Wednesday, February 28, 2007

A Mr. and Mrs. Rajch Once Existed...

Jacek Goldman and his Sister Wanda, Krakw, 1924While attempting to clean up what I laughing call my office I knocked a box off a shelf - out tumble all the family photos I had found when I closed up my mother’s house. The photos I had promised myself I would scan and catalogue while there were still people around who could remember those faces and places. A well-intentioned task still not begun 10 years later.

That and a New York Times article about a photograph exhibition at the Yeshiva University Museum in New York had me turning to a bookshelf to find an incredible book Laurent bought me when we lived in Warsaw: And I Still See Their Faces.*

Compiled by Golda Tencer, a Polish Jew, it is filled with ordinary family photos of the 3.3 million-strong Jewish community that existed in Poland before the Second World War: photos of people at weddings, funerals and celebrations, in classrooms, at work, play and prayer – the marvelous and the mundane. Of themselves none of the photos are extraordinary except that most of those people did not survive the War and that over 90% of the pictures were sent to Tencer by gentiles, many of them Poles.

Krakw-Podgrze, 11 Limanowski Street, 1936As affecting as the photos are the notations on them and the accompanying letters explain who these people are and how the sender came upon their pictures. Often they reveal prejudice against Jews except those who happened to be their friends and neighbors. (I was remined of my own upbring in Orange Protestant Toronto where all Catholics were bad except the Polish family next door who were amongst our best friends.) But more often they simply reveal decent people for whom those photos bring back happier days.

Of one couple in a photograph a correspondent wrote to Tencer:
They had three children - Zosia, Monika and Liba. My parents were invited to the confirmation ceremony of one of them, although they practiced a different religion. And this photograph might have been given to my parents at the hard moment of farewell - for them to remember their friendship. I am sending it to you, thus certifying that a Mr. and Mrs. Rajch once existed and lived happily in Kalisz.

*I was not able to locate this book on any of the bookstore sites but the link goes to a beautifully produced website that includes a good number of the photos and text. Sadly I was not able to find Mr. and Mrs. Rajch.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Rising from the Flames - Part 2

I searched the Internet for a video of the La Fenice fire – I remember some very dramatic footage on a video at their temporary bookshop in Campo San Fantin - but was unable to come up with anything. However Venice Online has some dramatic pictures of the fire and the morning after – the English translation is a little odd but it is obviously written by someone who cared very much about the destruction of a part of their city’s history.

Having said that in the first two chapters of his book Berendt does capture the full impact of that January evening on the neighbors and the on-lookers - Venetians, ex-pats and visitors.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Rising From the Flames - Part 1

The first time I flew into Venice I had a view of the entire lagoon from the Lido to Torcello. I remember thinking: I’m either going to be terribly disappointed or I’m going to love this city. Venice became one of my favorite places in the world. Granted I am not alone in that.

In Venice Observed Mary McCarthy says of La Serenisima: Nothing can be said (including this statement) that has not been said before. And she’s right. But that doesn’t stop people from making those statements, writing about Venice or using it as a background for their stories. At the moment I am in the middle of reading two books about Venice: Donna Leon’s Through A Glass Darkly and John Berendt’s The City of Falling Angels.

Leon is one of my favorite mystery writers and Commissairo Brunetti, his wife Paola, Signora Elettra and even the detestable Vice-Questore Patta have become old friends over the past 10 years. In the 15 novels that have appeared since Death at La Fenice - number 16 is released in April - the characters have grown, some have died – I still haven’t forgiven Leon for what happened to Bonsuan - and as Brunetti has become more aware of the political life in Italy the stories have become darker and bleaker. But through them all run a love of family, friend, food, music, Venice and Venetians and they’re damned good mysteries. One of life’s real mysteries is why it took so long for Leon to catch on in North America. Her books have been popular in Europe for almost two decades but it is only within the last five years they have been available in North America. I have to thank Naomi and Cathy who introduced me to Brunetti and Leon.

Berendt – whose bestseller Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil I have yet to read – uses the senseless fire at La Fenice in 1996, and the equally senseless bureaucratic squabbling that turned rebuilding into a 7 year nightmare - to reveal the village that is Venice. So far it has been a fascinating look into a society that is insular, inbred and incestuous. Much like the world Leon paints in her mysteries.
Laurent and I did not see the glory that was Fenice before the fire – our first visit was in May 1996 and we saw and smelled the results from our room at the Hotel La Fenice next door - nor after the restoration. However if we're lucky we may just get a chance to see it sometime in the next few years.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

From the Office Window - Thursday 3 P.M.

The War Museum and Eddy Complex
Towards Place de Portage and Victoria Island
The Interprovincial Bridge
Parliament Buildings and the Peace Tower
(Click on the pictures for an enlarged view.)
We have a great view from our corner on the 15th Floor - pretty much uninterrupted from the War Museum in the West to the Peace Tower in the East. Even though today was a bit gray and overcast its still a good view. On a sunny day when you can see the Gatineau Hills its a great one.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Porcine Origami

Click here

Origami? Sure its Japanese not Chinese but I'm not sure what the Chinese call it.

Click on the FU (Lucky) symbol above.

When All Aloud the Wind Doth Blow

Huts on Lac Deschenes
Ice Fishing and Parasailing on Lac Deschenes
The Symmes Inn from Front Street

When all aloud the wind doth blow,
And coughing drowns the parson’s saw,
And birds sit brooding in the snow,
And Marion’s nose looks red and raw,
When roasted crabs hiss in the bowl,
Then nightly sings the staring owl,
Tu-whit;Tu-who, a merry note,
While greasy Joan doth keel the pot.
Love's Labours Lost - William Shakespeare

When Icicles Hang by the Wall

The barn next door
Kanata across the frozen Ottawa River
The Symmes Inn from the Marina When icicles hang by the wall,
And Dick the shepherd blows his nail,
And Tom bears logs into the hall,
And milk comes frozen home in pail,
When blood is nipp’d and ways be foul,
Then nightly sings the staring owl,
Tu-whit;Tu-who, a merry note,
While greasy Joan doth keel the pot.

Love's Labours Lost - William Shakespeare

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Fun Fair in Hell

Temple Fair - Dancers I asked Laurent to take some pictures of the Lion Dancers for the blog – he informed me, in that Temple Fair - Traditional Bandsnotty tone that Northerners take, that that was a Southern tradition, very Cantonese! He and a colleague did spend some time at the fair at Dong Yue Miao Temple on the first day of the New Year. This Taoist temple is Temple Fair - Strong Menknow for its rather lurid depictions of the 72 Departments of Hell. That was our destination during one of those snow days back in December. Here are a few pictures of the Temple in the snow. From Laurent’s pictures it appears that spring has come to Beijing. (Click on a thumbnail to see the bigger picture.)

Laurent wrote: Temple Fair - Sugar Zodiac Animals
Here are some photos from the Dong Yue Miao Temple. Crowds of people Temple Fair - Puppet Showtoday, with games and food served in the courtyard. There were exhibits of old toys, fortune tellers, dancers, jugglers, strong men, bands and puppet shows in the fashion of Punch and Judy. Of course there were lots of people praying and leaving red prayer tags at the shrine of the God of Fortune because this Temple Fair - Praying to the God of Fortuneyear is the Golden Pig which only occurs again in 2067.

So this is the “austere” way they celebrate in Beijing? I can only imagine what it must be like in the “exuberant” south.

Gong Xi Fa Cai - Gung Ha Fat Choy*

*Wishing you prosperity - Mandarin and Cantonese

If the estimated of 155 million people travelling by train alone in China this New Year’s doesn’t impress you then how about the fact that it’s the year 4704 in the Chinese Calendar?

Celebrations started today – well actually yesterday with the time change – all over China for the lunar New Year – the Year of the Boar (Pig) in the Chinese Zodiac. This is the end of the 12 year Zodiac cycle and also the end of a 60 year cycle which means it is also the year DingHai and therefore a Golden year. Given the odds it normally only happens once in anyone’s life time. Having said that I just realized this is my second but I was only 3 months old at the time so I can be forgiven not remembering much about it.

The celebration begins with the first new moon of the New Year and ends with the full moon 15 days later. As with most cultures there are traditions, taboos and superstitions; and its noticeable how many of the same traditions we observe in the west at New Years.

Hui Chun or luck messages are an important part of New Year's. As well as Fu - Luck  Click here to learn how to write ithanging them in your home or office it’s a nice idea to send one to a friend.

And of course everyone wants to know what’s in store for the New Year so Horoscopes are cast based on your Zodiac sign. You may want trying to find out your prospects for the Year of the Pig by going either here or here – or maybe cover all bases by going to both.

Though many of the traditions throughout the country are common there are variations from region to region. According to Chinese Television the celebrations in the South are of an “exuberant nature” while those of the North are “more austere.” Those decadent southerners! Since one of the Northern traditions is to eat Jiao Zi or steamed stuffed dumplings on the first day I’ll go with Beijing for the food and the exuberant South for almost everything else. Our friend Jack’s mother is a master Jiao Zi maker and I’m sure she has her own secret recipe but I did find this one on the Internet.

All good New Year’s celebrations have fireworks – in fact last night Laurent put his webcam up to the window and we watched the fireworks over Beijing together. Damn technology is wonderful! And though another piece of technology you might just want to create your own fireworks show for the Year of the Boar. 'Cause every once and a while we all need fireworks in our lives.

Xin Nein Kuai Li – Sun Nin Fy Lok**

** Happy New Year - Mandarin and Cantonese

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

You Are BeeauutiFul!*

My late friend Ryan loved telling this Edith Evans story.

Dame Edith was not a beautiful woman by any standards - short, stout, hooded eyes and a rather plain face - but she was playing Millamant in The Way of the World and Millamant is described as the most beautiful woman in London and the most desired. A close friend was astounded that when Dame Edith glided on stage she was indeed incredibly beautiful and sexually desirable.

After the performance the friend demanded to know how she had done it? Make-up? Lighting?

"No," said Dame Edith "I sit quietly in my dressing room before each performance and looking in the mirror say 'You are beeauutiFul! You are beeauutiFul! You are beeauutiful!'* If I believe it so will the audience."

I made this birthday card (above) a few years ago featuring some of the actresses who have played Cleopatra - Katherine Hepburn, Tallulah Bankhead, Sarah Bernhardt and Dame Edith. On stage I've seen Zoe Caldwell and Maggie Smith and wish I had seen Judi Dench and Frances de la Tour as Shakespeare's seductive Serpent of the Nile. None of them great beauties but all of them capable of convincing you otherwise.

Now it appears the woman herself wouldn't have made it to the finals of the Miss Thebes 28BC pageant. A story in yesterday's Guardian reveals that a coin of the period shows thin lips, pointed nose and sharp chin - a rather shrewish looking woman. Hardly the creature conjured up by Vivian Leigh as Shaw's sex kitten or Elizabeth Taylor in that over-blown, over-budget studio wrecker from the '70s.

It appears that like Dame Edith and all those other actresses the real Cleopatra knew how to convince her audience that she was "beauutiFul."

*I admit it, this is an incredibly futile attempt to put Evans' viola-like voice into phonics.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Being Alive - A Song for Valentine's

Stephen Sondheim doesn’t immediately spring to mind as the source of a romantic ballad caroling the joys of love appropriate to Valentine’s Day – if you were to look to Broadway that would be Rogers and Hart, the more saccharine Rogers and Hammerstein or the most saccharine Andrew Lloyd Webber. But my friend David sent me the link to a YouTube video of “Being Alive” from the current Broadway revival of Company and that got me thinking. The sentiments and tone of that brilliant eleven o’clock number strike me as both appropriate and romantic.

Though that Raul Esparza version is searing I prefer this John Barrowman clip for its clarity (despite the filmer’s cough) – you can hear almost all the lyrics.

I saw Company three times when the National Touring production played the Royal Alex back in 1972. Offended subscribers walked out during performances – the same people who had sat tittering through the frontal nudity of Hair couldn’t take the fully-clothed Sondheim-Furth attack on their own ‘70s sexuality. Anne Mervish told me that a number of morally upright Torontonians were canceling their subscriptions to protest the filth upon the wicked stage of Ed’s venerable old theatre. Me? I wanted to see it a 4th time.

What’s so romantic about this particularly number? Listen closely to the lyrics – not just Bobby’s but the remarks of the people around him – his partnered friends. Some are in new relationships, some in old, some in stable ones, some in rocky ones but each one of them has found love and more important company in their relationship.

Bobby sings:
Someone to hold you too close
Someone to hurt you too deep
Someone to sit in your chair
And ruin your sleep
And make you aware of being alive.

Harry says:
You have so many reasons for not being with someone but Robert you haven’t got one good reason for being alone.

And Paul adds:
Don’t afraid that it won’t be perfect, the only thing to be afraid of really is that it won’t be.

No, it doesn’t celebrate the first flush of young love or the glow of romantic love – but it does celebrate the love between people who know that relationships are more than roses, candy and candlelight.

And to my Valentine, thank you for making me aware.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Nap Time

My old buddy Don Keballs, from early Transport Canada days, will be pleased to read that a recent report suggests that an afternoon nap is beneficial to your health. This is a follow up to a statement made last week by France’s Minister of Health, Xavier Bertrand. M Bertrand wants to look into the benefits of encouraging napping on the job. I, for one, know that when Don had his afternoon siesta he certainly seemed to have more energy when it came time to put on his coat and boots to go home.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

In the Garden of Madame Ha

Keeping up the food theme I’m posting a revised version of a short item from Vietnam with links to a few pictures of the cooking class in Hue. Again just click on the link to see the photos.

It was overcast and drizzly but we spent a great morning at Ting Gia Vien attending a cooking class with one of Vietnam’s national treasures – the delightful Madame Ha. Her restaurant has been on the must-visit list for tourists to Hue for 30 years. Her style of cooking is a trifle elaborate for the home cook – unless you happen to have six assistants hanging around to carve carrot flowers and taro root phoenix heads – but great fun to at least try.

Laurent and I were the only two in the class held on the bonsai and orchid crowded terrace of her restaurant/home. The surrounding garden has the appearance of having just grown naturally – trees, flowers, statues and rockeries thrown together with no plan – so unlike the elaborate food we were to prepare.

Madame Ha is one of nature’s teachers – her own joy in cooking, even after all these years, is contagious. We laughed at our mistakes, basked in her compliments on our omelet techniques and created some fun dishes. The Peacock and the Pineapple Lantern were not all that difficult but still labour intensive.

However the Dance of the Phoenix - our centre piece - was an elaborate dish that we laboured over for almost 3 hours. It took an hour alone to make the thin duck egg omelets - 30 in all. Next they had to be stuff, rolled and steam - another hour; then cut, assembled and fussed over. Though the final result was gorgeous to see and tasted great I won’t be serving it at any dinner parties in the near future.

However for anyone who has an extra six hours to spend in the kitchen, I'll be more than happy to send you the recipes. But you’ll have to pay for your own kitchen helpers.

And that dragon in the picture at the left? It’s a a simple carrot and coleslaw side salad! Of course!

Friday, February 09, 2007

Odds and Sods

In a time when government funding is being slashed and charitable donations are down its nice to see that the Breast Cancer Society can pick and choose who it will accept money from: Exotic dancers' 'stigma' too much for charity.
But apparently they will take corporate donations from companies that employ child labour in third world countries. No stigma there.

And it appears the Government does have a place in the bedrooms of some people in the nation: Refugee claimant ‘not gay enough’.
Just when Health Canada is discouraging indiscriminate sex because of AIDS the Refugee board is denying someone’s claim because he wasn't screwing his brains out on a road trip from Central America to Toronto? I don’t even want to imagine what sort of proof Deborah Lamont was looking for – maybe something on PornTube?

There’s a programmer out there who is either unemployed or has too much time on his hands. Enter your birth date here and you can find out all sorts of stuff that you can bore your friends to distraction with. I, for example, was born 21,977 days ago in the Pharonic month Menchir in the season of Poret. OK!

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

If You Knew Sushi, Like I Know Sushi

I know! I know! I should have resisted but I just couldn't.

Continuing with the food theme, I was sent this by my friend Michael as part of an e-mail exchange about going out for dinner. It took 5 e-mails to settle things - next time I think I'll just call him.

So far this week we've uncovered the truth about General Tsu Chicken, now sushi - what's next? Mayebe we'll find out what was really in that Shepherd's Pie your mother use to make!

Monday, February 05, 2007

General Who? No, General Tzo!

Anyone who has spent anytime there can tell you that you won’t find Chop Suey or Chow Mein on a Chop Suey - Edward Hoppermenu in China. Nowhere in any of the many ethnic cuisines will you find either of these purportedly Chinese dishes. Apparently it was the Chinese cooks on the U.S. transcontinental railways who dreamt them up using some basic Chinese cooking techniques – stir frying - with what they had at hand. Surprisingly Canadian-Chinese chow mein differs from the American-Chinese variety and in Canada we have three different styles depending on where you are in the country. Who would have thought?

Now according to an article in this weekend’s New York Times magazine General Tzo Chicken is also a culinary myth. What we in North America consider the ultimate in Hunan cookery doesn’t fit into that Province’s traditional palate of flavor combinations. They have thoughtfully included a recipe for a version that has the hot-sour mixture that is more truly Hunanese. I may try it for a dinner next week. I’ll let you know how it turned out.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

The Carmen What I Saw That Night

I knew that the performance had been recorded for Radio France but was never able to find it. Then la-viola - there it is on YouTube. It was an incredible night - Berganza and Domingo at their peak. Here's my beloved Theresa tearing up the place in Act 2 - and at the end I'm somewhere in that cheering crowd.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Opening Drawers

Where memory is concerned I am a subscriber to the "drawer theory" - that's the one that says memories are kept in drawers in your mind. As you get older a few - okay a lot - of those drawers stick or just won't open. Example: The "I came upstairs/downstairs/into the room to get a ......." drawer which seems to stick more and more these days.

Two nights ago one of my long-shut drawers popped open; CBC Radio news had a feature on Sark, the smallest of the Channel Islands. Apparently there is a democracy movement afoot in what is, in the Western world at least, the last working example of feudalism. As I listened to the report memories of a vacation with my late friend Pierre 27 years ago came tumbling out.

I have always been fortunate in having travelling companions who enjoyed visiting slightly offbeat places. In May, 1980 Pierre and I visited the Channels - Guernsey, Sark and Jersey - as well as St Malo, Mont St Michel and Paris. Granted the later only counts as offbeat if you visited it with Pierre and he had booked three nights at an hourly-rated hotel on the Left Bank!

The next day I poked around in the now opened drawer and shared some of my memories with Pierre's son Carl - who now works with me.

  • The almost blinding reflection of the morning sun on the hundreds of greenhouses as we approached Guernesy - dare I use the old diamond metaphor - no I'll spare you that.

  • A shrimp coquille and a glass of something red, wet and wonderful on a windy, rainy day in a now forgotten restaurant in St Peter Port. It was so good we went back the next day for seconds.

  • Waiting in a waterfront cafe in St Hilier for the bus to the Durrell Preservation Zoo, listening to an Andy Capp-type ranting about the lack of a "decent caf to get a plate of chips" and all those "bloody frog day trippers."

  • Hauteville - the oppressive Victor Hugo House in Guernsey - overloaded with the heavy pseudo-Gothic furnishings so beloved of his era. To think that poor Juliette Drouet was so besotted that she not only lived with Hugo in that dreary place but wrote him a love letter every day for 50 years - suggesting a feebleness of spirit if not of mind matched only by one of his heroines.

  • After a long trek around the coastline of Sark, a sign in the window of a thatched cottage near the Seigneurie promising a fresh strawberry tea. And delivering scones hot from the oven, dark crimson tart-sweet berries, mounds of clotted cream and good strong stand-your-spoon-up tea from a stout old Brown Betty.

  • Honey on the breakfast table in our Sark hotel - the now closed Maison Blanche - straight from the hives out back.

  • The large gentleman from Texas, who tired of listening to a description of the nave and choir at Mont St Michel, demanded to know when the "damned choir" was going to start singing!

  • Standing in line for five hours at the Opera Comique waiting for a cancellation for the Berganza-Domingo Carmen. Enduring the abuse of the lumpy spun-sugar blond vendeuse at the box office. "Vous-etes fou d'attender" she heckled repeatedly, then magically produced a front row 1st loge seat 2 minutes to curtain time. The abuse was worth it - one of my great evenings at the opera.

  • The ride in an un-air conditioned taxi from Mirabel to Ottawa on a humid Ottawa Valley May afternoon with 3 lbs of goat cheese at our feet. Somehow Pierre had smuggled it passed an olfactory-challenged Customs Officer. Even a simple taxi ride could be offbeat with Pierre.

So many wonderful memories from such a creaky old drawer.