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.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Plenty of languages, as usual

Benny the Irish polyglot, whose blog I've been following with amusement since my daughter recommended it to me, feels there's no excuse for not learning a foreign language or several, because we have so many opportunities to practise. Living in Ottawa, that's true; I hear different languages spoken every day without even seeking them out, and I love it. Several of our immediate neighbours are francophone. The gentlemen fitting my stair carpet last week were speaking in Arabic. The ones working on our basement talk to one another in an interesting mix of French and English. Chris introduced a Bulgarian gentleman to the Rockcliffe Flying Club last weekend and conversed with him in German. Last week I met Maria from Spain, of whom more below, and every Thursday I introduce my German speaking group (usually around 15 of us these days) to our theme of the week––16th century German painters, for instance: I showed them my Dürer book and we read about Cranach der ältere and Hans Baldung Grien.

Last Sunday we had a 1-year-old child in our house, who pointed out the birds and squirrels in Cantonese. She had already mastered a few words of English too. At the Algonquin College tour mentioned in my blog last week I met a little girl, 3 years old, who could already speak Slovak, Czech and English.

It isn't only Ottawa. On Facebook I read people's updates in Italian, German, French, Hindi, Indonesian, Filipino, Mandarin, Japanese (some of those, admittedly, with the help of Google's translation tool!). And the other day a Belgian friend had posted a short video in Flemish that I could more or less follow because of the Dutch I remember learning in the 70s.

Last night I watched a DVD in Spanish, Todo Sobre Mi Madre (una historia de mujeres ... estrenada en 1999 y ganadora del Oscar a mejor película extranjera.) The complicated plot revolves around a transvestite in Barcelona who has fathered two sons; I think it is an absolute work of art, directed by a genius. Because I've learned a bit more of the language since the first time I saw it, I got more out of it this second time, an experience so intense that although Chris came into the room in his running shorts telling me he was going out for a run (with a thunderstorm imminent), I only realised he'd been gone when he came back. Waking up in the middle of the night (during the heavy rain) I found myself trying to explain the film to myself––in Spanish! ––after which it took me a while to go back to sleep again.

Maria, mentioned in the first paragraph above, lived in Spain, Turkey, Argentina, France, Honduras and Columbia before coming here. She told our Spanish speaking group about Buenas Aires, how it is more than half Italian, and about Colombia, a country which she feels does not deserve its bad reputation, the capital, Bogotá, being a civilised city with a wonderful university. Education, she said, was the only way for the people to escape poverty, "...and they know that." From her experience of Latin American culture, she had come to realise that a family consists of a mother and her children, helped by her neighbours, the mother being the pillar (el pilar) of society. The husband / father, relatively speaking, is just a passer-by (el hombre pasa).

Maria was also an apologist for bullfighting in Spain. After all, bulls are born to fight, she said: la corrida de toros is an art form.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Striving for betterment

Es irrt der Mensch, so lang er strebt! says The Lord, in the Prologue to Goethe's Faust (= the human errs as long as he strives). Does that mean that whatever you try to do, you're bound to make mistakes and go astray? Or does it mean that your constant struggle to improve things is itself a mistake?

Be that as it may, popular western culture has it that in order to live well, you should learn something new every day, do something that scares you every day and other such clichés, all the while being considerate to the other people in your life. Maybe that's why it sometimes seems such a relief to sit in the dark by yourself watching a film on the big screen, with your mobile device(s) switched off.

Last night I watched a film at the National Art Gallery, called Life Classes––it was set in 1980s Halifax and on Cape Breton Island, about a girl who posed nude for a class of art students and eventually became an artist herself.

Just lately I've also seen two French films that made an impression on me. One was Claude Miller's Thérèse Desqueroux, the recent setting of Mauriac's novel of the 1920s, which I studied intensely, once upon a time, about the young wife who attempts to poison her husband because she feels stifled. (I should add that I studied it because it was on the syllabus, not because I wanted tips for poisoning my husband!) To avert a scandal, her in-laws save her from the guillotine by telling lies in court, but then stifle Thérèse good and proper until she almost dies of their attentions herself. In the end though, she's set free to live her own life. She's a monstrous criminal, like Hardy's Tess of the D'Urbervilles or Humbert in Nabokov's Lolitawith whom you, as reader, are forced to empathise. In theme and purpose, the book was way ahead of its time and won its author the Nobel Prize for Literature. The film, as I'd anticipated, played down the religious undertones of the novel (Mauriac was a devout Catholic and created some of his fictional sinners as potential saints), but was closer to the original than I'd dared to hope. Audrey Tautou as Thérèse was wonderful. The other film was Des hommes et des Dieux, the story of the last days of a group of Trappist monks during the 1990s Algerian civil war, striving to maintain their faith and their integrity in the face of fear and destruction. Another very moving film.

A tour of Algonquin College

The main campus of Algonquin College is just south of Baseline in Ottawa, with smaller branches in Perth and Pembroke. International students are encouraged to study here and have a residence on campus. They have to pay the full fees and pass a stringent test in English before they're admitted. Students from over 100 countries are registered at the college at present, helped by the college to get their VISAs and their study permits.

This week, the Diplomatic Hospitality Group of CFUW-Ottawa (of which I'm a member) invited diplomats' families to tour Algonquin College, and because of its international reputation, the event was very well attended. We met in one of the salons for refreshments provided by the college and to hear an introduction by the President, Dr. Kent MacDonald. Students no longer use textbooks, he told us. That information was reinforced when I visited the campus "bookshop," afterwards, and found it almost devoid of books! The students are encouraged to take their "iPhones and laptops" into class, instead––in fact, this is compulsory.

In order to give the students and alumni a sense of  achievement and to generate income, each department is run as a business. This is perhaps most obvious in the school of culinary arts where the students' practical work is on sale to the general public. There's a delicatessen and restaurant on site, well worth a visit, and catering skills are taught and practised as well. Hence the college can afford their well equipped wine tasting facilities and state-of-the-art kitchens. At the Restaurant International, staffed by students on the Hospitality program, a posh four course meal, elegantly served, can be enjoyed for $25.

As an indication of the institution's financial success, new buildings have sprung up like mushrooms around the campus. Near the bus stops, the futuristic, $70 million Algonquin Centre for Construction Excellence, opened in 2011, incorporates a "living wall" of tropical plants in its atrium, managed by the engineering and horticulture students. On my tour, I saw the Cabinet making facilities in this building, with girls learning there as well as young men. They also have a fully equipped school of carpentry with apprentices making roof beams on site, in the comfort of an indoor environment.

The schools of Advanced Technology and of Electrico-mechanical Engineering seem to have very sophisticated facilities. Mechanical technicians in the tool making workshop were referring to data on computer screens as they used their lathes. The School of Media and Design was another stop on our campus tour. Horticultural Industries comes under this heading, as does Professional Writing. We caught a glimpse of a Theatre Arts workshop in action and walked through another room full of students who were creating animated films and video games in preparation for their end of term exams. In this wing, a live radio station broadcasts daily, manned by the students, giving them practical experience as well as providing publicity for local musicians; likewise a campus newspaper is put together by the School of Journalism for the sake of the students' portfolios.

Probably the most impressive part of our tour was our visit to the Health and Community Studies facility. Here, they train nurses in fully equipped pseudo wards and surgery theatres, using expensive and lifelike (or should I say deathlike?) "mannequins" to practise on, whose fingers have a rubbery feel. Apparently the mannequins have a (programmable) pulse and really bleed. One of them is capable of giving birth every five minutes and the newborn baby's very realistic, too. Virtual reality, as in flight simulators! The nursing students can be monitored by their supervisors from behind a one-way mirror. For the Dental Hygiene diploma, during a 3 year course, aspirant dental hygienists are trained in a proper clinic, open to the public who can volunteer to be guinea pigs, with row upon row of fully equipped dentist's chairs at their disposal.

Monday, April 8, 2013

A resolute and outspoken Canadian

There's an article in Diplomat about the Ottawa CFUW's UWHAW group that I belong to. It was written by our secretary, Dianne.

Eileen Olexiuk, photo by
Eva Hammond
At last week's meeting of the group our visiting speaker was Eileen Olexiuk, appointed as a "Political Counsellor" in Afghanistan in 2002, her mission being, as she saw it, to "talk to the man in the street." When the Canadian Embassy was established in August 2003, she served as Deputy Head of Mission under Chris Alexander as Ambassador (then only 34, "the best boss I've ever had," she said, who'd been educated at Oxford and had a "sense of history.") until August 2005.

Previously, Ms. Olexiuk had been a special adviser in another hotspot, the Balkans, so was used to "primitive working conditions."

She is known as a whistle blower who raised concerns (in 2005) about the torture of Afghan detainees in Canadian custody. She was told she was exaggerating and informed us that, on her return to Canada, neither CIDA nor the Department of Foreign Affairs ever debriefed her. She had written a report on Afghan detainees mentioning "every one of the clauses" in the Declaration of Human Rights; her report was apparently ignored by the parliamentary committees. "I don't think anyone gave a damn!" she exclaimed, when interviewed by the press, and of course that remark got published. She is proud of never having compromised her principles.

When first assigned to Kabul she had no official premises. She didn't even have a 'phone, but did have "two Rottweilers and a cat." She did her office work in taxis, spreading her papers over the back seats, borrowing "fixers" from a New York Times journalist to use as interpreters. The male interpreter was a Hazara, seen as neutral by most of the warring factions. She needed the female one for talking to Afghan women.

In Afghanistan nowadays, there are 20 people doing the work she used to do. That country is "crooked as a dog's hind leg," she says, undiplomatically. Police chiefs, for example, have a habit of inventing names on their pay lists in order to keep the international financial aid for themselves. "You have to have a bit of humour or you'll go nuts!"

In order to dispatch reports to DFAIT she was obliged to fly from Kabul to Pakistan on UN relief flights and claim her meagre expenses ($6.83 a day) later. She earned no pay on travel days and only took a half day's break on Fridays, because she always worked through weekends. The flight clearances, incidentally, came from a U.S. airbase in Qatar; there were no night flights, no radar coverage. Once in Islamabad she could make use of satellite communications which were none too reliable, sometimes still dialling Canada at 3am.

Later, when she was working at the Embassy, tribesmen would come to her for help, asking her to stop the soldiers from breaking down their houses when they paid a visit. The military side of the story was that they didn't dare come in through people's doors in case they were booby trapped, so they came through the walls instead. Her word for this was "disrespectful." She also introduced desperate women to the Women at Risk program, initiated by Lloyd Axworthy, that allowed some of them refuge in Canada.

She has met and liaised with Dr. Sima Samar, "a very brave woman." Asked about the future, Eileen kept repeating that the international community has to start speaking and acting with one mind; her hope for Afghanistan lies in the "good young people" of that country who are currently "keeping their heads down."

Rejoicing under threat

At a rather dilapidated former Catholic church near our house, now called "Saint Brigid's Centre for the Arts" but still full of crucifixes, Madonnas and Stations of the Cross, an orchestral concert took place, conducted by Matthew Larkin. It was the penultimate performance of the season by the Ottawa Chamber Orchestra, a local orchestra of "advanced music students, semi-professional musicians, and serious amateurs ..." In the ranks of the orchestra I recognised the man who runs The Leading Note music store, a woman we used to meet at singing parties and some denizens of the Music and Beyond festival. Four young men (high school or university students) manned the percussion section and more youngsters as well as a few grey haired senior citizens sat among the strings. I approve of that kind of mix.

They played Beethoven's Egmont Overture, Dvorak's Serenade for Winds and Strings (Op. 44) and Shostakovich's 5th Symphony.

"In the finale," said Shostakovich, at the time it was written (the height of the Stalinist régime), "the tragically tense impulses of the earlier movements are resolved in optimism and the joy of living." After his death a memoir was published that described it differently:
The rejoicing is forced, created under threat. It's as if someone were beating you with a stick and saying, 'Your business is rejoicing, your business is rejoicing,' ... You have to be a complete oaf not to hear that.
It is tremendously exciting music. The last movement reconsiders the fierce, wistful or ironic themes from the previous movements, making prominent use of drums, flute, harp, piano and cymbals, builds to a dissonant climax, and ends, gritting its teeth, so to speak, in the major key. I was on the edge of my seat!

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Peterborough to Kingston, then home

Easter Saturday was a beautiful day. We launched ourselves into the air after saying goodbye to Don and Carol who had kindly given us a lift to the airport, Don interested in the modified Chipmunk that was parked there. A radial engine had been fitted to it, and an extra fuel tank underneath the fuselage that looked like a bomb.

The eastern part of Rice Lake
Chris found the oil very sluggish in the cold, so PTN was reluctant to start. He frightened me by saying that the engine would burst into flames if we primed it any more, but at the final attempt it worked. We had a lovely ride to Kingston––at least, I did. Chris was so engrossed in his GPS and other instruments he missed too much of the views, in my opinion––we were seeing less and less snow in the fields, the closer we got to Lake Ontario. The visibility was good enough for us to make out the Toronto skyscrapers to the west and the Oswego cooling tower on the American side of Lake Ontario, over 50 miles away. First, though, we crossed Rice Lake, startlingly white against its islands and the surrounding landscape, still unthawed. I leaned across and took a picture through Chris' window.

Beach near Trenton
Solar farm near Cobourg
Predictably, the shore of the great lake was  fascinating. I saw Port Hope and Cobourg, a goods train moving along, solar farms and wind farms. The water was transparent down to the lake bed. Near Trenton the long stretches of white sand on the beaches and the turquoise blue might give the illusion of a tropical shore, if it weren't for the remains of ice in the lagoons. I expect the military families of the Trenton airbase go swimming there in the summer. We kept the airfield in sight and had to talk to the ATC at Trenton "tower" on the way through their airspace. There was no other traffic, so we may have been a welcome relief to their boredom on that day.

Murray canal from the air, Chris' photo
Approaching Prince Edward County, the headland that juts out massively into Lake Ontario, we noticed an unnaturally straight waterway, a canal:
The Murray Canal was built between 1882 and 1889 providing a safer and shorter route for sailing vessels following the north coast of Lake Ontario between Niagara and Kingston. This saved time required to reach the communities in the Bay of Quinte from the west end of the lake, saving early captains the one hundred mile trip outside around Prince Edward County.
This canal effectively turns Prince Edward County into an island.

Like the "early captains" mentioned in the Wikipedia quotation above, we navigated straight towards Kingston, not following the coast proper, where the sandbanks are, but the long, thin Bay of Quinte, with Belleville off our left wing. I was entranced by the sight of the pack ice breaking up and fractals of ice shards in the bay. Nearer to Kingston, passing Amherst Island, we could see the controversial wind farm on Wolfe Island––86 turbines managed by TransAlta Energy now make their presence felt, and it looks as though they'll soon be cluttering up Amherst Island as well. (Later in the day we took the ferry from Kingston to Wolfe Island and back, a free ride both for foot passengers and vehicles. Our "cruise," Chris called it.)

On the descent, we heard John on the Kingston airwaves coming in to land from Ottawa. We'd arranged by email to meet him for lunch and when we arrived at the FBO he was getting a folding bike out of his 'plane, with the intention of cycling into the town instead of sharing a taxi with us, part of his keep fit strategy. He met us again at the new Marriott hotel where we were checking in, upgraded because of our early arrival or because the hotel manager wants to make a good impression on new visitors in the hope that they'll return. So for $123 (including the taxes) we had a nicely decorated suite with a complete kitchen (not that we needed it), a king-sized bed, a settee, free internet access, free breakfasts and a lake view. The Residence Inn also boasted a salt water pool that I made use of that evening: two swims in one day! We were very lucky with that price; from now on, with the tourist season beginning, it will rise. However, I shall add a note to self here that the people at the Esso FBO promise their customers an excellent deal at a rival waterfront hotel (the Holiday Inn) all summer long, if we book the room from their office at the airport.

Kingston Public Market
Everyone in town was appreciating the sunny afternoon despite a chilly wind. The marina was still covered in a thin layer of ice, but Queens University students in shorts were jogging along the lakeside trails and the Kingston market was back in business, selling spring flowers, maple syrup, pussy willow twigs, fruit and vegetables, beeswax products and honey.

Keeping the engine warm with plug-in heat and nose cover
Next day, the weather was forecast to deteriorate, so we flew back to Ottawa in the morning, making sure that PTN had a warm engine before start-up, this time. A stiff gusty wind was blowing at ground level but to my surprise and relief there was no turbulence at altitude although we were swept along by a tail wind, cutting 10-15 minutes off the usual journey time for this route. Both sky and scenery were grey, but interesting––I have mentioned and illustrated our view of the Rideau River meandering through Smiths Falls in my river blog.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Ottawa to Peterborough

Approaching Peterborough airport
We spent the Easter weekend flying across Ontario, staying at Peterborough, on the Otonabee River, and Kingston, on Lake Ontario, where the St. Lawrence River starts to flow towards the 1000 Islands. It was our first flying trip of the year, a short and simple excursion because of the risks incurred by changeable weather at this time of year. We can fly in cloud, but didn't want to fly into icing conditions at the higher levels.

Cliffs of the Bon Echo Provincial Park
We filed IFR from Ottawa to Peterborough, flying at 4000ft. There was minimal cloud at Ottawa and even less at Peterborough, but in between the sky was covered and, soon after crossing the Ottawa River, we were flying through the base of the clouds. They were in a thin layer at first but thickened over the higher ground where the lakes and forests are. Very little turbulence. From time to time I could see the ground quite clearly, such as the dramatic landscape around the Bon Echo park (one day I'd like to see those cliffs from a canoe in the water. Mazinaw Rock, a cliff 100m high, has native pictographs drawn upon it). Otherwise we were flying in IMC at around 0ºC and the drizzle was beginning to freeze on our aircraft's surfaces and spatter the wheels with a white rime ice. This was not enough frozen stuff to be concerned about; clear ice from freezing rain would have been much more worrisome. ATC told us that a pilot had reported icing at 6000ft but that flying at 4500ft and below "should be no problem."

Beyond the half way point the views became gradually clearer, but Chris insisted on flying the full instrument RNAV approach to runway 27 at our destination which, when we landed, we hardly recognised. Peterborough airport has had a thorough and expensive face lift since our last visit, acquiring several new hangars, workshops, parking for Bombardier jets and a stylish terminal building that includes a bistro serving remarkably good food (freshly battered fish 'n' chips with coleslaw, in our case). Outside it, various small aircraft were parked, including a Wilga 80 with tundra wheels that was attracting attention. During lunch we watched it take off, using hardly any of the runway to get airborne.

We asked the Esso people to fuel PTN and parked her on the apron for the night without ropes, having forgotten to bring any. This made us realise that we needed to buy some new ones that don't freeze in the winter when wet. We did so at Boater's World the following morning.

Peterborough City Hall, George Street
At Peterborough for the night, we stayed at the Otonobee Inn, a Best Western on a bank of Meade Creek (tributary of the Otonobee River). It gave us a quiet, spacious room, with breakfast and wi-fi use included in the price. Carol and Don were staying at this hotel as well; we shared breakfast with them on Saturday after I'd swum for half an hour in the pool. On Friday afternoon we walked from the hotel into town, past a cemetery and "Little" Lake, at the business end of which was a marina and an art gallery with pieces of sculpture nearby. Feeling too warm wearing our winter jackets in the mild weather, we walked most of the way up George Street as far as the City Hall. A maple tree in the war memorial park had responded to the sunshine too and was crowned with maple flowers. This is where Carol and Don picked us up to meet a relative of theirs who studies French and History at Trent University.

Seven of us had supper on George Street too, at the Olde Stone Brewpub, where I talked to the girl about her studies and later at some length to Chris about this too, because she didn't seem to have been as excited by Racine, Baudelaire, Flaubert, Camus and company as I'd been, when I was a student of French. Walking back to the hotel in the dark, fortified by the food and distracted by my thoughts on the subject, the distance didn't seem half so long as before.

Talking of the French literature in which I have wallowed, I saw the new film of Mauriac's novel Thérèse Desqueroux in Ottawa last night, starring Audrey Tautou––formidable!––I had better make that the subject of a different blogpost.