Sunday, August 29, 2010

Alone with the Wheat Outside Viking

Photo: Ripe wheat stands golden in the fields north of Viking.

My last day in Viking has been eventful. In the morning, at the United Church service, I sang familiar hymns and learned the history of John Wesley and the Methodists, as well as that of the United Church of Canada and the one in Viking.

Though I attended the United Church with my mother as a child, and though her childhood church in St. John's, Newfoundland was called Wesley Church, most of what I learned today was new.

After the service, we had coffee and I talked to some women who asked me if I'd seen the Museum. "I was born in the museum," said one, chuckling. Another chimed in, "Me too." When the third woman said she too had been born there, I finally clued in.

"Er, did it used to be the hospital?" I asked, and they laughed.

After lunch I picked up longtime Viking residents Earl and Deny. Our first stop was the Viking cemetery. There we noticed the grave of a woman born in 1831. Since we thought the area had not been settled by then, we wondered how she might have come to be buried here. Her grieving husband had interred her, but did not lie beside her.

Then we went out to look at the Ribstones. These large stones, carved long ago by Aboriginal people, were associated with the spirit of the buffalo. They stand on a rise that commands a magnificent view in all directions. We spoke to a woman from Hobbema, who was there with two friends. She likes to visit the ribstones every year.

Earl and Deny also showed me some beautiful gardens. I learned that Viking has an excellent record of wins with Communities in Bloom -- not only provincially, but nationally and internationally as well.

After tea at the home of my new friends, it was time to bid them adieu. Not yet ready to return to my room at the Viking Lamplighter Motel, I drove north on 36, watching the passing fields of peas, canola, and golden ripe wheat lit by the late afternoon sun. I stopped at a crossroads to get out of the car for a closer look and to smell and feel the prairie wind.

The solitude was soothing. There was only me and the wheat. The flat horizon stretched in all directions. I remembered playing ball as a child on the prairie and looking down at the spring crocuses, then up at the immense sky; it was a similar feeling.

When I climbed back into the car for the solitary drive back I found I was no longer alone. A mosquito had got in with me. I opened the window wide and it flew out as I flew along the sunlit road. The horizon was empty of all but fields of crops. An occasional pickup passed on the road.

Then after a small rise and a grove of trees, the elevators and water tower of Viking reappeared. I parked the car and took a final walk out past the golf course to the edge of the prairie and back around the town. Tomorrow I'll be on the road early, heading for home.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Viking, Alberta and how it was named


Photo: Viking ship icon sits beside the Tea Shop (former CN station) and Viking Troll Park.

Like other towns that were being named after Members of Parliament, Viking was once slated to be called Meighen (pronounced mean) after an MP called Arthur Meighen who served briefly as PM.

The townspeople would have none of it. Instead, they agreed to hold a vote. The Norwegian contingent, located mostly on the north side of Highway 14, wanted the name Viking, while those on the south side, mainly Czechs, favoured Prague. But the Scandinavians must have turned out in greater numbers: the name Viking won the day.

The people of Viking have a strong sense of history and heritage and they value the pioneer spirit of the ancestors who founded their town. Currently there is talk of re-floating a signature Viking ship that was formerly used as a ceremonial town object.

Meanwhile the dragon-prowed wooden boat stands proudly by the Station Tea House and Art Gallery, which occupies the former CN train station. This historic building was rescued by a dedicated group of townspeople who refused to let the old building be destroyed.

Today it is bedecked with summer flowers, beside a lovely little park. After the grain elevator and water tower, the ship, the Tea House and the park are the first sights to greet the eye of the visitor arriving in Viking.

The food at the Station is delicious. Vi arrives at 4 am to bake her own bread. The train arrives at 4:30, and she lets the passengers come in and have coffee if they need to wait for a ride.

This city dweller was amazed to learn that this charming tea shop doesn't stay open on weekends; it's not worthwhile. Weekends are when the townspeople leave to do their shopping in nearby centres including Vegreville, Stettler, Camrose, Vermilion and of course Edmonton.

The lonesome sound of the train whistle is haunting, as always. Prairie sidings are two miles long, to accommodate the long trains. I've watched several of the many trains that go by each day. So far I've seen no wheat tankers, but the wheat is still in the fields, golden ripe.

The frequent trains have other kinds of tankers and a lot of flat cars carrying containers: Hanjin, China Shipping, Maersk. Many of these cars carry two containers, one on top of the other.

Viking people are developing geothermal heating, and the area is also the site of a couple of fields that provide grain for the Canada Foodgrains Bank. Sustainability and organic farming are definitely of interest in the area; nearby villages have state-of -the-art-green garbage disposal and mulching operations.

Unlike BC, Alberta has counties; Viking is in Beaver County. The land has been surveyed in sections, the sides of which are measured in miles. The highway signs give kilometers but most Albertans talk about travel time in hours. Viking is about 50 minutes from Camrose and roughly an hour and a half from Edmonton.

The town also has a large and very impressive museum; indeed,the Viking Museum (the former hospital building) has the distinction of winning a provincial award. At the museum site, many additional historic buildings have been brought together and made to look as they did in the old days.

The museum has a wealth of clothing and uniforms as well as household, professional, farming and sports equipment, including all sorts of tractors and other farming implements housed in a long shelter that stretches behind a lawn at the back, across the full length of the sizable main building.

It even possesses copies of the local paper's report of the first time oil was struck in the area in 1947. When I asked the attractive blond girl who welcomed visitors today if she was a Viking descendant, she told me she was a young member of the pioneering Hafso family.

Viking is a stable town; many people are related and of course, with a population of about 1100, the inhabitants know each other. Young people go away for education, but many come back and work in town. Among the big employers are the well-equipped hospital and the Vialta Care Home. The town also has a medical clinic and a sizable veterinary clinic. In the past, Viking School has had as many as 700 students, but currently stands at about 400.

While I was here, I used the public library, a pleasant and well-equipped facility located upstairs in the arena building. Currently the library is on summer hours; when I left at closing on Friday, I was disappointed to learn that it will not be open again till Tuesday, from 3 till 8 pm. By then I expect to be home in Surrey. Meanwhile, my writing requires me to find another location with lots of light, a large table, and wireless internet.

Tomorrow I am hoping to see the buffalo-shaped "ribstones," carved by ancient aboriginal peoples thousands of years ago. They're at a high point on the prairie, very close to this fascinating town.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Shifting Light and a Natural Sense of Direction


I awoke this morning to brilliant sunshine, but when I looked out, the car's glossy surface was beaded with water. The weather has changed since yesterday's warm still perfection. Now the grass blows with each gust of wind, making whispering sounds.

As I drove toward Camrose in the late afternoon, the cloud formations kept altering before my eyes. At any given moment the sky was full of an astonishing concoction of clouds of every shape and colour imaginable.

At one point I thought I saw a twister in the west, but the shape soon softened. The concentration of cloud morphed into a series of visible rain showers, backlit by the westering sun. Then I passed from sun to shadow and found myself  driving through a shower. Opening the vents wide, I breathed in the alluring fragrance of wet plants.

By the time I returned to Viking, the sky was empty, fading to an evening blue. The passing ponds were the deep blue of lapis lazuli.

Leaving Camrose, I got off on a tangent and sensed immediately that I had done so. I went to Tim Horton's to ask for directions, but none of the clerks knew the way. Then the man who was waiting behind me told me how to get on the right road. He was born in Viking, he said.

This incident reminded me of a family story about my natural sense of direction. When I was about 7, and walking in Edmonton with my mother, I kept telling her we were going in the wrong direction but she wouldn't believe me.

Distressed by Mom's inexplicable refusal to turn around, I stopped on the sidewalk and pointed back the way we had come. "The train station is that way!" I insisted. As Mom hesitated, a woman stopped and said, "Your daughter is right. The station is that way."

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Windsor Park to Viking via the Poundmaker Trail

Photo: Few of the old wooden elevators remain. This one, near Tofield, is deserted. Once the landmarks of each prairie town, they are being replaced by modern metal loading tanks.

I woke in Edmonton to the most spectacular summer day, and looked out of my friend's window at the garden. A glorious mountain ash laden with orange berries dominates the fringe of trees around the edge. Petunias and geraniums add brilliant colour.

We drank coffee outdoors in the sunshine, talking and laughing as only old friends can do. Then we got out her family bikes and rode along the river. The trees that edge the deep gorge of the North Saskatchewan are protected; we had to climb up and stand on a wooden bench at the view point in order to see down into Mayfair Park and across the ravine to where the Alberta Museum and Archives building stands on the brow of the hill.

Around 3 pm, I headed out of Edmonton on Highway 14, called the Poundmaker Trail after the revered nineteenth century Cree Chief. My destination was a complete unknown, little more than a familiar word for a town I knew existed near my hometown when I was a child.

I stopped for gas in Tofield, where I was born, since our town, Ryley, had no hospital. I left the highway there too, but it looked only vaguely familiar. Haight School is now a museum. I went briefly to Grade Two in that building for a couple of days before being summarily promoted to Grade 3, because there was more room in the Grade 3 building, Bathgate. Along with six other Grade 2s, I was deemed able to skip.

Haight and Bathgate were two former one-room schools which had been towed to town to augment Ryley School enough to accommodate the wave of post-war baby boomers then in elementary grades.

Today I left Ryley quickly and got back on the highway, cranking the windows wide to smell the country air with its alluringly familiar scents. After checking in to the Viking Lamplighter Motel, I tucked into a Ukrainian special dinner at the Caledonia, the other motel in town, which has a restaurant.

Then I met with a local contact and she told me a lot about the town. By the time I left her, darkness had fallen and the prairie wind had begun to blow. "They say there is a storm brewing tonight," she said. But so far it's only wind. The stars are winking away overhead and there's no sign or smell of rain.

Driving by Night with the Moon Riding Shotgun

Jasper Station -- The Rocky Mountaineer, just in, stretches out along the platform behind the tour buses.

It was 5:30 pm when I finally pulled in to Jasper. Made my pilgrimage to the old train station where my family changed trains in 1958 when we moved from Ryley, Alberta to Terrace, BC. At 6:15, I had to tear myself away from the nostalgic exploration of this very special place -- time to hit the road.

The ever-changing mountain panoramas were lit with late light, and as I looked ahead at a stone rampart shaped like a man-made castle, I caught my breath to see a gleaming rainbow hanging directly above it.

Further along, several cars had stopped on both sides of the highway; a huge elk was grazing right beside the road. Later, a small herd of mountain sheep traversed a hillside at a leisurely pace. Dusk is a good time to see animals; there is also the risk of hitting one.

The light faded slowly, as it does in the northern summer, and I had plenty of time to enjoy the continuing parade of mountain views and the rapidly changing cloud formations. Full dark didn't come on till I passed Edson. But there I enjoyed another wonderful show.

From the corner of my eye, I saw a flash, and then another. An electric storm was brewing off to my left. The flashes of lightning continued for some time, but the storm didn't come any closer.

Meanwhile the round white moon rode shotgun. It hung low in the sky ahead, a lantern to light my way. In Edmonton, where I arrived at 11 with the help of my husband's faithful GPS, dear Holly had prepared a bed for me. How wonderful it felt to stretch out horizontally after fifteen hours of driving with only a handful of brief stops.

As I drifted off to sleep, I remembered the wonderful experiences of the road. I heard with my inner ear the Gypsy Kings on the car's CD player as I crossed the tiny creek labeled Fraser River, and marveled to think that small water becomes the mighty Fraser estuary by the time it reaches my coastal home.

Mount Robson Park and Jasper National Park

Photo: Yellowhead Highway goes through Mount Robson Park and Jasper National Park.

It was a lovely feeling being on the road again. The weather couldn't have been better. I left Surrey at 7 am and was in Kamloops by half past ten for a breakfast stop. Impressed with my fast progress, I took another break at Clearwater, one of the gateways to Wells Gray Park.

I was back on the road in about 40 minutes and before too long the Rockies started to come into view behind the more pedestrian-looking wooded hills I was driving through. It had been a few years, and I was staggered once again by their beauty.

I've noticed that each time I see something after an absence, I notice something new. This time it was the slanted grains of some of the rocky layers. Seeing the evenly rounded shapes that turned back on themselves like whipped egg white in a bowl, I tried to imagine how the rock and muddy soil reared up from the earth's molten core. It must have been an impressive sight.

The Rockies are a young range, as revealed by the sharpness of their edges.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Rapid Rise of Visual Culture

Since the invention of television and movies, visual culture has gained dramatic influence. While earlier generations used newspapers and radio, now most "news" has been reduced to a few simple headlines accompanied by pictures, both moving and still.

Indeed, every area of life has bowed to the power of visual culture. Take birth and childhood, for instance. What began as a few baby pictures has now morphed into hundreds of pictures and multiple movies. Unfortunately, the more parents photograph their kids, the less they interact.

Even pregnancy has become visual: couples now expect to see pictures of their unborn babies. The ultrasound, originally a diagnostic tool, has morphed into a form of visual entertainment.

Unaware of the potential for harm, many parents now start young toddlers on a diet of moving pictures. "Baby Einstein" may be a good marketing slogan, but in the long term, interacting with machines more than humans can hamper brain development.

Over-reliance on flashing images also affects social health. Constant gazing at the barrage of visual images that surrounds us weakens imaginative capacity and diminishes the sense of human warmth and community between individuals and within families.

Indeed, many of life's most profound experiences are heard, felt and imagined. Perhaps it's true that seeing is believing, but unless used in moderation, that is not always a good thing.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Summer Light Slanting Toward Autumn

Photo: August afternoon, looking west from Terrace at Remo Mountain

The light from the south-facing window beside my desk has changed its angle and hue. Though it is still August, this day is lit by the sunshine of autumn.

Each corner of the world has its own qualities of light, as I realized when I began to travel. Living in Vancouver, I was struck each time I returned to my hometown by the difference in the light. For me, those long summer evening skies awakened a strange nostalgia.

"Don't the trees look great tonight, like black lace on a fading sky..." While Ian and Sylvia Tyson sang on the radio, I looked down from my student garret at 42nd and Dunbar Street into the bright autumn leaves, and felt a strange longing for the mauve sky of a northern November evening heralding snow.

In France, I witnessed at first hand the light that had inspired my beloved Impressionist painters. Similarly, in Istanbul, Ephesus, Troy and Marmaris, I absorbed the unique Mediterranean light, already so familiar from paintings I'd seen.

From the window of my 11th floor room in the YMCA Kowloon, I watched the rapidity with which a bleached white dawn could transform itself into azure heat. Again in Puerto Vallarta I watched the bright dawn explode behind the palms and absorbed into my very bones the shocking speed of falling dark.

Most of all, perhaps, I love the subtle shadings of light in the temperate zones where I have spent most of my life. Here the shifting angles and colours of light are the welcome harbingers of seasonal change.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Remembering a Tunisian Farewell

Photo: Horse mosaics, Bardo Museum

This morning I looked from my room in the Hotel Diplomat for the last time onto the bleached buildings and rooftop balconies of Tunis. A cloud hid the edge of the great continent of Africa.

In the final hours of the conference yesterday,  my eyes began to close. As sleep stole upon me, my vision was filled with images of blue-painted doorways, blue tiles and pottery, rows of ancient columns abandoned in the hot sun.

Again I smelled the fragrance of the little nosegays of jasmine buds that are sold by children in the city. Many people buy and wear them. I bought my first for one dinar from a boy of about ten as we sat in the patio cafe of the El Hana, eating French-style chocolate mousse.

In my brief dream I tasted again the flesh of sun-ripened figs, sweet melons, and tiny hard pears. Once more I was buoyed up by the salty sea as I plunged from the scorching sand into the cool relief of the bright water. Again I heard the echoing call of the muezzin, Allah'hu Akbar, God is great.

After our final dinner at l'Orient, I had to say farewell to my new friends, and then, at Tunis-Carthage airport, to this lovely country. One day I will return, inshallah.

The Future is Just as Present as the Past

What is consciousness? Recently I listened to Dr. Larry Dossey's opus, The Power of Premonitions (Brilliance Audio, 2009.) He discusses intuition and reports on a wide array of clearly documented premonitions about everything from a specific personal warning to move a baby out of harm's way to premonitions of public disasters, and reports some scientific views on the nature of consciousness.

British biologist Rupert Sheldrake has developed the theory of morphic resonance. In fact, I cited his work in my paper Roadside Shrines. Presenting this paper in Cambridge, UK in 2005, I learned that shrine building for road accident victims is happening in many places.

Dossey also quotes the physicist Erwin Schrodinger, one of the fathers of quantum mechanics, as saying that "In truth, there is only one mind...indestructible...now." According to Dr. Dossey, Neils Bohr called consciousness "part of nature, or of reality," and the great mathematician Sir James Jeans considered the universe "more like a great thought than a great machine."

Dossey believes we use our brains to tune in to a pervasive consciousness. He questions the spurious "evidence" of brain-generated consciousness, loss of function in brain-injured patients: "If the radio stops working, do we assume the radio station is no longer transmitting?" hes sensibly asks.

Werner Heisenberg demonstrated that at the atomic level, the act of observation changes what is seen. The most astonishing recent scientific experiments reported by Dossey are the those that have demonstrated effect preceding cause. Perhaps the bon mot of my title, which I have used lightly for so many years, is literally true.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

New Directions 2006 Conference Highlight Tariq Ali

Photo: Ionic column, Bardo Museum, Tunis

Among the most impressive speakers at New Directions in the Humanities 2006 was Tariq Ali. As a presenter, he struck me as thoughtful and incredibly well-informed about world affairs. He also injected a little humour into the solemn and serious academic atmosphere.

Who is he? The people at the conference wanted to know too, and in the question period after his talk, the following conversation took place between Ali and his audience:

Audience Member: "Are you a Marxist?"

Ali: "No, but sometimes I feel Marxish."

Audience member: "Are you a Trotskyist?"

Ali: "No, I used to be a Trotskyist when I was young, but I am not a Trotskyist. Still, sometimes I do feel Trotskyish."

Another audience member, after vocally disagreeing on Ali's comments about the Israelis and Palestinians, asked him if he made money going to conferences.

"No," Ali replied. "I am not an academic. I have no affiliation with any university. I am an author. I make money from the several books I have published." He writes fiction as well as non-fiction.

At the time, I believe he was also editing the London-based New Left Review. Now he is blogging about Pakistani politicians who holiday while the country is devastated by floods.

Ali is that rare breed, a public intellectual. He travels the world talking about what might possibly be done about the myriad problems we face.

People invite him to attend conferences, for which he usually does not get paid. He had been invited to the New Directions Conference three times, and this was the first time he was able to attend. I was glad I was there when he was. Definitely, a speaker worth hearing.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Tunisian Travels with Adil Day 3

Old Tunis gate, outside the Medina


Today we head north from the Gulf of Tunis, toward the most northerly point of Africa.



Photo, left: author refreshed after a swim at Bizerte
(by Badie Farrah)


Our first destination is Roman Utica. The highway north is divided and the median is planted with oleander, white and pink alternating. One side of the highway is clothed in soft green trees; the other side is farmland.

Utica is well off the main road, a newly-opened ancient Roman settlement. At the gate, as Adil settles down on a stool to wait, we are greeted by an enthusiastic guide. We wave him off, wanting to go through the ruins on our own, but he is not deterred. And indeed, he proves to be a gold mine of information. This comes out in French and Arabic. I do my best to translate the French and Badie translates the Arabic.

Our guide tells us what the town was like in ancient times, showing us the Roman villa of Cato, and boathouses that lie where the sea used to be, 15 k from the current coastline. We also see tombs, and buildings that were used for storing grain; Carthage used to be the granary of Rome.

He shows us beautifully preserved mosaics, and explains that though they lie quite close together, they are from three different eras: early Punic Carthaginian, (800 BCE) then Roman (about 100 CE) and finally Byzantine. We go then to an ancient well, and our guide throws down a bucket on a rope and brings up fresh water. We quench our thirst where the ancients drank and splash our faces to cool off.

Then we get back in the car and Adil drives on to Bizerte. We reach the town in mid-afternoon. Anna and I are determined to swim and we stop first at a lovely beach. The men wait by the car while we go down to the cool blue sea, the sand nearly scorching our feet.

After we leave the beach, Adil parks in the town and we stroll on the sea front. One large ship and some small boats stand at the dock. The nearly deserted outdoor cafes have their table cloths clipped in with elastic against the constant wind.

An Arab colt, dark and slender, strains his rope taut where he is tethered to a tree in the quiet street. From the trees above come the cooing voices of mourning doves.

We wander into the market and I buy some fragrant ripe peaches and figs. As I complete my purchase, the muezzin booms down on us from directly above; we realize we are standing right below the minaret. In the market, what little business was going on seems to carry on normally, uninterrupted by the call to prayer.

Back in the car, I catch sight of my dark-tanned face in the mirror. My hair is a damp curly mop and I hardly recognize myself. I am startled to see the deep creases in this aging face; I feel as young at this moment as I ever have.

We cannot go up to Cap Blanc, Adil explains; it is owned by the military. We start back for Tunis and like an exhausted child, I fall asleep in the car, and relive the day's adventures in my dreams.

I wake when we stop at a rest stop and go to the restroom while Adil puts gas in the car. First when I come out, I don't see the Renault. Adil spies me and winks solemnly; I follow him to the car and get in.


Tunisian Travels with Adil Day 2


Left: with Anna at Kairouan, photo by Badie Farrah

We travel south toward seaside Sousse, a tourist Mecca, but that is not our destination. Between the fields, stands of prickly pear serve as fences. The dusty heat smells like ripe olives.

As we pass, a few scraggy animals stand beneath the shade of twig-roofed shelters. A man walks behind a horse-drawn plough; a shepherd rests on a hay bale.

At Kairouan, Adil waits with the car in the shade while we go into the Medina, much quieter than that in Tunis. With Badie translating, I ask the young merchant for something typical of the region, as a gift for my daughter.

He shows me a hand-made Tuareg necklace, then whips out a lighter and holds the black beads to its flame, so I will understand they are not plastic. I have not enough dinar for the agreed price and he graciously agrees to accept part in Canadian dollars, though they are new to him. He remarks on how colourful the Canadian currency is.

We come to El Jem in the late afternoon and wander around the huge structure, exploring the enclosures where the lions and gladiators were kept before being loosed into the Roman arena. In this amazingly complete Coliseum, one of the best-preserved in the world, the Vienna Symphony will play tonight. But we must return to Tunis, to the conference.

As the sun rides low, we stop at a roadside place of Adil's recommendation. We sit at outdoor tables with truckers and other local people and devour smoky barbecued lamb and hot red peppers drizzled with olive oil.

We three chip in to treat Adil to dinner and then return to the car, ride like old friends into Tunis in the early evening. The Holy Book rests again on the shelf behind the back seat.

An Evening with the Creator of Mma Ramotswe

Last night Yasemin and I went to hear Alexander McCall Smith. First came the hilarious interview by Steven Galloway (The Cellist of Sarjevo) and then "Sandy," as his friends call him, read from his latest, giggling at the bizarre conversation between Olive and Bertie following the disappearance of his mother, the redoubtable Irene.

As we speculated about whether he would be wearing a kilt, I confessed to my daughter that I was determined to touch the hem of his garment when he signed our books. "Touching his kilt might look funny," she warned, "you'd best go for the hem of the shirt sleeve."

In the event, that was what I did. Sandy greeted his readers from a standing position, shaking each hand as we introduced ourselves, and signing in fine black pen. He was so warm and personable that I was emboldened. Instead of sneakily fingering the cuff of his off arm while he signed with the other hand, I gingerly touched the folded-back pink lined cuff of his striped shirt, telling him I felt compelled to do so. "I hope it's efficacious," he replied.

The conversation began between the two writers, and later involved audience members. Discussion included everything from Tamworth hogs to male authors writing female protagonists, to how the Pimlico terrier Freddy de la Hay lost his drug-sniffing job sniffing at Heathrow to a female in a management bid for equal dog opportunity.

It was a truly enchanting evening. We met friends we had not seen for a long time, and we left the event feeling deliciously drunk on imagination. I have no doubt that Alexander McCall Smith has made huge contributions to the total sum of joy and fun.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Tunisian Travels with Adil Day 1

Road sign near Bizerte, photo by Badie Farrah

British Airways is late from Gatwick. After missing the arranged tours, Anna and I join forces with fellow conference presenter Badie.

At the concierge desk in the El Hana Hotel, where Anna is staying, Badie uses his rusty Arabic to hire Adil, and we set off on our own tour. On the first day out, Adil's face is solemn as he escorts us to his clean green Renault.

Anna and I sit in the back, and Badie up front by the driver. The men exchange a few words before Badie turns to translate Adil's request for the lace-wrapped Koran. Anna passes it forward, and the owner tucks it snugly between the front seats.

After the airy heights of the Carthage ruins above the city, we tour the Bardo Museum, a stunning maze of mosaics: Carthaginian, Byzantine, Roman and Punic.

As we drive toward Utica, I wonder why the towel is draped across Adil's dash. In the heat of the road, I realize it protects the driver's perspiring hands from the burning heat of the steering wheel. 

Here in the temperate zone, Vancouver summer feels almost as hot.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Watermelon Memories

Photo: Marmaris from the hill above


We are sitting on the porch in the shade, enjoying lunch and conversation with friends.

In the afternoon heat, we bite into chunks of rosy watermelon, cold, sweet and firm. I lean back in my chair, luxuriating in the flavour of that quintessential summer fruit.

Closing my eyes for a moment, I am in Turkey, where trucks toil up and down the steep mountain roads around Marmaris, laden with watermelons held in place by nets. A few jaggedly broken ones lie abandoned in the dust, their juicy flesh the province of flies.

Did they roll off a passing truck, I wonder. Or did a picnicking family break them open, then abandon them as not being tasty enough? Turks are true aficionados of watermelons. They even have an old saying that likens choosing a wife to choosing a watermelon.

The small Mercedes bus pulls out of Gokhova, and I watch from the front seat as the sparkling Mediterranean disappears from view. We traverse a narrow avenue of fragrant eucalyptus. Then Ahmet, our guide, spies a mound of watermelons by the road and signals the driver to stop. He hops off and strolls round, making selections.

The melon sellers extricate the chosen fruit, then playfully throw them to the scale man to be weighed. Their umbilical vines, still attached, whirl through the hot air. Ahmet bargains desultorily, then pays. The melon men load a dozen huge ones in the cargo hold and wave us off.

I open my eyes when someone says, "Delicious watermelon!" Home on the back porch again.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

"Awareness, Like a Philter-passing Virus..."

I take the words to mean that once we become aware of something, we can never entirely lose that awareness. The quoted line, or something very like it, jumped out at me from Lawrence Durrell's Alexandria Quartet when I read it for the second time, in my forties.

By then I had the life experience as well as the linguistic and cultural knowledge to understand the book much more clearly than I had twenty years before. That particular "philter-passing virus" of awareness has remained with me, and I've always remembered that Durrell line.

Today something else passed through my one-way "philter." I can't believe I didn't notice it before, over the course of riding the Sky Train for nearly twenty years.

Waiting this afternoon in King Edward Station, I observed what the engineers had put in place on the overhead metal trusses to discourage birds from perching up there and then letting fly and sullying the freshly arranged coiffures of the waiting commuters.

A series of pins standing like porcupine quills stops the birds from lighting where they shouldn't. How rarely we become aware of our dependence on such finely detailed planning and design.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Teacher as Facilitator

Another term is over. Each term brings its own special moments, and this one was no exception. The last hour of the class was a teacher's dream time.

In Canada, ESL teachers who work with adults hold as their ideal a mental picture of themselves as facilitators. The students have the job of studying and learning; the teacher must provide them with a steady supply of relevant tasks that will help promote that learning.

Then, if things go right, the instructor steps back while the students step forward. They work with confidence, knowing their teacher is at their side and on their side, a living resource who can be called upon for a wide range of help and support.

For the last hour yesterday, my students didn't need me. It seemed the perfect culmination of the term. I had helped them build their confidence and encouraged them to forge the bonds that made it possible to work steadily, sometimes alone and sometimes together, in their common struggle to get control of the English language.

In that final hour, they were demonstrating their independence from my careful guidance, and their readiness to move on. It was deeply satisfying to be aware of the three groups as they focused on preparing for the speaking exam while I sat at my desk tackling some of the dizzying array of term end tasks that lay before me.

Monday, August 9, 2010

A Different View of the River

On Saturday night I attended a dear friend's eightieth birthday celebration. It was a group affair: a river cruise with dinner and dancing. My husband couldn't come, and at the last minute, I feared the birthday girl and her husband would be the only ones I knew, and they would be busy with many friends to talk to.

I needn't have worried. Before I was fairly aboard, I was hailed by my former doctor (now retired, but, as he reported, still "docking" from time to time, to use a suitably nautical term.) Sitting with him and his lady, and watching seals and sea birds from the deck, I spent a pleasant evening on the water. We ate, drank, listened to old music, danced and sang while Daphne and John made the rounds.

It's strange how the distant ribbon of the Fraser as seen from the train bridge bears so little resemblance to the broad tidal estuary of the same river, observed from a very small boat. The log booms are at eye level, and the alluring purple loosestrife that grows on the small islands between the Patullo and Port Mann Bridges is close enough to be identified; from the train it is merely a distant blur of colour.

The Native left New Westminster Quay in a Scotch mist at around 7 pm and headed upriver. We passed below the Sky Train bridge first, and then through the opened gap of the railroad bridge beneath the car bridge of the Pattullo. We followed the northern channel upstream and chugged quietly eastward toward the Port Mann.

"John helped engineer that," Daphne told me, as the huge structure loomed above us. Now construction has begun on the twin bridges; the old one is scheduled for demolition once the ten new lanes open.

As we passed below the high span, rainwater dripped from the bridge deck to fall on our tiny boat below. Looking across the river, I could see a row of drops falling into the water, giving the dark shadow of the bridge two lacy edges.

We all went back inside as it grew dark, and had our pictures taken. How glad I was to have helped Daphne celebrate her eightieth. We have known each other for thirty years and more, since the day I met her and we instantly began to discuss what books we were reading. That day I was waiting for the doctor; she was the nurse-receptionist.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Hong Kong Fragrance 1983


Photo by Ernesto Andrade, published on flickr


I noticed an odd smell in the kitchen. The bag of lychees my daughter bought lay open on the counter, and I was back in 1983 Hong Kong.

Closing my eyes, I felt the sweltering heat, saw the beauty of the lamplit barrows, the skinny arms of the fruit vendor as he thrust the flimsy paper bag of lychees into my hand.

Though I had just bought a Nikon camera, I took no photos on that last evening. Already nostalgic, I wanted nothing to mediate between me and the experience of the lamplit fruit carts that stood in the street with the early tropical night falling.

The smell of the lychees was intriguing, but eating them was like drinking perfume. Meeting their unique fragrance again after so many years quickly swept aside the curtain of time. I saw my younger self make her purchase and return to her single room in the YMCA Kowloon to peel the sticky fruit, a farewell taste of Hong Kong.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Reprehensibly Fond of Adverbs

Today I heard my favourite adverb again. It ambushed me as I was listening to Dreamland, a strange and funny cocktail of suspense, horror and romance by Jenny Crusie and Bob Mayer.

I used to belong to a writers' group of adverb deniers. They said adverbs were bad. According to my fellow scribblers, I was inordinately fond of adverbs. Stubbornly, I refused to subscribe to the popular notion that adverbs must go.

Use strong verbs, they told me. Then you won't need adverbs. But I felt that was like telling a chef that using good ingredients would preclude the need for condiments.

I was preternaturally fond of the adverb I've used earlier in this sentence. But when the word cropped up in my writing, all six people in the group told me it did not exist.

The next day I was listening to Diana Gabaldon's latest, and there was my lovely adverb again. I told the others, but they were unmoved. Reprehensibly, I decided to take action.

If I had to give up adverbs, I would go down fighting. Next meeting, I brought in a copy of the opening paragraph of a Dick Francis story called "Haig's Death" (from Field of Thirteen, London, Michael Joseph, 1998). Four adverbs in forty-seven words is about twelve percent.

Today when I heard my lovely adverb again, I felt preternaturally smug. No, I definitely didn't imagine that word, and I am certainly not alone in liking it.

Bodyguard of Lies

Image from Cool Gus Publishing

During World War II, Winston Churchill famously said that in wartime, truth was so precious that "she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies."

Around Churchill's phrase, ex-Green Beret and prolific author Bob Mayer, writing this thriller originally as Robert Doherty, has built a gorgeously satisfying novel of suspense.

Though I am a great mystery fan, I'm not much of a thriller reader; Bodyguard of Lies is probably a first. And what a first.

Couldn't put it down, and when I finally reached the last page, I felt the profound satisfaction that comes when all the pieces fall neatly into place.

At the same time, I noticed that the way he closed the novel left some room.

Enter Lost Girls, the next in the series about the Cellar. Is the Cellar part of the CIA, or vice versa? Maybe in this next book, I'll find out.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Trembling Aspen, Calm Cat, Summer Applesauce

The trembling aspens quake in a light breeze; the cottonwood branches move and whisper. A plump robin rides a waving bough.

Summer is beginning to wind down. Today a few leaves drift slowly to the lawn. From the trees that ring the back garden, a mix of hot and slightly dry fragrances plays across the deck.

The sunlight is filtered by a thin veil of cloud, so the shady space at the outdoor table is no longer hot but still deliciously warm.

The cat walks casually along the round porch rail, balancing with ease; he does not quake or quail, though there is a big drop to the patio below.

High in the treetops, the clumps of ripe green apples tremble as they wait to be picked.

And I anticipate sitting on the deck in the shade and peeling them, then enjoying the delicious fragrance of late summer applesauce.

The fresh apples require no sugar; it is made only with apples and water, and will be eaten warm, perhaps with a hint of cinnamon.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Skeena Forest Products -- Safety First Please

Photo: Mill machinery, Terrace, BC

When I was at university, my best summer job was at Skeena Forest Products. The sign in front of the sawmill on Highway 16 west of Terrace showed how SFP, the company initials, also stood for the safety slogan.

As general office help, I recorded information on tree farm license maps, and kept records in the log yield book as the trucks came in to the mill. It was a pleasant workplace that smelled like wood. My co-workers were interesting too.

One soft-spoken man had scars on his arms that looked like claw marks -- I imagined that he had tangled with a grizzly. Later I found out he was a veteran of the Korean War. Another woman had an unfamiliar surname I later learned was Basque.

The man who hired me, Mr. O'Gower, as I thought he said on the phone, was far from being Irish. He turned out to be Mr. Ogawa, a Canadian-born Japanese.

My journey to work was unique. By cutting through the pole yard and across the tracks, I could save myself a couple of miles. Often I had to climb over empty flat cars waiting to be loaded with logs. I found this challenging as I had to avoid touching anything; I didn't wanted to get rust or grease on my office girl clothes.

If the train wasn't too long, I preferred to walk around the stationary cars rather than climb over the iron couplings. It was hard to know when the trains would start moving. Sometimes they were so long that the engines in the yard seemed miles away.