Posts Tagged ‘life experience’

Elusive dreams

January 8, 2013

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I awoke from a dream that ended up in a hut in Cambodia, with me hiding behind a curtain, desperately hoping an invading group of men would not see me. Before them, a group of women and children had passed along a nearby bridge, like lemmings migrating or fleeing perhaps. There had not been a sense of danger to the first but there was to the second.

The dream was far more complicated than that, but as waking comes, so our dreams and their accuracy disappear.

I was left with an uncomfortable feeling as I lay in the dark, conscious of the warmth and safety of my current condition, It was an unnamed anxiety that I left to unveil itself by lying still, soaking up the darkness, savoring the plummy feel of the warm sheets, the crispness of the cotton, the darkness of the room. Dawn had not yet broken.

I encouraged my mind to go into free fall, hoping that in a waking dream-state, I could recapture the meaning of the dream; but it became more elusive and my thoughts became more concrete, more tangible, but drawn from my personal miasma of memory, not the from the dream.

I cannot say how I made the various connections that landed me in the domain of my past loves, past affairs and other intimate but not-so-pleasant relationships. Quickly, I was sombering into disastrous affairs from so long ago and briefly feeling the hurt and bewilderment of them again.

Why did my brain still store up these negative events, unwise decisions and embarassing moments in time? Do we remember everything we have ever done; these peccadillos sitting there somewhere deep in the chasm of memory just waiting for the trigger that will release them from the subconscious bog to the troubled surface of consciousness? Do we not all make mistakes as a part of growing up and finding our way? They are over and done with. Why to they reassert themselves?

If I did not want to spend the rest of the day beating myself up for things from a distant past, I had to flee this self-indulgent reverie-gone-wrong, so I covered my head with the blankets to block out the coming light and switched on the bedside lamp. Slowly I lifted the covers to adjust my eyes to the brittle light of day.

As I watch a dear friend suffering with depression struggle with her thoughts she cannot lay to rest I liken my fleeting struggle with hers, all the while questioning how some can escape the debilitating battle locked up in our minds and how others are drawn back into a miasmic bog they cannot escape.

Fifteen minutes into this written “capture” of my dream-wakening, the details are slithering away like a disturbed nest of wood spiders running for a bolt hole. I have sent the negative thoughts back to the bottom. I’m analyzing in a purely rational way. I’ve locked out the baddies.

How did I learn to do that? Why can some do it and others not?

Like everyone, I have made mistakes in my life that I cannot undo, cannot even atone for. I even know that, in aging,  I have not necessarily learned my lessons from them. I can still, and do still, fall back into them from time to time but with a bit more success in managing outcomes. Maybe.

It makes me more humble in dealing with my friends with troubles. I’m a wayfarer with them, not a judge, as I listen to their tales. I’m more compassionate, less critical, more empathetic.

Day has broken. Outside the window, seagulls squawk and chatter, seals come up for air after a search for breakfast, the blue heron stands stalk still waiting for fish to wash up with the incoming tide, the eagle sits glaring down from its pine tree perch. A high tide laps persistently at the gravelly winter shore. Life goes on.

I’m headed downstairs for my first cup of coffee.

Troubles in Paradise

October 21, 2012

I am responding to former Councillor Sandy Macdougall’s reflections on the Salvation Army’s current usefulness in the Maple Ridge. I’m sure we have many common concerns about our community and the welfare of its citizens with our friends and neighbours. We want safe, clean streets. We want to care for our needy neighbours and to protect our seniors. We want a healthy population and we expect that if we need to go to the hospital to get treatment it will be available.

We don’t want homelessness and we don’t want crime. We care about whether people have food in their bellies and a warm dry place to sleep at night.

I never used to worry much about how we did this. It was up to the politicians because we paid our taxes. It was a service our parents fought for to make Canada a more humane country. We have strong social ideals to take care of this sick, the elderly and those with disabilities. That is what a humane Canadian society does, or we would hope so.
But our dreams of a good society are slipping seriously and I am very concerned about it.

Mr. Macdougall’s position is that we need to run the Salvation Army out of town because an unsightly and uncontrolled element of society hangs about the Caring Place doing things no respectable citizen would do. Move the facility out of town, out of sight, out of mind.

In discussing this with a friend, he said, “It’s like saying, let’s get rid of the emergency ward at the hospital, then we won’t have any emergencies. Or, let’s get rid of the police and then we won’t have any crime.”

Normally, I wouldn’t go public with my opinions. But in the last few years, I’ve found that conducting one’s life in this society has become much more precarious. It didn’t affect me until I saw some of my friends teetering on the slippery slope of welfare, homelessness and destitution. It hits home when the people we are talking about are people you know personally. Hardworking people from the middle and upper middle – former teachers, psychologists, information technologists, health care technicians, to name a few whom I will tell you about.

Don’t think that these are bad people who should have saved for their retirement and it’s their own fault. Within my own circle of acquaintance, there was a man with a serious heart condition who lived in his van summer and winter, and could still work occasionally in his computer repair and support business to eke out his meager income. He had been a high earning Information Technologist with a wife and two kids. When the marriage split, he was still supporting his family. It didn’t leave him with much. When he had a heart attack, he was no longer earning,then his savings melted away. Few knew of his circumstances as he appeared like a gentleman when he attended all sorts of free events around town so that he could still feel somewhat normal and intelligent while he kept himself warm. Days were spent in the library. While he was mobile, he could visit Leisure centres for a nominal fee and get a shower and keep clean.

Alice, a close friend, has moved three times in the last three years as her income stays the same but her rent goes up. She has no savings after caring for her husband and his kids during a battle with cancer. She spent her life working full time at a decent job, giving to the community and caring for lost youths and fighting for social justice. She was honoured by Oprah for this. She still volunteers and is an active member of the community.

But this same person was refused treatment in our medical system for what she thought was follow up to elective surgery she hadn’t been able to get in Canada. BC Med wouldn’t cover the treatment she needed and she had to go to the States to get a baric scan. It turned out her problem wasn’t what she thought; it was nothing to do with it. It was far more serious. The delay almost cost her life. What she had to pay to go for the US investigative treatment she had to borrow. She doesn’t have enough income to provide for this herself. Each end of the month, she subsists on cereal.

Another friend is on a disability pension, has been for ten years. A psychologist by profession, his disabling illness has reduced him to a life of subsistence. Two heart attacks followed. He’s completely unable to earn his living. But he lives in dignity, studying and researching each day. Like my first example, he makes use of the library for a place to go for warmth and a semblance of normalcy. Up until last year, he spent time volunteering as much as he could at various charitable places around town. He lives within his meager income, proudly independent, asking nothing of anyone. He’s had to stand in line in the food bank though his energy has completely waned with his medical illness. This spring, one month after his last open heart surgery, his landlord decided to renovate. He was ordered to vacate. It was impossible to find something he could afford and he became homeless for two months. Imagine that, readers. How would you cope? Now, how would you cope, one month after open heart surger? It was only with strong advocacy from a friend that he finally found a stable roof over his head. Otherwise he would have died. But you wouldn’t have heard about it. We don’t report homeless people’s deaths.

My close friend whom I shall call Alice divorced three years ago from a destructive marriage. She was left with a small bank account for emergencies. As a senior, her income is low and is boosted by SAFER which allows her a decent small apartment, but the rent is going up and she won’t be able to afford it much longer. Her income is not going up. She’s not there yet, but she is looking at the edge of the slippery slope and is fearful of the days ahead. There are pitiful few low-cost housing places in Maple Ridge or in the Lower Mainland, for that matter.

Alice was a school teacher for twenty years of her life until she fell ill with cancer and was not able to work after that. She has been head of several volunteer committees in town. She still volunteers regularly. She is a thoughtful and important member of the community, living within subsistence means that you will not notice because she is  proud. Thank goodness for thrift shops like the Salvation Army and several other charities run. Normal stores are, in the main, beyond her means.

The story of Maria is equally frightening. Maria is an immigrant and writer and deeply religious. She came with her family twenty years ago with husband and two boys who just recently reached majority. It was an abusive marriage. Now that the boys have left home,  she has been able to escape, but she has no income but welfare and she sleeps at night at the Salvation Army Caring Place. There is nothing permanent about it. She bought a cell phone and she tries to get any work she can get. It’s mostly cleaning but she is new and has very few people who will trust her since she’s not got a “proper” place to live.

I’m telling you these things because they are just a few of the people whose stories I know. There are so many more in our society, in your acquaintance, who are proudly carrying on as best they can in fear of desolation, trying to keep the shreds of their dignity.

I can tell you that in trying to help my friends I found out that at least one third of the 17,000 people who are homeless in this Province, are there because the social system has pushed them there through indifference and lack of resources. For any of these precarious souls, if they lack concentration as many of the mentally disadvantaged or the sick and elderly do, then they can’t respond to the welfare system that is full of Catch-22 type rules.

The Province has cut back its services dramatically year by year. The homeless don’t complain and they don’t vote. When they do (the Occupy movement) they can be moved on by the police. As individuals, they have no voice. They are brushed aside because they are poor.

When a member of this disenfranchised group loses their housing, they also lose their “shelter” portion. If they have a place to live, usually they will have a place to store food and a place to cook or warm up meals. But when they lose the shelter portion, they are not only out on the streets, but they have no place to make an economical meal nor do they have the means to eat out. They have no place to go to the bathroom. They are chased from stores and malls. I remind you as you start to think “druggies, alcohol, nut cases that want to be independent” that it could be someone with a disability not savvy enough to deal with the system or a senior  making a choice to

to eat rather than pay rent.

We don’t want to see what is happening to our society. We want to push it somewhere where we can’t see it.  We’ve carved out fine lives for ourselves through our own efforts. We don’t see that we could be next. With a society on the brink of debt crisis, yes, it could be you, a friend or a relative.

I agree with Sandy Macdougall that we as a community need to do something about the situation surrounding the Salvation Army, but I disagree that we need to remove them from their location.

We need to tackle the root of the problem, not the symptoms, and we need to tell our governments, both local and Provincial, in no uncertain terms that we need to restore support for our disadvantaged citizens.

I would like to honour the District of Maple Ridge and the Province for the creation of Alouette Heights on 222nd Street. It provides 122 places for people trying to get back into mainstream society. But it’s not enough. It hardly touches the surface of the problem. All the residents have to move out within 18 months, but where will they go? There is little decent, affordable, permanent housing for them to go to. Just try to get independent living accommodation for $450 in this town. You have to wait until someone dies before something comes available.

I say decent, affordable and permanent housing because these low income citizens can’t afford to move when their rent goes up. “Affordable” is necessary because already, they haven’t sufficient to feed themselves properly. “Permanent, because we all know it’s expensive to move and it’s critically so when you have no money for food. “Decent” because a high proportion of the homeless are in fragile health and need clean, mold-free, safe homes.

So if we are to diminish the need for the services (and therefore the number of “customers”) the Salvation Army provides for, what needs to be done?

First, let your government know that dealing with homelessness and low cost housing is a priority. Phone. Write letters. Demonstrate. Our complacency in view of daily newspaper reports concerning the severity of the homelessness problem simply allows governments to ignore the situation.

If people can afford to be lodged, then they don’t need the shelter. If they have sufficient money to feed themselves, they don’t need the food services. So, upping pensions for seniors and those with disabilities to allow decent accommodations plus food is critical.

Thirdly, provide new low rent apartments with basic accommodation. Requiring one or two low rent units in new developments would help diminish the concentration aspect that concerns Macdougall.  The Alouette Heights-model of building with compact, no frills apartments is another good model, but ones that allow you to stay in dignity until you die. Allow more self-contained legal suites in homes that must rent for a third of an individual’s income.

Flying

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.

Coming home

July 4, 2011

Where is the beginning?

Was it the e-mail late afternoon, yesterday, telling me that thirty of my paintings had been donated to the thrift store and could I tell them what they were worth? “Please call Edith

Or was it my gentle friend and gallery dealer on Texada Island who notified me that she was dying – her last diagnosis on a recurring cancer having given her only a month to live? “Would I please pick up my paintings?”

Family in Powell River picked up those paintings and kept them for me until next time when I was visiting.  I packed them in my car and traveled back along the Sunshine Coast highway, stopping at Half Moon Bay. To my surprise, there was a very pleasant book store with a strong gallery element in it.

I took the opportunity to introduce myself to the new owner, an enthusiastic young woman, and showed her my paintings. She liked them. I had a list from the previous gallery. We photocopied it and both kept a copy as proof of our transaction. I left all sixty-four paintings with her. They were small – 8×8, 8×10, 11×14,  10×12 . You get the picture – they filled two medium size cardboard boxes.  Great for the tourist traffic wanting to take home a little something from their visit. Coastal scenes, (I had lived in Pender Harbour in my early adult years), spring flowers, a few metaphysical things, nothing too deep.  Sketches, little drawings, postcard-sized watercolors .

It suited us both perfectly. Thus, she had some small stock, hopefully easily movable; and I had a place to “store” these lovely little art works.

I had moved into my mother’s place to help her in her last years and there was precious little space she was willing to allow me for studio and storage. I hadn’t known where I would put this lot,  so it was a timely solution.

Time passed. I was working full time. When I came home daily, I had mother to look after, drive to appointments, feed, get groceries for, buy clothes for, look after her bills. She ached when she walked. Despite all of her fierce independence, and prairie grit, she had become thoroughly and completely dependent. Then my brother and his two boys came to live with us. It was a thriving, busy household of five and I had become the major domo.

I didn’t hear from the gallery nor did I expect to.  In the two or three years these sixty-four paintings had been at the Holtenwood, only  two sold. They sell slowly. Besides, these small tourist galleries only do business in the summer. They only open for the tourist trade. I didn’t worry.  The paintings were safe and dry.

Then my sister Heather and her husband came in for a medical appointment. They had been up to Halfmoon Bay at the grocery and went poking into the new store there.  I don’t remember exactly what it was – a bakery, I think. Or was it a fishing tackle shop?

“Oh? Have they built something new? Is the grocery store gone?”

“No,no. It was in the little building beside the grocery.”

“But that is an art gallery,” I said,

“Oh, the gallery? It’s been gone for a few years now.”
With a sinking feeling, I realized that not only had the gallery gone with no notice to me, but also the paintings along with it. Where were they?

It ate at me. I phoned the number I had for the gallery, but of course it was out of service. I looked up the woman’s name on the Internet – BC telephone directory white pages. Not listed. I spoke about it to friends. Finally I decided I must go up to Halfmoon Bay to see if I couldn’t find out what had happened to her. Surely she would not just chuck my paintings.

It took me a while before I could find someone to mind Mom for the day. She pleaded with me not to go. She was becoming much, much more dependent. But I needed a day for myself and I did not back down. The housekeeper came to stay with her and I left.

The day was rainy, cold and miserable. The windshield wipers slashed insistently like a metronome, sending sheets of water to the pavement. Luckily, Frank had agreed to come with me.

The defogger was not responding well and the car windows had large grey patches of condensation riddled with drippy lines that just would not go away.

Once on the ferry, Frank lifted the hood and tinkered until he was able to send gusts of air through the car to dissolve away the mists, but the air was frigid. The heater was not working.

We arrived in Langdale, disembarked and drove to Half Moon Bay, the windshield wipers still slapping away aggressively at the interminable rain.

At the little cove, the grocery was open but the small companion store was locked up for the season.

“Where has the gallery gone?” I asked the first person I saw in the store.

“Don’t know” was the answer “I moved here two years ago. I never knew the gallery. But the owner will be back in ten minutes. He’s lived here for a while.”

There was nowhere to go. The rain was teeming down. We stood near the cash register and waited more than fifteen minutes.

“She was a nurse’s aide or a nurse, I think,” the owner said. “She might be working at the hospital. That’s where she said she was going at that time. It must have been two years ago. There was some talk,” he said vaguely. “I don’t know if she’s still around.”

Hope dwindled. We drove back to the local hospital discussing my next move. What if she wasn’t there? Then what?

And what if she was there? What could I say? Why hadn’t she tried to contact me or send the paintings back? Had this long uncomfortable trip been for nothing? Was there a possibility that she could tell us where they were and we could just pick them up. Had she sold them and kept the money?
At the hospital, she hadn’t yet arrived for her shift. The receptionist said she would leave a message for her to come to see us on arrival. We could wait.

We sat, feeling numb. We couldn’t talk, with the injured and sick patients sitting morosely around us. Besides, in a small town, everyone knows everyone. It would have been indiscreet.

“I’m going back to the car. It’s your business,” Frank said flatly, suddenly leaving me to wait alone. I wasn’t surprised. He wanted to smoke.

The reading material was dismal – old Health journals – but I flipped through one nevertheless while I searched possibilities of what I could say.

“Are you Kay?”

The woman standing before me was thirty something, dark hair straggling around her face. I had a flash of Mother complaining, “In our day, nurses wore uniforms and crisp clean caps. They were polished and neat. Now you can’t tell the doctor from the nurses from nurses’ aides.”

“I am ,” I said.

I explained my business. I wanted to have my paintings back.

“You didn’t come to pick them up when I closed, ” she said accusingly.

“You never told me your were going out of business,” I defended.

“I notified everyone,” she replied defiantly.

“And how did you do that?”
“I put up posters everywhere in Halfmoon Bay and all the way down to Langdale.

“I live in Vancouver. How could you expect me to see your posters?”

“I phoned you and you  had moved. The answering machine name wasn’t the same.”

“I haven’t moved in eight years,” I said, a note of accusation in my voice. I didn’t believe her. She was making things up as she went along. As for the answering machine, it was possibly true. We had one of the nephews living with us record the message. Had they included my name on it? There was a measure of doubt. The menfolk in the family were not always responsible about phone messages. Had she phoned and I hadn’t gotten back to her?
“Well, that doesn’t really matter now, does it. I’m here now. What did you do with the paintings?”

“I must have sent them by Canada Post,” she said. “I sent them to the address you gave me when you first brought them in.”

“Canada Post?” I knew it was an unlikely way to send parcels, they were so expensive. I was incredulous. “You sent them when you thought I didn’t live there anymore?” I purposely brought the rising anger in me down, down down, until  I could speak normally. “Well, they never arrived. Didn’t you get the parcel back then, undeliverable?”

“I can’t remember. I’ve been so busy. My mother’s been very sick and now she’s died. I’m looking after her estate. Now my father’s sick. My boyfriend left me.”

The litany of woes, of misplaced blame, came out in staccatto form.

“Supposing they came back, what would you have done with them?”
“I don’t know. I don’t remember. It was too long ago. They could be in my mother’s attic. But I’m just going through things now. If I find them, I’ll let you know.

She was defensive and I was trying to keep the conversation on a level. After all, I wanted her cooperation. I didn’t want to shut her down. She was trying to make me go away. I wanted a commitment from her to find the paintings.

“Could you keep an eye out for them? Please take my name and telephone number and give me yours.”

We exchanged information. I returned to the car thinking, “She doesn’t care one whit.” I suspected that my business card would find the nearest waste basket as soon as she turned the corner. The little scrap of paper which I had,  I carefully folded into my wallet.

On the way back to Vancouver, impatiently-waiting Frank was sullen and weary. I repeated the conversation I’d had with her and proceeded to pick it apart. She’d never sent them. Was it possible she had called my  house? Why would she say she would look for them at her mother’s when she said she had sent them by Canada Post. How careless could that woman be?  Had she kept the paintings for herself? Had she sold some and couldn’t pay me for them, so was avoiding me?

Fast forward to last night:

I’ve been busy myself, enough to  forget things. I’ve had a six week pile of documents on my kitchen counter that I haven’t found time to sort.

Last night, I took from the pile all the exhibition data  – price lists, artist statements, resumes, submission cover letters, invitation designs, posters, press releases and sorted them out to be able to put them in a binder. At the end of the pile, I was holding a list of some sixty four works consigned to the Anchor Rock Gallery in Halfmoon Bay.

That confirmed it. The thrift store had my Anchor Rock paintings. No one else I knew had more than five of my works. It was the only answer.   Now how coincidental is that? I hadn’t seen the list in many a year and the list of works/contract finds itself into my hands on the same day as the e-mail arrives.

To be continued.                                    .

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.

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.

A day trip in the Fraser Valley farmlands

January 24, 2010

I met my  friend Jacki on my first day of teaching. She was a new (but seasoned) secretary for the high school and I was a neophyte teacher.

I was expected to collect art fees and locker fees from each student and give them a receipt, but there were no receipts books to be had.   I parked my self at the counter just in front of her desk and demanded in a most frustrated manner to know, if there were no receipt books, when would they be coming in.

She had been equally frustrated by the beginning of school and, she tells me, muttered under her breath, “Bloody snotty bitch! Who does she think she is,” and then replied in her clipped English accent in a very pointedly, over-polite tone , “We don’t have them and we don’t know when they are coming in. I’ll let you know when we’ve got them.”

I thanked her in equally over-polite words and then turned on my heel saying just loudly enough for her to hear, “Bloody secretaries and janitors! They run the bloody  schools!”

Of course, this last statement is correct. They do. We couldn’t operate without them. Instead of being bitter about it as I was that day, I came to appreciate their services even more so than the principal’s.

At some time in the second year, I moved to Richmond where she, too, lived. Memory is dim, these forty years on. Somehow she offered to drive me home and I accepted. It became a regular thing. We became such good friends that we never stopped being friends.

Sometimes there would be years in between when we no longer saw each other, like when I studied in France for four years. But when we got back together, the conversation began and never ended.

She had my number quite early. I was an innocent dropped into a wicked world. I would walk into situations where no rational person would go and somehow would walk back out unscathed.  Over the years, like any youth, I became more worldly, but always there was this obliviousness to danger, and often I would get into scrapes. So OK, maybe I wasn’t unscathed.

Jacki was always there like a safety net. She was five years older and much like an wise sister.

It has been a while since last we saw each other, maybe six months, and the previous time before was two years. She’s a Realtor and when I bought this house, she was my first visitor. I hadn’t bought the house through her because it was outside of her area of expertise, but she wanted to make sure I had done well with my purchase and she wanted to know what the place looked like so she could imagine me here when she phoned me or sent an e-mail. These latter forms of communication, I must say, are also far and few between.

Last week, we finally set a date and yesterday was it. I left the  house at one o’clock and set out to find her in White Rock. I’ve been there once before but I”m not super on directions. I had them written down but I now find it harder than before. So much has changed.

I won’t bore you with the details.  I had a couple of chores to do en route – the bank, picking up a prepaid order of toner for my laser printer at Staples and then across the river to Langley via the new Golden Ears Bridge.

All that went fairly quickly, except that Staples did not have my order ready and they had “forgotten” to give me my rebate since they guarantee that they will have toner in stock and if they don’t they give you ten dollars off your bill. Thus, it was more like two o’clock when I got down to serious driving and I was twenty dollars plus richer than I had been half an hour before.

The Number Ten Highway is way down around the border – about seventy blocks away, in this grid system of ours, and I simply headed south and knew I would run into it.

Jacki lives between Sixty-fourth and Sixty-second streets way to the west in Surrey. I could simply take a cross street that went right through and get there, it seemed to me. I never did find the Number Ten Highway and so when I came to Sixty-fourth, I took it. It’s a main road in Surrey.

What I didn’t know is that it curves onto the highway. Well, this was good.

I was blithely driving along the highway but our system of marking streets, it seems to me, is not very clear. I had driven a few miles before I saw that the highway I was on was the Fraser Highway. Was it the same thing? There was nowhere to park at the side of the road and look. Traffic was going fast. There was construction going on and the cars were funneled into a single lane with a jolly looking young woman in fluorescent yellow crisscrossed with neon red waving drivers along. I couldn’t stop.

I must have driven about ten miles before I was able to catch a few signs showing that I have arrived at Ninety-eighth Street.  It meant that the Fraser Highway was not the Number Ten and that I had begun to head north on a diagonal. I was driving away from my destination! But finally, I was in territory I knew.  I got on a westward axis and headed for Scott Road then turned due south again. This time I had thirty blocks to go. I was tired and frustrated.

“It is what it is. Jacki will understand.” I muttered to myself. There was nothing I could do about it. I hadn’t brought my cell phone. The battery needs replacement. It won’t hold a charge.

By the time I arrived, I had been driving for an hour and a half. Although I had given myself lots of lead time, I was over an hour late.  To add to my driving misery, I should have turned at Boundary Gate Road, but the  sign for that street said Sunshine Gate Road and I missed it, only recognizing just after it was too late to turn, and I had this fellow behind me tail-gaiting.   Still heading south, not half a block later, I saw Highway Ten. It would have brought me within a block of Jacki’s house, had I found it at the beginning of the trip. I was there now, though,  and past it, going in the wrong direction!

I’m dense but not that dense. I realized that if I turned to “go around the block” to get myself back to Jacki’s I would be on the highway again without means of going back for a couple of miles. Instead, I went south and eventually found a way to do a U-turn.

She lives in a gated community with several monster houses divided up in to town homes. Her door is hidden behind a garage structure. The signage there is dreadful as well.  It was impossible to tell if I had arrived at the  right place. I saw a neighbour and got out of the car.

Fortunately, everyone knows everyone else in this enclave. He walked down to where I could park the car (also super-discreetly marked so as to be virtually unnoticable) and then pointed out Jacki’s home.

I had arrived.

My pent up frustrations would have made me a terrible guest. I was feeling very surly and out of sorts. I grabbed onto a suggestion she had made the day before as we planned our visit and asked if we could start by going for a walk.

There is a little lake nearby.  Really little. A pond, in normal parlance, but since Real Estate complexes laud their best features, this has become known as “the lake” – not even a half a kilometer in circumference.

There are a few ducks and a swan floating serenely on the glassy  surface. Some of the birds gather at the fence-line hoping for hand-outs. I had my camera and shot  a few pictures of them.

Jacki and I walked around twice before going back to her place.  It did me good.  The pent up frustration melted away. We chatted as we walked and shared our news and tribulations. We both have a few at  the moment.

Back at her home, we collected the address for my next destination from the car and, like a mother hen, she found the map, showed me where I would be going, walked me through it step by step.I would be going back by Highway Ten. It goes, after all, in a straight line from West to East.   I now knew where to find it!

“Do you remember, ” I asked, ” that when you came out last time, you came this route and you were so excited by the drive through the farmlands?”
She nodded.

“Well, I’m sure that the Number Ten is much better than the Fraser Highway. I couldn’t believe it! There are developments lining it – strip development – covering over almost every bit of farm land!”

“How did they get away with it?” I continued. “We are supposed to have laws about taking land out of the Agricultural Reserve. I was appalled by the sheer size and extent of it. There is hardly any farm land left! The apartment blocks are massive! What do we need five story apartment blocks here for? It’s all built on spec. I bet they are hoping to sell a lot of it during the Olympics and then the investors will go away and leave the units empty. ”
“But it is so far away from anything – from shops, from services – and to go anywhere, you have to have a car! We’re trying to phase out cars, and here we are spreading out, making people captive to their “rural” setting. And for that matter, as soon as you have a five story  walk up, you no longer have rural!”

I was ranting. Was there no stop to this? Were we going to eventually pave over every bit of earth in Canada. It is so sad!!!!

Jacki joined the kvetching. She agreed. It was so ugly, and we were destroying so much of the environment that we should be leaving as protected nature.

I had to cut a lot out of this picture to bring it to you as if it were natural:

And this next one shows how those monster houses are encroaching on the grasslands. I couldn’t stop to take photos on the highway, but I wouldn’t have wanted to show you the monster apartment blocks. They are simply dehumanizing in scale. I’ve been in ones like these.  There are  miles and miles of new ones being built. The interior corridors are long, long tunnels with fire doors dividing up the length.  No one stays in the hallway, they are so depressing. There is no natural light. And there are doors, one after the other, like prison cells.

After that rant, we  had a lovely visit and talked about everything and anything. Just before I had to go she put together sandwiches so that I could eat before I went to my evening meeting. She had made home made bread, sliced it thin and spread it with a chicken salad mixture she had chopped up herself. There was a Greek salad too, done only as Jacki would, with the ingredients chopped so much finer than what one would find in a restaurant. Hers was done to aesthetic perfection with yellow and red peppers, a crumbly feta cheese and small morsels of tomatoes. It was served up in a fine china bowl.

It was dark when I left. I drove out to the Number Ten and headed back east. If I had any illusions that this other route would be any better, I was disabused of the idea very quickly.  On this route, there are automobile dealerships fit for the princes of Arabia. The buildings are glass-fronted and shinywith catherdral-high ceilings. At night, the kilowatt hours are pumping through there ina  contest of brilliance with each other. One hardly has need of car lights, it’s so illuminated – and the lots are full of shiny new cars. It goes on and on and on for miles. And all for the almighty car! The polluter of the planet. I shake my head.

Can no politician say no to development – this kind of development? Can we not build up instead of out? Do we need to have acres and acres of cars? Do we need to light up the night and make it into day? Isn’t anyone in government getting the message?

I found my evening meeting place without too much difficulty. The meeting went smoothly – my first as a new member of the artists’ cooperative. I only had one glitch in my drive home. I finally made it into my own driveway by ten-thirty and I was rarely so glad to see it. It’s eighty-six years old, sturdily built and still full of charm.

And so, when I tell you that bit by big bit, the developers are covering over the farmlands, they are making themselves rich; but we the residents, we are poorer for all that. Once the outcropping of concrete has been established in the fields, there is no going back. Malls will become obsolete. They will be abandoned, like they are in my town; and then instead of tearing down an old building down to rebuild on the spot, they simply go and build a new one on deaccessioned Agricultural reserve.

Which makes the title of this post quite ironic. Much of the farmland is gone now. And the covering over continues apace. Much of can never be restored.

Resuming walks on the Alouette Dike

December 28, 2009

Weather and business. Great excuses. I haven’t been out walking for a long time. Christmas, though, came with some beautiful weather. There was actually some sunshine.

Non-sequitur: I jumped on the bathroom scale. Oops! Christmas baking gain! I kicked the bathroom scale. It has the nerve not to be lying. Five pounds last year. Five pounds this year. Time to go do something about it.

Midday on Boxing day, it was two degrees above, Celsius.   I put on my Winnipeg parka with fur-trimmed hood and plenty of fluffy down. I zipped on my warm winter boots. I found my gloves with lambskin lining that I purchased when I went to Ottawa to see Hugh for Christmas two years ago.

Non-sequitur #2 : Hugh has his Masters. Whoopee! 93% average. Good going Hugh!

I picked up my house and car keys; set the house alarm; exited North; got in the car; drove down the hill and into a bank of fog, to the Alouette Dikes.

There is an eerie beauty in fog. I took lots of pictures. It only slightly detracts from the walking exercise. Well, maybe a bit more than slightly, but if  I didn’t have the camera along, I probably wouldn’t have been inspired to go.

I am going to have to go walking more than once if I am to have any effect on my winter waistline. I will also have to go to the gym. Regularly. Rats!

Sunday, the day after Boxing Day (that’s today), I went back to the dike. There was a full winter sun flooding the marshlands. The winter grasses were crisp and precise.  In places, the river and ponds have frozen over. In others, the water is still beautifully liquid, absolutely unruffled, still,  clear and reflective. Two days. Two widely varied landscape conditions.

The fog obscures things. It takes away the non-essentials. When I photograph a tree, that’s all there is – the winter skeleton, bare and lacy. The details elsewhere are not necessary. The object blurs. The background unifies; or you might say that it has dropped off the edge of the continent. It’s gone.

In the sunshine, every leaf, every twig, every tree trunk shines with a golden self-importance. The shadows are long.

On Boxing day, there were a lot of people out walking with their mates,  their children, their friends.  Dogs are pulling on leashes or running after fluorescent coloured tennis balls. Hardy souls are running for their lives. Some are pumping away on their bicycles, weaving in and out amongst the throng of walkers. New cameras and field glasses abound.

A group of twenty-somethings came towards me just as I was listening to a most beautiful sound: Ice that coated the twigs was beginning to crack and melt. It was like a whispering of bells. No! That doesn’t quite describe it. It was like the tinkling of wind in a distant crystal chandelier, faint and delicate.

“Listen, ” I entreat them. It is a fragile innocent sound.

“Oh, it’s just the ice melting off the tree,” says one annoyed young man, satisfied to have explained it satisfactorily. He moved on, calling “Come on, guys, let’s go!” He was missing an essential element of wonder.

The group went forward taking only seconds to reinstate their happy chatter, drowning out the miracle of crackling ice on tiny twigs. Two girls lagged a bit, still stretching their ears towards the delicate sound.

Today, the only sound of note was by the big lagoon, frozen over, skittering like a bird with a high pitched call as three children threw stones across the new drum of ice.  Today, there were scoters and bufflehead ducks in amongst the mallards, swimming together in a multicultural harmony. They are happy that the river mud has unfrozen and they can dive into this murky brown liquid to find edible treats. Their ducking and diving create patterns on the still-water surface.

I’ll post the sunny ones on the next post.

Bah Humbug!

December 23, 2009

Rant # 358.

Did I count that right? Is that ‘t’was the night before Christmas”? aka Christmas Eve?

I know that is tomorrow, but I will be busy cooking and preparing tomorrow.

I’ve turned down several requests to go Caroling. I refuse to go into the malls. That’s plural because I’m living in Mall City.  In a very short space, in a very small community there must be at least 15 malls. We are the outpost of bedroom communities. Slightly closer to the big city, we adjoin another bedroom community  and they are just about as bad, but they’ve got the Super Malls with the Super Stores; and one step closer in to Hub City, there is the Big Box mall where I do my food shopping. Arghh!

They’ve ruined my pleasure in Christmas Carols completely. One can’t go anywhere without being invaded by soppily orchestrated Carols. They jingle in elevators. They pervade every corner of the big department stores and big supermarket grocery chains. They are piped in beside charitable fund raising boxes attended by benumbed “elves”.

I know they are elves because the newspaper had an advertisement for them in November, looking for people who would ring their bells and chant the name of the organization collecting your dimes, pennies, nickles, loonies and more hopefully, two-nies. Argh! There is again! Tune-ies!

Silent Night, a beautifully felt, sentimental thought in sync with what we are supposed to think is the Christmas Spirit, has been so overplayed that I hate to hear it, especially jazzed and upbeat or mockingly translated into blues – or conversely when it is sung in tempo for a dirge.

Here comes Santa Claus, Dashing through the snow with Jingle Bells ringing.  The little drummer boy, It came upon a midnight clear, Frosty the Snowman. They’ve been done to death.  I can’t listen to them anymore. I can’t sing them. They’ve been ruined, for me, by their mindless repetition.

Maybe I’m just an old crone with memories of when it was different.

We were allowed to listen to the radio one hour after school. There was no television yet. We listened to theatre including The Lone Ranger and The Shadow and we listened intently, because if you missed something, there were no replays, no possibilities of recording it to tape or CD or DVD. It was played through, often live, and then it was gone. Now even your telephone ring can be set to a Christmas melody.

At Christmas, we gathered around the old piano and sang. Mother had learned the tunes and some simple chording. Every year, she bought one more piece of sheet music. Every year, we added one more tune to our repertoire.

We sang lustily and laughed together, all gathered in the living room for this festive day.

If I need to listen to a Christmas Carol now, let it be Christmas in Killarney (with all of the boys at home). This song somehow escaped the muzac elevator tapes and is never thought of for Caroling in old folks homes. Not that I’m in one, you understand, but I suffered the daily afternnon onslaught of them with  Mother while she was a resident. Cloying. Sentimental. Repetitive.  I blessed the one and only day when a group of musicians came from the nearby music school and played a real concert of Fauré, Debussy, Ravel, Rachmaninoff and Elgar quartets. Now that was a treat! And none of them were the overdone favorites – each was fresh and crystal clear.

What is it that brings us to repeat simple songs that were written two hundred years ago? Did creativity die in 1816? *

And now when I turn on the local radio, almost to the last one, there is nothing but watered down, transposed, redecorated, arranged, up-beaten, over-written, undermined songs of Christmas, and all they seem to mean is “It’s time you went shopping at the mall.”

Bah Humbug!

Please give me a Silent night. No, not the song.

Just a pure, clear meditative silence!