Friday, 31 July 2009

André Picard on Universal Health Insurance: "Americans Can Only Dream of Having Such a System to Bemoan"

Today I’d like to thank André Picard, the health system writer for The Globe and Mail, for his excellent story yesterday about that woman who says she had to go to the State to get treated. check it out yourself if you have time, but if not just read the last few paragraphs.

“ The question is: Can insurers (and providers) delay and deny care, and can they limit and deny coverage?

Of course they can, and they do so all the time. In the United States, health insurance is expensive and it is often tied to employment. Even those with good insurance see their claims denied because of “pre-existing medical conditions,” insurers' attempts to hold down “medical losses” (the industry term for paying for care), and caps on total payouts.

Ironically, for all her lauding of private insurance, someone like Ms. Holmes would find it virtually impossible to buy insurance, given her medical history.

The infamous ad claims that Canadians have long waits and are denied all manner of care because the “government says patients aren't worth it.”

On the contrary, medicare – universal state-financed health insurance – means everyone is worthy of care and entitled to care.

If nothing else, Ms. Holmes' foray into the U.S. health-care debate should remind us of how medicare, despite some shortcomings, is worth it.

Americans can only dream of having such a system to bemoan.”

Thursday, 30 July 2009

Tomato Blight, Our Warming Climate and Who Cares?

So far no field tomatoes from Quebec have showed up in Montreal stores or at the Jean Talon Market. Usually it’s August before the crop comes in, and this year it may be even later because of the cool weather and rain. But, if the farm panel on CBC’s Radio Noon show is right, we may escape the blight that is ravaging tomato crops in the US North East.

The New York Times had a big story on Wednesday, about the damage done by the blight, a fungus related to the one that caused the Potato Famine in Ireland 180 years ago. Organic farmers, whose arsenal of defence is limited, are particularly hard hit, it seems. Aside from tearing up and burning or deeply burying affected plants so the blight though, so it must re-applied after every rain at a cost of about $1,000 a shot, according to one farmer.

That explains something a neighbor told me Tuesday. A friend of hers on Long Island reported that no local tomatoes were in the markets there, but that tomatoes from Quebec were. They must be hothouse ones—I’ve written before about the excellent Savoura ones we get now all winter long—which is more than a little strange for this time of year.

All this comes out at a time whe climate scientists from around the world are meeting in Montreal for a conference called Our Warming Climate. There has been very little press coverage even though meteorologists, arctic specialists, oceanographers and many other academics have been discussing a number of important issues. Don't know if this is a result of the extremely erudite quality of the papers presented, or because nobody is very interested. If it's the latter, we're in trouble.

Wednesday, 29 July 2009

Learning Portuguese: Muito Dificil

The report from the language wars isn’t encouraging. Despite quite a bit of effort I still cannot understand the news on Radio Televisão Portugal, even though I’ve been able to read newspaper articles and even an academic text or two for some time.

This summer I thought I’d try to find someone to give me private lessons, but it is, after all, summer, and everyone I approached said no one was available. In that fall, they said. There are courses at many places, wait until then.

So I found another teach yourself kit at the library. This one is Harrap’s: what I know I owe to one from Nathan which I’ve listened to so often that I actually make out individual words. A sentence from a dialogue stood me in good stead when I wanted to buy a map: Uma planta de Lisboa tem uma lista das ruas. Without too much difficulty I was able to turn it around and ask if the map I was looking at had a list of streets.

But to go any further I’m going to need some help. Maybe in the meantime I should make up little dialogues and try reading aloud. There are three weekly Portuguese newspapers in Montreal, for starters. For the moment, though, I’ll just wish you “Bom dia,” and get back to working on Making Waves: The Portuguese Adventure.

Photo: From the window of a shop in Lisbon that specializes in dueling and fencing. Some of the words are easy to figure out, if you know some French or Spanish. But it's the continental accent that gives me pause. All too often the last of a word is swallowed. A few months ago I watched RTP reports about forest fires for three days before I realized the word that sounded like "owe fogue" was "o fogo," or "fire."

Tuesday, 28 July 2009

Disinformaton Campaign in the US about Health Insurance: What Is Going on South of the Border?

Lately, as the US House and Senante prepare to vote on a new health insurance package, I’ve been getting e-mail from friends in the States, either asking for ammunition to use against those who are bad-mouthing the Canadian health insurance system as an example of what to avoid, or simply asking for information.

Heaven knows the Canadian system is not perfect, and is under attack here at home (see the op-ed piece Lee and his friend Terry Kaufmann wrote for Le Devoir about creeping privatization of surgical clinics. ) But there is no doubt that the Canadian public as a whole is far better served by it than people in the United States are by their system.

What is amazing is the possibility that old boy Democrats will kill the Obama health care reform package. Paul Krugman ranted a bit about that yesterday, while on Sunday David Leonhardt wrote forcefully about the vilification some US doctors have received when they’ve tried to change the way health care is organized and doctors paid in the US.

The bottom line is that at least 45 million Americans have no health insurance or inadequate insurance (and the numbers are going to jump in California as that state hobbles its program in order to meet its new budget plan,) that per capita expenditure on health is higher in the US than anywhere else in the world, and that by most health indicators Americans are less healthy than people in other developed countries (Canada, UK, France for example.)

A message to my friends across the border: this is an idea whose time came long ago. What are you waiting for?

Monday, 27 July 2009

Earlier Sundown and Music to Get You Started.

Last night it was dark at nine o’clock.

The days change by a minute or two, so slowly that you don’t really notice. But then suddenly the pieces fall in place and you realize that whereas it was clearly light until well after 9 p.m. in late June, it is now dark by then.

The fact that it was cloudy and rain threatened only accentuated the general trend. The days are growing shorter, the construction vacation—that peculiarly Quebec institution—is half over, summer is advancing, and I haven't accomplished half the fun things and only a quarter of the non-fun things I'd hoped to by now.

The fact that when it had gotten well and truly dark last night a thunder storm blew in doesn't help manners. In the space of fifteen minutes at least a half inch of rain fell, or more than our roof drain could handle. Some rain water backed up in to the basement, leading to much newspaper-spreading last night and some literal mopping up this morning.

So I for one feel like a little musical encouragement this morning. The line at the end is the eternal one for all aspiring artists, while singing about cars (and remember the Mustang Wilson Pickett ostensibly had in mind was Ford's attempt to make something sexy in 1963) is almost as provocative.

Saturday, 25 July 2009

Saturday Photo: Even Smaller Gardens

It's amazing what people will do to bring a little green and garden into their lives. The photo on the left was taken this week in the center of Montreal. The little patio faces south west, which means that it gets a nice amount of sunshine, but is not too hot in the middle of the day.

The second photo is one I took in Lisbon in May. The neighborhood is much older, and while part of it is being spiffied up, this building needs some paint and stucco work. Yet the people who live there obviously cared about having flowers just outside the window.

The point is that if you want green, you can have it just about anywhere. Here's a link to an interesting blog (from cold Calgary, no less) that specializes in balcony gardens, by the way: The Balcony Gardener.

For more about the relationship between people, nature and urban places, you might want to look at my book Green City, too.

Friday, 24 July 2009

Annals of the Sixth Extinction: The Bats are Back in Côte-des-Neiges

The news from Lukas is good.

Tuesday night he spotted bats flying around the balcony the way they’ve done for the last few years. Presumably they're catching insects in the mature maple whose branches reach up to the third floor where he and Sophie live, but where the animals nest is a mystery. There are no caves or empty structures readily apparent nearby where the bats might roost, although they certainly have been a fixture in Sophie and Lukas’s very urban neighborhood.

Bats are falling prey to a fungus disease, according to Elizabeth Kolbert in an alarming story in The New Yorker, and I had been wondering how the ones in Montreal were doing. Kolbert's article, entitled “The Sixth Extinction,” outlines the way in which humans have devastated the lives of other animals we share the planet with. She mentions the big mammals that we seem to have killed off wherever and whenever our populations expanded into new territory, but she goes on to tell of several diseases which we are spreading inadvertently right now. Amphibians and bees are being decimated by fungus —and now bats in the North East of the US are being attacked by white nose disease, which is also a fungus.

It would appear that the plague hasn’t crossed the border, though. A survey of abandoned mines by Quebec wildlife biologists turned up no cases last year, and now we have the report from the front—or at least the corner of Edouard-Montpetit and Westbury.

Thursday, 23 July 2009

The Editing Files: A.S. Byatt As a Case in Point

My friend Ann Charney and I had an interesting exchange about historical novels recently. She’s not that keen on them—“if you want to write about an historical period, why don’t you write non-fiction?” she asks--while I sometimes find them a wonderful window onto both human nature and the past.

But I must admit I was terribly disappointed by A.S. Byatt’s newest novel, The Children’s Book. Byatt is a writer who can catch the moment gloriously—some of her short stories are wonderful in the way they describe sensations so vividly that they stay with you months afterward. Her novel Possession is a masterful combination of such luminous descriptors of incident and of a story that encompasses decades. But I have found it a chore to read her four Frederica novels—The Shadow of the Sun, The Virgin in the Garden, A Whistling Woman (which I threw aside) and Babel Tower (by far the best.) The books tell me far more than I want to know about the world of her characters. All would have profited from editors who were not afraid to perform a savage pruning.

Byatt won the Blue Metropolis International Literary Prize earlier this year, which meant that she was in town this spring, and gave several readings and interviews. I did not hear her, but apparently she was riveting, and more than one acquaintance bought her new book on the strength of that.

Therefore I was more than ready to give her the benefit of the doubt with this new book. It is filled with vivd descriptions (particularly about pots and pantomime costumes), but once again I found myself growing cross with the way she tried to pour the history of the world from 1895 to 1920 into 600 pages. Everything is there, including an ending in the trenches of World War I. Why didn’t Byatt allow herself to be edited, to cut out much of the background information so our eyes are focused on her characters and their singular accomplishments? As Ann might say, if I wanted to know about the the period I would have read history, perhaps Barbara Tuchman's excellent The Proud Tower: A Portrait of the World before the War.

I read the novel in a couple of days--there is much that is engaging, some moments are brilliant—but what I would give for reading the same book with 100 pages cut from it! That would be something for the ages.

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

Eolian Energy: The Answer May Be Blowing in the Wind, But Not Everyone Sees It

Quebec announced one wind power project and cancelled another because of citizen protest the week before last. The timid step forward is part of a plan announced last year to add wind turbine production to Quebec’s electric generating capacity which now is based largely on hydroelectricity. At the same time, The New York Times is reporting that China is going into wind power in a big way—and making sure that outsiders don’t get too much of the action by setting standards that are hard for foreigners to meet.

Then there’s the case of Germany, which is now producing so much wind power that it has begun to shut down thermal plants because their production is no longer needed. The result of more than 15 years of positive incentives and legal requirements, the German wind power industry is an example for the rest of the world, Le Devoir’s environment report Louis-Gilles Francoeur suggests.

But citizen concern in North America about the health effects of wind power are mounting. A group of researchers at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario began surveying residents of nearby Wolf Island last year about their health, and plan on continuing the survey as a wind farm is put into operation and afterwards. While big questions can be asked about the validity of a survey where the participants aren’t chosen at random, but self-report, the very fact that it is getting media attention says something about the contradictions of our current energy situation.

The fact is that people want electricity and they want to run motor vehicles. What they don’t want to do is think about where the energy is going to come from, and when they are forced to do so, their gut reaction is to say no, not in my backyard.

But unless we do some drastic cutting in our energy consumption, our best case scenario—not our worst—involves high wind mill towers dotting the land. The Germans are even proud of theirs, Francoeur reports.

Tuesday, 21 July 2009

New I.F. Stone Biography: An Example of What Might Be Done with Citizen Journalism?

Last week I asked where the new I.F. Stones were, fully realizing that a generation has no idea whom I was talking about. The meticulously researched stories in his newsletter The I.F. Stone Weekly were a balm during the long days of the Vietnam War and brilliant evidence of what a reporter can uncover if he (or she) looks carefully. Somewhere in the basement is a complete set from about 1964 to the end of its existence: I will have to dig them out some day soon.

Then this weekend I came across news of what appears to be an most interesting biography: American Radical: The Life and Times of I. F. Stone by D. D. Guttenplan. Not only does the book tell his story—his early days in journalism, his black-listing, his deafness which led him to spend hours poring over transcripts which helped him discover facts hiding in plain sight—it contains some rare wisdom.

A Jew who grew up knowing discrimination, he none the less appreciated the complexities of Israel and Palestine. As early as 1946, a review in The New York Times notes, he wrote “exultantly”: “In Palestine a Jew can be a Jew.” But, the review adds, “he also noticed the Arabs: “Palestine is their home. They love their country. Any equitable and lasting solution of the Palestine problem must take these Arabs and their feelings into account.” “The essence of tragedy,” he wrote in The New York Review of Books after the 1967 war, “is a struggle of right against right. . . . In a tragic struggle, the victors become the guilty and must make amends to the defeated.”

In this new age of easy access to an Internet podium, I’d like to think that there are citizen journalists/bloggers/electronic observers who are examining what is happening in the world as carefully as Stone did, and giving us the benefit of their reflections.

Monday, 20 July 2009

Spell It Right! When Is a Book Review a Good Review?

What to do when a review isn’t a particularly good review, especially when it is published some place where a lot of people are going to see it? The past few days I’ve been faced with this dilemma over a review of The Walkable City: From Haussmann's Boulevards to Jane Jacobs' Streets and Beyond by Ezra Klein, the Washington Post reporter and master blogger, in The Barnes and Noble Review.

The book has received quite good reviews to date (see links to the right) but Klein, in short, says the book isn’t tough enough. He likes the chapter about Carlsbad, California and shopping centers, but says that there is not enough research presented about questions of urban policy. Nor does he like the conversations I imagine between urban planning icon Jane Jacobs and Baron Georges Eugène Haussmann, who was responsible for rejigging Paris in the mid-19the century (which, by the way, are taken word for word from their writings or interviews, as is noted in the book.)

Well, it's too bad I didn’t write the book Klein would have liked to have read, but I wanted to make my book as amusing as possible. I tried to keep the tone light, particularly because the implications are pretty heavy, and I’m convinced that ordinary folk turn off when things are painted in somber colours. Klein and I had a very civilized e-mail/Twitter exchange about this, from which I think we both gathered that we agree about many things, if not this book.

That said, there are certain advantages to getting even a doubtful review from Barnes and Noble. They haven’t carried my books in numbers in the past, but apparently they are with this one. An old high school friend just wrote that she’d been able to get her local B&N store to order it for her, and I know my publisher did a reprint because of B&N orders.

So maybe the old adage is correct: it doesn’t matter what they say, it’s whether they spell your name right. Check out the review, take a look at the book, and see if you agree. In addition to Barnes and Noble, it’s available at many independent book stores, on,, and directly from Véhicule Press.

Saturday, 18 July 2009

Saturday Photo: Lisbon, New and Old

Lisbon is a beautiful mixture of architecture over the centuries. I liked this juxtaposition of a late 20th century building with one from the late 19th century building.

The two co-exist pleasantly not far from the major traffic circle where the Marqes de Pombal, who saw to the rebuilding of the city after the disastrous earthquake of 1755, surveys what has become of the city.

Friday, 17 July 2009

More News Needed, Even in Summer: Where Are the New I.F. Stones?

All right, it is summer, but it’s also time to say loudly that covering funerals, no matter how sad, and anniversaries, no matter what the event, is lazy journalism.

We have been treated over the last few weeks with an orgy of necrology: a former governor general, a former pop star, a child snatched away, too many young soldiers. Each is sad, I agree, but to suggest that word pictures and video clips of rock musicians, weeping mothers, and/or pipers (take your pick) are the equivalent of investigative journalism or serious comment is ludicrous.

Ditto for the 40 years since the Walk on the Moon (and has anybody noticed its coincidence with the Moon Walker’s demise?) It was pretty exciting, I admit, but is there nothing more probing to say than that? The Space Race was a child of the Cold War: surely some reflection on what the military-industrial complex has done since would make good copy.

Taking the easy way out has always been tempting, but it seems there’s far more of it. Budgets in newsgathering organizations are slim because of economic bad times and the competition from all those citizen journalists. Who’s going to do the probing necessary to tell the stories we need to hear, even if it’s summer?

If there are any I.F. Stone’s out there, please stand up.

Thursday, 16 July 2009

Thyme and Time in Cemeteries and Ian McEwan

Last summer I rhapsodized and puzzled over the carpet of purple flowers in the grass on sunny slopes in Mount Royal Cemetery. I thought they might be a small mountain azalea, and then decided they resembled a clover more. But yesterday discovered that I’d been complicating things: they’re neither and I should have realized earlier.

A pair of young women horticulturalists were weeding a patch of daylilies amid one of the purple slopes, and I had to ask. The flowers are just forming, but it’s clear that the plants have spread, and will soon be absolutely gorgeous.

“Thyme,” the young women told me.

Of course: when I crushed a couple of leaves between my fingers and breathed in the spicy smell, I wondered at how silly I had been not to recognize the herb earlier.

The revelation reminded me of two fleeting bits of Ian McEwan’s Atonement. I looked for the passages last night, but couldn’t find them so I must rely on memory to explain. As I remember it, Robbie Turner, the gardener/family friend destroyed by misunderstanding in the book, has planted thyme between the paving blocks on the terrace of the stately house at the center of the first part of the novel. Years later, someone mentally notes the lovely smell arising from the terrace when the thyme is walked on.

The two passages amount to nothing more than a couple of paragraphs, but (as I remember it at least) the thyme becomes a symbol of the way events linger in time, permeating and permutating people’s lives. A singularly appropriate plant for a cemetery too, I know for sure.

Tuesday, 14 July 2009

Going with the Flow: Permeable Paving and Beauty Underfoot

The value of permeable paving became clear over the weekend when we had a series of intense thunderstorms. Out walking yesterday I saw several good sized ponds on asphalted driveways, as well as deltas of dirt and sand where runoff washed away parts of exposed soil.

Where asphalt had been replaced by brick or interlocking blocks, though, I saw no standing water. Water had been able to percolate into the soil, replenishing both the ground water and cutting down on run-off.

The walkways and parking places reminded me of the gorgeous paving mosaics I saw in Lisbon in May. While maintenance of such widespread use of small-block paving is easier where labour is cheap, a lot can be said for it even in North America. Repairs do not require breaking up a large swath of paving, since just the blocks affected can be replaced. And since our freeze and thaw cycle means that asphalt or concrete paving is going to break up after a few years anyway, why not start out with something that will move with the frost cycle without major damage?

The pictures are of several sorts of mosaics that I saw, from the most basic on ordinary, residential streets to the gorgeous designs on Avenida da Liberdade.

Monday, 13 July 2009

Religious Sensibilities: Good Will Counts, But Unbelievers Sometimes Don't Understand the Subtleties

When in Rome do as the Romans: interesting that Stephen Harper had an audience with Pope Benedict XVI shortly after a small storm blew up over whether he’d taken communion at a funeral mass recently. How could he, as a Protestant? And if he didn’t swallow the host, did he just stick it in his pocket, which would be even worse?

It can be confusing for a non-Catholic to be presented with the host during a mass: Lukas, aged 12, found himself in that situation at a Christmas party organized by a priest at his nominally Catholic high school. It was a time when he was quite serious about religion (the year before he had decided to be baptized as an Anglican) and came home very upset because he hoped he’d done no wrong in taking the host when he hadn’t been confirmed a Catholic. No disrespect was intended, no harm was done, I assured him, and that is what Catholic officials have said in Harper’s case.

Harper should have been better briefed, though. Sensibilities are different among believers of different faiths—although sometimes in surprising ways. A friend recently sent me this link. She’s a serious Francophone Catholic, but thought this was very funny. As an Protestant-reared, thorough-going unbeliever, I would never have dared!

Saturday, 11 July 2009

Saturday Photo: Not April, Not Paris, But Chestnuts Nevertheless

The song says: "April in Paris, Chestnuts in blossom..."

It's a lovely song, although when I've been in Paris in May the chestnuts were in full flower, somewhat later than the old standard would indicate. In Montreal the flowering period is late May and early June, certainly.

Between then and the fall when the chestnuts themselves fall to the ground, I've never paid much attention to what is happening in the trees. But last week I walked across the Van Horne viaduct (from which you get some great views of the mountain) and discovered myself eye to eye, so to speak with a chestnut growing down below. The branches were covered with young chestnuts, their spiny covering looking almost soft in their innocence.

And if you'd like to hear a great rendition of the song:

Friday, 10 July 2009

Obama, Sarkozy and a Girl from Ipanema: A Reassuring Look at (American) Presidential Flaws

This just in: here's the link to an ABC video which clears Obama of any suggestion of ungallantry--but not Sarkozy.

One of my mentors commented once that he was always uneasy around people who seemed without flaw. No one is perfect, he would say. Better to have a vice or two that you admit than to have compulsions seething below the surface that you do not acknowledge.

I suppose that’s why Barack Obama’s struggle to quit smoking is, in an odd way, reassuring. The man is so extraordinary that it’s sometimes hard to believe that he has ordinary faults. But a couple of weeks ago he spoke again about his nicotine addiction as he signed an measure designed to protect young people from tobacco advertising “I know. I was one of those teenagers...I know how difficult it can be to break this habit once you’ve started.”

Then this morning Le Devoir (and I imagine other newspapers) carried a Reuters photo of Obama, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and a young Brazilian delegate to the G8 meetings. The two men appear to be looking intently at the young woman as she passes, a real girl from Ipanema.

Now, Michelle Obama seems as much a woman as any man could want and the First Couple seem to have a very strong marriage, but other political marriages have turned out to be a lot of smoke and mirrors. It would be a terrible disappointment if the Obamas were not as deeply committed to each other as they appear.

Does this photo raise that sad prospect? Hardly. I find it rather encouraging even: to me it looks like the US President has all the instincts of an ordinary man. But he’s chosen one of the sharpest women around for his life’s partner, and they’ve stuck together though good times and some bad ones. A passing glance that a photographer caught doesn't count for much weighed against years of partnership.

Can’t say the same about Sarkozy though, with his three wives, an unknown number of flings, and the perpetual roving eye. That’s too much disclosure and not enough self-control.

Thursday, 9 July 2009

Krugman, Cats and Health Care: Why US Reform Will Work and an "Antidote du Jour"

It’s been a while since I’ve read Paul Krugman: economics is the dismal science, of course, and I just had to take a break from it. But given the avalanche of tinsel about Michael Jackson, I went looking for some serious commentary in Krugman.

And guess what? He may be a little tired of being serious too. On his blog recently he had an “Antidote du jour” item, before he went on to the more weighty stuff. The "antidote" subject was a visit to the vet for his cat Doris Lessing.

Doris Lessing? He would have won me over with that even if I didn’t find his analysis of the state of the world just about the most pertinent going. Perhaps there’s a connection between her medical appointment (to have her liver checked, he writes) and the subject of his most recent column "HELP is on the Way," which is about why health insurance reform in the US will work. Medical bills for pets aren't covered by universal health insurance in Canada, but thank goodness people's bills are.

Wednesday, 8 July 2009

ERDC Update: Ready for Another Round in the Electronic Rights Battle

On Monday I had the pleasure of meeting the expanded legal team for the Electronic Rights Defence Committee. You’ll remember that this is the 12-year-long class action to win compensation for the unauthorized electronic use of freelancers work by The Gazette and assorted others. After what seemed to be interminable delays despite the sterling work of the ERDC’s lawyer Mireille Goulet, the class action was authorized by the Quebec Superior Court this spring.

Now the hard part really begins, and Mireille advised us that she was going to need some help. That she has got the case this far is a real David and Goliath story, but a one-person law office just doesn’t have the resources to go head-to-head with some of the country’s biggest law firms. So she scouted around and found Sylvestre Fafard Painchaud, a Montreal firm that was one of the first to take on class actions when enabling legislation was passed a couple of decades ago. I must say I was most favourablly impressed by the two lawyers who will now be working with Mireille, Pierre Sylvestre and Catherine Sylvestre (others from the firm may join them occasionally, too.)

So I think we’re ready for the next round...

Tuesday, 7 July 2009

Urban Gardeners and Gleaners: From Squirrels to Guerillas

The squirrels have already begun to eat the pears, even though the fruit are no bigger than an inch long and hard as rocks. After last year’s bumper crop, I don’t know how many we’ll get, especially since we cut the trees back significantly last fall. But the pear bits littering the ground, as well as the apple munchings in the lane from the apple tree across the way remind me of what a bonanza cities are for urban eaters.

Le Devoir had a trio of stories about guerilla gardening and gutsy gleaning on the weekend. One story featured a young woman who spends all her time searching for food growing in the interstices of the city—“It’s my job,” she’s quoted as saying. Also featured are a woman in Toronto who is raising bees in hives of the top of the Royal York Hotel as well as pioneers trying to persuade municipal authorities to allow chickens in residential neighborhoods. Then there are the young folk who make seed bombs—a mixture of compost, seeds and earth which are propelled into vacant lots and the edges of roadway and railroads to begin gardens in waste land.

All of this is impressive stuff, but I think it pales compared to the community garden movement in Montreal. There are more than 90 of them on various plots of land around the city. Gardeners can grow some flowers, but the main thrust is food. It’s a great initiative, with waiting lists and marvelous, well-loved garden plots.

Monday, 6 July 2009

Poetry, Short Stories and Music: Enlightenment for Stephen Harper This Summer?

It’s summer time and the living is—maybe—easy. Yann Martel has sent a nice big package to Stephen Harper for his summer pleasure, number 58 and 59 in his continuing attempt to provide our Prime Minister with some good bedtime reading.

The first is a both a book and an audio book of Alice Munro’s short story collection Runaway. (If you aren't familiar with it, you should read Jonathan Franzen's fascinating review from The New York Times.) Martel prefaces this part of his gift by asking if Harper has called Munro yet to congratulate her on winning the International Man Book Award a week or so ago. He writes that when he won the regular Booker in 2002, he was delighted when the Prime Minister of the day Jean Chrétien called him with congratulations. A small detail in a busy political life but Martel says it meant a lot.

The Door, a book of poetry by that other grande dame of CanLit, Margaret Atwood, is a natural accompaniment, Martel writes, while the audio book of Munro’s short stories is perfect for long road trips that the PM is likely to make this summer as he does his political rounds. Which brings up the last part of the gift package, Camino, a CD of music and sounds by the Canadian violinist Oliver Shroer, inspired by the pilgrimage of Santiago de Compostella. Nice listening, for sure.

Martel says he’s off for a trek in the high country of Peru, so he won’t be sending anything a long for a while. But it seems to me that Harper has got more than enough good reading to last for several summer evenings. Would that the invitation to reflection that the books offer translate into enlightenment.

Saturday, 4 July 2009

Saturday Photo: Small Front Yards III, Or Pleasure in Front of a Triplex

One of the basic types of housing in the center of Montreal is what's called a triplex here: buildings three stories tall with a flat on each floor. They're big apartments with six to eight rooms. When they were built in the early part of the 20th century their original residents were the families of factory workers, clerks, and small merchants. Many fell into disrepair when the great exodus to the suburbs began, but over the last 15 years they've been discovered by more middle-class young people looking for solidly built housing offering the convenience and pleasures of the city.

Both of these front gardens are on Waverly Street in the Mile End district. The one on the left shows how much fun for little kids you can pack into a 25 by 10 foot space in front of your house, while the one on the right gives a taste of the tranquility than can be created in the same amount of front garden.

And, by the way, this morning when I passed the Garderie Querbes, whose garden I wrote about a week ago, I noticed that it now has a green expanse of lawn where the controversial aménagement paysager had been.

Friday, 3 July 2009

Strawberries, at Home and Abroad: Wild Ones and the Wide World

The very best strawberries are wild ones. My sister who was only two or three was the champion at picking them those couple of summers we spent some time on the Oregon coast near Yachats. We would walk along the top of the cliffs and look for the berries, my mother, Laurie, my aunt Norma and my cousin Susan. The mothers were hoping for a treat for dinner (we were not rich, by any means, and I now realize that a real vacation was something they must have budgeted carefully.) Susan and I ate the few berries we found as soon as we spied them, but Laurie was young enough to be delighted at being praised for her sharp eyes, and carefully brought all she found back to the grownups.

I’ve rarely tasted strawberries as good, even though we await strawberry season here eagerly. The price at the Jean Talon Market has started to drop—a crate of 12 baskets for $18 Wednesday—but because of the rain, they aren’t as sweet as usual. Nevertheless we’re eating a lot because the season is so short and the winter is so long.

When I was in Portugal in May the first of the strawberries—quite good ones, too--were in the markets. I almost missed buying them though because I didn’t recognize the Portuguese word for them. It’s morango, and like many things Lusophone it bears little relation to the words for strawberries use on the other side of the mountains. The Spanish word is fresa and the French, fraise which appear to come from the Latin fragum, but I have no idea what morango’s etymology is.

In case you’re travelling this summer, here’s a list of strawberry translations, adapted from Wiktionairre.

Afrikaans : aarbei
Albanian : luleshtrydhe
German: Erdbeere, féminine
Bulgraian : ягода (ǎgoda)
Catalan : maduixa
Cheokee : ᎠᏅ (anǝ)
Chinese : 草莓 (cǎoméi)
Korean : 딸기 (
Croate : jagoda, féminine
Danish : jordbær, neutre
Espéranto : frago
Fareon : jarðber
Finnish : mansikka
Frisien : ierdbei
Galician : amorodo, masculin
Hebrew : תות (he)* שדה (he)*
Hungarian: eper (hu)*, földieper (hu)*, szamóca (hu)*
Ido : frago
Indonesian : arbei (id)*
Italian: fragola, féminine
Japanese: イチゴ (ja)*
Kinyarwanda : kere (inkere)
Kurd: tûfiringî, féminine
Latin: fragum
Lenape: tèhim
Lithuanian: žemuogė
Dutch: aardbei, aardbezie (nl)*
Norwegian: jordbær
Polish: truskawka
Russian : земляника, клубника
Senaca: katsistõtaˀshæˀ
Swedish: smultron, jordgubbe
Swahili: stroberi
Czech: jahoda
Turk: çilek
Ukrainian: полуниця (uk)* (polunicǎ)
Zulu : istrobheri

Thursday, 2 July 2009

July 2 Isn't Anybody's Holiday, But Let's Celebrate Anyway...

...because the sun is out, and I feel like dancing!

Judy Ingerman forwarded this to me, but I haven't been able to find out much about who are the musicians/dancers/artists. The video was posted on YouTube by a 15 year old Canadian who says his English isn't very good.

Wednesday, 1 July 2009

Canada Day: On the Move in Montreal--on Bikes

July 1 is Canada Day but it’s also moving day in Montreal. Yesterday Le Devoir had a delightful story about one young man who’s making a career moving people on bicycles, which combined the annual ritual (standard leases run from July 1 to June 30) with a light-hearted approach to life suitable for a holiday.

Julien Myette now has three bicycle-powered carts which he and two employees use for small moves. Hiring them is cheaper than hiring a truck, he says, adding that people are charmed by what he does. That includes wrestling refrigerators down stairs from third floor apartments and then peddling them to their new home.

At the same time, Montrealers appear to be taking a lot more bike rides. The new bike path in our neighborhood which connects the Université de Montréal with a major bicycle thoroughfare is getting a lot of traffic, while bike racks on shopping streets are full of bikes parked as their owners run errands. But the big news is the welcome Bixi, the rental bicycle scheme, has received. Launched officially May 12, in six weeks time 5,300 people signed up for monthly or yearly subscriptions and 150,000 individual rides had been taken, The Gazette reports. Some bikes and racks have been vandalized but so far no more than had been anticipated.

Well, you aren't going to get me on a bike any time soon (got run over by one at an impressionable age, if you have to know) but I like to see people using their muscles to get around. The Walkable City should also be the Bikeable City.