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

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

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Mannerheim followed by Tamm

[This blogpost to be expanded when I have time!]

Another discovery this week, courtesy of the Canada-China Friendship Society; I went to hear the journalist Eric Enno Tamm talk about the book he has written––The Horse That Leaps Through Clouds––which is an account of the adventure he organised for himself in 2006, following the ancient, northern Silk Road (approximately) from St. Petersburg to Beijing in order to retrace a journey to China made by a Russian spy in 1906.

Gustaf Mannerheim, who eventually became President of Finnland, was the spy.


Confucius once advised: "Study the past in order to divine the future."

"By studying China's past," says Mr. Tamm, "I raised troubling questions about its future."

I queued up to speak to Mr. Tamm after his presentation (asking him how he'd managed the language problems––he said he had relied upon interpreters a lot of the time) and told him that when I got home I'd go straight to his website on the computer, which I did. I recommend it (a proper time-consumer, though) ––excellently well put together. Click here to take a look.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011


Reading Pélagie-la-Charette (by Antonine Maillet), the novel mentioned in my blogpost about the Acadians, I'm struggling to follow the dialogue written in historic Arcadian dialect. Not having a French-Acadian dictionary to hand, I just have to guess at the meaning. Here, for example, is a passage I can more or less decipher ...
Je nous accoutumerons, j'avons connu pire dans le passé, et j'en sons sortis [...] Charlécoco, partez chacun de votre bord, l'un au nordet, l'autre au suroît, et me rapportez une paumée d'eau claire. [...] Après le règne des vaches maigres vient cestuy-là des grasses. Ça sera pas dit que je nous quitterons corver entre les deux. Allez, ouste!
... except for the verb "corver" (no idea what that means).

The book sweeps me along all the same, and could be the basis of an epic film if anyone took the trouble to adapt it. But then, what would become of the language?

Another thing I'm spending time on at present is helping Chris prepare for his presentation in German at the ESE conference in Sindelfingen next month. As we read through the documentation I can't help wondering what the Germans themselves make of their language these days, that leans so heavily on English, English technical jargon at that, in this context. Here's part of an introduction to one of the other talks that will be given at the conference (my italics):
Der Teilnehmer erfährt, wie neue Regularien im Energiebereich, Smart Grid, heruntergebrochen und durch technische Features realisiert werden können. Beispiele sind hier auch Smart Meters. Anhand von anschaulichen Use-Cases wird dem Teilnehmer vor Augen geführt, was es bedeutet, Sicherheit in der Fertigung in der Industrie einzuführen und was das Keymanagement in der Realität für Anforderungen an IT und betrieblicher Sicherheit stellt. Der Teilnehmer erhält dadurch Informationen, die ihm die Entscheidung erleichtern, ob und wenn ja welche Teile von Embedded Security als Entwicklungsdienstleistungen besser eingekauft und welche besser in-house aufgebaut werden.
It's hardly German any longer. Do students of German engineering rely on guesswork too?

Saturday, November 12, 2011

The famous railway

Ontario Science Centre photo of a Canadian Pacific steam train

The other day I got to see the documentary Imax film that's been showing at the Museum of Civilisation since the beginning of last month: Rocky Mountain Express.

At the end of the nineteenth century, against the odds, William Cornelius Van Horne of Illinois built the most challenging stretch of the trans-Canada railway, through the mountains of British Columbia and Alberta. He was aided and abetted by crazily obsessive surveyor-engineers like Major A.B. Rogers of Rogers Pass fame and assisted by heroic Chinese workers in the construction crews. They were paid $1 a day for their work in horrendously dangerous conditions. Tragically, hundreds of them died before the railway was finished.

Stephen Low of Ottawa directed the film, which I thought outstanding. A report in the National Post described the cinematography:
Cameras mounted on the engine’s cowcatcher, above the drive wheels and atop the boiler provide a train’s eye view hearkening back to some of the first frames of motion-picture film ever made. Helicopter footage captures the romantic pairing of engine and landscape ...
and if you've ever read Pierre Burton's book The Last Spike you'll know what a gripping story is told in the voice-over.

All over the place

I read another article this week about how Internet addiction was linked to Attention Deficit Disorder in teens, and although I'm not a teen I've begun to wonder whether leaping from my bed to the computer screen on my way to the bathroom first thing in the morning might not be a habit I ought to break. In defence of the Internet, it's always interesting, and looking things up and writing about them is a good way of fixing them in my mind. But what I'm learning does seem very random and fragmentary at times.

Maybe it's nothing to do with the Internet; my whole lifestyle is like that. During the past couple of weeks, as usual, my thoughts have been all over the place. Not only in Afghanistan, Montreal, China and "Acadia" (as mentioned in my last few blogposts), but twice in Guatemala too, with one of our German conversation group giving us a lively account of her recent trip there as a wedding guest at a ruined, 18th century convent in Antigua. She climbed a volcano besides and encountered the Mayan Guatemalans, small, clean, tidy people, she said, who are proud of their heritage and refuse to speak Spanish. A few days after listening to that, I heard another lady, this one in the Spanish conversation group, telling us about her experience of Guatemala as a volunteer on a couple of Construction Expeditions, building a community centre with Mujeres in Acción, a partner of World Accord. She showed us marvellously colourful pictures of the Mayans and their woven cloths.

Meanwhile, at home, I've been writing out a complicated itinerary for what Chris calls our Grand Tour of Europe starting soon; we'll be travelling to London, Paris, Stuttgart and Munich, and Chris will be in Hannover and Oslo as well, giving presentations of his work. A lot of Internet research is required beforehand, and if we're not careful, imagining ourselves in five different countries within seventeen days causes a twitchy mind.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The Afghan Canadian Community Centre

From the Toronto Star:
Ehsan Ullah Ehsan
It was the spring of 2006, and the school [Ehsan Ullah] Ehsan had opened to teach girls and women English, basic health, computer skills and other courses in the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar was fast running out of money. He was on the brink of shutting it down when the Toronto Star's Mitch Potter happened by, wrote about the looming disaster, and touched the hearts of two readers in Ottawa: Ryan Aldred and Andrea Caverly.
Ryan Aldred
I met Ryan Aldred last Thursday at a meeting of the CFUW's University Women Helping Afghan Women; he had come to tell us about what had happened next. He and his wife Andrea wrote to the reporter, asking, "What can we do to help?" and eventually received a grateful and detailed response from Mr Ehsan himself. He had no school buses, the computers were wearing out ... The young Ottawa couple decided to fund the Afghan school for 6 months, raising money from their friends and acquaintances in order to send donations. Meanwhile, in Kandahar, Ehsan chose a new location for his school, paying the teachers $100 a month and hiding the project from prying eyes because it was (and still is) very dangerous for Afghan girls to go to school. Families informed one another about the place by word of mouth, however, and with its lifeline of income from Canada the 100-strong student population quickly quadrupled. Then it transpired that men and boys wanted to be taught there too. "Almost overnight," said Mr Aldred, "we had 800 students." And eventually CIDA chipped in with a $310K grant to spend on buses and school equipment.

Afghan girl (photo by Paul Watson)
The girls are "fierce and fearless," according to Mr. Aldred, but the new buses protect them (from acid-throwers and other such extremists) on their way to school.

The CIDA money will not last forever. "You don't pull up stakes and leave everything flapping on the ground," when it runs out. What's to be done next? The request for three more years of funding was rejected, but people kept lobbying the Canadian government anyway, and then on International Women's Day a year's extension of funds was granted. "This is a big boost," says Mr. Aldred, "It helps us to keep going." During the several years since the project began, only half a million dollars have been spent, not a huge sum. The administrators of the NGO insist upon low cost developments, using members of the local community as staff. One of President Karzai's brothers has recently donated land for a new building, which some of the students themselves are excitedly designing.

In 2009 Ehsanullah Ehsan and Ryan Aldred founded the Canadian International Learning Foundation which supports not only this project in Afghanistan but similar projects in Nepal and in four African countries. Their initiative was reported in the National Post last month in an article by Jane Armstrong.

On its premises, the Afghan Canadian Community Centre now teaches over 1,500 students ...
...Business Management, Information Technology, English and Communications [...] with access to the Internet and online classes from Canadian and international institutions. The school’s programs provide students with the skills needed to obtain employment to support themselves and their families, improve their communities and participate in the reconstruction of Afghanistan. The skills taught at the ACCC are in high demand by international development agencies, local businesses and the Afghan government ...
Each former student now employed supports seven family members, on average. When a young daughter of a family man becomes the primary breadwinner, it makes people think, and attitudes begin to change.

Accreditation of such an institution is very bounded by rules and requirements. Mr. Aldred's NGO still needs to acquire 501(c)(3) status, but the developments continue, regardless.
... 32 students at the Afghan-Canadian Community Centre are enrolled in the Business Management certificate program offered online by the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology (SAIT), a Calgary-based Polytechnic Institute that offers internationally-recognized post-secondary education. The Business Management program often allows students in Kandahar to secure high-paying employment after as little as one course. A group of 5 ACCC students have also been given scholarships to study online classes with the Canada eSchool, where they will study a range of subjects including Science, Math, English and Civics. 
A network of volunteer tutors in Canada tutors the Afghans at the Centre using Skype (mostly) for classwork and in one-on-one sessions. Other volunteers engage in online text chats with them, helping them with their projects and with career guidance. The young Afghans (the age of a student at the ACCC might be anything from 10 to 40 years old!) ask their Canadian mentors for help with online research, use of English, study skills. The only drawback to the system is the time zone. If you join in with the volunteering you may have to do your transcontinental chatting from Canada at 3 o'clock in the morning.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Thin spread

The other day a wise, elderly friend of mine asked me how I was doing, and when I started to tell her about the many and various things that take up my time, she interrupted me.

"Alison," she said, "be careful. Don't spread yourself too thin."

I've been thinking about that, since. It is good advice.

Monday, November 7, 2011

In Montreal, a little extra

We drove all the way to Montreal and back yesterday for the sake of supper with friends (Ottawa friends!) on the rue Ontario. The restaurant where we had a booking is Au Petit Extra beside the Lion d'Or cabaret hall.

The journey there, with Chris driving and Dan along as passenger telling us stories of youth and his family (who were miners in Sydney, Cape Breton), took us along a pretty route by the deep blue Ottawa River and through the late autumn countryside, the horizons clear and the sky and water all pink at sunset as we crossed the bridge onto the Île de Montréal. Highways 40 and 15 through the city suburbs were less attractive but we easily found our way downtown and arrived with an hour to spare, parking on the rue Papineau. After that, the excursion began to acquire added interest. Dan is married to Gianluca Ragazzini (a colleague and friend of my own husband at work) and Gianluca, meeting us in Montreal after a choir rehearsal, was waiting at the bar opposite our parking spot, Le Stud. I have never knowingly entered a gay bar before (only by accident in London once, when my mother wanted somewhere immediate to sit down with a pot of tea) and was immediately struck by the fact that all the people there were large men in black leather, talking loudly. Wearing a fluffy white jacket, I probably stood out in that crowd. We later learned that this place is popular with the "bear" community (unfamiliar with the vocabulary, we had to have it explained) and that a few years ago there had been quite a scandal when a young woman called Audrey Vachon had been bounced from there for intruding on the men's exclusive domain.

They didn't treat me like that; actually we weren't on the premises for more than a few minutes (Chris, to my amusement, nervously trying to make himself inconspicuous at the doorway) before the four of us walked on towards the restaurant, taking in the sights of Le Village Gai along the rue Ste. Catherine, with all its rainbow flags. Many same sex couples were strolling by and the magazines on sale in the shops were definitely customer specific.

Au Petit Extra is up the hill from there and round the corner, past old, Montreal style tenement buildings with their curving outdoor staircases. We discovered the restaurant to be a subdued, elegant place where Gianluca and Dan, who have eaten there many times before, knew the staff. We met the other couple in our party, Steve and Mary, who'd also driven in from Ottawa, and sat down to our meal. The service was excellent, as was the food, prepared in a seriously professional kitchen. My choice was
  • aiguillettes de canard fumé et mâche à l'orange 
  • mahi-mahi à la caponate
  • gâteau framboise-pistache
Above the menu chalked on the wall, I noticed a letter written in the same hand-writing (by our waitress):
Ami Jean, 
Voici trois ans que tu nous quittais. Après bien des larmes, on s'est retroussé les manches et le navire vogue toujours. Tu le reconnaîtrais sans peine. Le Lion d'Or surgit de plus belle et le Petit Extra pourfend*  le temps. Nous pensons souvent à toi et, à bien des égards, tu es toujours là. 
Tu sera bientôt grand-père. Le savais-tu?
On t'embrasse tous.
* = fights against, a fencing term

I told her it was a lovely letter and asked her about it. Apparently the restaurant's former co-proprietor had died three years ago last night; it was written to him.

On leaving we walked back to the car down the avenue Papineau past a 19th century brick church emblazoned with garish, coloured lights, spelling out the message: Le salaire de ton péché c'est l'enfer (presumably a paraphrase of Le salaire de ton péché c'est la mort.)

"My favourite church in Montreal," said Gianluca, with heavy sarcasm.


The day after I published this post came an announcement in the Ottawa Citizen that Ottawa now officially has a Gay Village too.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

"China changed us"

I joined the Ottawa Chapter of the Canada-China Friendship Society last week and at their October meeting heard an engrossing lecture by a former Ambassador to Japan, China and Mongolia, Robert Wright. In the Liberal Government of the 1990s, as Deputy Minister for Trade he had organised Team Canada trade missions to China, so was already well prepared, and the opportunity to have front row seats for the Olympic Games in Beijing was another ("fabulous!") incentive to accept this job offer.

Mr. Wright and his wife represented Canada in China from 2005 to 2009. "To quote an old adage," he said, "China changed us."

He confessed that living in China was more difficult than he'd expected. He found the polluted air and the crowds in the big cities "physically demanding," the language-barrier frustrating and the bilateral relationship between China and Canada not as strong as it was when the Liberal Party had been in power, the political atmosphere "cooler ... more hostile."

One day, the Ambassador was arrested for walking his pet dog in the city! Dogs that size (dà gǒu––it was a labrador) were not allowed in Beijing. However, when the authorities realised who the culprit was, a diplomatic embarrassment was avoided.

In Mr. Wright's favour was the fact that his staff belonged to the biggest Canadian embassy in the world––320 strong––and that the Chinese government made no objections to his visiting every part of the country while he was in office, including the politically sensitive Autonomous Regions. "It was good to get out of Beijing for a change." Although he suffered badly from altitude sickness in Tibet, he was able to enjoy some "frank exchanges" with students at a Tibetan university before fleeing from the thin air.

Stressing that these were his personal views, he said he had learned ten lessons while living and working in China:
  1. It is a self-confident and optimistic country. Unlike the conservative Japanese, the Chinese do not fear outsiders taking an interest in them. Japanese families would tend to resist the idea of their adult children marrying foreigners; attitudes in China seem just the opposite. 
  2. On the other hand, the Chinese government seems surprisingly insecure, afraid of instability. The government feels it should be autocratic in order to keep such a huge country safe and sound, therefore it cracks down on subversive elements and covers up its weaknesses. Mr. Wright felt that the next generation of leaders would be different in their governance, more flexible, because younger people in the Party have a better understanding of different cultures.
  3. Since China wants a fair share of the world's wealth for its people, the government hopes China's status will return to what it was at the beginning of the 19th century, not wanting to be seen as a global superpower so much as a major power within Asia, with a high-ranking GDP (it seems the Chinese have achieved that already). 
  4. Canada is respected for being the only developed nation that has not invaded China! The Chinese like Canada's fairness towards immigrants, and our civilised way of doing business. We should nurture the trust between our respective leaders because, in Chinese culture, this is very important.
  5. Canadians in general don't understand the Chinese very well. We still tend to see them as they used to be in the 1970s. (Only British Columbia, where Mandarin is now being taught in the schools, is an exception.) We're therefore missing our chances; if we're not careful, Canada will become irrelevant.
  6. We mustn't assume that the Chinese or would want to share our values priorities (he corrected himself there). To them, debates about democracy or human rights are lower on the agenda than how to tackle economic growth, education, environmental concerns and corruption in high places. They believe that, in order to keep their enormous country stable and secure, (in Mr. Wright's words) they want "autocratic control.") If we find fault with China, we should voice our criticisms politely and in private, advised Mr. Wright, then we might be listened to. Strident condemnation splashed all over the media can only have a negative effect. They detect a certain amount of hypocrisy and self-interest in criticism from the west; i.e. they are suspicious of our motives. 
  7. The Chinese are not easily classifiable. They don't think of themselves as communists any more. They are in fact "ferocious capitalists." Clearly they no longer want Soviet style labels. On the other hand, how can the door to a more liberal régime be opened? Slowly, cautiously, is the answer. If change is to come, whatever should be done about the giant portrait of Chairman Mao in Tiananmen Square, for example? How can they eliminate the huge gap between their rich and their poor and the consequent threat of instability? Political evolution has to happen gradually or "uncontrollable forces" could be unleashed. The future of the Communist Party is being debated within its ranks, and that's a healthy sign, but it may take half a century, perhaps a whole century (say some) before China completely changes.
  8. Never underestimate the capacity of the Chinese to solve enormous problems, fast. Mr. Wright predicts that in 10 years time, China will lead the world in environmentally friendly technologies. Re. Lesson 6, above, the mess that the U.S.A. made of dealing with the devastation after Hurricane Katrina (2005) raised Chinese eyebrows. They were not impressed, especially in comparison with the "tremendous" way they themselves responded to the victims of the Sichuan earthquake (in 2008). 
  9. Nor should we underestimate the risks inherent in Chinese nationalism. The instantaneous reaction of the Chinese to attacks on their Olympic torch bearers before the start of the 2008 Games obviously rather scared Mr. Wright. They are a fiercely patriotic people.
  10. Despite the gaps between our cultures, there's an enormous reservoir of goodwill and commonality between our two countries.
Robert Wright remains optimistic for the future of the relationship between China and Canada. China being our second largest trading partner, he feels that trade will take care of itself. They buy potash, coal, wheat, transportation products and engineering expertise from us. He hopes that our influence in the world of engineering and science will bring about an increase in trust. We should continue to invite Chinese people to visit Canada as tourists, students, colleagues and friends. Likewise young Canadians should go to China as students, and we should "put more Canadians on the ground in the provinces of China," not just in Beijing and Shanghai. We should make efforts to learn the language.