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, December 17, 2010

New in-laws

Our son George got married this week at the registry office in Sydney. It was a deliberately low key affair, nothing like the big wedding Chris and I attended here in Ottawa last summer. George and Sha had nine guests, a round of beer at the pub afterwards, followed by a Sezchuan supper. 
George's new parents-in-law are called 杜玉奎 (du yu kui) and 虞秀华 (yu xiu hua), names that we'll have to practise writing and saying before we meet them in Beijing next year!
Sha, with her parents, photo by George

I read an interesting point in the Wikipedia article about Mandarin Chinese:
The written language, called "classical Chinese" or "literary Chinese", is much more concise than spoken Chinese, the main reason being that a single written character is often just what one wants to communicate yet its single syllable would communicate an ambiguous meaning if spoken because of the huge number of homonyms. For instance, 翼 (yì, wing) is unambiguous in written Chinese but would be lost among its more than 75 homonyms in spoken Chinese.
That tallies with what I'm finding when I try to remember the vocabulary. I look up a word like hua, for example, and here is the sort of page I get when I search for its meaning. Not that I'm complaining; I love this sort of challenge, and I know some people who can help me.

Sunday, December 12, 2010


Chris took me up in the aeroplane yesterday afternoon. The hills were a "soft grey" (as Elva puts it) with patches of white and brown among the evergreens; the lakes were white. The sky was grey too, but, to the northeast of us, as we followed the Gatineau River up to Wakefield, we could see a small patch of brightness.

"Let's fly into that patch of sunshine!"

"All right," said my pilot.

A few minutes later we were in the magic, the snowy slopes below us lit with slanting light. We could actually see the light beams coming through the clouds to the west. For a few moments, there had been blue sky above us:
...that little tent of blue
Which prisoners call the sky
I thought of that poem, and of prisoners, and I realised what a privilege it is to see something beautiful ahead and be able to fly straight towards it. Having a 'plane doesn't come cheap though. I think perhaps I was even more appreciative of freedom, or closer to essentials, when I we had less money, when I wrote this...
Skaters, with slick and liquid limbs
And surfers, aslant a wave,
On the tip, shimmering,
Sky-divers, flung against cold air,
Have all attained a certain ecstasy;
And so have I,
Walking in sunlight
Down an ordinary street.
The street in my poem was Downside, Shoreham-by-Sea, in Sussex, in the 1980s. We lived at No. 35. Never look up your old address on Google Earth, by the way, if you want to keep your memories intact. I am horrified to discover that they've gone and erected a garage where my asparagus and gladioli used to grow against the fence, and the frog pond seems to have gone as well. It's still a nice garden, though, with plenty of trees for children to climb, and the conservatory / extension we had built at the back of the house is still standing.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Norwegian choir, etc.

This morning I watched the live broadcast from the BBC of the ceremony I mustn't mention in public in case it jeopardizes my VISA application next year (but you know what I mean). Very moving, as were the faces of the Norwegian children in the choir.

Thursday, December 9, 2010


Hangzhou is no longer on our calendar for December, the reason being that Chris is urgently required to work on a different assignment instead. For more reasons than one, we are both disappointed, but at least we shan't now have to contend with Christmas-time crowds at the airports and can relax at home for the holidays. Chris didn't have time to brood over the change of plan because he was obliged to go out to teach at the flying club. To get over my own sense of disappointment, I took myself out on impulse to be entertained by a gentle and original French film at the Bytowne, La Tête en Friche. The actress in it was a lively 96 year old playing the character of a 95 year old and the other main character was acted by Gérard Dépardieu, so yes, it was well worth going out on a chilly evening to see. Here's the trailer.

This morning about twenty of us drove to Elvira's for a Christmas get-together where we sat around chatting in German (and in English to her pretty Australian grand-daughter from Melbourne who poured the coffee and handed out the Leckerbissen very graciously), then singing some German Christmas carols together. There was still some time to spare so someone asked me to read a story to the group. I chose a children's story from the Christmas file I'd brought along: Die Legende von Nikolaus und Jonas mit der Taube, by Willi Fährmann. A previous German member of the Konversationsgruppe, during the time when I was its convener, had left us with a collection of Mr Fährmann's stories. This one was about a miracle brought about by St. Nicolas in Myra.

After saying goodbye and fröhliche Weihnachten to our friends, Lolan and I drove back downtown talking about China (Lolan was born in Sìchuān—Szechuan—but has lived in Canada for the last forty years). I had her drop me off at the Rideau Centre so that I could do some shopping. Since we're still expecting to be in China (not perhaps, in this case, but definitely), for the sake of George's hūnlǐ, I went into Chapters and bought myself the Oxford Beginner's Chinese Dictionary so as to learn another 15,000 or so words by next May. It lists the Chinese characters in alphabetical order of their pinyin equivalent, so that I can actually look them up without too much difficulty, and includes notes about the words and examples of their use, a bit of grammar, an index of "radicals" (I haven't even begun to get to grips with those yet, can't even grasp what they are), "measure words", and the basic rules for writing Chinese characters—the order and direction of their strokes.

Monday, December 6, 2010

The other two parties

Room for a couple more trees?
Not so much snow on the ground during our tree hunt at Bob's, this year. Here's Laurie showing off Elva's choice of Christmas tree. Rather larger trees were felled for the other family homes, so as usual it cost some effort, squeezing them all into the back of Don's van. Meanwhile, the ladies of the party had time to collect branches and dried milkweed stalks for extra decorations. Sheer enjoyment, as my photos clearly show.

Francine, Tracey, Jill and Elva
After the activity came the shared food (home-made) and wine (also home-made). Laurie had baked two of his ciabatta loaves for us. We had Glögg from a punch bowl, chili beef, chicken soup and cheesecakes. All of it delicious, while little pine siskins, nuthatches and chickadees fed more delicately from the bird feeder outside and a log fire blazed virtually on the TV screen inside, amidst Tracey's Finnish Christmas decorations.
Robert's home-smoked salmon

In the late afternoon we headed reluctantly back to town, making a detour on the way home so as not to miss the end of the Rockcliffe Flying Club's Christmas party when Santa touches down to hand out a gifts from his sack (aka old tail cover) in the warmth of the clubhouse. Don's Christmas present (to himself) is too large to bring into the clubhouse; it has to stay in the hangar. On Saturday Terry flew the yellow RCAF Chipmunk (C-FEGO) home from London (Ont.) to Rockcliffe with Don as co-pilot and Don's daughter Kathryn, as pilot of the outbound 'plane, accomplished a six-hour cross country return flight in windy weather.

After the Birthday Party

We missed the most important party this weekend, had to attend it virtually, by Skype. Because of the time zones we arrived late, after most of the guests had left, but Alexander's other grandparents were still there; John took this picture of the birthday boy playing with the present we'd sent, with us looking on and saying hello from across the ocean.

Thanks, John.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Party season

In a few minutes we're off to the QNX Christmas Dinner-Dance to be held at the Canadian War Museum, I hope not amidst the exhibits, or I'll get depressed. That'll be our second party of the season.

 Yesterday I partied with diplomats and diplomat-spouses at "St. Bart's" Church, an event which included our singing in German and a demonstration by Gail, at the altar, of what to wear for the upcoming snow shoeing season, the snow-shoe events convener preaching from the pulpit about the wisdom of putting on warm, layered underwear. A nice juxtaposition for my blog, I thought. We were also entertained by Ulle and the lady from Kazakhstan singing a New Year song in Russian, which they'd both learned in the USSR as children, when not allowed to celebrate religious festivals. The church has an extraordinary stained glass window, by the way, which you can read about here.

People from five different continents are in these photos
Two more parties tomorrow with the usual suspects, the Flying Club gang. We're all driving out to Bourget to pick out Christmas trees from Bob's property in the morning and in the late afternoon some of us must be back in time for the Flying Club's Christmas social in the clubhouse.
With Fran, of Barbados

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The things we do!

As I write this, Chris is in Carleton University's Senior Common Room, talking to a historian about the Sassanians or Sassanids, as some call them, of ancient Persia. Chris was set up for this by means of a chance encounter at a dinner party at Vija's house, where the other guests were four academics and the conversation over supper so stimulating that none of us thought we'd ever get any sleep that night. We drove home in precarious conditions too, at a crawl because of freezing rain on the highway, passing two ambulances that had crashed into the central barrier. Actually Chris and I did eventually sleep like logs.

I ought not to be blogging; I ought to be working on my Christmas Letter which sums up everything we and the rest of the family have done this year. However small I make the font, I can't seem to make it fit onto two short pages.

Gilgamesh fighting Enkidu
The other things I should be getting on with are a short social history of the Rockcliffe Flying Club (notes for a journalist who wants to write about it in the next edition of Wings magazine; the RFC is 50 years old next year) and the epic story of Gilgamesh which I'm adapting and illustrating—now there's a challenge!—for a four-year-old to read. I've got to go out for a hair cut in half an hour, in the torrential rain, and spring clean the house in preparation for our departure for China, whenever that might happen to be).

Chris is taking a three-day break from work to recharge his batteries which is how he has time for his Sassanian lunch-chat. This weekend we have four Christmas Parties to go to. We were invited to a fifth but decided to turn it down.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Learning the language

The longer we have to wait for a departure date for Hangzhou the more of the language I'll be able to learn first. That is the positive way to look at it, but the frustration over our lack of information is getting me down, rather, at the moment. I have to remember that it's not a holiday trip but a business trip, and none of my business, besides.

This morning I had another Mandarin lesson and am becoming fascinated. Mandarin is like German in that many of its words are made up of meaningful elements, as in huǒchē ("fire-wagon," Mandarin) for "train," or Armbanduhr ("arm-ribbon-clock," German) for "watch." Today I was taught the way the Chinese have adapted the name Alexander: they write it Yàlìshāndà in the pinyin spelling ("Asia-experience-mountain-big" ... not that this makes much sense).

I like the Chinese versions of English names: Dawei (David) Lundun (London) Duōlúnduō (Toronto), Wòtàihuá (Ottawa).

I have fun remembering the phrases and word order by translating them literally into English. Thus, "What's your phone number?" may come out more like "Your electric words number is how much?" A cinema is an "electric shadow place." I asked how to say, "Please say that again!" —the Chinese phrase means "Please again come one time!". Similarly, "Please next day again come." If you want to say, "Please don't go!" it's "Please not want go!" and "Go and take a look," is "Go look-one-look."

A couple, a two-person family, is "two-mouth." Newly weds are "little two-mouth." One's son is a "second generation seed." Metaphorically, an only child can be described as something very precious: "bright pearl in palm."

Saturday, November 20, 2010

The young people of Afghanistan

When I was a schoolgirl I had an adventurous friend called Christine. Although we lost touch, I've been thinking about her lately. She has recently been working as head of mission for UNMIS in Sudan. She also lived in Afghanistan for eight years, on and off, working for Oxfam, and has published three books about that country, one of them in collaboration with Jolyon Leslie.

On November 10th I listened to a presentation given by Paulette Schatz, formerly of the UNDP (and now a Senior Program Development Advisor for World Vision) who from 2007 to 2008 also lived in Afghanistan, managing the Joint National Youth Programme. An impressive lady, all the more so as she came across as modest and unassuming.

When Paulette first arrived in Kabul she had no budget and only a tiny office. She did eventually acquire a pick-up truck, but it was dangerous commuting to her office in the city. "I was worth $75 if kidnapped. My driver was worth $10. We were instructed never to take the same route twice."

She gave us an interesting statistic: 50% of the population of Afghanistan is between the ages of 12 and 26. Numerous though they are, young Afghans get precious little chance to make any decisions because the responsibility for their lives is taken by their parents or the elders of their community; that is the tradition. They mostly live in dire poverty, too. "Poverty is the absence of options," said Paulette. Working with the Afghan Ministry of Youth Affairs she managed to persuade the authorities to establish a Youth Parliament that meets four times a year with representatives from each province, the girls coming to the meetings with chaperones (their mothers or their aunts).

"When I'm out there, we don't think in terms of development. We think of building relationships." For example, she deliberately attended weddings, not making critical comments about the way things were done, but observing, and joining in as a friend of the families. She was able to buy new clothes, made locally, for impoverished schoolgirls. On International Peace Day, when a donation of white paint was received, the girls in Kabul painted the walls of their school courtyards rather than the outside walls, because it would have been dangerous to make these schools conspicuous.

While living and working in Kabul, she wrote poetry, perhaps as a way of getting her thoughts in order. She read us one or two of these poems aloud, during her talk. In one, she was imagining the hope in the minds of Afghan schoolgirls:
... We are a wave of humanity,
We are moving ...
"I believe in these young people," she wrote. "They see beyond the shackles that they wear." She claims that there's a profound spirituality in Afghanistan, and that people are still revere the 13th century poet, Jalal ad-Dīn Muhammad Rumi.

Paulette brought two young Afghans to the annual Youth Assembly at the United Nations Headquarters in New York. Eight young people from that country were actually elected to attend, but the authorities were afraid some of them might take the opportunity to defect. (CIDA is reluctant to sponsor young Afghans to come to study at Canadian universities, for the same reason.) One of the two who did come to the Youth Assembly, and who has since become a parliamentary candidate in his own country, made a speech in New York asking the delegates from the other countries to "stand up for Afghanistan." Paulette, who was there, told us that the gathering spontaneously rose to its feet.

Friday, November 19, 2010

In rehearsal

Julian Kuerti and Johannes Moser were at the NAC yesterday morning, rehearsing for a Bach-Stravinsky-Dvorak concert.

Before the rehearsal began, Eric Friesen of the CBC gave Donors' Circle members an introduction. The concert was to start with Bach's Orchestral Suite Number 1 in C, he said, written in the French style, the opening movement conveying the grandeur and magnificence of a courtly celebration at Versailles. The rest of the suite had a lighter touch; Mr Friesen told us it was Bach's heart dancing. We were to listen out for the woodwind and indeed, when they played it, I noticed a lovely passage for the bassoon and four oboes.

A page from Stravinsky's manuscript
Stravinsky's Firebird Suite is an arrangement of his first major ballet, composed in 1910. (Here's a video clip of Stravinsky in 1961, conducting the triumphant Finale himself!) The Firebird legend is a rather scary, pre-Christian, Slavic one, in which good defeats evil after a lot of trouble. Mr Friesen said that this sort of thing was still popular; look at the recent success of Avatar. Stravinsky got drunk on sound, rhythm and musical architecture, he added, but "you can't look for melodies in Stravinsky!" I nearly accosted Mr. Friesen in the foyer after the rehearsal to tell him I didn't agree. There were some remarkable melodies in it, I thought, like snippets of Russian folksong, especially on the clarinet and horn.

At the end of his introduction to the devotees of the NACO, Mr. Friesen made a comment about their mission to introduce the younger generations to classical music. He said, "We have to take the music to where the kids are, without assuming that they've got to be like us." There were some three-hundred school kids in the auditorium who weren't at all grabbed by the Bach, as I could tell by leaning over the balcony and watching them in the stalls below me punching one another and whispering to the people in the row behind or playing surreptitiously with their forbidden smart-phones, but most of them sat up and took notice when it came to the Stravinsky. Before he started to conduct, Julian Kuerti turned to the kids and asked, "Be honest, how many of you have never seen a symphony orchestra live on stage before?" Most hands went up, and he told them that this piece was a good example of orchestral music; indeed it was, for them, with a full brass and percussion section participating (4 Horns, 2 Trumpets, 3 Trombones, Tuba, Timpani, Bass Drum, Snare Drum, Tambourine, Cymbals, Triangle, Xylophone, Harp, Piano). The sudden change from the soft opening to fff for the "infernal dance" made all the kids jump and squeal, "Oh!" Most of them couldn't refrain from clapping spontaneously at the end of the Firebird rehearsal, though a few deliberately did refrain; it wouldn't have seemed cool.

It was a pity that all the kids had to leave during the rehearsal break; otherwise they'd have heard Dvorak's Cello Concerto afterwards.

"Now Dvorak," said Eric Friesen, "was a consummate melody writer! ... The slow movement is to die for!"

I learned a couple of things, that the composer had already tried his hand at a 'cello concerto at the age of 24 which he had never published. When he came to Brooklyn and happened to hear a 'cello concerto by his colleague at New York's National ConservatoryVictor Herbert, he changed his mind about the potential of the instrument and tried again. Apparently Dvorak's sister in law, the girl he'd loved before he married his wife (echoes of the Mozart story, here!) died while he was working on the Concerto and so he paid a tribute to her by incorporating the tune of a song she used to sing, "Laß' mich allein."

I like the march rhythm on the other 'cellos that starts the last movement. They don't draw their bows across the strings, they beat them like drums.

Both the soloist (Canadian on his mother's side) and the conductor are in their early thirties. Apparently there's "a wave of new conductors" coming out of Canada now, one of the reasons being that we donors to the NAC sponsor a "Conductors Program" in Ottawa, every summer. Julian Kuerti also has the distinct advantage of his mother having been a professional 'cellist and his father being the world-famous pianist, Anton Kuerti. Julian now conducts the Boston Symphony Orchestra, as the second-in-command under James Levine.  Someone asked, why aren't there more women conductors? The answer according to Mr. Friesen seems to be that women aren't usually assertive enough. If a young conductor didn't come across to an established orchestra as supremely knowledgeable and confident, the orchestra, in rehearsal, would "tear her to pieces."

Monday, November 15, 2010

Infectious hope

Instability is infectious, but so is hope.
Inside the building
I heard this said on Friday during a presentation at the headquarters of the Delegation of the Ismaili Imamat on Sussex Drive. This blogpost is going to describe what the Aga Khan Foundation Canada (AKFC) does for Afghanistan, a subject in which I've become very interested since I joined a new Ottawa-CFUW group: University Women Helping Afghan Women. Last Wednesday I went to one of those meetings, too.

Anyway, one thing at a time.

The Aga Khan Development Network in Afghanistan joins forces with government agencies to stimulate and support the economy. This includes the financing of new infrastructure (hydro-electricity projects, bridges, clean water, proper sanitation) and of innovative agricultural programmes and education, particularly in remote parts of the country, as well as the offer of microloans. The First Microfinance Bank (FMFB) kick-starts small businesses with these loans, buying the beneficiaries—often women, seeking to supplement their family income—such essentials as flour and wood for a bread oven, or a sewing machine. "Loan officers" then pay regular visits to see how the new enterprise is going and to offer advice. The AKDN has established hundreds of savings groups in northern Afghanistan that serve a similar purpose.

Bridge at Darwaz (photo of a photo)
Farmers' Field Schools in Badakhshan, sponsored by the Aga Khan Foundation, sometimes called "the social conscience of Islam," have persuaded something like a thousand communities to stop growing poppies for the drug trade and to start growing fruit and nut trees instead. As regards the bridge-building and water management, separate villages are obliged to co-operate with one another in "development councils" (there are eighteen of these) so that ancient enmities are forgotten and so that, pooling their resources to improve matters, they become less reliant on help from the outside world. A larger-scale example of this is the construction of the Darwaz Friendship Bridge linking Afghanistan to Tajikstan across the River Panj.

Afghans in council (photo of a photo)
The AKDN provides a more basic form of education in the 200 elementary schools where a "whole school improvement model" has been initiated. A hundred schools have been constructed or rehabilitated after the devastation of war. Local parent-teacher associations urge teenage wives to continue their education before becoming mothers. Through the shura (the Islamic consultation process—illustrated in this picture) in each village, the AKDN has set up literacy classes for women and seed banks for farmers and gardeners.

There are two more agencies in Afghanistan worth mentioning, the Aga Khan Health Services (AKHS) and the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC). The former makes the needs of women and children a priority, helping to train midwives, usually young women from remote areas, at Faizabad. This initiative has reduced child mortality by 85% in some parts of the country, and in Darwaz, in the north, a health clinic has been established with a staff of three doctors, serving 20,000 patients a year, some of whom travel for hours, for days, even, for their treatments or consultations.

The Aga Khan also takes Afghanistan's cultural needs very seriously, believing that "culture injects hope" into a deprived, traumatised community, or city, or nation. The AKTC uses its funds for the restoration of national monuments, for literacy and vocational training (in traditional weaving, for instance), for the arts and for the creation of parks and gardens. A few years ago, Canada's Governor General, Adrienne Clarkson, visited Kabul and was deeply impressed by the 16th century garden restored by the AKTC. She mentioned it in the speech she made at the Foundation Ceremony for the Delegation of the Ismaili Imamat: only a year, the Foundation had transformed a dusty ruin surrounded by broken walls into a beautiful terraced garden with reconstructed adobe enclosures and the first of a series of fountains. It was astonishing. Nothing could more eloquently express the mission of your Foundation—to improve the material lot of the world's most devastated regions and peoples, yes, but also to respect spiritual and aesthetic considerations. Babur's Gardens serve as a point of hope and illumination for everyone who cares about Afghanistan ...

Sunday, November 7, 2010

The Peace Poppy

Tomorrow I resume my 2-hour Chinese lessons with the Ottawa Chinese Language Learning Centre; having left off at Lesson 5, my tutor promises that ..."we will learn Lesson 6 tomorrow after a quick review."
nǐ jǐdiǎn kāishǐ shàngkè? — jiǔ diǎn bàn.
Douglas Hardy
My mother when she was with me last month heard me trying to enunciate phrases like that, and it reminded her of the early 1940s and her cousin Douglas who in those days was likewise trying to learn Chinese, before being posted to the Far East.

"We used to dissolve into helpless giggles when he tried to make those funny noises!" she remembered.

Douglas Hardy was a twenty year-old Conscientious Objector, whose sincerity had made such an impression on the tribunal who examined his pacifist motives that he was given an unconditional discharge from military service. In spite of this exemption he opted to join the Friends' Ambulance Unit, in order to serve his country in that way. Douglas set off with the FAU for India, Burma and China and my mother and the rest of the family never saw him again. He died of typhus in 1942.

My cousin Wendy has done some research on this story, to which there's a reference here.

Douglas' parents never recovered from their grief (he was their only child). I met his mother, Lil, a couple of times and still have a poetry book she once gave me.

This year in Ottawa, there's a fuss in the media over the wearing of white poppies in memory of Conscientious Objectors and in memory of civilians who like the soldiers, sailors and airmen, have also suffered and died in wartime. Some people disapprove of the white poppy; some don't.


This blogpost was the starting point for a letter to the Ottawa Citizen, published in that paper on November 11th, 2010.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Listening to Mrs Mozart

Diana Gilchrist and her husband Shelley Katz performed at a private house last month. Wearing a curly wig and a high-waisted, early nineteenth century dress, she was "Mrs. Mozart" for the evening and he played the ghost of the great man himself, accompanying her at the piano.

Pretending to relive her life with Mozart, the pianist in the background playing one of his sonatas as if in her imagination, she read from her "journal" sitting at a small table set with an antique cup and saucer before getting up to sing Abendempfindung, in which the listener's flowing tears are supposed to become the pearls in her crown(!) It is a song of some length and the breathing for it is challenging—I know the long phrases of this one. It was brave of Ms Gilchrist to make this the first item on her programme.

Going back to her chronicle and having reminisced about Mozart's attraction to her elder sister Aloysia, a professional singer at the Viennese court, "Mrs Mozart" then demonstrated the Aria from the C minor mass, Et incarnatus est (click here for a lovely rendition of it by the French soprano Annick Massis), which Mozart had written for her, Constanze, after their marriage. Furthermore, his opera Die Entführung aus dem Serail has a character called Constanze in it, who sings the recitative and aria, Welcher Wechsel herrscht in meiner Seele. We heard this next.

Too much vibrato in this soprano voice for my taste, although Ms. Gilchrist did try to hold the resonance back to suit the confines of the small space we sat in, but when she performed the coloratura Queen of the Night's aria from the second act of The Magic Flute, Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herze, she was absolutely magnificent, perfect tone, great acting and all the notes! It was probably the best performance of this aria we've ever heard.

The concert finished with Vorrei spiegarvi, o Dio, another stand-alone aria, very Romantic in a 19th century sense (ahead of its time), and climaxing on an incredibly high note, a top G, I think. She hit it flawlessly.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Visible utterances

In the courtyard outside Jack's apartment block last night, after Chris and I had come down from his singing lesson, we lingered, despite the chilly, damp weather, to watch a short film that was being shown on a large outdoor screen. It was a recording made in 2008 of an event in Mexico City, remembering the Tlatelolco Plaza massacre of 1968. A giant megaphone had been set up in the same location, citizens of Mexico City being invited to speak into it and voice their thoughts and feelings about the massacre and about Mexican social justice in general. As each person spoke, his or her voice—and sometimes it was the voice of a child, sometimes an elderly person, sometimes a student of today, the same age as the victims forty years ago—was made visible, as it were, by beams of light bouncing up into the night sky to the rhythm of that person's words. The film (with subtitles in English) was entitled Vox Alta which means "aloud" or "in a loud voice." "Alta" also means "high" and The Mexican-Canadian electronic artist Rafael Lozano-Hemmer was commissioned to create this work.

I thought of it again when I opened a recent edition of the London Review of Books that arrived in yesterday's mail and read a poem by Jorie Graham, The Bird on My Railing. The last quarter or so of the poem's lines are a description of a bird singing on a cold morning, so cold that you can see its breath:
    when it opens its
    yellow beak in the glint-sun to
    let out song, it
lets out the note on a plume of
    lets out the
    visible heat of its
She calls this a "secret gift [...] of which few in a life are given."

It is also a poem about transience, loss, guilt and tenderness.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Battening down the hatches

House behind the trees on Ojai Road
"The severity of the climate [...] compelled them to batten down and caulk their abiding place." (John Badcock, Domestic Amusements, 1823)
Who is this John Badcock, and was he related to the fellow who wrote this rather good (undated) provocative essay about liberty and loyalty, maybe a century later, which I have just discovered on the Internet?

Anyhow, mustn't digress. 7 cm snow fell Saturday night while we were being treated to a Persian meal in (on?) the Silk Road, invited there unexpectedly by Nicola and Maha. It was scrumptious: spiced soup and meats (qormas, kabobs) served with Afghan naan bread, Iranian ice cream with pistachios for dessert and to end the meal I drank a glass of green tea flavoured with cardamom. I've been brewing pots of this at home since, good for me, I'm sure. Afterwards, over a nightcap at our house, we discovered that Nicola, in a former existence at the Universidad de León in Spain, had published papers about the 4000 year old Gilgamesh epic in the Journal of Near Eastern Studies.  I am reading one of these papers now.

Chris and Laurie defeated by the Prius wheelnuts
We had flown some circuits in the rain that turned to sleet before it snowed, making sure during the tie-down that PTN's new engine cover fits snugly, and perhaps we should have put her new wing covers on as well. She'll need her winterizer fitted next. Fitting winter tyres ("tires") on the car was a problem as we didn't have the correct wheel nuts to hand, but on Sunday Chris helped Laurie change the wheels successfully on three of the other cars parked at the end of Ojai Road.

Four "Roofmasters" start to work on our roof
Yesterday we had new shingles, ice shields, flashing and a vent installed on our roof in the hope that this will prevent the usual leaks under the ice dams that have caused trouble in previous winters. Five men from Roofmaster worked on this renovation and a very good job they made of it, too. They had to scrape the snow off the old roof, first.

Monday, November 1, 2010

"Les Justes"

Camus, quoted:
N'attendez pas le Jugement dernier. Il a lieu tous les jours.
Il y a dans les hommes plus de choses à admirer que de choses à mépriser.
Je ne connais qu'un seul devoir, et c'est celui d'aimer.
Il faut créer le bonheur pour protester contre l'univers du malheur.
Au milieu de l'hiver, j'ai découvert en moi un invincible été.
I'm still thinking about the NAC production of Camus' Les Justes that I watched about a month ago, its message less optimistic than in some of those famous—wonderful!—lines selected above, from other works by that writer.

Émmanuelle Béart as Dora in Les Justes
It's exhausting to have to concentrate on a foreign language for two-and-a-half hours non-stop, but the actors' French, being Parisian, meticulously enunciated, with an artificial slowness, allowed no one to miss a point. The current French Theatre director at the NAC, Wajdi Mouawad, whom I admire very much for his stand against conventional thinking at the NAC and for his courage in confronting the nastiest politics of the modern world without flinching in his own plays, acted the part of one of the terrorists portrayed in Les Justes, the most intransigent one, in fact. The other actors were from France, the most interesting to watch being Émmanuelle Béart. She had a severe character to play here and a severe haircut to match, but still looked as vulnerably beautiful as in the films she starred in, Manon des Sources and Un Coeur en Hiver. Once again, as in the latter film, I heard her say with furious, growling intensity,
Il faut aller jusqu'au bout!
but in the Camus play that line was spoken in a political, not a sexual context. I was once again bowled over.

The Camus play is a sort of Socratic discussion of whether and why ends might sometimes justify means, in the struggle against hopelessly unjust régimes. It is set at the start of the twentieth century, in Russia. Is it right to assassinate a Grand Duke as a gesture against despotism? Camus' four just men and one just woman believe so, some more assuredly than others. The "poet" among them is all in favour and about to throw the fatal hand-grenade when he sees (in Act II) that the Grand Duke is accompanied by his wife and children. That is when the questions start:
I could not predict this...Children, those children especially. Have you ever looked at little kids? That serious look they have sometimes...I couldn't stand that look...A minute before, however, in the corner of the little square, I was happy. When the lamps of the carriage started to shine in the distance, my heart was thumping with joy, I swear it. It beat harder and harder as the carriage rolling got louder. It made so much noise inside me. I think I was laughing. And I was saying, "yes, yes." Do you understand? I ran toward the carriage. Then I saw them. They weren't laughing. They held themselves all straight and looked out at nothing. They looked so sad! Lost in their parade poses, hands folded, the doors on either side. I didn't see the Grand Duchess; I only saw them. If they had looked at me, I think I would have thrown the bomb. To at least put out that sad look. But they looked straight ahead.I don't know what happened. My arms got weak. My legs shook. One second after that, it was too late. (Silence. He looks at the floor.)
Camus himself was torn over these questions. He was too intimately involved with the France-Algeria conflict to set his play in either of those countries, and the deliberate, Brechtian Verfremdungseffekt of using distant Russia as his setting is reinforced in this production by a symbolically stark, abstract set and very little physical movement on stage.

The consequence of seeing this play is that it makes you realise that terrorists are human. All of a sudden your attitude to the world is not as straightforwardly black and white any more. You are forced to reconsider.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

A rowdy restaurant

I went to see a loud, crude and funny film at the Bytowne Cinema, in German; it was called Soul Kitchen (2009). When I say loud, I mean ear-splitting. Most of the action takes place at a resto-bar in Hamburg's docklands. It acquires a manic chef who flings the kitchen knives around, as well as disc-jockeys and live rock musicians. When the place becomes popular and crowded the clientele shout for their meals, and when the new chef sprinkles an aphrodisiac spice on the desserts veritable orgies break out. At closing time the staff relax by visiting noisy discos.

Not the sort of film I'd normally expect to appreciate, but the comic touches were so good and the story line so fast-paced that I have to confess I did rather enjoy it. Directed by a German-Turk about a German-Greek and his brother (on parole from gaol). See the trailer here.

Thursday, October 28, 2010


Huā chá
I spent an hour practising Chinese phrases with my friend Yìwén yesterday evening, the phrase for "We're drinking beer! / "We'd like some beer" for instance, which is "Wǒmen hē píjiǔ!" This is a particularly useful phrase; according to Yìwén even bottled water is suspect over there and red wine (hóng pútáojiǔ) is more akin to sherry than what we're used to. "yī ping píjiǔ," (a bottle of beer) and then "Cheers!" "Gān bēi!" After which I'll probably need to know the word "wèishēngjiān," as in "duibuqi, wèishēngjiān zài nǎli?" (Excuse me, where's the washroom?)"...zenme zǒu? (How do I get there?)

Anyway, the brand of beer that Yìwén recommends is known as "xuě huā", Snow Beer, she called it.

"But doesn't 'huā' mean flower, as in flower tea / jasmine tea ('huā chá)?" I asked.

That's right, said Yiwen, it means 'snowflake.'

So a chinese snowflake = a snow flower. How lovely.

In the face of extinction

A third of all animals and plants on earth face extinction -- endangered blue whales, coral reefs, and a vast array of other species. The wave of human-driven extinction has reached a rate not seen since the fall of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. But there is a plan to save them -- a global agreement to create, fund and enforce protected areas covering 20% of our seas and lands by 2020. Right now, 193 governments are meeting in Japan to address this crisis. But without public pressure, they are likely to fall short of the bold action needed to avert the collapse of ecosystems the world over.

This has been written on Avaaz' front page on the Internet this week, encouraging people to sign the following petition (admittedly there's a split infinitive in it, but to point that out is not to denigrate the passion behind the words):

"To all parties of the Convention on Biodiversity:
One third of Earth's species face extinction. We call on you to urgently agree to create, execute and fund the protection of 20% of our oceans and lands by 2020. Only bold and immediate action will protect our planet's rich diversity of life."
(my underlining)

Tomorrow is the day that the petition will be presented to the summit conference in Nagoya and it looks as if it will have well over 600,000 signatures. Whether that number means anything in comparison to the billions who don't care remains to be seen, but what impresses me (I signed on Tuesday) is the rate at which the signatures are coming in, thirty per minute or more by my estimation, the names of "Recent Signers" appearing briefly on the sign up page in real time, and the variety of places from which people are signing. Consider the time zones from which they're signing, too! I have been watching this page with fascination, on and off, for the past couple of days and just now, out of curiosity and for the sake of this blog post, jotted down the different countries represented on the screen during a 10 minute span. They were Singapore, Congo, Uruguay, Brazil (lots of people from Brazil), the UK, Canada, the Bahamas, Peru, Guadeloupe, France, Greece, Honduras, Bolivia, the USA, Mexico, Switzerland, Australia, Chile, Argentina, Hong Kong, the Netherlands, Indonesia, Venezuela, S. Korea, India, New Zealand, Italy, Columbia, Germany, Ireland, Costa Rica, Spain, Austria, Poland, Nicaragua, Belgium, Burkina Faso and Fiji.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Off to talk French now

I have to confess to "ce qui m'a marquée pour la vie" this afternoon. I don't intend to tell them all of it.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Museum of Nature

I was one of the people who took a group of diplomats to visit the newly renovated Canadian Museum of Nature on Friday. On the left here is an artist's impression of its new look from the outside.

Most of our tour focussed on the history of the building, its architectural heritage and the sometimes unforeseen use to which it was put (for four years it was the Canadian parliament's headquarters even) but the staff seem proudest of its renovations, completed this year.

When you walk in, you can't help noticing the moose mosaic at your feet.
"...During the 1950s, a Roman Catholic-school group visited the museum through the main door, as was the practice back then. A nun with the group objected to the depiction of the bull's genitals and requested that something be done about it in order to protect the moral values of visiting children. Fearing negative publicity, the Museum covered the mosaic with a carpet. The mosaic remained hidden and all but forgotten until the early 1990s, when the atrium underwent restoration work and it was decided that the mosaic also be restored."
There's a diorama featuring a stuffed moose as well, in the Mammal Gallery on the second floor, the dioramas having a realistically painted background, done by an artist (Clarence Tillenius) who took his commission seriously, visiting the parts of Canada that were depicted, to observe the caribou, for example, migrating across Lake Athabasca. Our guide pointed out an interesting corner of the picture where the freezing water was painted blue; this is where the Slave River rapids begin, a dangerous place for canoes.

I am in two minds about the merits of taxidermy, especially after reading Yann Martel's strange, chilling novel, Beatrice and Virgil this year, but during my tour of the museum I was pleased to find in the Bird Gallery a stuffed hermit thrush that confirmed my tentative identification of the unfamiliar visitor to my garden last week.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Three weeks with my mother

 Very full, these past three weeks. I flew to England, rode on by train to Cardiff and shared my mother's life there for a few days, including a walk around Bute Park and a hospital visit for her eye treatment. My sister's house was the usual haven of relaxation where the chickens entertained us and Mel cooked us one of his excellent suppers. At Mum's house I watched TV, one show being a documentary about Prince Charles' organic garden and home grown (reed bed) sewage treatment facility, the next an account of how a classroom of lazy 9 year old boys in Harlow were inspired by a charismatic visiting teacher (Gareth Malone) to write their own play. I liked that. I also liked my solitary ramble across an unfarmed field between Whitchurch hospital and the River Taff. I'd never seen so many blackberry bushes in one place, and it felt like open country.

Then followed my long journey with my mother, via London, to Canada. We stopped at Hampton Hill en route, getting a welcome not only from Emma and family, but also from the pub staff at the Roebuck, who know us now. We slept in the room that overlooks the bus route and spent a happy day with young Alexander, picking up twigs, leaves and beechnuts in Bushy Park, deer in the grass and green parrots in the trees. We made mobiles and crowns from the gatherings which Alex' granddad Chris admired on Skype.

During the first of Mum's two weeks in Canada we took in a Musée des Civilisations exhibition and the Hubble telescope film after meeting my German speaking friends on a wet day, then spent a morning walking the Waterfall Trail in the Gatineau Hills. In the evening we sat on the front row at an NACO symphony concert featuring a Mozart Concerto for Two Pianos, the grand pianos on stage tessellating, so that the soloists Shai Wosner and Benjamin Hochman could keep an eye on one another. We tried to imagine Mozart playing it with his sister.

The parks, the grounds of Rideau Hall in particular, and outdoor markets have been spectacular under the sunny skies. Mum and I also got to see cranberries being harvested from the Vallée des Canneberges in Venosta on the Maniwaki road, thanks to my friends who drove us. Elva offfered us supper at her house that evening and how well we slept that night, having sat by her log fire and seen the Milky Way above her drive! Another thrill for Mum was to have chickadees feed from her hand beside Mud Lake one day.

On the Tuesday of Mum's second week here Faith flew in to join us who had been at an Indexer's conference in the Netherlands. Another trip to the Musée des Civilisations with Faith and Elva, lunching at the Green Papaya across the road and seeing another 3D Imax show afterwards, this one about Arabia. My sister, having been plunged into Dutch, Welsh, English, Canadian, Thai and Saudi Arabian environments in rapid succession, was suffering from cultural overload, so we had a quiet day in the parks next, before setting off on our two-day "ladies road trip" with three of my friends via Perth to Westport and back, staying at Rothwell's Stone Cottage. (Albums on Facebook.) The rest of the Thanksgiving weekend we spent at home, walking in the woods by Meech Lake on Sunday. Monday for me was entirely taken up with our Thanksgiving supper; I enjoyed both the preparation and the company, eight of us round the table.

Before Faith accompanied Mum back to Wales we did a sunny circuit of Parliament Hill to visit the stray cats, sharing a picnic under the pavilion, walking back through town.

I wish every 91 year old were as fit and able to enjoy things as my mother. She complains of her age but her voice was warm with appreciation of her trip when we spoke on the phone Wednesday morning, and now, in Britain, she's about to observe a second autumn, the leaves over there only just beginning to change.

Monday, October 4, 2010

One thing at a time

My mother's staying with me. We're making the most of her visit under the lovely Autumn trees which doesn't leave much time for me to write my blog, and I must be patient. I have a huge backlog of things worth recording.

On last week's rainy day I took her to the Museum of Civilisation in Gatineau where we watched a 3-D Imax show about the Hubble telescope. I know which part of it will stick in my mind. It showed an American astronaut repairing the 'scope in his space suit, which he said was as difficult as doing brain surgery with oven gloves. The only way he could cope with the challenge of unscrewing the defective unit was to assume a Zen approach, he said: only thinking about one screw at a time. If he let his mind dwell on  the whole of the challenge, he'd be lost.

Monday, September 20, 2010


Tonight I board a flight to England and this time tomorrow I'll be in Wales. This time next week, having spent a couple more days with the family in London, I'll be on my way back to Canada with my mother. My sister's going to fly over later, to join us.

In four weeks from now, so my husband has just informed me, I may be in Hangzhou, China. That's Hangzhou in the picture. We might be spending a month there on a business trip which has cropped up out of the blue. I'd be the accompanying spouse ... It would be good practice for George's and Sha's wedding in Beijing next May, anyhow.


I have attended four funerals or memorial services this year, two for elderly ladies (Elizabeth and Claude), one for a friend of my own generation (Regina) and a long mass at the Notre Dame Basilica last week for the teenaged children and niece (who died in a car crash last month) of a lady from our German conversation group (Katarzyna). I've thought many thoughts about all of these people, but writing about them seems impossible at the moment. Maybe I shall try again later. Music featured in each funeral and it seems as though this must help the chief mourners. I do hope so.

After Claude's funeral on Saturday I had to drive to the Flying Club to look after a little girl while her parents and her brother went up for a sight-seeing flight with Chris. She was 8 months old and after my very recent contemplation of the other end of life, her soft, warm company and her cheerfulness did me a world of good.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Standing up in front

(photo by Carol Hinde)

The first CFUW Diplomatic Hospitality event of the new season was held at the Vanier-Richelieu Community Centre this morning, a venue that had plenty of space for the coffee & cakes and the mingling; it also had a stage. Members of the Executive Committee (that's me in the pink jacket) had to display themselves to the assembly during the welcome speeches ... and now that I'm processing the photos, it really does remind me of our old school assemblies at Scarborough Girls' High School in the 1960s, with the music teacher at the piano (my dad in those days, though the chap in today's photo is university prof Frédéric Lacroix at an electronic keyboard, not his usual instrument) the headmistress at the podium (today, in Canada, it was Sheryl as our "chair") and the prefects standing behind her on stage. The young lady on the right (with her accompanist) was a special addition for today's occasion; she sang an aria by Bellini.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Struggling against the stream

I have recently watched two very good films (if upsetting can be synonymous with good). One was Stephen Spielberg's Amistad, based on the true story of a shipload of slaves from Sierra Leone imprisoned in the America in 1839 after they had escaped from their chains, run amok and killed most of the crew. Their plight was aggravated by a lengthy process in the law courts until they were finally vindicated in their bid for freedom, with the support of an ex-President, 74 year old John Quincy Adams, played by Anthony Hopkins in this film.

The other one was Dennis Gansel's Die Welle about which I can't stop thinking (the German adaptation of another true American story). This one deals with the terrifying ease in which a movement of mass destruction could (or can) begin, reminiscent of Lord of the Flies or the Hitlerjugend movement in the 1930s. Give restless young people a uniform, strict discipline and a sense of belonging to something that will change their world for the better and they nearly all become malleable; the unstable ones among them unfortunately may also become crazed. Die Welle has a predictably horrible ending, so don't watch it unless you're feeling strong. Two or three of the kids caught up in the wave manage to resist it. All the teenage types represented in the film were recognisable to me, because I used to be a high school teacher. When my daughter was at school she learned the proverb
Nur tote Fische schwimmen mit dem Strom.
I must admit I encouraged her not to be one of those dead fish carried along by whatever current.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

An apparition

Who knows what you might come across, walking round the park by the river in the dark, in the wind and rain?

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Tigers, monkeys, Arctic char ...

Miào-miao, girl's first name.
Don't roll r.
bù: 2nd tone if neighbouring word demands it
xiānsheng = husband, lit.= first birth, because husband is usually older than wife. In different contexts, zhàngfu and aìren also mean "husband"
-ung combination not used in mainland China, only in Taiwan.
nín used to older people and strangers
Tiger is king of animals (wáng). When no tigers, monkey is king.
Wáng is the most common surname in China. 100 million Wangs. Also huge number called Lǐ.

Those were some of the notes I took during my four hours of Mandarin lessons this week. The tutor, Allan Yin, is giving me copious examples of Chinese characters, but I can't really take them in at this stage, so am concentrating on the pinyin. Even there, the rules of pronunciation are very complicated. The trouble is, pinyin was created by a committee, a Chinese communist committee at that; if a westerner had been on it, he might have requested rather different spellings. That word for husband, for example, spelled xiānsheng in pinyin, sounds a lot more like "shieng-shung". When one says "thanks" xièxie seems to be pronounced something like "share sea air," rather than "shee-shee," as one might have supposed.

During Lesson 3, I'll be learning the phrase: What is your favourite number? 

Jill and John last weekend
Fascinating stuff, but other business has been distracting me from it this week, including work on Crosswinds, the RFC's newsletter. I'm getting some good input for this issue from friends and acquaintances, including an description by Jill of flying in John's plane to Newfoundland where they climbed Gros Morne. (I commissioned this article.) Another one was a report from a trio of club members, all male, who took a plane to Oshkosh and back, also in July. Another page will feature Chris' IFR instructor Kathy Fox who won a prestigious award this summer. Not only is she a famous aviatrix, she does other adventurous things, such as this ...
Kathy's catch
"From Aug. 2-15, I paddled the last 400km of the Coppermine River, from the Northwest Territories into Nunavut, most of it above the Arctic Circle. The Coppermine River is wild with a combination of lake, lazy river and whitewater paddling (my first such experience in rapids). Our intrepid group of twelve, including two Black Feather guides, had numerous adventures and wildlife sightings along the way, including a grizzly bear that wandered into our camp late one evening when we inadvertently camped close to a fresh caribou kill. This required us to beat a hasty retreat - packing up, paddling downstream and across the river to re-establish our camp. Fortunately we still had 24 hours of light, though the cloudy skies made it quite dusky.

One of the highlights of the trip (for me) was catching a large Arctic char. In all we caught 6 that day which we enjoyed for dinner that night, and the next day's lunch, and dinner...etc. I had never fished before and caught this estimated 12-13lb. char on my 4th cast! It was the biggest fish of the entire trip! I'm hanging up my rod now since any lesser catch would only be a letdown...."

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Chinese Language Centre

Tomorrow morning I'm going to take my first on-line lesson with a tutor from the Ottawa Chinese Language Centre, using Skype. Mr Yin gave me a ten-minute trial run yesterday in which he taught me the difference between:
  1. mã = mother
  2. má = a feeling of numbness / flax (the plant)
  3. mǎ = horse
  4. mà = curse / swear / scold
  5. ma = a question particle
All these monosyllables are pronounced with a different intonation. Fascinating, isn't it? but I shall have to watch out. I've now paid in advance for 10 hours of instruction and am working on the notes for Lesson 1, Greetings: 第一课 问候

A variety of animals

It was a good weekend altogether. Not only did we share it with a whole bunch of friends, we also shared it with some children and some animals. (I'd rather not count the roadkill, although I must admit that the dead porcupine we passed on Sunday made an impressive sight.)
Saturday, several of us drove to Bourget to visit Bob, Tracey and young Jonas, who showed one of his visitors some fishing in their pond. Small fish and large, noisy frogs, mostly, but a walleye had been spotted there, which Tracey hopes to cook one of these days. They've been pestered by an enormous beaver too whom the neighbour had seen to with a shot gun. There's little sentimentality about animals in the countryside; it's a them-or-us war, more often than not. Anyhow, while I walked around the pond I admired the monarch butterflies and the spiders among the flowers. Another visitor was the dog, Sasha, a golden brown softie.

Sunday saw us on horseback, as described in my last post, and on the way home Chris told Carol about the Edwin Muir poem, The Horses, which he and I first read at an impressionable age. I still think it's a great poem.

We also met the cats at Nicolas' / Isabelle's house and at the ranch that morning, and a large woolly poodle at the roadside stables. On the way home, we drove past a field full of llamas, while talking about how good it was for children like the two little boys we'd met to grow up in such surroundings, having unconfined adventures. How many city kids get the chance to play like that?

Having crossed the Ottawa River into Ontario on board the Thurso ferry, we were home in time for me to snatch a siesta before setting out again to meet a third lot of friendly people: Nicola, Maha and their daughter Lulu, in New Edinburgh. What a pleasant evening! As we came down the steps into their back garden we were greeted by a magnificent spread of Mediterranean dishes on the patio table (Maha comes from Syria) to which we tried to do justice as darkness fell and the stars, lamp, torch and candles came out (Chris questioning Maha about the Abasid Caliphate in which he's recently been taking an interest), while a family of raccoons rooted and snuffled in the flower beds behind us and the three cats of the household stretched themselves decoratively on the steps, among the flower pots. Indoors we also met the pet turtle.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Going for a ride

Marie-Ève adjusting Chris' stirrups on Navaho, Carol getting to know her horse, Éminence
Yesterday, at the Ranch du Versant near Ripon, Quebec, we were given a rare treat, a ride through the Montagnes Noires on horseback. This was a gift in appreciation of a couple of sight-seeing flights Chris has given ... to people who own horses!

Mounting my horse, Déesse, Nicolas looking on
To reach the stables it was a 100 km drive from home through lovely countryside, Nicolas and his wife leading the way in a truck, and when we arrived the horses were saddled and bridled, but not necessarily eager to depart. Isabelle called them paresseux, the day was warm, but we were assured that they like being with people and with one another, so wouldn't be hard to persuade to follow one another down the trails. I hoped that my horse would be happy just to keep in line and, despite detailed rider's instructions on how to make her stop, start, turn left and turn right, that she'd want to do no more than follow the others in a docile manner. In fact I made a private vow to leave most decisions to the horse, as I was sure she'd know far better than I what to do, if we came upon any obstacles. Nobody told me at the start that Déesse used to be a racing horse. As a matter of fact, she proceded in a leisurely manner all the way. Only once did she break into a little trot, which was quite enough excitement for a novice such as me.

We rode for nearly an hour in single file, Marie-Ève leading the way, acquiring some basic skills as we went. Downhill, we leant back to keep ourselves as upright as possible on the saddle. Going uphill, we leant forward, which encourages the horse. (Chris joked afterwards that he'd coped fine with the ride except for the stretch where he'd had to carry his horse up the steep hill.) Carol, who'd ridden before, was relaxed enough to take photos whereas I kept a tight hold of pommel and reins (le pommeau et les rênes) all the way around. My calves began to ache within minutes, probably because I was too tense. Later, I realised how much I was enjoying myself and relaxed into the ride. We'd had to sign a waver to say we accepted the possibility of injury or death in the enjoyment of this activity. I wore a riding hat, although the more experienced members of the expedition all sported cowboy, or sun hats. The ranch couldn't supply a riding hat large enough for Chris so he wore his bike helmet.

When we came to muddy patches, the fastidious horses preferred to step around the mud rather than go through it, so we had to contend with branches getting in the way. There were roads to cross with care as well and, at one point, a little ditch. "Navaho might jump it," said Marie-Ève to Chris, "but don't worry. Let him, if he wants to!" But he didn't. Déesse, following Éminence's footsteps, picked her way delicately across the ditch and didn't jump either. Nor did we see the bears that sometimes make an appearance on this trail; even so it felt like a truly American experience to be riding, Western-style, through those hills. We thought of the early settlers who had covered thousands of miles this way. I don't suppose they were always rewarded by a distribution of cool beers at the ranch at the end of their expeditions, as we were. We sat by the barn and watched the horses, unencumbered by bridles or saddles, canter around and greet each other by rubbing noses, and saw the big one, Duc, roll in the sand because he felt hot and sticky. A sense of bien-être pervaded among adults, children and the animals themselves.

The only point at which I fell off was when trying to dismount at the end of the ride, having left one of my feet in the stirrup, much too far off the ground. (Notice that everyone in the picture, including me, is in fits of laughter.)