Sunday, December 28, 2008

Las vegetales

My sister in law gave me a cookbook for Christmas. A particularly challenging present as it’s called Las Vegetales en la Cocina Cubana – Vegetables in Cuban Cooking – and I don’t know the names of vegetables in Spanish. So I have been looking up words in my dictionary, and I can now tell you:

Esta noche, voy a hacer un estofado de lentejas con col y maiz, un pimiento rojo, las tomates maduras, y algunas zanahorias.
(Tonight, I’m going to make lentil stew with cabbage and corn, a red pepper, ripe tomatoes and some carrots.)

My brother gave me the perfect music to accompany my Spanish lesson: A las cinco en el Astoria by La Oreja de Van Gogh. La Oreja de Van Gogh is a Latin Grammy-winning Spanish pop group. There is so much energy and happiness in their music; I want to dance when I hear their music.

Favourite Books of 2008

I read over 140 books in 2008. Here are some that I really enjoyed and would highly recommend.

How Doctors Think, Jerome Groopman – A very interesting insight into how doctors think and how you can communicate more effectively with them. I found it helpful.

Troublesome Young Men, Lynne Olson – Britain has always had strong ties with Germany, and the upper classes in particular really didn’t want to enter into a second world war. So the British government, headed by Chamberlain, tried very hard to appease Hitler and stay at peace. A group of young MPs saw things differently, and they brought Churchill to power and made sure that England did go to war with Germany. An interesting insight into British politics in the 30s and 40s.

Farthing, Jo Walton – This book is a mystery, but it provides a disturbing picture of what life could have been like in Britain if the country had not gone to war.

The Scent Trail, Celia Lyttleton – The author designs her own perfume and then travels to each of the countries where the different elements of her scent are grown and harvested – iris root in Italy, roses in Turkey, jasmine in India, frankincense in Yemen, etc.

The Lost Ravioli Recipes of Hoboken : a search for food and family, Laura Schenone – History is so often portrayed as a dry list of dates and rulers. But it is really the story of people – how they live, how they work, their dreams and desires. The Scent Trail explores culture and industry. The Lost Ravioli Recipes looks at a family which immigrated to the United States from Italy, its roots in Italy and how it maintained elements of its culture in North America.

The Widow Clicquot: the story of a champagne empire and the woman who ruled it, Tilar J. Mazzeo – The history of women often goes unrecorded, and the author had to piece together fragments of information about the woman who initiated the Clicquot champagne business. It’s an interesting look at life after the French revolution and conducting international trade while Europe is at war.

I’ll Drink to That: Beaujolais and the French peasant who made it the world’s most popular wine, Rudolph Chelminski – Walk into any liquor store, and you can buy wine with Georges Duboeuf’s name on the bottle. But like Clicquot, he established his business from scratch. He was honest; he was innovative; and he was proud of his product.

To Cork or not to Cork, George Taber – This is history again, in this case the evolution of closures for wine bottles. The author describes the cork manufacturing businesses in Portugal, introduces the reader to innovative wine producers in New Zealand and Australia who wholeheartedly adopt screw caps, and other producers who develop artificial corks.

Lady Macbeth, Susan Fraser King – Shakespeare portrays Lady Macbeth as cruel and heartless. King provides a more sympathetic interpretation of the story providing background on inheritance and the ties binding different Scottish nobles together and forcing them apart.

Hunting and Gathering, Anna Gavalda – Translated from the French, this novel introduces a fascinating assortment of people with all their fears and anxieties. Together they create a community to help and support each other. It’s a heart-warming book that left me feeling very optimistic about human nature.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society, Mary Ann Shaffer & Annie Barrows – Through a series of letters, the authors introduce a diverse set of characters on the island of Guernsey as it is recovering from occupation during World War II. They also introduce an author and her publisher. I was delightfully surprised that the authors could create such solid characters and such a compelling story within the framework of a series of letters. I wished the book would never end.

To Say Nothing of the Dog, Connie Willis – With the help of a time machine, a group of people go back in time to look for artifacts from Coventry Cathedral before it was bombed. It’s a very funny book and provides an outsiders’ perspective on a past culture. The book partially reenacts Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat (to say nothing of a dog), an account of a boating trip down the Thames published in 1889. There are some very funny portrayals of absent-minded Oxford professors.

Un Lun Dun, China Mieville – Again, an alternate universe as some young children travel between present-day London and Un-London. The author has an amazingly fertile imagination, and his alternate version of London takes elements of the real city and transforms them into something completely different. It’s very clever and fun to read.

Roar of the Butterflies, Reginald Hill – This book centres around one of Hill’s lesser-known characters, Joe Sixsmith. Joe is black and overweight and lives in Luton, England. He stumbles over solutions and is certainly no Sherlock Holmes – but he’s very lovable.

Bruno, Chief of Police, Martin Walker – This is a idealized version of life in small-town Dordogne as the locals make wine from green walnuts and try to outwit the agricultural inspectors from the European Union. It’s not realistic, but it’s very pleasant – especially if you’re a francophile.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Moral Certitude

I’ve just finished reading The Day George Bush Stopped Drinking: Why abstinence matters to the religious right by Jessica Warner. What fascinates me is the North American belief that we can control our lives and our destiny and the rigid thinking that leads us to believe we know what is best for other people.

The temperance movement in the United States started in the northeast and was tied into evangelical Christianity. If you followed all the rules and lived a 'pure' life, you could be saved. Purity started with abstaining from alcohol. But if alcohol was bad, then coffee and tea, which also stimulated the brain, weren’t acceptable either. Some groups outlawed meat and sugar (the origin of the Seventh Day Adventists). And sex was highly questionable and best avoided, even within marriage, except for procreation.

And it wasn’t enough to restrain from partaking in these substances or activities yourself. You also had to protect other people, and the only way to do that was by removing temptation. So it was your responsibility to prohibit alcohol so that working class men wouldn’t get drunk and beat their wives and live in poverty. (Of course, it was also helpful that this removed responsibility for poverty from decision makers and business owners.)

The British never adopted this line of thinking. Instead, they were strongly influenced by John Stuart Mill who advocated showing respect for a wide array of points of view – “only through diversity of opinion is there, in the existing state of human intellect, a chance of fair play to all sides of the truth.” He also believed it was wrong to impose your morality on another person. The temperance movement in England supported local bans or limited drinking hours but not outright prohibition. And it was far weaker and less successful than in North America.

Elements of evangelicalism survive today. Americans still seem to believe that they must save the world by going to war, and there is a strong movement advocating against sex before marriage. Some of the fervour for saving the world has now moved to the left with animal rights movements and feminist crusades against pornography.

My first difficulty with the evangelical perspective of moral certitude is why must we deny ourselves pleasure? What is wrong with enjoying life? And secondly, why are North Americans so uncomfortable with ambiguity and more than one opinion? And why are they so sure that they are right and that other people should do what they’re told?

My open mindedness does become a little fuzzy when discussing vegetarianism. I am a vegetarian for a variety of moral, health and economic reasons. I’ve never tried to dictate to other people – you’re perfectly welcome to eat steak in front of me (though I’d appreciate it if you didn’t discuss how nice and bloody it was). However, I do believe that factory farming is morally wrong and endangers human health. I do believe it’s wrong for North Americans to gorge on junk food while so many people are starving to death around the world. Perhaps I should be more of an activist. And perhaps I should toe the line more firmly in my own life – I buy recycled toilet paper, but I still use paper Kleenex. And I don’t buy 100% organic food because of the cost.

In the end, I support John Stuart Mill. It is highly unlikely that there is one single right answer. We should welcome debate as it will generate new ideas. And hopefully out of all those ideas will emerge some solutions – or partial solutions.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

A Place Within: Rediscovering India by M.G. Vassanji

M.G. Vassanji and his parents and grandparents lived and worked in East Africa. He now lives in Canada but welcomed an opportunity to travel in India, the land of his ancestors. A Place Within: Rediscovering India talks about his sense of coming home but still observes the country as an outsider. He is neither Hindu nor Muslim, and he’s horrified by the religious violence that can erupt in India. But unlike North Americans, he’s at home in a poor, crowded country. He looks back at the country’s long, long history of being invaded again and again and the diverse mix of people and religions and cultures this has created in India. It’s a fascinating look at a very complex country.

I also feel very much at home with his perspective. I was born in Africa of British parents. I have spent roughly half my life in Saskatoon, but the rest of my life has been spent wandering. I’ve lived in four Canadian provinces and spent 2 ½ years in France. Sometimes I envy people who have lived their whole lives in one place. They are so rooted and appear to have such a strong sense of belonging. And yet sometimes they have a very narrow outlook on life. My hairdresser in Slocan had a husband who worked at the local saw mill. The only future she could envisage for her sons was to also work at the mill. The girls in my Slocan Brownie group all wanted to be hairdressers because that was the only career option for women that they were familiar with. I’m sure the auto workers and their families in Detroit and Windsor have a similarly narrow perspective.

I was astonished to read that 60% of Canadians opposed the NDP/Liberal coalition. Why? Was it just too different, too unexpected? So many other countries have coalition governments, but how many Canadians are aware of European or New Zealand politics?

I’ve also been a vegetarian for 25 years and was gardening organically and reading books about the environment long before it was popular.

It can be lonely living outside the mainstream of society, and it’s often confusing because there are no clear cut blacks and whites. But it’s also very exciting because I can think for myself and make my own decisions without being limited by society’s mandates.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Winter Blooms

Winter has definitely arrived in Canada. It's -45 with wind chill in Saskatoon, and Vancouver and Victoria have had snow. But indoors, my amaryllis is in bloom. What a joyful sight.

Sunday, November 30, 2008


I went shopping yesterday and bought some foam hand soap. I LOVE foam soap. It's just so much fun. It makes using public washrooms so enjoyable. There was this great washroom in Deep Cove, BC with strawberry-scented foam soap - awesome!

Now I know that it is completely trivial and frivolous and materialistic and not environmentally correct to enjoy foam soap. On the other hand, life is short so it makes sense to enjoy every single moment. I bought vanilla chai-scented underarm deoderant too.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

A Winnipeg Weekend

A three-day holiday is either too long or too short. I think I tried to cram in too many things, but it was fun nonetheless.

I used to live in Winnipeg, and it was a bittersweet experience to realize that both the City and myself had changed and moved on. There were familiar sights alongside unfamiliar ones. And the memories kept surging back. I had my first proper apartment in Winnipeg, bought my first couch and bed. I led Brownies in Winnipeg and got a Master’s degree in Public Affairs.

Winnipeg was once a major transportation hub for Western Canada, and the tall, old buildings in the Exchange District bear testimony to its past with columns, ornaments and panels witnessing to past grandeur.
I was really looking forward to going to The Forks, Winnipeg’s market and crafts centre. I was hugely disappointed as it didn’t bear even the remotest resemblance to Granville Island. There was a large food court, some restaurants, and some stores selling trashy tourist junk. It’s a beautiful setting, but they’ve lowered their standards, and it’s barely worth visiting.
Winnipeg is home to the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, and I had a front row seat for a performance of Carmina Burana and a ballet set to Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. I usually have a bird’s-eye view from the third balcony so it was great fun to be able to watch the musicians and chorus in the pit and see the dancers’ sweaty brows and heaving chests.

The Manitoba Theatre Centre was presenting Pride and Prejudice. It’s a well-loved story, and it was well presented with frequent, rapid scene changes. The ending was perhaps a little too saccharine sweet, but it was very enjoyable.
I had two excellent meals out. I thoroughly enjoyed eating Ethiopian food with my fingers at Massawa restaurant in Osborne Village. I had a huge spongy sourdough pancake topped with a variety of lentil and vegetable curries. You just pinch off a piece of pancake and scoop up some stew. Great fun. Saturday night I had a more elegant meal at the Fude wine bar – lots of choices of wine and vegetarian food, and I can recommend the Drunken Granny dessert – apples marinated in red wine and then baked in a deep-dish pie.

On my last day, I spent a happy hour at Cornelia Bean, sniffing and buying four different varieties of tea - a jasmine-scented oolong, a strong green tea, a spicy black tea, and a light lime and basil green tea.

Come Play!

I’ve been attending the Big Fat Ass Dance Class this autumn – and it’s been the highlight of my week. Aileen, who leads the class, says there is one simple goal – to have fun. And we do. We move to music, play games, laugh, and get a good workout.

There are 28 of us in the Friday morning class, ranging in age from our early 20s to our 60s. We start out with the Name Game – using our bodies to introduce ourselves and to express how we’re feeling at that particular moment in time – so people act out being sleepy or frazzled or happy. We go on to move our bodies in a wide variety of ways. We throw an imaginary ball, imitate each other’s movements, form a blob and move together like a flock of birds.

It is so unusual for us in modern society to use our bodies to express ourselves. I love just moving freely – raising my hands in the air, swaying with the music, using my body to express happiness or grief. I was particularly moved when Aileen talked about our lower abdomen as the second chakra and a source of power and energy. We make low grunts that originate in that area and yet seem even deeper and more primal. It was so positive to feel that part of my body as a source of energy rather than disease.

I’m an introvert, and I found it hard at first to dance with other people. And some of the movements certainly do break down our personal space. Last week we were rolling our heads around and over our partner’s head. But there is an amazing trust that builds up in the group. And we are focussed inside ourselves, often dancing with our eyes closed, trusting our partner to stop us from hurting ourselves. So we’re alone inside of a friendly protecting group of people.
I really appreciate the fact that Aileen encourages us to move in ways that suit us. When my back starts aching, I lie on the floor and keep my spine immobile as I move my hands and arms and feet. Some of the others join me – dancing in a circle around me or wiggling their toes against mine.

As adults, we forget what it means to play – to twirl to the music without thinking about what we look like, to experiment with different ways of moving our arms and legs, to let go of our personal space and play together in a non-sexual way.

It’s good physical exercise, and it’s emotional release. I let go of my fears and worries and accept laughter and energy in their place.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Vive le vin!

My mother accused me of being a boozer. I don't think so, but I do enjoy a glass of wine with dinner - it's so civilized. So I cannot resist sharing a few quotes about wine. Music, poetry, and wine - plus a little gooey French cheese - what more could one ask?

I am currently reading I'll Drink To That: Beaujolais and the French Peasant Who Made It the World's Most Popular Wine by Rudolph Chelminski. Near the beginning of the book, Chelminski offers a short history of wine and its health-giving qualities. He mentions Dr. Guyot (1807-72) who wrote a massive study on the French wine industry. He recommends that a family of four (mother, father, and two children) drink at least 1500 liters of wine a year - that averages out to almost 1.5 US quarts per day per individual, children included. He goes on to quote a twentieth century maxim: "vegetables make merde, meat makes meat, wine makes blood."

And a few quotes from

"Wine is one of the most civilized things in the world and one of the most natural things of the world that has been brought to the greatest perfection, and it offers a greater range for enjoyment and appreciation than, possibly, any other purely sensory thing."
Ernest Hemingway Death in the Afternoon

"If God forbade drinking, would He have made wine so good?"
Cardinal Richeleu

"They are not long, the days of wine and roses;
Out of a misty dream
Our path emerges for a while, then closes
Within a dream."
Ernest Dowson 1867 - 1900
Vitae Summa Brevis Spem Nos Vetat Incohare Longam [1896]

"How simple and frugal a thing is happiness: a glass of wine, a roast chestnut, a wretched little brazier, the sound of the sea. . . . All that is required to feel that here and now is happiness is a simple, frugal heart."
Nikos Kazantzakis 1883 - 1957
Zorba the Greek [1946], ch. 7

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Fields and Flowers

Finally, some photos from Shaftesbury - heritage apples and flowers from the Abbey gardens and then a view from top of the hill down to the neatly-hedged fields that are so quintessentially English. There is also a photo of fuschia, which were blooming everywhere in August.

Pubs and Houses

Just two images of British architecture. First, a pub sign in Salisbury. And secondly, barley twist columns decorating a former merchant's house in King's Lynn.

Janet and Richard's house is near the village of Fosdyke, near Spalding, Lincolnshire. The house is one of 4 almshouses that were built in 1615. There is a jewel of a garden that is very British - lavender bushes border the path, and roses and clematis frame the windows. Beyond the garden there are fields of wheat and large expanses of sky. The houses were enlarged and doubled in size in the 1980s but maintain the heritage appearance.

Lincolnshire Fens

I spent 2 weeks in Lincolnshire and was surprised by how flat it was. But the scenery grows on you, and I really enjoyed my walks on the sea walls. Here is the River Welland at low tide on a foggy morning. Then there's a photo of cabbages - fields of flowers in the spring might be more attractive, but the cabbage leaves with their intricate tracery are also beautiful. And then there's a fine herd of Highland cattle.

Garden of Surprises

The Verity clan had a family outing to Burghley Park's Garden of Surprises on my last weekend in England. Burghley Park is near Stamford, a lovely old stone town. The grounds of Burghley Park are large and inviting with tall trees, a lake and a stream - and an amazing variety of sculptures in unexpected places - globes fishing in the lake, masks on cliff tops, and human figures running along the bough of a tree. There is also a water garden for the children with water fountains and streams in all sorts of creative combinations.

Photos of England - Family and Friends

I have been asked to post more of my photos from my recent trip to England. So here we are.

Family and Friends John Bound's wife went to university with my father. They were wonderful hosts to all of the McKinlays over the years. John has recently made a number of trips to Canada so we've had an opportunity to return his hospitality.
Sheila and Peter Walker were in Africa with Mum and Dad, and Sheila went with Mum to Dar es Salaam to wait for me to be born. When I visited this summer, she pulled out letters she'd written to her mother at that time. There were wonderful descriptions of the wedding dinner they hosted when Allison and Brad got married as well as serving as a reminder that baby Penny cried every afternoon from 3 to 4.
Frances and Emma are Janet and Richard's daughters and my second cousins. Adam is the most recent addition to the Verity clan and much loved by the whole family.
Janet is my cousin. She and her husband Richard have known me for years. Richard says I was very moody when I was 16. I remember them introducing me to the delights of Indian curry.

Life in the Undergrowth

I have been thoroughly enjoying David Attenborough's 2005 television series about insects. There is so much diversity and complexity on such a small scale. And they have found some ingenious ways to not only survive but to thrive.

There is a blue, European butterfly that lays its eggs on the gentian flower. The eggs hatch and form larvae that smell and sound like ant larvae. So the ants haul the larvae off to their underground nest where they feed them and care for them.

But that isn't the end of the story. There is a wasp that is able to detect which ant nests contain butterfly larvae. They crawl down the tunnel to the nest and release a pheromone that overwhelms the ants so that they start attacking each other. While the ants are preoccupied, the wasp injects the butterfly larvae with its eggs. The wasp leaves, and the ants continue to care for the larvae as they develop into chrysalis.

Eventually the chrysalis splits open. And sometimes it is a butterfly that emerges, crawls above ground, dries out its wings, and begins to fly. But other times it's a wasp.

Nearly the entire life of an insect is dominated by a powerful urge to reproduce. Sometimes their lives are very, very short - as is the case with mayflies who live only a few hours, just long enough hopefully to mate. And, on other occasions, insects like the butterfly and wasp find creative ways to ensure that their eggs will survive.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Journeying through Illness and Health

Betrayed – by my Body

This has been a long winter
A “things often went wrong” winter
A “you must be strong” winter
One I’d care not to repeat
(Connie Kaldor, Love is a Truck)

My body betrayed me this past winter. I was angry and frustrated – but most of all I was scared. I came home tired from holidays with a pain in my leg that limited my walking, stopped me from doing tai chi, and left me looking at flights of stairs with trepidation and fear. And I was so, so, so tired. My blood pressure soared, and my head ached unbearably day and night.

I worked hard to get better. I took time off work, and my family delivered groceries and ran errands for me. The doctor told me I was anemic, and I became an iron fanatic – I knew the iron content of every food I ate. I knew stress was part of my problem so I quit my job and found another one. I found out I had arthritis in my back; physiotherapy helped. I took extra holidays over Christmas and got lots of rest.

I was back at work; I was only moderately anemic; and I tried very hard to be positive and optimistic. I even booked a holiday in Vancouver. But my problems weren’t over yet as I started to bleed. I saw a gynaecologist who was optimistic and gave me hormonal pills that he said would help until I reached menopause. But I spent my first day in Vancouver in Emergency because I was bleeding so heavily and I was scared it would never stop. I came home from Vancouver late at night, got hit hard by a bout of stomach flu or food poisoning – and got a phone call from the gynaecologist. Biopsy results showed that I had endometrial cancer. I was scheduled for a complete hysterectomy less than three weeks later.

Never Say Die

Fisher boats rock in the harbour
Blow, hear the winds blow
Clouds are hovering low in the sky
The weather is turning this morning
Blow, hear the winds blow
They say that trouble is brewing
Blow, hear the winds blow
We look at each other with questioning eyes
Where do we turn to this morning
Blow, hear the winds blow
Hear the winds blow
(Alan Reid, Battlefield Band, Dookin’)

I coped with my fear of dying and my fear of surgery (my first ever major surgery) by throwing myself into a whirlwind of activity. I made a will. I stocked up on enough groceries to last me for months and months. I bought a new nightgown and dressing gown. I was still jolted wide awake at night by fear and disbelief, but during the day I was eminently practical.

A hysterectomy is major surgery, and I would certainly not recommend it as anything but a last resort. Your muscles and nerves are cut, and you can’t lift anything heavier than a cup of tea or a book for six weeks. They’ve messed around in your insides so your bladder and intestines don’t function properly. And there can be complications. I bled after the surgery and had extremely heavy bruising. As a result, the wound didn’t heal properly, and I had massive discharge every couple of days. A trip to Emergency 10 days after surgery finally identified the problem, and daily nurses’ visits for the next two and a half weeks ensured that the wound healed properly. But it was very frightening.

Recovery was slow because of the various complications. But I persevered. I would walk from living room to dining room to bedroom, circling the house for five minutes at a time three times a day. I drank Ensure when I couldn’t force down the food my body urgently needed. In the middle of the night, when fears are always strongest, I would silently sing songs of hope and courage – “When you walk through a storm, hold your head up high . . .”; “I am I Don Quixote, the Lord of La Mancha, my destiny calls and I go . . . .”

Family and friends were wonderful. I had get well greetings and gifts from around the world. My sister in law took me in and looked after me until I was well enough to live on my own again. It made a huge difference to know that people cared. But in the end you have to do it on your own. You just keep going, one step at a time.

Taking Responsibility for my own Medical Care

I knew that something was the matter when I was ill before my surgery. Friends were convinced it was just stress and burn out. I think my doctor thought so too. And that was certainly part of the problem. But it wasn’t the whole story. I was fortunate – my doctors didn’t give up on me and they did work out what was wrong. But another time I will work much harder to outline very clearly for them my symptoms as unemotionally as possible. Doctors are only human – you have to work with them to identify significant symptoms and to ask questions so that they probe deeper if the original diagnosis doesn’t seem to fit.

After surgery it was even more important for me to take charge of my own follow up. Nobody else was going to. I was shuffled from one doctor to the next. I ended up doing my own research and deciding not to have radiation treatment immediately but to wait and have it if/when I had a recurrence. I am making sure that I have regular checkups to make sure that the cancer doesn’t recur. And I’ve done enough research to know what to look out for.

Setting Yourself Free

If you did, if you did, even if you did
Been where you shouldn’t have been
Seen what you shouldn’t have seen
Dreamed what you shouldn’t have dreamed
That doesn’t mean you have to be paying the price forever
I’m going to set you free
(John Spillane, played by Battlefield Band, Dookin’)

On the other hand, you can’t spend your whole time fixating on illness and bodily functions. I am very glad that I took a month-long holiday in England and France. I was doing something positive; I was having fun; and I was learning that I could cope again in all sorts of different circumstances.

But there’s no turning back the clock. I was sitting beside the river yesterday enjoying the golden autumn sunshine and listening to the Canada geese as they noisily bustled about getting set for a long flight south. My happiness was so intense and so complete. I definitely appreciate life more since I got cancer. And I realized that my enjoyment is so much greater because I am so very aware that life is short and that I have no idea what the future holds or how long I will be alive.

I can’t let fear paralyze me, but I can use it to help me set priorities, to do the things that really matter. Now. And so I plan to travel lots, to read good books and listen to great music, to spend time with the people I love. I’ll balance work with play and I’ll look after my body as best I can.

And I’ll try and set myself free to celebrate life – every minute of every day.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Stone Faces

I am not particularly fond of churches full of gold and glitter such as those in Prague. I much prefer the simple majesty of tall stone pillars, curving arches, and the imaginative stone carving found in France and England.
Some of the carvings, such as these from Amiens Cathedral, the tallest Gothic church and largest cathedral in France, tell a story.
Others have a more humorous slant, such as this one of a man being bitten by a dog, from the exterior of Salisbury Cathedral.
Others depict the Green Man from primitive religion or devils. Here is one from the exterior of St. Mary's Church in Beverley, Yorkshire. Inside this church is a carving of a pilgrim rabbit, thought to be the inspiration for the White Rabbit in Alice in Wonderland as well as a lovely painted carving of a group of musicians donated by the Northern Guild of Musicians when the church had to be rebuilt in 1520.Sometimes all that is left of a church or religious building are the ruins. There is something haunting about these places that are both sad and tranquil. Here is a photo of the Bishop's Palace in Lincoln.

European Chains

If you are travelling in Europe, there are two restaurant chains that I would highly recommend.
Pizza Express is a British chain of Italian pizza restaurants. Much more upscale than Pizza Hut, they serve fresh, tasty food in pleasant surroundings and have lots of vegetarian options. I also enjoyed my Italian beer - Peroni Nastro Azzuro.
My favourite place for breakfast in Lille was Le Pain Quotidien in Place Rihour. A Belgian chain, begun in the 1980s, the restaurant prides itself on high-quality organic bread. My breakfast consisted of apple or pear juice, a small pot of yogurt, a basket of wholewheat bread, and a variety of jams, including chocolate spreads. All the food was organic and delicious. They also offered a wide range of loose teas and delicious patisseries for afternoon tea. They serve a variety of open-face sandwiches for lunch or dinner. The chain has now spread to 10 countries worldwide but is still centred in Belgium and northern France. If you like good bread and healthy food, you'll like Le Pain Quotidien.
The FNAC is not a restaurant, although it seems to sell almost everything else you could possibly desire in the way of leisure activities. They have a huge range of books, music, video, computer and photography products. They also organize concerts, sell magazines, and operate a travel agency. And it's all in the same location with 69 stores in France and 41 stores in Greece, Switzerland, Spain, Portugal, Belgium, and Italy.

Water Meadows

I have been visiting Salisbury, England for a number of years. One of my favourite walks is across the Water Meadows that stretch from Salisbury to Harnham. In the early 1600s, the local farmers created a series of irrigation ditches so that they could flood the meadows depositing silt and preventing frost so that the grass grew more quickly in the spring and the soil was richer, hence more crops and larger flocks of sheep.
It is still a peaceful place to walk, and there is a lovely view of Salisbury Cathedral made famous by John Constable.
The meadows are also home to a wide variety of birds and animals. I was fortunate enough to see a water vole nibbling on some greenery in the middle of the stream. Ratty, in the Wind in the Willows, was actually a water vole.
At the far end of the water meadows is the Harnham Mill. It was a paper mill from 1550 onwards, although it is now a hotel and a pleasant place to have a beer and a sandwich. The earliest parts of the building date from 1250.
I was delighted to discover that Amiens, in northern France, also has a large area of water meadows and market gardens (Les Hortillonnages) that are irrigated by a network of canals. Many centuries ago, the marshland was converted into a huge garden extending over 300 hectares. Many of the plots are still market gardens, while others have been converted into residential idylls that can only be reached by traversing your own bridge.

There's a wonderful walk along the towpath from the centre of Amiens. And, like Salisbury, you have an excellent view back over the river to the cathedral. There are also boat tours, and there's a lakeside park which would be a pleasant place to enjoy a picnic lunch (Les Halles in Amiens is a covered market open daily).

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Globalization ???

As I approach the end of my stay in England, I'm coming to some very broad generalizations about the differences between countries and cultures.

Language and Culture

We hear so often that the world is shrinking and that societies and cultures are becoming homogenous. And yet I'm struck by the differences between Britons and North Americans. As I occasionally struggle to understand their accents and to use the correct words (aubergine not eggplant, petrol not gas, toilet not washroom), I'm not even sure we speak the same language.
'Mamma Mia' is a hit movie in England as well as Canada, and Coca Cola is available worldwide, but there are so many distinctions.

North Americans have a sporty casual dress style. Clothes are somewhat tailored, and we wear a lot of synthetic fabrics. English women favour cotton and linen and softer, more feminine clothes.

British comedy is clever and self deprecating. It relies on verbal jokes rather than slapstick. It's intelligent humour but often mocking and it relies on puns and word jokes. For instance, I can't imagine Canadians ever labelling an ATM bank machine a 'hole in the wall'.

Political media coverage appears to be more about issues than personalities with in-depth coverage rather than 30-second sound bites. The Times and the Telegraph are extremely well written, and the journalists aren't afraid to use words of more than one syllable. And, as national papers, they cover bigger issues.

Don't get me wrong. Not all British people are intellectuals. There are football fanatics and lager louts. But they do appear to maintain somewhat higher standards and don't appear to have chosen to follow the lowest common denominator. Is it the remains of a hierarchical class system? Is that bad?


England is such an old country. Both Fosdyke and Sigglesthorne were listed in the Domesday Book so they date back to the early 11th century. Stonehenge and Old Sarum are signs of an even more ancient past. There is a sense of history - a sense of place and of being part of a continuum - that isn't present in white North American society.

England is also a very small country with a very large population. The network of footpaths and the man-made environment of the Fens emphasize the human impact on the environment and again tie in to a sense of history.

In Canada, we have so much space that we only label and identify outstanding geographical features. So the Rockies and the Badlands and the Okanagan Valley are labelled, but we don't label each patch of hills as they do in England (the Lincolnshire and the Yorkshire Wolds). I'm not sure we'd even call them hills in Canada as they are very gentle, rolling hills. But in England geography, history, and habitation are intertwined, and the Wolds are still a more isolated and less populated part of the country.

I'll end by mentioning one of the great advantages of England's smaller size and denser population. I went for a walk today inland along the River Welland. I passed fields of cabbages (they become more attractive with every passing field - the veining in the cabbage leaves is distinctive!), passed two farms, and walked through a field of sheep. It was very rural and apparently off the beaten track. However, after an hour-long walk, I arrived at the community of Surfleet Seas End and a riverside pub called The Ship, which serves very good meals and drinks. What a very civilized hike!

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Falling in Love with the Fens

I have been going for long walks on the sea walls over the fens. The sea walls are not stone walls like in Vancouver but rather large earthen banks. The medieval sea wall is lined with hawthorn bushes in many sections bearing a rich crop of red berries. There are also tall elderberry trees. The new sea wall is more open as you are walking beside the River Welland. The Welland is not a wide river and it is tidal so it appears even smaller at low tide. Both walls curve at times and sometimes dip down to the level of the fields, but there are long straight stretches disecting the fields of wheat, kale, potatoes, and cabbages. The land feels timeless with few signs of human habitation.

I went out on a grey, blustery day which suited the landscape perfectly. As I got closer to the mouth of the river, the salt marshes spread out below me. Sturdy blue-green grassses blended with soft green grasses while there were whole banks of tall grasses with dark purplish-brown seed heads bending and dancing in the wind. There were winding mud channels and small ponds with the land seemingly stretching to infinity, the grey sky blending into the grey waters of the Wash which opens on to the North Sea.

In places, the wall dips down to the level of the fields and you skirt isolated farmhouses. The Hundred Acre Farm had 3 curious Shetland ponies munching the long grass. There are also large ditches and pumphouses to control the water level. Sometimes the path is very overgrown. Blackberry brambles tear at your clothes, and you must work hard to avoid the stinging nettles. Swifts, ring doves, pigeons, and seagulls swoop overhead, and there are a few small flowers in the grass. Apparently you can see hares in the fields in spring.

The past week has been dry so the farmers have been working long hours to harvest the fields. The wheat fields in front of and behind the cottage were cleared last evening with the farmer working until after 11 pm. In fact, the farmers hire contractors with large harvesters to harvest the crop. As we ate supper, we could see into the large, air-conditioned cab where the driver was sitting with his wife and two daughters as they circled the field.

Last Saturday we drove to King's Lynn, which is a charming, old port on the River Ouse. Like Boston, King's Lynn has been a thriving port and central to England's commercial activities since the Middle Ages. The wide quays and attractive Customs House indicate the importance of trade between Britain and Scandinavia, the Netherlands and France (the Hanseatic League). The town wasn't bombed during World War II so there are lots and lots of very old houses - substantial Georgian merchants' houses with barley twist columns at the front door, old houses with wooden beams and crooked windows, tiled roofs that dip and curve, even a Renaissance tower. But the quays are now almost deserted - the real activity is now in the pedestrianized shopping area with modern stores and restaurants. Everything changes while everything stays the same. Commerce and shopping are still central activities.

We visited a deconsecrated church that had a lovely tall ceiling with wooden rafters that was lined with large wooden carvings of angels. There were stone carvings of two devils struggling to enter the church on either side of the main door. They had managed to get their heads and shoulders inside the church before they were walled up and unable to proceed any further. King's Lynn was also a fishing community, and Vaughan Williams came Rhapsody.

Friday, August 22, 2008

R & R in Lincolnshire

It is hard to believe that Lincolnshire is even flatter than the Canadian prairies, and yet it isn't surprising. Over the years, more and more land has been reclaimed from the sea so it is flat and fertile with ditches rather than hedges separating the fields. I am staying in a very small village called Fosdyke which literally means 'ditch-ditch'. Many of the villages were initially founded on islands in the middle of the rivers. Just beyond the almshouses you can see two sea walls. The closest one is the medieval sea wall that was built centuries ago to hold back the tides and floods. Beside the River Welland is the more recently-constructed sea wall. The sea has been pushed back year after year to reclaim more land.

The house is one of a series of almshouses that were originally built in 1615 with a generous bequest from a local when he died. There is a jewel of a garden surrounding the house that is so very British. Lavender bushes border the path, and roses and clematis frame the windows. Beyond the garden there are fields of wheat and large expanses of sky. The rooms have low, beamed ceilings, and even I have to duck as I enter the dining room. Large chimney places occupy a central spot in the two front rooms. The houses were enlarged and doubled in size in the 1980s but maintain the heritage appearance with beams from France. Janet and Richard have decorated it beautifully and yet comfortably. I sink into comfortable chairs while admiring the original art on the walls. It is a very restful, pleasant place to spend part of my holidays.

August has been very wet, and the farmers are struggling to harvest the wheat, potatoes, cabbages, and cauliflowers when they can. Traffic is slowed down by lumbering tractors, and there are crews of migrant workers, many of them from Poland, in the fields throwing cauliflower into large canvas-sided trailers. Richard says that it's a hard life for the migrant workers who make very little money while the farmers and crew bosses make good money and buy fancy cars. It's fertile land because of its origins so Lincolnshire is an important farm production area.

Although the fields are large and flat, the countryside in no way resembles Saskatchewan. We are only 15 minutes from Spalding, a major town, and there are small villages scattered across the last landscape, only one or two miles apart. Church towers and steeples dot the sky. We drive to Holbeach to pick up some groceries at Tesco and stop on our way back to visit a beautiful Norman church in Whaplode. Their is a very moving 17th century memorial to some local nobles. The couple are stretched out in all their finery as if on a bed surrounded by 10 columns. Kneeling along the sides of the bed are their five children. The figures are sculpted lovingly and in great detail - I long for more information for they look like a very happy family.

The countryside is crisscrossed by a complex network of footpaths, bridle paths and cycle paths. My first walk was along the modern sea wall beside the river. To find the start of the footpath, I turn right at the coastguard cottages (there is a small marina beside the bridge, both leisure and industrial boats) then proceed on through a gate marked Private Property and continue up the driveway until I reach the top of the bank. The land is very featureless with little on the horizon except a boat dredging the river channel. The path does a zigzag, and I cautiously descend a steep bank and stumble through the ditch and up the other side, trying, unsuccessfully, to avoid the patches of stinging nettles. I then follow a track between two fields of potatoes and wheat until I reach the road.

I am staying with cousins whom I have visited frequently over the years, and I settle easily into a comfortable routine. I am quickly absorbed into their large family with 4 children and 9 grandchildren ranging in age from 5 months to 18 years. The baby is a delight. He has a big grin and loves to be held and to bounce in your arms. It is lovely to temporarily become a part of this extended family. I also feel younger in England as I came here so often in my teenage years.

The weather is very variable with rain and cloud only infrequently interspersed with warm, sunny spells. I take advantage of the sunshine to walk or sit on a garden bench and feel the sun on my face. I am thoroughly enjoying the isolation and quiet to read voraciously. Janet had amassed a stack of books for me to read, and I am doing my best to devour them all before I leave. I highly recommend The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett about the Queen of England starting to read and the impact it has on her life. It's a charming book portraying the power and importance of the written word. Hunting and Gathering by Anna Gavalda brings tears to my eyes and helps me to believe in the inherent, although often buried, kindness of human beings. Four very fragile, broken human beings come together and form a community. It's a heartwarming story, and the character development is absolutely sensational.

Take out curry is on the menu for supper this evening - such a ubiquitous part of British life. And it will be accompanied by cider and baklava that we purchased at the continental market in Spalding this morning.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Wessex - Pretty and Civilized

From France I moved to Salisbury and Thomas Hardy country. To me, this area is truly the heart of England's 'green and pleasant land'. The country lanes are narrow and wind their way through green leafy glades and fields surrounded by hedges. The roads are so narrow that cars had to back up and make way for the bus to pass, and some of the lanes are so deep that the hedges and banks of the road were over the roof of the bus as the roads have slowly sunk over time. The small villages each have a church tower or spire; the gardens are walled and full of flowers; and many of the houses are very old. It is a very pretty, civilized part of the world. The people are more civilized too as they are used to living at very close quarters. Housing is very close together so that even though there is a very large population, there are still green woods and fields with pastures full of sheep and cows. There is a very strong sense of history as well - Salisbury Cathedral is 750 years old while the Abbey in Shaftesbury was started in 888 AD. The Cathedral was built with stones from the church at Old Sarum, and the Abbey, which is now a ruin, built much of Shaftesbury, although the original abbey ramparts are still visible on Gold Hill. Again, it's a form of civility as old and new are combined so that old street facades house very modern stores.

Salisbury is a thriving county market town. It's a popular tourist destination as it's very close to Stonehenge, and the cathedral is very large and very lovely. The Cathedral Close is a green square surrounded by lovely old houses that provided housing for the church priests and bishops. My friends live in Bishopdown which is up the hill from the town centre. You can walk over the paths to Old Sarum with a wonderful view of the downs on all sides. The harvest is nearly over so the rolling hills of the downs are yellow stubble. My favourite walk, however, is across the water meadows to Harnham Mill. This view of Salisbury Cathedral was made famous by Constable. The fields are full of sheep, and tiny water vole sat munching of fresh greenery on a rock in the stream.

I spent a very enjoyable day in Shaftesbury, which is on top of a hill and has preserved a curving, steep streets of old houses - well known from Hovis bread commercials and tourist postcards and calendars. There are wonderful walks around the top of the hill with views of the surrounding countryside. The audio guide for the Abbey provided an interesting take on life in a medieval monastery.

I had a pub lunch (Somerset brie and chutney sandwich with cider on tap) on a hillside terrace. Later we had a pub supper outside of Salisbury at The Black Horse. It was a very doggy pub with photos of the owner's dogs on the wall and customers standing at the bar along with their dogs. I am very accustomed to eating on my own in restaurants, but I still find English pubs somewhat intimidating as you stand at the bar, quickly scan the menu and place your order and pay the bartender. There will be multiple beers and ciders on tap so that calls for a quick decision as well. Then they pour your drink, and you head off to find a table.

I spent another day with a family friend, and we spent a very enjoyable few hours at Kingston Lacey, a stately home and garden run by The National Trust. I am particularly fascinated at the glimpses you can get of life in a different time - the dumbwaiter that brought food up to the dining room, the narrow stairwells so the servants can deliver hot water in the bathrooms, and the rooms decorated like tents for the bachelors who came to visit on the top floor of the house (often used as a nursery wing when there was a family). Wealthy Britons of past centuries enjoyed travelling just as we do, and they brought home souvenirs too. However, their souvenirs are somewhat larger than ours! Kingston Lacey had a baroque ceiling fresco, leather wall panelling, and large paintings from Italy as well as an Egyptian sarcophagus in the garden.

One of the delights of staying with friends is that you get glimpses of their lives. The Walkers shop at Tesco but inform me that Waitrose is more upscale. We watch Coronation Street, Hotel Inspector, and television mysteries and read The Telegraph. They're an older couple so the main meal is at lunchtime with supper at 6 and a snack at 9 (marmite and brown bread with digestive biscuits). They still have a proper roast dinner on Sundays.

The gardens are still lovely - the last of the roses (so many different sizes and varieties) along with hydrangea and whole bushes of fuschia. England at its best - pretty and civilized.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Leisurely Lille

Lille is in northern France, right on the Belgian border so it is a fascinating mix of French and Flemish architecture - black slate rooves with mansard windows and curving Dutch roof facades.
It is so good to be back in France after a 30-year absence. I delight in the musical French voices and the day-to-day courtesy. You say 'Bonjour' as you enter a store or restaurant and 'Good day. Enjoy your afternoon/evening' when you leave. The French are reputed to be snooty and unhelpful, but I thought they were wonderful. They were helpful in showing me what wines were available with screw caps (No, I don't travel with a corkscrew) or in giving me minute quantities of all sorts of lovely chocolates. Life seems more leisurely as well. Sidewalk cafes abound and are busy all day long with people stopping for a beer or a coffee or a glass of wine with friends and family. Stores aren't open 24 hours a day. They actually shut on Sundays and sometimes over the lunch hour. It's August so many of the stores and restaurants were closed for annual summer vacations - unheard of in North America, perhaps because there are less family-run businesses, but it's also a different mentality. In fact, my hotel was officially shut on the last day I was there as the owner had gone on holiday. But I had a key to let myself in and left it behind when I left.
French life seems less anonymous as well. There are small tabacs selling newspapers, cigarettes and coffee on every street. And unlike 7-11 which are staffed by bored teenagers, the tabacs have an actual owner who knows his customers and has coffee with them.
I visited Amiens and Arras as well as Lille and was delighted by how little vehicle traffic there was. Train stations are downtown and the central core of all three cities was pedestrianized. Amiens was lovely with canals intersecting the city and surrounding it with water meadows with cottages, market gardens, and parks intersected by canals and streams. Also the largest cathedral in France. Arras has two squares surrounded by Dutch roof facades.
I think I did everything I had hoped to do in France. I ate good cheese, excellent pastries, couscous, crepes and drank wine, beer and cider. I visited 4 art galleries, La Piscine in Roubaix in a renovated art deco swimming pool was exceptional. I even went to a classical music concert in the Conservatory with Suzanne Ramon playing the cello.
Now, there are things I wasn't so keen on. The majority of French people seem to smoke, but I avoided them most of the time. The suburbs are a deserted concrete desert on Sundays. And I'm really not convinced that downtown squares should be made into 'beaches' with paddling pools, slides and mist machines with lounging chairs.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Loons on Anglin Lake

Northern Saskatchewan is full of lakes, each with their own personality. My sister and I chose to spend a couple of days at Anglin Lake, a lake that neither of us had ever visited before. We rented a cottage from Land of the Loon Resort and were pleased to discover that it had a shady deck facing the lake. I spent many happy hours reading and admiring the view.

The most pleasant surprise was discovering that there were lots of loons on the lake. Loons are normally a very reclusive bird, and they stay away from people. But Anglin Lake was peaceful enough that the birds were comfortable living close to shore and sharing their habitat with humans. We went on a tour of the lake in a Gimli boat and were so excited to see a mother loon carrying her two babies on her back and a loon with a minnow in its mouth passed in front of our boat. There were lots of beaver lodges as well, including one in the river channel joining Jacobsen Bay to another section of the lake. In fact, Anglin Lake is not one lake but a series of lakes. We also saw a bear, deer with baby fawns and sandhill cranes beside the highway. And Clare went kayaking (cheap rentals from the Jacobsen Bay store).

The resort restaurant served excellent food and was happy to prepare a vegetarian meal for me with some advance notice (curried lentils and vegetables). I also enjoyed a very good meal at the Yellow Fender CafĂ© in Christopher Lake – a homemade walnut lentil burger – vegetarians are not always so fortunate when they’re on the road.

On our trip home we stopped in at the gallery of Jason Leo Bantle who takes lovely nature photographs. I particularly enjoyed hearing about the baby raccoons that he had looked after until they were ready to be reintroduced to the wild.

We also stopped for lunch and ice cream in Waskesiu. The beaches were crowded as it was a warm day, but I think I prefer Waskesiu when it is more deserted in September and October, but the ice cream sundae from Sundaes by Olaf was excellent!