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, June 30, 2009

George gone

It strikes me that we got through a phenomenal amount of music making during the two-and-a-bit days when George was with us.

To his accompaniment, we sang Schubert's Lied eines Schiffers an die Dioskuren as well as his Shepherd on the Rock (plus clarinet, of course), Beethoven's In questa tomba oscura (bass), half a dozen assorted Dichterliebe songs (for baritone or mezzo soprano, depending which of us was available), three arias in Italian (soprano) from Mozart's Marriage of Figaro, a song composed by George's great uncle Frank Bishop, a song by his grandfather Robert Tullett, Hugo Wolf's Im Frühling (soprano), the Pamina-Papageno duet from Mozart's Zauberflöte, Vaughan Williams' duet that's a setting of Shakespeare's Fear no more the heat o' the sun, an earlier than the usual setting by Schubert of Goethe's Lied der Mignon: Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt, which George in fact taught me (his friend Anna knows it and we "Skyped her" in Chile to discover its D-number before trying it out). Then this morning just before the taxi arrived to take us to the airport, he and I gave a spirited rendering of Purcell's I attempt from love's sickness to fly.

Non vocal music was the Nils Gade Fantasistykker for piano og Klarinet eller Violin (that language is Danish!) which we tried both on the violin (forgetting to close the patio door so that today my neighbour mentioned hearing it)—the first two movements—and on the clarinet—all four! Chris and George also played the arrangement for piano and clarinet of the famous slow movement for the Borodin 2nd Quartet. When neither Chris nor I was available to sing or play with him, George also played us piano solos: a Bach prelude and some Chopin mazurkas.

Another juxtaposition worth noting was that while George was sending instant wireless messages to a girl in Beijing he was simultaneously speaking over the phone to his grandmother in Wales. We also had his sister and family on line so that our grandson in London could see how the chipmunk in our garden in Ottawa climbed onto George's knee and found its peanut. "He is stuffing it in his mouth!" said Alexander.

Monday, June 29, 2009

George here

He sets off again tomorrow, more's the pity, but I think we can call his short stay with us Quality Time. George has published his own blog post about the visit, so I'll just add a few details he didn't mention: the walk we did with Elva, Laurie and Carol was the Sugar Bush trail near the Gatineau Park visitors' centre at Chelsea and after that we lunched out of doors in the beautifully relandscaped garden, complete with "waterfall" and outdoor bar, that's part of Chelsea's Pub. At home we made music, almost as in the old days, although Emma was missing to make up the quartet, singing and playing the clarinet and violin to George's accompaniment on the piano—duets and trios, including Schubert's Hirt auf dem Felsen, this evening. The kittens were the ones I've mentioned before, the Flying Club's latest mascots.

Sunday, June 28, 2009


No, that is not a picture of Montreal, but a shocking picture of Hongsibao, China. The photographer, Benoit Aquin, won an award presented by Kofi Anan for his depiction of the dust bowl of China. We saw it in Montreal as part of an astonishing photography exhibition at the Galérie Pangée on the rue St Paul near the Vieux Port. Other places we walked past were the McGill University campus, Square Victoria, the Science Centre on the river bank where they show IMAX films and advertise "Science for Kids"—oh, that does annoy me. Why say that, as though science were for kids only?—and the archeology museum at Pointe à Callière where people were queuing up to get in, as they were outside the Cirque du Soleil tents. Chris and I carried on as far as the Clock Tower on the eponymous Quai de l'Horloge where we climbed the 192 steps to see the view from the top of the tower, above the clock faces.

We had driven to Montreal to meet our son George whose conference in New York finished on Friday. He took the Amtrak train, the ADIRONDACK, that left Penn Station, NY, at 8:30 and was supposed to pull into Montreal's Gare Centrale at 19:10, except that it was an hour and a half late due to problems with three of the passengers (not George and the Danish girls with whom he was sharing window seats) at the Canadian border. Therefore before driving back to Ottawa with George Chris and I had a long wait for him on the station concourse ... There could be worse places to wait; it is quite comfortable there.

In any case seeing George again was absolutely worth the wait!

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Instant friends

One of my friends, new to Facebook, has just sent a message to another of my recent Facebook friends extolling the delights of this toy by telling her:

Dieses Facebook hat es in sich, ich bin auch neu. ... In Windeseile bist du Freund mit dem Rest der Welt!

Fast as the wind blows, you're friends with the rest of the world. I like that.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

On smugness

Am I too happy, too proud? For happiness, contentment rather, see my recent blogposts. As for pride, that's mostly vicarious, when I hear my husband talking about his work, for instance, or when my children tell me they've given successful presentations, Emma at an OTM Network meeting in London this week and George at the 8th Edoardo Amaldi Conference on Gravitational Waves (Amaldi8) in New York. Even my 89 year old mum told me yesterday that she'd "got an A" in two pieces of coursework she'd done for a couple of tutors at the Lifelong Learning Centre at Cardiff University. She's proud of that herself!

From sheer curiosity I did a Google search just now for "dangers of happiness" and I see that somebody has written a book on the subject—a columnist for the Sydney Morning Herald.

What's brought this on (apart from thinking that my blog is looking far too bland these days) was my rereading a novel by Iris Murdoch that's been on our shelves for years, Henry and Cato, that's an exploration of whether each of us needs to suffer (or forego happiness) for the sake of our spiritual welfare. Here's Henry towards at the end of the story:

I ought not to have married. Then perhaps I could have been a holy person after my fashion ... I've let myself be conned into love and happiness ... As a spiritual being I'm done for ... Now I shall never live simply and bereft as I ought to live. I have chosen a mediocre destiny. I have failed but I don't care ... I'm doomed to be a happy man, and I shall do my damnedest to make it last.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

In Lily's and Yiwen's gardens

Diplomatic Hospitality held its three hour AGM today, only it wasn't as tedious as AGMs sometimes are, because we were out of doors, surrounded by birds, butterflies, flowers and trees, some of them bonsais grown by our Chinese-Canadian hostess, Lily. The huge head of a peony in a fishbowl decorated the table and Ülle, retiring President, gave everyone a carnation as a thank you for the help she'd had in running the group this year. Along with the flower, several of us were also presented with a Certificate of Recognition for the jobs we'd done. At the end of the meeting Ülle and I commandeered one of Lily's gazebos and showed the others photos we've taken this year. I'd compiled an old fashioned album and she gave a slide show on her husband's laptop.

Yesterday, too, I was in a Chinese-Canadian's garden, having a private tour of all of every plant Yiwen is growing at her place. She served me a supper of Vietnamese noodle soup while I was there, garnished with her home grown Thai basil.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Jaguars and smaller cats

Rockcliffe Flying Club was visited by a Concours d'Élégance of British cars, yesterday, mostly Jaguars, although the High Commissioner and his wife rolled up in a Bentley. Alan Graves our Jaguar Club friend was on the field at 7a.m., helping to set up the marquees, and was still there ten hours later. The kittens are always there; they live at the airport now. Their names are Cessna and Piper.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Art in the night sky

I've just come home from seeing a great installation of art at the Cube Gallery, an unusual sort of place. Here's a short video showing the owner, Don Monet, setting it up. He hosts fund raisers for Doctors Without Borders at his gallery, letting the space be used by dancers and musicians as well as artists. He met several of us today to talk about the art on show, which all relates to the sky at night; Mr. Monet is an amateur astronomer as well as an artist, but what he is most proud of, apparently, is a book he wrote about a Supreme Court case, entitled Colonialism on Trial. It includes his sketches of the native defendants in court.

One of the artists whose work is on display in the current exhibition is an Ojibwa man, Mark Seabrook, whose work is like Norval Morriseau's. Another artist, the reason for our being there—because his mother organised our outing!—is another Marc, Marc Brzustowski. (Click on his picture above, as well!)

After an hour looking round and asking questions we all (over a dozen of us, I didn't count) had lunch a couple of blocks away at the rather stylish Canvas Resto-Bar.

So as not to forget some of the details, I am adding more to this post ...

I learned that when "Tommy" Thomson made his famous sketches of nightscapes he was careful to copy the constellations accurately. Don Monet approves of the fact that his fellow artist Marc Brzustowski does this as well. Some of Marc's night scenes show the moon, fragmented over the Rideau Canal locks, for instance. Another artist, Jessica Sarrazin, depicts the constellations, asterisms rather, as silver beads joined with lines of gold thread, sewn onto a photo of the night sky with a landscape silhouetted below. Some of Don Monet's own paintings are of what he sees through a telescope, a large one of the moon done on a board, the bare plywood being the right base colour. He claims that no other animal is physically able to gaze at the sky as we do (but I dispute this, having observed cats look up at the moon). He also did an oil painting of the transit of the earth's shadow during an eclipse: a series of moons, trying to capture the exact colours. He also painted the sudden, dazzling appearance of a comet over his garden, including the face of a friend in this picture who had missed the drama because he wasn't quick enough to look up at the right moment.

Some pieces in the show were more abstract, an attempt to capture the swirl of colours that astronomers observe from long exposures through the lens of the Hubble telescope, for example. John Ceprano, the man who makes art from stones found in the Ottawa River, has created canvasses which are comments on light pollution. Amy Schissel has produced a four-panel wall in many colours that represents the depths of space. Another Ottawa artist, Garry Bowes, has carved beautiful tributes to the shape of radio telescopes in dark wood and an elm vase painted with the colours of the Orion Nebula, with shining crystals inserted into the wood, and Andrew and Deb O'Malley have devised light boxes in which an ingenious arrangement of coloured LEDs and mirrors give the illusion of the depths of space, inspired by the three stars in Orion's belt.

I still haven't mentioned everything. Go and look if you can. The exhibition runs until June 28th.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Taste of Africa

The combined African missions in Ottawa hosted a huge Africa Day reception in a church hall near Mooney's Bay yesterday evening; a diplomat's wife asked me to take some pictures of the displays along three sides of the wall before most of the guests arrived. Here are my snaps of the Zambian, Côte d'Ivoire and Moroccan corners.

Monks on the loose

This morning our Konversationsgruppe, meeting at the Martin Luther church in Ottawa in the basement room normally used by the Frohe Runde (the church's Seniorenclub), watched Vaya con dios (in German, not Spanish), a film about three friars from a remote, exclusive monastery who find themselves suddenly and unexpectedly forced into the World Outside. It's a comedy on the theme of temptation. In the fictional order to which the monks belong, they worship through music, so plenty of Gregorian chant and the like came into the film, very satisfying to listen to. The action was satisfying to watch as well, as in this scene, in a cathedral.

Chris thinks I should have been at the House of Commons instead, witnessing the CEO of Nortel who'd been subpoena'd to appear before the Finance Committee, but I felt that an hour or so spent staring at Mr. Brühl rather than Mr. Zafirovski might be the better option.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

The shower

Storm clouds appeared to be piling up around Ottawa, but in the end it only spat with rain. The shower I meant wasn't of that sort, anyway. I've never attended one before, but Carol, whose son Andrew is going to marry Lillian next month, invited her friends to Lillian's bridal shower this afternoon, at Shiela's very attractive riverside house in Manotick.

Obviously, customs die hard; this was probably not unlike what would have happened in 19th century North America; how traditional the whole thing seemed! One of Carol's aunts sat at the head of the pretty table pouring the tea and coffee from elegant china pots, and we had a spread of little sandwiches, squares and cake to eat. Lillian's presents from her friends and relations were domestic: mixing bowls, cheese grater, lacy pillow cases and such. She was really appreciative—as pleased with her muffin tins as with her gift wrapped lingerie. After the unwrapping ceremony that we women of three generations sat around to watch, Lillian's sisters and friends dressed her up very prettily in the wrapping paper and ribbons and bows so that she looked like a gift herself, only she'd changed out of this "dress" by the time her fiancé came to collect her because it had turned out to be none too "breathable". He'll just have to be shown the photos.

I'm kicking myself for not taking my own camera along. Francine drove me with the other Francine and all the way there and back we listened to CDs of Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Junior. Today has felt to me like going a long way back in time!

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Pierre le Grand

Peter the Great played at soldiers when young; he played with sailboats on the river Moskva too, so I heard last week, when Tatiana gave a talk about the man in French. His life story was impressive, shocking, disturbing.

As a young man he spent a while incognito in the Netherlands lodging at a smithy's in Zaandam and working as a carpenter. Every morning at 7 o'clock he'd start work, employed by a ship building company; he also worked like this in England. These quasi nautical experiences stood him in good stead when he established the first ever Russian navy, which with hardly any coastline to its name had the cheek to conquer the Swedes in the Baltic.

Back in Moscow young Peter set off on a new tack, applying his knowledge of anatomy that he'd picked up in Amsterdam by taking up amateur surgery! His vision for the Russian people was that they should be masters of science, technology and engineering. He also decreed that his compatriots should speak French and wear clothes in the French style, not like the old Russian establishment. Beards were out with a vengeance, to such an extent that a man was to be fined for letting one grow. The more decolleté a woman's dress was, the better. The older generation thought it scandalous that men and women should be seen dancing together. Until those days aristocratic women had been kept apart in a sort of harem.

In those days Peter was rather like Falstaff's pal Harry (the crown prince) in Shakespeare's Henry IV, Pts 1 and 2, with a stable boy for his best friend. The two of them took to frequenting the notorious "German" district of Moscow, an enclave of Englishmen, Dutchmen and Huguenots. Peter had a German mistress there and indulged in not very refined tastes. They knocked back the vodka, let off fireworks, kept "pet" dwarfs for entertainment. Another remarkable companion was a black African whose descendants were to include Pushkin.

Peter's mother, an educated woman, thinking her 16 year old son needed calming down, married him to a pious girl who gave him his son Alexis, but the marriage was a disaster. Quickly tiring of his family Peter abandoned them, at which his wife shut herself away in a convent. Alexis was to remain a problem. Aged 25, Peter attached himself to an illiterate peasant girl from Lithuania. Most of their 12 children died in infancy. Alexis meanwhile was turning into an alcoholic, having been married off to a German protestant girl who had died in childbirth. Alexis renounced his title, at which Peter retorted, "You'd better become a monk, then." The poor son escaped to Vienna to beg for asylum at the Austrian court, but was tricked into returning home under the false promise of an amnesty, was promptly arrested as a traitor and imprisoned, before being sentenced to death after a severe whipping. In fact Alexis did not survive the whipping. Peter never showed any remorse; in fact, "Il n'avait pas de compréhension de ceux qui n'étaient pas comme lui," as Tatiana put it in her talk.

Peter believed in merit rather than nobility and surrounded himself with the intelligentsia of his day, founding an Academy of Science and a Museum of Curiosities. Although detested by the Slavophiles of those days, he joined the church choir in the orthodox church he attended, because he liked singing.

The other thing Peter is remembered for is the founding of St Petersburg in 1703 where before his time were nothing but swamps. It's going to be my Paradise, he said, avidly joining in with the planning. Because of an embarrassing lack of manpower for the great project the noblemen were forced to send the Tsar their able-bodied serving men as construction workers. Swedish prisoners of war were conscripted as well and Italian architects brought in. A sorry shortage of stone masons led to their being forbidden to work anywhere but in St Petersburg. Each aristocratic Russian family was obliged to have a house built there and at least half the cargo of any boat or ship that sailed in had to be stones, to mitigate the boggy nature of St Petersburg's foundations.

The gardens at the Summer Palace, the Peterhof, were modelled on those of Versailles, incorporating a Dutch house for the Tsar, Monplaisir. The Tsarina could live in the palace; he preferred his summerhouse.

Friday, June 12, 2009

A Chinese song on the lawn

Today I was involved in another one of our international gatherings, this one in the grounds of Rideau Hall on a beautiful day, during which we had singing (from the Chinese delegation) and dancing (to a folk song from Estonia played by Ülle on her accordion) and a prodigious picnic of shared food.

The Canadian lady who founded our hospitality group half a century ago, Elizabeth Doe, now 90 years old, came along too. That's her in my picture on the right.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

By air to Westport

Rather than drive, Alice and I flew in PTN, with Chris as pilot, to Westport, where we were invited for lunch at Carol's house today. We met Claude, Vivien, Averil, Pat and Janet there and one of Carol's neighbours, Shirley Mancino, who showed Alice and me the paintings in her studio and gave us some parsley from her vegetable garden; her husband also gave us a ride from the airfield. On the way home we had some terrific views of the city, including a bird's eye view of Chris' new place of work in Kanata.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Piping in the Schwarzwälderkirschtorte

Just back from a farewell party given by our German friends Christine and Uwe, leaving to return to their home in the Allgäu. Uwe learned to play the bagpipes while he lived in Ottawa and (having warned the neighbours) has demonstrated his progress year by year at his generously hosted garden parties. We've been to a series of these, sad to realise that this one is the last.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Mixture of a meal

Our Spanish speaking group decided to finish our conversation season with a shared lunch at Marisa's at which every member of the group brought along a speciality from their own country. We each told the others, in Spanish, how our dish was made, as we sampled one another's cooking. Put together, these items made for the oddest meal, with Vichyssoise soup from France, prawn cocktail from Ireland, sushi from Japan, coated in sesame seeds, Pierogies from Poland, spring rolls and yuca cake from Indonesia, stuffed vine leaves from Romania, meat loaf from Canada and a sticky crême caramel flan from Venezuela. I contributed an English trifle which I decorated with pansies from my garden.

Fairy Lake

Actually it's the Lac des Fées at the bottom end of the Gatineau Park, not far from its southern entrance. Laurie, Chris and I came across it for the first time ever, after visiting Roger and Francine at their nearby house last Sunday afternoon. The lake's not signposted, so you have to guess where to strike off across the fields, leaving the bike trail. The Promenade du Lac des Fées doesn't get you there either. A well kept secret!

It's not quite as muddy as the other lake we discovered last week. We didn't spot any fairies, mind.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Misbehaviour in the Papal Palace

Last Saturday, in connection with the exhibition From Raphael to Carraci: The Art of Papal Rome that has just opened, the National Gallery of Canada invited me to a day's lectures on Renaissance Art. Seven lectures, the first one by Jill Burke from the University of Edinburgh about Raphael, Courtesan Culture and Life Drawing in Renaissance Rome which wasn't half as dry as it sounds, being about the artists who liked to sketch nudes and the foibles of the Cardinals and their mistresses.

The practice of life drawing goes back to the 15th century, Alberti in his treatise On Painting (1435) having stated that in order to make a figure look real, you first have to "draw the naked body beneath" before covering it with clothes. "It was easy to get hold of naked men in the Renaissance!" said Ms Burke, hence the many studies for Adam and so on, but women in those days were not so accessible. Michelangelo's sketches for the sibyl in the Sistine Chapel obviously had male muscles: they were in fact feminized males. Androgyny was considered graceful, desirable, in those days. It wasn't until the early 16th century that artists began to sketch actual females from life, prostitutes, actually, Raffaelo being interested in their "anatomy in motion". Of course, becoming distracted by his models he often became "very amorous and [was] swift to serve them."

The courtesans of Papal Rome often liked to adopt "Venus" poses, wanting to look like the recently discovered antique sculpture of ancient Rome or like Raffaelo's frescos. They took to shaving their body hair so as to resemble the ideal more exactly. "That's the way our husbands like it," they said. They used arsenic and quicklime as a depilatory: "When the skin feels hot, wash quickly with hot water so the flesh doesn't come off." In 1501 Machiavelli received a letter about the twenty-five women who frequented the Pope's Palace. His friend was quite explicit about it: "The entire palace has been turned into a brothel." Encouraged to dance with the servants for the entertainment of the Cardinals after dinner, the girls stripped as they danced, picking chestnuts off the floor that had been strewn around so that they'd bend over. The most famous of these loose women were often to be seen "walking the city by themselves or by mule" about which the hypocrites were duly shocked.