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, January 30, 2012

"It's all about balance"

I have to be careful here, because if I get the terminology wrong, I will look foolish. Early this morning the RA Centre on Riverside introduced a large number of us in the Ottawa CFUW's Diplomatic Hospitality group to the basics of curling.

The first thing to do was to take our sports shoes across to the inspection table to make sure there wasn't a spot of dirt on them that would compromise the ice we'd be playing on. "You have worn these shoes outside, haven't you?" said the shoe examiner with a hint of disapproval as she turned my shoes over, before attacking the soles vigorously with a vegetable brush dipped in a bowl of water.

There are six "sheets" on the ice at this curling rink and a dozen or more ladies in red jackets had made themselves available to give us instruction in six groups, making sure that we didn't fall over on the ice, or if we did, that we'd be able to get up again. They were all keen amateur players and, it seemed to me, very well trained teachers too. They wore special black curling shoes with a removable rubber sole cover for the "off foot," usually the left one, that had a very slippery "slider" attached. We novices were lent portable sliders, slightly less slippery underfoot.

I was in a group with a Japanese lady, an Italian lady and another novice Canadian. The first exercise was to walk up and down (without deploying our sliders) on the bobbly ("pebbled") surface of the ice to see what it felt like, and then to repeat the walk sweeping the tee line on the ice with our long handled brooms: Women with Brooms in this case, not Men with Brooms (with Paul Gross as the Skip).

The rock is made of polished granite
To deliver the shot, you've got to have flexible hip joints and knees, although players over the age of 85 or so are permitted to use so-called curling sticks that allow them to stay upright while playing; we weren't given the option of trying these. We had to practise getting up off the ice in case we fell, holding ourselves in the "throwing" position without overbalancing and finally pushing off from the hack (i.e. starting block) with the slider under our left foot, sliding ourselves forward and keeping our balance in the process. I did it all too gingerly because the surface of the ice looked like a very hard surface to fall on, but was admonished for looking down at my feet and eventually persuaded that I'd keep my balance better if I looked ahead, up into the eyes of my instructor. I had the use of a sliding support for my left hand but my right hand was free to flap about (it should be held extended). All of us breathed a sigh of relief when given a rock (with a handle) to hold and release. These objects are about 20 kg in weight so gave us a reassuring illusion of steadiness while pushing off from the hack.

Apparently there's a way to vary the delivery that gives you an even better sense of balance: having the slider under the right foot instead! However I have only discovered this since coming home and browsing the Internet.

The last exercise before we could begin to let fly with the rocks was to move the sliding foot back as a prelude to our slide, keeping that foot flat on the ground, which is only possible if one sticks one's bottom in the air, brings one's left knee to its full bend and has one's right knee well behind one's centre of gravity, practically scraping the ice. It's not as easy as it looks! I thought of all the Chinese people I'd seen last year, squatting flat footed in the parks of Hangzhou to chat to one another. They'd have had no trouble with this sport.

The male curlers enjoying their Spiel
We also got some instruction on how to aim the rock with a rotation of the hand and how to interpret the arm movements of the person towards whom we were aiming. The curling rink is a chilly place and by this point in the lesson my hands and feet were growing numb so the instructors suggested that two of us should practise sweeping the ice with our brooms to keep ourselves warm as well as to assist the rocks' progress while the other two in our team were practising longer and longer shots. We never got round to actually scoring because the electronic whistle blew, ordering us off the ice so that some serious players (men) could have their go after the rink had been cleaned with a wide sheepskin brush. However, I did manage to deliver a couple of rocks as far as the house before we repaired upstairs for coffee and the ladies were all after me to sign up for curling lessons at the RA next season.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

More Japanese

Now this is interesting. Once again, I've been researching the vocabulary we'll need when dining out in Tokyo and what do I find?

fork = fooku
knife = naifu
spoon= supuun
napkin = napukin
cup = kappu
glass = gurasu, koppu
a bottle of wine = wain
koohii to miruku = coffee with milk
soup = suupu
butter = bataa
cheese = chiizu
pork = pooku
beef = biifu
steak = suteeki
juice = jyuusu
pie = pai
ice cream = aisu kuriimu
tip = chippu

Since you don't pronounce, or hardly pronounce the single "u"s, those words sound (in romaji spellings) remarkably familiar. I assume, then, that all the concepts listed above must have seemed outlandish to the Japanese until they felt obliged to accommodate English-speakers in their country. Vegetarian is listed as "begitarian." In any case, as in other parts of the world, it may be considered trendy to have anglicised one's vocabulary.

However, I mustn't let this lull me into a false sense of security. The phrases I'll need day to day are still very different from what I'm used to.

please = onegai shimasu
thank you = arigatoo gozaimasu
excuse me = sumimasen
Chikatetsu no rosenzu o kudasai.= May I have a map of the subway, please?
Nihongo wa amari joozu ja arimasen. = I don't speak Japanese very well.
Wakari masen. = I don't understand.
Eigo o hanashimasu ka? = Do you speak English?
Doozo yoroshiku onegai shimasu.= Nice to meet you.

I studied my map of Tokyo yesterday and got some ideas from it, and a sense of where our hotel is located. I love maps.

Monday, January 23, 2012

In the cold, keep moving

Along the Quarry Trail on the edge of Kanata people feed the wild deer with carrots and apples which encourages them not to be shy. The chickadees aren't shy either, a constant coming and going of them on our outstretched hands yesterday afternoon, as we stopped to feed them seeds.

We've kept up a series of Sunday walks since Christmas, last week in bitterly cold conditions through the streets of Rockcliffe Park to the rockeries (buried in snow) and then back to our starting point past MacKay Lake (a "Conservation Area"), the previous Sunday at Mud Lake, the week before that on the Larriault trail in the Gatineau Park, on New Year's Day in Montreal and on Christmas Day itself following dog walkers' home made trails through the woods above Ojai Road on a steep hillside in Chelsea.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Medica and Oruj

I could have entitled this "Diba and Sadiqa"––these are the names of the two young Afghan women I listened to on Thursday afternoon at a meeting of the Ottawa CFUW's "University Women Helping Afghan Women" group. They are currently both students at the University of Ottawa.

Diba told us about Medica Afghanistan, a new organisation (for whom she works in her spare time) that provides counselling, mediation and legal aid for women and girls who are sheltering from "war and other forms of violence" in the city of Kabul. Canadian donors are helping to pay for the literacy classes at these shelters. Sad to say, the children there (in the same room as their mothers for most of the day; each shelter can accommodate up to 50 people) are disturbed by the stories that circulate. Illiteracy deters their mothers from seeking work and in any case these women are often too traumatised to concentrate on formal training or learning to read.* None is healthy enough to leave the shelter for the sake of work, said Diba. They do weaving, leatherwork, knitting, etc. for various enterprises but do not get the satisfaction of seeing what becomes of their handiwork, so have no real pride in their achievements. Diba claims that (in a population of 30 million) 95% of Afghans are in need of psychiatric help. But there is no qualified psychiatrist in Afghanistan.

* I have mentioned this to two people since, both of whom were reminded of the Maslov pyramid.

Sadiqa, who spoke for an hour without notes in English (her mother tongue is Pashto), told us about the NGO she had founded herself which runs "Learning Centres" for female students in Afghanistan. It is called Oruj, meaning Ascent. Sadiqa (who must be about 31 years old now) told us she had been working for girls' education in Afghanistan since she was in Grade 11. She had left her homeland as a five year old to live in Pakistan with her refugee parents and she attended a refugee school there. On a visit to Afghanistan to visit her cousins she found those girls very eager to hear about the education she was having, of which they themselves had been deprived. She swore to herself there and then that she'd do something about this and returned to Afghanistan in 2002 having raised enough money to start up a school on her father's property. When it opened in 2003, 63 girl pupils came along in great excitement, wearing glittery clothes and lipstick, because they had no idea how to dress for school. It was hard, she said, to get them to sit down in rows and face the board at the front (they all laugh about this now).

However, before long, the class shrank to half its size. No woman could be found literate enough to teach Grade 1 lessons so they'd had to employ a man teacher; kind though he was, the girls "covered up" and were wary of him. "All the parents we spoke to wanted to have their daughters educated," Sadiqa said, but what was education going to do to their daughters? There were concerns about that. The local community suspected that the instigators of these new opportunities might have hidden, ulterior motives. Sadiqa had to prove that she was an altruist, not a spy.

In 2008 Sadiqa's province was taken over by the Taliban which meant that the participants in her project ran the risk of violent attacks. Classes had to be held secretly, in private homes. As director, she asked the teachers whether they wanted to run the risk of continuing to do such work, but not one dropped out. One of the male teachers replied (I quote the words she used, her voice cracking with emotion): "Even if we're shedding our blood to the last moment ... we will work for our scholars!"

Here is an article about Sadiqa, published around that time, in 2009.

At the present time, Oruj is a success, serving about 6400 girls (and some boys!) in six schools. Some of the students now have high school diplomas and the older ones help to teach the children in Grades 1 and 2. Their mothers are also being offered literacy and "awareness building" courses at "family welfare clinics." Sadiqa said that the suburbs of Kabul might as well be remote mountain villages as far as the ideologies are concerned. People in these outlying communities are reluctant to have their children at school. Traditionally, children (6 per family on average) are needed at home to look after the livestock. Sadiqa and her colleagues counsel these parents and speak to the elders and to the religious leaders, trying to convince them that, according to the Koran, education is an obligation in Islam. (Because most of the people cannot read, they cannot check the scriptures for themselves.)

Another problem arose when the young women graduating from high school wanted to go on to higher education. Until last year their only choice would have been to attend a co-ed institution because there were no girls colleges in Afghanistan. Stories circulate about sexual harassment both from their fellow students and unfortunately from some of the male tutors as well. Therefore Sadiqa saw the need for a women's college such as exist in the western world (she had attended one herself in Massachusetts and was inspired by its principles). So she promptly set about raising funds. She managed to raise nearly $50,000 and this year, the first community college for women in her country, offering courses in Law and Economics, can boast of 52 graduates.

Currently only 1% of women in Afghanistan can get jobs. The rest of them cannot compete with the men because they simply don't have the qualifications or the requisite experience; they can't afford computers, they lack leadership skills.

Sadiqa studies at Ottawa University during the day and (because of the distant time zone) liaises with Oruj administrators until 2 o'clock in the morning. This work is more important to her than sleep.

Friday, January 20, 2012


Canadian snowshoes under Japanese feet
The Japanese Embassy graciously said hello (こんにちは) to our snowshoeing group today, at their Residence in Rockcliffe Park, and served us not only tea and coffee but also a hot and delicious chicken soup with mushrooms to counteract the effects of this very cold day. Another successful Diplomatic Hospitality morning with a hundred people present. We looked at pictures of winter in Japan and learned that the Japanese use snowshoes for winter in their country too, although they're rounder than ours.

Bathing in the hot springs at the feet of Mt. Fuji appeals to me, but I'll be surprised if I get the chance to do that next month.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Japanese is like German!

I have been looking up useful phrases in Japanese for my week in Tokyo next month. Some of the vocabulary is not as difficult as I anticipated (after my struggles with Mandarin Chinese). Here are some easy-to-remember words in a romanized transcription. It appears they don't always pronounce the "u" in their words:

bia gaaden



hoteru (= hotel)

toiretto peepaa (= toilet paper!)

rentakaa (= car hire)


basu (= bus)

chiketto (= ticket. However, a ticket for the train is "kippu")



hotto kouhii (= hot coffee)

baagen (= bargain)

kaado (= card), e.g. kurejitto kaado

faasuto fuudo (= fast food!)


Sunday, January 15, 2012

Horses in the snow

Our outing to Smithvale Stables was a real success; about 80 people turned up despite the winter storm that was causing difficult driving conditions on highways and byways. Our diplomatic friends loved the snowshoeing between sleigh rides, the horses didn't seem to mind the snow and the campfire at the pick-up spot burned brightly, with Carol handing out marshmallows to stick on skewers and toast in the glowing cinders. If you tried to remove the burnt crust from your melting marshmallow, your fingers got very sticky. Everyone was smiling and, indoors, feet were tapping to the Irish and Scottish tunes that the band was playing.

Some of the diplomats' families were experiencing their first winter here. Outside, under the trees a little way beyond the stables, nine horses were on the loose, kicking up the snow with their playful hooves and snorting at us. Among them were young ones, experiencing their first winter, too.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Raymond's exhibition

Raymond Aubin explore les lieux de passage au moyen du panorama photographique de 360°. Par l’entremise de la photographie, du photomontage, de la vidéo et de l’installation, il cherche la vérité dans le banal, le quotidien, le commun. Ainsi, l’artiste s’est intéressé aux aérogares, aux gares routières, aux stations de métro, aux corridors, aux esplanades, aux squares et aux parcs urbains. Trois caractéristiques de ces lieux l’ont particulièrement interpelé : la paradoxale solitude dans la foule, la fugacité des évènements et la normalisation des déplacements et des échanges...
I'll have to go to see this collection of images, Tracanage, if I can, because I like what Raymond does and his latest theme means a lot to me; I can identify with la solitude dans la foule and habitually imagine myself in transit, especially at the moment (as my previous blogpost testifies). We're all in perpetual transit, actually, but some more obviously than others. The exhibition is about to be presented at the Maison de la Culture in Gatineau (from January to March).

In our house we have three "early" photos by this versatile artist who is a former colleague of my husband's. One of these is the "landscape" of a woman's bare hip, one is of an ancient stone doorway in Yemen and the other captures a happy moment for four children in the highlands of Madagascar.

Travel plans

I'm compiling an itinerary again; Chris has another business trip coming up soon. We'll be visiting Britain next month and then flying on to Japan! We haven't set foot in Japan before; this will be exciting. Chris has to give a presentation on Bayesian Belief Networks to Assurance Case Preparation to the SSS (i.e. the Safety Critical Systems Symposium) in Bristol during the first week of our travels and then give a three day training course to some engineers in Tokyo during the second week.

We still have no bookings made—I have to be patient and leave that job to the company's travel agent—but it looks as though some of our accommodation could be quite grandiose: the Marriott Royal hotel in the centre of Bristol and the Royal Park Hotel in the Chuo City district of Tokyo. What I like about this is that both places should be accessible, the Bristol Hotel not far from Temple Meads Railway station and next to the Cathedral, and the Tokyo hotel being beside the Air Terminal (TCAT), a three minute walk from the closest subway station, from which I could reach any of the main attractions in the vast city.

I also intend to see several members of my family again.

The snags are that our flights are going to be uncomfortably long ones and that I haven't had time to learn any of the Japanese language yet.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Diplomatic Hospitality plans

Our Diplomatic Hospitality group is off to the Smithvale Stables this coming Friday where we have the choice between taking a horse-drawn sleigh ride, skating on the pond, cross-country skiing or snow shoeing around the grounds. There'll be marshmallows to roast on an open fire outside and at the end of the morning we'll find warm refreshments indoors, in the "banquet hall." Musicians––the Lyon Street Celtic Band––will liven up the proceedings and might persuade us to do some dancing.

I was at a lengthy meeting this morning making plans for this and other outings. I came home in the car of a Canadian friend who is a diplomat's wife herself and appreciates the need for distraction and good company when posted abroad. She spent two years in North Africa once, unable to go out to work and feeling lonely and bored, she told me, quite a typical experience in the diplomatic missions. So the service we offer to diplomat families in Ottawa is worthwhile.

It's good fun for the organisers, too. The following week we're invited to the residence of the Japanese Ambassador near Rockcliffe Park, which is another good location for snowshoeing, and at the end of the month we'll be going curling at the RA Centre.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Round the pond on a Sunday morning

Downy Woodpecker (Wikipedia image)
Seven of us did a circuit of Mud Lake this morning, stopping to feed the chickadees and nuthatches with the bird seed we'd brought with us. We had gloves on but discovered that the little birds––so light weight!––preferred to land on our bare hands. We couldn't leave our hands bare for long because the windchill was a biting -18ºC.

As we came to the section of the path near the Deschênes Rapids on the Ottawa River, we spotted some other kinds of birds: American robins (weren't they supposed to migrate south?) and a pair of woodpeckers. To my delight the male one flew onto my hand. Further on we saw a cardinal too.

The rapids
On Mud Lake itself, entirely frozen over, families were having fun on skates, one part of the pond having been swept for practising, another part for impromptu games of hockey. The trail we followed was shared with cross country skiers and children being pulled along on sledges. Robert and I had a chat about travelling to Siberia!

Elva, Francine, Carol and Robert at Britannia Point
A most satisfactory walk. When we sat down to brunch at the ever popular Newport Restaurant on Richmond Road, the men at one table, their wives at another, the waitress commented that we smelled like washing fresh from a clothes line. "Where have you girls been?" she wanted to know.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Clambering up to heaven

The poet Baudelaire knew about comparative religion:
Plusieurs religions semblables à la nôtre,
Toutes escaladant le ciel ...
(Le Voyage *)
Four faces on the museum wall
advertise the current exhibition
On impulse, I called in at the Musée des Civilisations across the Ottawa River to see God(s): A User's Guide, which is very well put together.
The exhibition is not about theology or the history of religions; it concentrates on contemporary religious practices.
Whoever is responsible for this has had to tread very carefully, because if there's one thing that inflames people it's the subject of religion; I think the curators have succeeded in being both objective and respectful in what they chose to display. The presentation isn't completely bland either. It juxtaposes "primitive" religions with the more sophisticated ones so that visitors can be duly startled by how much they have in common, and it asks mischievous questions, such as showing a display of Elvis and Che Guevara memorabilia and asking "Is this a religion?" (... because it looks suspiciously like one).

The first exhibit is a map showing the distribution of various religions around the world. Christianity is by far the most popular with 2,264,500,000 adherents, apparently, Islam coming second with 1,523,200,000. The next two religions on the list are Hinduism––935,500,000 and Buddhism––463,800,000; how those figures are obtained, I'm not sure.

Otherwise the displays and exhibits are grouped according to themes, relating to things that the various religions tend to share. "Light" is one such element; then there are exhibits relating to"Life Cycles," "Rites of Passage" (videos of baptisms, weddings, confirmations and the like) "Music" (where you can sit under a canopy to listen) and the "Beyond" (described in the exhibition notes as an invisible world). The comparison of acts of worship displays the receptacles of ritual meals served by priests or their counterparts, pictures of these ceremonies and the props used by people who pray (nearly every religion encourages the use of beads, for example) and shows the various ways in which people of different cultures supplicate or praise their god(s) or atone for their sins. All religions proselytise as well.

As you come to the end of the show there's a chance to pause and think about "Conflicts and Co-existence" in the world; a wall of quotations leads you to consider the ways in which one's religion can be both a justification for atrocities and a means of making peace. Élie Barravi wrote that the separation of church and state is the only feasible way of keeping religious violence under control. On the other hand, it's clear that our secular "divinities"––the notion of Class, Nation or Race, not to mention the despots of this world who become quasi gods to their followers––can also instigate violence and division, so setting religion aside and turning to politics doesn't solve every problem.

Willard Oxtoby (in World Religions: Western Traditions, OUP) wrote about our differing opinions of religion:
We tend to notice what we were looking for in the first place.
be it "contentiousness" or "generosity of spirit." This is true, I think. The atheists among us don't seem to look for the latter very willingly, being too eager to score points on the other side.

The website associated with this exhibition encourages its visitors to leave comments in response to questions like "Do you wear a visible religious symbol? or "Would you like to go on a pilgrimage?" What I find interesting here is that by far the most comments have been made in answer to the question "What do you believe will happen to you after you die?" Is this the essential question, then? Is this the concern that generates the world's beliefs?

*****, by the way, is a marvellous website, i.e. a terrible time-consumer for people like me! Scroll down to read a series of translations of Baudelaire's poems. Le Voyage is the longest.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Don't do it again

I don't suppose I can match last year's account of our trip to Montreal to see the New Year in; best not try too hard. In any case it's always a mistake to repeat an experience a year later and expect the same degree of satisfaction.

Having said that, I personally relished the trip from start to finish, especially the journeys to and fro in the business class coach of the train (we'd bought "supersaver" tickets) with full meals and wine on board. After feeling unwell after Christmas I had my appetite back by the other end of the week.

Our New Year's Eve supper at the Plein Sud restaurant on Ave. Mont-Royal didn't seem to reach quite the same height of perfection as it had on December 31st, 2010, probably because we were expecting that it would. From the chef's point of view the menu wasn't quite so ambitious. The restaurant was more crowded this year; maybe he feels he has established his reputation and doesn't need to make so much of an impression these days. We sat at exactly the same table for eight as before. I gather the magret de canard au foi gras didn't taste as good as last year's beef, although my choice, dos de morue grillée à l’unilatérale, crème de langoustines, turned out to be a superb dish.

New Year's Day skaters, Montreal
Chris wants me to mention that the ancient philosopher Heraclitus (according to Plato) claimed that you cannot step twice into the same river. You certainly wouldn't want to step into the St. Lawrence in Montreal as it was flowing very rapidly past the Île Ste. Hélène and freezing rapidly over in the backwaters. Ocean going ships with ice-breaking hulls were moored in the docks near the Science Centre (closed on January 1st). The old port was lively despite the winter with families skating to music on the Quays Skating Rink (note the webcam on that page).

At midnight when the New Year began we were all at the Old Port with our feet in the snow (slippery ice not far below it), watching the fireworks go off to cheers from the thousands of Montrealers celebrating. We had hiked 3km from the Avenue Mont-Royal, down St.-Laurent Blvd (aka The Main, Mordecai Richler's hangout) with all its nightclubs, the queues outside spilling off the sidewalks into the street, the girls in their mini skirts oblivious to the cold, or pretending to be, their high heels slipping in the slush. That style of dress didn't suit many of them. Walking through the fumes of marijuana and noticing the rows of ambulances lying in wait we speculated as to what it must be like inside the clubs. None of us had any desire to find out. Chris and I felt more at home once we reached the edge of China town where the people looked more demure.

Wall of cuddly toys, Big Bang exhibition
On New Year's Eve we repeated last year's behaviour all day, starting with breakfast in a group at Nickels on Ste. Catherine, then going our separate ways, Chris and I to the bookshop near McGill University, then to the Musée des Beaux Arts, then to the shops where we both bought new winter boots in the sales.

This year's special art exhibitions weren't as grim as last year's Otto Dix show. Chris was taken by the ironic painting by the American artist Mark Tansey that shows a cluster of artists with outdoor easels trying to capture the impossible, a shuttle lift-off from Cape Canaveral. We found the modern art––the Big Bang collection of carte blanche ideas from twenty different Quebec artists, plus the permanent exhibits––both provocative and entertaining, and while we were looking round the museum, John, Jill and Laurie turned up to join us there. We were all impressed by the En Masse black and white graffiti room and by the colourful wall of stuffed animals juxtaposed with (facing) a medieval stone Head of Christ,
"Cet incroyable Tête de Christ du XIIe siècle nous désarme par l’intensité pénétrante de son regard. En face, des centaines de peluches nous dévisagent."
John made the observation that we might be meant to think that the fluffy toys were modern society's substitute for Jesus, giving people the same warm and cuddly feeling that religion has traditionally supplied.

After that we went to look at the French impressionists and expressionists.