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, October 25, 2016

A moment of tranquility

From the Winterreise, song number 20, Der Wegweiser.
... und ich wandere sonder Maßen ohne Ruh und suche Ruh ...
(... and I wander on and on, unresting, in search of rest ...)
Ruh' (Ruhe) also means quietness, silence, tranquility, peace.

Chris sings that line with great feeling; anyone would, because we're all longing for relief from disturbances.

For a few moments at a time I sometimes find that relief by going outside and stopping under the trees by the river, near our house, and drinking in their colours and shapes. It's not a permanent escape from news in the papers or on the screen, or from phone calls and TO-DO lists, but it helps.

I've no idea whether or not this habit would be of benefit to other people; I know that it works for me.

Songs in German

Chris has a new singing teacher, a young man who's keen on Schubert-Lieder and can play the accompaniments; what a fortunate discovery! They're going to be working on one or two of the Winterreise songs together this evening. This lets me off the hook to some extent, but on second thoughts, because Chris will have higher expectations after these lessons, I'll have to work harder at playing the accompaniments at home.

Last week I went to another of those Wednesday lunchtime DOMS concerts: "Opera selections by G. F. Handel and W. A. Mozart" and Lieder by Richard Strauss, including his Four Last Songs, sung by Stephanie Piercey Beames, soprano, with Nadia Boucher, pianist. The Strauss songs are very appropriate for this time of year, and have been going round my head every since I was at the concert, especially that last one, that wonderful setting of the touching Eichendorff poem, Im Abendrot. Strauss was living in Garmisch-Patenkirchen at the end of his life and must have been inspired by the peaceful Alpine landscape there. Chris and I may have the chance to go there next month, but I had better not anticipate too much. The young pianist at the concert did her job very well, but it sounds better with an orchestral accompaniment. Elizabeth Schwarzkopf probably gave the definitive performance:

Ms. Piercey Beames provided her own translation of the poems. For my taste she put too much vibrato into the songs, but her performance was well received. She obviously loved them.

From the sublime to the ridiculous ... on Friday, I was responsible for the singing of some other German songs when our Diplomatic Hospitality Group hosted an Oktoberfest-style lunch at the Maple Leaf Almrausch Club. Our German conversation group had been asked to provide the "entertainment", which consisted of me wearing a Dirndl and talking into a microphone about the origins of the Oktoberfest, then leading the German speakers and our guests (diplomats and other friends) into some singing, starting with the beer-drinking song, Im München steht ein Hofbräuhaus with its obligatory swaying (Schunkeln) to the music. I told them some anecdotes about the Hofbräuhaus which I'd looked up on the Internet beforehand. We continued with a merry folksong about the gypsies –– Lustig ist das Zigeunerleben –– then O du lieber Augustin, and Auf einem Baum ein Kuckuk saß, a repetitive children's song with a nonsense refrain that goes Simsaladim bamba saladu saladim. I got some of the diplomats singing along to that. Our accompanist was my friend Vija (also wearing a Dirndl) who had persuaded her husband to come along to help her carry and set up the electronic keyboard. She also persuaded him ... and Chris! (to his considerable embarrassment because he was put on the spot and had to sight-read)... to join in with the singing on stage. At least Chris and Rolf didn't have to wear Lederhosen.

At the Almrausch lunch, photos by Carol Hinde

Monday, October 24, 2016

Explaining China

Alexandre Trudeau speaking to the CCFS
Alexandre Trudeau's ambition, he said, is to "explain China" to the rest of us. He has written a book called Barbarian Lost and at a very well attended public CCFS meeting on October 12th he talked about the ideas behind it. The title refers to a book by his father, the late Pierre Trudeau, written in 1960: Two Innocents in Red China. Canada was the first western nation to establish diplomatic relations with modern China, back in the 1970s. Alexandre (Sasha) is the current PM's younger brother. Both sons went with Pierre on an official tour of China in 1990 when they were teenagers. Trudeau senior, who had first visited China as long ago as 1949, thought of himself first and foremost as a traveller, a coureur du bois.  His son Alexandre sees himself as a loner, outsider, a pilgrim, passing through the world.

He has made documentary films but believes that people change when you point a camera at them. A book makes for truer observations.

To understand the world, you have to try to understand China, he says: experience it first through your senses, without preconceived ideas. Start in a place like Chongqing, he suggests. When you are in this foreign place you see your own world from a distance, from the Chinese perspective, and that changes your perceptions.

"Everything I need from China will always be with me." He has learned that wisdom doesn't come from quick answers. Failure and having been overwhelmed is what makes us wise; the sacrifices made by our ancestors are what allows us to be here now. The Taoist vision of immortality has had a powerful influence on him, the idea that we are part of a thread or a bridge between the generations.

Early China was so isolated from the rest of the world –– by oceans, deserts and mountains –– that the Chinese had to meet their challenges internally. Now at last it is part of the community of nations, obtaining oil from the middle east, food from Africa and so on. In the 1960s China suffered famine; since then it has cultivated or imported plenty. The Cultural Revolution, according to Alexandre Trudeau, "rebooted" China, which nowadays has a middle class 800 million strong; the 21st century will belong to China, he asserts. Its young people are making an identity for themselves, as did North Americans in the 1960s. Having eradicated or fabricated / re-invented its past, China must find a new way of seeing itself. He detects a need for more than material possessions, hence the religious revivals rushing in to fill the vacuum. Money and religion have become closely intertwined and this has political implications. The number of intellectuals who criticise their government is growing. Art is important to these people.

We in the west have a huge lack of knowledge about the Chinese, and vice versa. Only now are they beginning to take their first steps into the outside world. We ought not to impose our own ideas upon them.

The history of China is primarily about food; it's a farming society trying to solve the problem of how to feed all those people. Even in 5 BC, Confucius was nostalgic for the old days when people understood where their food and clothing came from. When they lost that awareness, they lost their sense of responsibility. However, nowadays the entrepreneurial spirit is very much alive within China's small villages. Canada seems very "sleepy and complacent" in comparison.

Members of the audience asked Alexandre Trudeau for his views of what the future holds. Conquest and dominion over others on a grand scale is no longer possible in the modern world, but there is always a danger that China might become aggressive towards its immediate neighbours. China sees itself historically as a victim of the western world which set the tone in past centuries with its belief that Might is Right. But being overwhelmed by failure and defeat can bring wisdom. The modern world doesn't need another bully and we must hope that China's new found strength and nationalist spirit will equate with moderation. Trudeau is not pessimistic, but China and the developing world needs to see more of a "noble vision" from the west. He believes that trade between Canada and China is bound to be mutually beneficial, but has his doubts about the domination of corporate interests.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

An Afghan doctor

Dr. Hasina Rasuli is a Tajik who has felt rejected by her Pashtun associates; tribal tensions are still a fact of life in Afghanistan. 75% of Afghans still live in the rural areas where 30 years of conflict have damaged the structures of schools and other communal buildings, so they are not making very rapid progress. Hasina has been involved as a director and consultant in education and health initiatives, agricultural projects (creating jobs in lieu of poppy production) and women's rights programs, in the rural north. It is important for women from different areas of the country to get together to compare their experiences, she said.

Afghans do not ask for help when they are sick or overstressed; they tend to believe that a visit to a sacred shrine like the Blue Mosque in Masar-e Sharif will solve their problems. She told us of mobile health units set up for people –– adults! ––  who had never seen a doctor before, who urgently need health education and family planning advice, but as she became more experienced in her work, Hasina stopped distributing medicine so freely because she realised it was being ignorantly misused.

She admitted that wearing a burqa did allow for freedom of movement outside the home; women recognise one another by their shoes. She is proud of her achievements but now that she has come to Canada she feels she must stay here; she has made such an impact in Afghanistan that she fears it wouldn't be safe for her to go back there. It is traditional for a women living with her parents to be called a "girl" and be expected to behave demurely. Then, once she becomes engaged, she is obliged to wear make-up and jewelry whether she wants to or not. Pride in a woman is considered shameless. Eye-contact with strangers and a self-confident body language –– as in my photos –– would mark her as abnormal over there, a "bad woman." Hasina told us of her younger sisters and of the female medical students who need to overcome these obstacles and attitudes. The recipient of a higher education grant does sometimes gain kudos for the whole family and the increase in income helps. A doctor in Afghanistan will earn $50 per month, a teacher, $30. However, men don't always take their female colleagues seriously even when they work 20 hours a day.

All the same, women look at the future with hope, said Hasina, and do not dwell on the past. As simple a thing as installing ladies' washrooms in offices makes their lives easier. If they become landowners as, by law, they now may, they can open bank accounts; however, a woman may not acquire property unless she has sons. Even so, Hasina mentioned a woman who lost seven sons and yet thanked God for her daughter.

Hasina is writing a book: profiles of "bold" Afghan women.

Some Afghan men are helpful, including her own father, educated by the Russians; she says there are plenty of good men in Afghanistan, but warns of double standards. Some are very willing to support women's advancement, so long as it doesn't concern members of their own families. But if the men can be truly supportive, "that's the solution!" she says.

Trouble and co-operation on the border

I don't mean any present day border, although it approximates to the present day border country between Turkey and Syria, from the Taurus Mountains to the alluvial plains of the Euphrates.

Taurus Mountains (Wikipedia image)
On Sunday at Saint Paul University we heard Prof. Asa Ager of UNC (Greensboro) give an archeology lecture. His subject was the frontier between the Byzantine Empire and the Islamic Caliphate in the early middle ages. The subheading was: "Interaction and Exchange Among Muslim and Christian Communities". Before attending the lecture I knew practically nothing about this subject. Here are some notes I took.

The Byzantine landscape in this part of the world was seen by Muslims as a wilderness; they planned to cultivate and civilise it, like settlers a thousand years later, wanting to tame the American West. The mountains formed a natural divide, although it was a permeable one because of the "gaps between the teeth" in the mountains, as the people called them: the passes.

Prof. Ager told us of archeological digs recently done in Antioch (now Antakya, Turkey) and in places north of there and around the Euphrates. The archeologists had used remote sensing and satellite imagery too. For obvious reasons several study sites near Aleppo and Raqqa, Syria, have recently been put out of bounds. The word Raqqa, incidentally, means "flooded plain". The researchers had studied canal sites, marsh sites and way-stations. He mentioned that after the first Muslims took control of Syria in the 8th century, far fewer villages existed than before that time. They had not been heavily defended; many were unwalled.

Canal sites
Traces of these settlements were discovered in the vicinity of the Afrin River or the Euphrates: evidence of water lifting devices and mills. Irrigation systems protected farmers against lean years and cooperation between the landowners, through water councils, was essential for the sharing of resources. After the early Islamic conquests, Muslim farmers took over abandoned lands and developed or revitalised them, which allowed them tax exemptions. Any remaining Syriac Christians were permitted to keep their lands. According to the 7th / 8th century poet Jarir b. Atiya, the area was "a paradise on earth" and onlookers would "bite their fingertips" (a sign of jealousy) to see the orchards ready for harvest.

Marsh sites
During Byzantine days, massive erosion on the slopes of the uplands had occurred, due to unsustainable agricultural practices. When the canals flooded, wetlands became more permanent. This was not a deterrent to some Islamic settlers who constructed their villages in the wettest parts, such as the Lake of Antioch, not drained until the mid-20th century. These were reed-gathering people on small islands, who extracted clay from the marsh bed and hunted waterfowl for their sustenance. These medieval Marsh Arabs were independent-minded people who tended to rebel against the Caliph's armies. Along with their water buffalo, they were relocated or became nomadic and may be the ancestors of today's Romany.

People stopped here to trade brass and ceramic artifacts, and travelling fairs came by. Armies did not much interfere with these activities although armies came and went, and prisoners were sometimes exchanged (bartered) at the river crossings. The Abassids connected with the outside world by sea, so the cedar and pine trees growing around the way stations were cut down as timber for the construction of merchant ships. Fig trees grew there too.

Prof. Ager's lecture included a mention of Christian monasteries in the region, that had flourished for centuries and that remained functional until the 10th century. The monks had no specific loyalties or inhibitions, it seems. Travellers were served wine there and the attractive young monks and nuns appealed to some, such as an Abassid aristocrat who referred to a "tempting gazelle" he had noticed, whether male or female is unclear. The caves of Cappadocia were a special case, where Christian communities, both people and animals, sought refuge from invaders and inclement winters. In fact the Islamic raids only took place in the spring or summer; the Arabs knew of their underground granaries and the troglodytes' passages were sealed with great stones for greater security. Christians would raid Islamic lands as well.

The plains of Syria were dry as a bone in the summer months, which caused the Bedouin tribes to wander westwards towards the mountains and with their herds of sheep they might join Byzantine groups. To some extent the construction of the canals and the way-stations were a ploy to encourage them to stay put, but it didn't work. In later centuries Kurds and Basques have been similarly hard to control by a central government.

It is challenging to make sense of the history of the near east with its never-ending Islamic Jihad and the associated propaganda on every side. There were / are Christian Arabs as well, which further confuses matters. The clashes continue and the archeologists, during their digs at the Antioch site, sometimes hear bombs falling on Syria. Antakya is only a two-hour drive from Aleppo.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Lectures, and other pastimes

In the first half of this month I've heard three talks: (1) by a young Afghan doctor talking about her challenging career in her home country, (2) the Canadian Prime Minister's brother giving his perspective on present day China, and (3) an American archeologist speaking of the exchanges between Islamic and Byzantine communities in the 7th-10th centuries, on what is now the border country between Turkey and Syria. I am still digesting the input.

On Monday evenings I'm taught something about Mandarin Chinese by Jingnan, a highly intelligent young woman. On the last two occasions she's been helping us to translate and analyse a description and historical explanation of China's National Day parades in Tiananmen Square.

Serious stuff.

For light relief I have been swimming and cycling, as usual, doing Sudoku puzzles in the coffee shops and some pottering/puttering in the garden. I harvested 3kg of tomatoes-on-the-vine today, but, as I wrote on Facebook, they are all green; my friends are recommending green tomato recipes. With my German conversation group, I've been preparing for some fun for Friday when we're going to sing silly German songs at an Oktoberfest themed lunch.

Our own Fall Rhapsody

Every October, the National Capital Commission encourages Ottawa's citizens to get out of town and admire the nearby scenery, as if it weren't a recommended thing to do at any other time of year. The NCC grandly calls the Gatineau Hills experience Fall Rhapsody and both tourists and local people take up the suggestion in their thousands. Chris and I tend to avoid the Gatineau Park at this time of year because, especially at weekends, the roads and stopping places get so crowded. In any case, October's coloured trees aren't limited to one area and nor is the range of our little aeroplane.

11th October, the Tuesday following the Canadian Thanksgiving weekend, was another of Chris' semi-demi-retirement days –– he now stays off work for five out of 20 working days –– which we were lucky enough to spend flying to Kingston (CYGK) and back, so that we could appreciate the colours from above, under a sunny, blue sky. There were startling pockets of red and gold among the stretches of muskeg and beside the lakes. The views southwest of Perth were particularly splendid.

On the ground at Kingston we chose to walk to a restaurant we didn't know existed until I'd found its advert on the internet: Days on Front, it is called, a stylish place on Front Road. I can heartily recommend their asparagus soup and their grilled cheese sandwich isn't a common or garden one; it has brie, "apple butter" and pears in it. Chris ordered their equivalent of a BLT, containing "grilled peameal + roasted garlic dijon aioli + butter lettuce" with the tomato. During our walk back to the airport where ultralight flying is now in vogue, we stopped to clamber down to lake level by the golden willow trees and watch the wavelets breaking on the shore.

A week later, the trees are even more spectacular.

Yesterday, Monday 17th, being another off-work day for Chris, we went flying again, for the same purpose, this time following the Gatineau River north and returning in an easterly loop, over the Val-des-Monts region. Early morning patches of low cloud were just beginning to lift and break up above the valleys. What a magical sight.

Once north of the more populated part of the hills, we realise that the colour spreads for miles and miles. We must enjoy it while it lasts. We circled Lac Chevreuil to take seasonal photos for our friends who have a cottage there. Those autumn uplands will turn grey before long, and then white.

Lac Chevreuil in the fall

"Weh mir, wo nehm’ ich, wenn
Es Winter ist [...]
Den Sonnenschein,
Und Schatten der Erde?"

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

An inspiring day

I cycled along the canal path to a concert at lunchtime which was all JS Bach. The performer was Roland Graham, director of the music at Southminster Church, where these Doors Open For Music (DOMS) concerts happen, and director of DOMS besides. He was enthusiastically introduced by the ecclesiastic in charge, Trisha Elliott (who incidentally describes herself as an Intentional Interim and Transitional minister, kind of a “specialist” in helping congregations navigate change). Under the influence of Glenn Gould recordings, Mr Graham plays the piano, as well as conducting, composing or teaching at other times, and he specialises in Bach. This was a performance on the grand piano of Bach's 3-part Sinfonias, fifteen of them played without a break, followed by the far better known Italian Concerto (BWV 971).

What a feat of concentration, especially as he played them all from memory. Imitating the way Angela Hewitt performs Bach, he did not touch the foot pedal once. I was watching, soaked in music of the highest quality –– occasionally I closed my eyes. It seems to me that since Bach's time, every musical thought in western music was anticipated by this composer; is that notion too far-fetched? I try to be analytical about his music, but I always fail, especially when it comes to the compositions in minor keys. They are so beautiful, and I love his mood-changing tierces de Picardie at the end of the minor sequences, although he went one better in the final Sinfonia in F minor, which had a major chord before the end, then returned to the minor harmonies, before reaching the actual conclusion.

(Ignore the picture! Listen with eyes closed.)

In the Italian Concerto, the slow, middle movement is a deeply felt composition, in the minor key, with one of Bach's exquisite melody lines:

Is it also too far-fetched or fanciful to point out the universality of Bach's music? I'm convinced it does not appeal, and was not meant to appeal, to only one type or breed of people, but that it is for all of us. Intellectual snobs might think otherwise; inverted snobs might think otherwise too. I maintain that if a listener is unbiassed and open enough, it doesn't matter who (s)he is. There was a girl with Down Syndrome sitting in front of me. She was quietly loving this music, smiling throughout the concert.

I cycled back the way I'd come, but on the other side of the canal, the colourful side with the flower beds, then went swimming in the Chateau Laurier basement pool which I had all to myself.

The TOGETHER exhibition trailer
Later in the afternoon I went to the Delegation of the Ismaili Imamat on Sussex Drive where their touring exhibition (in a very large truck) was parked outside the building. It was a thrilling exhibition with sophisticated interactive displays, called TOGETHER, the theme of which was the certainty that if, as citizens of the world, we work together, we not only address, but eventually overcome, global poverty. The Aga Khan Foundation Canada is setting an example all over the world to show people instances of how, in spite of all the challenges, it can be done. ("Together, we have the tools and knowledge to make a real difference.") Rather than being overwhelmed by difficulties, the Aga Khan Foundation focuses on the necessary and possible solutions.

Inside the Delegation building

Then I heard that the Canadian government ratified the Paris Climate Change accord today. A good day indeed.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Windtet and Bierfest

Eleonore in her garden,
photo by Christiane Willox-Conzemius
The German Ambassador and his wife Eleonore are very generous with their hospitality. On top of everything else that they do, they arranged for three Kulturtage (days of German Culture) in a row at their residence, this week; all and sundry were invited.

On Thursday evening they "proudly presented" a German piano and wind quintet (a Windtet, they call themselves) known as Ensemble 4.1. Two of its members, the clarinet and horn player, are in the Berlin Symphony Orchestra; the pianist, oboist and bassoon player have equally prestigious careers. Back in 2009, Thomas Hoppe the pianist was chosen as the BBC's New Generation Artist. The point is, they are obviously good friends who love playing together and sharing their usually unusual choice of music with an audience. The audience in Eleonore's reception room was packed, crammed together on the folding chairs. While our buffet supper was being prepared in the adjoining rooms (we could smell it!) we heard an hour and a half of wonderful music, all of which is to be found on their new CD, apparently.

Beethoven's Op. 16 first, a three movement, Mozartian quintet. Introducing it, the clarinetist led us to believe that Beethoven, when he wrote this early work, was competing with Mozart. (The embedded video below shows these musicians playing the Mozart piece).

Then followed a four-movement quintet by a 19th century German composer no-one in the room but the performers had heard of, Heinrich von Herzogenberg. Brahms was his wife's piano teacher, apparently, and the music was indeed Brahmsian.

The last piece on the programme was by a composer from New York, Avner Dorman, composed in 2007 for a chamber music festival in Jerusalem and entitled Jerusalem Mix. It was a sound-painting of that city, evoking the dances and Jewish wedding marches, the chanted prayers of both Jews and Muslims (the Wailing Wall, the Islamic call to prayer); the "intense, shocking" fourth section of the piece was simply entitled "Blast". Jerusalem Mix is also the name of a meaty dish served in Israel and Herr Glücksmann, the clarinetist, said that this symbolised the "cultural melting pot" that is Jerusalem: "all combined, everyone." The musical techniques displayed were quite experimental, the pianist leaning over the grand piano to pluck, hit or strum its strings, for instance, the wind players revelling in its discordant or unison passages. Some of the audience preferred listening to the Beethoven, but personally, I find this modern stuff exciting.

Arriving at the Bierfest, Friday evening,
photo by Christiane Willox-Conzemius
The German meal that we ate after this was delicious, including some Knödel (dumplings) with mushroom sauce that I'm now determined to try recreating in my own kitchen. Unfortunately Chris wasn't along to share this treat, having an appointment at the optician's, but he did join me at the Bierfest yesterday evening, Friday. This was an event for which the invitation asked people to come casually dressed, and was a relaxed, very well-attended affair, with frothy German Weissbier served in the tents, consumed with Pretzels and chicken legs or hot-dogs with coleslaw at tables on the lawn and a central marquee for traditional, Bierfest style, accordion / saxophone music and dancing. Several of the guests were wearing Dirndl –– which are flattering garments for all women (I'll have to buy one next time I'm in Germany) –– or Lederhosen shorts with leather braces, not so flattering for the men, really, although I liked one chap's felt hat with its flamboyant plume of feathers. This party too was excellently well put together. We made some new acquaintances, a Finnish couple, a lady married to a Dutch diplomat, the newly arrived German Defence Attaché, and also met and talked to a good few people we already knew, including a young couple from our flying club, Tanner and Christine, who were doubtless looking for ideas for the Oktoberfest parties they like to throw at their own house.