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

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

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Cold, slippery, wet and dark

The weather here has not been good, except for a calm, bright day on Christmas Day itself when we snowshoed again, this time in a loop through the trees behind Elva's and Laurie's road. Our Christmas supper was excellent and so was the next one that we ate with four of the Graves family on Boxing Day. Carol tried to drive Elva, Jenny and me to Wakefield yesterday but the cloud was so low and thick and the freezing rain so dangerous that she turned around at Chelsea and took us back to town. Jenny and I took a brief look inside the Musée des Civilisations but were put off by the 45 minute queue for entrance tickets and the number of young families present. Later, Elva and Laurie had to use the ski-poles they'd borrowed from us in order to reach their house without mishap from where they'd abandoned their car. Today's temperatures were milder, but with the winds gusting fiercely and the Rockcliffe taxiways still slick with water-on-ice (the runway friction index effectively at zero), there still wasn't any flying. Chris, Jenny and I did make it to Wakefield though.

Our "Skype" service to the outside world, blurry and pixelated though it is, has come in for plenty of use during the last few days, linking us with friends and family in Yorkshire, Teesside, London, Cambridgeshire and Suffolk and with George even further afield, so that at one moment we saw the cat on Rob's knee in his living room in York and the next moment a palm tree through the window of George's hotel or a Cessna rolling down the taxiway at Darwin airport.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

A Merry Christmas Eve

We met Elva and Laurie for lunch at Chelsea's Pub where cranberry cocktails (champagne, cranberry juice and vodka in tall glasses with floating berries and a slice of orange) were on the house. Then we "did the loop", walking the Gatineau Park's Sugarbush Trail, nicely groomed, in a clockwise direction, before resurrecting the log fire in the sugar shack's corner stove, and letting Jenny try out the pleasures of snowshoeing in the field and through the trees by the stream. The snow was thigh deep in places. Back at home we had a curried vegetarian supper, played our instruments again and watched a funny film in the basement.

In case I don't have time to add to this blog tomorrow, may I wish everyone who reads this a very Happy Christmas (or for George and friends in Australia a Happy Boxing Day). The sun is expected to shine and we're off to do some more bush-whacking in the hills where Elva and Laurie have invited us to share their Christmas Dinner.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Jenny's journey

At 2:50a.m. on Sunday morning (when North Americans had not yet gone to bed on Saturday night) a taxi drew up on a street in York, England, to take Jenny to the railway station. Her "train" to Manchester turned out to be a bus to Leeds, followed by a proper train from Leeds to Manchester reaching the airport by about 6a.m. As it happened, Jenny needn't have set off quite so early because her flight to Newark, New Jersey, was 270 minutes late taking off. The check-in staff at Manchester advised her to assume she'd not be flying on to Ottawa until Monday and took the precaution of booking her onto a connecting flight from Newark that would leave the following day. Landing at Newark airport at the very time she was scheduled to land in Ottawa, according to her original schedule, Jenny had already missed her connection by a couple of hours.

Admittedly a major winter storm had been raging all across New England and eastern Canada, which explains the delay and the thousands of displaced travellers at Newark airport, but that is no excuse for the baggage handlers not knowing which terminal was the right one for flights to Ottawa. Because this was the U.S.A., Jenny had to reclaim her case (large backpack) in order to carry it through U.S. customs before checking for her flight to Canada. Having reached the Departures hall she then stood in the transfer queue for two hours. We managed to communicate with her from Ottawa at this point; she told us there was just a chance she might still get a seat on a late flight to Ottawa before the end of the day. However, no chance, all the flights were fully booked, and it was just as well Manchester had had the sense to book her on a Monday morning flight or she wouldn't have been allowed on that one, either. Rather than spend the rest of her very long day at Newark airport she sensibly found accommodation at a nearby hotel although Continental Airlines had informed her they were not willing to pay for a hotel room because the weather was considered to be an Act of God rather than the company's fault. They also told Jenny to make sure she returned to the airport by 7a.m. at the latest to catch her 8:45 flight to Ottawa.

The next morning, the shuttle bus driver took her to the wrong terminal. On realising this, she hurried off to catch the "air train" heading towards the correct terminal ... and it broke down. All its passengers were told to stay on the train, and then told to get off. It transpired that none of the other trains were working either at that juncture. Jenny asked for help and was told to find Gate 71. She had no idea where that might be, couldn't see any directions, so asked someone else, a security guard, for help. He wouldn't let her go until she'd calmed down (!) but pointed her in the right direction telling her she should be able to walk it; it would take her ten minutes. She then set off in rather a panic, but in the right direction. She needn't have rushed. The flight for Ottawa didn't depart until 10:55. The cafe queues being too long to join, Jenny bought herself a bag of nuts and raisins for breakfast. On the flight she was also served a muffin and a drink.

It was a sunny but bumpy flight over the Adirondack mountains. Even at Ottawa the wind was gusting to 45 kph so she suffered a bumpy landing as well. Two other 'planeloads from the USA had arrived just ahead of Jenny's flight, so the immigration baggage reclaim halls were very crowded. In fact we waited another two hours before she came through the International Arrivals doors at Ottawa airport, the main reason for the delay being the fact that her suitcase had not turned up, so that she had to fill in a claim form. The last straw was that she was also escorted into a side office away from Passport Control and given a lengthy grilling by a Canadian Immigration officer who asked all kinds of impertinent, personal and humourless questions about why Jenny could possibly want to visit Ottawa at this time of year to visit people to whom she wasn't even related, and why she hadn't wanted to spend Christmas at home in England with her own family. Jenny assured them that we are friends of her family, but that didn't cut much ice. The officer wanted to know if we were bona fide Canadian Citizens. She wishes she had been forewarned of these questions, as she found them quite intimidating and can't imagine what she has done to deserve such discourteous treatment.

We bought Jenny lunch on our way home, as all three of us were famished by the time we were able to drive out of the airport.

This afternoon, after several vain attempts to call Continental Airlines to find out where Jenny's luggage might be, she went shopping for some spare clothes. This evening, though, we had two calls from Ottawa airport, the first to say the luggage had been identified and put aside for delivery to our house within three or four hours. The second call was less optimistic, telling us that we can (apparently) expect its arrival "sometime before midnight." As I was rereading this blog post before publishing, I am glad to report that Jenny's luggage finally arrived. It has taken three whole days.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Figgy pudding in Module 16

It's time for a break, time for music! Today my husband took his clarinet and a book of Christmas carols to work, in order to put his colleagues in a festive frame of mind. Yesterday my daughter and her colleagues / friends put on a concert at the National Physical Laboratories in London. Emma, who launched this choir herself, sent us a copy of their programme:

Christmas Concert

Thursday 18th December 2008 at 12:30 pm in the Lecture Theatre, Module 16

Ding Dong! Merrily on High, 16th C. French, arr. Charles Wood, words by G. R. Woodward. The December 2008 edition of the BBC Music Magazine features a list of the "50 greatest carols as voted by the world's finest choirmasters". Ding Dong Merrily on High comes in at a respectable no 35. If you haven't heard enough of this tune by the end of the third chorus, you can always get an extra fix at

Concord, Benjamin Britten (1913 – 1976), words by William Plomer. From the opera Gloriana, originally written to celebrate the coronation of Elizabeth II.

It came upon the midnight clear. Trad. English, arr. Arthur Sullivan, words by E.H. Sears. This well known carol came 40th in the BBC's poll.

Adew Sweet Amaryllis, John Wilbye (1574 – 1638), Anon, after the Italian of Battista Guarini (1538 – 1612). The heyday of English madrigal writing was a brief but intense period around the ends of the 16th Century and the reign of Elizabeth I. Madrigals are unaccompanied secular songs, usually in three to six parts. This example is considered one of the most refined and superbly crafted of all English madrigals.

Sussex Carol. Trad. English, arr. David Willcocks, “Homage to R.V.W.” Occupying a lofty 12th position in the top 50, this is a truly traditional carol. The words were first published in 1684. This English folk tune was collected, by Cecil Sharp and also by Ralph Vaughn Williams in 1919. The latter heard it sung by Mrs Harriet Verrall of Monk's Gate in Sussex, hence the title.

Concerto in G major for four recorders. Georg Philipp Telemann, arr. Markus Zahnhausen. One of the most prolific composers of all time, G P Telemann (1681 – 1767) was far more famous, during his lifetime, than his contemporary and compatriot J S Bach – a dictionary of the time afforded him four times as much space as it did Bach! His contribution to the recorder repertoire is extensive, some of the most beautiful, and frequently stolen by flautists. We offer two movements as a sample.

Czárdás. Vittorio Monti, arr. Joris van Goethem. Even if the title and the composer don't sound familiar, the tune will. A Csárdás is a type of Hungarian dance that was in vogue in the latter half of the 19th century. This particular one was written by the Italian violinist Monti (1868 – 1922) in about 1904.

On the trail of the Pink Panther. Henry Mancini, arr. Paul Leenhouts. This flamboyant arrangement of a familiar theme was written for the Amsterdam Loeki Stardust Quartet, by one of its members, and requires a Great Bass Recorder. Believe it or not, recorders do get bigger than this - a lot bigger!

Torches. John Joubert, Galician, trans. J.B. Trend. A rousing modern carol to be sung with gusto.

In Dulci Jubilo. Old German tune, arr. R. L. Pearsall, edited and adapted by Reginald Jacques. As if to prove our good taste, this version of In Dulci Jubilo was voted no. 2 (beaten only by the lesser known version of In the Bleak Midwinter). This tune has survived the tests of time, first appearing in manuscripts around the year 1400, it may actually be even older. In more recent times the tune has remained popular but is perhaps best known in the form of Mike Oldfield's 1975 hit. The words are a mixture of Latin and English, the latter translated by Pearsall from the original medieval German dialect.

A Merry Christmas. Trad. West Country carol, arr. Arthur Warrell, “To Geffrey Shaw”. This Carol is 16th C. English traditional.

Did anyone bring us some figgy pudding? We won't go until we've got some!

Future lunchtime concerts, at 12:45 in the Scientific Museum, Bushy House

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Endangered WORDS

The Oxford Junior Dictionary for British children aged 7 and older, as mentioned in my husband's latest blog post and elsewhere, has recently been updated. Such is the potency of words, that the list of vocabulary considered irrelevant to our grandchildren dismays Britons of my generation.

OK, it's reasonable to banish "Empire", "Pentecost" and "duchess" these days, and probably even "christen" (I won't get side-tracked into discussing that provocative verb)—gone are the days when the majority of adolescents queued up in a church "aisle" for "confirmation" by the local "bishop"—but to eliminate the word "monarch" while the UK still has one, and "abbey" (where the nation's next monarch is likely to be crowned), seems a bit much.

What's really disturbing though is the cutting out of vocabulary for children's Nature Studies (sorry—why use short words when words of four or five syllables will do?—I mean Environmental Education): moss, fern, bluebell, ash, sycamore (and their keys, presumably), primrose, minnow, kingfisher, lark, thrush. Reading such a resonant list puts me in a state of mourning: that's the essence of my childhood gone! Where will today's children find their mental sanctuary? Not in words like "vandalism", "committee", "compulsory" or "voicemail", that's for sure. Ironically, I see that the word "endangered" is also being added to the dictionary, but if our grandchildren can't tell one species from another, what's the point? How can we ever teach them the appreciation of a world that's become verbally extinct? Before we know where we are, the concept of "sunset" will soon have gone, too, if it hasn't already, and if we aren't careful, so will "sun", "moon," and "stars". Or is "star" now cross-referenced under "celebrity" for the modern child's edification?

What I believe the English-speaking world needs is not a Junior Dictionary full of trendy jargon, but a Seniors' Dictionary, written to enlighten people like my octo-(nearly nona-)genarian mother who hasn't a clue what "broadband" or "chatroom" means, nor what an MP3 player is. At the same time, the OUP ought to be publishing another dictionary, equally educational, aimed at those intelligent 7- and 8-year olds of whatever cultural background who might be on the brink of discovering British fiction from the old days, crammed full of the enticingly strange vocabulary that some unimaginative academic, or more likely academic committee, full of self-importance, has chosen to condemn, the vocabulary of Minnow on the Say, Wind in the Willows, The Secret Garden, Alice in Wonderland, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, The Railway Children, The Borrowers, Treasure Island. I've never read any of the Harry Potter series, but have a sneaking suspicion that those recently written and hugely popular stories, too, are more about elves, goblets (or goblins) and newts than about boring old "block graphs" or "file attachments".

What, no more catkins? No more conkers? Don't make me angry. And please don't tell me there aren't any wild primroses in big cities like London, either, because I saw them there last spring, flowering on the railway embankments. Let's continue to tell the children what they are.

An old fashioned tart

For a Potluck lunch at work this coming Friday, I've been asked to provide Chris with a home made Bakewell tart big enough to share with his colleagues. I was born in Derbyshire so ought to be able to do this. Once upon a time women accomplished nothing but such things; our generation must be over-pampered because I found it quite a challenge.

To create a Bakewell tart in the right sequence of steps, what you should do first is line a 23cm-diameter pie tin with pastry. If you're making the pastry yourself, use about 100g fat (I used margarine) and about 200g plain brown and/or white flour, combine into crumbs, add enough chilled water to make the pastry stick together and roll out on a floured surface with a floured rolling pin, trim and thicken the edges. If you're feeling fastidious, clean up the resultant mess before finding the red jam that you must smear over the surface of your pastry pie shell with whatever utensil comes to hand.

Then make the filling. This consists of 80g fresh breadcrumbs, 80g sugar, 80g ground almonds, the grated rind and juice of a lemon, 80g melted butter (or half and half butter and good quality margarine with no cholesterol content) and two eggs, with their yolks separated from their whites.

I had ready-ground almonds to hand, but had to produce the breadcrumbs from scratch, using a couple of aging (but not yet mouldy) bread rolls and a thick slice of toasting bread. Crumble the bread into smallish lumps and then finish off the process with a bladed food processor. I used a small hand blender, but if it's set to work in a wide bowl the crumbs will spin off in all directions, liberally sprinkling your kitchen surfaces. Believe me, it's better to use a tall, thin container and make the breadcrumbs in small batches. I assume everyone knows how to grate and squeeze a lemon. Don't omit the lemon as this gives the pie its essential flavour.

In order to separate the eggs you'll also need a special gadget unless you're dexterous enough to skim yolks from whites without the yolks getting broken as they spill in a slimy manner over the edge of the cut shells. Don't use old eggs or eggs from battery hens or you're doomed to failure. Catch the egg whites in a small bowl on the side and plop the yolks straight into the sweetened breadcrumb-ground almonds mixture that you have moistened with your lemon juice and melted butter. As you stir, you will find the consistency quite stiff, but this can be softened with the egg whites. Pick out any bits of egg shell that have fallen in before beating the slime to a fluffy whiteness that forms peaks. I did it with a hand held whisk. Fold these thoroughly beaten egg whites into the rest of the filling with a large metal spoon and then scoop it into the pie shell and smooth over the surface.

The tart then needs baking at 350°C for just over half an hour until the filling is firm, with a golden-brown surface. Let it cool and settle down before removing from the tin. The surface will subside a little. When the tart is cold (or thawed out again after freezing) it can be coated with white or pale pink icing (made from icing sugar and diluted, seedless, red jam) and decorated with glaciated cherry halves around the perimeter. A small segment makes a satisfying dessert.

A nice variation of this recipe is to use stewed, sweetened gooseberries (in season) as a base for the filling, instead of red jam, or to top the pie with sliced almonds instead of icing sugar.

Monday, December 15, 2008

A botanist in the Arctic

On Saturday evening we met Elva's and Laurie's neighbour in the Gatineau Hills, where Elva served us a tasty supper with a magical view from her windows of the snow-covered forest. Lynne Gillespie is a botanist specialising in Arctic flora and has worked with an international Education and Expedition team introducing an international group of students to the polar regions. The project was called Students on Ice. Normally she works as a researcher for the Museum of Nature.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Le rôle de l'art dans la vie

I was at the NAC again last week (Centre National des Arts) to see the French Theatre production of Cyrano de Bergerac, for which I was lucky enough to get a free ticket. Before the show, I also had the privilege of hearing Wajdi Mouawad, current director of French Theatre at the NAC (who incidentally keeps a blog), give a talk about the importance of the arts and our support of the arts. Having grown up as a French speaking Lebanese immigrant in Montreal, he spoke in beautiful French, quietly but passionately.

For Wajdi Mouawad there are countless possible answers to "What is art for?" or "What is an artist?" but he was not going to try to answer those questions except by giving us a couple of pictures ("images"). The first picture he wanted us to imagine was that of driving a car along a road in stormy weather, the rain lashing at the windscreen, the night very dark, so that the oncoming headlights dazzle and tire us. To keep us going along in the right direction, we put our trust in the occasional roadsigns and the centre lines. We concentrate on them for all we're worth. Of course those lines painted on the road are important in fine weather too, but all the more so at moments of crisis, when we have to face something terrible, like death. Art is like the road signs and white lines, "une chose visible et précieuse" which will prevent us from coming to grief "quand il ne fait plus beau."

It is at such moments that we are at our most receptive to art. For example, a Mozart concerto.

Dans les périodes de crise, ça vous boulverse soudain...

His other image was that of the little scarab, or dung beetle of the Middle East, that feeds itself from what other animals' bodies have rejected. From their excreta—crotte—the scarab makes a perfect ball that it rolls into a secret place to consume at leisure. This is like Artists (the "naifs", the "pure" ones) who nourish themselves from what others have rejected or found useless.

Un artiste est un scarabée qui trouve, dans les excréments mêmes de la société, les aliments nécessaires pour produire les œuvres qui fascinent et bouleversent ses semblables. L’artiste, tel un scarabée, se nourrit de la merde du monde pour lequel il œuvre, et de cette nourriture abjecte il parvient, parfois, à faire jaillir la beauté.

An Artist such as Wajdi Mouawad will put these things into words to let us see what we may have missed:

...des choses profondes, belles, incroyables, des choses fragiles...

(Exactly the message of Baudelaire's Fleurs du Mal !)

One of the audience asked whether Wajdi Mouawad's present place of work, the national capital, had affected his choice of plays for the theatre. Oh, definitely, was the reply; that was a good question. The slogan of this year's French theatre programme is Nous Sommes En Guerre. Apparently, Wajdi Mouawad discussed what it means with his team. We can be at war for the sake of something, against something or with someone. It all depends on our point of view.

En guerre en Afghanistan, en guerre pour conserver le sens des choses ... le théâtre, c'est un geste actif ... pas passif ... On se combat pour rester éveillé...

We fight in order to stay awake.

I like this man, and I really approve of what he says.

No comment!

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Feels like minus 30

Ottawa's current weather report informs me that we have just been for a walk round town at -18°C with a wind chill of -30°. Better to be indoors, then. Twelfth Night yesterday was great fun to watch, and today we were at the annual Flying Club party complete with a visit from Santa Claus who like little Tamara was all in red and white like the berries on the rowan tree across the drive from our house.

Friday, December 5, 2008


There's plenty going on in this city to take our minds off our local traffic congestion and weather. Carol and I and several hundred other people attended a Christmas concert featuring two local youth choirs at the Notre-Dame Basilica this evening: the Calixa Lavallée (university) Choir, conducted by a fellow student of music, and the (younger, high-school age) Chorale De La Salle conducted by Robert Filion who has trained this choir to an impressively high standard; they perform from memory, even when singing in Finnish, Spanish, Slovenian or Latvian, have been broadcast on the CBC and go on international tours. Why haven't I heard of them before? The school where this music teacher works is in Lower Town, just round the corner from our house.

Tomorrow six of us are going to watch a matinée performance of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night at the Glebe Community Centre, the actor who plays Sir Andrew Aguecheek being a member of our flying club.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Podria haber sido ...

Busy day today. As soon as I got up, I made a start on our homemade spreadsheet to work out how much we're spending at the moment and to estimate how much we've therefore got to stop spending before our money supply runs out. It's best to do this depressing sort of calculation early in the morning when you're feeling strong, rather than just before bedtime. I then made a quick bowl of porridge (porridge being great value for money) before ringing the Glebe Community Centre Theatre Company to see if they still have $5 seats available for their Saturday matinée performance of Twelfth Night next weekend (they do), and then catching a couple of buses to a 10 o'clock meeting where we were planning the diplomatic Christmas party at the end of next week, at which something like 140 people are expected.

Home again at lunchtime via the shops, to work on some digital photo projects for various Christmassy purposes; it took most of the afternoon, especially as I had to make a call to iPhoto in the midst of this (haven't a clue what our iPhoto ID is for the login screen), but I did also speak to my daughter who can now be seen and heard in the on-line NPL Christmas greeting! Click on that link to hear her and four of her colleagues singing Ding Dong Merrily on High in NPL's sound measurement laboratories. My grandson Alexander was half inclined to sing to me as well today, but thought better of it when he realised he could be watching Thomas The Tank Engine on the screen instead, so said "Bye-bye Grandma!" in no uncertain terms. Then I had to make a quick supper for Chris, home in good time because he had to teach at the flying club this evening. I invented a thick Mediterranean-flavoured soup including lima beans, chickpeas and chunks of ham. There's a word for that sort of meal; I can't think of it. Anyhow after a bit more juggling with our budget spreadsheet we ate fast and so had time to play the Borodin piece on our clarinet and piano before Chris went out again.

Yiwen and Pete came round to bring us some Jamaican rum cake they've been making all this year, now baked & being divided amongst their friends. I decorated a cardboard box for the diplomatic party and finally sat down to write an essay in Spanish on what I would have been if I hadn't been what I am now. I have to read it out at the Spanish conversation tomorrow before going by bus again to a completely different meeting, this one about editing the flying club's magazine.