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.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Acadians

From another talk in French (on Tuesday) I learned about "les acadiens," also eventually known in the USA as Cajuns.

They were brave people; they had to be.

In the 16th century explorers from France claimed parts of northeastern America, naming the new found land "Acadie" after an ancient Greek word meaning peaceful refuge, idyllic place. Champlain (see my previous blogpost) encouraged settlement around the Bay of Fundy and around the Annapolis River where to counteract the extraordinarily high tides the new immigrants began digging canals and dykes (aboiteaux) through the salt marshes to dry out the land and harvest the salt. (You can find a model of this system in the Musée des Civilisations at Gatineau.) Little communities sprang up, Port-Royal, Grand-Pré, Pointe-de-l'Église. To start with, there were no women around, but friendly Mi'kmaq natives were trading their beaverskins with the new settlers, so inevitably some children of mixed race came along. As recorded in his journal, Champlain created a social club in Port-Royal called L'Ordre du Bon Temps to give the men some distractions. By the mid-17th century, French women were well established there too.

Then came interference from the British and a tragedy known to the Acadian people as Le Grand Dérangement, a moment in history of which Britain should be thoroughly ashamed. The expulsion was meant as punishment for rebellious behaviour, a refusal to swear unconditional allegiance to Britain. The governor of Nova Scotia in 1755, Charles Lawrence, ordered all the Acadians to be deported, about 10 thousand of them, with no redress. Grand-Pré, their departure point, is now a place of pilgrimage with commemorative gardens, monuments and a statue of the fictional Evangéline, heroine of the long, romantic poem about the exiled Acadians by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. There's another statue of Evangéline in Louisiana where some of them ended up.

Nowadays you can buy little Evangéline dolls wrapped in a box with Gabriel dolls (Gabriel was her long lost boyfriend) from the souvenir shop at Church Point.

I've not read the Longfellow poem, but Simone, the lady who gave the talk, lent me a novel in French telling a similar story. It's by Antonine Maillet and is entitled Pélagie-La-Charette. I have been warned that the dialogue is full of vocabulary I'll find difficult, the language of the Acadians being a unique corruption of old French dialects, "une langue déformée," the ladies called it. Simone had brought an Acadian-French dictionary along, and one of the others borrowed that to show to her linguist husband.

The Acadians, although they are not officially a nation, have chosen a national day for themselves, August 15th, and have a national anthem which begins like the Roman Catholic vespers hymn, Ave, maris stella ... Hail, star of the sea! We made an attempt at singing it. The yellow star appears on the blue stripe on their flag: blue, white and red like the French tricolore.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

On s'arrange entre nous

Yesterday morning I heard a talk in French given by the novelist and translator Daniel Poliquin: he was speaking about a book he has recently translated entitled Le Rêve de Champlain, written originally in English by the American historian David Hackett Fisher––Champlain's Dream, 2008; in the hardcover version it is 848 pages long.

It would have been interesting to hear M. Poliquin say more about the challenges of translating such a weighty book, and he did tell us a little about this (making the nice little aside that he thinks the French version is probably better than the original; he had been able to correct some mistakes in the English version!), how his research into nautical vocabulary had taken him three days work with an expert mariner and so on, but mostly we learned about what an impressive man Samuel de Champlain must have been, and how his vision for New France (i.e. Canada) was way ahead of his time (Champlain died in 1635). Poliquin compared his policies with those of Willi Brandt and Helmut Schmidt who advocated a peaceable (pacifique) reunification of Germany in the 1980s. "Wandel durch Handel" (change through commerce; Poliquin made the striking remark that the Berlin Wall was brought down by fax machines).

The explorer-diplomat Champlain, who crossed the Atlantic 27 times during his 16th / 17th century lifetime, had the difficult task of having to work with the "Amérindiens" on behalf of France without being too confrontational about it. His attitude mattered. He was respectful and non-judgemental. He asked the native people about their beliefs and their politics and found them as intelligent and "evolués" as the Europeans. He considered their kayaks, for example, to be one of the greatest of human inventions. Champlain having paddled (or been paddled) along the lakes and rivers from Detroit to Montreal, this was not just a casual turn of phrase.

The word "sauvage" (savage, wild), as Poliquin pointed out, comes from the Latin silva, forest, so les sauvages were actually "people of the forest."

The word caucus, used in N. American politics today, is said by some to come from an Algonquin word cau´cau-as´u, although there's some debate about this. Champlain liked the way the native Americans arrived at their decisions by consensus, after giving everyone a chance to speak his mind freely. Because of his deference to the native way, there has been no genocide perpetrated by Europeans in this northern part of the Americas. When a Frenchman was murdered by one of the native people, Champlain played for time and would not countenance a knee-jerk, vengeful reaction. He entered into discussions, persuaded the tribesmen to make amends, effected an exchange of hostages and gifts. Poliquin said that this foreshadowed typical present day Canadian behaviour:
S'il y a du trouble avec des voisins, on n'appelle pas la police, ou seulement en dernier recours. On se débrouille entre nous, on s'arrange entre nous.
Poliquin calls Champlain's vision for Canada "un rêve modeste ... et fou." But Champlain's legacy, his influence upon Canada, and his dream of a peaceful new world remains. Champlain was a Renaissance man, a humanist, a botanist, a writer, an expert navigator and cartographer, not just a governor. "Il pouvait lire la forêt" and his maps, as modern tools confirm, were astonishingly accurate. As a scientist he did make some mistakes, however, convinced that the goal of his explorations –– China –– lay not so far from Montreal. There's a suspicion he may have been a Protestant, not a Catholic, although the French régime that supported his endeavours was Catholic, and very right wing at that. He was a failure in one aspect of his life. Married at 40 to a girl of twelve, she left him when she grew up and joined a convent.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Horrors on the street

I see that the Ottawa Citizen has published a report about this fund-raiser for the Ottawa Food Bank.

We crossed paths with several hundred zombies staggering through the Byward Market in Ottawa yesterday afternoon, almost all of them played by young people who'd been rather heavy handed with the gory make-up and accessories (I liked the fellow in an apron advertising Heinz Tomato Ketchup). "They look like typical students to me," said Chris, while I wondered aloud whether they might be evidence of the End Of The World that had been forecast to take place on Friday evening.

Commentators in high spirits were keeping up a good flow of remarks as the parade went by and to my amusement I heard a young man behind me say, "And now, for no apparent reason, here comes an old lady dressed in red ..." meaning me!

Saturday, October 22, 2011


I was very struck by the sight of cirrocumulus clouds on our way home from town this afternoon, as the skies began to clear after some grey, wet days. Chris took a photo too, as evidence of supercooled water droplets at 20,000 ft agl. They looked as though they'd been painted onto the blue with a big brush.

Here is my own picture, looking up from the park by our street:

"Là-bas, les merveilleux nuages!" (Baudelaire)

The trees inside

"Cedro di Versailles" at the AGO
"Ripetere il Bosco" is also visible
on the right hand wall in this picture
We visited the recently reconstructed AGO (Art Gallery of Ontario) in Toronto last Friday, its transformation masterminded by Frank Gehry, and in the Galleria Italia on Level 2 we were impressed by a remarkable installation called Ripetere il Bosco (Repeating the Forest), by Guiseppe Penone.

Planks of wood, attached to the high inner walls of the spacious gallery, had been painstakingly chiselled out, exposing the form of the young tree it had originally come from. Presumably the message is that the tree itself is still there, to those who know how to look for it within a man made wooden artefact.
My artwork shows [...] the essence of matter and tries to reveal [...] the hidden life within.
In March last year Penone, struggling with a language that's not his own, gave a recorded talk at the AGO:
I take a big beam ... I start to carve the beam following a ring of growing ... and I arrive to find the form of the tree... I do several times because each beam is from a different tree [with a] different history. I make evident the tree that is in the wood that surrounds us.
Penone discovering the inner tree
In his intimate dealings with trees dead and alive, he imagines that ...
The space between the tree and the bark is the future time of the tree ...
Born in the alps near Turin, Penone is a member of the Italian Arte Povera group, creating sculpture from easy to find, ordinary materials, rather than from rare, costly marble and such things. Even so, I couldn't help remembering what Michelangelo did with blocks of marble towards the end of his life. Those were sculptures of emerging forms as well.

By the way, while searching for another link to Giuseppe Penone I came across a blog published regularly since 2005: Some Landscapes. These illustrated comments on the theme of landscapes as depicted in the arts are written (compulsively, I imagine) by "Plinius"—who likes that nom de blog—from Stoke Newington. I thoroughly recommend browsing through it.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Cheng squared

We went to an astonishing concert: the performers were advertised as "The ChengDuo"–—their names being Silvie and Bryan Cheng.  The pianist Silvie has already performed at Carnegie Hall in New York and has appeared in concert with Angela Hewitt. Silvie's 'cellist brother Bryan is also due to appear at the Carnegie Hall—this weekend, playing a ¾-sized 'cello because he has not yet grown tall enough for a full sized one. His sister will be on stage again as his accompanist. Needless to say, the Cheng family was very excited about the event, and the concert we heard at a private house in Ottawa was a practice for their New York performance. We were sitting close enough to touch Bryan's 'cello, had we wanted to.

George knew the first piece, Schubert's Arpeggione Sonata in A minor, and reminded me I used to play the piano part for him to try out the slow movement on the 'cello in the old days. I do remember that 5-note descending run, I must say, absolutely gorgeous music.

Is Schubert suitable for the very young? I can't help feeling that the more experience of life, love and other mysteries you have had, the better you will know on which phrases to linger and which notes to emphasize, but perhaps I'm wrong. It's wrong to underestimate the capabilities of people who can't quite be classed as adults yet, that I do know. I have a sneaking suspicion that children and teenagers are equal to anything an adult can achieve.

We came home talking of the adolescent Yehudi Menuhin playing Elgar's violin concerto and other such prodigious feats. Bryan may be young, but when he's playing, already looks and sounds like a professional. We were glad to see that he wasn't prematurely aged, though, in spite of his extraordinary accomplishments. At the end of one virtuoso item on the programme, Bringing the Tiger down from the Mountain (by Chinese-Canadian composer Alexina Louie), Bryan, pretending to be the tiger, had leapt out at Chris (facing him in the front seats) with a roar. To the young man's delight Chris had jumped out of his seat, laughing and applauding.

The full programme was as follows:

Schubert: Sonata in A minor for Cello and Piano
Haydn: Piano Sonata No. 59 in E-flat
Paganini: Variations on One String on a theme of Rossini
Louie: Bringing the Tiger down from the Mountain II
Schumann: Piano Sonata No. 2 in G minor
Tchaikovsky: Variations on a Rococo Theme

Encore: an arrangement of the Starwars theme, this piece played on a "big 'cello" that Bryan was trying out for size!

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Thoughts of travel

Once again, I have been playing the accompaniments to Winterreise (by Schubert) and the Songs of Travel (by Vaughan Williams) where the piano clomps along like heavy, purposeful footsteps that keep the impetus going while the singer voices his wandering thoughts.
I have trod the upward and the downward path ..., 
goes the last song in the Vaughan Williams' cycle as the aging vagabond trudges off into the sunset, softly singing to himself,
... and I have lived and loved and closed the door!
(on a high D, pianissimo).

We seem to spend our lives thinking about travel. I wake up thinking about journeys after dreaming of expanses of water. Because the marketing department at work has ideas for him, Chris keeps sending me instant messages to say: would you mind going to China again next year? ... or Korea? It seems fairly certain we'll off to Germany in December and to England next February for him to participate in software engineering conferences.
I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips,
Straining upon the start. The game's afoot:
Follow your spirit ...
(Shakespeare, Henry V)

Our son is even more of a wanderer; he's supposed to live and work in Sydney, but this year sees him popping up, for various reasons, on four continents: in Perth, Melbourne, Canberra, Li Jiang, Cheng Du, Xi'an, Beijing, Chiang Mai, Kunming, São Jose (near São Paulo) and to the borders of the Tibet Autonomous Region. It's hard to keep up with where he might be on any given day. On Monday, he and Sha will fly to Canada to visit us for Thanksgiving; that I do know.

Physics World estimates that "as they fly all over the world to observatories, conferences and meetings astronomers are averaging some 23 000 air miles per year." What restless people we all are, except for our daughter (who noticed that quotation and sent it rather pointedly to her brother); she, apart from a week on the Isle of Wight, is contentedly staying put for the whole year with her family in Hampton Hill, London.