Sunday, 30 December 2007

A Good Way to End 2007: Another Tourtière Recipe

Here’s another recipe for tourtiére which might be good for New Year’s Eve. It is much easier than the Lac Saint-Jean style tourtière, but it is still good.

1. Enough pie dough for a two crust pie

(A good recipe is:
2 cups all purpose flour
1 tsp salt
½ cup canola or other mild oil
¼ cup water
Mix together and roll out between sheets of waxed paper to make top and bottom crusts for an 8 or 9 inch pie

2. Filling

.75 kilo ground pork

1 large chopped onion

¾ cup water

Herbs to taste—2 tsp sage or rosemary or a combination, a clove of garlic chopped, 1 tsp salt, pepper

Boil pork, onion and water with herbs until the pork is cooked and crumbly.

Let stand so that any excess fat can be skimmed off

Add about ¾ cup of bread or other crumbs—enough to soak up the moisture in the meat mixture.

Put into pastry shell, cover with remaining pastry, Bake at 400 F for about 30 minutes. Serve hot with green tomato relish (chow-chow)

Recipe clipped from The Gazette years ago and modified after suggestions from friends and trial and error.

Friday, 28 December 2007

Saturday Photo: Winter Wonderland

The forecast is for more snow, but actually it hasn't been bad this week. The temperatures hovered slightly under freezing, so walking has been a pleasure, now that the worst of the snow left by the two storms early in December has been cleaned up. The city of Montreal now estimates the cost at $20 million, or a tenth of the snow clearing budget for the year.

But it is undeniably lovely, even cozy, to have snow up to the windowsills if you can stay comfortably inside, as our neighbors across the street did until the last storm was over. Why go out when you don't have to?

Getting the Most from the Sun's Energy: New Ways, and a Warning about Taking Vitamin D

Still more snow in the forecast, but it’s clear that the days are already getting longer. Time to think of other things, like the energy reaching the earth from our friendly neighborhood star.

With the exception of nuclear and geothermal power, every bit of energy expended on earth ultimately comes from the Sun. When we burn coal and petroleum, we are simply using that energy laid down in fossilized plants millions of years ago. The trick for our future will be to find ways to capture the sun’s energy immediately or to store it for further use.

Some notes from the front:

The sun beating down on many ponds last summer created ideal conditions for blue green algae blooms, but some researchers think the fast-growing organisms show promise as commercially-viable precursors to fuels, the Associated Press reports in The Globe and Mail.

Wind is basically just air moving from areas of one temperature to another as the sun heats the earth. The New York Times’s Home and Garden section reports on homeowners in more or less urban areas who are installing wind turbines on the their property to generate electricity, sometime to the annoyance of their neighbors.

European countries and Japan are already far along the path toward replacing diesel made from petroleum to biodiesel made from renewable resources like canola (also called rapeseed.) The Globe and Mail reports that a Japanese company has just bought a large interest in a canola seed crushing plant in Saskatchewan. On the other, John Miller in The Wall Street Journal writes that several European countries have a glut of biodiesel from canola at the moment. He notes that the incentives to use the oil seed for fuel has driven up the price, just as the use of corn to make ethanol in the US has sent corn prices up.

Some promising ideas, but we’re not there yet, are we? Conservation has to be part of the equation.

And by the way, don’t forget to take your Vitamin D these short days, particularly if your skin is dark. There just isn't enough sunlight in northern latitudes for your body to produce enough of this essential substance.

Thursday, 27 December 2007

Tourtière, shepherd's pie and reasonable accommodation

Our favourite specialist in 18th century New France, Emmanuel Nivon, gave us a little lesson on the origins of tourtière over the holiday, by the way. We had polished off the potato sausage and sil, (Swedish pickled herring) and gone on to gâteau mocha, the excellent, multi-layered cream, coffee and chocolate cake that Sophie makes from her grand’maman Jacqueline Mercier’s recipe.

There are those who say that tourtière takes its name from the tourte or passenger pigeon once used in the meat pie that is a staple of Quebec and French Canadian holiday food. But that’s not so, Emmanuel said: it comes from the round pan, the tourte, in which the pie was made. The Dictionnaire étytmologique de la langue française agrees: it says that tourtière, which it dates from 1573, has its origins in the Latin vulgate torta, as in round bread or torta panis.

There are as many recipes for tourtière there are Quebec families, but oddly, it did not win the competition for the “national dish” of Quebec, which Le Devoir recently conducted. That prize went to what is called here pâté chinois, or shepherd’s pie.

My first reaction to this story was: this has to be a joke! Think of the hilarious dinner party the London bachelor girl Bridget Jones gave featuring shepherd’s pie. But if Le Devoir’s experts are serious, the fact that the mixture of mashed potatoes, ground meat and corn won is evidence that Quebec has been accommodating reasonably all kinds of culinary and other influences for a long time.

Wednesday, 26 December 2007

And a Happy Boxing Day, Too!

Today is Boxing Day in Canada, a very civilized holiday even if its origins are rather feudal. The story is that it was the day when the minions came around to collect their Chritsmas due from the lord of the manor. Now some people rush out to after-Christmas sales, but I think that's a waste of a perfectly good excuse to relax after all the Dec. 24 and 25 festivities. It is chance to sit around and enjoy the after-effects of Christmas, read the books received, listen to the music, and nibble at the left-overs.

So, enjoy yourself, while I go into the living room where the cat will join me for a nice afternoon's read.

Friday, 21 December 2007

Merry Christmas from the Soderstroms

Best wishes for the best holiday season ever from all of us.

Lee and Mary

And if you want to know more about our year, check out the holiday blog.

A Québécois classic for le Réveillon de Noël

When we arrived in Montreal many years ago, we brought with us holiday traditions from the US. In short order, though, we realized that our Québécois friends here did things in different and delightful ways.

The classic Québec celebration is a réveillon, a party that begins in early evening and continues until late at night. These days it may include going to midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, but not necessarily. What is a constant is good food and fellowship.

We had no family here, so for many years we celebrated with other American expats on Christmas Day. Over the years though, Christmas Eve has become more important. Lee’s family used to have a horrible dish called lutfisk, but when I found it impossible to find here (it takes cod preserved in quick lime) I began to make the much better Swedish potato sausage his mother often served on Christmas day. But I want to share a real Québec recipe for a réveillon: la tourtière du Lac Saint-Jean. I make it every year at least once during the holiday season. It cooks all afternoon, and makes the house smell wonderful. And it feeds a crowd—just what you need when you are part of a famille nombreuse as they say here.

La tourtière du Lac Saint-Jean de Mme Gravel de Chicoutimi
(courtesy of Éric Gravel and Donna Duseigne)

Enough pie crust for three ordinary pies
A large roaster or similar deep, oblong oven-safe pot with a lid

1 1/2 pounds pork, cut in cubes 1/2 inch by 1/2 inch
1 1/2 pounds beef, cut in cubes 1/2 inch by 1/2 inch
1 1/2 pounds chicken breast, cut in cubes 1/2 inch by 1/2 inch
3 onions cut in the same size cube
5 potatoes cut in the same size cube
2 tsp each, salt and pepper
2-3 cups chicken bouillon (cut back on salt if bouillon is salty)

Back in the old days the meats would have been things hunted: duck, moose, deer and so on. Feel free to use some game as replacement if you have it.

Line pot with pie crust, rolled relatively thick, making sure that the lid will be able to fit.
Put meat and vegetables, add enough good chicken bouillon to cover the meat. Top with remaining pie crust. Bake uncovered in 375 F oven for an hour. Cover with lid and reduce heat to 225 F for 4 to 5 hours. You may have to adjust heat so that the tourtière continues to bubble a little, but the crust around the edge doesn't burn. Serve with green tomato relish, also called chow chow.

There are other several other kinds of tourtière, and perhaps I’ll post another for New Year’s.

Saturday Photo: The Flowers of the Solstice

Today is the winter solstice, and the light will be returning soon. Of course, if your house is shaded by leaves in summer, it is likely that your house plants have been enjoying a boost of solar energy for the last little while.

My house plants have two growth spurts. One comes in the spring, when the days are well and truly becoming longer. The other arrives in late fall and early winter when the leaves are finally off the trees and the sunny, even if cold, weather arrives. This is the point when it is important to fertilize plants, because with the increased intensity of light (even if its duration is short) they will want to grow. I've had good luck in getting number of house plants to bloom nicely in the winter, including hibiscus and oranges.

Does the heart good to see the flowers when the weather is wintery. And this year, the plants should get an added input of light because with the mountains of white outside, the light coming through the windows on sunny days will be even more intense than usual.

The Phoenicians and Vikings As Globalization Pioneers: The Story of Saffron

Globalization is a recent term, but it’s clear that that the world has been interconnected by trade for a long time. This came home to me this week when my friend Carol Greene sent me this great picture of the Cornish saffron bread she and her husband make at Christmas a couple of days after I posted my story about the Swedish saffron buns we make for St. Lucia’s Day, December 13.

"This is the batch Frank made this morning. He has already given away (or we have eaten) all of the other two batches. This is almost the essence of Christmas for us, and the connection is my Cornish heritage,” she wrote on Monday. “I used to enjoy thinking that saffron got to Cornwall from a ship of the Spanish Armada which was wrecked, but I have been disabused of this notion. The connection apparently goes back much earlier to the Phoenicians who traded it when they came to Cornwall for its tin. 'The Phoenicians dedicated saffron cakes to the goddess, Astarte, a mystique that may well have appealed to the Cornish.' 'Saffron refreshes the spirits, and is good against fainting fits and the palpitation of the heart'" she quotes from Saffron and Currants: A Cornish Heritage Cookbook by Susan Pellowe.

Just how saffron became a staple in festive Scandinavian bakery is story not quite as old. The Normans (“north men”) spent a lot of time between the 9th and 12 centuries roaming the seas. Some were pirates: the word “Viking” comes from the Norse “vik” or bay so a Viking was one who lurks there. Others were traders and colonists, going west into what is now Russia, east across the Atlantic to Iceland, Greenland and North America, and south as far as the Mediterranean. Sicily was ruled by Vikings for more than 100 years, whence the importation of the virgin martyr St. Lucia to become a symbol of light on the darkest days of the year (her name day at the time was about the solstice.) Saffron was imported during the same great trading period, and the lovely yellow it gives to baked goods probably reminded people of the sun.

Thursday, 20 December 2007

The Nutcracker: An Evolving Tradition, a Continuing Pleasure

Late afternoon in the concourse of Place des Arts in downtown Montreal. For the moment there is a lull in the foot traffic headed toward the Métro, the box office, the shops. Two televisions are showing videos of the Grands Ballets canadiens’ production of The Nutcracker, with the King of Candy cavorting around as Clara and her prince arrive in the Land of Snow. Tchaikovsky’s music rollicks over the echoing feet and, from the outside, the roar of snow removing equipment on St. Catherine Street.

Two small girls stand in front of the TVs, one watching each. Next to them are their mothers, holding extra hats and gloves as well as shopping bags. All four are entranced by the music, the colour and the movement. Visions of—well, if not sugarplums, then princes and beautiful dresses and little girls whom everyone loves—dance in their heads.

The GBC’s Nutcracker is a family tradition for us. Lee and I went even before we had kids, and we took Elin for the first time when she was four. Lukas joined us when he reached the same age: he was delighted by the cannon blast when the mice and the toy soldiers fought, but then fell asleep. Both of them tried out to be enfants de la fête during their ballet years: Elin got a call-back and Lukas, who might have been chosen, decided at 8 that he wanted to concentrate on his hockey.

This year the two girls who share the role of Clara symbolize the new Quebec. One, 11 year old Mariya Kyrychenko, was born in Ukraine and only came to Montreal when she was 6. The other, Eden Solomon who is also 11, is the offspring of a Canadian mother and an Eritrean father. Quite fitting in this time when Quebec is doing some navel gazing through a commission on “reasonable accommodation” in light of Quebec’s changing demographics.

This Sunday afternoon we'll all be at the Nutcracker, the kids' significant others included. It will start the holidays officially, and then, just to do something different, we’ll go out for a Vietnamese and Chinese supper in Chinatown which is just a few blocks away. No special efforts at reasonable accommodation required to enjoy such an abundance of good things.

Publicity photo of Callye Robinson by John Hall
Taken from the GBC's website with thanks.

Wednesday, 19 December 2007

Good News, Bad News the Day after Montreal's Real Car-less Day

Yesterday was traffic Hell, one of the worst rush hours in memory. Or so said the traffic reporters this morning. Things went well on Monday in the wake of the second big snow storm in two week because people either stayed home or took public transit, but on Tuesday it was gridlock city. At 3:30 p.m., after 20 minutes on a nearly immobilized bus on Park Avenue, I saw that a woman was walking faster than the bus was crawling, so I got out and walked too. When I caught up with her, we both laughed at how much better time we were making on foot.

Yet there was some good transit news yesterday: Quebec Transport Minister Julie Boulet and Joël Gauthier, head of the regional transport authority (the Agence métropolitaine de transport or AGM) announced contracts for 160 new double decker train cars to be built by Bombardier’s La Pocatière plant. The $136 million investment will serve Montreal’s suburban commuter train lines: with the first cars scheduled to be delivered in 2009.

The AGM has seen its ridership go up by 120 per cent over the last 10 years, in spite of the fact that its 193 cars are at least 40 years old. Currently about 65,000 passengers take AGM train during rush hours, which is a drop in the bucket compared to the number of people who take buses and the Métro (the STM—Société de transport de Montréal—records more than 2.2 million trips a day.)

The new train cars, however, will be (maybe ironically) a step in the right direction.

Tuesday, 18 December 2007

Report from the Snow-filled Streets of Montreal: A Real Carless Day

The schools were out yesterday, exams at McGill University were even postponed, and many people obviously didn’t go to work, or took public transportation. With the second storm leaving more than 30 cm of snow on the city in two weeks, it was not weather for cars—if you could find them. As I walked around yesterday afternoon I saw a number of cars completely covered by snow with their despairing owners, shovels in hand, trying to dig them out.

Downtown was crowded, though. Many must have had the same thought I did—there won’t be anyone shopping so now’s the time. Coming back, the bus was packed, but it moved along quickly because there was so lititle traffic.

This morning the traffic reporter kept saying how much worse conditions were than yesterday. The roads were clearer—snow removal crews have been working overtime, literally—but schools were back in session and the impromptu holiday was over. The bridges were blocked by 6:30 a.m. and coming in from the off-island northern suburbs drivers reported even longer times than usual.

There are definite advantages to going carless, it seems to me.

Monday, 17 December 2007

A Rose by Any Other Name Department: Lawrence Hill's New Novel Gets a Name Change in the US

What’s in a Name?

Someone Knows My Name or The Book of Negroes: Lawrence Hill’s new novel has different titles in the US and Canada for reasons that say a lot about each country and its history.

The book is a first person narrative by Aminata Diallo (also called Meena Dee,) a woman who was captured by slavers in what is now Mali about 1745. Her story takes her across the Atlantic to the Carolinas, north to New York in the time of the American Revolution,, to Nova Scotia, across the Atlantic again to Sierra Leone and then to England in time for the outlawing of the slave trade in 1807. A person of great intelligence and resourcefulness, she is hired by the retiring British forces at the end of the Revolution to keep a register of the 3,000 slaves the British Loyalists owned, called the Book of Negroes.

Hill’s book was on the long list for Canada’s Giller Prize this fall, and was chosen as part of several “best of 2007” lists. But you won’t find it anywhere in the US as The Book of Negroes. His publishers there got much negative feedback on the title. Too academic, and also—worse—Negro is now considered a derogatory term there. (It isn’t the preferred term in Canada, but the negative connotations are not as strong.)

“Language evolves,” Hill says, adding that his own father—a “proud African-American” born in 1923—used “Negro” as his term of choice. The younger Hill came up with the new title which has several references in the book, as well as echoing James Baldwin’s novel from the 1950s, Nobody Knows My Name.

Whatever you call the book, though, Hill’s novel is a moving, fascinating read. Definitely recommended by the Atwater Library’s book discussion group which found much to say about it when its members met last week.

Friday, 14 December 2007

The Violets of Usambara and Brian Mulroney

It’s done, except for reading the page proofs! Yesterday afternoon Marc Côté, head of Cormorant Books , called with the last questions about editing The Violets of Usambara. There weren’t many: associate editor Blake Sproule and I had thrashed out almost everything the week before. What remained were things like the spelling of “tuque” or “toque” and whether “would not, could not” sounded too much like a rhyme from Dr. Suess. So the book will be out early-ish next spring, after nearly 10 years of work.

A most apropos coincidence: I was listening to the 4:30 news on CBC radio when the phone rang. The top story was Brian Mulroney’s testimony before the Ethics Committee of the House of Commons on his dealings with Karlheinz Shreiber, and the $300,000 (or maybe $275,000) that the former Prime Minister received in cash from the German-Canadian businessman. Thomas Brossard, the Canadian politician who goes missing in Burundi in my novel, was one of Mulroney’s stalwarts, and whether or not he was involved in some shady deals is a major element in the story.

Thomas Brossard is pure invention, of course.

Does life follow art, or art follow life?

Thursday, 13 December 2007

Saturday Photo: The Snow Keeps Snowing

The snow keeps coming down. Last week we alternated between very cold and clear weather--minus 13 C as the high--and days with temperatures near freezing but with snow. The last of the mountains left by the really big storm the week before that are finally cleared away

Last night the Durochères, a reading group of friends mostly from our street, got together for our annual holiday potluck dinner. We hold it in the apartment of a neighbor who now lives in a highrise on Sherbrooke St. and it was good to be able to find a parking place since the streets were reasonably cleared. But we're supposed to get another 30 cm or so on Sunday. This is shaping up to be a winter for those who love skiing, skating and walking in winter wonderlands.

The Durochères vote on what book read during the year is their favourite and A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry (in its French translation L'Équilibre du monde) won. More about book lists next weeks.

St. Lucia's Day: Another Festival of Lights for a Dark Season

Today is St. Lucia’s Day, the Sicilian virgin martyr who is celebrated in Scandanavia with candles and special baking. Given the way the Julian calendar was skewed at the time the Norse country became Christian in the 11th century, it’s easy to say how this festival of light could be conflated with pagan celebrations of the winter solstice: the shortest day of the year was about Dec. 13 then.

Here’s the recipe for Luciasbrod or Safronsbrod that I make every year. It is not an old Soderstrom tradition, but something we started after we got married (my name was McGowan, we eat oatmeal and most of us drink Scotch, not aquavit.) The recipe has been adapted over the years from one I found in advertising for flour. When the kids were in elementary school I took the dough to school several times to do a workshop on baking and astronomy (you can pass on a lot of information about the sun, the earth's orbit and inclination, length of day, and the different calendars. while you're supervising kids rolling the dough between their palms.)

Safransbrod, Lucia buns, Nisse buns, Luciakitti

3 tsp. dry yeast
1/2 cup warm water
1/2 cup scalded milk
good pinch saffron
1/4 cup butter
l tablespoon grated lemon rind
1/2 cup sugar
1 tsp salt
2 eggs
4-5 cups flour
l/3 cup mixed, diced candied fruit
1/3 cup raisins
1/3 cup chopped almonds

Put yeast in warm water to dissolve. Heat milk with saffron and butter. Let cool after butter melts. Mix with yeast, sugar, salt, eggs and lemon rind. Add about half of flour and mix until stiff dough is formed add fruit, raisins and nuts. Turn out on floured surface and knead, adding flour as necessary until a smooth, elastic dough is formed (about 10 minutes.) Let rise in a warm place until double in bulk. Punch down, then divide into l6 equal pieces. Roll each out until long and skinny, Form an S bun. Let rise again until double. Bake at 375 F. for 12-15 minutes until light brown.

Wednesday, 12 December 2007

Radio Canada Puts Classical Music on the Net

Now available at a computer near you: classical music from Radio Canada!

Radio Canada’s Espace musique—the equivalent of CBC’s Radio 2—has begun promoting a new service on the Radio Can website called Espace classique which is billed as an alternative to Espace musique’s new, varied musical programming which, everyone agrees, shortchanges classical music.

Supposedly all you have to do is go to the Radio Can website, follow the links, and you’ll end up with a choice of three kinds of programming, called Zen, Vitamine, and Noël. At least that was what France Davoine, the programming director, told the press this week, but I was unable to get any further than a rather nice Deutche Grammaphon recording of Beethoven’s Fifth. Perhaps this is just a temporary glitch: the site was launched last September, but wasn’t publicized. The current media attention here is supposed to draw attention to a new feature: the site now offers the chance to download works recorded for Radio Can, beginning a free one of pianist Louis Lortie playing Liszt

But, as Christopher Huss notes in the Le Devoir, Espace musique is broadcasting less and less classical music. Is this an adequate substitute? I really don’t think so, either for listeners or for Canada’s fantastic serious music world.

Don’t be surprised if Radio 2 begins a similar service though. The dumbing down of music programming was first tried out at Radio Canada 18 months before the big changes last spring at CBC’s Radio 2.

Note: it will be interesting to follow the ratings of CBC/Radio Can programming over the next several months. All parts of the Radio Can service in Montreal showed a jump in the last BBM rating, covering the fall. Can't imagine what this means without subscribing to BBM and getting the stats for individual programs.

Tuesday, 11 December 2007

News from Burundi: Refugees Are Going Home, Perhaps

Refugee crises all too often go on and on. Early this month, Burundian and Tanzanian officials as well as UN representatives sat down to talk about the 120,000 refugees from Burundi’s ethnic troubles still living in refugee camps in Tanzania. According to the UN news agency IRIN, more 40,000 were repatriated in 2007, bringing to 430,000 the number returned to their home country since 2001.

That was the year when a difficult and still only partially-completed peace process was begun in this country in the Great Lakes Region of Central Africa. Trouble between Tutsis and the Hutu majority flared in 1993, a year before the genocide which saw about 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus killed in neighboring Rwanda. While the bloodshed was never as violent in Burundi as in Rwanda, the country is only slowly recovering.

The vast majority (79 per cent) of Burundians remaining in refugee camps in Tanzania do not want to return home, according to a study released at the meeting. Tanzania wants to close the five remaining camps by next June: six were cut in 2007.

Another 218,000 Burundians have been in Tanzania since 1972 when they fled during another period of ethnic conflict. They have permanent refugee status and have been considered self sufficient since 1985.

And you thought your life was difficult?

Monday, 10 December 2007

Smog Alert in Montreal: Another Argument for Getting People out of Their Cars

Smog alert this morning! The temperature is -10 C, and the sky is overcast which is far different from the smog alerts of my Southern California childhood. Then smog settled in with hot days and still air, but the alerts have two things in common: temperature inversion layers and too many cars.

When I woke up this morning, the traffic reporter on Radio-Can was talking about how the bridges leading into Montreal were already blocked at 5:45 a.m. Traffic has been horrible for the last week in the aftermath of a big snow, and you’d think that people would take public transportation more, or at least car pool. Probably there has been some of that, but not enough. Certainly not enough to stop thousands of cars from idling as they lurch their way across bridges and along auto routes.

Vehicles aren’t supposed to idle more than three minutes in Montreal. The regulation is not very well observed, but it’s a step in the right direction. Now ways have to be found to get people to work and school in vehicles other than private autos. If not the situation will get worse, and rush hour begin earlier and end later.

What does that do to people's lives?

Saturday, 8 December 2007

Saturday Photo: It's Snow Removal Time

It's snow removal time. The storm that stalled for 36 hours over Montreal this week dropped between 38 and 45 cm (15.9 and 17.7 inches) depending on the neighborhood. City crews did the east side of our street Wednesday morning and in the wee hours of Thursday. The bill for plowing and removing the snow from this storm will run to about $17 million on the island of Montreal, with about $130 million budgeted for the whole season.

The snow is knee deep, quite beautiful, and extremely early. When I was shoveling in back on Tuesday, a woman came cross country skiing down the lane, and Wednesday afternoon I saw other people carrying their skis, headed back from skiing on Mount Royal. Thursday I had to go out in the car, and wished I hadn't, because getting around on foot really hasn't been a problem since sidewalks get cleared first in densely settled neighborhoods. Driving--and particularly parking--is much more complicated. We've got several things to do this weekend, but luckily all of them can be done by public transportation or shank's mare.

Another reason for living in the centre of the city.

Friday, 7 December 2007

Taxes Are What We Pay for Civilized Society Department: La Grande Guignolée and Society's Responsibilities

Yesterday was the “Grande guignolée,” the massive charity drive sponsored by nearly all the media outlets in Quebec. More than $260,000 were collected in Montreal, along with the equivalent of about 3600 Christmas baskets of food and household items. It’s quite an event—radio and television personalities on streetcorners all over town, and bicycle rides and with favourite columnists and the like being raffled off by newspapers. Last year the campaign—whose name is inspired by a medieval tradition of troubadors going from house to house singing and collecting charity—raised more than $2 million throughout the province between Dec. 1 and the Feast of Kings, Jan.6.

As Françoise David, one of the spokespersons for the left wing party Québec Solidaire, says, nobody is against the Guignolée. How can you, when it obviously provides needed funds for charitable causes? But it is hardly enough. The danger with these short term projects is double: it’s easy to forget people with problems the rest of the year, and having given, it’s easy to forget that society as a whole has a long term stake in getting to the root of those problems. Good social programs, an adequate minimum wage, full employment, government help for women’s shelters, good public schools: we need to push for things like these even more vigorously than we scratch to find a little change for once-a-year charity drives.

By the way, the guignolée tradition shows up in Ste. Geneviève, Missouri, not far from St. Louis, as charitable pub crawl on New Year's Eve. The website compares it to "wassailing," and it also resembles the Mummers of Newfoundland and Ireland.

The poor seem always to be with us, alas. Faut ça change! as they say here. We oughta do something about it.

Thursday, 6 December 2007

The Home Stretch for The Violets of Usambara

What you see here is the cover of my new novel The Violets of Usambara will be--perhaps. The publisher Cormorant Books is getting ready to print its spring catalogue, and this is the design I think they've decided on, with some possible small adjustments. Certainly, I like it because it's visually arresting and hints at both the beauty and the darkness of the story.

That being said, today I'm reading the manuscript after it has been corrected by the copy editor, who also has suggested some tweaking here and there. Haven't got very far, but obviously he's done a conscientious job.

To refresh your memory, here's a teaser:
April, 1997: A Canadian politician goes missing in Burundi while investigating refugee camps after the genocide in Rwanda. Back in Montreal his wife waits for news and tries to help friends caught up in a money laundering scheme. A suspenseful story that brings up a host of political, personal and spiritual questions.

Wednesday, 5 December 2007

Fall-out from War: Genes and Good News in Iran

The cashier stopped checking out my order yesterday to look at the photograph accompanying a bizarre story in The Globe and Mail I was buying. It seems a bright Toronto girl recently won free high speed internet access while her father, out on bail in a terrorism case, has been denied unsupervised communication with the outside world.

“Look at her eyes,” the cashier said, pointing to Mahmoud Jaballah’s wife, whose gray eyes were the only thing showing in her veiled face. The cashier looked at me with a puzzled look on her own face.

Hmm, I thought, just like those famous National Geographic photos of an Afghan girl with startling green eyes. “Well, you know,” I said, “people get around. There were a lot of armies marching back and forth in the Middle East. Armies leave babies sometimes. Who knows where those genes came from.”

The cashier laughed. Her own broad face with dark, slanting eyes looked Chinese to me, but I couldn’t be sure.

“I have a friend whose family came from Scotland way back and she’s got that epicanthic fold on her eyelids,” I added. “You never know what happened in the past.”

The young woman laughed again, and began to check out the next customer. “You never know,” she repeated.

And that is probably just as well, given our troubled history of invasions and war. The pain and sorrow is hidden in the background, happily only showing itself in quiet times in charms, stories, and tale-tell inheritance. In my own family, my father, a black Scot, was in demand for “first stepping” on New Year’s Day, since to have someone with dark hair and dark eyes be the first to cross the threshold in a new year was considered good luck. I wondered what might lie behind the custom until I realized that it might symbolize a wish not to have Viking marauders attack in the coming year.

All this is by way of preface for the bit of good news which came out this week: that US intelligence says Iran quit working on atomic weapons three years ago. That, in itself, is good news, but what is even better news is that the US has had to admit that. Maybe we will be spared another horrendous military adventure in that part of the world. Better, by far, to make love, not war. Better yet for that love to be reciprocal, not forcibly taken.

Tuesday, 4 December 2007

My Aching Back Department: the Coldest Winter in Years Has Started

Last week Environment Canada announced that this winter should be the coldest in a good 15 years. Doesn’t seem to gibe with global warming at face value, but one of the scenarios turning up as meteorologists play with their models is for more severe weather everywhere.

Melting ice caps could also play havoc with the Gulf Stream, which keeps Northern Europe cities much warmer than the cities with the same latitude on the North American continent: Montreal at 45’31” north is almost exactly the same latitude as Milan’s 45’27” north, but it gets much colder here than it does in the Italian city. If the Gulf Stream is diminished or rerouted the result might be a much colder Europe.

But changes in the Gulf Stream have nothing to do what we may be up against, Dave Phillips of Environment Canada said in predicting a return to “normal” winters. Colder water temperatures in the Pacific—La Nina effect—are what’s to blame, apparently.

Whatever the cause, it certainly seems that winter has begun with a vengeance. Montreal broke records yesterday with nearly 30 cm (12 inches) of snow falling, and more is due today. Schools closed down, even the inner city Commission scolaire de Montréal which practically never closes because of snow.

Oh yes: the reason this is being posted later than usual is because it took me more than two hours to clean the walks and the snow in front of the garage...


Monday, 3 December 2007

Does Energy Efficiency Mean More Energy Used in the Long Run?

Does saving energy actually lead to using more of it? Sounds counter-intuitive, but last week analysts for the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce World Money report released a study which suggests that that might be the case.

Going back as far as the 19th century, when energy saving inventions like the Bessemer method of making steel actually led to increases in steel production that outstripped any energy saving, the report suggests the energy efficiencies are counter balanced by greater consumption that wipe out all savings. The more fuel efficient automobiles that were produced following the energy crunch of the 1970s led to a short term decrease in energy consumption, they point out, but 30 years down the road, the shift to gas guzzling SUVs and light trucks has resulted in more gasoline being used than ever. (One amazing statistic: the report says the light trucks are now the “vehicle of choice” for American families.)

Other incentives must be found to keep people from squandering any energy efficiencies industry might come up with, the report says. Easier said than done voluntarily. Are we going to have to undergo a fundamental shift in our economic paradigm so that frugal becomes fashionable? Or will we have to wait until we need gas rationing to take the problem out of our hands?

For a reminder of what the 1970s were like, visit the Canadian Centre for Architecture’s new show Sorry Out of Gas, which looks at the crisis and how architects responded.

Saturday, 1 December 2007

Saturday Photo: December 1? It Must Be Time for Christmas Cactus

The end of the year is fast approaching, and my Christmas cactus is in bloom. Or rather, one of them is. I have two, one of which blooms before the other. The second has set buds and I’ll bring it up to the sunlight soon.

The plants are quite old: the first was a cutting from a neighbor at least 15 years ago, and the second my sister and her family gave us as a present perhaps 8 years ago. They’ve bloomed every year, and now I think I’ve got the trick down pat.

At first I followed Thalasso Cruso’s advice, which is to put them in a dark closet without water for the month of October and then bring them out into a sunny window. But then I learned that in the wild they bloom in response to length of day, the way chrysanthemums do. Now I wait as long as possible to bring them in: this year it was the third week in October since we didn’t have frost before then. One plant was ready to bloom at that point, but I stalled it by putting it in a room with less sunlight for a week or so. By the first of November it was bursting into bloom, though. The flowers were riotous for nearly three weeks, and a couple remain even now.

Next week I’ll switch plants, bringing the second one up from the basement to the living room. The first I'll put in a sunny window in a bedroom where electric light is on infrequently. Last year, it bloomed a second time, responding, I guess, to the length of day it perceived through the window.

They are lovely plants, whether they bloom once or twice, with their flowers that look like miniature fireworks displays.

Île Charron: Deal Is off, But How Much Is the Land Worth?

It looks like a condo development on the Ile Charron in the middle of the St. Lawrence south of Montreal is off—and some interesting questions arise as to what the would-be developer actually paid a fortune for the 20.6 hectares next to a provincial park.

In a short press release on Friday, Le Groupe Cholette announced that it is withdrawing from the agreement in principle it had with Luc Poirier, who had bought the land for $6 million about a year ago. Poirier talked grandly of selling the land in question to the group for $130 million, and of eco-friendly highrises he and the group would build there. The response from citizens was quick: a petition with 20,000 signatures protesting the development prompted the provincial government to put a development freeze on the land in mid-November. According to Le Devoir, Michel Cholette, president of the group, said in the press release that he has no intention of building a residential development amid such controversy.

No mention of sale prices was made, apparently.