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, May 30, 2017

What is civilisation (or civilization)?

We had a philosophical discussion at our house yesterday evening. One of the eight people here said that for him, civilisation (civilization, if you prefer) simply meant the exploration of science and the deployment of technology --- our "ability to use machines" --- to control our environment and enable us to survive. He is a physicist. Somebody else said that the dinosaurs survived for longer than humans have, so far, but the rebuttal to that was that the dinosaurs had no way of predicting the meteor that wiped them out, nor the technology to do anything about it. I said nothing at this point because I was still reeling, with my mouth open, from the definition of "civilisation" I had just heard. To me, civilisation has to include Bach's 'St. Matthew Passion' and Rembrandt's self portraits. And someone else said, what about the ethical aspects of "civilisation"?

The following day, I asked my Facebook friends, "What do you think? How would you define civilisation?"

My sister: By definition, i.e. etymology, living in cities.

Gianluca: I would define real civilization the ability of a community to strike a balance, using whatever tools are available and developed, that gives people good quality of life, a safe environment, freedom and respect, and the ability to express themselves artistically and through innovation. It's not just science, or arts. The caring from a social point of view is necessary, and that (to me) is the ethical part that you mentioned. Based on this, I think history shows different attempts to achieve true civilization. We are not in very bad shape, but not quite there yet.

 Mel: That's socialism.

Gianluca: Nope. It's not socialism to me. I don't know what i am talking about. I just make stuff up. So, just to clarify. I don't think that socialism is equal to civilization, in my attempted definition. However, I do believe that a certain degree of socialism is a necessary component to achieve civilization.

Mel: Civilisation: an unstable by-product of Triticum dicoccum.

Civilisation is the process by which a society stratifies, following the onset of an agricultural economy. The accumulation of a plentiful, reliable and tradeable, food source generates a growing requirement for land cultivation; in its turn, this gives rise to violent competition for land ownership, initially within a society and, subsequently, between societies. These factors, acting together, are the engines of stratification, that usually leads to three or four distinct social classes of citizens within a civilisation. These are: the warrior class; the priests; craftspeople and traders; and peasants. A common feature of a civilisation is a settlement pattern based on a fortified town surrounded by cultivated land. Significant ownership of land is usually initially restricted to the ruling class and to the priestly class. As a civilisation matures, additional classes may emerge (often from the priestly class) of artists, poets and musicians, scholars. These are frequently maintained by the warrior class, at least at first. The peasant class, meanwhile, remains the most populous and least prosperous stratum of society. As a rule, civilisations tend towards decay, either through becoming moribund within, for example, as a result of over-exploitation of one stratum by another, or through destruction from without, when one civilisation is over-run by another.

Me: So you think it all began with the cultivation of wheat? Which class do the scientists and engineers belong to?

Mel: Scholars. My daughter: I'm a physicist and an artist and a musician and I live in a city. But sometimes I rebel against being civilised for a little while. ... But given I'm having Earl Grey Tea in Richmond Upon Thames's Marks and Spencer's at the moment, this isn't one of my rebellious moments.

Jannette: Civilisation versus Culture.... In my opinion Civilisation is more about socail caring for eachother whereas culture is more about Bach's Matheus Passion and Rembrandt's selfportraits.

Susan R.: Given that we speak approvingly of someone or something as being very civilized, and disapprovingly of the opposite, I would say that the word also connotes a striving for decency and beauty, harmony and growth, order and compassion - I see no separation between civilization and culture, but a huge gulf between civilization and Trump. Oh sorry, stupid autocorrect, the word I meant to type was ignorance.

Martin: Interesting thoughts... I've always considered group of people as citizens in some defined order; that being their ability to be civil. Being civil means they cooperate, they negotiate, they create, they share and they act for the general good of the group. This is what I think civilization is about. Dinosaurs were not civil or civilized.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

The significant language of colour (Georgia O'Keeffe)

Georgia O'Keeffe, born at Sun Prairie, Wisconsin in 1887, lived for 98 years and died in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Today I went to see the Toronto exhibition about her life and work at the Art Gallery of Ontario.

Her first artworks of note were created around 1915-1919 as she was beginning to find her own style. She had almost given up on art at college because they were forcing her to learn to paint like other people. There was a small bronze scupture that she'd made after the death of her mother, lacquered white, depicting a standing mourner without features, enrobed in a shroud, the shape of the head bird-like; other pieces were experimental, abstract paintings. Some were in the shapes of mountains (Blue Mountains); some were an attempt to describe music in terms of shape and colour. The vortex of Music -- Pink and Blue No. 1 (1918) presumably stood for sound waves or a vibrating larynx. It looked organic, anyhow. "Color," she wrote once, "is a significant language to me."

Her pictures are certainly sensual, and her husband's (Alfred Stieglitz') photos of her naked torso, her arms and hands in particular, make her appear to have been a sensual person, although the photos of her face look stern and severe. She was irritated by her contemporaries' interpretation of her work at this point in her life: "When people read erotic symbols into my paintings, they're really talking about their own affairs!" she said. It upset her to the extent that she stopped painting abstracts and began to paint her famous flower heads instead, but then people saw those as sexual as well.

Her work reminds me of the Canadian artists Lawren Harris and Emily Carr.

O'Keeffe and the photographer Alfred Stieglitz first lived on the 30th floor of an hotel in New York from which vantage point they photographed and painted or sketched (in charcoal) the city skyscrapers, industrial landscape and waterways. For respite in the 1920s, they would go to Lake George which Georgia quite liked, having first seen it in 1908, but she felt "smothered in green" there and concentrated on other things than the wooded hills: farmhouse doors, individual trees (showing the influence of Cézanne, to which she admitted) and an extraordinarily 3-dimensional close-up of dying leaves in oils, entitled Oak Leaves, Pink and Grey (1929). The previous year she had also painted an intensely observed sea shell, Shell No. 2, that too very 3-dimensional. In 1932 she was thrilled by a trip to the Gaspé peninsula, admiring the swirling thunderclouds over the sea and "lush" potato flowers in the fields. She might have stayed there and become Canadian if it hadn't had such a chilly climate.

Back in the States, her husband took black and white photos of her face, body and expressive hands, which gave her a "feeling of wonder and excitement", especially the one of her hands caressing the skull of a horse!

In the next gallery I found those flower heads in oils for which she's popularly known: oriental poppies, an amarylis, calla lilies, an iris, a petunia and the trumpet like white flower of a jimson weed. According to the notes on the wall, they are all about "...looking intensely [...] a response to the speed of the modern world." She focussed on fruit and vegetables too, including a more-than-real aubergine (eggplant). she travelled to New Mexico, she knew that she had found her spiritual home. Here were bones lying in the desert, and striking rust red hills. There was a profile photo of her staring at such scenery with great intensity, wearing a black sunhat. She also liked her discovery of the adobe huts in 1000-year-old settlements. New Mexico, at the Ghost Ranch, was where she met DH Lawrence, Ansel Adams and Jung. In 1949 she moved there permanently, choosing a ranch with a magnificent view of a mountain from the windows. Her paintings are of the hills, red and black, and of bare bones juxtaposed with flowers. To her, pelvis bones were "most beautiful against the blue [sky] -- that Blue that will always be there, as it is now, after all man's destruction is finished." Perhaps it is significant that she painted these during the second World War and that her husband died around this time. Perhaps she saw the sandstone rocks with their holes and strange formations as bonelike too. She kept coming back to a "Black Place" (a view of black rocks on a mountainside) where she painted views of the dark clefts and valleys between them. The curving cottonwood trees delighted her too.

Towards the end of her life, suffering from macular degeneration, she painted the flow of river valleys seen from above, and layers of sky. Her painting White Cloud graduates downwards in layers from blue to mauve to turquoise to green, then (two-thirds of the canvas) white, representing an undercast of cloud. She had a large personal abstract in oils that hung by her bed which she called "My Last Door": it was a black square in the middle of a wall of white, with some touches of grey. A momento mori, presumably. Although the exhibition notes didn't state this, she must have inclined towards mysticism.

She wrote, "Whether you succeed or not is irrelevant. Making your unknown known is the important thing --- and keeping the unknown always beyond you."

Monday, April 24, 2017

A long drive northeast

We left the RIDC Park hotel at 7:50am this morning; at about 5:15pm we reached Pulaski, the same stopping point as on our way down, so we have been on the go for about nine-and-a-half hours. When I stepped out of the car for supper at the Ponderosa steakhouse, I felt dizzy from the constant motion. I think my body is still vibrating, although our car is at rest near our motel room (at the Super 8 once more), plugged into an outside socket.

It has been another pleasant drive. We only got lost twice on the backroads, first on the back roads between Clarion and Kane in the Allegheny National Forest area (because there turned out to be an old Route 36 and a new Route 36), and this afternoon on the stretch between Prattsburg and Geneva in upper state New York. It didn't matter. All the way along were dark Dutch barns with white picket fences round the farms, and amalanchia trees bursting into flower. The fields were full of flooded hollows from the recent downpours. The up and down route took us to an altitude 2010ft at one point. In these higher, more northern regions the daffodils in people's gardens still look fresh, whereas in Pittsburgh they had already wilted from the heat.

For lunch we stopped at Allegany on the Allegheny river -- don't get confused by the different spelling! -- at La Roca, an excellent, inexpensive, authentic Mexican restaurant staffed by a family of Mexicans.

Over the New York State border in Cattaraugus County we saw horse drawn buggies steered by bearded young Amish gentlemen in straw hats, some of them with children along, the little girls wearing long skirts and caps. Here in Pulaski, even, I have just bought a handwoven basket from such a family standing beside a horse at the crossroads near our motel, the little girls in black capes and caps. They looked very solemn until I showed them the picture I had taken of the horse (the father allowed me to do this, "so long as you don't take a picture of us!") on my cellphone, whereat they smiled. Maybe no one had showed them a picture on a cellphone before. If not, they must have thought it was magic.

This evening we walked by the Salmon River again, very full, seeing several fishermen but no catches. I like the quiet side streets of Pulaski.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Discovering Pittsburgh

Pittsburgh lies in the hilly woodland at the confluence of the Allegheny and Monogahela Rivers, the starting point of the great Ohio River. The Ohio, in turn, becomes the Mississipi as it continues beyond Cairo, Illinois, so in principle you could sail from Pittsburgh to Mexico.

In the 1750s the Marquis du Quesne / Duquesne, Governor General of New France, sent an expeditionary troop from the north to establish a military base on the spit of land where the rivers meet, claiming the surrounding territory for France. A world war between the French, the British and other nations was taking place in those days, a quest for Empire and supremacy; three years later, Fort Duquesne was destroyed by a British troop arriving from the east, who built Fort Pitt in its place. George Washington, at that time a Major in the British army, was involved in the skirmishes.

On Wednesday morning I stood above the fountain in the Point State Park where these forts used to be.

The native tribes also played a major role in the fighting, on both sides, for although their traditional culture was the antithesis of land ownership, they needed to make alliances with the Europeans for practical purposes. In the 1760s the natives tried to drive out the incomers and laid siege to the fort, but failed to capture it. Captain Ecuyer, the commander of Fort Pitt, gave two Lenape (Delaware) envoys blankets that had been exposed to smallpox, with famously devastating consequences. Then later, in the 1770s, the "colonists", British settlers from Virginia, took over Fort Pitt in their turn.

In the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, peopled by English, Scottish, Welsh, Irish and German settlers and their descendants, Pittsburgh became industrial, building boats and manufacturing iron and then steel, brass, tin and glass products. Coal was mined nearby. Important railroads ran through it and still do. We saw an extremely long train of coal trucks pass us by, rattling up the Allegheny valley, on Wednesday evening. The passenger trains are all but gone, though.

On Wednesday morning, I caught the 91 bus from our Comfort Inn and Suites all the way to its furthest stop downtown, getting out on Liberty Avenue. It only cost $2.75. A bus ride is a good way to learn about a city and its outskirts. Leaving the RIDC park behind (along Alpha Drive, Beta Drive, Gamma Drive, etc.), the bus rattled me down Freeport Road past the Waterworks Plaza and the old Pinwall Pumping Station itself, built in the days when water treatment plants were palaces. Opposite is a hospital and then you're in pretty and prosperous Aspinwall. Still only three passengers on the bus. Beyond the Highland Park Bridge the smaller houses have clapboard sides and here more people got on. Unlike Aspinwall, which has little shops like the Nota Bene Fine Paper Boutique, Sharpsville (built around James Sharp Landing on the Allgheny River) is the sort of district where people use rolls of dollar store wrapping paper in place of window curtains. Thence across the river on the R D Fleming Bridge, the one I'd crossed by mistake on my way back from the zoo the day before. From the bridge I got a view of the distant skyscrapers. Onto Butler Street for a long ride through Lawrenceville and other suburbs, past an extensive park-like cemetery. Again, the area became more gentrified, with cherry trees along the sidewalks and artistic graffiti. Dark brown cliffs loomed above us. Butler Street turned into Penn Street, lined with red brick buildings and a long series of warehouses, one large building labelled Ironworkers Union. The road surface was terrible. We passed a Mother's Milk Bank, a Blumengarten (sic) and a sign that said German Motorwerks. Now we were on Liberty Avenue, "Entering Strip District" where a former PRR (Pennsylvania Railroad) station stood. Finally the bus announced that we were "Entering Downtown" at which point I had to pay attention and request my stop.

Then I walked and walked, first up and down the streets, finding at 9th Street the series of bridges over the Allegheny and seeing Pittsburgh Pirates' stadium on the "North Shore" across the river, then further, under flyovers busy with traffic and through a tunnel to the Point State Park and its fountain, marvelling at the trees in blossom there. This must be the very best time of year to visit this city. Having admired the meeting of the waters, I returned to the city streets for a bite of lunch with office workers then crossed the grid of streets to the footpath over the Smithfield Street Bridge, my plan being to ride the Monongahela Incline, the funicular cog rails, up the cliff to "Mount Washington" at the top, 400ft above the city. I got into the cable car with a Chilean family, also tourists. Seniors ride for free and are supposed to show their Medicare cards for ID, but the kind man at the top let that go. I then walked another mile along the cliff top, along Grandview Avenue, although the buildings on my right rather obscured the Grand View, except at the lookout points. All the same I got some good photos. The view from the Duquesne (pronounced Doo-Kane) Incline coming down, was even more splendid, the Ohio flowing away to the southwest, although the ticket lady at the bottom was not lenient enough to grant me a senior's free ride because I failed to show her a Medicare card. My Canadian ID was not valid as a substitute. Anyhow, from there I could see that there was a footpath (part of the Three Rivers Heritage Trail) across Fort Pitt Bridge, that also carries the very busy Lincoln Highway to and from a tunnel in the cliffs; this is the main access road between the city and its international airport and it vibrated with heavy traffic. I descended from the bridge at the Point Park again, to spend at least an hour in the excellent Fort Pitt Museum where, earlier in the day, I'd seen a woman in 18th century dress load and noisily fire a rifle for the entertainment of a party of schoolkids. I think I was the only visitor at the museum, that afternoon.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Staying on the ground: an experiment!

Chris has work in the RIDC park near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, this week, and as usual, it was our intention to fly there in PTN. However, we are perhaps becoming over-cautious, these days, because, when we looked at the weather charts on Sunday morning, we decided to take the car instead. Sunday's weather in Ottawa was unpleasant, tipping with rain from low clouds, and the immigration offices at airports across the border were closed that day, so in any case we couldn't take off until Monday. Even so, we had to make the decision on Sunday, to allow enough time for the long drive. On Monday it was due to clear up, particulary in the afternoon, but the morning forecast was for "broken" cloud around Lake Ontario, windy conditions, and a temperature not much above 0 degrees, meaning that there might be supercooled water droplets in the clouds, depending on how thick they were, on our descent into Rochester, where we would land to clear customs. Chris and I had a mini conference and decided it was too risky. We had already filed an EAPIS (Electronic Advance Passenger Information System) manifest with the border guard. Once we made the decision to stay on the ground, we cancelled this manifest, and set off at 2:45pm on Sunday in our own car.

Wikipedia image of the 1000 Islands Bridge
Chris later told me it was his "worst flying decision ever"! Our substitutory drive was going to be an Adventure and an Experiment, but I have a feeling it isn't going be repeated too often, even though I quite enjoyed the ride and drove part of it myself. We do have to return by road next weekend, so shall see what that's like. 

Unfortunately, the outward journey turned out to take longer than expected, because we got stuck in very long traffic jams on both days. Almost all the way, the weather was fine: the heavy rain as we turned south from Ottawa on the 416 cleared away even before we reached Kemptville, and by Brockville it was pleasantly sunny. Not far beyond Brockville on the 401 the flow of traffic slowed to stop-and-go speed; an exit ahead was closed and the westbound traffic channelled into a single lane. That exit was the one we had to take. We live and learn, should have looked up the likely hold-ups before choosing this route. We could have diverted to the much nicer but usually slower route along the 1000 Islands Parkway. As it was, once we had wasted the hour it took to crawl 10km, we followed a quick diversion onto the International Bridge, and were through the border check in less than a minute: the fastest crossing ever, only one car in line ahead of us, and the border guard friendly and efficient. Chris had rehearsed what to say about the purpose of his visit, with an official letter of invitation ready, but he wasn't asked to show it.

The highway to Syracuse was a smooth ride in light traffic. We felt hungry near Watertown, and made a short detour for the sake of a Subway sandwich (nothing else available on the evening of Easter Sunday, most eateries being closed) before heading further to find somewhere to stay for the night. At Pulaski, in Oswego County, about half way between Watertown and Syracuse, we struck lucky. This is an attractive little town on the Salmon River, with a village green, old houses with pillars and porches, shops with Italianate facades on the High Street, and the rapids of the Salmon River running through it. One soon becomes aware that the main thing about Pulaski is the salmon. Indeed, the place was originally called Fishville! During the salmon run of September and October it is devoted to the fish, and hundreds of tourists come along with their fishing tackle. We'd have been hard pressed to find a room at the Super 8 Motel or anywhere else at that time of year, we were told. As it was April, no problem, all was quiet. Once we'd checked in, while it was still light enough to look around, we walked back to the town centre, noticing the Fish-On Motel that offers to clean your fish for you, with the associated "Tackle and Tavern" building on the opposite side of the street. Here there'd probably not be any notices posted to say No Waders, No Cleats! as there was at the Super 8.

Monday began with a substantial breakfast at Artie's Home Town Diner on the high street, rather than a complimentary polystyrene bowls of cereal at our lodging. Then I got into the driver's seat and took us south towards Syracuse, passing Lake Oneida, near Mexico Bay. In fact, during the course of the day, we passed turn-offs to Mexico, Geneva, Manchester and Cuba. We also came through New (sic) Bethlehem, eventually. No longer it felt like such a long drive! By the extensive wetlands south of the bottom right hand corner of Lake Ontario, we began to realise what a long drive it was going to be when, once again, on the stretch of the Interstate 90 highway between Syracuse and Rochester, we were once again held up in stationary traffic, due to "an injury accident between Geneva and Manchester," as the woman on the radio said. We pulled into a service station to change drivers, then, after a long, frustrating hour of crawling along, we finally made it to the freedom of the 390, turning south towards Corning. We had another American fast food meal at Tom Wahl's, an obviously popular stopping place at Avon where all the patrons seemed massively overweight, a short distance from the Expressway.

Now it was my turn to drive again and I enjoyed the next stretch, that took us off the Expressways onto rolling country roads switchbacking through fields and forest, the Google Directions taking us onto many different roads. We started to follow the upper reaches of the Allegheny River on a wider road heading for Erie, where we swapped seats again, and then Chris took us round the bends through the Allegheny National Forest, passing frequent bodies of deer and other creatures that had been murdered by the traffic, stopping for a short break and leg-stretching moment at Kane, a somewhat god-forsaken spot that had seen better days. No nice little coffee shops there, so I bought a wrapped cookie in a pit stop place; I also bought a map, because I feel more comfortable with old fashioned paper in my hands, while navigating.

The final leg to our hotel on the outskirts of Pittsburgh, near the Allegheny River again (far broader, here), took us 30km further than the total distance that Google had predicted for us. I guess we'd made a few detours on the way. The total time en route was supposed to be 8 hours 26 minutes, but we had taken a good three hours longer than that. Never mind. The last half of the journey was more and more wonderful for me, watching the trees become more and more alive with spring colours, with whites and pinks amongst the pale green blotches on the steep slopes where leaves were unfolding --- the cherry trees in bloom, maple trees too, their blossoms red, pale yellow and russet brown --- and daffodils, tulips, forsythia, redbud bushes in people's gardens, lush with green grass. 

After supper at the Rte. 28 sportsbar at the hotel, with no fewer than 12 TV screens entertaining us (?) as we ate, we took an evening walk through the RIDC Park to see where the bus stops were and where Chris would be working, seeing the sun set behind more trees in flower. This morning (Tuesday) Chris walked there to start on a demanding week's training course, he being the trainer.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

A flight to St. Catherine's

(Photos to be added later.)

It was a hectic start, this morning: we finished the packing and drove to the RFC so that Chris could have his 9am flight sim session, Kathy giving him an IPC (Instrument Procedure Check) pre-test; the actual test will come at the end of next week. Having drunk my morning cup of tea in the car, I hurried back to the house to book this evening’s accommodation and finish off the last minute jobs around the house before our weekend away. The phone calls took 45 minutes! Every hotel and Bed & Breakfast place in Niagara-on-the-Lake seemed to be fully booked, so eventually I chose a B & B (The Redcoat) 10km south of there, in Queenston. They had one room left: “The Brock Suite”. The snag was that we’d have to find ground transport to reach it. I enquired about car rentals without success, speaking to St. Catherine’s airport staff and a car rental company. So we assumed we’d be spending lots of money on taxi rides.

Engine on today, 2.9 hours, flying time in the air totalling 2.6 hours. PTN has now spent more than 4900 hours in the air since her first flight. The first leg of our flight this weekend was to CYOO: Oshawa airport. I was nervous of the gusty conditions but it wasn’t so bad up there, once we rose above 4000ft or so. Our chosen altitude was 8000ft, from which we could see for 60 miles or more. A tiny clouds floated over the Ottawa River, beyond which, no more cloud worth mentioning. We crossed flooded fields near Carp, full rivers and their weirs, and saw the whole of White Lake where we’d spent a great day boating, last summer. At this time of year it really is white, from the ice and snow. Other nearby stretches of water are beginning to melt. The rocky area around Oompah looked wild and remote, and then we crossed Bon Echo Provincial Park reaching the more cultivated parts of eastern Ontario. Turbulence was not noticeable until we were nearly at airport level, descending into Oshawa.

A splendid old DC3 enhanced with turbo-prop engines and belonging to Bell Canada was sitting on the ramp there, waiting to depart for Croatia, of all places. I fancied stowing away, although it would have been a long flight. For lunch Chris and I walked for a few minutes round the perimeter of the airport to reach The Mandarin, an all-you-can-eat, buffet-style Asian place, very popular with the locals, obviously. I had some luck phoning St. Catherine’s FBO from Oshawa: the lady who works there gave me the number of a car company that was willing to to leave an unlocked SUV for us at the airport, with the car key and paperwork ready for pick-up on the seat. I paid in advance over the phone.

Then we climbed into PTN again and she climbed out over the Great Lake, in very bumpy air, to start with, which I found disturbing, although the views of Toronto City from that angle and altitude (“not above 2000ft” and then “not above 1700ft” near YTZ, so that incoming traffic to Pearson International would be above and able to avoid us) were phenomenal, a good distraction from the discomfort. We weren’t allowed to climb to 3500ft until it was hardly necessary, since we were already round the far end of the lake (over Hamilton) by that point. The industrial landscape beyond Toronto is interesting too, with the factories and harbours and canals, and then comes the wine country along the Niagara escarpment; we made our approach to St. Catherine’s airport, CYSN (its official name is the Niagara District airport) over vineyards.

The plane was fuelled and the rental car was waiting for us in a parking space behind the hangar. Staff at the airport terminal building had given me a street map, so we managed to leave the airport in the right direction for Queenston. We failed to find the guesthouse at the first attempt, driving half way along the Niagara Parkway to Niagara-on-the-Lake, but realising we had gone wrong we turned around and tried again. Front Street, the location of our B & B, was somewhat hidden behind other little streets in Queenston, which is not a large place, fortunately. It is at the foot of that wooded hill on which the Brock Monument stands. We might explore that park again tomorrow. This afternoon and evening we explored the area between here and Niagara-on-the-Lake, spending a long time in the town after we found a parking spot opposite the Shaw Theatre. This year’s shows will include St. Joan and Androcles and the Lion, by Shaw, so it would be well worth coming back here in the summer. They are performing Alan Bennett’s The Madness of George III, as well.

The flowers are starting to bloom here: crocusses, snowdrops, daffodils, anenomes, scyllas, all coming out at once, and the grass looks very green. Niagara-on-the-Lake is well ahead of Ottawa, as I’d hoped it would be. Most of the buildings in the centre of towndate from the 1830s, with one or two 18th century ones, even. The town makes capital out of its history, offering horse drawn carriage rides and turniing some of the old properties into museums or inns.

We ate fish and chips for supper and took a walk by the water where the Niagara River flows into Lake Ontario, with gloriously limpid views, and Port Niagara in the USA very close on the other bank of the river. Toronto was clearly visible on the horizon, a good 50km away.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Flora and fauna

(Photos to be added later.)

This has been a really pleasant weekend: a visit to the Ikebana exhibition at the Canadian Museum of Nature yesterday, walking 8km to get there and back, and a sunny walk to our local [Maple] Sugar Festival in Vanier this morning. It is definitely Spring weather today, so most appropriate. We lunched at Arturo's Market afterwards and I sat in a patch of sunshine in the garden for some of this afternoon.

The nature museum also gave me the chance to see a 3D film and I was lucky to be there at the time when the film about migratory birds was showing. I was touched by one of the sequences in it where cranes, having flown to the point of exhaustion for thousands of miles, reach their destination, wetlands in Scandinavia. When they get there, to the right place, they literally dance for joy, in pairs, leaping into the air from ground level and flapping their wings, the young ones trying to impress a potential mate, of course, but the older pairs, faithfully committed to one another for as many as 40 years sometimes, simply to reinforce or celebrate their bond. Perhaps the vocabulary I'm using is too anthropomorphic, but that was the impression I got.

Apart from the maple sap dripping into the metal buckets, the other attraction at the sugar bush event this morning was the animals. A team of sled-pulling huskies was standing, sitting or lying on tressle tables at a level where they could be petted by human visitors of all ages, and in a tent were farm animals, sheep, goats, rabbits, chickens, a donkey and a llama. I stroked as many as I could reach and children were allowed to give them animal food.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

The Wisdom Of The Emperor

Rather than bemoan the lack of wisdom displayed by certain present day leaders, perhaps we should go back a couple of thousand years.

Quotations from Marcus Aurelius 
(originally expressed in Greek)

“Never let the future disturb you. You will meet it, if you have to, with the same weapons of reason which today arm you against the present.”

“The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts: therefore, guard accordingly...”

“Let not your mind run on what you lack as much as on what you have already.”


“Reject your sense of injury and the injury itself disappears.”

“Whenever you are about to find fault with someone, ask yourself the following question: What fault of mine most nearly resembles the one I am about to criticize?” 

“The best revenge is to be unlike him who performed the injury.” 


“You have power over your mind -- not over outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.”

“The first rule is to keep an untroubled spirit. The second is to look things in the face and know them for what they are.” 

“Nothing has such power to broaden the mind as the ability to investigate systematically and truly all that comes under thy observation in life.”

“Your life is what your thoughts make it.”

“The soul becomes dyed with the colour of its thoughts.” 


“Perfection of character is this: to live each day as if it were your last, without frenzy, without apathy, without pretence.” 

“Think of yourself as dead. You have lived your life. Now, take what's left and live it properly. What doesn't transmit light creates its own darkness.” 

“It is not death that a man should fear, but he should fear never beginning to live.”

“When you arise in the morning, think of what a precious privilege it is to be alive--to breathe, to think, to enjoy, to love.”


“Dwell on the beauty of life. Watch the stars, and see yourself running with them.”

“Observe the movements of the stars as if you were running their courses with them, and let your mind constantly dwell on the changes of the elements into each other. Such imaginings wash away the filth of life on the ground.” 

In rehearsal

Last Thursday, I and other supporters had the privilege of being invited to a very special occasion at the Bronson Centre (a downtown community centre); I sat on the front row for a rehearsal of the Orkidstra by one of its recently appointed "Ambassadors", the English Alexander Shelley. Mr Shelley is the current musical director of Canada's National Arts Centre Orchestra.

Here's a video clip of Mr. Shelley conducting a few elite members of the Orkidstra last year:

On Thursday, a much larger group of youngsters was taking part, including a very young trumpeter on a back seat, relishing every moment.

The Orkidstra, now responsible for 500 multi-ethnic children and adolescents, goes from strength to strength, and their enthusiasm is electric. Everyone present at the rehearsal was thrilled by it; although this wasn't a concert, we gave them a standing ovation they deserved. The school-aged youngsters, very few of whom have parents who can actually afford music lessons or instruments for their children, so they have to rely upon charitable donations, were rehearsing all four movements of Dvorak's New World Symphony, not a trivial piece of music to learn! This may well be the most ambitious piece music they have tackled to date (the Orkidstra is 10 years old). To involve as many "kids" as possible, the Largo movement involved a line of the KidSingers group, joining in with the words of Going Home, sung to the famous tune. Admittedly most of the instrumental tutors were present, playing along within the orchestra, including Karen Donelly, principal trumpet from the NACO, for example, so the standard of performance, boosted by these older music students and professionals, was pretty high.

I liked the way Mr. Shelley taught his charges with such energy, got the impression he enjoyed it tremendously and didn't want the rehearsal hour to be over. He is conscious of the players' potential. He joked with them but did not condenscend to them at all; he prompted the cello section to lose their inhibitions and urged the brass and woodwind sections to listen to one another.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

The artist from Vitebsk

Early self portrait showing
Chagall's place of birth
Last week I took the train to Montreal and saw the exhibition of Chagall's art at the Musée des Beaux Arts, subtitled Couleur et Musique. I have been interested in Chagall since writing a previous blogpost about him, in 2012.

Le Rabbin de Vitebsk
Vitebsk, the Yiddish speaking community where Chagall was born in 1887, was a remote place, 500 km from both Moscow and St. Petersburg, in Belarus. About half the population of the town was Jewish, in those days. Chagall treasured the memory of it and its doomed people for the rest of his life.

As an adolescent, he wanted to be a dancer, a poet, a violinist. The sound of the violin, to Chagall, was the voice of the Jewish soul. There's a "Fiddler on the Roof" in the painting entitled La Mort (a dead man lying on the street with candles around him, apparently a scene the artist remembered literally). Chagall was obsessed with images of violinists; he painted a Violiniste vert in 1923 (see below) and a Self portrait with violin, in 1954. On a Jewish wedding day, so it is said, the quality of the music reflects the quality of the marriage. Klezmer music is "the vessel of song" at Jewish celebrations.

The Montreal exhibition includes a black-and-white video recording of a production of King Lear from the Jewish Theatre in the 1920s Soviet Union, starring its leading actor and director, Solomon Mikhoels. Chagall designed scenery and costumes for this theatre.

Throughout his life, he painted entertainers, acrobats and dancers --- le cirque comme métaphore du monde! --- some of them headless or legless, floating in the air. Birds, pigs, horses and goats float through his paintings too, as if through a series of dreams. People appear with chicken's heads.

... with 7 fingers
Self portrait with Bella
There is a cubist self portrait of Chagall at his easel with seven fingers to his hand, a reference to a Yiddish saying, signifying that he was working well and with all his heart. L'Ange à la palette, 1927-1936, shows the artist, with wings, as a messenger of peace, or of God, or of love. Love meant a great deal to him, as witnessed by the tenderly executed paintings of his first wife, Bella, who died young. The bouquet of flowers she carried on her wedding day is a recurring motif, as is her wedding dress.

He etched illustrations for an issue La Fontaine's Fables around this time. From 1937 onwards, Chagall had French citizenship.

In Mannheim, in 1933, his works were condemned and burned by the Nazis as degenerate art and to escape the war and holocaust in Europe in the following decade he moved to America, to return to France in 1948, at which point he became involved with Jewish puppet theatre in Paris, recreating figures from the Shtetl of his youth (Yiddish for "little town"), creating Hakl-Bakl (i.e. "a little bit of everything") puppets.

Violiniste Vert

Chagall's costume for
Papageno, The Magic Flute
Intensely Jewish as his loyalties were, Chagall was not narrow-minded about this; he also did several crucifixion paintings, admittedly with Jewish figures included. There is a stained glass window by Chagall in Chichester cathedral, which I saw last year; he also created stained glass windows for Reims, Nice and Chicago (which I saw in November 2015 and failed to mention in this blog).

1964 he designed the ceiling of Paris' L'Opéra and subsequently did paintings for the Met in New York (1966). While based in New York in the 1940s, he visited Mexico City, working with the production team for the ballet Aleko, New Mexico and Arizona too, where he discovered Katsina dolls that influenced his designs for the costumes. These were on display in the exhibition, as were his costumes for Mozart's opera, The Magic Flute. For New York productions of Stravinksy's Firebird ballet, too, he designed the scenery and costumes.

As an old man, in 1973, he revisted Russia. He died at the great age of 97.

At the museum, I spent a good two hours concentrating on Chagall's world, then came out to clear my head and walk around the city before catching my train home.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

In This Last Tempest

We had the good fortune to watch a production of Shakespeare's The Tempest on a local cinema screen, broadcast live from Stratford-upon-Avon, a production of the Royal Shakespeare Company, and the experience was so enriching that this morning I woke up still mulling it over.

I hadn't before realised to what extent this is a play about letting (things, people, places) go; its lines are full of references to releasing, drowning, setting free. My mother used to tell me that the play was about forgiveness, although it seems to me that the forgiveness only comes into it right at the end, because only after all has been said and done is Prospero in a fit state to forgive, and his "enemies" prepared to be forgiven.

Although I have seen many different interpretations of this play, another thing that only struck yesterday is that every character in the play, even the inhuman spirit Ariel, learns something from his exposure to the tempest, and matures, Miranda too, although it seems from her innocent remarks about the brave new world that's peopled by her father's former associates (How beauteous mankind is... ), that she still has some growing up to do.

Prospero, the engineer of the upheaval, must surely be the one who learns the most. It's almost as if he forces himself to recover from his anger at the way he was treated twelve years previously. It seems he has bottled it all up until now, and the moment when he begins to tell his daughter the story for the first time is the moment when his recovery, his catharsis, begins.

     You have often
Begun to tell me … but stopped,
… Concluding, “Stay. Not yet.”

     The hour’s now come.

The expression of his fury –– the storm and its aftermath –– is what heals him.

The RSC production showed the most sympathetic portrayal of Caliban I've yet seen; although he looked so monstrously unattractive, he exhibited distinct signs of sensitivity and intelligence. (The filmed close-ups of his face were wonderfully revealing.) He is another one whom Prospero seems to forgive, eventually, and Caliban does, after all, inherit the island for himself, since Prospero is leaving his cell in his charge, which almost implies that Caliban has become deserving of it, after the torments he has suffered.

And I’ll be wise hereafter
And seek for grace,

says Caliban.

By the end of the play the ship (the microcosm of human society) that we thought wrecked, is miraculously back on course.

our ship—
Which, but three glasses since, we gave out split—
Is tight and yare and bravely rigged as when
We first put out to sea.

The storm has passed. The world has calmed down (for the time being). Hearts and minds have been pacified. There is hope of better life ahead or at least of a fresh start. Prospero has given up, or has let go of his troubles, whichever way you choose to look at it, and his life is coming to an end. Now it is the entranced audience who must be the agent of release and relief:

... my ending is despair,
Unless I be relieved by prayer,
Which pierces so that it assaults
Mercy itself and frees all faults.
As you from crimes would pardoned be,
Let your indulgence set me free.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Ruhig und vergnügt

"This drop in temperature is wreaking havoc with my harpsichord!" said Roland Graham, artistic director of the lunchtime concert series, Doors Open For Music at Southminster church in Ottawa. He was today's accompanist for a recital by the soprano Isabelle Lacroix, performing nine arias by GF Handel, these being unusual in that the words were in German, whereas Handel usually wrote settings of English or Italian words. The performance lasted nearly an hour, so was quite demanding for her, although her voice seemed to improve, rather than tire, as she went along. Her fellow soloist was Adam Nelson on the violin, playing the obligato part to each aria, which might also have been done by a flute or oboe player. All three performers were excellent.

Perhaps I was in the right receptive state to hear this music and the church was a warm, bright and peaceful place to be today; I found it all very satisfying. The first aria -- Künft'ger Zeiten eitler Kummer stört nicht unseren sanften Schlummer... set the tone in words and music. The words were by a long-time friend of Handel's, Barthold Heinrich Brockes (1680-1747; I'd never heard of him), singing God's praises for creating such a magnificent and peaceful natural world for us, in which ambitions are irrelevant (my own paraphrase). With the life the Creator has granted us, said this aria, we have every reason to be ruhig und vergnügt, tranquil and gratified. The running passages of the second aria, remarkably well executed by the singer in this instance, echo the lyrics that describe streams rushing along and water glinting like jewels. The third one (Süsser Blumen Ambraflocken) was in a minor key, slower, sounding not unlike the famous I know that my Redeemer liveth from The Messiah. Ms Lacroix embellished the repeat of the first section here with lovely musical decorations.

And so on. I basked in the mood and melodies and appreciated the quaint old German too (sei gepreiset, sei gerühmet...) which I could easily make out, so good was the soloist's articulation, even though we in the audience were only given the translation. Alles jauchzet, alles lacht! Everything rejoices, everything laughs ... at the splendours of Spring in full bloom. Well, a little premature maybe, at -24 C today and the canal still frozen solid, but it was all very upbeat.

We got free coffee and cookies before the concert, too, as well as the free Wednesday rides on the busses for those of us over 65.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

A silly dream

Details of dreams fade fast, once you wake up, but let's see, at this early hour, if I can record some of this one from which Chris has just woken me. It was, as always, a dream about travelling. We were in a "Cloudhopper" hotel in Paris with George. I'd had trouble remembering the name of the hotel, but got it in the end. Rob and Sally had just confessed to us that they had just paid $50 for a taxi fare from their hotel opposite the art gallery in Ottawa to a restaurant on the next block. "That is ridiculous," I'd said.

Neither Chris, George nor I had remembered to pack trousers for our trip to Paris, although we wanted to sight-see from one of the posh modern skyscrapers nearby, but to my surprise a notice in the hotel room written in Dutch ... something about Undemokratie ... advertised that spare clothes would be provided if we had forgotten any. I ordered the three pairs of trousers from reception and they were soon delivered to our rooms above the swimming pool (full of children), but they were unusable, too long and narrow, and coloured pink!

Saturday, March 11, 2017

The artist from Cold Lake

Morning Star by Janvier, at the Canadian Museum of History
This season's special exhibition at the National Gallery of Canada is a retrospective of the works of Alex Janvier. Born on a reservation by Cold Lake in 1935, he belongs to the Dene people, but at the age of 8 he was obliged to live at a residential school. The school staff recognised his artistic talent and encouraged him to go for formal art training at the Alberta Institute of Technology and Art in Calgary whence he graduated with honours in 1960. During his education he came across the art of Kandinsky, Klee and Miró, which was to have a big influence on him, although his style is all his own.

Fishy Flowers Talk
The exhibition in the National Gallery is not laid out chronologically, so I picked up Janvier's life story by degrees as I went through the rooms. (I had only intended to walk through for 10 minutes, out of curiosity, but actually spent over an hour there, which indicates how fascinated I became.) The first gallery is full of circular paintings from the artist's gallery at Cold Lake, an unusual format but one that appeals to someone whose native culture and beliefs have a lot to do with circles. Many are watercolours on paper; some are linen canvasses stretched drum-skin like over a circular frame, painted with acrylics. One of these is called Drum Talk (2011). Native drumming was banned at one point in Canadian history, although the people say that this sound represents their heartbeat. Eagle Song (same year) includes the likeness of an eagle's head and wings, the eagle denoting spirituality for North American native peoples. The colours are what strikes you first. October Sun revels in the many colours of autumn; Fishy Flowers Talk incorporates dots of colour like the dots in Australian aboriginal art.

Janvier's most famous work of art, Morning Star (see above) is based on a circle too. I had assumed that the four sections around the circle represented the four seasons, but I was wrong. The yellow quarter stands for the old days, when native tribes lived in harmony with nature. The blue segment stands for the turmoil that resulted when the European settlers began to interfere with them. Red symbolises the struggle to preserve the native languages and culture in the face of opposition. In other paintings too, Janvier's use of red is a way of expressing anger. White, the final quarter, represents the recent healing and reconciliation that has taken place, or is taking place.

Now in his 80s, Janvier has been awarded the Order of Canada. When he was 50, already famous, he was part of Pierre Trudeau's delegation to China which I mentioned in a previous blogpost, and (like me) was enamoured by the public gardens of Beijing. His life was not always so happy. He suffered a great deal at the residential school, partly from empathy with the other children. One little girl died there and he never forgot her, bringing references to her into his paintings. Apparently her body was sent back to her parents on a train, in a cardboard box, delivered to the wrong station. (Such injustices and disrespect rankle with the First Nations to this day.) One of Janvier's earlier pictures was a representational one of a native woman holding a young-old boy on her lap who is crying. After being sent to school, the artist rarely had the chance of a reunion with his mother. When he was 15 he did a large and, to me, garishly grotesque painting of Jesus with a bleeding heart, for the Catholic missionaries. The Vatican took notice and gave him an award for it.

Until the late 1970s, Alex Janvier signed all his artworks with his Indian Act number, "287". Then he went on a work-related trip to Sweden and realised that such numbers mean absolutely nothing to the international community, since when he has just used his name. Inevitably, some of his paintings are charged with political implications, such as Coming of the Opposite (i.e. the European church and system of government) and Lubicon Lake (1988), to which he added a bright red background in a fury against the injustices dealt out to the Cree of that region. Quite recently (in 2005) he did a rare, representational painting of a flowering plant in close-up, called First Call, distressed that Dene lands were going to be appropriated by the military as a bombing range. The oil sands around Fort McMurray displease him too.

Other paintings are more serene. He has used all kinds of media: watercolour, tempera, acrylics, inks, chalk pastels and oils. At one point in his career he became a member of the so-called Group of 8 (an oblique reference to the more famous Group of 7) –– a group that also included Morrisseau, Odjig, Reid... One of the works Janvier displayed in their exhibition was Alberta Rose (1977), its predominant pinks and pale greens inspired by that wild flower. There's a wonderful abstract blue painting done in 1994 which he entitled Cold Lake Air as a tribute to the clear skies of his home. Big Fish Waters is a huge painting that also represents Cold Lake and records the idea that whales swam there in prehistoric times (bones have been found that give this legend some substance).

North Primrose, a circular, mixed media painting, looks like a satellite image of merging rivers on the Alberta plains. Grand Entry, similarly, could be seen as a bird's eye view of the start of a Pow Wow ceremony, the Elders, dancers and youths swirling in to join the circle from all directions.

Janvier's most recent creation is a very large scale piece called Tsa Tsa Ke K'e. It is a mosaic spread out on the floor of a public space, a stadium in Edmonton. At the end of the exhibition you can watch a short documentary video about its installation, featuring the artist himself at its opening, looking very proud and moved, while people of all denominations and origins join the circle dance on top of it.

Friday, March 10, 2017

The people in the zoo

The Ulrikab family of Hebron, Labrador,
photo taken in1880 (Wikipedia), when
they did not have long to live.
On Wednesday evening last week, during an International Women's Day event organised by the local CFUW, I heard a horror story. The person who told it was a CFUW member, France Rivet of Ottawa, founder of Polar Horizons, an endeavour to spread the word about the arctic, its history, resources and people. She was a fluent and fascinating speaker.

France used to be a reluctant IT consultant, unhappy in her job, in a state of mild depression until, about 10 years ago, she treated herself to a short holiday at a lodge in the far north, on Cunningham Inlet, Somerset Island. It is nothing like Somerset in the UK, up there, the lodge only open for half the year, the surroundings bare and wild. Beluga whales play in the inlet, rubbing off their old skins in the summer, and you can observe them from a watchtower rising from the shallow water.

France was so cheered up by her arctic experience that she went back again the following year, by which point, having been inspired by like-minded people from Europe whom she met at the lodge and on an icebreaker trip, she had decided to quit her job and dedicate herself to the creation of a polar centre within Canada. Back in Ottawa she organised a photography exhibition, the first initiative of Polar Horizons. A film festival followed and the creation of a bookstore dealing in Arctic themed books. France kept taking herself to Northern Canada. In 2009 she went on a cruise up the north Labrador coast, meeting a German photographer who told her about the tragedy concerning Abraham Ulrikab and his family, nineteenth century Inuit from the "Hebron" community, a Moravian mission in Labrador.

Abraham (who didn't actually have a surname: Ulrikab is an amalgam of his and his wife's given names) was a converted Christian who worked as an interpreter for visitors such as the Norwegian explorer Jacobsen, whose plan was to bring native people to Europe, to exhibit them there. At the end of the summer of 1880, he took eight Inuit with him on a ship across the Atlantic: Abraham, who was 36, his younger wife and their three children, plus another family of three. They arrived in Hamburg in September and by the end of the following January all of them were dead. Their story is shocking and remembered in some detail, because Abraham, who was literate, kept a diary, written in Inuktitut, which has since been retrieved and translated into several languages. Incidentally he was also an accomplished violinist. He had agreed to go abroad because he was promised enough money to pay off his father's debts to the Hebron mission. "Our way is destined by the Lord!" he wrote, poor man. His pastor was not keen for him to go.

When they reached Germany, instead of being given the opportunity to meet other Moravians, as Abraham had expected, and to visit the sites of Europe, they were moved into an enclosure in a zoo, into purpose built huts, beside the animals. Every day at the zoo they had to give demonstrations of their traditional culture: seal hunting (with real seals if they could be obtained; if not, their son had to dress in a seal skin and act the part of the seal) or showing off their dogs, who had been shipped over too, or their kayaks. By October Abraham had already realised that he had made a terrible mistake in agreeing to leave Labrador; then in December, at Christmas in Darmstadt, his fifteen year old son fell sick and died. The families were transferred to another zoo, in Krefeld, where Abraham's wife Ulrike also became ill, and then her three year old daughter was taken to hospital where they diagnosed smallpox. By law, Jacobsen should have had them all inoculated before leaving their homeland, but he hadn't bothered. The little girl died on New Year's Eve when her parents were already far away, in Paris, on show at the Jardin d'Acclimatation in the Bois de Boulogne. They didn't last long. On January 9th, 1881, all the others were admitted to hospital with the smallpox, not one of them surviving, the mother Ulrike the longest; she died on January 16th.

They were buried in St. Ouen cemetery, but it wasn't long before their bodies were exhumed for "research" purposes. By 1886 the remains of five of the Inuit were being stored in the Museum of Natural History in Paris, where skulls and skeletons of other "primitive" peoples were also on display, from Australia, Africa, etc. The skeletons were hung upright and plaster casts were made of their brains, even though the Inuit believe that a corpse has to lie horizontal so that its soul can be at rest.

When France Rivet learned of this tragic story she decided to make it her mission to bring the still archived remains of the Inuits back to their homeland. She couldn't do the job unaided. A living relative of the Inuit family had to make the request via the Canadian Embassy so this entailed a lot of research and administration. France crowd-funded $17,000 to help with this work. In the end both government officials and native Elders collaborated with her, including Zippie Nochasak, a lady Inuit Parks Canada guide who may have been a relative of the other Inuit family taken to the zoos. The Elders of various tribes quickly reached a consensus that the remains must be brought home. France also met the great-grandson of one of the zoo owners as well as descendants of Jacobsen. They all co-operated; her presentation included photos of these present day people. Apparently, at one point in the meetings, a butterfly suddenly appeared, flying around in a library. The researchers were in awe at its appearance, butterflies being representative of human spirits in Inuit culture.

Roch Brunette made a documentary film about all this, that was shown on TV about a year ago.

France Rivet's life is no longer "meaningless and unrewarding," she told us. She is no longer depressed. She quoted a French ethnologist Paul-Émile Victor who wrote: "Adventure is a state of mind. It lives in a man's heart."

Our evening of "Northern Footsteps" continued by a musical performance by an aboriginal folk group, Twin Flames, their origins Algonquin / Cree / Métis / Mohawk / Inuk.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Youth Orchestra, 2nd Division

At the nearest concert venue to my house, St. Patrick's on St. Patrick's Street (not a church these days but an Arts Centre, though the interior trappings of the church remain intact) I saw a concert advertised. It was to be a Sunday afternoon performance of Berlioz' Marche Hongroise, Stravinsky's Firebird Suite, Sibelius' Karelia Suite and Beethoven's 8th Symphony, by members of the the Ottawa Youth Orchestra Academy. That sounds promising, I thought. I have seen and heard the OYO in action before; they are well nigh professional in accomplishment.

When I arrived for the concert, a stranger approached me whose children were among the performers, and insisted on paying for my ticket! The grandparents couldn't make it, so he didn't want their tickets to go to waste. He didn't linger while I thanked him, off in search of another senior to treat to a free seat. I sat down, took a closer look at the programme and realised that the orchestra tuning up on stage wasn't the orchestra I'd expected; this was the Ottawa Junior Youth Orchestra (OJYO), not the OYO. Oh, I thought. They might not be as good.

However, the moment they picked up their instruments, my fears were allayed. These kids are mainly younger than in the OYO, but their standard of achievement is still astonishingly high and their discipline and stage presence exemplary. Apparently they audition for a place in the large junior orchestra for training, and then audition again, to be part of the top one. Ability counts above age. I learned this from a mum who sat next to me.  Her son was in the 2nd violins; her little girl had just begun learning the 'cello; "I'm on Suzuki Book 3," she said. Previously this family had lived on Rhode Island in the USA where there are similar programs, but not producing such high level instrumentalists.

The junior orchestra began with Canada's National Anthem, slickly done, then launched straight into the lively Berlioz march. One of the 1st violinists immediately caught my eye, a young boy leading from the back desk, as it were, who didn't seem much older than my grandson (10). I worked out later, when after the intermission the same boy appeared at the first desk as "co-concert master" that this child is called Justin Saulnier. I'm making a note of the name in case he has an impressive future ahead of him!

The Firebird opened with an attention catching bang and was played with tremendous energy. Sibelius and Beethoven gave the orchestra slower, softer, more subtle passages which stretched the players a little, but they rose to the challenges without making fools of themselves. Bassoon, horn and other woodwind solos all succeeded. The concert programme had obviously been chosen to allow everyone to have a chance to shine, even a harpist taking part. Mind you, I hadn't remembered there being a xylophone part in the Beethoven symphony! I think that had somehow got added to the original score.

That these adolescents, a good half of them Asian, it seems, are being exposed to and challenged by music of such calibre in such large numbers, I find excellent and up-lifting. They will remember it all their lives, an extremely important experience for them. The applause at the end was idolatry, proud parents wielding their cameras. An encore followed, a jazzy number by Bernstein or some such composer, in which the OJYO kids were entirely at their ease. The pale young co-concert master and the dedicated conductor, Angus Armstrong, had fulfilled their obligations and (having rehearsed and performed since noon) could finally take a bow and relax.

I walked the short distance home with a spring in my step and straight afterwards set out again to go swimming: my fastest swim to date.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Respite day

Ottawa River lighthouse at Montebello, March 6th
On his day off work, Chris drove me to Montebello and back, via the "Presque'île" on the Ottawa River between Plaisance and Papineauville: the Parc National de Plaisance. We hadn't been there before but have seen it from the air innumerable times, flying home from the east along the river. In the summer there are hiking and cycling trails here, boardwalks and campsites, but just now the swamps are all frozen solid and the walks under snow. Its temporarily abandoned look has an attraction of its own. We saw a splendid wild turkey at close quarters, with blue cheeks, as well as an eagle. We had the area to ourselves and drove slowly along the access road from one end of the park to the other, then continued, still slowly because of the bumps in the road past cottages and farms, through farmland. Speed limit 70kph, but you'd need good tyres and suspension to keep to that speed; we drove carefully at about 30kph. Every now and again we glimpsed views of the extensive river and the Ontario or Quebec shores. From the eastern end of the peninsula, the big church at Papineauville is visible across the water (i.e. ice). Again, it must be very different in summer.

We ought come here on bikes when the weather warms up, but that would mean buying a bike rack for the car, as it is rather too far to cycle from home. It took us an hour to get here in the car, using all of our electric car's battery supply. For the 20 minute ride further on, to Montebello, and for the return ride, we were drawing from our gas tank. The mystery voice that gives directions in our car, not francophone, told us to drive along the Roo Presk-queue-Isle till we reached the Roo Princey-pally (rue Principale) at Plaisance. One disappointment, when we reached Montebello: the advertised fast charging station at the Tourist Information Centre didn't have a plug-in connection compatible with our car, and in any case we would have needed a Quebec Hydro charging card for it to operate, which we did not have either. It seems that Quebec residents get better service than Ontarians.

Ottawa River, Montebello
We lunched at Le Bistro in Montebello (a three course meal plus bread and hot drink for $15) which was cosy. They have an open-flame pizza oven there. Then a chilly walk along the main street, rue Notre-Dame, to the Auberge where I once stayed with my mother, its swimming pool currently obliterated with snow, down to the docking area at the river's edge, also white and very wintery still.
River's edge in winter

On our way home, to my surprise, the sun came out and brightened the white fields, so that it was a pleasant drive, along Rte 148, the quieter way back, now that Highway 40 takes all the heavy traffic. We crossed over into Ontario on the Cumberland ferry.

What a peaceful respite from work and other worries, despite the bitter cold wind.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

At the DocFest

Wakefield, 33km north of Ottawa, an easy drive, worked its magic on us again, when we drove there today to take a walk round the village with Elva and Laurie. We kept to the streets this time, passing the Vorlage ski centre and the school. Chris had been in an angry mood when we reached the parking lot outside the Wakefield community centre; the cable from the one electric car charging station wouldn't reach the car, because of the snowbanks in the way (this has occurred before). He went inside the building to complain and discovered that the man in charge there was a friend of his whom he hadn't met for a while, so that defused the situation.

The river looked as wide and serene as ever, with its snowy surface, but the ice is thin this year and will soon break up. In the warmer season the Wakefield people are going to construct a new boardwalk parallel to the main street, right beside the river: an excellent idea.

Chamberlin's Lookout was closed today so we couldn't have our usual sit down there; we sat down at Le Hibou instead for hot drinks and a piece of lemon tart and carrot cake. Then while Chris talked to Rink* in the lobby of the community centre again, Laurie, Elva and I went into the auditorium there to watch the last film of this year's DocFestDark Horse, about a Welsh community that pulled together to breed and train an extraordinary racehorse named Dream Alliance, and it had a gripping story line. The film was a subtle commentary on British society too, poignant and cleverly put together. Everyone watching broke into applause at the end.

This entertainment seemed to resonate well with the people of Wakefield, enjoying glasses of wine or beer with Welsh Bara Brith and other goodies, afterwards, maybe because they too are (obviously!) a tight-knit community.

I wouldn't mind living there.

* Rink's wife Leanne (whom we also briefly met today) was the subject of an article published in the Ottawa Citizen in 2009, an article that makes for compulsive reading. We got to know the couple around that time and visited them in their house beside a lake near Wakefield where they still live. I have also read the heart-rending book Leanne wrote, about her and Rink's experiences with Médecins Sans Frontières: A Cruel Paradise

Thursday, February 23, 2017

An upgraded life?

Today I saw (not for the first time) an advert saying: UPGRADE YOUR LIFE! --- a clever slogan that actually means: please buy one of our houses. The advertiser is a buildng company.

Thinking about this, I decided that buying a posher house would not necessarily make for better living; in fact it might be better to replace a larger-than-necessary house with a smaller living space where things would have to be simplified. I'm following a North American trend by writing this, and I'm probably writing hypocritically too, especially since I spent a lot of this week planning a redecoration of our living room and ordering new light fittings.

Friends of ours are about to sell their house, getting rid of most of its contents in the process, in order to move into a rented apartment of much smaller dimensions: the phenomenon familiar to my generation. Downsizing is never referred to as downgrading. Put the word "declutter" into a Google search box and 10,900,000 links come up!

Anyway, my contemptuous attitude towards a Life Upgrade was reinforced by the cashier who served me in our local supermarket this evening, a gentleman of south Asian extraction who wouldn't allow me to apologise for being rather slow and clumsy at the checkout. He told me quite vehemently that people are in too much of a hurry; the members of his family, for example, were always dashing somewhere or other in their cars and never took the time to look at nature. We should all slow down and be calmer. I told him I agreed, absolutely.

Slowing down, on my walk home with the shopping, I dawdled in order to look at the marvellous sunset reflected both in the melted ice on the surface of the Rideau River and in the puddles I stepped around on the pavement.

Diversity among my German speaking friends

This morning my deutschsprachige Konversationsgruppe was at Luci's house ---Luci is Brazilan --- talking about the places where we originated or grew up. It was my idea to use our home towns as a topic of conversation; I lead the group. Last week I started the ball rolling by describing Scarborough in Yorkshire, Sue spoke about Ottawa as it used to be in the 1950s, Füsun talked about Izmir in Turkey and Ariane described Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso! This week we heard from Danielle about old Aylmer (close to Ottawa on the Quebec side of the river); Christiane described Vianden in Luxembourg near the little village where she grew up, and Judith spoke very proudly about her hometown, Vienna. Next week we're going to have Abla talking about Alexandria in Egypt, Vija talking about Riga perhaps (though because her parents were wartime refugees she considers herself more Canadian than Latvian), Ursula is going to say something about Winterthur near Zürich and Luci is going to describe Rio. And so on ...! We still haven't heard from the Lebanese / Dutch / Chinese / German ladies, either. There are over 25 of us, but the normal number of people joining in each week is between 12 and 15. 

Christiane was also intending to send this morning's photos to Uschi, a German who left Ottawa last summer and now lives in the mountains of Kazakhstan!

Isn't all this extraordinary? And wonderful?