Archive for the ‘travel’ Category


November 14, 2011

Six o’clock always comes too early. Kay had set the alarm for it, but she was awake five minutes before, nervous that she would not meet the seven forty-five train, the last morning train into Vancouver. She padded about doing her morning ablutions, brushing her teeth, combing her hair, slipping into the clothing that she had laid out the night before.

It was alway wise for Kay to set everything out the night before because her brain did not start working until ten, and by that time, she would already be in Vancouver.

At The Station in Vancouver, she found a coffee bar and ordered up a large sized misto, then sat watching the commuters stream from the train exit doors towards the street exit. Every few minutes, another train would arrive. Crowded, jostling people would obscure her view until, suddenly, there were only one or two people sauntering by, not concerned with being anywhere on time, not going anywhere special. Like Kay, for the next hour.

She took up an abandoned paper and worked the Sudoku then the crossword. Her camera lay on the table, the shoulder strap curled around her right arm. It was a poor area of town with druggies, not always recognizable. A good camera would give them a few hits in trade. It was wise to hang on to it against such an eventuality.

Just before ten, Kay rose, chucked her cup and newspaper, loaded her overnight bag onto her shoulder, lifted  the hidden handle to her valise and began to roll it towards the direction of the Art Gallery. Her old time friends – Degas, Monet, Manet, Fantin Latour, Val Jean, Pissaro,Toulouse Lautrec and others of their era were showing their drawings. It was a Gallery Blockbuster, borrowed from the Quai d’Orsay Museum in Paris, a rare thing for Vancouver, halfway around the world.

At noon, Kay left the gallery, sated with visions of Parisians and their environs, to head back to The Station and the Canada Line to the airport. At the Main airport terminal, she waited for the Shuttle bus, sitting on the bench beside a thin man smoking a cigarette, engrossed in his newspaper.

When she boarded, the thin man helped her with her valise, lifting the heavy red case with ease onto the back of the Shuttle Bus to the South Terminal. And then at two, the plane to Trail was boarding, for it was in Trail that Lizbet would pick her up.

Lizbet was moving. After thirty seven years in her small community, she was leaving to settle in retirement on the coast near Parksville.  Kay was coming to help her close up the house and to pack.

It was odd, thought Kay, that there was no security for these smaller airports. People lined up just like they used to in the ‘Sixties, walked through the doors and across the tarmac to the airplane, walked up rickety steps to the cabin and bent double going down the aisle to a seat of one’s choice. It felt archaic.

But the thought did not actually take form until, landing in Trail, everyone walked back down the rickety steps to the landing strip asphalt and walked to the exit gate.
It was a bright but cloud-covered day. There, not fifteen feet away behind a three foot chain link fence with no other sign of security, was Lizbet and her dog Heidi. They were  standing in an unmown patch of grass waiting with the others for the passengers to get their baggage and come out to them, ”

There was Heidi dog wriggling her whole body, furiously waving her tail, running in short circles at the end of her leash, emitting a high pitched squeal of delight at the sight of Kay.

“Hello!” said Kay, greeting Lizbet, then nodding to the dog who was trying to leap up to give Kay a dog’s kiss, “She remembers me!

“Ah yes, ” Lizbet replied, “She has a fabulous memory for people.”

And off they went to the car to continue on to Lizbet’s home.

“Do you realize,” said Kay, “how special that is? How unusual now, to have an airport with no need for major security, like this one, in Trail?”

“It gives you an odd feeling, of having found the original sense of security – that everything is right with the world here. Trusting, Safe. Right with the world.


If you don’t, then I will …

November 30, 2010

The plate glass window gave no privacy. It was at ground level, looking out to the courtyard. Kay pulled the thick red drape across. She didn’t like the room and this made it worse. She would be a self-made prisoner of her hotel room. But it didn’t matter. It was only for two nights.

She selected a water bottle, some whole grain bars, a pen and note book, her map of Zurich and her camera and stuffed them into her black carry all, slung it over her shoulder and locked the door behind her. As she unlocked the tubular steel gate, she noticed a commotion on the road. Just in front of the cafe doors, a paddy wagon was loading a street person.

At least the police frequent the area,” Kay said wryly to herself, repeating “it’s only for two days” as a mantra. It was a small measure of comfort. She checked to her left and right. There was no reason why she shouldn’t cross, and she stepped out smartly towards the corner to head back to the station and then into town.

When she went past the circus area, she crossed the street to the other side to avoid a small knot of people. A drug deal was in progress. She hastened her step, consciously not looking, keeping to herself, passing between a police woman with arms crossed, waiting, and the midnight blue van with the circulating blue light. It wasn’t her business.

Soon she arrived at the canal and instead of heading to the station she followed the canal  into the old city where she sought a cafe. A hot steamy cup of European coffee would do much to restore her spirits.

The center of the city was filled with holiday-goers and upscale shoppers. There were quality stores for clothing and watches, for footwear and for financial dealings. There was little in sight for dining or cafe-people-watching. She walked along, alert to her surroundings, knowing she would have to find her way back to the hotel without the aid of Gretel’s white stones.

It was getting on in the afternoon, but the September sun wouldn’t set until after seven. She walked up to St. Peter’s church and was shooed out of it. It was too late.  She wandered down an adjoining street and found a place  filled with smartly dressed people where she found a small empty table and ordered coffee. At ground level, the store fronts were modernized and elegant. One story up, the stone carved window frames spoke of centuries gone by, with shutters wide open to let the least breeze in against the unseasonal heat.

It was, she decided, not really a pretty city. There was a greyness to it.  What was she doing here, she asked herself, wandering alone through less than exciting streets while her green luscious garden was growing back home? She didn’t like shopping at home and she didn’t like it when she was away. It was ridiculous to be window shopping day after day for something to do.

She had been traveling too long. She had no one to share her table; no one to share her meanderings through the street. Traveling with someone was much better, she concluded. But she would not waste the day, and she rose to tackle a few more streets in search of something interesting.

At six, she began to find her way home through streets that were ill marked. Finally she saw the station and knew she could orient herself from there.  By now, she was tired and putting one foot in front of the other with stubborn perseverance. It was time to find some dinner.
I’ll eat near the hotel.  I won’t be trying to  finding my way in a rough part of town in the dark.” She was determined to be home early, though in her effort to travel light she had brought very little to amuse herself for a whole evening in her miniscule hotel room.

When she came up Militarstrasse, she passed by the pizza place making a mental note that the men outside were swarthy and mafia-like. It would be a last choice, she thought.  At the corner, she poked her nose in the cafe, but it was dirty and the customers looked none too clean either. Outside the cafe, only men sat at the side walk cafe, but inside there were a few women. The proportion was about ten to one.  She would not eat here.

She passed by this establishment a few steps forward to the Irish Pub, but it had no windows to be able to see what it might offer.  As she came alongside it, she stopped to see the notice board. Strip dancing shows were continuous, a poster stated. The lovely ladies were displayed in black and white photos behind the glass encased notices. That was definitely not a place for dinner.

Across the street, another cafe offered it’s wares. The tables were rickety, covered with plastic tablecloths and the chairs were old and worn. It was six o’clock but there were only four men in it, drinking. A large television had a sports program running. The walls and the decor was all a muddied buttercup yellow making it look lurid. There was no evidence of food except for a soiled menu posted on the door.  Kay was uncomfortable about it and didn’t even come close to read it.  She continued on.

Beside the yellow cafe was a lingerie shop. Red lace garters and black brassieres  were lustily filled with dark skinned mannequins. Next to it was an African  jewelry store displaying the wares in a wholesale style, crowded together. There were mannequin heads with wigs in a rainbow of colors – cotton candy pinks, greens and blues; an electric blue, a lemon yellow, an orange and a purple – that sat on a shelf just above the necklaces and bracelets. Who would wear these?

It was evident. There was no decent place to eat up this street. So Kay turned back to explore the lateral streets, with no better success. She sighed and returned to the pizza place.

At Milano Pizzeria, the men at the outdoor tables eyed her, mentally calculating her interest to them. She went swiftly by them into the cafe and found herself in a dining room with thirty tables, each dressed in a linen cloth with folded napkin, silverware and a wine  and water glasses.

A tall, thin waiter who had been lounging outside the door turned back into the cafe.

“Can I eat inside?” Kay asked, warily in French.

“Of course!” he answered in French without an accent. “Where would you like to sit?”

The place was empty. She chose one with her back to the door, close to the door where people walking by outside could not see her easily. He handed her a menu and left her to make her selection.  Across two tables, there was a bar where a young man was rolling pizza dough in the air. The waiter returned, spoke to him briefly in Italian. The man at the bar brought out some glasses and filled them with red wine and the waiter whisked them away to his sidewalk patrons.

He returned to Kay in five minutes.

“Have you chosen?” he solicitously.

“No,” she said, forlornly. “I can’t read a word of what is written here. It’s all in German. The only thing I can guess at is Schwein.  That’s pork, isn’t it?”

“Yes.” His  mouth registered a trace of a smile. Diplomacy was good business if a tip were to be earned.

“Well, please would you chose something for me? Not too expensive. I just want a light dinner. And not spicy.”

“Cotelets?” he asked. “Everything is very good. I think you will like this.”

It was schwein with tagliatelle for twenty two Swiss francs. Expensive, she thought, but what was she to do? Whatever tagliatelle was, she would eat it. She had never heard of it before but she didn’t want to expose her ignorance. She nodded her agreement.

“And an entrée?”
She declined, shaking her head, “No.” He looked askance as if she had offended the propriety of eating out. An entrée was de rigeur!

“But a glass of house wine. Red. Please?”

“Of course.” And he went to place the order.

Kay sat, her head spinning, wary like a fox of her surroundings, railing against the expense of eating out day by day and not even getting what she wanted for dinner. There seemed no middle ground for nourishment for a tourist much less any low cost options.

Two men came in from the sidewalk tables. They sat four tables away from Kay and she watched out of boredom. They did not seem interesting. Then the waiter came to their table and sat with them. The lad from the bar brought them each a drink.

They were not noticing her, so she brought out her sketch book and drew them, noting the particularity of their shapes, the dark of their business jackets, the  light of their faces, in comparison, and the dark of their hair.  She drew them rapidly, hoping they would not see her doing so and perhaps object.  What if they did not want to be seen here. Her sketching of them might be interpreted as an invasion. A danger.

She flipped the page and began a drawing of the tables with the repetition of cutlery and glassware, serviettes, tables and chair backs. The waiter came carrying a pizza. She closed her sketchbook.

“Would you like a piece?” he asked.

“Oh, no thanks,” Kay replied.

“Go ahead. It’s mine. Really, have a piece.”

She felt as if she might insult him if she did not accept, so she smiled and allowed him to give her a slice on a small bread plate.

It was delicious. She had not expected her hunger was so strong; it was due to all the walking; but she was thankful that she had not ordered the pizza for dinner. It was thin crusted and there was very little on it.

Soon her dinner arrived. It was indeed a pork chop, a thin one, covered in an excellent creamy pepper sauce and it came with a small portion of pasta.

“Did you like it?” he asked when he picked up her plate.

“Oh yes! Your sauce master is an excellent cook! May I have a coffee? ”

” No dessert?” He seemed offended.

“No dessert.”

He brought the coffee and the bill.

When he left, she examined the bill. The main dish. Twenty two francs. Wine. Six francs. Tagliatelle five francs. Coffee, four francs. Total thirty seven. The Swiss franc was even with the Canadian dollar. Thirty seven dollars for a thin pork chop and hardly anything n the plate. That was outrageous.

So he had charged her for the pizza after all, she thought bitterly. They can see a tourist coming a mile away. But she was determined not to  complain. She felt too vulnerable, all round, to have to challenge the bill and she wanted desperately to have a pleasant part to her day.  Especially in this place, she would not complain; but she vowed she would not eat in this district the next day. But really! Five francs for a slice of pizza!

She brought out her money and placed exactly thirty seven francs on the table. At this price, with so little dinner, I’m not giving a tip besides, she thought.

He came and lingered at the table.

“Alors! A budding Picasso!”

“Picassa, I think. Do you want to see?”


“Here. It’s yours.” Kay tore the page from her sketchbook and gave it to him.

His smile stretched wide and he took it.

She packed her things and left.  At the corner, she stopped at the grocery store, a grim little place with ready-made snacks. She took an apple, yogurt, a bottle of spring water and a cereal bar. That would give her breakfast. Thirteen francs for a Rothaus hotel breakfast was just too much!

In her room, there was a book, her journal and the television for the remainder of the evening.  From her bed, the only place to relax, she watched Pretty Woman with Richard Gere in dubbed Italian.  Kay didn’t understand a word, but she had seen it twice before, long ago,  and knew the story.

The next day she toured the city for galleries and points of interest. She ate her meal late in the afternoon and was back early at the Rothaus. Just as she approached, she once again saw the paddy wagon, blue light flashing, doors open just at the entrance of the hotel.

A man was being loaded into it. On the ground, a woman sat, dazed, the entire contents of her purse spread around her – condoms, syringes, pills, lipstick, personal effects. The police woman was urging her to gather her belongings and come with her, I suppose, the second customer for the wagon in blue.

Kay caught the police woman’s eye, pointed her finger towards the Rothaus gate and received a nod. Yes, she could pass by with impunity. She could get into her hotel.

At least the police frequent the area. It’s just one more night. I can leave early in the morning,” she calmed herself. “It’s just one more night.

Kay was telling her experience to an Italian friend when she got back home.

“Anyway,” she said, “what is tagliatelle?”

“It’s pasta.”

“Pasta? They charged me five francs for pasta? That’s outrageous!”

“But he didn’t charge me for the pizza. It really was a gift!”

Hi again!

November 16, 2010

Nephew Hugh is in Geneva, I may have said, doing a six-month internship which has just ended, but they’ve hired him on contract, so he’s there for another five months for sure and maybe one more. Hooray! He’s getting a salary commensurate with his qualifications – his new Master’s degree.

With my principal aim to go see him, I flew to Paris and then took the high speed train down Geneva.  Now, I couldn’t land in Paris without going to see some exhibitions, so I arranged with my cousin Claire from Montreal to meet me there and spend a week. Fabulous! It’s been twenty years since last I was there.

We walked a lot seeing sights, got our exercise climbing stairs in and out of the Metro. No wonder the perky girls of Paris are so pert and slender. They get their exercise going places. So much walking, so many stairs!

I saw a Permanent collection exhibition at the Petit Palais; Monet and the Abstractionist that were influenced by him at the Marmottan;  spent three hours seeing William Kentridge at the Jeu de Paume; an hour’s look at end of day at the Louvre; a retrospective of Modern art in the Centre Beaubourg plus a contemporary exhibit of women’s art was there too.

It was late August. All the commercial galleries were closed for summer holidays. Tourists, it seems, do not buy art.

We ate meals of wine, cheese, dairy products, crunchy crusted baguettes, and fresh fruit and vegetables in our room, with products from Monoprix, a department store with a large grocery department. With a good steak knife I bought from a flea market and our saved plastic cutlery from the plane, we had all the utensils we needed.  We ate lunches at “selfs” which are self-serve canteens for inexpensive eating-out and we ate lunches sitting on city benches with pre-cooked finger food from bakeries and corner groceries; and a had few dinners at restaurants packed with Parisiens and tourists, the kind Paris is famous for. We drank tiny cups of delicious French coffee thereby renting the right to sit and watch the world go by.

We took a day to go to Auvers sur Oise where van Gogh spent his last days and wandered through the small town, up to the church, over to the cemetery, through the fields and back via the Chateau d’Auvers where there was a good but small exhibition of theatre deisgn drawings.

After six full days of a mad tourist schedule, Claire returned home and I continued on.

She left Friday morning and by noon, I had traveled by train to see my art professor from thirty-five years back. He and his wife live in a lovely small town in the Marne Valley in a starkly modern but nonetheless warm home they designed themselves. They, being part of a Champagne families,  toasted my arrival with a bottle of the best and we had a whole afternoon of catch-up and then wonderful French home-cooked dinner. I took the train back to Paris and arrived near midnight.

Next day I visited one of my classmates, Veronique, now a retired fabric designer, still teaching art through art centres. She lives in the outskirts of Paris. She took me to a lovely park that the community is allowing to go back to wilderness so that the birds and wildlife will come back into the city area. Late day, I headed back to my hotel to pack up for my trip to Geneva next morning.

The train goes 300 kph. It’s almost impossible to take photos from the moving train now, but I got a few. What North Americans don’t realize, often, is that there are vast tracts of farm lands in Europe, and of forests. We tend to think of Europe as being swallowed up by urban sprawl.

Not so! The urban landscape has gone vertical. Yes, there is sprawl, but the French know how precious their green spaces are and they are carefully managed, retained.So it was a pleasure to fill my eyes with views of acres and acres of farmed lands, of deciduous forests, of vineyards populated by small towns with clusters of red-tiled roofs.

Approaching Geneva in less than three hours from Paris, the landscape climbed into the mountains, the train passed by rocky escarpments and hilly farms with terraced agriculture. Much of it looked like green corduroy where vineyard grew.

Nephew Hugh met me in Geneva at the train station. We arranged a cell phone for me for the duration of my stay – two weeks – and then found a bus to take us up to his residence where he had been able to find accommodation for me. There was still a kilometer to walk from the last stop near the World Health Organization building. I was glad of his muscle and youthful energy, for I had brought far more luggage than I could manage by myself and now he was carrying most of it.

We went immediately to dinner at the least expensive restaurant he had found in the six-month duration of his stay. It was horrendously expensive in comparison to  Canadian similar restaurants, and for the remainder of the stay, the cost of living was a hot topic of discussion.

As Hugh was working during the day, I saw museums of which Geneva has lots, and walked, exploring districts surrounding the places I chose to go. Their Museum of Modern Art is wonderful.

I also went to see the Baur Collection of porcelain which I found interesting but not more than that and for the price was given a free ticket of entry to the Patek Phillipe museum.

I tried to give the ticket away to Hugh’s friends a couple of times without success. What did I want to see a museum of watches for, I asked myself.  I ended up going to it just because I found myself outside the door of it on one of my exploratory walks and I am still raving about it being one of the very best museums I have ever been to. I was astounded at the workmanship that had been produced  in the 17th century and thereafter in the domain of horology. The miniatures painted on porcelain, the miniature sculptures into which time pieces were set, the work in gold, silver and enamel, the detail, the precision, the imagination, the humor were all there. Though we have precision in the computer and industrial world, we have lost so much manual skill and art in modern times. I would go back to that museum many times, given the opportunity. It was one of the highlights of my trip.

There was a long weekend for Hugh while I was there. We met Cousin Barbara at the Geneva airport and took an Alpy Bus to Chamonix in France for the duration of his days off. It was a lovely four days of eating, drinking sleeping and long walks. Barbara was off on a walking tour around Mont Blanc on Sunday. We all had our own agendas – Hugh, to catch up on his sleep after a grueling three weeks of preparation for a conference, Barbara to get over jet-lag before her walking tour began, and I, to get some time to paint.

We met for breakfast, lunch and dinner and there was no question of finding groceries and making makeshift meals in our rooms! We wandered the charming streets before and after, me taking photos, they, peering into store fronts, examining hiking gear and sports stuff. The highlight for me and Hugh was a trip up the Aiguille du Midi by gondola. Bon Dieu! C’est magnifique! We were on the dizzying top of Europe looking down. That was a trip to remember!

Back in Geneva, Hugh was back to work. I still had a week to spend before going up to Strasbourg to meet more friends – and Barbara who, by that time,  would be finished her walking tour and in Strasbourg to see a university friend.

So I had time on my hands which I used with day trips and one-overnighters. I went to Annecy in France by bus and stayed overnight. I went to Berne and Zurich. I saw the Paul Klee Zentrum with a fantastic exhibition comparing quiet Paul Klee’s work with bombastic Picasso’s art. Picasso is a legend, Paul Klee much less so but their work parallels step for step and many times it was Paul Klee the innovator, not Picasso. Picasso became rich in his lifetime, but not so, Paul Klee.

I had never seen so many Paul Klee paintings together at once; ditto for Picasso. I stayed as long as I could and then had to head back to Geneva to meet Hugh.

I went to a small town called Chateau d’Oex (pronounced Chateau Day) in the mountains east of Lac Leman. It is the legendary Switzerland – a chalet town set in a bowl valley surrounded by high peaks, grassy slopes for summer grazing and coniferous forest reaching to the top. It’s Heidi’s world, linked only by a train and torturous roads. It’s beautiful in summer with high stone slopes clothed in bright grass green and the dark forest green of European firs, cedar and pine.

On one of the weekends, Hugh and I went to Yvoire, a medieval town on the French side of Lac Leman. I was happy to see it but it had been made into a saccharine tourist trap, overloaded with flower-baskets on steroids and commercial spaces divided about equally with restaurants and tourist trinket shops. It was a bright sunny day and we appreciated the train ride and the boat trip across the lake. The mid-day meal was restorative and good French cuisine. But we were happy to be back on the train from Nyon to Geneva and  to our temporary home.

Strasbourg was, for me, a jumping off point. I was headed for Gengenbach, a small town in the Black Forest area of Germany, just east of Strasbourg by 30 kilometers. Now, you would think there would be some decent and quick transportation from Strasbourg to there, but it wasn’t to be.
The train bridge at Kehl had been demolished and new bridge was being put in place. The SNCF and the German equivalent had, in their wisdom, provided a bus to Kehl. At Kehl, I had to change to a train to Offenburg and then wait for a train to Gengenback. The thirty kilometer trip by car became a two hour one. Me! With all my luggage – more than I could manage! Three changes of transportation, each time lifting my heavy two suitcases onto train or bus and going up and down stairs and elevators in the train stations . I was very happy to arrive all in one piece.

I stayed in a hotel close by my friends, she in her late eighties and he in his nighties, so it was out of the question to stay at their place. Their son, Stefan, came to drive us around for those three days; and their daughter Ulla, came to help with lunches and dinners.  Despite their age, they were eager to get out and see things with me. We went to two great exhibitions, the first, one day,  in a Villa redone into a contemporary art gallery – a private collection; and the second day, to Baden Baden to see a retrospective of Joan Miro. I had no idea when I started out that I would see such excellent art exhibitions.

They also took me up to a ruin of a Gothic 12th century church in the Black forest. All of us were photo-hounds so we spent two hours anyway clicking away while Herr Bidinger sat in a folding chair we had brought, watching us and soaking in the fresh air and ancient stone views.

On return to  Strasbourg, Barbara and her university friend and I explored the centre city and the Cathedral on the first evening and then went out to dinner. Next day Barbara who had damaged her knee and heel in the last 15 minutes of her walking tour, agreed to take a tourist boat tour with me as a means of keeping herself off the foot and still seeing something. We had been avoiding touristy things. Despite the mass-tourist fever on the boat, we thoroughly enjoyed the day – sunny and warm, a mild breeze from the river, the sights that we saw that we otherwise could not have had access to. I must confess that I was worse than the others, in exhibiting the tourist-Kodak syndrome. Click, click, click.

Afterward, we were right by the Maison de l’Oeuvre, the location just beside the cathedral where, during the building of the cathedral, the architect and the masons would have met to communicate the work for the day and where building supplies would have kept.  It’s like a guild hall, I think. It’s a fantastic museum worthy of a long visit. The masonry is astounding. The whole underside of the staircase is sculpted into swirling columns. It’s sheer genius.

In the afternoon, I had another high dose of Contemporary Art and came “home” to the hotel worn out with walking, walking, walking.

Luckily I travelled on the 22nd to Paris and found my hotel at Roissy because there was the general strike the next day. I stayed in Roissy rather than fight my way in and out of Paris on a train service that was offering only one train in five because of the labor disruption. I missed the big Monet exhibition in Paris because of it, but I spent a pleasant day in Roissy wandering the streets of the old quarter and finding a place in the little square to do a watercolour or two.

When I got back to the hotel room, I could see a giant construction site across the road from the hotel and I took lots of photos from my hotel window for some future paintings, so the day was not lost.

I’ve been home longer than the 5 weeks I was away, but my screen saver keeps offering me up random photos of the trip and I feel disconnectedly that my spirit is more there than here.

Preprandial hornet

September 8, 2009

Shuswap yellow life jacket 2 small

Lizbet lured Kay to the lake with promises of fresh air, warm bathing water and a fine picnic table to set her paints upon.

Kay gathered her paint pots and paraphernalia, locked the cabin door behind her and toted her kit down to the beach. Lizbet was just coming out of the water, her wet dog dancing around her, teasing Lizbet with a stick that she would not let go.

At ankle deep, the dog shook with a mighty wiggle, radiating the lake water out four feet about her in a diamond spray as the droplets caught the sun.

“Oh,” says Liz, “I was just coming out. Are you coming in?”

“How cold is it?”

“Seventy-two degrees warm,” she replied. “They tested it this morning. It’s not bad if you go in slowly. You get your feet wet and let them freeze. When you don’t feel them anymore, you move in up to your knees and let them freeze. You keep doing that until you are in. Everything’s frozen so you feel warm” She hesitated a minute noticing that Kay was not at all convinced and added dubiously, “and there are warm pockets…”

Her words hung in the air. Kay had no intention of freezing herself for the pleasure of a two minute swim and the unlikely chance of finding a warm pocket.  She unpacked her palette, her paints and vials, her water tub and her brushes and paper until they spread over the entire table.

Looking across the lake, she saw little to paint.  Smoke still hung heavily above the water obscuring the low mountain, obscuring even where the shore and land met. The sky was grey with a pall of ocher-tinted smoke coming from the west. The Sorrento fire had grown from thirty five to seven hundred kilometers square overnight. It was unimaginably huge.

The cloud travelling east towards Seymour Arm was smoke, not moisture. Moisture in the form of rain had not been seen for a month and then, it had barely wet the surface.

There were children on the beach screeching in their high pitched voices, a band of six small boys, cousins, were building a fort from beach rock. One of their fathers was an engineer and the child was precociously instructing the boys to reinforce the bearing wall, to dig out drainage and to grout the stones with sand as the five boys piled the stones three wide and three deep.

Two toddlers were lumbering along precariously as only toddlers can, bottom heavy with diapers and top heavy with yellow life vests. Thin girls were parading in their bikinis, exhorting each other to run into the water, hitching the panties that would not stay firmly up over their skeletal hips.  When they raced back out of the water just as fast as they went in, they quickly wrapped large beach towels over their heads and about their slender frames, looking like miniature Biblical figures.

Kay watched in wonder at their insouciant sense of balance and their indifference to the rough stones that scattered the beach beneath their tender feet.

Lizbet took her leave.

“I’m going to get into dry clothes,” she said as she walked up the sandy hill to the road and from there to the cabin.

Kay shrugged. It had taken her half an hour to get down and to prepare to paint. If she didn’t find anything to paint, at least she could drink in the fresh air and watch the activity flowing around her.

It was almost an hour later when Lizbet’s voice came, proclaiming from the road, “Don’t ever say I don’t do things for you! I’ve brought you a glass of wine!”

Sure enough, she was balancing two glasses of red as she picked her way over the tufts of dried yellow grass that gave purchase on the sandy hill to the table.

Coming behind her was Heather’s husband, grinning, balancing his own glass filled with a milky brown liqueur, his libation of choice, Baileys.

Kay moved her spread of painting tools out of the way and the three of them clinked glasses and sipped away as they chatted.
Kay, absorbed in a child and its movements and continuing on with her daubings of a moored boat, payed little attention to the conversation and the wine.

She loaded her brush with blue and carefully drew it along side of the boat she was painting. A few strokes of the same blue over the first wash served to describe some reflection and water movement below the boat.  Then she picked up her wine glass and savored two long sips of wine.

It’s one of those things. You don’t really look at what you are doing. You are focusing on one thing and doing another. Beach-side multi-tasking. Out of  peripheral vision, a movement catches your attention. Your brain is slow to register; it does not compute the image; the pattern slowly emerges; an alert comes far to late for the registering message to be heeded. There was something black in the red liquid contained in her glass that she had just freely drunk from.


She almost flung the glass from her. There was a great black insect in the bowl of it drunkenly swimming in the red wine. It was wearing white and black striped swimming trunks and she had narrowly missed ingesting the ugly beast!

Kay touched the glass gingerly by the stem, pushing it away from her. It was a very large hornet. She dumped the glass to make it go away, but the hornet was not interested in leaving. The hornet climbed swayingly to the rim of the glass and fell helplessly back into the residue of wine. He licked his angular legs and rubbed his mandible and antennae. Oh wine! How Divine!

Kay closed her eyes and said a powerful prayer of thanks. She had narrowly missed ingesting that ugly besotted, black striped beast.

The insect, like many a drunken fool, proceeded unaware of Kay’s repulsion. He continued to wobble and sway about the rim and down again into the cup, bewildered that his drinking partner had cut off his supply.

Kay packed away her kit and headed back to the cabin to make dinner.

When Lizbet and Heather’s husband came in for dinner, Lizbet was laughing.

“He misses you! He’s still down there drunkenly calling your name. Jason gave him a droplet of Baileys as we left, but it just wasn’t the same. I distinctly heard him cry, “Sauvignon, Sauvignon, my beauty, where are you!”

Shuswap 1 006 crop

No Apology

April 6, 2008

I promised myself fifteen minutes of sorting photos on the computer this morning as I drank my first coffee. I spend too much time facing the screen and I had lots of things nagging at me. I had calls to make; taxes to prepare for the accountant; the Art Walk coming up. These last two, I am utterly unprepared for and I am tackling these tasks with the very best procrastination that I can muster. Avoidance reigns supreme.

It was for that reason that I took three hours last night to write a post about my trip to Fiji. I wanted to get a conversation with our taxi driver and a clerk in Suva down on paper before I lost the details. I had found the incident relevatory. It occurred on one of only two days that we left the resort to mingle in the general population, not the artificial population that a time-share resort tends to bring together of affluent North Americans, Aussies and Northern Europeans.

Having successful finished that pleasant activity and posting it, I then continued on in my avoidance mode and called a very close friend to see if I could come for a cup of tea. She eagerly read my post for me and then, oddly, quit half way.

“I can’t read it now,” she declared imperiously.

“You’ve read it half way. Why won’t you just finish it. It’ll just take three minutes,” I complained, a bit taken aback.

“No. No. That’s it. I’m not going to read it now.” She was bristling.

“Well, why not? What’s the matter with it?” I said, brazenly defensive.

“It’s white middle class crap. You walk in there like some affluent tourist and then criticize their society. It’s what is wrong with resorts, plunking rich cosseted tourists in the middle of third world poverty and then gloating about it; then pointing out how backward the general populace is.”

I had no intention to insult anyone with my writing. I was appalled that someone might think that that was the point of my post. I’d have to rethink what it said, see it again with someone else’s eyes. And so I left abruptly, went home to deactivated the post and then, disheartened returned to my friend’s place for the tea which would be ready for me.

We defended our points of view ferociously as we often do. Then her husband came home, mid-debate or mid-debacle, and he added his logical weight to our arguments, tipping the teeter totter radically in my direction. Soon it was political to change subject, and we moved on to topics like finding someone to mow the lawn, the demise of a microwave oven and finding its replacement; and lucking out on finding a giant Cheez Whiz sale at Costco. We were back on safe ground.

I said good night. They wished me a good night too.

“Don’t stay up too late,” he said as I parted. She said, “Phone when you get in.” It’s a safety check that have for each other, going home in the dark.

“Oh, I guess I’ll still be up for an hour or two writing,” I said, “I’ve got work to do.” It was a dig. I hadn’t been able to let it go.

So here I was sorting out photos of the trip, looking at them differently. I had taken a photo of Mels, short for Melanie, a beautiful Fijian with a stunning profile. She had soft eyes and a soft manner. Had I taken advantage of her by taking her photo. I didn’t think so. I could justify myself, but now there was a niggling doubt. And the photos at the Arts and Culture centre where the actors had portrayed life in Fiji before the explorers, traders and the Missionaries? What of those? They were expecting us to take photos, all dressed in their native costumes. What was the ethic of taking those pictures? Did we have to moralize about every photo we took? The photos I had taken of the gardeners and the bar servers and the boutique sales girl and the receptionist and the taxi driver – were these only reinforcing the servility of the people? Good grief! Canon and Kodak would go broke if no one took pictures of people.

As my fifteen minutes stretched into procrastination thirty, my computer alert dinged that I had new e-mail. It was entitled Apology.

My friend had awoken, her mind in a swirl, feeling apologetic that she had infected me with her negativity about the state of the world. She apologized for getting my back up and for defending her point of view even if it maybe, just maybe, had errors in it.

I’d like to share my response to her with you. I had to do some thinking to get there and the night, as often does, had brought some counsel to me. Here it is:

Dear friend:

Absolutely no reason to apologize. You identified something you thought in reaction to my work and voiced it. I gave me need to pause and think about I how I express myself. I have no desire to offend people, especially a whole nation of struggling people. I need to be careful about how I express myself and so acted quickly to withdraw the piece until I had time to reflect on how I do that.

We always get into rabid discussions. It’s who we are and who we are together. Gordon joined the fray. We bickered about our points of view. Gordon and I ganged up on you and your pigheadedness and defended another point of view. You, too, have to think your ideas through carefully…. and I can be just as obdurate.
At the end of the evening, I went home and slept soundly and without a trace of rancour. Not to say that I haven’t thought about it all, but that I will take my time to think about it and to think about the piece I wrote with another perspective. Frankly, I thank you for it. You are somewhat right and it’s something I have to deal with. I need to be clear when I am writing something and then be clear that I’ve achieved my goal.
You do quite well as a Jiminy Cricket conscience for me. I’m often more glib than people take me for and I need wake up calls from time to time. You are a perfect foil for that because you challenge my thinking.
As for the state of the world, it is negative. The question is, what are we going to do about it.
We found ourselves talking about an unresolvable dilemma.
If I write about my perceptions and things that have happened to me personally as a means of exposing the conditions in the world they are apt to be taken in different ways by different people.
Yes, the minute we buy into the big resort business by giving them our business, we are buying into a different manner of colonial imperialism. It’s an global economic imperialism rather than a nation-driven imperialism. It’s in some ways more insidious than an out and out takeover that can be focalized.
And yet, if one does not go and observe from whatever beginning foothold one has, then how do we even become aware of the disparities? How do we ever address the problems of the world? Do we leave entire nations to sink in the mud by themselves in a purist stance that they can sink or swim and that is all there is to it? (And then sneer as they fail, with an I-told-you-so attitude.)

Or, now that historical events have transpired over four hundred years and changed the whole mix beyond recognition, must we have to deal with the here and now? And then, how do we do that, allowing each sector of society to keep its traditions, its culture and its history while engaging in the modern world? After all, even they don’t want to go back to their cannibalistic society. When the missionaries showed them a different way, the general populace was only too glad to buy into it. The only person in the tribe who benefited from the cannibalistic society was the chief – all the others were in abject submission to the chief and his whims and terrified in their daily living. And, may I add, it was the pure Fijians in their own Arts and Cultural presentation who said that to us. They are glad to be out of it.

I don’t have the answers. I do observe what I see. And you helped me to see around some of it so that what I observed was more whole, less one-sided than what I had seen before.
I thank you for that, my friend,
And I’m sorry I gave you moments of a sleepless night

And that, my faithful readers, is now the intro to my post which I have reconsidered.


“What are those?” Heather asked.

“Those are wheelbarrow boys” said Rasheesh.

Rasheesh, by a network of Indo-Fijians we had met, had been assigned to drive us into Suva for the day at a princely sum of seventy Fiji dollars for the whole day. He picked us up at eight a.m. and brought us back at five. From that sum, he had to pay his gas and car upkeep.

The boys we were watching were actually grown men, each with a big rusty-looking garden wheelbarrow racing at Olymic speed after a moving bus at the very busy Suva bus station. There were about ten of them dressed in nondescript shorts and faded t-shirts, weaving their way through the throng of other bus passengers.

“See that building over there? It’s the farmers’ market.” It was a big grey concrete building looking much like one of our parking garages with no walls on the ground floors, only structural posts holding it up. It was the size of a large exhibition hall. Rasheesh was giving us a deluxe tour complete with tour guide commentary.

“The boys run to see who is coming off the bus with produce and needing help transporting it across the street into the market.”

I reflected on the entrepreneurial spirit of the Fijians, especially the Indo-Fijians who seemed quite creative in finding ways to add on extra activities to increase their income. Taxi drivers were apt to propose side trips for only a small increase in fare. They knew all the possible desires – to go clothing shopping, to see a temple, to visit a museum, to have a general guided tour.

These barrow boys we had just driven past were otherwise unemployed folk, trying to earn a little extra by being right there when the buses came in, offering to transport awkward or heavy loads that the passengers had brought with them.

Rasheesh who was at our service for the full day provided us a guided tour around the city, including accompanying me to the photo shop and helping me resolve my need to download my pictures from the camera onto disk. He also guided us to the best stores and found us an Indo-Fijian place to eat lunch. We hadn’t the heart to tell him that neither of us wanted spicy food. It was economical and quick, and for that we were pleased.

When we had first arrived in town, our first stop was an Esquire’s Cafe – the only place I could find a brewed decaffeinated coffee – the first I would have had in the 8 days we had spent in Fiji. Across the street was a photo shop that should have been able to download my many photos (642 in all, when I got the disks back) from my digital camera. It was on the verge of overload and I wouldn’t otherwise be able to take more if I couldn’t download them. We left Heather there while we tried to resolve my problem.

Unfortunately, the Photo Store clerk looked at my Sony Cybershot with consternation.

“Just a minute,” said the young store clerk as he took my camera to the manager. A small crowd of camera shop personnel huddled around the camera looking at it and talking in low voices.

“We can’t download this camera,” the clerk stated flatly, almost defiantly, as he returned it to me. “You will have to go across the street.”

I raised my eyebrows questioningly to Rasheesh. He nodded. It was true. They couldn’t do it here in the biggest photo store in Suva. They didn’t carry Sony and they didn’t have the attachments to do it. My heart sank. But they did offer another possibility. Perhaps the big department store could help us out.

“Come on.” Rasheesh said to me, and we crossed the street, entered the department store and then took the escalator to the second floor.

There were three clerks standing about watching rows of television screens. When they saw us, two moved away leaving a young lad of about nineteen at the till. Rasheesh explained my plight. The clerk held his hand out for the camera and immediately opened up the battery door.

“Oh Lord, I thought, It’s not the battery that’s the problem. Does he have a clue what he’s doing with our one and only operative camera?” The clerk picked out the memory card “Oh that’s where it’s stored,” I said to myself mentally as I panicked. Hugh had set the camera up for me. I just point and shoot. The operation of it is somewhat of a mystery to me still.

The two lads spoke in Hindi rather rapidly. My eyes whipped from one to the other somewhat like watching a tennis match. I didn’t understand a word of it and the fate of my camera and all my week’s pictures were in these young men’ hands. People are vulnerable when they can’t understand what’s being said.

Finally Rasheesh looked at me as if explaining to a child, “He says it will take him two hours. We can come back for it after twelve. He has to go buy some disks and he has to have a computer big enough to download so many pictures. So it will cost seven dollars and fifty cents.”

I made a rapid calculation. It cost me fifteen New Zealand dollars when I was there. This was half the price. The price was right, but why did it take two hours? In New Zealand it had taken less than five minutes, so I asked.

“He has to do it on his lunch hour.” said Rasheesh.

I made a rapid decision. I had little choice. By nature, here or anywhere, I was somewhat suspicious. What if he erased my pictures? What if, what if, what if? But if I didn’t, I couldn’t take any more pictures. What was my risk?

I nodded my assent. The clerk held the memory card between thumb and index finger as if looking at a precious stone. Rasheesh said, “Well, let’s go then.” and we walked away. They did not speak again but there was a look of commitment, of some special understanding between them as we left. I sifted this gesture in my mind to decipher its meaning.

I waited until we were out of the store and going down the escalator back to the car where Heather was still waiting, probably wondering what had happened to us.

“He’s doing it under the table, isn’t he?” I said.

Rasheesh nodded.
“He’s going to take it home on his lunch hour. It’ll be alright. Don’t worry. If he doesn’t do it right, then he’ll lose his job. If he doesn’t, we won’t bring customers to his store anymore because we’ll know they haven’t been dependable. He can’t afford to fail.”

Don’t worry!

Don’t worry; Be happy was the mantra of Fiji..

It was the whole record of our stay! It was Heather’s and Lizbet’s too. Lizbet had not been able to recharge her battery and so was camera-less. Heather was still using film and only had three rolls with her. And my memory card was worth almost a hundred dollars. How would I replace it if I didn’t get it back intact?

We had at least two hours to wait. He offered to take us on a tour around Suva. He pointed out the multi-cultural schools, the Institute for Hospitality and Tourism, several religious schools, the Sports arena and school. I had a bit of business at a local printers and he found that place for me. Heather and I were invited to look at the printing plant while he waited in the heat of the midday sun in the parking lot.

When our tour was just about done and we were headed back, he took us past government Embassies and Consulates, some compounded diplomatic homes, all fenced with chain link fence topped with rows of razor wire. We stopped at Thurston Gardens a bit further on this road, with its Fiji Historical Museum. He allowed us about an hour though we could have taken two or three. The history was interesting and the displays, although mid 20th century in style, were excellent and informative.

Like many indigenous populations, the Fijians had not wanted the European and South Asian traders and explorers to take foothold on their lands. They were devastated by the introduction of European diseases for which they had no immunity, and the recovery of their population still has not come up to the number there was pre-“discovery”. All sorts of social and economical issues were described alongside the cultural displays of the primitive boats, household goods and other artifacts and it made for good reading.

After our quick lunch, we had ten minutes left on the parking meter, and being frugal, we took the time to explore a small fashion shop. Most of the styles were aimed at a younger Indo-Fijian crowd, but there were larger sizes too. The Fijian culture appreciates roundness in their women and many of them are quite tall and big framed like North Americans – unlike the small framed norm for most Chinese and Japanese Asians. So there was a wide variety of sizes, which allowed my thin sister and portly me to anticipate that something might call out our name with “Buy me, Buy me”.

I think our driver was getting impatient because, as we piled back into the car, he said, “Have we done everything now, except the camera?” It was akin to in impatience to “Are we there yet?”

“We’d like to go back to Jack’s,” I said. “We haven’t gone shopping yet. We saw some things earlier that we would like to buy now.”

Whether he was typically male, hating to wait for women to shop, or whether he was hoping to get home and get a few more taxi rides in, I don’t know. He said nothing; started the car; drove without commentary.

Traffic had thickened in the centre of the city. It turned out he was somewhat concerned about rush hour, if that can be said about Suva. Traffic was mildly bottlenecked. We inched along for about ten minutes and I itched to take photos but my camera was without memory.

Once more back at Jack’s, we left Heather in the car and went back to the photography section of the department store.

Rasheesh and the clerk had another three minute intense conversation in Hindi, their eyes locked as they battled out some question that I was not privy to. “What did he say?” I said when the conversation abruptly stopped.

“He wants another nine fifty for downloading the camera.”

“Why? Why does he want another nine fifty? We made a deal for seven fifty.”

“He says you are using the camera wrong. You take vertical pictures. They should all be horizontal. He had to turn all the pictures upright for you. It took him a lot longer and he couldn’t fit them all on two disks. He had to buy another disk.”

“Nonsense!” I said. “Let me see what he has done. Can he show me the pictures on the DVD player over there?” I said with a mild defiance, I wanted some proof of his claim.

The clerk took a disk and put it into the store DVD player, extracting one that was already sitting in the drive. The pictures of underwater tropical fish went black and twenty pictures of our family lounging at the resort lit up across twenty wide, flat- television screens on the department store shelving. The pictures changed over in slide show fashion at a maddeningly slow rate. I asked if he could speed it up, but he couldn’t and he was beginning to look worried.

Eventually enough had passed by to show me that the pictures were there and that the verticals had been rotated. I had known that I would not fight the added cost before I had asked for proof. The delay it gave me allowed the calculator in the back of my mind to reason that if I had had to rotate all the pictures it would have taken me an hour; and if I paid a total of seventeen Fiji dollars, it was really only the same price as I had paid in New Zealand. The only difference was that it had taken me five minutes in NZ and two hours plus here. For the difference, I had bought myself a good story and all my pictures would be upright.

I took a couple of pictures with the reloaded memory card, one of the clerk, one of the bank of televisions, to verify that all was in working order. I paid my money and we left.

Heather and I promised to be only half an hour to make our purchases of sarongs and postcards. I looked at Fijian black pearls and found them way too expensive for my pocket book. We drooled over the fantastic, brightly decorated fabrics that were arrayed for saris, then we were back in the car with Rasheesh driving, racing back to Deuba before the half hour was up.

There’s more to tell about the trip back, but that’s for another time.

I was a bit silent in the back of the car thinking about the entrepreneurial spirit of these people. They were eager to please and eager to accommodate. I’d had fine service from this young lad and from Rasheesh too. I thought of what Rasheesh had told us – that he earned 100 Fiji dollars a week – that’s about 70 of our dollars – and he considered that he was very well paid. The amount was fixed, but he worked long hours and had no overtime. If he got stuck in Nadi late in the afternoon, he was expected to stay there and wait for an Airport fare back to Deuba. He had to arrange for his own overnight stay, but he had family there and could sleep on the couch.

He told us he had two children and that one was lacto-intolerant. He had to buy formula to feed the infant and this cost him $27 dollars per month. It was a hardship on the family. Working life was not easy in Fiji.

Before we were half way back to Deuba and our hotel, Rasheesh had a phone call from his company. Where was he? What was his estimated time of arrival? There was a customer waiting for him. When would he pick him up?

His day that had started early was going to be a long one.

Trepidation without a cause

April 1, 2008

I had a major anxiety attack over going away. I was quite contented to stay home, really, and the travel reports that nephew Hugh had obtained for me did more to increase the angst than to calm it. The ticket was already bought and not refundable so I was going anyway, but I couldn’t help but feel a bit gloomy. I don’t know why.

Finally he said to me rather firmly, “Look, they want tourists. Nothing’s going to happen to you. Just don’t go to Suva. ” There had been some trouble in January in Suva over the current government. There is always conflict there between the Fijian natives and the Hindo-Fijians who are the commercial class.

I was travelling with Heather and her husband and Lizbet, my other sister. They have time share and are happy to share costs with us. Travelling in a group is better for me now than travelling alone and I don’t like organized tours that keep pushing you forward to see one monument after another.

Heather and her Dauntless Husband came down four days before departure. He had an specialist doctor’s appointment. Lizbet came on Friday night after her last day at school. It’s the beginning of Spring Break. We left on Sunday.

With so many people in the house and all with their suitcases open in some form or another of reshuffling and redeciding what to take, it was impossible for me to think. Six days into the trip, someone asked for Q-tips.

“I have some!” I proudly announced. But they were nowhere to be found. I found them this Friday when we returned, still sitting on the bathroom counter where all my first aid kit for travel was spread out in excellent organization for the trip.

It’s a hot country. We were going to a resort with sand shores and a gorgeous looking pool. I also forgot my second (and best) bathing suit.

As we were going out the door, Lizbet asked “Do you have a hat? I don’t have one.”

“Oh lordy,” I groaned inwardly. I get sunstroke so easily. I hadn’t thought about a hat.

But I had two tucked up in the storage closet from the last tropical trip I took. I’ve used my favorite often since, but it is deteriorating. The straw is developing holes. The other one isn’t flattering but it has a wide brim. It’s great for a scorching day.

I grabbed them both and said she could use one of them.

And so we went. It was a gruelling trip – over 24 hours from pillar to post. Seven and a half hours of flight to Honolulu; a nasty bit of Immigration at about five in the morning, our time, with little useful sleep preceding it. I suppose that they can’t have anyone in the plane when they are refuelling; and the American’s like to do their own security checks as we touch down into their territory. At such an early hour it was unpleasant to have to deplane with absolutely all of our traveling possessions and then wait around for an hour and a half for everything to be ready to go.

We arrived in Nadi airport at 5 a.m. the next day after another 7 hours or so of flight (having crossed the International Date Line) . Don’t even try to figure out the hours – with the time zone changes and the date line, it’s not worth the bother.

In Nadi, Dauntless Brother-in-Law had arranged a bus trip for us to Pacific Harbour and our hotel, The Pearl of the South Pacific.

Despite our sleep deprivation, that was a glorious ride. It’s the kind of travel I like to do, where you are riding in the same transport as the rest of the people in the country (and no, I didn’t try a donkey). Lizbet who I call our Ambassadress and who someone else calls Chatty Cathy (figure it out, it’s somewhere in between) started talking to the passengers beside and behind her.

When I shook my head in wonderment as to how she did it, she said with amazement, “It wasn’t me. It was you!. If you hadn’t been drawing the person across the aisle, nobody would have talked to me. They thought you were amazing!”

I looked at the drawing. It hadn’t succeeded at all. It was like a cartoon. I was afraid that the girl that I had drawn would be insulted by my feeble effort. In my defense, the roads were terrible. There were more potholes than road and it was very difficult to get a continuous line of half an inch without being bounced out of the seat and repositioned back into the sunken upholstery.

The windows were covered with a light film of mud. Without opening the window, one could see nothing; and yet, it was raining. So when the window was open, this slightly muddy precipitation whipped into my face. When the rain let up a little, the two photos I tried to take went all fuzzy. Over and above, with the humidity, the lens tended to fog up so that focusing became impossible.

We stopped in Nadi proper – the business district – to pick up more passengers. There I managed to get a few pictures of street vendors and of people doing every day things. At Nadi bus station, we picked up two fellows that sat behind us. One was very obviously an Island native. He had the tightly curled mass of hair and broad features including a very friendly grin. It was he who was asking after the drawings. Beside him, his friend looked like a New York black or an African black of medium build. He is difficult to describe because he was ordinary. The first one introduced himself as Ben and the second as Jimmy.

Lizbet was curious and started to pump them with her barrage of questions. Come to think of it, she would make a perfect spy. She blathers on so innocently asking questions but remembers all the names and all the answers afterwards.

“What do you do? ” she asked Ben.

He looked at her with his persistent grin but a suddenly blank look in his eyes.

“Do?” he asked back, as if he hadn’t ever considered that he was expected to do anything.

He hesitated a while. His face became perplexed. And mind you, he spoke perfectly good English with an Australian accent.

“I guess… ” he started, then hesitated again. His grin reappeared giving an air of perfect contentedness. There didn’t seem to be the slightest coquetry in his answer. “I guess I’m a journalist. Yes, you could say I was a journalist.”

He went on to explain that he had worked about six years in Australia for a newspaper and that he had written for them all that time. But he came home. Now there was no job for him and he was working on a project, a writing project. It was in the middle and it wasn’t very firm yet so he didn’t want to say any more about it.

All the while, Jimmy nodded his agreement, almost in admiration of his traveling companion, his happy face bobbing up and down. Lizbet was not about to let him off easily though, and turned her focus on him. “And what do you do?”

He had the same hesitation, as if looking through a list of occupations that would be plausible to say out loud.

“I’m a musician,” he said finally. “Yes, I’m a musician.” This last was a confirmation, somewhat to himself, as if he’d passed that exam question with honours and could definitely advise you, should you need it. He was positive now that he was a musician.

I found that rather amusing. I was enjoying listening to the banter while I tried to get a better drawing of the young lady with a grey striped scarf around her throat.

I hadn’t been an hour in the country and I already had a feeling I was going to like the people. They stand and sit proudly. They have a quiet dignity about themselves. They were courteous and warm towards us.

Soon the young lady got off the bus and then the two young men. They waved gleefully from the ground as the bus took off again, as if we were friends that they were seeing off on a holiday. We’d known them for less than half an hour.

Along the roadside, we would see small horses and occasionally cattle. Jungle growth lay a broad blanket of lush green over everything but the roadway. In a few places, the earth had been exposed – a bright, rich red soil. At one spot, we traveled parallel to a long sandy beach. The breakers formed about half a mile out to sea in a white line and a calmer water came up cloase to the shore in broad flat waves.

I must have dozed a while because I don’t remember seeing much more before we were deposited, baggage and all, at the Arts village, just a kilometer past our hotel. A taxi came to drive us to the hotel. The fare for all four of us and our baggage was two Fiji dollars. That’s like one dollar thirty cents Canadian.

We were glad to find our room and settle in for a nap. It had been a long flight. An arduous journey.

There are lots of stories to tell, but they will have to be written in the days that come . That’s it for now.

Avoiding Christmas

January 2, 2008


The warm sodium lights seemed to be throbbing up from the earth’s surface in suburban patterns of cul de sacs and highways. Snow lay in the yards and large undeveloped patches but had melted from the roads and the trees. The snowfall had not been consistent everywhere; it seemed to have chosen select communities in the Lower Fraser Valley. By the time we flew over Burrard Inlet with its sulphur docks in Port Moody and the Lions Gate Bridge in Vancouver, out into the Georgia Straight for a landing from the west, all traces of the wintery white were gone.

Below, the lights were crisp and clear, cheerier and richer in colour at this end of the Christmas holiday season than they would be at any other time of year.

I had been up at seven, Ottawa time; on a bus to Montreal by nine, arrived at Pierre Elliott Trudeau Airport in the community of Dorval by eleven. I ate an early lunch, fully aware from my flight from Vancouver that there would be no meal service and only tightly compressed sandwiches bound in swaddling plastic wrap or junk food to be had from the airline’s “cafe” menu. I sensibly downed a Caesar salad and a clear glass of cool water then went to security check-in.

Beyond the point of no return there were few shops to linger in. There was a coffee stand with croissants, sweets or sandwiches that you could take with you on the airplane, more sensibly boxed (therefore not crushed into eraser-like carbohydrate wads). I bought an oatmeal cookie telling myself that it was whole grain cereal with only a bit of sugar and a cheese croissant for my on flight sustenance. I bought a cup of decaf which I immediately downed. I would not be getting a decent cup of this until I got home again.

You may have noticed that I haven’t posted for three weeks. I took the luxury of a holiday to visit two of my cousins and my nephew Hugh and a fine relaxing holiday it was, too. I met with two friends, one recently met through our mutual friend, Mother’s university friend who was in touch with her until the very end, and one of my colleagues from my former workplace.

Cousin Beryl in Ottawa spent a week with me and then went on holiday with her partner of 30 years. They were off to play indoor tennis, Patrick having recovered only recently from a knee operation and still unable to go skiing. She works too hard, very devoted to her job as director of a humanitarian organization and needed some downtime, some renewal time.

Cousin Clara, whom I had started this holiday with, had gone on to Toronto to visit her daughter’s family and then on to Florida where she spends some winter time in the comfort of a warmer clime.

Coming back through Montreal, there was no point in going up to her house during the three hour period I had before my flight. She wasn’t there. The whole city felt empty knowing that Clara was not in it. It was somewhat the same feeling I had leaving Byrel this morning as she saw me off at the bus station.

I had stayed in her house while she was away on her holiday. All the personality of her decor could not make up for the the fact that she was not there. The house all of a sudden felt empty. We have similar tastes in music and I played her CDs a good part of the time I was alone but it was not the same. I felt a good measure of joy in talking with her as I do with Clara.

Beryl is one of those rare people who speaks her mind clearly without hesitation. We had a parting hug before we left the house. When we got to the station we looked like two people who barely knew each other. As we were standing in line up with about seventy other people headed for Montreal, she said, ” I never understood really why you wanted to come to Ottawa for Christmas.” It was a question.

In my inimitable way, I blurted out my inability to sit down at the dinner table with my family this year. Too much water under the bridge. A damning situation. A log jam of emotions, if you prefer which, by the way, I did not say out loud. I’d had great cooperation and assistance from my sisters, but Otto had been obstructive. I wanted a neutral territory to celebrate Christmas on. I could perhaps have sat down at the table for an hour with him, but not stayed in the same house with him listening to him extol the merits of family and how wonderful family was when he had taken care to tell me how odious I was over the matter of Mother’s estate.

I must say I hadn’t been very tactful in answering Beryl. My original idea in my getting away at Christmas was to avoid unpleasantness. To be somewhere where every decoration, every change from tradition would remind me of my Mother’s passing. But as I began to think where I might go, I knew that Hugh would be alone and missing the festival of the year that he most delights in. If I were to make the trip, I would most certainly want to spend some time with Beryl. Clara was reasonably close by in Montreal, and so as I conceived of this trip, I wanted to ensure I saw her too. They are both “safe-haven” kind of people.

So that was the explanation I gave to her forthright question. We parted company only five minutes afterwards. I was on the bus and grumping somewhat about ending this delicious holiday with a full day of travel – two hours of bus, three hours in between time before the flight, five hours of flight – and I had time to reflect.

These two cousins are like sisters. We understand each other. We are of the same generation, and unlike direct family, we don’t have to see each other. We’ve chosen to do so.

I met Beryl and Clara after a forty year hiatus. I had know Beryl and seen her only occasionally before I was ten and then not afterwards. Clara had visited only once in my hippie-dippy days at our mutual age of 23. Many years later in my working career, as I was often travelling back and forth for my job, I often flew into both Ottawa and Dorval. On these trips, I reconnected with these fine women. It didn’t take us long to uncover our common ground – how we felt growing up, what we were doing now, our successes and failures in our relationships, marriages, and partnerships.

My father and their mothers were siblings, but it’s our mothers and our upbringing that we feel are the common thread. We talk about the vicissitudes of childhood and early adulthood that were more characterized by the upbringing of our Mothers and their culture than our common thread of our parent siblings. Fathers had less to do with the day-to-day management of children and they figure quite differently in our affections and family heartaches.

So as I ruminated on these things on the bus to Montreal, passing through a rich sepia world of farmlands and small forests all softened by a fresh dusting of snow that was still falling, I regretted that I had not mentioned how much I had come to love Beryl and our Cousin Clara; how any opportunity where I can add on a visit to one or the other, I will; how I am vastly proud of Beryl for her humanitarian work; just as I am of Clara for her stubborn determination to learn to paint and now that she is proficient and sure of her skills, her volunteer work with difficult medical patients, teaching them to paint, bringing joy to their impoverished lives.

I ruminated on the gifts these two ladies had given me. Both had given me their trust in speaking freely of their lives, their loves and their families. It’s not sugar coated. It’s down to earth real. We take a Giordian knot of relationships and try to sort out the whys and wherefores of family, of our joys and hurts and we try to find ways to heal them or heal ourselves.

They have both given me a welcome that made me feel that I was important and valued. Now, how great a gift is that! And it didn’t die after three days…. you know that aphorism about fish and visitors stinking after three days. We were still sharing stories as avidly after a week as we had on the first day. And if we don’t see each other for another year, or two even, now that I’m retired and travelling less, we will catch up the conversation as if it never had stopped. That’s a mark of a good friendship.

Beryl phoned a day after my return to the Wet Coast. I asked her what she had meant by her question on my reasons for coming to Ottawa.

“Oh, the weather,” she explained. “Why would you want to come knowing we might have snow?” I had completely misunderstood the intent of her question. And, well I might. In Ottawa, people go away to have a break from perpetual cold and snow. On the West Coast, we are inundated with perpetual rain. Grey skies prevail. We only have two seasons – cold autumn and warm spring. The heat of summer lasts two weeks and the snows come for two days and melt away. Had I understood the thrust of her question, I might have answered, “Oh, we don’t get snow. I thought a white Christmas would be glorious!” Instead, I fueled a day’s worth of rumination on family and some of my most favourite people whom I was leaving behind until next time. Dummy me! I’m glad I misunderstood.

In all of this rambling, I haven’t even talked about seeing Hugh again. It was wonderful! But that’s another story.

Travels with Mama 3 – Westward ho!

September 6, 2007

Trier was the turning point. We were going west now and on the return side of our journey. We needed to be back in Paris in a few days for a flight, but I was convinced there was much we could see on the way. I was determined to see the things I felt I had missed during my seven year sojourn that had ended six years ago. On the list were the Tapestry of Bayeux and the Cathedrals of Rouen and Beauvais.

We saw signs for one of the fortifications of the Maginot Line, the defense system built after the First World War that was expected to repel definitively another attack by the Germans. The inner structures were closed to the public in late September and we only stayed a few minutes to imagine war and its machinery tromping over the landscape below us.

We went back through Rheims, always considered a crossroads city throughout history – for the Romans, Charlemagne, the Prussians, the Germans. We stayed at the Hotel de la Paix for a night of luxury. We took a different path, heading north of Paris to avoid its  busy traffic. Besides, the side roads of France are ever-changing, picturesque rural scenes that might have been subject of any of the Impressionists. It was a pleasurable eyeful for us both.

We pushed on for Compiegne, but I don’t remember whether we stopped there, or just  kept pushing on. We only had a limited time. We stopped at the ruins of the castle described in Barbara Tuchman’s book A Distant Mirror, a wonderful historical documentary book about the calamitous 13th century in France.

We stopped in at Beauvais and saw the Cathedral St. Pierre which, around 1275,  was considered the highest vaulted cathedral in Europe and the finest Gothic architecture. (seeWikepedia)

As we entered the inner, old city of Rouen, I saw for the first time, a whole intact area of medieval half timber houses with exposed wood framing and plaster infill,  in what the English call the Tudor style, reaching four or five stories high,  looking like they were leaning against each other crazily for support. As one looks up, they appear to lean in over the street.  In Rouen, we stopped right near the Cathedral, which Mother was not eager to see inside for some reason.

“I think I will stay in the car. How long will you be, Kay?” she asked.

“About twenty minutes. ”

I knew how fearful she would be, sitting in a parked car in the middle of a city, especially since she did not speak the language. Perhaps her feet were hurting her. Perhaps she had no interest in medieval stone, as I did.

“Just come in and sit in a pew,” I suggested, and that’s what she did. I wandered about looking upwards, drinking in the medieval light, feasting on the decorations. This Cathedral was bombed in 1944 during the great war and a large part of the Cathedral is restored although it’s hard to tell which parts. Like all the great Gothic cathedrals of the middle ages, there is mystery and majesty filtering through every atom of its construction. I think it was here that the beautiful cloister dominated by red brick construction was attached to the cathedral. Memory fails now. It might have been Beauvais.

Leaving Rouen, we passed through the industrial district beside the river. Mother exhorted me to hurry. It was unfamiliar territory to her; there were no houses, no places to get succour should it be needed. If there were no people to be seen, it couldn’t bode well. I, on the other hand, was fascinated by the white cathedrals to industry. I had no idea what these industries were, originally built close to the river for ease of transport, but they shone in the late autumn sun. I could see Monet doing a series of paintings of this, just like he did of the cathedrals. The silos and towers, walkways and railings, pipes and smoke stacks all combined into an interesting industrial lace. I wanted to stop for pictures. I wanted to get out my sketchbook, and draw; or come back and paint.
But there were two of us travelling and compromises needed to be made. She’d waited me out at the Cathedral; I’d give in on this one. The picture of this stretch of industrial road is now more vague in my mind but the memory of it still calls me.

Then in Bayeux, west of Caen,  we stayed in a small hotel in the centre of the city. It perched on the edge of a narrow canal that threaded between the medieval houses to the river. The hotel rooms were not numbered. Instead they had names of ancient royalty. We stayed in the Queen Maud room. There were ones named after Matilda,William the Conqueror, Henry II, Harold and others.

We spent a long time looking over the handwork of Matilda, William the Conqueror’s wife, and her handmaidens while he was off fighting Harold for control of England. Not many people read in those days and pictures were more valid as a way of recording history and advertising a husband’s glory.

The tapestry surprised me in that it is one continuous long piece of Medieval comic book style writing, protected in a museum created especially for it, sealed off from air and lit by special lamps that minimize the effects of light damage. It has iconic interest for artists as a n early handbook for design.

It was her birthday, the 28th of September and I offered her a birthday lunch in a lovely looking café to celebrate. Later in the late afternoon, we walked up to the church and looked within. We got somewhat turned around in our walk back. Suddenly I no longer knew where I was. Mother depended on me for finding our way. All I knew was that we were near the edge of a little canal, though there was no guarantee that it was the same canal that passed our hotel. I stopped and looked around. Nothing gave me a clue as to which direction we should take. There weren’t any people about. Darkness was coming on. Mother asked what was the matter and I told her.

Mother, who has no sense of direction whatsoever, insisted that we go left when my instincts said we should retrace our steps and go back the way we had come. I sat on a planter box seat for a moment and asked her to sit down while I thought. Every minute I sat brought her closer to a panic attack. She peppered questions at me while I was trying to think, reason, figure out for sure which direction to take. I was close to a panic attack myself. What could I do? There were no people to ask. It was a walking space with no signs or street names. I hadn’t a map. My first instincts were most likely to be right. I took her hand firmly, drew her along protesting as we retraced our steps, crossed a little whitewashed bridge against the watercourse and regained a street with traffic on it.

There we found someone to ask. We had done the right thing. Not one street away, we could see our hotel. With grateful feet and hearts, we regained our room and plunked onto our beds. We did not go out for dinner but ate apples that we had picked up somewhere on the way.

In the morning, we wanted to leave early. At seven, we tiptoed down the stairs to the breakfast room hoping it would be open a bit early. We tried the door but it was locked. We thought, instead, we would go out for breakfast. Surely there would be a bakery open, but we were locked in. Instantly, her fear of fire asserted itself. What would we do if there were a fire? We could only return to our room.

I agreed with her that it was unthinkable, totally unacceptable, for patrons to be unable to leave a hotel, dependent on the key keeper to be able to get to the door in case of emergency.

At the appointed hour, the breakfast room was opened up.  We sat and ate their home made butter croissants with coffee for me and tea for Mom. In her ninety-fourth year, Mom was still asking me,”Kay, do you remember those croissants from the hotel in Bayeux. Those were the best I ever had.”

We had wanted to get away early and we did not linger over breakfast. We headed up to Arromanche-les-Bains to see the Atlantic, the English Channel, pound against the beach. Not too distant from the shore, we could see scuttled landing vehicles from D-Day. We talked about the war. It was so much more real when we could see the remains of it sitting in the landscape in which it occurred.

Now we were more pressed for time. We had one more day, then we needed to return the car in Orly and fly away. We had little time except for the essentials. We planned to circle Paris, stop at Versailles, stop at the small village of  Barbizon then head straight for Orly.

At Versailles, we visited the palace which thrilled Mom. I’d seen it before, but I found it equally fascinating second time around. We were unable to go into the gardens because the French Prime Minister was holding talks in one of the buildings there there during the day. and the place was crawling with military and police. Once again as we were leaving the palace, there was police/military activity.  We were held up to allow a cavalcade of black diplomatic cars to sweep past and out the ornate wrought iron gates that were leafed in real gold.

We found our rental car and headed out towards Fontainbleau.

(to be continued)

Travels with Mama 2

September 3, 2007

We stayed in a two star hotel in Rheims. It was deceptively large. Light grey stonework arched over a heavy oak coach entrance of what appeared to be a single house. Once through this passage, there were modern glass doors with thin strips of brass mounting, top and bottom, to hold them to the hinges on the side, but inside there was evidence of many years of renovation ending with the 1960’s.
We had been assigned a room and found it far at the end of several corridors. The hotel facade looked like a narrow four storey houses built in stone, but from the inside passageways seemed to extend its ownership over three or four houses-worth connected at uneven floor levels which required steps where the wall openings between them had been made.

We got our room changed, but it was not much closer to the elevator and still involved one set of stairs. It was too much walking for Mom.

The place was dark and gloomy. We were only staying one night and moving on, so we put up with it. We vowed to get a better hotel the next time through. When we did, a week later on our way back, we stayed at the only very modern hotel in Rheims, the Hotel de la Paix. Much to my surprise, we only paid ten dollars more for it and got a million dollars more in luxury. We had huge soft bath towels with the hotel name on it. The elevator was modern and polished. Our room was two steps away from it. Everything was well-appointed. Breakfast was in a light and airy room. The hotel staff was accommodating, something I couldn’t say for the previous location. For five dollars each we had stepped into the jet-set. It was a lesson for my travelling that paying a tiny bit more could result in a lot more comfort.

But back to the gloomy hotel:
We had our breakfast in a vast dining room whose only purpose was to serve breakfast. There were very few patrons in it. I wondered cynically about the room assignment we had had. Everything was dark in the decor – dark wood furnishing and dark wood beams overhead, deep red wall paper (at the turn of the century, this colour had some connotations of taste and wealth. Now it was merely depressing. The one window far to the front of the room brought no appreciable light to bear.

We made our plans for the morning. Mother wanted to rest. I wanted to go to see Madame Dewez. I had written her when I left Rheims six years before to say that I had left suddenly due to my father’s death. She had a number of my works on paper to sell on consignment plus some works that I had bought at auction – delicate pencil crayon drawings by an aristocratic woman who had travelled early in the century. I had purchased a set of sketch books at auction with these in them. I hesitated to cut them from the book but the binding was not good and I rationalized that if they remained in the book, no one would ever enjoy them.

I had not contacted Madame D. since that letter six years previous and I had not expected that she would still have them, nevertheless I would ask. Who knew?

To my surprise, she said, “I was half expecting you. I don’t know why, but I came across them last week and thought, it’s been a long time since I heard from Kay. I wonder what has become of her? They’ve been in the back waiting for you ever since you wrote. I just put them under the front counter yesterday.”

That really was curious! I asked her about the other drawings and she couldn’t remember them. She shook her head slowly, thoughtfully. It was a long time ago. Was my memory playing tricks on me. Had I only thought I’d given them to her? No, I was pretty certain.

I gave benefit of doubt, thinking that for her faithfulness in keeping my work, it was little payment for her to have the other drawings. I had arrived on foot, enjoying the walk through the city centre, passing by the little store, now vacant, where Franc and I had lived and centered our Brocante business. In six years, things had changed. Merchants we had known were no longer there. We were no longer there. Life trundled on with or without us.

Now I retraced my steps to the hotel, packed in Mama and our baggage, drove back up to within a few steps of the framing shop and left Mama in the car. I had noticed a florist across the street. I purchased a lovely exotic bouquet for Madame D. and presented it to her.

“You didn’t have to do that!” she exclaimed. But I was happy to honour her faithfulness and our acquaintance. We were not likely to see each other ever again. And it made her happy.

We travelled east to Trier to see more artist friends. I don’t remember the route that we took and my details or order of passage have been lost in the twenty year interval between the trip and now. We passed through Luxembourg city in the morning, earlier than the cafés were open. Nobody was about. Stores were still closed. It lacked the bustle and charm I’d remembered from my tourist days in full summer where there was a bright sunlight dappling holiday folk; where the city was decorated with bright summer flowers. We were approaching October rapidly. We found a place for coffee but I couldn’t engender any enthusiasm in Mother for how great I’d found this place when I had been here.

When we arrived in Trier (Treve, in French), I had no idea how to get to destination. I knew my friends lived right across the street from the Roman amphitheater. I stopped where I could, where there were enough people that someone might help us with even general directions. I have no German language skills. I can say Bitte or Danke and that is pretty much it.

I tried to pronounce amphitheater in as many ways as possible – Amph i tay at her; Omph i tee at her; Amph i tee a TER; but nothing seemed to work. I held my finger out in a signal to wait as he shook his head in incomprehension and made a gesture that made me think he might just leave in frustration. I grabbed a pen and my ever handy sketch book and wrote the word with a question mark following it.

“Ah, zo! ” and the man pronounced the word in German, nodding his head up and down as if he was a bobble doll, grinning all the while. I was pretty sure I’d said it like that in one of my variations, but it no longer mattered. We understood each other. He pointed the way. including a turn that he indicated with his hand turning in the air. “Ein kilometer” he said. There were some understandable words I could get.

“Danke, Danke” I said. I shifted the car back into gear and we drove off in the direction he had indicated. Soon there were signs. Soon I could see Olewiger street. In moments, we parked on the gravel in front of their modern home. It was not the house I had visited in 1976; that one had been a three or four storey stone built one from another century, steeped in history. The ground floor had been turned into a Ceramic studio. I remember so much beautiful stonework in the other one, with carvings at the front door that looked medieval, though they could have been from a revival period. I had no means of judging.

This house was Bauhaus simple in its lines. It had an open modern chrome and light mahogany kitchen. The dining room was only slightly separated from it. There were polished hardwood floors. The walls were white, perfect for hanging Guido’s modern pictures, and modest amounts of varnished wood trim. Down a few steps, there was a sunken living room. The house was perched on a hill and the view from the plate glass window was spectacular, reaching a hundred eighty degrees across the outskirts of the city below and the fields and forests that followed onward from them.

We ate an exquisite meal prepared by Klare. It was her husband who was the artist, and her art was in homemaking. The silver was laid on, and the best dishes. Mother was at home here. She knew every fork and spoon that had been set out with precision and taste.

Surprisingly, Mother was able to converse quite well in German. She had only studied it one year in high school, but she had studied Latin longer than that and the verb forms were easy for her. Between them, they struggled a little to understand. I marvelled at her memory and her capacity to pick up and work with information she had learned some sixty years ago.

Klare, who had been a volunteer tour guide for the Amphitheater, took us across the street to see the Roman ruins. She provided us with an informed commentary as we went and it made the event that much more special.

We regretted we had to leave, late afternoon. We were heading back to France for our whirlwind tour. They brought out a map and showed us a route that took us through a charming town just past the French German border. We took to the road in a driving rain going westward, going back on our final few days of our trip. About four thirty, the rain let up, and soon the remaining drizzle stopped. We signs for our overnight destination were clear.
“It’s going to be night soon,” said Mother.”Let’s stop at the first place we can find.” And we did. I would have loved to go on further, to see as much as I could until the last light of day, but compromises needed to be made. We settled into a fair size hostelry, to a room on the second floor. Before we went for dinner (it was only five o’clock) I insisted on puttering with my paintbox.

“You’ve driven so much, you deserve it,” she granted, and she lay down for a rest. She had had a wonderful day. I got out my paints and tried to put down the little valley before us on paper. To the east, there was a lovely rainbow, strong in its coloration, set against a bank of deep slate coloured clouds. The sun was topping the early autumn trees with their last rays of the day. It was delicious to see after such a rainy day.

(to be continued)

Travels with Mama

September 3, 2007

It was 1989. I hankered to go to Europe again, having left it abruptly at the time of my father’s death. I had arrived home penniless in 1983, our antique business in France at an all time low, not in debt but not making money either. In the intervening years, Franc had made a big decision to leave his country to follow me, come what may, even though he couldn’t speak the language. He was confident he could find work in his trade; that his skills would speak where his tongue could not. Canada was, after all, an officially bilingual country, wasn’t it?

It had not been so easy. He was unable to find a job, so he created one, somewhat by chance. He’s mechanically minded, so when a neighbour had something wrong with her vacuum cleaner, he fixed it and she gave him a twenty for his trouble.

The neighbour recommended him to a friend when her dishwasher was broken down. He fixed it for parts and a tip. Slowly word spread. With his toolkit in hand, he hopped the bus and visited X’s friend and repaired the washing machine. Soon he was on the bus all day, fixing machines. Always he was paid something for his trouble over and above his fixed costs. Soon an apartment block owner shared his name with another. An electrician had work to pass over to him. He worked with the electrician and found out how the pricing was done. By year five, he had a busy affair, a healthy income and a brand new Honda Accord station wagon to go repairing in.

During the same time, I’d worked for a temp agency at a wage essentially below minimum wage because one had to pay for the privilege of working; joined on at a corporation as a lowly receptionist and sometime typist. I worked evenings and weekends at the Art Institute teaching Foundation courses in Colour and Drawing. I rose from receptionist to clerk and then administrative officer, each time increasing my salary, each time increasing the discretionary spending I could do.

Finally we had adequate income to take a holiday, but Franc didn’t want to go. Mother on the other hand was always eager to go travelling. She’d travelled the world already, but she had never seen France. She proposed to go with me and share the expenses if I would do the navigating and arranging.

We spent a week in Scotland visiting friends I had met during my first few days at a Youth Hostel in Rheims. We’d shared a glass of wine at a sidewalk cafe, discovered that Evelyn was also an artist and that Sam love flowers and was studying to be a horticulturist. I’d had a standing offer to come stay with them since 1976 and now Mama and I were coming to visit.

We spent a glorious week on their farm. On my first morning, a cool mid-September day arising, with jet lag ruling, I was up before six. I snuck out of the house, shivering, dressed much less warmly than needed in a northern Scotland realm, to walk down their country road. Not far from the house, just past the round metal bars of the cattle guard, I halted to watch a flock of free ranging sheep appear one by one over the crest of the hill, descend to the grassy field below the house to graze. The brisk air engendered a whispy, milky cover close to the rich grassy slope. The white sheep glowed, back lit by the early sun, making me think of Henry Moore’s brilliant suite of sheep drawings.

My job at home had burnt me out to a state of nervous exhaustion. This bucolic antidote was seeping into my bones and starting an overdue cure. I was thrilled to be here; thrilled to be standing alone sopping up such a peaceful looking landscape; thrilled to have escaped my mundane job. Every single thing in view was a cure for deprived eyes.

Our hosts were wonderful. They took us all around Argyll shire including the Isle of Iona by way of a ferry which was most interesting to Mother with her deep Christian faith. We had a picnic high on a highland hill overlooking their estate and far across the land. On another afternoon, Evelyn rowed a small boat on their man-made lake that looked as natural as if it had been there forever. It was loaded with waterlilies and other aqua culture plants. We were drifting more than moving forward, while I absorbed in the healthy deep peacefulness of it, trailing my fingers in the warm lake water, thinking that one of the Pre-Raphaelites would have found inspiration in the reflections and plant life of this magical place.

Mother was seventy eight and going strong. She joined in when she could and rested when she couldn’t, which provided me with some one on one time with my friends and some opportunities to tramp about on my own, enjoying the natural goodness of this quiet place far from my crazy job.

All too soon, our time was up. We were flying to Paris and France, where I wanted to show Mother where I had lived, those seven years away, and what I had done. I wanted her to meet some of my friends and see the way of life. It was impossible in the ten days that remained of our travels, but we tackled it with vigour and it was rather dazzling what we actually managed to see.

At Orly, we took a cab into our hotel which sat just a block away from some Parisian artist friends. We had a small, clean hotel room that had an elevator unlike most of the walk-ups I’d inhabited during my travel days.

We settled into our spartan room, staking territory, laying out ground rules for bathing and grooming, planning our Paris agenda. By late afternoon, we walked out in the streets to breathe the city air and get our bearings. We debated long over a choice of restaurants. Mama is fussy. If it didn’t look spotlessly clean, it wouldn’t do. Most of the restaurants looked closed. To her dismay, she discovered that Parisians dined late. A respectable restaurant would not open until six, and then they didn’t really expect to serve any but the English tourists. Despite her eagerness to sit and dine, we had to loiter in the streets that made her vaguely uneasy.

“Are you sure that this district is a good one. Kay?” she dithered. The streets were not clean. People hurrying in a typical big city haste took no notice of her stock-stillness as she tried to place herself in her surroundings. While she was still operating on her own steam without cane or walker, she was not steady and the Parisian streets made no efforts to accommodate the disabled, the weak nor the infirm. And I had forgotten the Parisian love of dogs that often left packets of business to watch for and walk around. It wasn’t Canadian clean.

Finally we saw a restauranteur flip his door sign to “Ouvert”. It was acceptably spotless with white linens and silver so we entered. We dined alone, surrounded by clientless set tables, on a three course tourist menu choice of chicken a la something, the most economical item available. The waiter served with withering disdain and hovered all too closely. Any self-respecting diner would know they should not disturb a very professional waiter before the hour of seven. People who ordered chicken had no savoir faire. There was perfectly good sweetbreads, tongue, quail or duck on the menu. This was a culinary place, not a chicken and fries cafe.

I would have to Frenchify mother if we were going to survive. We couldn’t afford all the appearances that the upper class table settings implied if we were to travel thus for the next ten days.

Fearful of the dark in a big city, Mother insisted that we return to the hotel. It was not even seven o’clock. Paris was only starting up its reputable light show for the tourists. We argued. I won the half hour privilege of sitting outside at a sidewalk cafe with her over a tiny cup of expresso while she continued to worry at me about getting in safely off the streets. People swarmed by in either direction, a treat to watch, but she saw none of it. The bistro waiter came and hovered, expecting another order that did not come. Mother wanted nothing. We were taking up valuable restaurant real estate and the waiter was expecting payment in either a big tip or more purchasing. Between the two, the appeal of people watching was rapidly diminishing. I acquiesced and we went home.

The next day, I had contacted Claire and Ken and arranged a time for us to meet at their place for dinner. Mother and I walked out and looked in fashion store window while searching for a bank where we could trade traveller cheques for French francs. We found a taxi stand and a taxi and headed to the Quay d’Orsay to see the recently refurbished train station that had been restyled into the Impressionist museum.

I ranged the museum at will, looping back regularly to see Mother’s progress. Her walking was slow. Every time I found something exceptional, I would drag her along to it. She would find a seat and wait while I did the rounds and circled back again. When we had exhausted our eyes with visual candy, we went out to the Quay to find a coffee shop where we could restore our feet and our tummies with a sit down and a cup of tea. The walk was longer than suspected. We found one in the direction of Sennelier’s, one of Paris’ finest and oldest art supply stories. Sennelier is basically unchanged in it’s store appearance since its inception in 1887 and has the creamiest oil paints and chalk pastels plus a selection of great art papers in sketch book format.

Mother sat at the coffee shop, tired from so much walking, while I went a few doors down and did some shopping. I returned with my treasures and spread them on the small round table before us. She nodded her head smiling but a bit puzzled that I would prefer these metal tubes of paint and tiny pocket sketch books as tokens of my stay in Paris.

In the following days, we went up the Eiffel Tower, rode a fly boat down the Seine, toured through Notre Dame de Paris and the Sainte Chappelle. We saw many galleries – the Jeu de Paume with its Impressionist collection; the Orangerie with its grand salon of Monet’s water lilies; the Pompidou and it’s modern collections and a number of local commercial galleries. We met with my friend and designer of fashion fabrics, Veronique Solivillas and had lunch. Veronique and I went to the flea market on Saturday morning – one of the ones Franc and I worked at many years previous – while Mother had a sleep in to restore her overworked feet. The pace was rapid for me but too much for Mom.

At the end of our Paris days, we rented a car, cabbing it back to Orly Airport with all our baggage to get it. I drove anywhere but in Paris. We headed east, destination Chateau Thierry where we stayed at a little motor hotel on the banks of the Marne. Early evening, still on Mother’s British time, we drove to a restaurant at the top of a hill. It nestled in the remains of some castle wall. To reach it we had to drive through a narrow gateway that arched above us some fifteen feet. About twenty teenagers were milling about it as we drove up. Some were holding on to their bicycles.

“Don’t go, Kay!” Mother said fearfully. “You don’t know what those people are doing! Look! They are all young teen agers. You don’t know what mischief they might be up to. Once you are in that gate you don’t know if you can turn around.” I continued to drive forward. The teenagers split like the Red Sea, causing no trouble whatsoever on our passage to the best restaurant in Chateau Thierry, so we had been told.

It was about six thirty – slightly later than in Paris. “Let’s go back,” she fretted. “There’s nobody here.”

“There’s not going to be anybody here for another hour at least, Mom,” I wheedled back. I wasn’t going to go chasing around a town I didn’t really know, rejecting restaurant after restaurant because of one thing or another. “Oui, pour deux,” I responded to the maitre d’.

While we dined another couple came in, but by the time we left an hour later, there had been no more. Dinner was acceptable but nothing to rave about. Perhaps the person I had asked had recommended his brother’s restaurant, or his next door neighbour’s as a favor to them. I could just here it:

Did you get that mother and daughter up at your restaurant last night around six. You couldn’t miss them. The daughter spoke fairly good French, but I didn’t hear a word of it from the Mother. You couldn’t have had anybody else at that time of night. Stick out like sore thumbs, those tourists do. You owe me one, n’est pas.”

When we left, it was pitch black outside. Electricity is too expensive in France. A frugal restauranteur wouldn’t waste money on illuminating anything but the entrance door. The customers should look after themselves going out. They should supply themselves with a flashlight if they can’t see in the dark.

Mother and I stumbled to the car, testing each step on the uneven ground. I looked for my car, but in the dark I didn’t recognize it. It was, after all, a rental.

Eventually we arrived back home having passed under the castle entrance arch once more, no loiterers in sight. In the morning, I packed the car with the exception of Mother’s things. I left her to her own toilette and packing and took my little travel box of watercolours and painted a postcard size picture of the Marne passing by the rustic gate at the end of the driveway. When I came back, the watercolour and the box was wet and I left it on the windowsill to dry while I packed Mother’s things in the car.

Fifteen minutes after we left, driving down the highway to Rheims where I had spent four years of my Art School days, I remembered the watercolour paraphernalia. It wasn’t far away and I had an exquisite painting of a crofter’s cottage across the dale from Sam and Evleyn’s place in Scotland in it. The box of colours was Schminke and very expensive. There was a number six Kolinksy Martin water colour brush with it. It was worth turning around to get it.

Within that half an hour, it was gone. With the hotelier’s key in hand, I looked in the room we had slept in the night before. It was nowhere to be found. It had not fallen on the gravel below the window.

“Who would that be valuable to?” Mother asked, rhetorically. “Who would have taken a thing like that?”

“Oh, Mom. In France , the French know the value of a nice piece of original art. They know the quality and value of art supplies. Probably the housekeeper pocketed it. Even if they knew they had it, they wouldn’t say so.” I was bitterly disappointed.

“It’s only material goods,” she quoted to me, not for the first time in my life. I haven’t bought you anything for this trip,” as if she needed to do that. “When we get to Rheims, you go wherever you need to go to get a new one and I’ll give it to you for a gift. You aren’t going to spoil your trip over a watercolour box.

I still have that new watercolour box. I fill it up with wet paint when the colours get low. I loved her for her equanimity at that point. Bless her heart. But I never have erased the image of that rare, perfect watercolour I had done in Taynuilt. That was irreplaceable. I still wasn’t very sure about my artistic output and when I did one I thought was wonderful, it was hard to part with.

We reached Rheims mid afternoon and we went directly to the tourist bureau to find the address of a hotel just down the street from where I had rented my apartment. It was central to the downtown stores and sidewalk cafes. It was also a short walk from the Cathedral in the other direction. The information office phoned and reserved for us. This hotel had a two star rating and cost us about forty dollars a night. The hotel assigned us a room that was on the second floor and down a long corridor, then the corridor went down a few stairs and across-wise, back up a few stairs and returned down the same direction as the first corridor. It was just too much for Mother so I went back to the reception desk and explained our problem. Was it possible there could be another room available. The desk clerk made a fuss but changed it eventually. There was something gained but not much. We were still pretty far from the elevator and from any exit stairwells. With Mother’s fear of hotel fires, this was not a good thing.

(to be continued)