Christmas 2020 has been the most wonderful opportunity to access music. It’s as if multiple choral groups and musicians decided to share their talent and creativity with the world in a common desire to rise above COVID-19 and give a gift of hope. The result has been memorable in the best possible way.
The most sublime of the music emerging this season has been Messiah/Complex from Against the Grain Theatre. Billed as “A daring reimagining of Handel’s classic featuring voices from across Canada,” it is a breath-taking rendition of the classic music in Arabic, Dene, English, French, Inuktitut, and Southern Tutchone.
Produced in cooperation with the Toronto Symphony and the Banff Centre for the Arts, the production was co-directed by Joel Ivany of Against the Grain and Reneltta Arluk, Director of Indigenous Arts at the Banff Centre. The twelve soloists and four choirs come from every province and territory. They sing in their own languages and with visuals of the entire country… amidst northern snows, by ocean waters, in the woods, on the prairies, in the heart of our largest urban cities, at work or school, beside campfires. The language has been updated and the photography is contemporary. All of the artists contributed from apart, on video. But they worked together to give Canadians and the world a seasonal gift that would lift spirits and provide hope in this difficult time. The production is a musical and visual tour de force which shows the talent, creativity, and diversity of Canadian people and the breathtaking beauty of our country.
It is a profoundly moving experience. In the few weeks since it launched, there have been 55,000 views. Viewers are wild with praise: “so beautiful and so terribly long overdue,” from New York, another writes, I am “sobbing thru the beauty of this Messiah… and saluting CANADA for leading and showing the rest of us what true Diversity and shared Joy and Beauty and Hope look and sound like and unite us across all different races, religions, cultures into what makes us most extraordinarily HUMAN.” From Nashville: “absolutely extraordinary! Leave it to Canada to bring us a performance of such unusual brilliance at the tail end of such a miserable year.” “Life-enhancing,” “transformative… I will never hear Messiah the same way again,” “not enough superlatives.” “Possibly the most uplifting thing I have seen during this whole wretched COVID time.” “Astonishingly good musically and challenging, eye opening and… beautiful.” “Like no other Messiah I’ve ever heard or seen. Stunning visuals, beautiful voices, and whole new meaning for some of the words.” You get the idea. Whatever your normal response to the usual Messiah, this is a truly memorable experience which you should not miss.
This production went public on December 13th. Streaming has now been extended to January 31st. The history of how the production came about and profiles of the soloists are readily available on YouTube. Accessing the production itself seemed slightly more difficult. The performance is free of charge and can be streamed as often as you wish. To access the performance, you register on the ticket portal of Against the Grain’s website. Select a ticket beginning ASAP; only one ticket is necessary. Once done, you can access the ticket in your account. When you open your account window, you will see the name of the production, Messiah/Complex, in red. Click that and another window will open, with the words “view livestream.” That opens the YouTube stream of the live performance. It took me a while to figure it out, but it is well worth it.
I now see that Margaret Atwood posted a Tweet with a direct link to the video on You Tube. If she can do that, I can too.
Enjoy and Happy New Year.
Don’t anyone ever say that the Christmas spirit is not alive and well in Toronto.
On the Tuesday before Christmas last week, my husband, who is the chef in our family, went to do his final shopping for Christmas dinner. He is seventy-six and looks his age (although he insists that he is still only thirty-nine). He uses a cane for balance and to alleviate the pain in his back.
He went first to Fiesta Farms, our favourite local supermarket known particularly for its organic foods and excellent fruits and vegetables. He went early in the morning, assuming that he would beat the crowd. Alas, when he arrived, there was already a long line-up of customers all masked and appropriately socially distanced. The line-up was the longest he had ever seen since we returned to Toronto. It stretched across the front of the store, around the corner and all the way down Christie Street to the end of the store at the back. As he walked down the sidewalk beside the line-up, several people suggested that he join the line-up ahead of them. Each time he demurred, reluctant to jump the queue. When he got to the end of the line-up, the woman ahead of him also suggested that he go to the front. He insisted that he could wait like everyone else. He wasn’t there more than a couple of minutes when the store employee staffing the front of line-up approached him and insisted that, no, he was to come into the store right away. Apparently someone from the line-up had told him about my husband, and getting him into the store ASAP became a priority. That saved my husband at least a half hour of waiting.
My husband then went to the local neighbourhood butcher shop, Vince Gasparro’s Meat Market on Bloor Street West. Again, there was an unusually long line of people, maybe fifteen, lined up on the sidewalk outside. Again, a woman ahead of him suggested that he go to the front of the queue. She said that she knew the woman at the head of the line and she would not mind. My husband responded that perhaps the people between them would be less keen. Whereupon, his neighbour went down the line asking each person if they would mind my hubby going ahead. None did. The woman at the head of the line went into the shop and spoke with Pat Gasparro who was working the cash register. My husband is a regular customer there, long known to the family. Pat stepped out of the shop and yelled, “Irvine, get your ass in here right away.” And he did.
When my husband got home, he was delighted that the shopping had gone so quickly and that he had been treated so well by his fellow shoppers. Are people with canes treated this well all the time? Or was it the spirit of the season? Whatever. It was a community act of kindness which was much appreciated.
Now that we have a smart television we can actually use, my husband and I are learning about the incredible choice of movies now available in our own living room. Even if we watched movies 24/7, we could not possibly take in the cornucopia of choice now available.
Wednesday was National Canadian Film Day. A Livestream featuring Sandra Oh, Ethan Hawke, Colm Feore, Atom Egoyan, and many more actors, directors, and producers active in the Canadian film industry streamed Wednesday evening and is still viewable on YouTube. A curated list of 20+20 Films, Canadian films which are available on CBC Gem, Netflix, Crave, Cineplex, and other streaming services is available on the National Canadian Film Day website. Reel Canada has also produced a list of 150 Canadian films which are available to you to explore. This is your chance to catch up on the classics and those that you have missed.
“Hockey Night in Canada” has given way to “Movie Night in Canada” on CBC at 7:00 p.m. Saturday nights. This Saturday, it is “Still Mine” (2012) and “Brooklyn” (2015). There are questions about how these movies qualify as “Canadian,” but they do, and there is some criticism that the movies are chosen to be unduly family-friendly, but access to Canadian films is a good thing, and my husband can always choose what he likes on Netflix.
Thursday nights, films that were projected to premiere at the Hot Docs Film Festival are now being featured on CBC, CBC Gem, and CBC Documentary. The first was Barry Avrich’s “Made You Look: A True Story about Fake Art,” which relates the story of “the largest art fraud in American history.” It’s a fascinating film. See the complete schedule on the link just above.
CBC Gem is available for free as an app for iOS, tvOS, and Android phones and tablets. There are CBC Gem apps for Android TV and Fire TV, too. Gem is also accessible on a PC or Mac via your web browser at gem.cbc.ca. To stream Gem content to your television, use Apple AirPlay or Google Chromecast.
Did you know that the National Film Board of Canada has an online Screening Room featuring over 3,000 productions? It is available at https://www.nfb.ca. The collection includes documentaries, animations, experimental films, fiction, interactive projects, new releases, old favourites, and films from some of Canada’s best-known directors. Films can be streamed at no cost and downloaded for personal use for a small fee. There are films for both adults and children, in English and in French. There are NFB apps available for mobile devices and smart TVs.
On Netflix recently, I watched “The English Game,” an historical story of how professional soccer was born in England, and also multiple episodes of “Dirty Money.” The third episode, on Jared Kushner, is a detailed exposition of how he and his family have made their money. He’s hardly the kind of man who should be the right hand of any American president.
While walking beside the sea in Ambleside park a couple of weeks ago, I came across a cluster of translucent domes sitting on the grass beside what used to be the beach refreshment stand. A sandwich board beside the sidewalk read: “Dinner with a View, January 15 – February 16. Seatings at 5:30, 7:30, 9:30. Book Online. Promo Code POPUP60 Dine with a view experience #dinnerwithaview.ca.” A passerby told me that he was taking his girlfriend there the next night to celebrate her birthday. I thought that would be a fun experience and made a note to check it out.
The website was enticing. It offered “a perfect evening” “under the sky,” “at an incredible place,” “with those you cherish most.” And a celebrity chef to boot. What more could you want? Apparently, this was the third Dinner with a View pop up experience. The first ones were in Toronto and Montreal in the spring of 2019. The next will be in San Diego next month and Chicago in the fall.
Making a reservation was an interesting process. There were two costs: $199.00 for the dome and $109 for each meal; drinks and tips were extra. The costs of the dome and the meal had to be prepaid, and clients had to choose one of three blind pre-set dishes: fish, meat, or vegan. The menu was guaranteed to be shellfish, pork, and nut-free.
But, according to the internet, “all reservations had a minimum of four and a maximum of six.” That was a problem. My husband and I had only recently come to Vancouver and our usual dinner partners were out of town. How could we put together four people for what appeared to be a relatively expensive event?
I checked their reservation calendar and discovered that all the 7:30 sittings were booked, but that there were vacancies for the 5:30 and 9:30 weeknight sittings. I sent an email enquiring if they would take us as a couple. We would be willing to share a dome. They replied that they would offer us a private dome at 75% off the dome price for the next night. We couldn’t go then, but we agreed that I would check in the following morning at 9:00 a.m. when they reviewed the reservations and see if there was room then. I did, and there was, and I made the reservation directly with the head office for the 5:30 sitting.
That day started dark, dreary, and wet. But, as happens often in Vancouver, the weather in the west cleared during the day and by the time of our dinner date, it was a lovely evening, clear but crisp. After parking directly opposite the entrance, several staff standing beside a fire pit welcomed us and showed us to our dome.
It was a translucent plastic dome designed to simulate a terrarium, with a door that zippered open and shut. On the wooden floor inside was a table with chairs, each with a blanket folded neatly over the back. We had a heater at our feet and were surrounded by plants. The terrain outside was aglow with white lights in the trees, an aqua screen adding more colour, and outdoor fire pits with blazing fires. All this behind a white picket fence beside the sea with a pale sunset in the west. It was utterly enchanting.
Wearing toques, our servers were young people, friendly and cosmopolitan. One was from Quebec, had never been to Vancouver before, and was eager to practice her English. Another was from Chile, in Canada on a work permit that she wanted to extend. They popped in and out, zipping the door open and shut, always attentive to what we needed.
And the food? It was exquisite. We started with a beet and apple salad appetizer which instantly told us that this cuisine was superb. My husband had black cod with onions and leeks. I had chicken with tiny carrots, fingerling potatoes, and mushrooms foraged by the chef. Our dessert was a fruit, mousse, and mint crumble that was light and utterly delectable. We were satisfied that the cooking was as good as, if not better than, anything we had ever had in Toronto.
Our chef was Paul Moran, Executive Chef of the widely-acclaimed 1909 Kitchen restaurant and The Hatch pub at Tofino Resort and Marina on Vancouver Island. He apprenticed with David Hawksworth in Vancouver and was the Top Chef Canada Winner in the 2019 Food Networks Canada’s Top Chef competition. He visited us in our dome after our meal and we chatted at length. It was a warm and wonderful conclusion to a fabulous evening.
The Lunar New Year started this past weekend. Also called Chinese New Year or Spring Festival, this is the big annual holiday for over two billion people. More than a quarter of the world’s population, and many more than celebrate Christmas. In Mainland China, Hong Kong, Macau, Indonesia, the Philippines, Viet Nam, North and South Korea, Malaysia, Taiwan, Singapore, and in cities around the world where these nationals now live, the “Lunar New Year” is a big event. So it is in Vancouver.
Red-coloured banners, ornaments, and lanterns abound. In Chinese culture, red stands for energy, happiness, good luck and success. Shopping malls advertise Lunar and Chinese New Year celebrations with all kinds of special features: night markets, food halls, musical performances, traditional dances, children’s craft workshops and art exhibits, lantern displays, a “Community of Castles” pop-up display illustrating different scenery and architecture, special sales, photo opportunities and door prizes. Supermarkets such as Osaka in Park Royal West Vancouver, which I have written about previously (here, and here), overflow with brightly coloured packages of special holiday sweets.
The 47th Annual Chinese New Year Parade took place on Sunday, starting at the Millennium Gate on Pender Street in the heart of Vancouver’s old Chinatown. It went on for two hours over a 1.3-kilometre route. Thousands lined the streets to watch the lion dances, traditional dance troupes, marching bands, and martial arts performances.
With a friend, I attended the Opening Ceremonies of the Lunar New Year on Saturday afternoon. This was the first day of the 15-day New Year festival. It was held at the International Mall, beside the Millennium Gate. Under bright red lanterns soaring to the ceiling, hundreds gathered to hear greetings, in English and in Mandarin, from Vancouver’s leading politicians and many of the local consular corps. I thought the speeches would go on forever.
Then a man wearing traditional costume threw red envelopes out to the crowd. Red envelopes signal the sharing of blessings and are traditional New Year’s gifts from parents, grandparents and older friends to children. Red envelopes normally contain money. These red envelopes contained lucky candies. An agile acrobat performed with hoops. And, finally, the Lion Dance began, with two giant multi-coloured dragon lions gyrating at length on the stage. The audience loved it.
The first day of the Lunar New Year changes every year. It is celebrated on the second new moon after the Winter Solstice and falls anytime between January 21st and February 20th on the Gregorian calendar (which we use).
Each year in the Chinese calendar is named after one of twelve animals. The animals rotate on a twelve-year cycle. In order, they are the rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, rooster, dog and pig. People believe that the years represented by the animals affect the personalities of people born during that year.
This year celebrates the Year of the Rat. The years of the Rat include 1912, 1924, 1936, 1948, 1960, 1972, 1984, 1996, 2008, 2020 and 2032. Although rats are the smallest of the zodiac animals and may be scorned by many, they are recognized as an animal with spirit, wit, alertness, flexibility and vitality. If you were born in the Year of the Rat, you are thought to be adaptable, quick-thinking, intuitive, energetic and optimistic in outlook.
You can find which animal you are by inserting your Gregorian birthdate into this Chinese Zodiac Sign Calculator.
Someone born in October 2009 was born in the Year of the Ox. According to the Chinese zodiac, oxen are “diligent, dependable, strong and determined. Also patient, methodical and persistent. Having an honest nature, they have ideals and ambitions for life, and attach importance to family and work. They achieve their goals by consistent effort.”
Most people born in 2007 were born in the Year of the Pig. But someone with an early January birthday (January 8, 2007, for example) is actually born in the Year of the Dog. This is because the previous year continues until the new year begins.
Dog is a symbol of loyalty and honesty. The Chinese zodiac says that people born in the Year of the Dog “possess the best traits of human nature. They are honest, friendly, faithful, loyal, smart, straightforward and have a strong sense of responsibility.” Although they may be “a bit introverted and timid,” they can make true friends for life.
Several times over the weekend, people wished me a happy new year. They said, “Gong hei fat choy.” According to Chinese new year etiquette specialists on the internet, however, using that phrase is technically not correct. That wish is actually for the recipient to become wealthy in the year ahead and is best used with fellow workers or in business. For your family and friends, better to say “Xin Nian (new year) Hao (good)” (pronounced: shin nee-an how).
Xin Nian Hao, everyone.
Rain in Vancouver in January is the normal daily forecast. 70%, 80%, 90% chance of rain is what the weather reports will say.
What the locals know is that the rain seldom goes on all day long. Watch the sky. It will seem to brighten, if only in the west. The cloud cover will lighten; distinct dark clouds may move on and maybe an instant of blue will appear in the sky. The pitter-patter of rain on the windows will stop. Pedestrians will appear on the sidewalks without umbrellas. All signs that the rain has stopped.
At those times, the seawalk in Ambleside will be full of people, particularly people with dogs. Now is the moment to get the dog out for a walk or a run on the beach or the boardwalk. The off-leash area for dogs is awash with a diversity of dogs, many chasing balls. One of the dogs I saw was a tiny thing with fluffy white fur, so pristine that it almost shone in the dreary day. I asked his owners how often they had to clean it. “Every day,” they smiled.
It’s a mistake to be lured into these breaks in the rain with the expectation that “the good day” will continue. It can be bright one moment and raining heavily the next. I was leaving the Seniors’ Centre on Monday in a drizzle. A man leaving with me, wearing only a zippered fleece, explained that it hadn’t been raining when he left home. Of course not. He hardly needed to explain.
But yesterday, on my first of the daily walks I intend to take here, I tried to lower the weight I was carrying. I brought my keys, my wallet, and my iPhone, thinking that would do.
No way. Twenty minutes out, I could take a rest on a bench on the beach and do some email while watching the water. I could stop and take photos of new developments, particularly ones that could be a potential topic for a future blog post. I could talk with strangers and they were happy to engage in a short conversation. Twenty minutes later, the rains came again.
By the time I reached Park Royal and found the entrance, I was soaking wet. I had to find a chesterfield in the mall, take off my supposedly water-resistant jacket and hang it to dry. All of which took some time. I should have known that you never go anywhere on any day in Vancouver in the winter without taking an umbrella.
A Vancouverite friend responded to my post with tips about “rain management” that only a local would know. She said that many prefer jackets with hoods rather than using an umbrella. “Good for dashing from cars when your hands are full or walking shorter distances.” Although some stores have umbrella stands by their doors, “you don’t want a damp umbrella in your pack or purse!”
She said that living in Kitsilano, you never “leave the house without your small umbrella and a reusable shopping bag.” Umbrella lovers have a collection of umbrellas of different weights, sizes and designs. “And because we use them so much we choose their colours and patterns carefully. They are a year-round accessory!”
So it is. Yesterday, on the seawall in a slight rain, I noticed that many, younger walkers particularly, were in rain gear with hoods. Older folk tended to stick with umbrellas. I was somewhat proud that I had not yet used the umbrella I carried in my pack.
Alerted to umbrellas as a “wardrobe accessory,” I noticed umbrellas that stood out. One was a collection of cartoons from the Vancouver Sun. Another was a strikingly colourful motif of a couple each carrying an umbrella. According to the owner, this was from a famous American painting she had seen in the Chicago Museum of Modern Art. She bought it years ago from a family-owned umbrella store that existed on Granville Island for decades. The store had made their own umbrellas which were more expensive but more sturdy than others. She expected that this umbrella would last longer than she does. She also spoke ruefully of a summer parasol (made of material that could not be used in the rain) which she had bought from the store. That umbrella had been stolen and she still missed it. I never would have thought how much one can learn from umbrellas.
The bright yellow neon sign in front of St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church at King and Simcoe in downtown Toronto drew my attention as I left Roy Thomson Hall after the Vivaldi concert a couple of weeks ago. It cycled through several messages: “A Christmas Carol Read by Tenor Ben Heppner and other GREAT voices,” and then, “An Evening of Readings, Carols & Gingerbread, Sat, Nov 30 at 7 p.m.,” and finally, “FREE Admission, Give generously to our Refugee Program.” I thought that this would be a wonderful way to start the holiday season. And so it was.
I took my new favourite TTC route downtown, using the Bathurst streetcar southbound to the marvellous King streetcar, which runs constantly without any waiting. The dark wooden balconies of the beautiful old church were bedecked with evergreen boughs and bright red bows. A large Christmas tree covered in white lights stood at the front, as white candles lit the floor below the podium. I was greeted by a lovely usher wearing the yellow T-shirt of the Refugee Sponsorship Program (STARS), a long scarf in seasonal colours and a Christmas bow in her hair. A brass quintet and a pianist on the grand piano played Christmas music as we waited for the program to begin. At the conclusion, we all went to the Great Hall for a Gingerbread and Cider Reception.
The Dickens story was divided into five staves, stave being another word for chapter, and also for staff in musical scores. The internet dictionary indicates that Dickens used the term “because each individual stave is a stand-alone story with its own distinctive mood. When taken together, all five staves combine to form a harmonious whole… as if the book is a Christmas carol, and each chapter is part of the song.”
Ben Heppner, who retired from professional opera five years ago and still hosts “Saturday Afternoon at the Opera” and “Backstage with Ben Heppner” on CBC Radio, began the readings. He was followed by Patricia Garnett-Smith, a British actress who came to Canada in l954 and has appeared in numerous theatre productions, films and commercials. Then came Kwagiulth and Stó:lo First Nations mezzo-soprano, Marion Newman, who has sung numerous roles including the lead in the world premiere of the First Nations opera “Giiwedin.” Canadian soprano Neema Bickersteth, who was raised in Alberta by parents from Sierra Leone, continued the story. She specializes in contemporary opera and musical theatre, is a Dora Mavor Moore award winner, and is slated to play the title character in Scott Joplin’s reinterpretation of “Treemonisha,” one of the world’s first Black operas. Rick Phillips concluded the readings. He is the producer of SOUND ADVICE, a guide to classical music and recordings heard weekly on CBC Radio One and Radio Two, author of “The Essential Classical Recordings—101 CDs,” and a well-known lecturer, consultant, and musical tour guide. Needless to say, the readings were stellar. Between each stave, the audience joined in singing Christmas carols accompanied by the glorious organ.
The event was a fundraiser for the St. Andrews Refugee Sponsorship program which has brought two Syrian Kurdish families to Canada: Gulistan and Abdulrazzak Abdo and their four children from Aleppo, Syria in 2016 and, in 2019, their relatives Abdulrahman, Amina and Roushin who were then living as refugees in Turkey. The extended family now live on different floors of the same apartment building, and are busy integrating into Canadian life. They have signed up for ESL and other courses, the children are in school and daycare, the older ones have gone to summer camp. The family gives back by helping with the coffee hour after church and volunteering in the Out of the Cold program. The success of this sponsorship has encouraged STARS to raise funds to sponsor another family. Learning the details of what these families and STARS have experienced encouraged me to think again about what I can do to help in the effort. The need remains as desperate as ever.
For me, the Christmas season is well underway.
The hot tub located in the women’s locker room of the West End College Street YMCA in Toronto is one of the highlights of the Y experience. (The men have a hot tub, too, but I know nothing of what happens there.) Unlike some Ys, where access to the hot tub is limited to members who pay a premium, the West End Y hot tub is open to everyone. Many love the warm luxury of the hot water and the “water therapy” provided by the jets. Together with the steam room, sauna and showers, the swimming pool, sports facilities, and the Zen deck on the roof, it provides “the ultimate spa experience” for those who like to treat it as such, even for a day.
The current hot tub is a pool clad with white tiles, up three stairs from the showers, sauna, and steam room. These stairs make the hot tub inaccessible to those in wheelchairs, hardly conducive to the Y’s commitment to physical accessibility. How this was missed during a relatively recent renovation escapes me, but it was. Putting that aside….
The tub holds a maximum of eight people at a time, sitting on underwater tile-clad benches, with jets on two sides. Sometimes when I use the hot tub, I have the hot tub to myself. Other times it is full. Each time, I wonder what my hot tub experience will bring that day. Consistent with the prevailing etiquette, sometimes all the bathers like to talk. Other times, it is apparent that some individuals want quiet time and it is best not to clutter their serenity with chatter.
I have met the most interesting people in the hot tub. One day, I was the sole fluent anglophone among four Portuguese women of a certain age, all talking to each other in Portuguese. I discovered that they had immigrated to Canada thirty or forty years ago and worked as cleaning ladies. They were talking about their summer vacations “back home.” All had second and even third homes in Portugal, near their families, which were opened up and aired out every summer in anticipation of their arrival. They all had at least one luxury car, a Mercedes, or an Audi, or a BMW, which they kept in Portugal for their use. I loved the fact that these modest immigrant women were so successful and that Canada had given them the means to be so.
Another time, I shared the pool with a trio of much younger women from Vietnam. In faltering English, they described how they came to Canada recently and, having learned about the Y from their friends, came to “use the spa.” Two had lived in Cambodia during the Vietnamese war; the third came from Ho Chi Minh City. Another Vietnamese woman told me that she worked long hours as a nurse and, although not a Y member, she spent her days off at this Y as a guest, because of the spa. When I admired the very distinctive flowered green bathing suit worn by yet another woman, also from Viet Nam, she told me that she had made it herself. She was the very first person I have ever met who made her own bathing suit.
The hot tub has become a font of invaluable information which consistently improves my life. A woman who was a writer told me about a legal book she published which was available as part of a series for young people from the Toronto Public Library. Although I have been very active in public legal education during my career, I did not know about the series and went to borrow her book right away. She also told me about a book store on Bathurst near Bloor which I did not know existed.
Just last week, I met a woman from Porto, in Portugal, who sews for a living from her studio on Vaughan Road. Among her clients is Malabar, Toronto’s pre-eminent costume emporium on McCaul Street. I figured that anyone who works for Malabar must be good. I told her about the sewing I needed to have done and she invited me to visit her studio. I gathered up some old jackets and dresses which have languished unworn for years and brought them to her. She pinned everything carefully and suggested several design remakes which were simple but which updated the outfits dramatically. I think I have finally found a fashion designer/seamstress/tailor who is more than a worthy successor to my beloved Frank the Tailor, who retired several years ago. (See my post about Frank, here.) After spending two hours with Naty, I went home and wrote this post on the YMCA Hot Tub which I have wanted to do for years.
Like traditional “waters” and community wells of old, the hot tub is the locus of the best that that Y has to offer. Where else could I meet such a variety of people and, by asking just a few questions, learn their stories, and become their friend or at least their acquaintance? It’s a marvellous means for cross-cultural interaction. By its mere existence, it reflects and builds the community of which it is a part.
It’s been thirty years since we were last in Paris for any length of time. For all the eternal verities of the old monuments, museums, and traditional street scenes, the changes are striking. Apart from the update on the public transit system which I discussed in my last post, there is a new atmosphere in the city which illustrates the dynamism of the city.
What is most engaging is an apparently all-pervasive new interest among the French in speaking English. When I visited Paris as a student in the ’50s – ’70s, the French had a reputation for being unfriendly to visitors. They proudly spoke French and expected everyone else to do so as well. At one time, the French government actually ran a poster campaign encouraging their citizens to “be friendly” to visitors. Today, no such campaign is required.
Although my husband and I speak French, if not with a great accent, we both found this trip that everyone we talked to shifted into English the moment they heard our accent. Shopkeepers in all the local stores and in the department stores, bus drivers, security guards, “volunteers” in the subway, staff at the museums, other travellers on the buses or the Métro, people in the laundromat, all took the opportunity to speak English, even when their English may have been more limited than our French. Sometimes, when their English was in fact quite good or they had travelled in Canada or the United States, they would engage in long conversations.
Apparently, a new generation of French started learning English in grade school, studied the language for three or four years at least, and they are eager to practice what they remember. Many told us that they learned English because of the movies, music, and the media. Their enthusiasm for the language seems to reflect a new openness to engaging with visitors which we had not experienced before.
It seems ironic that, just as the French are embracing English as the principal means of communication in the world, the English are threatening Brexit. The British may not want to participate in the European Union, but the French at least have now adopted English. It’s a major victory for the English language which the Brits are spurning.
Another change is the all-pervasive use of credit cards and smartphones. Everybody pays for everything using bank cards. Tickets for public transit, groceries in the supermarkets, purchases in local stores, entries to the movie theatre, theatres and museums, restaurants and brasseries all prefer payment by bank card. To buy stamps for postcards, I had to use a machine at the local post office and use my bank card to pay for each 1.8 Euro stamp. Ordering tickets for the symphony or for museums presupposes that payment will be by bank card and that a smartphone can be used to show email copies of the tickets on entry. Our Canadian bank occasionally rejects purchases I have made on Visa and sends me a text seeking confirmation that the particular purchase is okay. Without a smartphone, I could not get the text. My husband, who has always resisted using smartphones, now realizes that having a smartphone, and knowing how to use it, have become necessities for contemporary travel.
The diversity of people in Paris is also evident. Public transit is full of people of all races, colours, and creeds from all over the world. There are so many tourists in Paris from Japan, China, and Korea that Asian languages are seen everywhere. And “ethnic” restaurants are proliferating in Paris as much as in Toronto. We discovered several small Asian restaurants which served delicious fare, were inexpensive and extremely friendly. Apart from McDonald’s and other North American chains, Marks & Spencer has many stores in the city, large and small, selling finely-prepared food which is reasonably priced, can be heated on the spot or eaten cold and is popular with tourists and locals alike. The busy Marks & Spencer at Terminal 3 of Charles De Gaulle airport is an outstanding example which we used often to provision informal dinners for our room at the airport. I wonder what will happen to M&S post-Brexit?
Another new development in Paris is the vast expansion of public greenery which now prevails in the city. In the past, open spaces were covered with gravel and sand. If there was grass, it was formal, considered decorative and people were forbidden to walk on it. Now, children play on the lawns at the Parc Montsouris and other such parks, and families picnic. The small open space just up the street from our apartment, now called Place des Droits de l’Enfant, sports trees, benches and public art. René Coty is a lovely boulevard nearby which runs from the Parc Montsouris to Denfert-Rochereau and onto the Boulevard Raspail. In the centre of this wide boulevard, tall trees now line a sidewalk on both sides, encouraging the public to walk in the shade. It is a beautiful street which has enhanced the quality of the neighbourhood enormously. The Paris City Council promotes these initiatives as part of their public policy priority favouring the greenification of public spaces.
There are several new attractions in Paris which warrant the attention of visitors. The Paris Symphony has built a striking new Philharmonic Hall at La Villette in the northeast of the city which opened in January 2015. The architecture is highly controversial, but the concert hall itself, the Grand Salle Pierre Boulez, seats 2400, all arranged around the orchestra which is placed in the centre. As everyone is seated so close to the maestro and can see the orchestra as it goes about its work, the intimacy of the concert is amazing. With excellent acoustics, the yellow, orange, and cream colours of the undulating lines of the room add to the glow of the music. The Institut du Monde Arabe is another new museum with breathtaking architecture, excellent amenities for seniors, and an emerging collection. In addition to the permanent historical and archaeological exhibits, a current exhibition shows art from contemporary artists from all over the Arab world, work we would not normally see. Another exhibition, called Foot et Monde Arabe, features Arab football players and teams that have been famous over time. Included are the Jordanian Women’s Football Team, and a presentation on playing football in Palestine under current conditions. The renovated Musée Picasso is utterly beautiful, with modern elevators, places to sit, and an innovative exhibition of Picasso’s lesser-known earlier work, and an exciting current exhibition comparing Picasso with mobile sculptor Alexander Calder. Clearly, there is much to see in Paris.
***** Thanks to Tim and Judith for their input.
The fifteen days of Asian New Year have come and gone. Already. Where has February gone? It’s the Year of the Pig and, in West Vancouver where we have come to escape the worst of eastern Canada’s winter, the celebration was bright, cheery and more extensive than I remember it being ever before. I missed the big Asian New Year’s parade held in Vancouver on February 3rd. Next year. But I did catch the festivities held on the north shore.
On January 31st, at the Osaka Supermarket (originally bought by T & T and then by Loblaws), I was struck by the colourful decorations which greeted shoppers on arrival. Ah yes, it is Chinese New Year I thought. I wandered over to the multiple high piles of large boxes, bags, and packages full of cookies, candies, rice cakes, decorations, and other goodies that the Chinese buy in great quantities to share with family and friends during the holiday. There were so many, all so enticing, so mouth-watering, all seriously not recommended for my diet.
Then I found a variety of boxes full of kinds of oranges from all over the world. Among them was a pile of large red plastic baskets, each filled with mandarin oranges, all individually wrapped in paper and cellophane. Here was a Chinese New Years delicacy that I could indulge in. At $8.80 for a basket of 24 oranges, I thought them a bargain and bought a basket for myself. These proved to be the largest, sweetest, most delicious mandarin oranges I had eaten since I was a kid. I learned that oranges were a lucky food for the Asian new year, and that these oranges were especially imported from Japan. Later I bought two more baskets to take to my friends.
On the first weekend of February, just before the first day of the lunar New Year on Monday February 4th, West Vancouver sponsored two full days of festivities to celebrate Asian Lunar New Year. I was struck that the festival was not limited to the Chinese but extended to all Asian nationalities who celebrate the lunar new year. That gave my head a shake; so many cultures in the world take part. Bright red and gold balls, and placards full of facts about lunar new year traditions decorated the atrium of the West Vancouver Community Centre. People were everywhere, many dressed in red, eager to take part in the action.
I was fascinated. Young men did Kung Fu, others beat on drums, young girls and boys played on a grand piano, troupes of children dressed in lavish costumes performed intricate dances, and several young women played traditional instruments. Almost everyone present picked up an activity “passport” which led us to different stations where we could learn more about new year activities. We learned the names of the twelve revolving years of the lunar calendar, and about the qualities of The Year of the Pig. We learned what foods are traditional for the season, and why red packets are given as gifts. Two young girls designed and distributed elaborate sugar treats which we tasted with delight. Altogether, a totally delightful event.
On the first day of the Lunar New Year, the cashier at the Fresh Market, our local supermarket, handed a red packet containing a chocolate coin to each customer at the register. Yet another New Year tradition extended into the broader community. We are indeed lucky to live in a multicultural community where we can celebrate New Years many times of the year in many ways. Happy Lunar New Year.
For the Canada Day weekend, the Globe and Mail published a full-page Giant Summer Crossword. Like its Giant Holiday Crossword published during the Christmas season, this challenge is intended to engage all the family, or at least to absorb crossword enthusiasts during some holiday downtime. I have always wanted to do the puzzle, but am not a crossword regular and never found the conditions right. Canada Day weekend 2018 was a first.
My husband and I were visiting relatives in Campbell River, on the east coast of Vancouver Island, a couple of hours up-island from Nanaimo. The relatives included my sister- and brother-in-law, two of their adult children, six grandchildren, and other friends, all together for a weekend of family activities. With so much action both inside and out, who would have thought that the conditions would be right to do a giant crossword?
My sister-in-law noticed the “giant crossword” in the paper edition of the Globe which I had bought on the ferry. Apparently, their family do the giant crossword every Christmas and they even had an appropriately sized board for it. Normally, they divide the puzzle into quadrants, make copies of the relevant clues, and everyone takes a section. We were not so well-organized but, with the crossword taped to the board, and the board on the dining table, we were all set to begin.
It helped that my sister-in-law was chief cook for the weekend and, happily preparing dishes at the kitchen counter beside the table, was delighted with a mental diversion. I did what I could do on the puzzle, and readily responded to her invitation to “read out the clues.” She does crosswords, is super literate, and has “a mind that accumulates useless trivia,” as she puts it. Much of what I did not know, she did.
Notwithstanding the demands of the children, the other adults in the crowd joined in to fill in the blanks. The thirty and forty-year-olds knew the pop music references, and the sports clues. My brother-in-law, a former teacher, knew many of the scientific terms and the French-Canadian hints. My husband, a professional historian, contributed his two cents’ worth.
Every bit helped. Each new set of eyes that surveyed the crossword found words (both long and short) that had been missing and should have been obvious. Focused quiet times produced great leaps forward. We eventually recognized that there were certain words we could never get and gave ourselves permission to look them up on the iPad.
By Monday evening, we had completed all but seven or eight words. Among others which I can’t remember, we were hung up on “meet and greet, eg,” “pumpkin shell?” and “b-ball.” My sister-in-law took a late night bath, cleared her head, and returned to the puzzle with a new mind-set.
Rather than looking for a noun that would describe the networking activity implicit in the clue, she recognized that “meet and greet” were examples of simple “rhymes.” Of course. “Pumpkin shell?” does not refer to the nursery rhyme or any artifact of Hallowe’en, but is potentially a “piecrust.” The cross-clues had already given us the first and last letters and we should have thought of that. We knew that “b-ball” refers to basketball. She saw instantly that we had failed to consider “hoops” because I had misspelled “Riyadh” in the cross-clue. Doesn’t everyone know the correct spelling of Riyadh?
Crossword novice that I am, I was somewhat surprised that a Giant Crossword published on the Canada Day weekend did not have more Canadian references. Doing the puzzle, I had expected to learn much more trivia about my country. But maybe my expectations were unrealistic. I had overlooked the fact that it was only billed as a “great summer” crossword. My sister-in-law tells me that there is a big community of crossword enthusiasts out there who will have opinions about the pros and cons of the puzzle. That conversation would be fun to follow.
The completed Crossword will find its way to the recycling bin. Doing the crossword together was great fun, a good brain exercise, and, for my sister-in-law, multi-tasking par excellence. What more could one want?
For several days they led us on. They promised a “new Globe and Mail,” presumably with new content, format and style that would befit Canada’s national newspaper. When they began to put out the promos, I was intrigued. Other news media are whining the blues. What was the Globe and Mail going to do to meet the current “crisis in journalism” and keep us reading from coast to coast?
When the first of “the new” publication arrived last week, I was horrified. What have they done? Who do they think they are publishing for? I am 73 years old, read three newspapers every day, and consider myself relatively well-informed about Canadian politics and public life. Most of the young people I know no longer read newspapers in hard copy. If they read any newspaper at all, it’s on the internet.
We pre-baby boomers, and baby boomers, too, are accustomed to our old habits, welcome the arrival of the newspaper on our doorstep (or outside our hotel room) each morning, and enjoy the luxury of being able to read it through with our coffee, at leisure. We may not represent the far distant future but, for the moment, and perhaps because of inertia, we may well be the primary demographic which continues to have all-week newspaper subscriptions in hard copy.
Now I can’t even read the Globe and Mail. Literally, I can’t read it. And I am not the only one. My husband and several friends have had the same reaction.
In the interests of what I assume is saving money, they have made the newspaper smaller in size, and apparently changed the font and/or lightened the type. The smaller size I can live with; it’s easier to fold into my purse or briefcase to take on public transit. The new font and/or typeface, however, is positively illegible. It gives me a headache to look at it, and more of a headache to read.
In an age when everyone (and I mean most everyone, including us old duffers) is using mobile devices and iPads with multiple fonts and expandable print capacities, it is positively counter-intuitive that a major newspaper seeking to expand its readership would go to print with what can only be considered a “reader-adverse” font and/or typeface. Who chose it? Someone under 60, I bet.
Since I started writing my blog, I mine the Globe and Mail, National Post and the Toronto Star (when in Toronto), and the Vancouver Sun (when in Vancouver) for potential topics of interest for a post. It takes up time, but I try to go through each newspaper daily. Each has its strengths and weaknesses. And apart from different perspectives, I like to pick up on quirky articles which alert me to something that I knew nothing about before.
In the past, I always went to the Globe and Mail first. Why? Because it’s “the national newspaper,” because I know people who write for it, and, although I do not always agree with its editorial perspective, at least I can expect competent coverage of major issues.
Now, it is too painful to read. As of last week, I now start with the National Post, or the Toronto Star, skim their coverage, and then pick up the Globe. But it’s so difficult to read beyond the headlines that I tend not to read it in detail. I make no comment on the new organization and content of the “new Globe and Mail” because the new font and/or typeface have deterred me from reading it further.
It has occurred to me that perhaps the powers that be at the Globe and Mail really do want to drive us all onto the internet. Make your hard copy inaccessible and subscribers will give up.
For thirty-two years, the self-styled Daughters of Hoyle, also known as The Sisters of Precious Little, have been getting together. Usually for a weekend in early November, it is a highlight of our year. In the past, we have come from Ottawa, Kingston and Toronto to a rented cottage where we can enjoy the autumn colours, somewhere in Prince Edward County, on Amherst Island, on Rice Lake, or in the Rideau river system of eastern Ontario. Once we met at Mary Ann’s home in Kingston; another time at Janne’s cottage near Minden. Two years ago, we ventured further afield, for four days in New York City. This year, we’ve spent five days at my “cottage” in Vancouver.
Three who met as “mature students” at Queen’s U. law school added me, the fourth, from Osgoode. We are all under or near five feet tall (except for Janne, a.k.a. “Stretch”) and we sport navy blue shirts emblazoned with “Daughters of Hoyle” in red print on the back. When we walk the streets together, we sometimes attract questions.
Mary Ann is a dedicated activist who fills us in on current causes. Knowledgeable about music and skilled at modern technology, she chooses the playlist which sets the ambiance. Peggy, who spends three months each year in Costa Rica and the rest visiting her large family around the country, putters in the kitchen. She makes sure that everything in the refrigerator finds its way into one meal or another. Janne, the artist, scouts out the latest exhibition or craft show we must see at the galleries. This year, I have luxuriated in the fact that my eastern friends are visiting in Vancouver when the sun is shining by day, there is a full moon by night, and a fresh fall of new snow on the North Shore mountains.
So what do we do? Each year, we pick up where we left off the last, as if we have never been apart. We talk, and talk, and talk, about all the things going on in our lives. We’ve been together through illness, death, family break-up and divorce, the care of children and of aging parents. We talk about the idiosyncrasies of the profession, politics, books and movies, our friends and families, our hopes and dreams. We drink lots of wine, although we are switching to water with various additives as we age. Mary Ann lays out a tray of fancy cheeses, spicy spreads, patés, prosciutto, smoked oysters, and crackers for snacks. This year, we’ve fed on chicken and salmon dishes prepared by Janne, Peggy, and me, and have felt absolutely no desire to eat out. Peggy’s Eggys with spinach, avocado, and prosciutto are the best Eggs Benedicts around. In New York, we ordered in and shared Thai fare with the night staff at the tables on the ground floor of our little Hell’s Kitchen hotel. They said that this was their first experience of Thai food.
We listen to music, walk the local paths, and see the sights. If there is a church bazaar around, a bake sale or a craft fair, we will find it, and shop for treasures. In rural Ontario, our Saturday lunch is often a traditional pre-Christmas tea in a church basement, the tiny sandwiches and familiar sweets a nostalgic reminder of times past. In Wakefield, Ontario, we once caught their traditional pie auction and, after tasting the samples included with admission, we left with a winning pie. In New York, we walked the High Line in bright sunlight, had lunch at the Chelsea Market, and, after seeing the wonderful play The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, stood at the stage door, to meet the actors. This year, we caught a show of portraits from the Queen’s collection at the Vancouver Art Gallery and, on Saturday, hit the bustling Flea Market at West Vancouver United Church, and the craft fair at the community centre across the street.
Once dinner is done, we settle into playing cards. I come from a birth family where playing cards was a favourite pastime. In my eastern life, I never play cards except with the Daughters of Hoyle. On my first weekend away with them, when we were sole occupants of an historic cottage at Isaiah Tubbs resort in Prince Edward Country, Mary Ann set up an easel to help teach me the proper names of the suits of cards. If I was going to play bugger bridge, I couldn’t bid calling one suit “broccolis” and another “shovels.” The next day that same weekend, we played cards on the rocks of Sandbanks beach in the hot November sun, a memory we often recall. This year Peggy brought along the “Five Crowns,” a five-suited variation on rummy. No matter what game we play, or how hard we play it, Janne always seems to win. Playing cards is good for serious strategic planning, acting out latent aggressions, and hearty laughs which sometimes leave us in tears.
At the end of our time together, we set the date for the next year and talk about suitable venues. Long may the Daughters of Hoyle continue to meet.
On October 24th, I joined the masses gathered on Nathan Phillips Square in Toronto, to honour Gord Downie by singing his songs. Daveed Goldman and Nobu Adilman (aka “DaBu”), the founders in 2011 of the weekly drop-in singing group, Choir! Choir! Choir! in Toronto, organized and led what was a communal hootenanny. Most everyone knew the music and lyrics by heart; the rest of us sang along using words we’d downloaded from the internet. It was a very stirring event.
I went because I knew so little about the man and the band which has become a national phenomenon. I needed to fill the gap. The Tragically Hip is a familiar name. When they played the Dawson City Music Festival years ago, I knew that my sister had hosted the band in her home at the after party. Gord Downie’s actions, since his diagnosis with a brain tumour in December 2015, quite properly made him a national hero. I admired the Secret Path graphic book and also the album designed to tell the story of Chanie Wenjack’s tragic escape from an Indian Residential School, and promoted on the Hip’s last national tour. All proceeds from the Gord Downie/Chanie Wenjack Foundation go to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation at the University of Manitoba.
For all that, I knew very little about Downie’s music over time; neither the tunes which made him and the band popular nor the lyrics which often read like poetry. I’m not alone. I’ve since learned that many of my cohort are equally oblivious to the impact he had on younger people, especially on those now in their late thirties or forties. People like the Prime Minister.
I now appreciate why his work has been so appealing. “I am a stranger… on a secret path,” the lead poem/song on his Secret Path album, released in tandem with the graphic book, is haunting and emotional. “Bobcaygeon,” where he “saw the constellations reveal themselves one star at a time,” resonates among those who know the north. “Ahead by a Century” speaks to who he was and what he stood for. “New Orleans is Sinking” and “Wheat Kings” speak of that which is familiar in ordinary life: “Bourbon blues on the street,” “hands in the river,” “Sundown in the Paris of the prairies,” “wheat kings and pretty things wait and see what tomorrow brings. “Late breaking story on the CBC.” “You can’t be fond of living in the past, Cause if you are then there’s no way that you’re gonna last.” “Courage” sings of the human condition: “No simple… explanation for anything important… . Any of us do and yeah the human… Tragedy consists in… the necessity Of living with… The consequences Under pressure. Courage… it didn’t come… it couldn’t come at a worse time.”
Mike Downie spoke to the crowd about the Downie Chanie Fund. In Gord’s honour, Don Kerr adapted “Fiddler’s Green for Gord.” The lyrics can be downloaded online. Beautiful.
I always think of September as the beginning of the new year. And so it is. A new school year, new activities for the kids at school and in the community, a new subscription season of films, music, theatre, new shows at the galleries, new courses to take, new routines at the gym, new projects at hand, new holidays to plan in the months ahead. The days are cooler, the nights are crisp, the sky is clear, and the leaves are changing into glorious fall colours. It strikes me that the best season of the year is at hand.
To my mind, the Jewish community which celebrates its High Holidays, both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, at this time of year has got it right. Rosh Hashanah marks the first and second days of the Jewish year, which begins this year at sundown on September 20th and continues through nightfall on September 22nd. According to Jewish tradition, Rosh Hashanah is the day when God is said to inscribe the fate of each individual in the Book of Life for the year ahead. Yom Kippur, the “Day of Atonement,” is the holiest day of the year, which begins the evening of September 29th and ends the evening of September 30th. Depending on how Jews have sought forgiveness for any wrongs they may have done in the previous year, God “seals” the verdict for the year ahead on Yom Kippur. Not being Jewish, I am envious of this annual ritual of reflection and renewal. It strikes me that Jews start off their new year on the right foot.
Lacking a religious holiday to mark the season, I love to celebrate the many late summer and September birthdays which bring so many of my family and friends together at this time of the year. This holiday in Vancouver has been a wonderful example. John Lane, Dianne Slimmon, Cathie Percival, my husband Bill Irvine, and I began the festivities with a delightful lunch a week ago Friday at the Shaughnessy restaurant in Vancouver. Located in the VanDusen Garden, it is a beautiful venue, naturally lit and artfully designed to help guests enjoy good food and extended time together in peace and quiet. Birthday cake number one, for me and for John.
The next night, it was a birthday cake number two for me and for Bill Hall who was celebrating his 70th. He and his wife Carol threw a marvellous dinner for their closest friends in The Palmer Room, at the Northview Golf Club in Surrey. What a magnificent evening it was! The Palmer Room is a quietly elegant restaurant with lush plants, lavish chandeliers, a white fireplace, live piano music, and window walls that show off the view beyond the patio and the rich greens of the two eighteen-hole golf courses. The panorama is of fountains rising high in a chain of ponds, fields of farms in the distance rich with summer produce, and, on the horizon, a band of mountain tops silhouetted in black against the changing colours of the sunset. An absolutely glorious west coast mountain view.
Apart from the ambience, the menu was stunning. I had simply superb salmon lox with herb cheese, capers, crostini and micro greens as an appetizer and a melt-in-the-mouth prime rib roast to die for. Others had rack of lamb, filet mignon, duck breast, jumbo prawns, and a cioppino of halibut, salmon, scallops, prawns, mussels, in a tomato based broth. Bill and I had red velvet birthday cake; tiramisu and lemon cheesecake were other dessert favourites.
Birthday celebrations are such fun. As we grow older, celebrating who we are, that we are still here, and that we have dear family and friends around, becomes all the more important. Bonne fête, tout le monde, whenever your birthday might be. And to all our Jewish friends, may you be signed into the Book of Life.