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?”

“Fantastico!”

“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!”

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If you don’t…

November 28, 2010

“I’m going to put my laundry in. If you don’t find a hotel by the time I get back, I’ll find you one and at any price. You can afford it. It’s about time you started staying in better hotels.”

It was Hugh, frustrated with Kay’s seeming inability to book a hotel through Expedia or Hotels.ca. If Hugh was frustrated with Kay’s lack of computer brilliance, Kay was more so with the computer.

First, she wasn’t used to the laptop cursor control and the little arrow was flying over the page sometimes and then refusing to move at other times. Then, she became boggled down trying to compare prices and places. There were so many hotels and she knew so little about where they were, in a city she knew nothing about.  She could end up in some obscure location and spend half her time traveling back and forth to the hotel, when there were other hotels that were perfect for her meandering through the old parts of the city. But how was she to know when she had never been there. She’d chosen a hotel in New York that way.

It was three hundred dollars a night that she shared with her friend Kathy on a long-weekend side trip they had done from Toronto to New York, tagged on to a work-related convention. The hotel had been central alright. But the promised two beds was a trundle bed that pulled out from underneath a cot-like contraption. The second mattress lay on the floor which looked none too clean. The blankets were surplus from the First World War – gray, heavy woolen ones with dark blue stripes at the top – and there was hardly any room to move or to put luggage.  The towels were thin raggedy looking ones. Pictures  of hotels, Kay knew, were deceptive on the Internet.

Kay went back and forth between this hotel and that but they all seemed far to expensive for just sleep and nothing else. Finally she found one at one hundred Swiss francs and that seemed fine to her. The blurb stated that it was close to the city centre and the train station. There was a pub-restaurant with live music on weekends. That was a dicey thing. Perhaps with loud music, she wouldn’t be able to sleep. On the other hand, maybe it would be interesting music and it would give her something to do, close to her hotel, in the evenings.

She proceed through the steps of booking on-line, but every time she did so, the system informed her that she was missing information and booted her out. It was on the fifth try that Hugh came back from the basement with his knapsack full of clean laundry.

“Well, have you got it yet?”

“No”, she replied defensively, “but it’s not for want of trying”. She explained her trials with the computer and the booking system and how she kept getting error messages when nothing seemed missing. She showed him her selection and he took back his computer and started to key into the site where she had been looking.

Kay lamented not being able to compare the hotels.

“It’s so easy,” he replied. “Look! Here are references from other travellers. “Near the heart of town. Close to the train station. Staff is very friendly. Rating 5 out of 6. Cleanliness 5 out of 6. Sounds good. Entertainment in the surrounding district. 5 out of 6.”

“See these ratings? ” he continued. “Travelers leave there impressions and you can do the same when you have finished your trip. The other one you’ve chosen has no ratings at all.  You can’t tell. So take this one with the decent reviews. ”

After a few minutes, Hugh, too, was being booted out of the reservation system. He looked at Kay with a baffled expression.

“Well, there’s a telephone number here. We could telephone, but you’ll have to give me your credit card number so I can book for you. Only don’t stay on the phone long. I pay for my minutes if I stay on too long.”

Kay said nothing and watched Hugh thumb the telephone number into his cellular phone. It rang on the other end. Kay could hear the unfamiliar European ring repeating itself.  Hugh asked if they spoke English and then turned to Kay.

“You are sure you want to stay two nights? It’s going on your credit card. You won’t pay anything when you get there. They’ll give the special price you would have had if you had booked through Hotels.ca.  Shall I go ahead? Are you sure it’s the fifth and the sixth?”

Kay nodded mutely as  he proceeded to provide her card number. When he was finished, he turned to her and said, “See. It’s not so difficult. The only thing is, you can’t do it on line less than 24 hours before you are going to be there. ” He printed her a Google map and with a highlighter, traced her path from the station to the hotel. “Here. Take this with you. You can’t get lost.”

Kay nodded again, then, thinking the process had gone miraculously more smoothly than she could have mustered, she said, “Let’s do the one for Paris for when I return home; and let’s get one for Strasbourg for the sixth.”

“Look,” he said with a chastising tone, “You have to stop choosing the least expensive hotels. You can afford better. Suck it up. I’m going to get you a good hotel and  I get to choose.”

They argued a bit, but in the end Kay was defeated when Hugh announced, “If you want a cheaper hotel, you can do it.” Kay, feeling rather beaten, nodded her head, still wordless, with a grim feeling of panic.

The next day she left early with Hugh, down the hill to the bus stop, then down to the train station where she was on her own now, fending for herself with a continuing feeling of vulnerability. I’m getting on, she thought to herself. Now I need a magnifying glass to read a map and everyone will know I am a tourist. Now I need help to get my luggage up into a train. I no longer have the stamina to walk miles, and I’m about to go to a city where I don’t know sixteen words of the language. I’ll have to find a different way to travel.

The train ride was a long, with one transfer to Bern, then another to Zurich.

Industrial sprawl petered out around Lausanne. The steep hills above Lac Leman were green and corduroyed with ownerships of vines,  and accented with red-tiled roofs of the farm houses. Small cities were linked together by the railway, Nyon, Lausanne,  Vevey, Montreux, and then the train began to climb away from the lake towards Bern.

In the mountains, bright green pastures climbed high onto the slopes that were covered with deep green stands of pine and fir. The farm-style houses of the lower levels gave way to small chalets of the traditional sort – dark -wooded, two storied, steep-roofed to let the snow slide away.

At Bern, she had to ask a fellow voyager if it were the right place to get off the train. The signs were now all in German. With only six minutes to get her corresponding train, she followed the stream of other travelers. Then when they dispersed, she found herself in a long hall with no clear indication of which of many stairwells she must take to get there.

People streamed by in hasty determination to catch their trains, while disembarking passengers wove by in the opposite  direction – a dance that never ended in collision.

“Zurich, please!” she cried out in mounting panic. “Where’s the track for Zurich?”  and an adolescent in school uniform plucked her sleeve. “Follow me, ” she said, pulling Kay in the right direction. “It’s the train after mine. Watch there,” she directed, pointing to a automated board that clicked over numbers as the trains came and went away again.

“Next one!” the girl waved as she  and her classmates disappeared into a train.

And so Kay got on the next train and sure enough, it deposited her in Zurich.

Once again there was a baffling configuration of halls giving on to train tracks. It was the main hall that she wanted, and an exit to the city. When she looked out she hoped was  the front of the station, there was construction going on. She couldn’t tell because everything was shrouded in scaffolding and swaths of plastic. No street names were in view. When she looked back into the station, there were three other exit possibilities. What to do?

She walked down the long hall with shops on either side looking for the Tourist Information Center.  It was not obvious despite the large sign that hung up  above along with a huge surreal sculpture of a woman floating just below the rafters.  She returned back to the central point, close to the wall, passing a florist, a bakery, coffee shop, the ticket counters and other businesses. She returned to the ticket counter, stood in line and waited five minutes.

“It’s not here,” replied the bored clerk in a dull, flat voice. He pointed to the opposite side of the hall at the far end.  Back she went, now annoyed.

“Please, do you speak English,” she asked, and the Tourist Information clerk nodded.

“How can I help you?”

“I already have a hotel. I reserved it on the Internet.I just don’t know where I am on this map, which exit to take, which direction to go.”

He pulled out a city map in an automatic gesture from under the counter, without swerving his  kind eyes from Kay.  “And your hotel?”

“The Rothaus.”

His expression did not change, nor did he say a thing, but there was a slight movement backwards of his whole upper body. It was the first indication that something might be wrong.

Smoothly, he continued on, “The Rothaus.There is a bus at the end of this street. Just turn right out this door, he pointed,  and walk down to the street at the end. There’s a bus stop. Take the number 3.”

“Bus?” replied Kay. She had no change and felt more vulnerable on the bus. What if she went far past her stop and got lost. It was different if one was traveling with a friend. They could sort things out and there was company if things didn’t work out. But now it was  all up to her. “Couldn’t I walk?”

“You could but it’s better to take the bus. You go out this door, turn right, walk the full length of the station, There’s a bus stop just right there. But if you really want to walk, cross the street, again to the right until you come to the corner, then walk two blocks to the river, cross over the bridge,  one block left, then about five blocks down Militarstrasse.”

It was too much to remember, but it was now highlighted on the new map and she thanked him and headed out the door.

The front of the station was shrouded, Christo-like, in scaffolding and plastic wrap. There were detours around construction hoarding covered with graffiti and posters apologizing for the inconvenience. At the end of the station street, there was one block of uninviting shops and then the commercial aspect of the streets petered out.

Kay crossed the canal by bridge, turned left a block and found her street.

There was nothing of note for a block, then a huge open space fenced by a stone wall with forged iron fencing ran for about three blocks. Three large, striped tents were situated about a block away in the center of it and there were circus animals in pens outside.

As Kay was taking in the details of the circus, two swarthy men passed her clicking their tongues as they brushed passed her in, raising their brows and leering.

“Oh Lord, ” thought Kay. ”  All this long trip, she had not been pestered by the migrant North Africans as she had been thirty some years before. Was she just entering a poorer district? Was she marked as a tourist and therefore was prey? She tightened her hold on her black carry-all and took mental note. She would not bring her camera out in this district. It was dicey.

In the next block, there were young people, about fifty, she guessed,  waiting for the bus. It appeared to be beside the entrance to a technical school. They payed her no attention, forcing Kay out into the street to pass them. She sped her steps, leery of European drivers who stopped for no one.

Once she was beyond them she once again took stock of her surroundings. Across the street was Milano Pizzeria. At worst, I could eat a pizza tonight, she thought. There was a grimy-looking corner store, but possibly there was an inexpensive dinner in there as well – maybe yogurt, cheese, some bread, a banana or an apple. Kitty-corner there was a cafe which she was fast approaching, and on fourth corner, a clothing shop with racks and racks of cheap, gaudy merchandise.

Kay noted that there were only men sitting outside the sidewalk cafes, and that there were a few women hanging around aimlessly, drably dressed, not going anywhere.  With relief, she saw her hotel, a red brick structure on the corner of a side street less than twenty meters ahead.

“Rothaus. Red House. Of course!” thought Kay, translating from the Swiss German to English with an educated guess. Here it was!

The main door led to an empty cafe where she supposed the music was in the evening.  To left and right, she could not see a hotel entrance, but saw an arrow pointing to one side. There was a locked gate made of unpainted tubular steel and a buzzer with a sign which she hoped was for the hotel, and an intercom.  Just past the gate was another buzzer which, she supposed, was to let oneself out.  The intercom answered, “Rothaus!” ,  a female voice.

“Rothaus Hotel?” asked Kay.  The buzzer sounded and Kay pushed the gate. It opened and she entered. A narrow grey door in an unfinished concrete stucco wall was marked Hotel in white paste on letters. It didn’t look promising.

Inside, a young woman at the desk asked Kay’s business.

“I reserved over the phone last night. Kerrer is the last name, ” Kay said. “Do you speak English? It’s already paid for,” she added, making sure she would not be asked for more money.

“Oh yes.  Your room is number 64. I’ll show you.” She handed Kay the key and preceded her back to the courtyard. At the door, she pointed to a small new building within the compound, built like a blockhouse, square, three storied, uninteresting.

“There’s a door just under the stairwell. Your room is at the end of the hall.” she said and ushered Kay out past her.

The corridor inside the blockhouse was narrow, plain and dark. At the end she found three doors. It didn’t compute. The building was so small. Was there room for three hotel rooms in here?

Inside the room, it became evident. There was a double bed with crisp white linens and a bright red bed cover. At the end of the bed, there was no room at all. A twelve inch shelf ran from one side of the room to the other. An modern style stool fit underneath it, the only other piece of furniture.  A guest was not expected to sit here in the evening, nor write, nor relax in a chair.

Along the bedside, was a narrow space from the door to the shelf, not thirty inches wide. Four colourful plastic hangers swung from a bracket, above, in this space. It was the nearest thing to a closet that there was.
In the bathroom, the toilet was so close to the wall that the paper fixture stuck out into the room making it necessary to sit sideways first before settling in.  A concrete lip on the floor provided the base for the shower in one corner and the curtain, gathered close to the wall, provided the two other sides for it.  The pedestal wash stand was cracked.

“It’s only for two nights” thought Kay. She couldn’t bear the thought of returning to the station to find a different hotel. She couldn’t imagine trying to get her money back from this one. “At least it’s clean, ” she added, talking out her concerns to herself.

Time was wasting. She only had two days, so she sorted out what she would need for a walk and then, leaving the remainder in the room, she consulted her map, then went out to explore the city.

To be continued.

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.

Kay gets flowers

June 19, 2010

“Can’t a girl get forty winks in the middle of the afternoon” grumbled Kay as she slid off the couch to the floor then levered herself up, leaning on the little side table. Her knees weren’t trustworthy. She rubbed her eyes.

No one ever came to visit without calling first. No one ever rang her door bell without warning except for FedEx, exceptionally, yesterday, with a gift basket in a large clean cardboard box.

Kay, being somewhat warped in her priorities, extolled the virtues of a cardboard box big enough to transport mid-sized paintings and this one would do just fine. But who would send her a gift basket? It must be for someone else!

There, tucked in voluminous folds of cellophane wrapping, was a tiny card on a stick, “Thanks for allowing me to list your home.”  So it was for her after all. “Bloody gift baskets,” she thought, “Waste of money. Why don’t they ask what you want first. I’d rather have had flowers.

Still grumbling and half asleep, Kay hurried to the front door and looked out the window. An affable man in his early sixties, and to her surprise,  stood holding a beautiful bouquet of flowers in a cut glass vase.

With no heed for security, Kay opened the door wide and the screen door too. Feeling a bit incredulous, she stuttered, “For me?”

In the back of her head another conversation was going on. It went this way:
“Are you crazy? You don’t know who this man is. You’ve never seen him before.  What makes you think that a man with grey hair slicked back over his pate wearing glasses from the ‘Eighties is a good man without evil intent? You know you should never open the door to strangers.”  This message, oft heard, came with her mother’s voice. She, in her latter years, was constantly morphing ordinary, gentle people into burglars and kidnappers.

“This is 12649 on 119th? he asked, though it was evidence in itself, since he was standing under the house numbering.

“Yes, but who would send me flowers?”

“Kramer?” he continued.

“No, Karer,” Kay answered.

“It’s so close,” she said, now a bit bewildered. “Let’s see”, she asked, extending her hand for the gift card that was now in his hands, that he was turning over and back again to see if there was a clue on it as to this beautiful bouquet’s true destination.

“Ha ha,” chuckled Kay, kabbitzing.  “It’s okay, you can leave it with me.”

“I guess I have to call the office,” he rejoined, not sure in his duty, but laughing.  “I don’t think I can leave it with you.  I’ll have to find out….” and he pulled out his cell phone to ring up the florist’s shop.

“And I was thinking house invasion” continued on Kay. “You don’t have an AK 70 or a Kalishnikov in your pocket do you? What a great way to gain entry to a home. Nobody would suspect that  a nice looking man with a bouquet would do any harm. See?  I just opened the door, no problem.”

“That’s right,” he says. “It’s a great terrorist ploy.”

He snapped the phone shut. There had been no response. He took the gift card again and tested the seal on the envelope. It gave slightly on one corner, then ripped. No matter what, he was going to have get a new envelope for the card, so he finished the tear to the end and extracted the message.

To Karen and Jeffrey, it read, Deepest sympathies from all the gang.

Deepest sympathies!” exclaimed Kay as she recoiled a foot.

“I don’t know of any Karens or Jeffreys. There’s no one here by that name. I think you had better take those flowers with you. I don’t need any deepest-sympathies here.”

He laughed and without a word, turned down the stairs, back to the sidewalk and his truck.


Prisoner for a night

May 21, 2010

It was hot this past week.

As we stumble out of winter and into spring, bravely facing the elements in the garden to start the yearly ritual of planting so that we can sit back in the summer and watch the vegetables grow, we complain. It doesn’t matter what we complain about. We simply are in the habit of complaining.

It starts this way:

“Spring will never come. It’s so rainy! Aren’t we ever going to get some sunshine?” followed by:

“It’s too hot!” This last complaint comes after the first morning of sunshine in a week – but this time with a bit of force behind it. It’s not the weak thready sunshine of winter. No. This sunshine has some punch and it heats up up to a whopping sixteen degrees. “We’re not complaining though, ”  we follow on, but really we are.

We start to wear layers and can be seen tossing off one of them or putting one back. The sleeveless padded down vest is replaced by a fleece one. We rake up the leaf mould and put it in the compost to rot some more with kitchen  compost and the first grass clippings, mixing as we should the brown with the green.  After a few moments of such labour, off comes the sweater. It’s too hot.

Stand in the shade – it’s too cold.

On Tuesday, the sun came out in full force. It was mightily pleasant and I wore my shorts in a devil-may-care attitude although I shouldn’t be seen in shorts in public any longer. No matter! I was in my own garden and sure to be overheated if I remained in my winter fleece.

In late afternoon, I took the car to pick up some bread and milk at the grocery store. The black interior had absorbed the day’s heat with a vengeance. The black leather was ready to barbecue my tender flesh, but I had changed back into decent leggings and sat for a few minutes to let the hot air out and to soak in the delicious heat.

When I got back, both front windows wide open letting in the eighteen degree weather, I reflected that it takes a bit of time to adjust to temperatures. Normally even in winter, I only keep the thermostat at nineteen degrees throughout the house, so why was it, on this day, that I was feeling cooked while indulging in temperature that was a degree less? It’s all relative. I would have to adjust to summer one more time. For summer was surely coming. Four more days of this heat were forecast.

So as I  left the car, I opened the skylight a fraction of an inch to let hot air rise and leave and I left only one of the front windows open a wrist’s worth, not open enough for a car thief to get in, but open enough to let a breeze go through. I parked it in the shade of two grand cedar trees that surely began life in the early 19oo’s. They are easily one hundred feet tall.

Next morning, we had a mission, Frank and I. Yes, Frank has come back into my life a little bit, returned from the Far East where he wintered for a couple of months, and he phoned up to see if he could help me turn the decommissioned sauna into a storage space. That was last month.

I went on a trip of my own to Victoria to visit some friends a few weeks ago and he, knowing that I wanted some work done in the garden, asked if he could help me with that as well. He’s at loose ends and is looking for company.

It suits me. I know that he has a work ethic bar none, and that I can trust him to do a good job. That being said, if he doesn’t approve of what I want him to do, he pulls an adult tantrum and I often bend, if it doesn’t really matter to me.  I might also end up with something that he wants rather than what I asked for, another familiar manipulation that a gal learns after twenty years of marriage and ten more of on-and-off relationship.

It was in this manner that my two garden beds shifted ten feet to the west and lost their unique U shape.  He insisted that the sun I would get would be much better where he wanted them. I didn’t hold my ground (nor stick to my brand new, not yet fully paid for,  garden design). It seemed like a little concession and I could fudge the design back into looking much like it was supposed to.

All the way up until the end, we talked about the U shape. When he laid the planks out in the garden to show me where it was and for my confirmation that the beds were parallel to the fence and acceptable for my design, the U was still there. But when he called me to see his final product, somehow the little end  of garden had disappeared.

“What happened to the U?” I exclaimed is some disbelief. But with a sinking feeling, I knew what had happened. He didn’t approve of it. I wouldn’t be able to get the wheel barrow in t either end. I would have had to back in with it to roll it out forward. With both ends, I didn’t have that problem. He recognized that the design was prettier than it was practical and with out saying, just made a one-sided decision.

What was the point in protesting. If he didn’t want to do it, I would have to get someone else to do the work. It wasn’t worth the argument and the bins looked quite handsome the way they were. I let it go.

But this little detail of my story comes after my saga of the prisoner, so now I regress.

On the morning where we were going to pick up the lumber for my raised beds,  we headed out to the car and nothing looked unusual.  It was when I opened up the driver’s side door that I was confronted with a robin-sized bird flapping with panic.  It had somehow thought that my car was a likely candidate for a summer’s nest.  That wrist-sized opening had just been enough to get into the car but the configuration of things had not been sufficient for him to get back out.

I looked him up in my bird book later. It was a fairly rare Rufous-sided  Towhee.

He must have cried for help because both rear-view mirrors were decorated with a thick layer which I imagine was deposited by two family members, one on each side, keeping the prisoner company.

Frank opened the two doors on the passenger side and I opened the back driver’s side door and the panicking bird flew off without so much as a thank-you for its liberation.

Talk about decoration! We spent half an hour getting the car cleaned before we could drive away in it. The steering wheel had made a perfect perch for the night but it wasn’t the only place to be cleaned, by any means. All the frustrated wanderings of the poor bird to discover some means of escape had been marked of the passage.

As nests go, it was spacious and luxurious – leather padded lining, plenty of wing-room, some practice-flying space but it lacked in accessibility – or should I say exitability.

In the afternoon, I spent an hour and a half re-cleaning the interior of the car and then the outside. It was a good thing.  I rarely do cleaning, not to say that anyone else does it for me, so it had become dusty and full of Sierra’s dog hair – my sister’s pet whom I had dog-sat for the month of May.

I just want to add this little bit of adventure, which relates to our search for lumber.

On the bird’s liberation day, we went to a big-box hardware store to find the wood we needed for my raised garden beds. Good grief! It was very expensive. With my green thumb which tends more to a dainty pink colour, I would never grow three hundred dollars worth of vegetables. This really was a hobby farmer’s luxury! Each two by ten by twelve was worth almost twenty dollars.

On an off chance, the day that we picked up the wood, I insisted on going to the local lumber yard /hardware store to see if we could get a better price – or even just support local business.  Wouldn’t you know, there was someone very knowledgeable who directed us to something called garden-grade lumber. It was really all that we needed.  There were some faults to it, but nothing major. Instead of twenty dollars a plank, we paid  seven. That’s a mighty savings.

Frank insisted that a six foot plank would fit into the car if we simply put the front seat down as far as it would go. He would travel back and forth in the back seat behind the driver (me).

Now if my car was a clunker, perhaps I wouldn’t have been so worried. But my car is a Lexus with black leather upholstery and I would never have had this car on my own doing if Frank hadn’t insisted that it was a bargain that couldn’t be passed up.  I would never have thought of buying a luxury car.

Last year when the prices came down on cars because of the market crash, I looked for another car, a newer one with less intrinsic faults than this one. It is, after all, seventeen years old now. But anything I drove was so heavy to drive, so clunkerish, so tinny, even though it was new.  The clincher for keeping this vehicle of mine is that the car dealers will only give me three thousand dollars for it! Some luxury! I’ll just keep the thing and run it into the ground!

But by that I didn’t mean losing the ceiling cover to some rough piece of cedar, nor scratching up the fancy leathers. I cringed at the thought.

Once again, I bent to his insistence. I did not gain my way to have the lumber delivered for fifty dollars.  We made three trips in the pouring rain (and the temperature fallen to ten degrees once more) back and forth with eight pre-cut six foot long planks piled on the passenger seat.  I admit that I prayed for the leather and was prepared to curse if anything befell it.

Frank’s smiley face at the end of the third round tells the tale. “See, I told you so” he says. “Trust me!”

So those were the adventures that surrounded my new garden beds.

I must say though, I can’t help thinking of that poor Rufous thing locked up in the clink all night, weeping and gnashing its “hens-teeth”, abetted in its frustration by two watchful friends on the rear view mirrors. Poor Towhee!

I bet his lady isn’t buying the “Trust me!” quip.

In fact, I might even have heard her saying, “I told you so!”

A working girl

April 15, 2010

During the week there is a gallery manager at the Fort Gallery, but on Saturdays and Sundays, we, the artists, have to mind the store. Today is my first day for this, and being the worrier that I am, I came a day early to find out just what I have to do.

First of all there is the dreaded alarm. Bette, one of the others, had taken time to tell me all about it at the last opening, but of course, Memory-like-a-sieve didn’t write it down and I needed a refresher. About noon, I hopped in the car and drove across the Fraser River to Fort Langley. It was grey and rainy. What’s new?

Inside the gallery, though, Claire was doing duty, drawing in her sketchbook in preparation for a new work. With dynamic black and white photos of dancers, she was plotting out a composition, emptying the background of all clutter, in a line drawing that had as much activity to it as her photo figures. It was a delight to see.

As we engaged in discussion, all thoughts of the grey, rainy day outside disappeared.  Terry soon arrived to take the second portion of the shift. Each of us had sold a painting from this show and were elated. Claire had a different one to put up and  we helped her with it. It’s another protest against the Olympic decision that women ski-jumpers are not permitted to compete in the games.  With her fertile mind and sense of humour, she has a female figure lifting another into that flat out form that ski-jumpers take as they fly through the air. There are red tassels dangling from her breasts.

Those are nipple covers” she laughs. “There’s a real name for them, but it doesn’t come to mind. ”

“They’re called  pasties!,” adds in Terry with more laughter.

“”Yeah! Oh, yeah! Pasties. What are the women supposed to do? Are they only acceptable to these men-decision-makers if they wearing pasties?”

“If they won’t let them compete, what are they supposed to do? Pole dance? And did you see? There’s a delegation of pole dancers asking for that to be an Olympic event. Now if they accept that and won’t accept women’s ski jump…..” The thought trailed off and we all shrugged our shoulders and grimaced in half smiles.

On the Sunday, I was sitting the gallery by myself. I had written enough down to remind me of the alarm codes and I got in without any mishap.

In the adjoining Open Space, there is a wonderful program going on. It’s a teaching and learning space. People who want some coaching in their painting can come, at low cost and continue to be mentored. Some of the gallery artists teach mini-courses that will help aspiring artists to improve their work. It’s a flexible arrangement meant especially to provide learning opportunities for those who have a modicum of training and who want to continue on, improving their skills, expressing their thoughts in paint.

One of the artists from the Fort Gallery teaches print making there and another who is a specialist in art therapy, teaches journaling through art as a means of becoming more aware of one’s self.

It so happened that Betty Spackman, the author of this Open Studio program, was there mentoring her Sunday group of four artists. As the students painted, absorbed in their individual expression, I had a chance to talk with Betty. We are very privileged to have her here.  She is internationally active as an installation artist, and her  works are absolutely delightful, full of humor and insight.

She is encouraging me to think about teaching in the Open Studio, myself, since her involvement may be diminishing as she moves forward into new projects that may take her away from us and back to Europe and Toronto where her principle art practice has been located. Her next show is in Penticton.

Mid afternoon, a couple of interested onlookers came into the Open Studio and were welcomed to have a look and then encouraged to come into the gallery next door.

An elegant man in his seventies, I’m guessing, with a faint Dutch accent that I recognized came through and I engaged him in conversation as his wife went onwards into the gallery to have a look. Was his accent noticeable, then? He seemed gently amused. I then spoke of my own Dutch heritage, though I can’t speak a word of my father’s mother-tongue.

There was a joyous moment of recognition. It was Willy van Yperen!  It was a fantastic moment of awe that this coincidence of our meeting should happen.

“Do you come out here often?” I asked.

“Never!” he replied. ” We decided to come explore Fort Langley for an outing. I haven’t been here for simply ages.”

We got to reminiscing.

As a student just after high school and then in all my years of university, I had worked at Henry Birks and Sons, the famous Canadian jewelery shop. One of those first summers, Willy van Yperen had immigrated from the Netherlands to repair jewelry in the workshop above the store. From time to time, I was able to go up to this fascinating place where a team of men worked over their benches, mostly repairing rings, brooches and necklaces of the elite of Vancouver.  There were engravers of silver to monogram cutlery and platters; there were watchmakers and gemologists. There were stringers of pearls and various other artisanal disciplines there.

For a young girl who had grown up in a family of teachers and knew nothing but, it was like being allowed into Santa’s workshop. Whenever I had a chance to linger there, I did.  Willy must have been maybe ten years older than I, and a kindly soul. He allowed me to watch him work and we chatted, though I dared not stay to long. It was an organization that expected employees to have their nose to the grindstone  and there was to be no idle chitter-chatter. I wouldn’t have dreamed of getting either of us in trouble with the hawk-like managers.

In my final year of University, a friend and I were playing hooky from our classes on a sunny afternoon. We were wandering the  shops of Upper Tenth Avenue, a village like shopping district that served the students and the intelligensia of the University of British Columbia.  We entered an interesting jewelry shop that was beautifully arranged in a designers fashion (unlike the warehouse style of the mass-manufactured jewelry shops).

There, in a window midway down the shop, overlooking his rows of rings, necklaces and brooches, was Willy, bent over his workbench, lit by the intense lamps that clarified his minute crafting.

He had just escaped the drudgery of his Birks employment and was now set up to sell his own creations. He was, after all, an artist, not the repairman that Birks had made him out to be. And so we come full circle.

I have spent the last 23 years working in a profession that had nothing to do with my art work. We are both retired, though he is ten years ahead of me, even still.

He promises to come out to my show in July and once again, I will be delighted to see this cosmopolitan jeweler, designer of excellence,  and listen to his faint Dutch accent.

I believe in destiny and I am often amazed how some individuals, important in my life, keep coming back through with that spark of friendship that does not diminish, carrying reminders for me that I must keep up my standard and reach for excellence.

Forever sorting – sort of downsizing

April 15, 2010

More sorting. It’s never ending.

I’m into the boxes that are marked “Books” or “Art books”.

Frank has come round. In both senses of the word. We are talking, which is a relief to me. I’d like to leave this world reconciled with all – not that it’s imminent, to my knowledge, but you never know. Sometimes relationships take time.

One of my friends asked me quite tartly to me the other day, “Why do you even speak to him anymore?”  I’ve been pondering that quite a bit since. It’s a valid question. Do  I have a valid answer?And maybe that’s too personal, in any case. The upshot, though, is that Frank has offered to take the walls down in a little room that used to be a sauna, in the basement. It has been decommissioned as a sauna and I’m more interested in having a proper place to store paintings, so  he is going to help me convert it. The wall coverings need to be replaced and some decent flooring is needed. He’s capable of doing both.

This little room has been the hidey-hole for the massive number of books that I brought with me when I moved and I don’t even know what’s in there anymore. There’s enough to start a book store! I had a month to clear it out before Frank would be back to start work on it. Those days are ticking away relentlessly and I’m having to work faster and pay less attention to detail. For those cheering me on in my downsizing efforts, I have  gotten rid of about four boxes of records (my own)that are not worth keeping. That has translated three huge bags of paper shredding, which will go out with the recycling this evening.

One of the boxes contained old papers that Mom had collected. It contained many of the souvenirs of my Father’s illustrious career as a professor. At various times, he had been the president of various professional societies in his own disciplines.  He came from humble beginnings and was so very thankful for the support that he had received in getting an education, that he felt he should give back to his community. He did that in both service and monetary donations, all his life. Bless his soul.

I am excited about this because, for the family history that I am writing, I am going to be able to piece together some more details of his career, of which I knew very little as a child.

In the same box, I found a poem which originally I thought must have been one that he liked to quote to us when we were children. However, it was handwritten in perfectly composed MacLean’s method lettering which was my mother’s hallmark.

Digging a little deeper, I found three more poems, each typescript on good paper, an onion skin carbon copy (as was done in the olden days, for you new generation computer users – hence the abbreviations that we use “cc” at the end of letters), and there was a handwritten draft with many crossings out and overwriting.

All doubts were gone. These were poems written by my mother. I vaguely remember her sitting at her writing desk, shooing us away if we interrupted, because she was concentrating on bringing her poem to fruition. She never read it to us. She never let us read it. My sister Lizbet tells me that she sent it out to a publisher and it was returned.  Such a shame. It was the end of her publishing dreams. She never sent it out again.  Unfortunately, it was the end of her writing attempts too. She was discouraged. Perhaps, with four children, she was also too busy.

Back to sorting.

I closed up that box once I had taken all the duplication away and had topped up the available space with more family documents. I parked it in a safe place for future inspection.  It will be a while before I get there.

Several boxes that came next were art books I’ve been waiting to find. I’ve missed them, needed them for my teaching. Those books have risen to the main floor and I’ll find room for them somehow. Then, in one box from Mom’s study, hastily packed when I departed from her home two years ago, was a collection of Canadian books and a leather case. In it were bundles of supplicant letters from every charity in the world that she supported.

Today, as I look at this empty leather case, I see the little tag in it marked, John D. Barrow, maker, Vancouver. Though I looked him up on the  ‘Net, I didn’t easily find anything. So if anyone knows something about John D. Barrow, please let me know.

It’s a solid little letter writing case. Tan Brown. Pig skin bubbly surface. Made for a half size of lined and hole-punched paper. I’ve decided to appropriate it for my own use.

Seeing it brought a flood of memories, of Mother taking a year’s worth of these solicitation letters – Red Cross, Christian Blind Mission, Lepers something-aruther, several Cancer agencies, United Way, Union Gospel Mission, Salvation Army, Boy Scouts and more – and having me sort them in piles alphabetically, then selecting the ones she wished me to make out cheques for her charitable donations.

The letters and envelopes are all gone now, but I noticed the folder by my computer filled with many such solicitations and I see by that accumulation that I have taken on her accumulating habit. Ah, me! I’ll have to go through the pile and throw most of them out.  In the meantime, I’m back to hauling boxes, opening them and sorting out the wheat from the chaff.

Where are those keys?

April 14, 2010

My cousin writes a mass mailing to friends:
Hello All!
Once again I’ve put my keys down in a spot where I know I will find them and now I can’t locate them.  I cleaned out the van yesterday, making sure not to lock them in as I closed up.  I have checked the spot where they are to hang in the basement and the pockets of the pants I had on yesterday.  Those should be the only two spots where they should be living.
But voila, like magic they aren’t to be found this a.m.
So get out your spidy eyes…all eight…or is that legs…and watch out for them for me please.
Reward?!  Yes, a drive in the van if you’d like!

I’m miles and kilometers away. I’m not concerned by this loss of keys, but I’m very empathetic. I can have four pen on the desk and have them disappear, one after the other while I have not gone anywhere – not moved whatsoever – and still they are lost to me. Later in the day, I may find them in my jacket pocket.  It’s the desk imp who hides things for wicked fun. And so I reply to my cousin:

Dear Cuz,
Do you not remember the car-key imp? He comes and steals away things  so that you can’t find them when you need them, and then just after it’s too late, he places them before your eyes!
Frank was here for eight days while he did a lot of renos and repairs for me. You should see the outside of my house sparkle! He power washed all the siding!
I kept looking for a stud finder that he gave me – a very expensive one, he was keen to tell me – and I couldn’t find it, so that he could put up some secure hooks for my paintings in these plaster walls of mine.

He went home on Wednesday and then came back again this Sunday to put in some decent and operative taps in the main floor bathroom. I still couldn’t find the stud finder – never opened, still in it’s packaging, yellow and highly visible – even though I opened every drawer and work box where it might have been, even on an off chance.
Then yesterday, not twenty four hours after Frank had gone back home …
I was cleaning up the studio more since this guy is coming to photograph me in the studio and there, in the pile of things I was tidying up (that I had abandoned tidying because I was distracted by R’s many requests for this and that) was the stud finder. Like, five minutes more, staying at my own tasks, I would have had it and he could have pounded some nails into the walls to hold up my heavier paintings. There’s not a chance that he is coming back. He simply lives too far away.
Anyway, Dear Cuz,  I empathize. You know you had your keys at home. They can’t be far.  The car-key imp is playing a trick on you, so they will turn up. Do you have a spare?

Your ever-loving Cousin

K

Advice is what it’s worth

April 3, 2010

Having Nephew Hugh in Europe has given me an opportunity for texting.

Late yesterday afternoon, my computer beeps at me and Skype is flashing at the bottom row of my computer. So I open up the program and see a line of text from Hugh.

“Are you there, Auntie?”

The time stamp is 12:45 my time, and 9:45 his.  But it’s now past two o’clock  my time, and so past eleven o’clock his time.
“Is it too late for a chat?” I ask.

“Everyone has gone to bed, here. I think it might be rude to be chatting away all alone in this entry way where I get a signal, so maybe just a few lines of  text?” he writes back. He’s in a student center for a maximum one month stay.

I find texting a little disjointed and unnerving. This will not be a surprise to anyone in the younger generation, it’s so common, but for me it’s new. I write something and press enter to go into the next paragraph and OOPs, the message has already been sent. So I continue on to say the rest of the thought, being slightly distracted by a little cartoon pencil wavering back and forth over an inch of an imaginary line. I’ve learned that this means that the other person is madly writing something.  But it doesn’t occur at the speed of thought, so I press enter and the remainder of my message goes. At the same moment, up pops another message from Hugh, having foreseen where my thoughts were going and he’s answered what I just sent. Same time stamp on my send and his text message arrival.

Now who gets to go first? Is there an etiquette?

It’s Hugh’s first day free to wander. All the contacts he has been given are away for the Easter four day weekend. He’s alone in a new city, emptied of it’s citizenry, all the stores closed but for a few pizzerias. There’s not even a store clerk to try his nascent language skills upon. He’s lonely and happy for an Auntie who will chat with him; who will tickle the plastic ivories of texting in her cyberspace voice. Auntie thinks, It sounds like something out of The Twilight Zone, but Hugh wont know that reference. And she tucks the idea away.

“What’s new today?” I send back to him as the quavering pencil flickers but no message comes.

Eventually:

“I walked out to the airport and back. I’m surprised how small a city this is. I haven’t talked to anyone.  I’m thrilled with the birds. I’m surprised about that. I spent some time in the laundry room here ironing all my shirts, profiting from the fact that everyone was away and I could have the room to myself.”

“The birds? What do you mean?” I shoot back to him.

“There are all kinds of birds I’ve never seen before and they are singing in European languages. I’m just fascinated by the sounds.”

“Do you know what they are?”

“No. That’s why I think they are so interesting. And they are so pretty.”

The phone rings here, and I answer it. Before I can explain that I am elsewhere engaged, Carol is going on about Easter plans and wanting to see me and I can’t find a wedge to interrupt her with.  As I recover from my fear of multitasking, I manage to write a line to Hugh: “Be back in a minute.”

Carol is coming for tea, at least, on Sunday and maybe dinner. She’ll see. She’s broken her arm and has lost her energy and oomph in the process. If she has enough energy….

And Carol and I sign off.

The beauty of texting is that Hugh has seen none of this. It’s seamless. It could have been a doorbell that rang, a cup of tea put in the microwave, an interruption from Frank who is doing some repairs for me, or time to put off a phone call until later. All he knows is that I’m gone for an undefinable but short time away.

Less than five minutes have passed.

“What else did you do today?” I write. The conversation is back on.

The pencil seems to be furiously writing.

“I walked down to the Canadian Mission” he says. “Here, open this. It’s a long web site, but you will see the Mission.”

I open up the site that he sends and there it is, from Google Earth, the gates of the Mission to which he is attached in full view, in full detail, from outer space, right down to the precise design of the gate, to the precise size and shape of the pillars holding them in place, to the trees that surround and the car that is going through at the time of the shot. It’s fantastic. This program must have put a lot of spies out of business!

In like vein, we text on. Frank comes by to ask a question about the repairs. He’s ninety-nine percent computer illiterate and marvels at my ability to keyboard without looking at the keys.

Then Hugh mentions the things he has not brought with him and he has found but the price is way too high: a beard trimmer, toothbrushes and floss, Tylenol. “Nothing extraordinary, but very expensive here, though the tax is already added in, so that helps a bit. Maybe could you send me a care package for my birthday?” he asks.

“Just buy them there,” I advise. “Once you add postage, they become just as expensive. And get a European beard trimmer. You’ll need it there and you’ve already got one for when you are back here in Canada.”

Once again, he mentioned his alone-ness.
For Pete’s sake, I thought. He’s only been away since Monday. That’s only five days! I thought back on my own travels and the months I was away, without people I knew. I left a record of that time in paper scribblings  that are squirreled away somewhere. Father saved all my letters. Later, when I went back and forth, I saved all of Frank’s letters, which tell half of the story. I may even have the other half, since when we separated, I gathered his important papers and kept them for the day he would want them again.

But all this texting will just disappear into the vapors of the heavens, or will reside on some unthinkably mammoth-sized server until they become outdated and disappear. His first impressions will simply disappear.

The last of my messages to him was a bit of free advice. It’s something I’ve reflected upon that concerns those moments in a person’s life when the change one goes through is so great that one leaves behind the past and embarks on a whole new phase.

Often we don’t recognize it until it has come and gone. But as life evolves for me, I begin to recognize these moments and cherish them. I try to use these moments for self-growth and positive introspection. It’s a time for evaluation and adaptation.

A line of text arrives;

“I went back to that pizzeria for dinner. There was no-one there but the pizza maker. But I was smart enough to ask them to not give me a raw egg on top, like they did the first night.”

And so I said”

“I always found that when I had an excess of time to myself and nothing specific to do that I ended up reflecting on myself and on all the rattle-trap that I didn’t want to focus on. It usually resulted in me coming to terms with certain things.     Your pizza sounds a bit better. I didn’t realize it was a raw egg that you got the other night. I think I would have asked them to put it back in the oven for ten minutes!

Endings and beginnings

March 29, 2010

Hugh is  elated. He has been appointed as an Intern to an International Mission for Canada in Europe. It’s his first job in his own field.

Kay , bursting with excitement for him, has been pointing out potential pitfalls, handing out advice that rarely meets the mark because, really, Hugh is an intelligent guy and has it all in hand. He’s  good at planning what he needs and procuring it, mostly through the Internet. Over the three years of his studies, he has carefully fostered contacts, too, and he’s been briefed before departure by a number of professors, research gurus and friendly field service officers, all of them friends.

He is nervous, anxious and excited all at the same time.  Wouldn’t you know, though, he gets the flu a week before departure and it develops into a secondary infection. He’s out of commission for two days and then struggles to get his affairs in order – emptying his room to storage so someone else can rent it while he is gone; collecting his visa which is supposed to be ready at the Embassy (but isn’t); getting to the bank and arranging his financial facility; completing his taxes because he won’t be here at tax time; ordering two suits and a few good shirts so that he can present himself well; buying two pairs of dress shoes because he’s sure he will not be received well in either hiking boots or running shoes.

The comforting thing, he mollifies her, is that Skype exists now. The only difference to their twice weekly calls is that he’ ll be calling from his new posting and he’s another few thousand kilometers away.
He says, “It’s not like when you  stayed in Europe; and Skype is still for free.”

“No,” she agrees. “When I left, it would be ten months before I got back home.  Long distance phone calls were prohibitive. I wrote letters, but I wasn’t staying in one place.  I was moving around. There was no place for anyone to write me until I got an apartment just before I started school.  I felt dreadfully lonely. No one around me spoke my language except other back-packers like me. I struggled with French. I could barely speak it. My Lord! What ever got into me – going off for a year like that, all alone,  without even being able to speak the language!”

“It was six months before I found anyone to talk to, and those were a pair of Norwegian girls. I thought I would go starkers with loneliness!”

“Darned if I was going to give in, though. I started to take second-language lessons at the University and then things eased up.”

“Your aunt Lizbet was in school in Geneva that year, but there was no phone where she boarded. I couldn’t call her. She wasn’t much of a writer. She spoke the language, at least. She’d taken her Masters in the teaching of French. When finally she wrote, she too was feeling very lonely.  I suggested that she come visit me for her birthday in December and she said she would.”

“Then, in a panic, I didn’t know what to do.”

“She didn’t turn up at the train station at the appointed time when I went to meet her.  She just wasn’t there.  I turned up for every possible train and went back home after midnight, my head spinning. What had happened to her? Had she missed the train? Was the train delayed? Did I have the wrong day? Perhaps she had not been able to get a reservation for the day she said she was coming?”

“On Saturday, I went to the train station from morning to night for every possible connection just in case I had made a mistake and still she was not there; and then I knew that she was not coming.”
“Should I tell the police? Or had I gotten something wrong? She had said Friday, but what if she meant the next Friday. Had she had an accident on the way? Had she been abducted? We had both been warned about the white slave-trade .”

“I waited, each day my stomach churning and my head filled with tragic possibilities. Should I call our parents? But what could they do from there? And what if it were nothing and they came all the way from Canada to find everything was alright? The expense of travel was prohibitive. I decided to wait.”

“A good ten days later, I got a letter. Her classmates had for the very first time invited her to join them for dinner and it turned out to be a surprise birthday celebration for her. She had stayed. But she had no way of getting in touch with me.  She rationalized that I would understand; that I would get her letter of explanation in a day or two and everything would be alright.”

“It was. But I had felt ever so vulnerable, ever so sick about it, all of that time that I didn’t know.”

“Auntie, Auntie,” interrupted Hugh, ” It won’t be like that. I will have a work place. I have a rooming house already, thanks to Cousin Barb. We have Skype and if need be, the telephone. I’ll call you twice a week – maybe more because I won’t know anyone there in the first month or so; and you can always just e-mail me.”

When Kay and Hugh finished their phone call, Kay returned to her chores in the basement where she was sorting out boxes of books to keep or not to keep – boxes that had been stored for two and a half years now as she settled into the new-to-her house. While she was mechanically opening boxes, chucking books into the keeper box or the other, her mind began to dial back to that earlier time.

How thoughtless she had been. Perhaps it wasn’t so much thoughtless as ego-centric. She had never thought how her mother might have felt, her rebellious and rather naive daughter winging off to France for a year without a place to stay nor a relative to depend on, with nothing but her clothing on her back, whatever she could stuff into a backpack and a wad of American Express cheques.

It’s the way of the world for the young to leave the nest, to try their own wings.  A generation later, it was Kay herself who told her nephews that it was their time to find their own paths, to find out who they were and what they wanted from life; that they didn’t have to ask permission to go or have a fight about it. All they had to say was, “I’d like to go live on my own now.” And here was Hugh, doing it.

Not to say that he hadn’t been fending for himself all these years of University; but it was his first job in his own field; and he would be living abroad.

As Kay’s heart twinged at  his leaving, she thought back to her mother. She had been the same age or just-about as Kay was now. And then Kay remembered the last of the three summers she had come back to work to allow herself to return to France to finish her Diplome.

“I’ve met a man,” she said to her mother,” and I’m going to meet his mother this fall.”

“You can’t go with that ragged coat,” Mother had replied, eyeing Kay from head to foot. ‘I’ll buy you a new one. If you are going into a new family, you will need to show you come from a good family.”

So they went shopping and Kay selected a brown and white herring-bone coat that reached to her ankles. It had a rust-coloured leather collar and buttons to match.  With her leather boots and three inch heels, her long blond hippie hair flowing down her back, she looked like a tall, slender Russian poet.

Kay admired her figure in the mirror. She would turn heads, she thought, with smug satisfaction.

Had she said thank you, thought Kay? Not just the words, but a proper thank you? Or had she just thought it was her due – parents buy their offspring clothing – or had Kay had any idea of the the reconciliation that this gesture had been from a mother to her headstrong daughter? It had been such a concession on her mother’s part.  She was letting go, for once, without making a fuss and showed for once, a certain trust in Kay’s judgment.

Kay sighed.

It was odd how life brought these bits of wisdom to her too late. It wasn’t a regret, exactly. Mother had come from a different era. One didn’t express one’s emotions. All her longings and vicarious wishes for Kay lay under the surface, bottled, capped, bundled and wrapped in a tight explosive corner of her heart. Kay’s too, thought Kay.

Kay was grateful that time had taught her to say what she felt. Kay had not wanted to make the same mistakes she felt she had grown up with. She was determined to let the boys, these nephews of hers, know that she loved them and encouraged them.  It had worked with one but not the other. Hugh was close, but not Ron.

Kay felt especially grateful about Hugh. She would not lose him for years at a time as she had been estranged from her mother. Hugh had become a friend – a deep and lasting friend. She would have the pleasure of sharing his adventures, she knew, and wished, far too late for it ever to happen, that she had been able to do the same with her Mom.

How different the world had become in thirty years! How much smaller the world had become because of all these electronic gadgets! And how much more open had become the ways of speaking one’s emotions to the people we loved.