
  • Products and Services offered
  • an analysis of the Competition
  • a Pricing Strategy
  • a Distribution and Promotional Strategy
  • a page on the company's Operating Procedures
  • Human Resources (i.e. Chris) and Suppliers
  • a (very short and incomplete) Financial Plan
  • a note about Future Prospects for the company

Really though, I only bothered with this because it gave me the opportunity to play around with some new words.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

A friend with spirit

There are about 26,000 private pilots in Canada. Our friend Don (President of the Rockcliffe Flying Club) wrote in the programme for our "Wings Dinner" at the RA Centre last night:

For those of us who really get to fly, we know the romance and fascination with flight is every bit as strong as it was when aviation was born.

The Club is where we get together to share the passion of flight with those on the inside who have a real understanding of aviation... it is hard to find a place where the spirit of flying is stronger than at the Rockcliffe Flying Club.

After the dinner, after all the speeches, prizes, presentation of Wings for the newly qualified pilots to pin to their lapels and trophies for outstanding achievement or exemplary commitment to general aviation, there was one more item on the agenda: an award to "the club member whom the membership feels best represents the Club's motto: Where friends come to fly." The recipient was chosen by a panel of people not associated with the club who base their choice on nomination letters received from members of the club. The winner of this year's Spirit Award was my husband!

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Rodin's muse and the aristocrats of Old Europe

This morning I met Veronika, grand-daughter of Baroness Helene von Nostitz, the woman Rodin called ma grande et noble amie, and for a moment, as it was being passed round the room, I held a small study for this bust of Helene (sculpted 101 years ago) in my hands. Before emigrating to Canada at the age of twelve, Veronika, born in Berlin, had also lived in Warsaw, Paris and Pomerania.

When the Russians were advancing into Saxony at the beginning of 1945, her grandfather had the marble bust buried in their grounds for safe keeping. When he died in 1951 the work of art remained in Dresden, still covered in dirt. Not until the Iron Curtain fell at the end of the 1980s could the family recover it and have it cleaned in Munich where, since then, it has been on display at the Neue Pinakothek.

Helene was born in 1878; her uncle Paul von Hindenburg was the famous First War General who at the end of his life became Germany's president, the one who against his better judgement appointed Hitler as Chancellor in 1933. Her mother was the daughter of a Russian princess who had met her husband when he was serving as a diplomat in St Petersburg. They had fled to Germany with "sacks of jewels", most of which have since gone missing, though we did pass around a turquoise diamond brooch that had been fashioned from one of the buttons on an 18th century jacket. Helene von Nostitz wasn't particularly interested in her grandmother's jewels. We heard that when she learned that she had lost many of them in a burglary she sat down at her piano and launched into some Beethoven. As a child she'd been shunted between Russia and Italy under the surveillance of both an English and a French governess. She would write poetry in French but considered Italian to be her mother tongue. The aristocratic world was very cosmopolitan in those days (eine europäische Gemeinschaft, wie es nie wieder gegeben hat, as Veronika put it), but they had their heads in the clouds: vollkommen unpraktisch. Their only claim to domestic practicality was a habit of tossing the salad at the table while hosting their diplomatic dinner parties in Paris.

When Helena von Nostitz was 22 she met the 60 year old Rodin who promptly became enamoured of her. They read Lamartine's poetry or played the piano together and he worked on various models of her bust; one version was made of glass and one of silver. Rodin being very poor was invited by the von Nostitz family to spend several months with them in Italy. It was Helene who at the turn of the century introduced Rodin to the poet Rilke, who became his German secretary for a while. Helene herself kept up a constant correspondence with Rilke as she also did with von Hofmannsthal (even when she was no longer pretty, said Veronika). Her son, Oswalt, eventually wrote a book about all this entitled Muse und Weltkind (he is also remembered as a translator of Péguy and Bernanos).

Among the other famous people who attended her salon were Caruso, Cocteau and Isadora Duncan. Rudolf Kempe and Claudio Arrau were known to play the piano at her house. She was a trained singer, a pianist who could perform Bach's Goldberg Variations, could write and was "a decent painter" of watercolours, ein vollkommener Gefühlsmensch, no doubt rather sentimental. Her attraction lay in her optimistic readiness for new experiences. Despite the fact that two of her children died in tragic circumstances,

Sie war unbeeinflusst von pessimistischen Einflüsse... immer bereit, neues in sich aufzunehmen.

Paraphrasing herself, Veronika added in English:

She threw herself with angelic verve against all that was negative in life.

(Perhaps this is a quotation from her father's book.) Helene had no interest in politics whatsoever and all she had to say about some visiting suffragette from England was that she ate some flowers out of a vase.

Helene was engaged to Alfred von Nostitz for seven years before they married. He too was a diplomat, for whom the Belgian architect and designer Henry van der Velde created some unique furniture. Alfred himself often suffered from depression and the marriage was not a happy one. He divorced Helene and subsequently married Bismarck's great grand-daughter, Countess Gisela von Richthofen.

Having given a last lecture about Rodin in Paris in 1941, Helene von Nostitz died of cancer at the home of her only remaining daughter, Renate, in 1946.

By the way, some photos of Veronika and of us, her audience, can be found at Bruce McCrae's gallery here.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Tributes, tribes

Tribute: ORIGIN late Middle English: from Latin tributum, neuter past participle (used as a noun) of tribuere ‘assign’ (originally ‘divide between tribes’ ), from tribus ‘tribe.’

I've been reading two very different authors. What they have in common, apart from their compulsion to write, is their concentration on one particular group of people whose roots are in one particular place. In Alistair MacLeod's case it is the rough, tough, Gaelic speaking miners and fishermen of Cape Breton whose ancestors came from the Scottish Highlands. Isaac Bashevis Singer's life long tribute was to the Yiddish speaking Jews of pre-war Poland whose ancestors came from all over Europe.

Both authors have a burning passion to get their compatriots' stories on record in a way that won't be forgotten. The people they write about are flawed and vulnerable and from time to time they're described as doing horrendous things, but the love behind the writing is such a driving force that it transfers itself to me, making me care about these alien tribes and start to identify with them.

That's the power of high quality writing (and the more understated the more powerful).

Here's a paradox I keep coming back to. The author of fiction by definition must be inventing his characters and telling lies, circumnavigating historical or geographical exactness, but it seems to me I can get a deeper, more lasting idea of the truth of things by immersing myself in a novel than by picking up a random selection of facts from history books or an encyclopaedia. I remember what I've learned when I've been encouraged to imagine a world created or recreated by a novelist or a poet. With the greatest writing that includes what I've learned about myself, because however specific the setting, what it means to be human is a puzzle everybody shares.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Lassitude and vigour

It's surprising (or I've forgotten) how listless a short ailment can make you feel. All winter I escaped colds and flu but this week some virus or other attacked me and all I wanted to do for a few days was laze around or sleep. It made me wonder if that passive acceptance of old age—and the loss or renunciation of all worldly goods—that so impressed my sister when she observed the poorest of the poor in India might not be due, at least partly, to their not being in good enough health for any other attitude of mind.

Having said that, I have no right to pontificate on this subject whatsoever because I've never even set foot in India. I have read A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry which gave me a sort of inkling, but that's about as far as it goes.

At the other extreme from the sadhus and such people, the privileged young Canadians with whom we've been mixing recently are positively bouncing with energy, ambitious to cram in as much activity as possible before they get down to the serious business of running their adult lives. Last Sunday, grabbing a breakfast-to-go, Chris and I made our way to the flying club unwontedly early, where he was chief organiser of a Fly Day for three troops of scouts, turning up likewise early in their smart uniforms to line up for flights as first time "co-pilots" in club volunteers' planes, one of which was PTN, of course. "I've delegated everything!" said Chris, who all the same was immediately swept up in responsibilities. Organising events is bound to be a headache; he had been lying awake wondering if we'd be able to supply enough cushions for the younger children in the cockpits and other such details. Before getting involved in the "meeting and greeting" part of it myself, I first had to drive home again to serve those two 17-year-old girls in the photo a quick breakfast before dropping them at 8:30 at the National Library on Parliament Hill where they had a full day ahead of them (it was 10p.m. before we picked them up).

The weather for the Fly Day was just right and twenty-five scouts, bar the one or two who'd felt queasy, went home well satisfied. Several of the accompanying adults had the opportunity to go up as well. I took as many photos as I could of the aircraft and their occupants as did one of the scout leaders.

The programme for the Adventure in Citizenship in which our guests participated went as follows:

Address from a Citizenship Court Judge
Speech from an M.P.
"Law and Citizenship" Mock Trial
Coach tour of Ottawa
Tour of War Museum
French-Canadian dinner, musical entertainment and country dancing at the ski lodge

(Monday, 7:45a.m - 9p.m.)
Address from the pages and by the clerk of the House of Commons
Address by the Speaker of the House of Commons
Guided tour of Parliament
Presentation by an Association of Former Parliamentarians
Lunch and group photo at the Parliament buildings
Tour of the RCMP Training Academy
Presentations by a panel of foreign diplomats and a panel of Canadian diplomats
"Skits" presented by the students (goodness knows when they had time to prepare for this!)

(Tuesday, 8:30a.m. - 11p.m.)
Presentations and discussions at Carleton University including one on "Conflict Resolution"
A quiz game about Canada
Formal reception by Members of Parliament
Dinner dance at a downtown hotel

(Wednesday, 8:15 a.m. till mid-afternoon)
Attendance at a special session of the Citizenship Court
Formal luncheon (sic) and speeches by Rotarians and students representing each province at the Congress Centre

Then they could fly home. (Brie's journey home was going to take about 9 and a half hours.)