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

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

Thursday, April 23, 2015

In mint condition

Lifting a heavy gold bar
"Diplomatic Hospitality" invites foreign diplomats or their spouses, some of them men, these days, to visit Canadian institutions in Ottawa or participate in Canadian-themed activities. Yesterday morning we took people for a tour of the Royal Canadian Mint on Sussex Drive, to learn about the coin production there.

The Ottawa mint makes commemorative coins and medals only; coinage for general distribution is minted in Winnipeg, and the Bank of Canada sees to the paper money. The Royal Mint in Ottawa,  until 1931part of the British Mint, is more than 100 years old. It has its own gold refinery.

24 carat is pure gold, whereas 10 carat gold is an alloy containing 50% silver. Ottawa made the Olympic medals for the Vancouver 2010 Olympics. The gold medal has an outer layer of 6 grams of pure gold but its inside is silver. Most commemorative coins are made of silver. It takes 300 tons of pressure to cut into a lump of silver. In the basement of the mint, the raw silver is cut into small pieces before being heated in a furnace to 1250ºC. Then it can be rolled flat into silver coils, each weighing 975 lbs. Any leftovers go back into the furnace after trimming. The coil is wound slowly between heavy rollers, then heated once again to 700º so that the strip can be rolled even thinner.

Workers wear goggles, earplugs, hairnets, lab-coats and gloves or finger protectors, depending on their assignment.  Tourists are allowed nowhere near the machinery or the coins but can see the activity through the windows of an overhead passage. At the end of each day the workers have to walk through metal detectors before leaving the premises. The Sack and Kiesselbach machines punch out blanks and leftovers are once again recycled, like pastry for mince pies. Then the rimming machine comes into action. With their rims, coins survive for up to 15 years longer than they would without.

The blank coins are spun in tumblers with small steel beads, a process that cleans and polishes their surfaces. Then they're weighed with great precision. If not perfect, they have to be re-melted, a recovery technique that saves an estimated $10,000 a week. To preserve your commemorative coins in mint condition, by the way, you should never take them out of their containers. There's a proof finish and a specimen finish and a good deal more technical vocabulary besides. I jotted down: "hobbing the working dies," "the master punch," "the matrix," "photo-etching," but don't really know what any of this means. Regarding the image on a coin, a long process creates it from a plaster positive, to a negative plaster model, to a silicon rubber positive, to a "black magic epoxy negative" (?!) to a brass model.

Some modern coins are coloured with enamel paint; this is applied by hand.

The Australian mint is Ottawa's chief rival, but a quarter of the world's population uses Canadian-minted coins. In the latest version of the Queen's profile on the reverse of Canada's coins (in use from 2003 onwards) she is not wearing a crown or tiara. As the heads of state change from one monarch to another, their heads on the coins face in different directions, except for the brothers George V and George VI who are both facing in the same direction, because George V's reign was so short.

Diplomats having fun outside the Mint
After our guided tour 26 of us walked over the road for lunch at the nearby Earl of Sussex Pub.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Audience for a young flautist

"Flautist" is the British-English spelling. Here in North America, they'd call her a "flutist." Lindsay Bryden, working towards her MA, has been studying for a while in London, so I daresay she's used to both identities. Last Friday she was invited to perform to the local Confederation of University Women ladies and guests at the now annual Musical Lunch that's held at Le Café, the National Arts Centre canal-side restaurant. The majority of people were there to support fundraising efforts for the scholarship students of Kabul's Gawharshad Institute: girls who would otherwise not have the opportunity for higher education. Ten such girls graduated last year after three years at the Institute, and there'll be more to follow. We held a silent auction and a raffle during the lunch, as well.

Solo flute music from Lindsay's repertoire was part of our reward for attending this function (we were also served an elegant meal and got complimentary tickets to an NAC-orchestra concert). She played a piece by Debussy, a CPE Bach sonata, a piece by Ibert and one of her own compositions, which featured some extraordinary sounds. Before, during and after these items she also gave us a fluent introduction to the music and answered some questions, giving us some insight into the "extended techniques" used by contemporary flute-players. She was a real enthusiast and always has been. She told us the story of how as a young child she had been enchanted by a flute-player at her school and had badgered her parents to give her a flute, until they finally gave in and let her learn to play. Apparently she mastered it quickly.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Conversations in German and other distractions

It isn't that I've been doing nothing, while not blogging. On Maundy Thursday, or, in German, Gründonnerstag, 18 members of our German conversation group met at the German Ambassador's house for an Easter brunch, to read an article about Easter eggs and talk about the Easter or springtime traditions in our various places of origin (Czechoslovakia, Egypt, China, Britain, Germany, Luxembourg, Portugal ...); that was a pleasant occasion among affectionate friends.

Abla, Gloria, me, Sue, Ursula: Gründonnerstag 2015
German speaking friends bei Gloria, with cake to
celebrate the fact that the German group is now 20 years old
The following week, at Gloria's house, I chose Die Andere Heimat, Edgar Reitz' (latest) film, about 19th century German emigrants to Brazil, as the subject for discussion, a subject that resonated with us, because most of us in the group have come from places far away, and at Abla's house on the 16th we read extracts from a little book by Luci's German cousin: Eine Kindheit im Krieg––Erinnerungen 1938-1945. That got us talking about our various but not dissimilar personal memories or (grand)parents' stories of childhood and wartime, in Poland, Latvia, Crete, Cairo, Alexandria, Germany (Hildesheim, München), Canada. Uschi's father and mine, for example, had both been prisoners of war, but on different sides, and I commented on the marvel that here we all were, now, sharing these things as friends, and someone said, "Oh yes, we were enemies, once." (Damals waren wir Feinde.)

On the way home from Lachute: view over PTN's nose
On Easter Sunday Chris and I flew PTN to Lachute and back and the following weekend on the 12th we had a flight to Kingston and back and a walk and picnic at Lemoine Point on the shore of Lake Ontario from which the winter's ice was fast disappearing. Lovely views, on both occasions. Last weekend Uschi and her husband Jörn came for their own flight in PTN, and revelled in their views too.

Ice melting from the Mississippi River, near Almonte

View of Collins Bay, Lake Ontario, from Lemoine Point

Edge of the lake ice, seen on take-off from Kingston
The weather has been warm!

Otherwise, I've been busy with the first of the year's gardening jobs and by our preparations for China, our two requests for a Chinese Visa for instance, which took days to process at the Chinese Visa Application Service Centre on Laurier Avenue, costing $290. I've been revising the Chinese phrases I know and trying to learn some more, thanked the girl behind the counter for her help in Mandarin (saying xiexie nide bangzhu), but she chuckled and told me I needed to do more practice, so obviously my pronunciation leaves something to be desired. At least we now have our passports back with the requisite stamps in them.

Monday, April 20, 2015

"Like a torrent round a rock."

It doesn't seem very long since my oldest grandson Alexander became four years old, in 2011; it's his brother's fourth birthday now. Happy Birthday, Thomas!

Thomas aged 2 days

Thomas aged 1

Thomas aged 2

Thomas aged 3

Thomas aged 4, this morning
I haven't updated my blog since the first of the month, I see. As Louis MacNeice so sadly put it, I can see
...the accusing clock / Race like a torrent round a rock.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

In the Vancouver Art Gallery

My photo of a redwood tree
'Red Cedar' by Emily Carr
Emily Carr's paintings are well represented, of course (we'd seen the statue of her in Victoria), and reminded me of my walk through the Mystic Vale near UVIC and of the shady side of Butchart Gardens. Had we visited the untouched rainforest her pictures would doubtless seem even more evocative. It was interesting to learn that she had studied in San Francisco and in London, and had worked for a while in St. Ives, Cornwall, but she found those places too bright, and hastened to get home among the dark trees and abandoned totem poles where the Big Ravens lived.

The lower floors of the Vancouver Art Gallery offer plenty of contrast. The currently featured exhibition is of artworks from the Pearlman Collection: Cézanne and the Modern: Masterpieces of European Art (recently shown at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford). Like Emily Carr, Cézanne loved to depict trees, but his were more Mediterranean. The collection included several watercolours, greens, greys and russets prominent on top of a graphite sketch, whereby he "juxtaposed colours instead of hatching to indicate volume and depth" (said Roger Fry).  He was at home in Provence with views of the Mont Ste. Victoire and nearby bastides, the landscape that's described so well in the novels of Marcel Pagnol. I could imagine the ghost of Manon des Sources sitting on the red rocks in Cézanne's painting  (pictured on the right) of the "cistern in the park"; the red-tinged water is a significant part of Pagnol's story! Picasso and Matisse immensely admired Cézanne and both apparently said that he was "the father to us all." Renoir and Degas had once fought over the possession of Cézanne's sensuous painting of Trois Poires (1888) which was also part of the exhibition.

Outside the Art Gallery, Vancouver
Toulouse Lautrec caught my attention with a painting of Messaline (1907), i.e. the Emperor Claudius' wife, enthroned in a red dress, grinning lasciviously. There was an extraordinary wooden relief by Gauguin, Te Fare Amu depicting a Tahitian scene with a monkey, two heads and a naked woman in a provocative pose. Modigliani's portrait of Cocteau (1916) was in the exhibition too, and the painting that people were crowding around, going "Wow!" was of Van Gogh's La Diligence, a emotionally rendered stage coach seen in Tarascon: a colourful example of Van Gogh's impasto technique. Chris told me he thought the ferocious paintings by Chaïm Soutine were worth seeing, this artist a Jewish expressionist who had admired Goya, El Greco and Rembrandt. Alongside Soutine's disturbing portrait of a choir boy was his crazy, chaotic landscape entitled Chemin de la Fontaine des Tins à Céret, "tins" meaning dye factories. By Lipchitz, the cubist, Jewish sculptor from Lithuania, we saw Theseus and the Minotaur, sculpted in 1942, the Minotaur being an integral part of Theseus who is desperately trying to destroy this monstrous part of himself: in the Nazi era, this was highly symbolic; it still is!

This wonderful collection of masterpieces comes from New York. Vancouver itself doesn't have so much to offer in the way of comparable European art, but what they could find, they put on display in an adjoining room: by Henri le Sidaner––St. Mark's Square at Dusk, Charles Camoin––a St. Tropez landscape, and Albert Lebourg––a painting of Rouen. I'd not heard of any of these artists, but I liked what I saw of their work.

It struck me that this is an art museum to rival the National Gallery in Ottawa, which has become rather tame, lately, and not so well attended or supported as it used to be.

I haven't finished describing what we found in the Vancouver gallery. On the second floor was an collection of modern Chinese installations, including a fantastic pile of old stools (Bang) by the famous / infamous Ai Weiwei. The modern Chinese are imaginative! Another room had ceramic drips of "ink" running down its walls and a gathering of pots on its floor which was supposed to be a comment on "the loss of traditional techniques and the expanding commoditization of culture"––created by Liu Jianhua in 2011, the year we were in China, it was called Traces. At the entrance to the 2nd floor galleries was a tower of live plants, all with very dark leaves: Black Beauty (2014)––the plants are actually covered with black ink. I failed to get a decent photo of it. We studied the Physique of Consciousness Museum by Xu Zhen, aka the MadeIn Company of Shanghai, which explored various body positions from a physical exercise manual, e.g. Standing Posture making references to ancient art of many different cultures with cutouts, photos and small figurines and "offering a new perspective on humankind’s spiritual heritage." The strangest of all the Chinese artworks were the blank canvas paintings by Qiu Shihua, very minimalist: a video recording of the artist talking about his work could be seen by them: "All colours combine into one, the same as no colour." He spoke of excessive thinness and thickness of paint, going from nothing to something and back; it was most mysterious. "Light goes through clouds," he said, "and reflects on the sea."

Qiu Shihua speaking of his art

Qiu Shihua's white canvasses

'Traces,' photographed from above
'Traces,' at floor level

In this room was a projection of animated screen paintings