Monday, 30 June 2008

Making Music in the Woods: Real Diversity at CAMMAC, But Not, Alas, at the CBC

Yesterday we delivered Elin to the CAMMAC (Canadian Amateur Musicians Musiciens Amateurs du Canada) summer music program where she’ll be teaching this next week. Part vacation colony, part summer school, CAMMAC is a unique place which welcomes families as well as adults who take their music enthusiastically but seriously. When we arrived people were pitching tents in the campground, a couple of 9 or 10 year old boys were practicing soccer moves on the lawn and a passel of younger kids were playing in a big sand box. All the while others were unloading a wide variety of musical instruments or, having arranged their rooms in the main building, were rocking on the wide porch which looks out over Lac Macdonald.

It’s an idyllic setting, with varied programs all summer. This week it’s Early Music with an emphasis on that surrounding the pilgrimage to Campostella, with activities ranging from advanced viola da gamba workshops through concerts to beginner recorder lessons. Later on there will be jazz, chamber music, and vocal weeks, during the last of which the music will range from Rossini to Broadway.

The contrast between this eclectic, joyful mix of music and what is happening at the CBC couldn’t have been stronger. The CBC brass tried to put a good spin on programming changes at Radio Two last week but, according to The Globe and Mail a Radio 2 promotional video highlights “a bevy of Canadian acts, including Jann Arden, Feist, Ron Sexsmith, Alex Cuba, Michael Bublé and rapper k-os” but only “a brief clip of a symphony orchestra in concert.”

Don’t the CBC brass realize that you don’t have to short change serious music to bring diversity to Radio Two? Canadian musicians are among the best in the world, they have a world-wide audience. But they need support at home from our public broadcaster, as the folks who are enjoying themselves at CAMMAC this summer would agree. As for the musicians who are teaching there—well, the CBC has been the incubator for many of them, and they are going to feel the Radio Two cuts acutely.

Saturday, 28 June 2008

Saturday Photo: Jane Jacobs' House in New York

Shortly after World War II, Jane Jacobs and her husband Bob moved into a three story building at 555 Hudson in the New York's Greenwich Village. Over the next two decades, they transformed the place into a comfortable home for their family of two sons and a daughter. The bedrooms were upstairs, and the living room, dining room and kitchen were on the ground floor. By all accounts they liked the place a lot--it served as Jane's point of departure for her ground breaking book The Death and Life of Great American Cities. But at the end of the 1960s they opted to move to Toronto and Canada, in large part because of their opposition to the war in Vietnam.

Since then 555 Hudson has gone through many changes. In recent years it's been returned to retail use: for a while it was an upscale kitchen shop, and now it is home to City Crickets, an equally upscale children's store.

Next fall my book The Walkable City: From Haussmann's Boulevards to Jane Jacobs Street and Beyond will be published and right now we're lining up photos to illustrate it. The one was provided by Anne Marie of City Crickets, and we'll probably use it. Thanks a lot, Anne Marie.

Friday, 27 June 2008

When Speaking the Same Language Doesn't Mean You Speak the Same Language: Paris Match Gets It Wrong about Québec

The difference between going au Québec and à Quebec is something an Anglophone often has trouble with. That’s because the word for Quebec the province is masculine while the word for Quebec the city is feminine, and you must use a different article, depending on which you’re referring to. Au Québec, any Francophone Québécois knows immediately, refers to the province, while à Québec refers to the city which is celebrating the 400th anniversary of its founding this year.

But sometimes the French from France get confused by the linguistic subtlety, also. Paris Match, the popular French magazine (sort of a cross between People and what Life used to be) launched a special Quebec-themed issue this week. Thirty-five pages of Quebec stories and pictures, in all—but only a few references to Quebec, the city, and a lot about Montreal, the Métropole. Gilles Martin Chauffier, Paris Match’s editor in chief, admitted to Le Devoir that they’d got it wrong. The magazine’s staff had thought the anniversary was that of the first settlement in what is now the province, not the city, he said, adding that having seen the error, Paris Match, will do at least one other story on the celebrations. “You know, there have always been misunderstandings between France and Québec, and here’s another example!” he said.

Glad to know that It’s not only we imperfect bilinguals who get it wrong. Reminds me of the railroad clerk at the Gare St-Lazare who kept asking us if we’d “composté” our tickets. Around here “compost” means the same as it does in English, and we couldn’t imagine what she was talking about. Turns out she meant: get our tickets punched (probably faire ponçoinner would be North American French.) When you think about it you can see the connection: composting works best when you cut things up in little pieces, but then it was pas évident as we’d say around here.

Thursday, 26 June 2008

Getting the Message: Sprawl Costs, LEED is Cool

Maybe it’s happening. The realization that the suburban lifestyle North Americans have been pursuing for 90 years presents terrific problems, that is. Yesterday’s New York Times had an interesting story about people in the far reaches of exurbia in Colorado musing that maybe it costs too much to live in huge houses requiring constant automobile commutes.

This follows a story last week about the hottest new trophy house, the small and ecologically friendly dwelling with a LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) platinum rating. The second story was talking houses for celebrities, who appear to be willing to pay millions to have a high LEED ratings for their houses wherever they might be built.

But unless housing in well integrated into a city it isn’t going to be very ecologically friendly, no matter how good its insulation, passive energy system and use of environmentally correct materials. That’s why the story behind Canada’s first LEED platinum house is so encouraging. Awarded last year, the distinction went to a refit of a duplex on busy Park Avenue, just a couple of blocks from where we live. Not only did Emmanuel Cosgrove and his wife recycle a lot to redo the place, it is smack dab on the middle of a big city with public transportation at the corner, a big park a block away, and shopping and recreation practically at the front door.

If there’s anything I learned while working on my next book The Walkable City: From Haussmann’s Boulevards to Jane Jacobs’ Street and Beyond it is that we are going to have to live closer together in North America and that—guess what!—it is pretty nice.

Wednesday, 25 June 2008

Good Reading Ahead: What We'll Be Discussing Next Fall

Next fall I’ll be leading five book discussion groups in libraries around Montreal, and this is the time when I’ve got to come up with lists of books to read. This is always both a daunting and a pleasant task because it's always a case of "so many books, so little time."

Thus far I've prepared the list for the Atwater Library and for the Outremont and Kirkland libraries (in French), with Pierrefonds in preparation as is the list for a smaller group in a residence for seniors sponsored by the Outremont library.

In most cases I try to include about equal numbers of male and female writers, one or more translated from the other of Canada's official language, one "classic," and at least one from a different culture. Suggestions are always welcome, but my bossiness comes out when it's time to prepare the final list. Unless I think the book will spark a really good discussion, I don't include any book I don't like. Here's the line-up for Atwater:

Wednesday, September 10
De Niro’s Game by Rawi Hage
The winner of the Impac Dublin Prize 2008

Wednesday October 8
The Golden Notebooks by Doris Lessing
Nobel laureate 2007

Wednesday, Novermber 12
A Blade of Grass by Lewis De Soto
“the taut story of two women, one white and one black, who struggle to save their farm and, ultimately, their lives.” A Heather Reisman pick

Wednesday, December 10
Kamouraska by Anne Hébert
“Generally considered her finest novel.” A murder and love story set in mid-19th century Quebec

Wednesday February 11
Hunting and Gathering by Anna Gavalda
A delightful, world-wide best seller by the young French writer

Wednesday, March 11
Moral Disorder by Margaret Atwood
Short stories (some perhaps autobiographical) by the Canadian icon,

Wednesda, April 15
The Yacoubian Building by Alaa el Aswany
Set in Cairo, the story of the residents of famous apartment block has swept the world.

Wednedsay, May 13
Falling Man by Don Delillo
Winner of the National Book Award

Wednesday, June 10
The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf by Mohja Kahf
Growing up Muslim in Indiana and much more.

Tuesday, 24 June 2008

Quebec's Fête nationale: a Party for Everybody

Today is Quebec’s Fête nationale, what formerly was called the Fête de Saint-Jean-Baptiste. That holiday had a distinctly parochial colour, being centred on celebrating the French (and Catholic) fact in Quebec. But times have changed, and the official line is that this is a holiday for everybody who lives in Quebec and who considers him- or herself a Quebecker.

I go along with the heartily, and we even fly a Quebec flag. I’ve had arguments with Anglophone neighbors who think I’ve letting down the side, but I don’t agree. I have chosen to live here, my children were born here, this is a holiday that belongs to me too.

That sprit of inclusion will show up tonight at the big public show in Parc Maisonneuve. Normand Braithwaite, whose father came from Jamaica and who is a Francophone media star, will be emcee for the show as he has been for the last five years. The artists performing include Samian from the northern part of Quebec who raps in French and Algonquin; Musa Dieng Kala, originally from Senegal; Johanne Blouin who is what is called here une Quebecoise pure laine; and Zachary Richard, the Cajun star from Louisiana.

We won’t make it (it's across town and it doesn't start until 9:30 p.m. and we're sometimes old and cranky), but the music is going to be fabulous.

Monday, 23 June 2008

Political Choices at Lunchtime: Plums from California or Bananas from Anywhere?

Another trip to the Jean Talon market this weekend. It’s about a half hour walk away, and since Saturday was a gorgeous early summer day, Lee came along to help carry the goodies home. Strawberries were the same price they were the week before--$10 for a two quart basket---but there were more of them. I saw the first flats of 12 smaller baskets, although at $24 a flat, few people were buying that many at once. The supply should increase this week in time for the Festival des fraises next weekend.

Bananas range in price from 49 to 79 cents a pound, but we didn’t buy any. They’re not a fruit I like that much, and I tend to buy them when there is nothing else available, as in April when the local apples have all gone soft and the early fruit from elsewhere on the continent hasn’t come in yet.

I may cut out buying them completely after reading “Yes, We Will Have No Bananas” by Dan Koeppel in The New York Times this week. In it he discusses the way growing the fruit and transporting it from the tropics have had nefarious political effects in the past—there are good reasons why “banana republic” is a slur—and horrendous ecological repercussions in the near future. The bananas for sale in North America are all clones of one variety developed when an earlier variety, also propagated by cloning, fell ill and died all over the world. If ever there were an object lesson about monoculture, the banana story is one.

We also bought some plums from California for lunches. They aren't as good as the ones from Ontario and the Italian prunes from around here that we'll get in August. , But at least they're trucked in, so their carbon footprint should be less than the fruit flown in from Chili that flooded the market a few weeks ago.

Saturday, 21 June 2008

Saturday Photo: Summer Field at Giverny

One last photo from Giverny. This one is not of the garden itself, but the hillside behind it. The field--or one very similar--shows up in several of Monet's paintings, notably one of his wife and son with the poppies being just dabs of colour in the green field.

It's an appropriate photo for the first Saturday of summer too. Already the sun rose a minute later this morning than yesterday, the day of the solstice. No wonder this season was a time of celebration in pagan--and more recent--times.

Friday, 20 June 2008

Cormac McCarthy's The Road: Guys Like It Because It's Basically a Father-Son Story

Rolande came up with the best explanation for the extraordinary popularity of Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer prize-winning novel The Road: it portrays a tender relationship between a man and his son which is something many men lack and most men crave. Such depictions are relatively rare in fiction, and, since the context is a horrific end-of-the-world setting, liking the novel can’t be construed as liking something sentimental.

The occasion for our discussion was the last get-together of the season for the Durochères, a group of women who have been meeting once a month for more than 25 years except during July and August. Most of us were neighbors when the group began, and while several have moved, the conversations have the same intimacy you find among people who have shared an interest for a long time. This time as the discussion progressed it became clear that none of us liked the book very much, some of us were surprised that the mother in the book killed herself rather than face the lonely after-Apocalypse world, and everyone was puzzled at the extremely positive critical reaction. Our response was very similar to what my cousin Cathy reports took place in her reading group in Nevada: a couple of women found the ending hopeful, but the rest found it very hard going.

Had it not been for Rolande’s elegant analysis (and I should mention that Rolande is definitely a woman's name in French, and that she’s an artist, not a literary expert, a writer, or a psychologist) I would have been even more annoyed by the list of summer reading the morning man on Radio Canada gave this morning. The Road made his top half dozen: a master piece, he said. Here’s the link: as I write this his selections haven’t been posted yet but they should be by the end of the day:

Another indication that there are real differences between men and women that show up in the most surprising ways? I think not, because male reactions to the book show that tender feelings are there, it’s just that most men have a long way to go before they can admit to them openly. The Road may be simply a path they must take before they get there.

Thursday, 19 June 2008

Four More Books for Stephen Harper to Read: Yann Martel Continues His Campaign to Provide the PM with "Stillness" and Good Reading

What is Stephen Harper reading now?

I know people who read a lot when they’re on holiday, but aside from one summer when I read Darwin’s The Voyage of the Beagle by campfire light, I’ve never read much—too much to do and see, usually. What this has meant most recently is that I’ve fallen behind on the books that Yann Martel is sending to Prime Minister Stephen Harper. You’ll remember that Martel started sending a short book every two weeks to Harper more than a year ago in an attempt to give the poliician something to read and reflect on in a moment of stillness before going to sleep. That was 29 books ago now, and the reading list continues to get more and more interesting.

What I missed was a new book Read All About It!, about the wonders of reading by the mother and daughter team of Laura and Jenna Bush, which prompted Martel to write about the importance of teachers; another novella by Leo Tolstoy, The Kreutzer Sonata, accompanied by an essay on music and the sad decline of CBC musical programming; Drown, tough but tender short stories by Junot Díaz; and most recently Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston.

Many of the books Martel sends are used, and in the last he sent he found a photo of some identified people taken on a camping trip. “I wonder what the story of these people is. Clearly they're a family. Was this their book? Who among them read it? What stories do they have, what voices?” Martel writes.

Summer reading, for sure.

Wednesday, 18 June 2008

Food Crisis in Argentina: The Chronicles of Eating Locally II

Vast increases in production of soy beans is implicated in current political unrest in Argentina, Le Devoir reports this morning. Export taxes placed on Argentine crops in March led to protests by farmers, which were followed by demonstrations in the streets decrying increases in food costs, and then to more protests and retaliatory arrests last week. The New York Times reports today on a tough speech given by President Cristina Kirchner Tuesday in which she said the protests were holding the country in hostage, that the taxes were just and that her government’s agricultural policy was good.

Interestingly, the NYT story doesn’t talk about the dangers of monoculture, which Le Devoir and other sources say lie behind the imbalance between agricultural production for international markets and for local consumption. But it seems that Argentines are pretty sure that’s where much of the problem lies. A slick YouTube video put up by soya producers argues that isn’t the case, and its very existence is a testament to what Argentines (and many agriculture analysts) think. (It's in Spanish but you don't need to know much of the language to get the gist.)

What do you do when the crops produced in your country go elsewhere and the food you buy skyrockets in price because of factors beyond your control? Take to the streets, I guess. But before it comes to that, those of us who can should buy locally as much as possible. This will help maintain the profitability of local agriculture and reduce the temptation for producers of selling out to globalized monoculture.

Tuesday, 17 June 2008

Quebec Strawberries Are Here: The Chronicles of Eating Locally

Strawberries and whipped cream: that was dessert last night. Elin was over and we finished up the first Quebec strawberries that I’d bought on Saturday as sort of a Father’s Day present for Lee. The berries were small but good: usually the great abundance of this delectable fruit begins about St. Jean Baptiste Day or June 24. But a few farmers at the Marché Jean Talon had them—for a price, of course. They will be cheaper this weekend, for sure, but it was such a pleasure to eat them NOW.

When we were in France we ate strawberries from the South West of France, as well as raspberries and melons from Spain. They don’t count as local fruit, I expect, but when you’re travelling it’s hard to be sure you’re eating locally. At home there is no excuse. And recently the wisdom of that was brought home in the salmonella-on-tomatoes problem in the US. Our local greenhouse tomatoes haven’t developed the same trouble: the risk of contamination on shorter supply lines is less.

Besides local stuff almost always tastes better. If you aren't starving why eat what isn't good, after all! Local lettuce, asperagus, herbs, radishes and green onions were all at the market, too. The mint is up in our garden too: time to make mint sherbet!

Monday, 16 June 2008

"Angry White Women" Aren't Mad: It's a Republican Pipe Dream to Think They'd Vote for McCain

Frank Rich had an interesting column in The New York Times Sunday in which he scoffs at the idea that women of a certain age who favoured Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primaries would shift to John McCain in November: “..the notion that all female Clinton supporters became 'angry white women' once their candidate lost — to the hysterical extreme where even lifelong Democrats would desert their own party en masse — is… a sexist stereotype.” He goes on to say that it’s not the Democrats who are in disarray, but the Republicans.

I’d sure like to think so. George Packer in the May 26 The New Yorker says something similar. If John McCain can pull it off, however, the world may really go to hell in a handbasket.

He will speak before a bunch of business hotshots in Toronto on Friday, and Chantal Hébert in Le Devoir today talks about what that means. It’s the first time in memory that a Republican candidate has made a campaign stop north of the border. Presumably he’s doing it to signal how committed he is to free trade, but it also is evidence of the close idealogical link between the Republicans today and Stephen Harper’s Conservative Party. It is not an allliance healthy for either country.

As for pro-Hillary women jumping to the Republicans—well, it makes you wonder what the media types pushing the idea are smoking. Bill Clinton said he didn’t inhale, but those guys must be.

Saturday, 14 June 2008

Saturday Photo: Where the Wild African Violets Grow

It's always nice when a reviewer gets what you're been trying to do in a book. In today's Globe and Mail, Kim Barry Brunhuber seems to understand the moral ambiguities that I was trying to deal with in The Violets of Usambara.

"Travelling in the developing world makes you realize how softly you have to scratch at our altruistic ideology to get to the rich vein of self-interest that separates the West from the Rest, a phenomenon that Mary Soderstrom beautifully captures..." he writes. He makes the story of Thomas and Louise Brossard sound pretty compelling too, which is just what I hoped it would be.

The Globe and Mail is Canada's national newspaper and a good review there is always particularly welcome. I feel almost as good having read this one as I did in October 2001 when I finally saw wild African violets in their natural surrounding. The accompanying photo was taken then at the Amani Nature Reserve in Tanzania. The novel, by the way, is dedicated to the fine people who work there.

Note from Valentine's Day 2009: There's a new reading guide available for The Violets: Click here to find it.

Friday, 13 June 2008

Friday the Thirteenth: A Good Day to Garden

Friday the Thirteenth: not a day to do much, according to the old wives. Since I’ve spent most of the time since our return (once the laundry was done) working on the final revisions for The Walkable City: From Haussmann’s Boulevards to Jane Jacobs’ Streets and Beyond, I have done very little in the garden. It’s not too warm and rain is due tomorrow so it’s the perfect time to catch up on what didn’t get done in late May.

Just to get in the mood, here is another picture from Monet’s gardens at Giverny. As one of the women in the book discussion group at the Kirkland Library said: “Being there is just like being an Impressionist painting.”

Now to see what can be done to make our garden look less like an overgrown vacant lot and more like something you’d like to spend some time in.

Thursday, 12 June 2008

Montreal Transit News: Mayor Desires a Streetcar, and Judge Rules that Impact Hearings Are Not Another Bridge to Cross

More on transit: the Montreal executive committee approves calling for tenders on tramway studies at the same time that a judge turns down an injunction aimed at stopping construction of a new bridge out of the city.

While the first item might sound like good news, it seems to me that it is just about as depressing as in the second case. In it Judge Pierre Béliveau decided that the province has the right to proceed with its project to extend an autoroute into the city even though the details were unknown when environmental impact hearings were held three years ago. Several environmental groups argued that approval had been given based on such incomplete information that the impact should be studied again. The judge also refused to waive the fees that the groups are required to pay since they lost their case.

In the first case, Mayor Gérald Tremblay seemed extremely pleased to announce the first steps toward three new tramway lines. One, to open in 2013, would circle part of the downtown, from Griffintown to the Old Port and back up to the theatre district. Two others, scheduled for later, would run up Park Avenue and Côte des Neiges boulevard into heavily settled parts of town.

Tremblay also announced that a bus line following the proposed route of the first trolley would start running June 23. Predicting a ridership of 15,000 a day, he suggested it would show the need for the tram.

Possibly, but it is already clear that the buses on Park Avenue and Côte de Neiges carry far more passengers than that, and also that building a tram could actually make things worse on them.

While in each case the trolley could run for part of its distance along a wide boulevard, just at the point where better service would useful—that is, where people live—the two streets become much narrower. Already they are congested with traffic, and it is hard to see how devoting the road space necessary for the tracks would make matters any better. Widening the streets to accommodate the tracks would destroy vibrant shopping streets, while stopping the tram line before reaching the narrow portion would mean that passengers would have to transfer to buses for the rest of their trips.

Far better to improve bus service, by simply running far more buses on these two lines. If Montreal mayors want to have a tramway to compare with Paris and Toronto, they’d be better to think of building one to the suburbs on the south shore of the St. Lawrence river and supporting better commuter rail service from north and west of the center city.

Wednesday, 11 June 2008

Gas Prices and Motorbikes, Fuel Economy and Noise: The View from Paris and Montreal

Gasoline in Montreal hit $1.51 a litre this week, although on Sunday when we filled up, it was an "affordable" $1.37. The price seems absolutely fantastic compared to what we were paying—and complaining about—just a year ago.

In France, though, gas was even more expensive earlier this month. The little filling station on Gay Lussac near the place we stayed in the Ve district posted prices around €1.67 a liter most of the three weeks we were there. In the XIIe nearer the Périphérique, the ring highway around paris, the price was lower: €1.57. Given the current exchange, the higher price works out to $2.66 CAD a liter.

It looks like the high gas prices are having an effect on how Parisians get around town. Making it easier to use bicycles in the city—Vélib' offers 20,000 bikes around town for pennies--and providing excellent public transit has helped cut automobile use in the city drastically. But people are also turning to motorcycles both because they can weave in and out of gridlocked traffic and because they use much less gas. Sales havve gone up markedly in the last couple of years. Supposedly the new machines are fuel efficient and low on green house gas emissions, but they are noisy. Maybe it’s time to start considering noise pollution in all the environmental equations we do.

Vroom, vroom...

Tuesday, 10 June 2008

CBC Loses Hockey Night Theme: Another Musical Disaster?

So that’s the problem! The CBC just doesn’t care about music!

The news came out yesterday afternoon: CTV had bought all rights in perpetuity to the theme to Hockey Night in Canada from the composer right under the nose of the CBC. As all hockey fans know by now, the CBC had been “negotiating” the use of the theme for 13 months. When it announced an impasse on Friday, CTV jumped into action and picked up the rights for a rumored $2.5 to $3 million.

I really am not much of a hockey fan nor a TV watcher, but I can’t help thinking this is just another sign of the CBC’s complete misreading of the importance of music in people’s lives. Its plans to relegate serious music to the fringes certainly indicated a misunderstanding of both the role of the public broadcaster as an incubator and purveyor of talent, and of the deep love ordinary people have for interesting music of all kinds. Now letting an iconic theme slip through its fingers drives the point home.

There will be a nationwide contest to choose a new theme. What about some classical composers getting together to come up with something that really rocks?

Monday, 9 June 2008

Out of Their Depth: Politicians, Sex and Winning When You Shouldn't

Putting Maxime Bernier front and center in Ottawa was part of Stephen Harper’s strategy to capitalize on the supposed swing to the right among Quebec voters, Chantal Hébert says in Le Devoir this morning. Not only was the Alliance démocratiqe du Québec (a close cousin of the Reform Party if there ever was one) riding high, the Federal Conservatives were doing well too. It seemed time to solidify that support by giving an attractive Quebecker a star role.

Well, it didn’t work, as Hébert commented in The Toronto Star when Bernier was forced to resign 10 days ago. The ostensible reason was his questionable relationship with that foxy lady Julie Couillard. But the real reason was everything else questionable Bernier had done since his arrival in the Harper government. A man really out of his depth, Hébert says.

Brian Mulroney appointed a number second raters after the 1984 election which the PC won decisively because of an astonishing Quebec vote. When the writs were dropped that year, the party didn’t have a full slate of candidates and put forward a number of people who were “poteaux,” telephone poles, who in ordinary times would have lost their deposit. When many of them got elected, the result was jubilation, and then embarrassment because several who got good posts were simply not equipped to handle them.

That year I was involved in the campaign of a similar candidate for the NDP in Montreal-Outremont who got nearly 19 per cent of the vote in that year of change and who would have been a disaster had she been elected. (The PC got 29 per cent, and the Liberal, 41 per cent.) The experience influence me in two ways. First I became sure the NDP would eventually win in Outremont, which Thomas Mulcair in fact did do nicely last fall. But secondly I began mulling over the accidents which occur in politics and which can have far reaching effects. My novel The Violets of Usambara is in part about that: Thomas Brossard, the hero, runs for the PC in 1979 as a lark and wins, but he, unlike Maxime Bernier, has some substance to him. He also has a strong woman behind him, who guides his career for years even though she remains in the shadows.

A politician’s private life should be private, but the choices one makes about who to present publicly as a partner often say a lot. Bernier and Nicolas Sarkozy seem not to realize that. What stupidity…but then what do you expect from right wingers.

Note from Valentine's Day 2009: There's a new reading guide available for The Violets: Click here to find it.

Saturday, 7 June 2008

Saturday Photo: Monet's Garden at Giverny

Roses, iris and clematis were in gorgeous bloom when we visited Monet's garden at Giverny on our trip. This was our second visit there--it's only about 45 minutes by train from the Gare St. Lazare and then an 11 € taxi ride from the station in the little town of Vernon. You can take a bus or walk also.

On the way back, after spending several hours wandering amid the truly lovely gardens, we walked the 5 km back along a cycling and pedestrian trail along which wild roses bloomed while the hillside above was dotted with red poppies.

We encountered about ten people in the hour and a half we sauntered along which made us feel that we were really getting a taste of the French countryside. Quite a shock to get back to the city around 7 p.m. when the foot traffic leaving the station was intense and the streets were full of cars. But more about that later.

Friday, 6 June 2008

D-Day, Amiens and Hopes for the World's Future: More French Reflections

Forty four years ago today British, Commonwealth and American troops invaded Normandy. D-Day the Sixth of June carried the same historical resonance in my American childhood as December 7th 1941, “the Day that Will Live in Infamy.” It probably is natural that the history a country’s children is taught emphasizes the role that country played in world events. Yet I am continually surprised as an adult at how little we learn as children of the role of others.

Last week this was brought home when my husband and I went to see the cathedral in the Picardy town of Amiens. Lee is passionate about Gothic architecture so we visited several 12th century wonders on our trip. We knew that the magnificent stained glass in several cathedrals had been taken down for safekeeping during both World Wars, but we didn’t realize just how devasted Amiens had been until we saw the photos in the cathedral square of the destruction wrought by German bombers in 1940. The town was razed. Only the church—its elaborately carved choir stalls sandbagged for protection—stood when the raids were over.

A miracle, the cathedral’s guide suggested: as a 15 year old he said he’d seen the bombs fall everywhere except on the church. An attempt to preserve a navigation marker, Sophie and Lukas said when we arrived home. They’d been told in Cologne that both sides tried to spare the high church towers which served as guides in those pre-radar, pre-GPS days.

Inside the church there are several plaques to the memory of the Australian, New Zealand, British, and Newfoundland soldiers who fought in the battles of the Somme in the First World War. There’s one to Americans, too, but I was reminded again how in both those wars the US arrived late.

One can argue about the wisdom of that foot-dragging, but there have been times in the last years when I wished that America’s leaders took Wilson and Roosevelt as models rather than Conan the Barbarian. Maybe that will change if Barack Obama beats John McCain. Let us sincerely hope so.

Photo: the poppies are in bloom in the north of France now.

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

By Montrealer Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, MD (1872-1918)

Thursday, 5 June 2008

A Year of Blogging: Ranting to Others Instead of to One's Nearest and Dearest

This is my 315th post since I began this blog a year ago today. Oh, I know my profile says that the blog was begun in November 2006, but that's only because I opened a Blogger account then. At the time I didn't have a computer that would handle the Blogger format and I really wasn't ready to sign on for such a long term effort then.

But the first weekend in June last year, I attended the Writers' Union of Canada's annual general meeting in Vancouver where one of the workshops was on using the web to promote one's work. As it happened, I was sitting next to Marc Côté, Cormorant Books publisher, and we joked that it might be a good idea to start a blog about African violets to promote The Violets of Usambara which Marc was scheduled to publish.

We laughed, but on the flight home I began to think about the blog idea. I've always had a lot to say about what is going on, and maybe, I thought, I might be able to contact people who are interested in things that interest me and who might enjoy my books.

So I started this rather eclectic public journal about writing, urban affairs, politics, the environment, and life in general. It has been fun--indeed, writing nearly daily has become almost a compulsion. Several thousand people have stopped by to see what I have to say, which is rather nice, and some of them have become almost friends.

Thanks. My friends and family thank you also to because writing this has meant I don't rant to them as much...

Wednesday, 4 June 2008

Back in Montreal: Time to Catch up on Things

We got back last evening to find Lukas and Sophie waiting with dinner for us, and Calie the cat doing very well despite her advanced age. Just before we left, the vet diagnosed a renal insufficiency and prescribed a drug for that as well as glucosomine for Calie's arthritis. That's in addition to the drops for her glaucoma and the Metamucil for her digestive problems. Of course, she is the equivalent of something like 100 in human years since she'll turn 21 this month.

Lukas said she started sleeping on the pillow next to his face which is something she did long ago when he still lived at home and arranged his classes and his summer jobs so he didn't have to get up before noon. Times have changed but obviously this old cat's affection for "her kids" continues. Good thing that the kids' partners also seem fond of cats.

Today is the day for laundry, grocery shopping, checking out the garden, and reading the stack of mail and newspapers which have piled up over the last three weeks. Back to work tomorrow when the domestic stuff is back to normal.

And to think that yesterday for lunch we had cheese, a red from the Côtes de Rhone, a baguette freshly baked that morning at the bakery next door as well as cherries from the south of France!

Monday, 2 June 2008

I Love Paris in the Springtime Even when It Rains

It is raining today, our last full day in Paris. We will find a museum to hang out in and then meet friends for dinner. I still haven't got used to the European keyboard which means that any extended comment takes forever. There will be more once we're back in Montreal and I can download some photos, you can be sure...