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.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The Alliance

In 1883, during the 3rd Republic, France was a major colonial power. That was when L'Alliance Française was founded in Paris and although it's mainly known for the diplomas it offers in French as a foreign language, its primary purpose was, and still is, to "faire défendre la culture française" for the benefit of francophiles in different parts of the world. It is a not-for-profit organisation.

On Monday this week, with a francophone / francophile group, I met the director of the Alliance in Canada, M. Hervé Devoulon. He also runs the Ottawa chapter (which is on MacLaren Street), having previously worked in South Korea, Venezuela, North Korea (!) and Australia.

He told us that, in the early days, it was mainly the expatriate wives of French diplomats who founded and managed the local associations comprising the Alliance, who created libraries and organised lectures in French in places like Melbourne, Sydney, Montreal, Toronto. Each group required permission to operate from the management in Paris. Language courses were initiated later, in response to demand, and the Alliance now has a presence in 136 countries, with 30 chapters in Australia alone, for example, each of them independent of the others. The country where the Alliance Française is making the most progress these days, where business men want to give the impression of being well enough educated to speak French, is China, "... sous la protection de certaines universités chinoises," so that the administration there becomes "un peu compliquée."

The biggest Alliance Française in the world is in Lima.

Brazil, Chile and Cuba (at least for the last couple of years) are being very supportive, and since the Berlin Wall fell, many Alliance Française associations have sprung up in Eastern European countries too. In the United States there is less French language teaching going on but a lot of "petits clubs" in existence. In Canada the Alliance Française is represented in 9 locations, the largest chapter being in Toronto where 75 profs are employed to tutor 6000 students.

M. Devoulon was very careful about answering questions on how the Alliance Française is received in French-speaking Canada. "On y va avec prudence," he said. "Je marche sur les oeufs." In the end he confessed that the Alliance no longer has a home in Montreal; in fact "le Canada francophone n'a pas besoin de nous pour défendre la langue." The Quebeckers have their own way of doing that.

It is the western provinces, he said, that represent today's "territoire de mission" in Canada.

Ottawa's branch of the Alliance Française (founded in 1905) is above all a cultural centre. It has a modest "médiathèque" where you can rent French films (including films made in Quebec). It puts on exhibitions on a theme by groups of local artists; for example in 2008 Chris and I attended a vernissage there when Raymond Aubin's photographs were on display. Photography competitions, seminars and lecture series take place. On Fridays (in competition with the Friday film evenings at the Goethe-Institut!) the Alliance shows a film in French––entrance is free to all.

Of course what keeps the Ottawa chapter in business is its role in the "marché des langues," offering French courses, especially to the large number of anglophone government workers employed in Ottawa who have to take exams in Canada's official 2nd language. In comparison with the other private language schools in and around town, M. Devoulon claimed that instructors at the Alliance Française are "plus professionnels," having had their training in France.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

At the Château

Charles Melville Hays

Château Laurier pool
The Château Laurier, Ottawa's grand hotel, is 100 years old this year and on June 1st, current and former hotel staff are going to have a private party there to celebrate its birthday.

The man whose project the hotel originally was, Charles Melville Hays, never lived to see the its opening in 1912 because he perished with the Titanic that same year. His portrait hangs in the lower lobby near the pool. I saw the hotel pool, filled with salt water, on Friday, and it appeals to me, but if I want to indulge myself by swimming in it, a one-off visit to the obligatory Health Club would cost $20 plus tax, and a month's membership $125 plus tax. Maybe for the sake of keeping fit ...!

A corner of the Karsh Suite
Another impressive part of the guided tour was to the suite on the 4th floor where the world-famous, Armenian photographer Yousuf Karsh used to reside. It's preserved in the original style of furnishing with a chandelier donated by Karsh's wife, with Chinese cupboards and of course with photographs by Karsh hanging on the walls. More of these are on display in the entrance lobby and in Zoe's lounge (named after PM Wilfred Laurier's wife) with its grand piano.

Carpet in the foyer
More than 70 lady diplomats or wives of diplomats had turned up that day, as well as their Canadian friends in the Diplomatic Hospitality group, and the hotel had set aside the western end of the ballroom for coffee / tea and scones and jam, etc. to be enjoyed at round tables after our tours. Before we tucked in to the magnificent spread we were also treated to a Fashion Show of equally magnificent proportions, with fourteen tall and slender girls poised on tall and slender heels modelling Elena Hinke's flowing creations (turn your volume down before clicking on that link!) in black, royal blue, turquoise, mustard, olive greens and scarlet: smart, elegant and sophisticated clothes. Silks and black lace predominated. The audience was thrilled, and not a price tag in sight.

Ms. Hinke, left, with one of the models

Sunday, April 15, 2012


"You can learn an awful lot more about Australians*," I told my sceptical husband, "by reading a novel about them than by reading a tourist guide or a history book."

(* Substitute any nationality there.)

I first read Tim Winton's Cloudstreet while my family was going through a crisis in January 2004. In fact an Australian friend lent it to me for distraction's sake. The book did more than that; it fortified me. I have just rediscovered it from cover to cover and am heartened to find that I wasn't mistaken the first time round. This is a very good book to read, if you have a taste for over-the-top writing. Or if you're interested in Australia!

My search on the Internet reveals that they made a TV series of Cloudstreet, down under, which is something I'd be interested to see. To judge by this trailer the adaptation is quite close to the spirit of the original.

The novel, set in and around Perth, is original indeed. Its story begins in the 1930s and ends in the 60s. The Swan River is one of the characters in it. The other characters express themselves in the working class slang of that part of the world. Another writer who had this visionary way of writing about superficially very ordinary (though fictional) people of that era was Patrick White, also Australian. No doubt Winton was under his influence when he started out.

This year I've read Winton's latest novel, Breath, as well, and noticed in that, as in his other books (some of them nominated for the Booker Prize), that he's still immersed in the exploration of characters young and old, always from Western Australia, who are or have been in extremis. What seems to fascinate him is how they cope, or fail to cope, with their awareness of this. Some of them, not unlike Ma Joad in Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, cope to a startling degree.

Here's Oriel, the equivalent mother in Cloudstreet (1991):
"Oh, if she thinks about everything that's been taken from her over the years –– Lord, it's like the longest subtraction sum invented. She can't help it, the feeling is on her and she's furious. It's a sickness, selfpity, it'll eat you up, woman, you know it. It'll eat the day and worm into your labour and weaken you. She puts her square, red fist on the table, watches it like it's a paperweight."
I think that's a tremendous paragraph. And here's a line from the narrator in Breath (2008), a novel about people, such as surfers, who go to dangerous extremes:
"Surviving is the strongest memory I have; the sense of having walked on water."

Solo 'cello

We're lucky enough to get regular invitations to chamber music concerts at a private house; last night's performance was by a young man from Ottawa University, Raphael Weinroth-Browne. In effect this was the rehearsal for a recital that will take place at the university later this month. He played solo suites by Bach and Britten and a Sonata by Ligeti, all of them from memory.

For the Bach D Minor 'Cello Suite No. 5 he used an instrument tuned down to the authentic, Baroque pitch, and without any vibrato. The trouble with that technique to my ear is that the music seems less expressive than it would if played in a more Romantic style, but I am probably just prejudiced. The flow of the music is nonetheless superb.

After a pause for recovery after that endurance test, the 'cellist then launched himself into the Britten, played on a slightly larger and more resonant 'cello, this time with no inhibitions about the vibrato. What brilliant music it is! The Fuga sounds as if two instruments are playing, and I think he was triple-stopping in the sostenuto sections. (Here is an interesting blog-article about that and the Britten Suites in general, from a performer's point of view.) The Marcia movement finished with a sort of echo of the Last Post as if heard from far away on a bugle, in this context played as harmonics on the strings. The following Bordone section had him playing a drone on the open D-string while simultaneously plucking out melodies on the two adjacent strings. That must have taken some practising.

The performer (who incidentally is one of Paul Merleyn's pupils) spoke to us after the Britten piece saying that all three of the composer's 'cello suites had been written for Rostropovich to play. The Russian was a friend of Britten and called him Benjik. Because Rostropovich has been such an inspiration to 20th century composers, Mr Weinroth-Browne referred to him as "the saviour of 'cello music"––I assume he meant: of solo 'cello music. There had been a great gap in that genre between Bach's and Britten's day.

The concert concluded with the performance of György Ligeti's Sonata for Solo 'Cello, which like the Britten was in eight sections, but they all ran together without a break. Ligeti was a Hungarian-Jewish composer from Transylvania who died in Austria in 2006. The sonata is early Ligeti music, influenced by Kodaly and Bartok, which all the same was "too extreme" for the taste of the Soviet régime so 'cellists were banned from playing it in the USSR. This piece too demanded a good deal of virtuoso, presto playing.

We came away impressed.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

With our flying friends to Stratford

With four of our friends, we spent the Easter weekend in Stratford. We've been to Stratford before, each time getting there in our own 'planes; the last time was in 2005 when we witnessed William Hutt's extraordinary farewell performance as Prospero in The Tempest. Mr Hutt has died since. A bridge across the lake in Stratford is named after him.

When we took off on Friday there wasn't a cloud in the sky all the way to our destination, but windy conditions made the air turbulent over the hilly areas and even at 8000ft asl the Cherokee we were flying ("Yankee Sierra Zulu") wallowed rather in the invisible, long, smooth waves. We flew along a new IFR route (T616) north of the Toronto airspace, skirting the southern edge of Lake Simcoe, before being allowed to change our heading towards the airport known as Stratford Muni. Our Flight Plan was very simple: Direct YOW T616 ARTHR Direct. A clump of trees displaced the threshold of Runway 35 which was long enough but disconcertingly narrow in the gusty conditions. Never mind; our three pilots landed safely and had time to inspect the small scale Herc parked on the ramp.
Wellington Street, Stratford

Carol with me and her new suitcase
Carol had booked rooms for us at the Best Western "Historic Inn and Suites" on Wellington Street. From there we could walk to everything of interest including the Samsonite luggage factory and outlet on Ontario Street, where next morning Carol bought a new suitcase that she trundled 3km back to the hotel through the streets and parks. We kept stopping to admire Stratford's Foursquare, Edwardian houses and their gardens, where the flowers were half a month ahead of those in Ottawa, and the swans, geese and ducks on Lake Victoria. We had missed the famous Swan Parade––when the swans are released from their winter incarceration and led down to the lake––by only one week. (Timothy Findley described this annual ritual at the end of his last novel, Spadework.)

We're missing the start of the Stratford Festival too, which will be next week. The town is relatively quiet and uncrowded until then, so we had no trouble finding a table for supper at Fellini's (lavishly decorated with film stills and posters) on Friday or Bentley's on Saturday. Features for breakfast was a different story with a 20 minute wait for a table there: good food, though, eventually.

The weather stayed so fine that some of us were sunburned. Stratford is a pleasant town to stroll around, its original prosperity, so Carol tells me, coming from agriculture and furniture production. The Shakespearean theatre festival wasn't established until the 1950s, but that's what gives the town its fame, wealth and character now, with references to Shakespeare all over the place.

"The Parlour" where we spent 2 nights (professional photo)
All the acting we saw, I'm afraid, was on TV in the sitting room of the suite shared by four of us where we watched some of The Ten Commandments (1956, and not originally meant to be so funny) with Charlton Heston, Yul Brynner and company, interspersed with adverts for osteoporosis medications, mobility aids for the arthritic, hospice care and fast cars. Anyway we enjoyed the scene with the Burning Bush and its Voice of God (spoken in a deep bass with an English accent) and its aftermath, where Moses comes down from Mt. Sinai shocking his family with a brand new hairstyle and turns his staff into a mighty powerful serpent at the Pharoah's court. After that we chose to retire to bed.

The return flight, from grey skies over Perth County into sunshine again north of Toronto, was far less choppy until the last half hour as we descended towards Rockcliffe, homing in for another crosswind landing but a successful return. This time Chris was flying VFR like the others to avoid having to take the preferred, new IFR route that transits the Toronto area right across the middle of Lake Ontario.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Over the mountains in a twin prop

My son on the wall of the Rosengarten in Bern, aged 4
It seems we'll be travelling again soon, with another multi-destination business trip for Chris being planned for mid-May. This afternoon I looked up the different ways of travelling from Köln, Germany, to Bern, Switzerland, and came across a small airline I'd never heard of, based in Bern itself: SkyWork Airlines. It takes just over an hour to fly to Bern from Köln in one of their planes. The destination airport is small and attractive. I remember it well.

We used to live in Bern about 30 years ago and I haven't been there since, so for me it's going to be an emotional return as well. We'll only be staying for a few days, this time. I know Köln too, having first visited that city in 1963.

My daughter in the Bernese Oberland, aged 6

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Instant spring colour

One of the photos that I took at this year's Algonquin College's Spring Show (at the Horticulture department) came out blurred, but I liked the effect, so I blurred it further. At the college I bought some pansies and potted narcissi and have planted them ready-blooming outside my front door. The friends who went along with me also came away with some flowering plants for their gardens.

The students decorate their sunny showplace with homemade garden ornaments as well as flowers. Here's a wall hanging created out of broken umbrellas:

Well and good

This is an addendum to my previous blogpost.

When our Image Awareness Consultant came to the end of her presentation she concluded with the maxim,
If you look good, you feel good, and if you feel good, you do good.
which I admit did make me think, that's true enough! On further reflection, though, I wondered if she meant: if you feel good, you do well, because nowadays, especially in North America, good is often a substitute for well, and people don't always grasp the difference between adjective and adverb nor the significance of what they're saying.

–– How are you? How are you doing?
–– Good, thanks. I'm good. 

This exchange is so commonplace that I've caught myself coming out with it (shock! horror!) but at least I'm conscious of the rule I'm breaking.

Everyone, except maybe an autistic person, uses language in order to fit in with a crowd, a way of behaving that's just as normal as dressing to impress other people. The first thing we notice about a stranger is the way they look, but the next thing we notice is the way they speak. Or maybe vice versa if we have our backs to them and hear them coming. What I was poking fun at in Friday's blogpost wasn't so much the advice that lady gave as the phrases she was using.

My daughter sent me an email, saying
I enjoyed your clothes blog! Won’t comment online...
so I'd better not quote from her too much. She did say, however:
there is a serious side to this [...] For some women dressing well and wearing makeup gives them the confidence to do what they otherwise couldn’t do. Even more seriously I once read that the first thing they gave women liberated from Concentration Camps at the end of the war was lipstick – even while they were starving and naked. Some women died within a day, but that lipstick gave them a few moments of being human again before they did. 
Another thing that's occurred to me since I published the last blogpost is that Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew is all about Image Awareness, several of the characters in it (Lucentio, Tranio and company) pretending for all they're worth to be something that they're not. Petruchio isn't half as bad as he makes himself out to be. Bianca isn't half as good. Katherina the Shrew herself learns from experience that her reputation as a girl who indulges in temper tantrums doesn't do her any good, so she's persuaded by her husband to adopt a far more effective image.