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.

Monday, February 28, 2011

A two hat day

I'm often like the man with two hats who faces Dow's Lake in the tulip gardens. Yesterday afternoon, I was supposed to be in two places at once: in Rockcliffe Flying Club's clubhouse, wearing my Crosswinds-editor's hat for the Meet and Greet party, and at the United Church on Parkdale, wearing my layout-editor's hat for Fran's book launch. In the end I managed to attend each event in succession.

At the club we were recruiting volunteers for no fewer than nine club committees, webmaster Louis Bourque recording the event as it happened by means of a live blog. Carol and Elva had prepared some bottles of self-brewed wine for the club's Golden Jubilee year.

Château Rockcliffe?
After 4 o'clock I handed over responsibility for my display and drove downtown for the end of the book launch, at which, in the church hall, Francilia's friends were paying close attention to an hour-and-a-half of respectful speeches and readings from her book of true stories about Caribbean motherhood.

It was clear from the book (which I'd studied so carefully during its creation) that the people of the Caribbean countries absolutely revere their mothers, and the speakers I heard reinforced that impression. I arrived during Dr Robert Moore's reflections—born in Guyana, he is the author of one of the chapters—and also heard the High Commissioner for the Commonwealth of the Bahamas, Excellency Michael Smith, read aloud what he had written about his mother, Cynthia. I remembered every word, but it was a moving experience for me to hear the essay read by the author himself, with the audience nodding in agreement and appreciation of his words or chuckling at the humorous touches. A French speaking lady from Haiti, Ghislaine Narcisse, read out her contribution as well, and Dr Shirley Brathwaite read extracts from three more chapters from the compilation.

The Barbadian High Commissioner and his wife, Fran
- photo by Lois Siegel of the Ottawa Citizen

A reception followed with hot and spicy Caribbean savouries, but first the speakers at the event had to have their photo taken, and I was asked to be in the photo too, standing beside my Barbadian friend who had brought all this about. I don't think she had the chance to partake of many refreshments; she was too busy signing copies of her book for the people who had bought them.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

More madrigals

At the Tabaret Hall on Sunday afternoon I heard some once "very popular pieces of music ... their composers were almost the equivalent of today's pop and rock stars." That's what the choral director Antonio Llaca said about his choice of music for this Coro Vivo concert. It was madrigals again, not only English ones by Dowland, Morley, Ward and Weelkes, but also French madrigals by Claudin de Sermisy and early Spanish ones by Juan del Encina (a dramatist as well as a composer, who died in León around 1530).

The music

Tant que vivray was the first one on the programme, sung a capella; apparently Claudin's pieces always begin with a distinctive rhythm (this the choir demonstrated by singing "long-short-short-long" to us). The composer may have studied with Josquin des Prez, a name I remember from my old A-level Music textbook. Later on we heard two more of these French renaissance part-songs, accompanied by a trio of harp (Joanne Griffin playing what's reputedly "the only renaissance harp in Ottawa"), tenor recorder and viola da gamba. The song Au joli bois was deliberately sung in the old French pronunciation ("Au joli bouais ...").

Come again, by Dowland, was the first of the English madrigals, and for this, a sub-group of the 40-strong choir sang the verses while the remainder hummed along. (Madrigals should really all be performed by a very small number of singers.) The rock singer Sting likes this one! The words and music are quite explicit, the fourth line, for instance, a breathless, panting rise of pitch that goes over the top, as it were, on the word "die" ...
Come again! sweet love doth now invite
Thy graces that refrain
To do me due delight,
To see, to hear, to touch, to kiss, to die
With thee again in sweetest sympathy.
The Morley, Ward and Weelkes numbers were full of "fa-la-las," especially when the music became contrapuntal, and word-painting. The choir was asked to demonstrate the sound of the horns in Ward's A Satyr once did run away. Though their singing was good, this item was spoiled for me by the choir's peculiar pronunciation of "satyr" as say-tor. Maybe the Spanish-speaking director wasn't sure about it, although he did give a good translation for one of the Spanish madrigals, Qu'es de ti, desconsolado? –– "What happened to you, sad little guy?" This was a piece written in remembrance of the conquest of Granada from the Moors by the conquistadoresin the 1490s. Triste España sin ventura was a political one too, though not Hoy comamos y bebamos, meaning: let's feast and drink today (for tomorrow we fast), during which the choir pretended to be a noisy rabble between verses (although they hadn't dressed up like the people in this recording.)

That song would have been a good one to conclude with, but Coro Vivo's concert programme had been structured under headings––Armonía dell'amore, Armonía della festa, Armonía della tristezza, Armonía della patría––so in order to finish with a flourish, they gave us a repetition of Now is the month of Maying as an encore.


The word madrigal probably comes from "matricale" meaning “in the mother tongue” (rather than Latin).

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

A magical blue

On a walk in the woods behind Elva's and Laurie's house (windchill in the minus 20s, but we kept going) we came across an extraordinary phenomenon, a patch of snow reflecting the blue sky, that looked like water. It was snow in shadow, lying on the surface of a frozen beaver pond. We first saw it from above and couldn't believe our eyes, so I took a couple of photos for proof. The second picture shows how we checked the surface to make sure it was real.

We were so bemused by the experience that after turning our backs on the magic pond, we (or, at least, I) set off firmly walking back to the house in the wrong direction. It's just as well that Laurie had his GPS along to prove that I was wrong.

Monday, February 21, 2011

My favourite author?

I have read three books of fiction in quick succession: Anthony Trollope's The Small House At Allington, a collection of short stories by Patrick White and Yann Martel's The Life of Pi (Christmas present from my sister—thanks, Faith!). It would be hard to imagine a greater difference of writing styles, never mind the subject matter, but I found them all compulsive reads. This just goes to show that the silly question—"Who is your favourite author?"—is impossible to answer.

Random samples from the three books ...

It was of the Lady Rosina that the servants were afraid, especially with reference to that so-called day of rest which, under her dominion, had become to many of them a day of restless torment. It had not always been so with the Lady Rosina; but her eyes had been opened by the wife of a great church dignitary in the neighbourhood, and she had undergone regeneration. How great may be the misery inflicted by an energetic, unmarried, healthy woman in that condition, a woman with no husband, or children, or duties, to distract her from her work, I pray that my readers may never know.

Well-meaning people would call to her over the front fence, 'Don't you feel lonely, Mrs Natwick?" They spoke with a restrained horror, as though she had been suffering from an incurable disease.
But she called back proud and slow, "I'm under sedation.'
'Arrr!' They nodded thoughtfully. 'What's 'e given yer?'
She shook her head. 'Pills,' she called back. 'They say they're the ones the actress died of.'
The people walked on, impressed.

During those days of plenty, I laid hands on so many fish that my body began to glitter from all the fish scales that became stuck to it. I wore these spots of shine and silver like tilaks, the marks of colour that we Hindus wear on our foreheads as symbols of the divine. If sailors had come upon me then, I'm sure they would have though I was a fish god standing atop his kingdom and they wouldn't have stopped. Those were the good days. They were rare.

I'm now reading a translation of Goethe's Faust. And that's another story.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Frédéric and George

Not "Georges," by the way. She didn't like the S. I'm speaking of Frédéric Chopin and (the woman) George Sand, about whom I heard a group of French people talk last week. One of the ladies present was actually a descendent of George Sand, through the latter's son and his mistress.
George Sand's son, Maurice
George Sand's lover, Chopin

Although admittedly Chopin was 13 years older than her son, it seems clear from these pictures why "George" fell for Chopin. She wanted to mother him.

Chopin was the son of a Frenchman and a Polish woman (southern Polish, of romantic temperament). His sisters too were gifted (echoes of the Mozart family); the elder one taught him to play the piano. As a child Frédéric played the flute and liked to mimic people, a little comedian. Aged 11, he performed for the Tsar of Russia.

Chopin spent a decade of his adult life (1837-1847) with the proto-feminist, George Sand. She too was a precocious child (her real name was Aurore), the daughter of an aristocratic father and petit-bourgeois mother who had died young. At the age of 19 Aurore (i.e. George) got married, but her husband was a disappointment. She tried to teach him English and poetry when he was only interested in hunting. She developed une adoration folle, malsaine for her son, Maurice, but neglected her daughter Solange.

Oscar Wilde claimed that Sand had to have love affairs in order to be able to write about them; when she wasn't making jam, she wrote over sixty novels and more than twenty plays and had a series of liaisons dangereuses with young men, students, poets (such as Alfred de Musset), maybe with women too. The name George Sand was her invention inspired by an affair with Jules Sandeau, Maurice's private tutor, after which she took to wearing trousers, a dagger in her belt ("une femme doit se protéger"), and smoking cigars.

In comparison with "George," despite his sympathy with revolutionaries, Chopin was a conservative soul ("âme conservateur"); he also treated Sand's daughter with more affection than she did, which caused an eventual rupture. Chopin left France for a tour of Britain ("The English are kind people," he said, "but so weird!") and never returned to his mistress' house at Nohant. Chopin's death, probably from tuberculosis, soon followed.

A death mask was made and a cast of his left hand. Before the funeral, his heart was removed, preserved in alcohol to be returned to his homeland, as he had requested, his sister smuggling it to Warsaw, where it was later sealed within a pillar of the Holy Cross Church on Krakowskie Przedmieście. The rest of him was buried in the Madeleine in Paris. The funeral was attended by nearly three thousand people, George Sand not among them. The organist was Franz Liszt. Chopin had wanted Mozart's Requiem to be sung, but the Church of the Madeleine had forbidden female singers in its choir. In the end his wish was granted, with the ladies hidden away, singing from behind a black velvet curtain.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Never forgotten

As I write, I'm listening to a spirited performance of Jesu, meine Freude, a motet by J.S. Bach. I sang this once, aged eighteen. Once sung, never forgotten. I still feel the same about it.

I can't speak for anyone else, but whenever life becomes challenging I know it is always the same things that keep me sane: the moon, the sun and the stars and the landscapes they shine on, the knowledge that I have friends I can trust, and (above all) poetry and music. Not any old poetry and music, only the best.

The words from the motet that never fail to raise gooseflesh on me are as follows:

Trotz dem alten Drachen, trotz des Todes Rachen, trotz der Furcht dazu!
Tobe, Welt, und springe, ich steh' hier und singe,
Ich steh hier und singe in gar sichrer Ruh.

(Click here for a recording.)

In spite of the old dragon, in spite of death's revenge, in spite of our fear of it ... let the world rampage and quake as it may, here I'll stand and sing, here I stand and sing, secure in perfect peace (written in 1650).

I make no apologies if I have blogged about this before.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Belonging to Canada

Wali Farah, a Canadian immigrant from Somalia, is on the board of directors of the Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants (OCASI) and is manager of the Multicultural Liaison Officer programme within the Ottawa Community Immigrant Services Organization (OCISO) On Monday I listened to a talk he gave about the work done by this NGO, for whom he has worked for fourteen years.

In 1993 Mr Farah "escaped," as he put it, from Somalia, seeking sanctuary because he decided that he would prefer an education to the use of a gun. But there are no schools in refugee camps, he reminded us. This is one of the reasons why displaced people long to come to a place like Canada.

Even after they get here they still have to undergo a long, tough, mental journey before they can properly belong. How can one develop patriotic feelings towards a country that's not one's own? The OCISO provides programmes for new immigrants that first help them to settle and then help them integrate into our society, using voluntary help from Canadian professionals. For example, civil servants in the business district of town, instead of driving home with the other commuters, sometimes spend an hour after work helping immigrant children tackle their homework at the Library Homework Club on Metcalfe Street. The organisation also helps their parents to understand the Canadian school system and employs around thirty volunteers to help adult immigrants with their English.

A youth project, YOCISO, teaches teenagers life- and leadership skills as they juggle with the two cultures they're immersed in. This project is run by young university graduates. There's a programme that administers a scholarship fund, rewarding excellence in high schools among immigrant students. Recent winners of the scholarship were from Somalia, El Salvador and the UAE.

Other people work with adult immigrants to help them find work in the new country, apparently with an 80% success rate. That's impressive. A counselling service offers mental health therapy, often necessary where refugees are concerned since many have undergone traumas in war zones in their past life. OCISO advocates for them at their hearings with the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada, and generally offers them support.

During his presentation, Mr Farah made the following points rather forcefully:
  • Immigrants bring added value to their adopted country as well as taking advantage of it.
  • The rule of law and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms are what guides this country.
  • New immigrants are sometimes taken aback by the friendliness of government officials here in Canada when they're greeted you with a smile and not asked for bribes. 

He finished with a quotation from one of his own mentors: "Belonging does for human beings what soil does for plants. It nurtures us and enables us to grow, and blossom."

Saturday, February 5, 2011

What a crowd!

Winterlude is in full swing with the temperature one degree above zero this afternoon; it brought out the crowds, especially on the Rideau Canal. There's always the risk that the ice will collapse under the weight of all those people, but the authorities are aware of that and test its thickness well before letting them on. Many people were on skates but some were just walking, why not? My second photo showing the Laurier Avenue Bridge was taken from the MacKenzie King Bridge which you see in the first picture which in turn was taken from the Plaza Bridge. I like being above the mêlée.

I visited the "Crystal Garden" in Confederation Park with the intention of watching the ice-sculptors at work, but the queue for that attraction was so long, I thought better of it. Instead, I wandered around the rest of the park, finding artistic installations not only in ice but also in other media, took a look at the maple syrup making corner (cauldron over log fire, taffy for sale by the sugar shack) and then queued up to see what was inside the Chinese yurt. Around the inner walls was a photo exhibition from China which I studied with great interest, but not before listening to a chap called David Hickey play with his astrologically decorated "symphonic gongs" and quartz crystal singing bowls. I expect he was chosen to perform here because he calls his music a Crystal Journey.

There was also an outdoor photo exhibition called Poles Apart, presented by the British Council and the World Wildlife Fund: pictures of the Arctic and Antarctic "highlighting the challenges and changes at both poles." Spectacular and interesting scenes, anyhow.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Links between Canada and China

A drive across town this morning took Lolan and me along the Rideau Canal, skaters making the most of the blue sky and ice that has been swept clear of snow after yesterday's storm. Where the canal widens out into Dows Lake a skaters' road across it has been created so that they can reach the pavilion. This month, during Winterlude, there'll be rides in horse-drawn sleighs here and huts selling Beavertails. Lolan was encouraging me to cross the river into Quebec (where she lives) and share some hot chocolate with her after I'd seen the snow sculptures in the Jacques Cartier Park.

We also talked about the ice sculptures to be carved in Confederation Park this month: the "Embassy of the People's Republic of China in Canada" is going to "highlight the Chinese New Year with a garden of lanterns, dance performances, a photo exhibit and tea ceremonies in an Asian yurt, and the participation of two teams of ice carvers, straight from the Harbin International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival".

We were on the way to our German conversation and when we arrived at the house I stopped to take a picture, so dramatic did it look in the snow. There too, in the house, was a reminder of China, because one of the walls in the dining room is decorated with a lovely oriental fresco.

A week on Sunday, Chris and I are planning to attend a Chinese New Year event with the Canada-China Friendship Society of Ottawa, celebrating the Year of the Rabbit with a "banquet" at the Mandarin Restaurant on Ogilvie Road.