Category: Cultural Mores

Paris Thirty Years On

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.




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Asian New Year 2019

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.

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The Giant Summer Crossword

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?



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The Globe and Mail Blew It

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.



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The Daughters of Hoyle Score Again

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.

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Toronto Sings for Gord Downie

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.

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It’s Another Year…

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.

John Lane & Marion Lane share a birthday cake.

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.

Bill Hall’s 70th at Northview’s Palmer Room.

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.

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Speaking with Strangers

My ears pricked up. Anna Maria Tremonti on The Current was interviewing New York writer Kio Stark on her new book, When Strangers Meet: How People You Don’t Know Can Transform You (TED Books, 2016). Stark was saying that the world needs more of strangers talking to each other, more random conversations on the street, in the shops, on transit.

It occurred to me that I shared her philosophy, and that talking with strangers helps make The Effervescent Bubble thrive. Without even waiting to actually read the book, I ordered twelve copies from Indigo to give as gifts for Christmas.

As an aside: Have you noticed how easy it is to shop on the internet these days? Click, add to cart, pay with the credit card, and forget about it. A few days later, often free of charge, Canada Post delivers a bright clean new cardboard box to the doorstep. Do you get the same frisson of excitement when the time comes to open the box? It’s like Christmas all year.

Getting back to Kio Stark: When the book came, I was keen to devour it. Stark writes, “Talking to people I’ve never met is my adventure. It’s my joy, my rebellion, my liberation. It’s how I live,” and her words resonate. That’s what I do. That’s what I like doing. Why? Perhaps because, as she writes, “when you talk with strangers, you make beautiful and surprising interruptions in the expected narrative of your daily life. You shift perspective. You form momentary, meaningful connections. You find questions whose answers you thought you knew. You reject the ideas that make us so suspicious of each other.” Hers is a book “about talking… about seeing, listening, and being alert to the world.”

As much as I agree with Stark’s approach, her tone is didactic and, on first reading, seems a bit self-helpish. Her approach is analytical, somewhat clinical in nature, with suggestions for what to do, how to do it, and exercises to begin.

Many of her examples and discussion come from a course on communications and modern technology which she teaches. Her comparison between conversations in person and on the internet is intriguing but relevant primarily to social media types. She understands the violence implicit in “street harassment” and calls for action against “aggressive street behaviour.” She is conscious of “stranger danger” as a product of “childhood training,” but makes the point that “unpredictable and unpleasant are not by definition dangerous,” and how we need “to perceive, not… name or categorize” or stereotype.

Her essential point is that talking with strangers is “good for you.” “You are awake… you’re not in your own head, you’re not on autopilot from here to there. You are present in the moment. And to be present is to feel alive. You are also connected.” The action of speaking with strangers, meeting strangers, pushes us to see others as individuals and can be transformative to the person, and to society more generally. We become more empathetic and “cosmopolitan,” which she defines as “tolerant, open… curious and (believing) that we are all in this together.”

In her chapter “The Mechanics of Interaction,” Stark writes about how some cultures “take extraordinary measures not to interact at all.” She cites Toronto as an example, “though not other places in Canada.” She has been told that “strangers in Toronto talk (or mutter) to each other only when necessary, and with the tacit understanding that it’s painful for all involved. ‘Excuse me’ is a last resort on the streetcar.” I know that my west-coast volubility is a little unusual. A Toronto-born travelling companion once told me that I “could talk with a newel post,” which I am not sure she intended as a compliment.

I have often felt that native-born Torontonians are hesitant to talk to strangers, although not in the dog park, nor in a shop. If the stereotype is true, it is changing. The majority of people who live in the city do not come from Toronto; so many were born elsewhere, either in Canada or abroad.

The techniques described by Stark, when I think about it, are simply second nature to me. Talking about dogs and babies is an excellent entrée to learning about people in the neighbourhood. Compliments are conversation-starters. Many different young people, and even a memorable older woman my own age, have taught me about my smartphone and how I can download apps or text numbers to find out when the next transit vehicle will come. Newcomers to Toronto have told me their migration stories, and provided the grist for yet another post on my blog. I can attest that my talking with strangers, even in Toronto, is generally well-received.

I remember how it was a total stranger on the Paris RER  (transit system), in 1966, who suggested that Grenoble welcomed students and I could find accommodation there cheaper and more quickly than in Paris. I had spent several days looking for a cheap place in Paris and was on my way back from spending a horrible night in a decrepit student hostel in the far southern suburbs that I remember for its high ceilings, broken windows, and dormitory beds like those in war movies. I went to the train station right away, bought a ticket to Grenoble, and was welcomed there by volunteers greeting foreign students. A day later I had a job, room and board with a wealthy industrialist just outside the city, and was registered as a student in a university program there. I spent four months in Grenoble, and had an excellent experience with a very interesting family. That stranger on the RER did me a big favour.

Read the book. Listen to Kio Stark’s TED Talk at Try talking with strangers, and see what happens. I think the stereotype about taciturn Torontonians, if it really is true, will not long endure.

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My Best “Good News” Story for 2016

It was the early afternoon of October 31st, and I was due to leave the house shortly to help the grandkids do Hallowe’en in Whitby. I thought to make a quick trip to the local bakery on College Street to pick up some of those Hallowe’en cookies I’d seen. Luckily for me, there was a parking spot close to the bakery. I reached into my purse, pulled out my wallet, and hopped out of the car to get my 15-minute parking receipt from the kiosk nearby. I was only gone a minute, returned to the car, put the receipt on the dashboard and locked the car. Minutes later, my goodies in hand, I returned to the car and drove up Clinton to return home. Suddenly, it occurred to me that my purse, with my iPhone in it, was missing. It had been sitting on the bucket seat beside me when I got my wallet. It wasn’t there now.

I drove around the block back to the bakery, found another parking spot, and enquired in the bakery whether I had left my purse behind. Apparently not. It was nowhere to be seen. How could that be? I’d just had it. I retreated to the car and returned home. Had I left my purse at home? Maybe I had. Forgetting what happened only a moment ago is not foreign to me these days. But no, the purse was nowhere in the house. Nor was the iPhone.

Quite uncharacteristically, I was relatively calm as I went upstairs to my home computer and switched on the “Find My iPhone” application in the settings. Miraculously, the setting was on. I activated the program and, sure enough, a local map appeared with a little green dot showing that my phone was at the bakery on College Street. With my resident nephew in tow, I returned to the bakery. This time, using a load voice, I insisted that the purse with my iPhone was somewhere nearby. I approached each of the patrons seated at tables at the bakery and asked if they had seen a black leather purse with an iPhone in it. This time, the saleslady made further enquiries of the rest of her staff downstairs and in the kitchen. No luck. No purse. No iPhone.

What to do? We returned home, refreshed the computer and saw that the green dot had moved one block west. Great. Someone had it and they were still nearby. We refreshed the application again. This time, the green dot was another block west. Refreshed again, and the green dot had moved further west, apparently across the street to the area of a well-known restaurant.

At that point, I called 911, reported a non-emergency and asked to be transferred to 14 Division. Another operator answered, another transfer, then another operator, and another transfer. Finally, someone listened to my lament that my purse and iPhone had been stolen. “But,” I added brightly, “we know where they are… at the corner at Beatrice and College.”

My interlocutor was not impressed. “Do you have a description of the person?” she asked. “No, of course not, I didn’t see who took it. I only know where it is.” “Well, ma’am. The police don’t get involved in these kinds of things. There is nothing we can do without a description. You can file a ‘theft from auto’ report and if we arrest someone who has your purse or iPhone in their possession, we will return it to you.” I took a deep breath. “Madam,” I said, “we know where the phone is and we are going to go and get it” “We don’t recommend that,” she replied. “You may not,” I said, “but I need to get my phone back.” She took my ‘theft from auto’ report and said an officer would call me back later.

My nephew suggested that he take his bike and his cellphone, that I stay at the computer, and that we track the little green dot. And so we did. He jumped on his bike and rode west on College. I called him and reported that the green dot was in the parkette at the corner of Claremont and College. He didn’t see anyone there. The dot remained there, so he looked around in the bushes to see if it had been thrown away, but found nothing. Then I remembered to refresh the computer. Now the green dot had moved a couple of blocks west and was turning north on Ossington Avenue.

My nephew biked to that corner and turned north. Across the street, he saw someone he considered a shady character leaning against the wall of a small take-out joint. If he had the phone, my nephew wasn’t keen to approach him. “Where is the green dot now?” he asked me over his cellphone. “It’s moving up the street,” I said. So my nephew turned his attention further up Ossington. There he saw a woman moving north towards the corner of Dewson Avenue where a police officer was directing traffic around a street repair project.

“The green dot turned west on Dewson,” I reported and my nephew replied, “I see her. It’s the woman, short, heavy-set, wearing a dark coat, walking on the sidewalk, carrying two plastic bags.” He rode his bicycle behind her and saw a black purse sticking out the top of one of the bags.

He returned to the police officer directing traffic at the corner. “That woman has a stolen purse and phone,” he reported to the officer. “How do you know?” he asked. “My aunt is at home tracking the phone on her computer program and she described exactly where it went.” The officer called for backup at the corner and, when it arrived, he asked my nephew to show him how he knew. “Where is she now?” my nephew asked me. “She has turned the corner of Dewson and the street beyond and is heading south,” I replied.

That was what the officer needed. He approached the woman, asked for her identification, and to see what was in her bags. The officer opened the black purse sticking out the top of one of the plastic bags, found the iPhone and directed my nephew to ask me what else was in the bag. “A couple of pens, maybe some kleenex” I reported. The officer confirmed the contents and returned the bag and the phone to my nephew. Within less than a half hour after I had missed it, we had my purse and, more importantly, the invaluable iPhone back in our possession.

When the officer asked the lady where she had found the purse, she said that she had heard a ruckus on College Street about a lost purse and a lost iPhone. She had seen it laying on the street and had picked it up with the intention of returning it to the police station. It’s true, 14 Division headquarters on Dovercourt Street is a couple blocks to the west and south. But turning north on Ossington was the wrong direction. The police officer ran a computer check of her identification, and found she had no criminal record. Both he and my nephew concluded she was not particularly swift. I had no desire for any further process against her. The police officer advised her that she should have just left the purse, or returned it to the bakery. He asked her if she knew how we had found her. She replied, “By the phone.” So, who said she was not so swift?

I was totally relieved that the computer program had worked, and we had recovered the phone. Had the setting not been “On,” my iPhone would have been lost forever.

The incident reminded me how often thefts are crimes of carelessness and opportunity. I don’t believe that I dropped my purse from the car seat onto the street. But I do know that for the short moment that it took me to get my parking receipt, I had left the purse on the front seat of my car, and my car was unlocked. I’m not so smart myself.

At 2:45, just as I was leaving the house, an officer from 14 Division phoned to follow up on the ‘theft from auto’ report I had filed. I was delighted to report that the phone and purse had been recovered, with the help of an officer on the street, and that he could close his file.

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“A Tree-Hugger’s Christmas” Tree

Jonathan Forani’s delightful article in the Toronto Star last Tuesday on “A Tree-Hugger’s Christmas” is the latest twist on the perennial debate: Do we have a live Christmas tree? or an artificial tree? There is now a third alternative which combines the advantages of both… rent a live Christmas tree.

Live Christmas tree types are adamant that only a real balsam, pine, spruce or fir (any of the many species available), the fresher the better, will do. In their view, only a real tree provides the appropriate atmosphere, and particularly the arboreal aroma that freshens the home throughout the season. Live Christmas tree types like the hunt for “the perfect tree,” in the woods, at a local nursery or in one of those cut-your-own-Christmas-tree farms in the countryside. Finding just the right tree may provoke considerable debate. It almost certainly requires some effort to raise it on one’s vehicle, transport it on the roof of the car, cut off the base of the trunk, mount it in the appropriate place at home, and keep it watered over the season.

Artificial tree types forego all that fuss and bother. For them, the primary attractions of a Christmas tree are the lights and decorations that add lustre to the holiday home. The essence of convenience is an artificial tree packed away in a box which can be brought out of a closet year after year. Artificial trees are available for sale from all major outlets on the internet and delivered to your home. According to Good Housekeeping, in an article entitled “The Best Artificial Christmas Trees That Will Look Great Year After Year,” most artificial trees are now “pre-lit, so you can skip the temper-fraying ritual of untangling wires and distributing lights evenly around the branches.”

In an age when the environmental utility of living trees contributing to the purification of the air is a given, the “real tree” advocates have become a little defensive. How to justify cutting down a healthy tree for use only during two or, at best, three weeks a year? The fact that the city collects the trees, chips them up, and recycles them for mulch provides some solace. At least live trees don’t end up as plastic in a landfill site. The 2000 farmers growing Christmas trees across Canada for domestic sale and export, also argue that their 70,000 acres of Christmas trees add over $125 million annually to the Canadian rural economy. But for the demand for “live” Christmas trees, those trees might never have been planted in the first place.

The third alternative, renting a tree, combines the aesthetic appeal of a live tree with the convenience of the artificial. Now that the kids have grown up and transporting a tree home from wherever is getting more difficult, the idea of renting a real tree has considerable appeal. For businesses, renting a real tree seems the perfect solution. So how does it work?

According to Forani’s article, Alfredo and Marcelo Lorenzo of the reforestation company Sapling Life based in Mississauga, offer potted-tree rentals. They have four sizes of potted white spruce trees which were grown in Langdon, Ontario, and which they will deliver to your home before Christmas and retrieve in the new year. On pickup, the trees are replanted or re-rented next year. They will provide you with instructions for watering the trees and, because the trees are not dying while in your home, they shed few needles. The rental rates range from $85.37 for the small tree to $97.37 for the extra large. Should you want to buy the tree to replant on your own property, the total costs are $145.05 to $176.39. For each tree purchased, the company will plant four small saplings as part of their reforestation campaign. Check out their webpage and see how it works. 

Apparently, a former Oakville resident Jeff Ferguson and his business partner Sean Macalister who operate Evergrow Christmas Trees Co. in Burnaby, B.C., started the idea of renting Christmas trees in 2009. Their website indicates that they are “sold out for 2016.”

So is Sapling Life. When I first read the article, renting a tree seemed like a wonderful idea. I looked up the webpage right away, and called to enquire whether the pickup date could be varied. The charming proprietor called me back, and said, “No problem.” By the time I got back onto the webpage, all the trees were “sold out.” Obviously, this is an idea which is catching on. Now that I know about this service, I will get my order in earlier next year.  

In the meantime, to those who are celebrating Christmas with whatever tree, or with none at all, Merry Christmas to you and yours.  For friends celebrating other traditions, may you enjoy all the blessings of this wonderful season of the year.

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“Spa in the Sky”

Have you ever felt run off your feet? Busy, busy, busy? Totally occupied with a thousand things, all of which you want to do, but which all too quickly fill your days?

That’s been me the past few weeks. October seems to have been so busy a month: family dinners, the renewal of the opera and concert season, multiple medical appointments, working out at the gym, runners to cheer for, guests to entertain, a quick trip to Vancouver, people to visit, Thanksgiving, Hallowe’en, home repairs, organizing our upcoming vacation, doing some writing, getting the garden ready for winter. The list goes on. And on top of that, the persistent dreadful drone of the American election.

At the #6DegreesTO event in Toronto in September, I picked up the most marvellous little book by Pico Iyer, one of the “Framers” invited to talk about Inclusion. Iyer is a well-known essayist and travel writer born in Britain and now based in Japan and California. He writes regularly for Harper’s, The New York Times and The New York Review of Books. His book is The Art of Stillness: Adventures in Going Nowhere (2014, TEDBook, Simon & Schuster).

His description of Leonard Cohen at the Mount Baldy Zen Center in the San Gabriel Mountains near Los Angeles immediately engaged my attention. I had no idea that Cohen had spent 40 years meditating with the abbot there, or that his monastery name is Jikan which means “the silence between two thoughts.” Apparently, Cohen practices the silence of meditation as avidly as he crafts his poetry and his songs.

Iyer invites his readers to “take this book… as an invitation to the adventure of going nowhere.” He describes how he left his dream life as a writer in Manhattan and around the world to live in a tiny single room in the back streets of Kyoto. “Going nowhere… isn’t about turning your back on the world; it’s about stepping away now and then so that you can see the world more clearly and love it more deeply.” When so much of our lives are lived in our heads, perspective comes not from what we do or where we have been but from how we reflect on it. A real change in life can come from changing “the way I look at it.”

Iyer writes about how freeing up the mind to “play” fosters creativity. He gives the example of Google’s headquarters where employees spend a fifth of their time lounging in tree houses, jumping on trampolines, or practicing yoga. Every building on the campus of General Mills in Minneapolis has a meditation room. Apparently one-third of American companies offer “stress-reduction programs” to their employees. And then there is the institution of the Sabbath, the traditional day of rest, which has existed for a reason and which we increasingly erode to our detriment.

He writes of his meeting with Matthieu Ricard who is known as “the happiest man in the world” and who has written that “Simplifying one’s life to extract its quintessence is the most rewarding of all the pursuits I have undertaken.” When Iyer asked him how he deals with jet lag, when he is in such demand all over the world, Ricard replied, “For me, a flight is just a brief retreat in the sky. There’s nothing I can do, so it’s really quite liberating. There’s nowhere else I can be. So I just sit and watch the clouds and the blue sky. Everything is still and everything is moving. It’s beautiful.” Iyer relates how he met a young woman on a flight from Frankfurt to Los Angeles who sat down and just sat there, “apparently at peace” throughout the entire flight. When Iyer finally spoke with her she said she was a social worker from Berlin en route to a vacation in Hawaii. “Her job was exhausting… (and) she liked to use the flight over to begin to get all the stress out of her system so that she could arrive on the islands in as clear a state as possible, ready to enjoy her days of rest.” I think I will try that the next time I fly. 

It is a beautiful little book, with stunning photographs taken by Icelandic/Canadian photographer Eydis S. Luna Einarsdóttir who lives in Vancouver and travels every year to Iceland. This book is a companion piece to a 14-minute TED TALK by Pico Iyer. Also check out the TED TALK by Matthieu Ricard “The habit of happiness.”

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Sellers & Newel: Toronto’s Unique Used Bookstore

Peter Sellers grew up in Leaside and has lived in Toronto all his life. He went to the University of Toronto School and then York University’s Glendon College where he studied English. He worked in advertising, for an agency and then freelance. In November 2011, he opened his bookstore. Having a bookstore, even a small 650 square foot outlet, was the change he had craved.

Ever since high school, he has collected books, all kinds of books, which reflect his personal passions over time: modern literature, crime fiction, biography, military history, otherworldly books, poetry, plays. His own collection of books made up his first shop inventory. Now he does special orders for customers, and buys other books which fill out his collections.

Apart from the content, he likes books as objects, likes to be surrounded by books, and to talk about books and authors with his customers. Twice a year, he travels to London to buy the fine books and older editions that he really likes to sell. He prides himself on selling different books which people may not find anywhere else. To “cull his herd,” he sells discounted books on the street, a loss leader which makes his customers happy.

Peter promotes Sellers & Newel on the internet: “By day, Toronto’s smallest bookstore. By night, a unique and intimate live music venue.” Last year, jazz trumpet player Tim Hamel suggested to Peter that his tiny space would give fine resonance for playing music. Peter seized on the idea and began his S & N Speakeasy. From September to May, Peter opens his bookstore twice a month, usually Thursday nights, for musical performances by local singers and songwriters, and for poetry readings. The bookcases in the middle of his store move to the side, and 35 or so young people (and the occasional older person like me) gather for an intimate evening of music, poetry and camaraderie.

In May, I attended the Speakeasy for a concert given by singer-songwriter Jack Connolly, playing his guitar with fellow guitarist Ian Koiter joining in on the harmony. A delightful, low-key evening, the singing went on and on, each song drawing an even more enthusiastic response. Have the ’60s returned? It certainly feels like it. The next show will be Andrew Mah on Thursday, September 29th at 672 College Street. See the upcoming schedule on the shop’s website.

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A Visit to Algonquin Park

This past Labour Day weekend, my husband and I visited the backcountry of Algonquin Park. We spent the day with our son, daughter-in-law and her family picnicking in a campsite on Grand Lake, not far from where Tom Thomson painted his iconic “Jack Pine.” My earlier visits to Algonquin Park had been primarily limited to the Highway 60 corridor, so this was a new experience for me. I now get it. I now appreciate why Ontarians so love their largest and most diverse provincial park.

The Achray Lake Campground is about 50 kilometres west of Highway 17 as it skirts around Pembroke and Petawawa on the Ottawa River. It is a trailhead for several popular back country canoe trips, and a campsite set among pine trees, half of which welcomes dogs. We gathered around two picnic tables beneath shady trees beside the lake and near its protected swimming area. This was a lake beach with soft yellow sand and shallow water that went out a very long way before it became deep. The water was warm and clear, with none of the muck and reeds which I had always disliked about Ontario lakes before. When we stood still, we could see the guppies swimming around our feet and the fresh water clams as they created their trails moving through the sand. In the distance, the occasional canoe passed by, and we could spot the loons. It was a perfect sunny day and, although it was a statutory holiday, there were not that many people around. This was an Ontario lake beach at its best.

We spent the day noshing on the food and drink we’d brought in the coolers, swimming, canoeing, playing with the dogs in the water, sleeping, reading, and exploring. Sitting around the picnic table or standing in the water, I got to know members of the Filipino-Canadian family into which my son has married. One of the partners is from La Beauce in the Chaudière-Appalaches region just south of Quebec City. She is a charming French-Canadian woman who always speaks French to their 19-month-old daughter. Those of us who know some French soon realized that we could attract the attention of the infant when we spoke French. All afternoon, we practiced our own French on the toddler.

I met three families of campers who were set up among the pines for their annual weekend away. They had pushed the tables together for communal eating around a big fire pit. Their multiple tents included a huge North Face “Mountain Manor” which, apparently, has two interior rooms and a large inner vestibule to accommodate a family and a large dog in the event of rain. The very creative fathers had fashioned a climbing apparatus which allowed the several young children to move and twist between the ropes. They also created a home-made zip line from a rope which dropped on an angle to a distant tree. They’d placed a pulley on the line from which they suspended a seat to allow the children to run down the line. I learned that one of the fathers was an ex-military with search and rescue training.

When we got to talking about why my husband and I had given up camping, one of the men suggested that we get a small tent-trailer like his mother-in-law had, which provided a good bed above the ground and could be hauled by a small car. They also explained the Ontario provincial park registration system and how we would need to register on the internet six months in advance to the day, if we wanted to get one of these ideal spots by the lake on a summer weekend. I spoke with another camper who had the premier campsite on a small wooded knoll overlooking the lake. He told me that he and his wife had camped there for two weeks, that they came from Hamilton, and were planning a move to the Lower Mainland around Vancouver when they retired next year. They have two sons in Vancouver, and he has a sister in Kelowna. We spent some time discussing the pros and cons of various suburbs and small towns around Vancouver where they might choose to live. Shooting the breeze with strangers is one of the pleasures of camping. Now I am highly motivated to find a tent-trailer outlet, and I know exactly the place where we could store any new acquisition. Maybe we haven’t given up camping, after all. Maybe we just need to do it in a different way. And in Ontario.

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A Geezer’s Murder Mystery Dinner Party

Cleaning out her “stuff,” our friend Skylar Hill-Jackson found a Murder Mystery game, “Pasta, Passion & Pistols,” she had purchased over a decade ago. So, she organized a Murder Mystery Dinner Party. Eight of us gathered at La Sperenza Restaurant in Little Italy, New York City, circa 1995, for an intimate dinner of family and friends after the murder of restaurant owner, Pepi Roni. He had been shot in the back four days before in the kitchen of his well-known bistro.

I played his widow, Mama Rosa. Other suspects at the table were his daughter, Angel and son, Marco, his wealthy twin brother, Rocco Scarfazzi, who had recently come from Italy, Rocco’s young fiancée, Tira Misu, and Rocco’s vineyard manager, a Frenchman named Bo Jalais, who was travelling with his boss for business and had fallen in love with Angel. Others present were Rosa’s best friend, Clair Voyant, and another family friend, Father Al Fredo. All wore dress appropriate to their character.

Between courses of a sumptuous Italian meal, we asked questions, challenged each other with information we had learned, all in an effort to identify the killer. I have heard of Murder Mystery nights many times, but never participated in one before and was curious to see how the game operated. A narrator on a cassette, played on an old boombox found in the basement, provided an introduction and a periodic summary of the progress of the game. Each player had a play book of lines distinctive to their character with questions and challenges we were to pose to each other. As we progressed through the playbook, new information about the characters and possible motives became apparent. Additional clues in the form of medical certificates, a timely parking ticket, and old letters appeared. At each turn, the plot became increasingly more convoluted. Someone was the killer, but who?

We were a group of retirees and on-the-verge-of-retiring boomers, playing an old game. What became clear to us all is that the game was designed for people younger than we are, better able to read material quickly and, more importantly, remember what they’d read. We missed clues and became too readily confused, needing to backtrack to fill in the necessary information. We found the organization of the game complex and difficult to follow. Was this the design of the game itself? Or does it reflect our increasingly and, surprisingly, slower and simpler cognitive condition? And, of course, completing the game took us much longer than we might have wanted. It was a late evening, long past our bedtime. 

Some players assumed impressive accents to add to the verisimilitude of their characters. Others used their voices to show anger or exasperation, or props to fill out their role. No one, however, was prepared to actually act out the occasional demonstrations that the script called for. The script was as unfamiliar to my friend who organized the event as it was to the rest of us, and I guessed from the hesitation around the table that we didn’t quite know how to respond. Who would have guessed that, as we age, we become more inhibited? More reserved? Less willing to play act, even among friends?

For some reason, I had assumed that Mama Rosa and her departed husband were my actual age (or something close to it), and not a couple 20 years younger. When I dressed for the part, I put on the black attire I thought an Italian widow who had worked in the kitchen of the family restaurant for the last 25 years would wear. But I missed the key point… only 25 years. As the game progressed, I realized that Mama Rosa was still very much in her prime, probably her mid-50s, with all sorts of secret schemes up her sleeve which showed she had a lot of life left in her yet. Had I realized the truth about my character, my widow’s black attire would have been totally different.

I congratulate my friend, and the other participants, for a very interesting evening. Maybe we all learned a little more about ourselves than we had anticipated.

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Beowulf in Toronto

Have you ever heard of a “scop”? The term refers to a “singer of tales,” the one-person storyteller, musician, entertainer and archivist who was the centre of community life in Europe a thousand years ago. The Toronto Consort, Canada’s outstanding period music ensemble which specializes in the music of the Middle Ages, Renaissance and early Baroque, brought such a scop to Trinity-St. Paul’s Jeanne Lamon Hall last week in the person of Benjamin Bagby. His performance was utterly mesmerizing.

For over 90 minutes, Mr. Bagby told the first third of the epic story of Beowulf, all in Old English. Most of the sold-out audience, like me and my friend, would have understood next to nothing of the archaic language of the poem but for the surtitles projected on a screen behind him. The amazing thing is that it made no difference. Like the lyrics of a foreign-language opera, the language of the poem brought its own magic which became the more seductive as the ear became attuned to hearing the words.

Recreating what would have been the performance of a millennium ago, Mr. Bagby brought with him a six-string harp, a replica of the remains of an instrument excavated from the grave of a 7th century nobleman in Germany. The harp is totally integrated into the performance, sometimes played and sometimes not, to add colour and drama to the story which Mr. Bagby recited or sang, as the poem required.

As Mr. Bagby explained in the Q and A which followed the performance, he came to the poem not from the perspective of English literature, which first attracted his interest as a boy. After pursing a career in music, he realized that the true beauty of Beowulf was its production value as an oral and musical performance, which had been its role in the pre-literate Middle Ages. How to recreate Beowulf as a production became the challenge. Initially, he spoke no Old English, so he had to learn from experts the pronunciation, metrics and tonality of the language. Then he had to figure out how to tune the harp correctly. Given the several possible ways to do so, he settled on the six tones used in the performance, as the program indicates, “through a careful study of early medieval modal theory, yielding a gapped octave which contains three perfect fifths and two perfect fourths. The resulting series of tones serves as a musical matrix, upon which the singer can weave both his own rhetorical shapes and the sophisticated metrics of the text.” I don’t understand the musical theory, but the “musical matrix” was clear to everyone and worked wonderfully well.

And so, a 21st century audience was drawn under the spell of the single scop and his harp. We learned about the royal family of the Danes, how Hrothgar built a great banquet hall which he called “Heorot” (Hart), and how the monster Grendel, living nearby in the marshes, terrorized the warriors reveling in the hall such that it could no longer be used. Twelve years later, Beowulf, a hero from the kingdom of the Geats renowned for his extraordinary strength and bravery, learns of Hrothgar’s dilemma and travels to Heorot to help. All the Danes greet Beowulf with enthusiasm except the jealous Unferth who chides him about his past exploits. Beowulf puts Unferth in his place and then prepares to deal with Grendel. At night the Danes leave Heorot to sleep elsewhere, as Beowulf and his men occupy the hall in anticipation of Grendel’s arrival. Eventually Grendel appears, protected by a spell from harm by any weapons. Beowulf discards his helmet, chain-mail and weapons, and vows to destroy Grendel with his bare strength. After a ferocious struggle, he grasps Grendel’s arm with its fearsome claw and pulls it from its socket. Grendel slinks away to die, Beowulf mounts Grendel’s arm high in the hall to mark his victory, and later enjoys the gratitude of the Danes.

It’s an epic story that would have been repeated over and over, with different variations and in less formal settings, throughout the Middle Ages. Benjamin Bagby’s recreation of the tale is a powerful reminder of our Nordic roots and of the continuing strength of the oral tradition. One need only watch American politics to see how it resonates today. History as entertainment. The hero as saviour. We know about that.

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