Thursday, March 31, 2011

bellyful in Montpellier

Montpellier is my new favourite place ever. Not just because my dear friends live here, but because it's just a great place - exciting but not overwhelming, beautiful with a fantastic climate, the sea nearby, and wonderful street life and shopping - the same sophisticated shops as in Paris, but without Parisians. Palm trees, a relaxed pace, a lot of cinema, art exhibitions and opera, incredible food, that goes without saying - all easily accessible, a step away. Hmm. My dream, now, is to come regularly to Montpellier. When it's cold in Canada.

On Tuesday night, we drove out of town to have dinner with Denis's sister Agnes and her husband Olivier, who came for their first visit to Canada last year, to my sixtieth birthday party. As we drank a bottle of champagne as an aperitif, they told us had a wonderful time in Canada, except that they didn't like Canadian cheese. We protested that they hadn't thrown their net wide enough. Oka? Cendrillon and many other Quebec cheeses? Aged white cheddar from southern Ontario? Hello?

Agnes had made a gigot of lamb stuffed with Oriental spices and nuts - delicious. And then, yes, force me, God - cheese. And then chocolate mousse. Are you tired of the menus yet? Intense discussion began when we walked in the door and didn't stop until we walked out, this being a French household and family. We had a lively discussion about French versus American versus British humour, in life and in film. Il faut dire que French humour lost.

Yesterday, Denis drove off for other parts and Lynn went to work, so I did a bit of shopping. Ah, another of the great treats of this country - frothy, lacy underwear. I bought undoubtedly the nicest bra I have ever owned. As I've written here before, French women always wear nice underwear, even if no one sees it. So now I feel even more fancy and frothy and French.

The great treat of the evening was dinner at l'Entrecote, which serves only two things: salad followed by steak frites, for 16 euros. The only variation is if you like your steak nearly raw or slightly cooked, and if you want a second giant helping of the superb, crispy French fries or not. I watched others dining as we dined - at the table next to us, two hairy, disheveled men who looked like poets or painters, polishing off two bottles of rosé; opposite, four young men about my son's age, 26, all so French, neat, trim and slight, wearing clothes that fitted, and when the wine arrived - this place does not serve fine wine - they poured a glass each, and then each picked up the glass and pushed their noses into it and inhaled. Yes, all those very young men automatically sniffed the wine before tasting, because they are French. And then plunged into their steak frites, as did we. And then we trekked the exhausting three minute walk home.

Today, Madame had some time off so we went to town, shopping, looking, swanning about. I bought a pair of Mephisto sandals which are my new favourite shoes in all the world. I know, tell this woman to shut about about her favourite things in the world, jeez. It's just so easy to shop here, everything close, cheerful, inviting. Later, after work for us both, we decided to take a fast walk, which ended up being a slow stroll along the vast, open Place de la Comedie. The end of a glorious day, hot sun, hundreds sitting at cafés having an aperitif, hundreds walking around, the long rows of plane trees with their powerful branches uplifted, the spring planting of tulips, hyacinth and narcissus wafting our way - spectacular.

A friend came for dinner tonight and Lynn whipped up a little repast, braised chicken breast in cream with leeks, and Julie brought dessert - dark chocolate, whipped cream, biscuit of some kind, eye rollingly good. My eyes have been rolling in ecstasy a lot recently. And tomorrow, very early, my friend and I are taking the TGV to Paris. Where it just may be that my eyes will continue to roll.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Canada alert!

Just got this from Ruth in Toronto. Please pass it on.

Information about Gonorrhea Lectim
> >
> >The Center for Disease Control has issued a warning about a new
> >virulent strain of this old disease. The disease is called Gonorrhea
> >Lectim. It's pronounced "Gonna re-elect 'em," and it is a terrible disease.
> >
> >The disease is contracted through dangerous and high risk behaviour
> >involving putting your cranium up your rectum. Many victims
> >contracted it in 2008 when they re-elected Steve Harper and are now
> >starting to realize how destructive this sickness is.
> >
> >It's sad because Gonorrhea Lectim is easily cured with a new drug
> >just coming on the market called Votemout. It's pronounced
> >"Vote-em-out". You take the first dose in 2011 and don't engage in
> >such behaviour again; otherwise, it could become permanent and
> >eventually wipe out all life as we know it in Canada.
> >
> >Please pass this important message on to all those bright folk you
> >really care about.

contemplating groceries

My best friend in a happy place

A miracle - Canadian maple syrup and Skippy peanut butter in the Monoprix grocery store! In France! Peanut butter in France! What is this world coming to?

Tuesday, March 29, 2011


Lynn and Denis's window on the first floor

miscellaneous window in St. Guillem


I'm happy to report that I didn't go mad in Monoprix and Galeries Lafayette - in fact, bought nothing at all, except a very large load of groceries for the household. Grocery shopping is great fun in another country, especially this one, where the wine selection is vast, this in the equivalent of No Frills. When Madame returned from work, Monsieur made dinner - roast pork cooked in milk and onions in the pressure cooker, with new potatoes added at the last minute and a salad - a very healthy full dinner ready in half an hour. And then, of course, you know what ...


With fresh bread. Oh yes yes yes.

The television was fixed, so we watched a bit, a British drama about the legacy of the British in Palestine and the creation of Israel in 1948, through the experiences of one family. Excellent.

Today, Denis took me to St. Guilhem le Desert, about 50 minutes from Montpellier, described in the guides as one of the loveliest villages in all France. And as you can see by the pictures, the guides aren't exaggerating. What made it especially beautiful is that we were almost the only tourists there. Most of the shops that line the narrow medieval streets were closed and shuttered, so we wandered alone.

We had seen the church and were in the cloister when several nuns came out, in beige wool monk-like garb with hoods and sandals, and told us they were about to start an "office", did we want to join them? So we did, in the freezing, ancient church, a brief service in which seven nuns in robes chanted and spoke, and Denis and I and a very old man rose and sat with them, and the old man sang along. It was plainsong - hauntingly beautiful echoing from the round arches above us.

Then out to walk through the village again - it's on the official route of the Camino pilgrims to Compostela, and fountains were splashing fresh water on every corner. And then, that important part of any pilgrimage - lunch. Denis and I sat under the vast plain tree in the village square and had the menu - 15 euros for a salad with warm chevre, then a duck cassoulet and a crepe for dessert. A humble pilgrim lunch, in the loveliest little town in France.

I'm hardly missing Bruth at all. Well ... a bit. I wonder how he is doing in Nimes.

St. Guilhem le Desert

Les gorges de l'Herault, on the road to St. Guilhem

Market day in the village square. The spectacular plane tree dates from 1855 and is 5 metres around; a plaque on its trunk says so.

The vista from the cloister of the little Romanesque church, which dates from the 9th century. Half of the cloister now forms part of the Cloisters in New York City, bought by an American sculptor who transported it stone by stone. There's an indignant sign along the road: "Who sold the cloister to the Americans?" But since it was a hundred years ago, not much to do now.

Wisteria, in bloom on the staircase, in March.

Another hideous vista.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Farewell to Thpain

A selection of tapas ... mmm.

Carnaval in Montpellier's Place de la Comedie, with stilts

Beth and Bruth disagree about the
temperature at Lynn's

sightseeing - Montpellier and Sète

Bruce and Denis in beautiful downtown Montpellier

Beautiful downtown Sète

Beautiful downtown Bruth, by the thea

My hor's d'oeuvre at L'Oranger:
artichokes and olive/almond

a new week

Hard to believe I've been away for 11 days already; it feels like a mad dash minute. Today the next phase begins; Bruce has just taken the train to Nimes, Lynn is at work, Denis is at the doctor; it's 11 a.m. Monday March something or other, and I am alone and settled, if briefly, for the first time in nearly two weeks. I'm sitting on the wrought-iron balcony of my friends' apartment in the heart of Montpellier, in the sun, which has made a hesitant appearance after a dramatic disappearing act yesterday. A woman below just came home with two baguettes, as did I.

I saw Bruce off at the train station - the woman next to me, waving goodbye to her husband who'd sat down next to Bruce on the train, made a joke to me, as the train sped off, about the wives left behind. This week, Brucie and I have indeed been companionate spouses, joined at the hip, joking, supporting and loving with very occasional mild irritation. Good, now, for a bit of spouseless time.

Yesterday we managed a day of exploration despite the cold and rain. The four of us walked to the art museum, the Musee Fabre, where Mr. Kellett satisfied his art craving with a Poussin and a room full of Courbets. We then ventured into the modern work of Pierre Soulages, who paints canvases almost entirely black - thick scrapings of black with an occasional bit of blue or white. And yet, they're quite beautiful. Even Bruth, not an admirer of modern art, thought so.

We had lunch at a Tunisian restaurant, wonderful fried sandwiches called "bricks" with incredibly sweet honeyed desserts, and then retired from the rain to rest. Later, we went for a drive to the sea, to walk on a rocky Mediterranean beach and to visit the lovely seatown of Sète, where, it being the dignified hour of 8.15 p.m., we decided to have dinner. Thence followed a spirited discussion between Monsieur and Madame, along with a critical reading of the "Guide Routarde," a guide to interesting places and good food, without which any French family is doomed to eat with ordinary folk and tourists. Denis finally saw a mention of a restaurant he liked the sound of, which sure enough was excellent. We had a marvellous meal there, thanks to Bruce who treated us to this extravagance. I ordered the fish 'daurade,' which was displayed to me before it was deboned. "Elle s'appelle Bernadette," said our waiter, who was also the patron and had a good sense of humour.

Bruce had the bull. Yes - a taureau stew.
"It's not often you get a plate full of bull," I said.
"Except if you're following Canadian politics," he replied.
Which, thank the lord, we are trying not to do.

Again, I find myself back in the French culinary rhythm, eating heartily and with relish at mealtimes, lots of protein, vegetables and fruit, then not much in between - whereas at home I nibble all day long. Denis and I just had lunch - fresh delicious superb bread, two slices of ham and then some cheese, with wine, followed by yogurt, fruit, coffee and squares of Lindt creme brulée chocolate. For supper, something simple with lots of vegetables and a salad.

Now the sun is out and hot and I am off to poke around ... in shops! Monoprix! Galeries Lafayette! Not only do I have the whole day, but there isn't a patient Bruth waiting for me to finish. He is having his own adventures in Nimes. I miss him already, but, somehow, will carry on.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

praying for Canada

Another great blessing - I will be out of the country for the first weeks of the election campaign. Because, as you bloggees know, the very sight of Stephen Harper makes me sick. Those cute little glasses they've given him, and the fact that he has actually learned to crack his face into the semblance of a real smile - oh God, I pray for my country. The savage, calculating, utterly conscienceless band in Ottawa have already transformed my country into a closed, secretive place increasingly despised by other countries. The thought of what will happen if they get a majority makes my skin crawl and my stomach heave.

After I wrote the title of this blog post, I realized that I don't even know what I'm praying for. Another minority government, I guess. Ignatieff not to blow it so badly that the Liberals are wiped out. That the country survives long enough that the Liberals can elect another, better leader, or the NDP can - not that I have anything against Jack, but the party has not been able to break the logjam - or someone can produce a leader who embodies the Canada, real or imagined, that we used to have, the compassionate, engaged country of Tommy Douglas and David Suzuki.

As "The Guardian" newspaper says:

Canada escaped the worst of the [financial] crisis, thanks to its sensibly regulated banking sector and its natural resources. As a result, Harper just keeps getting lucky, the prototype of the current crop of charisma-free middle managers that dominate leadership in Anglo-Saxon democracies. Harper's wonkmates are Britain's David Cameron, New Zealand's John Key and Australia's Julia Gillard – all of whom are the heads of minority governments and all of whom stress managerial competence. But none of the quartet can deliver a speech worth crossing a road to hear.

Followed by the response that Harper is "a gormless, dictatorial micro manager." Couldn't have said it better myself.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Montpellier in the rain

There was a moment on the train yesterday, when intense, noisy people got off and sleekly well-dressed, snooty people got on; we'd crossed from Spain to France. Okay, shoot me for racial stereotyping, but the difference made me laugh.

We spent part of yesterday celebrating once again the miracle of European train travel - the comfortable, quiet and prompt high-speed trains. I read "The Guardian" most of the way - another treat in Europe, the always-accessible superb British newspapers - a long article about how writers write. We sailed through stunning countryside, dusty forests, old stone villages pressed into the hills, fields of grey vineyards just beginning to stir, and then the Mediterranean and clouds of pink flamingos.

At exactly 1.15 p.m., as scheduled, we pulled into the Montpellier train station. Those of you who've followed this blog perhaps remember what happened two years ago, when my train pulled into the Montpellier station, and I got off with my backpack and suitcase and left my handbag behind on the train. Just walking through the building reminds me of the terror of that evening. But this time, Bruth and I did our usual check, one, two, three, we have it all - and there in the station was my beloved Lynn, who's been a best friend since Carleton University in 1967. This year, she and her French husband Denis will celebrate their 40th wedding anniversary. Imagine.

When I stayed with Lynn here 2 years ago, she had a small apartment above a noisy bar, but now Denis has retired and lives in Montpellier too, so they've found a dignified, bright apartment in a very old building a stone's throw from the station. After exclamations and greetings and lunch - the best bread with ham and a salad and guess what - CHEESE - cheesecheesecheesecheesecheese - that's all I ever need, with a sip of wine - we went for a stroll around town. The old inner city of Montpellier is usually full of people, but yesterday, the vast Place de la Comedie was overflowing - it was Carnival, which has to do with breaking the fast of Lent, and there were thousands of people, many of them in costume, women on stilts ...

We went to the small local museum which turned out - of course - to be housed in a gorgeous little mansion filled with treasure, from rooms full of Greco-Roman antiquities to the jazzy modern 1700's. And then wandered and wandered, up and down ancient cobbled streets falling into dusk, as the citoyens gathered in cafés to take the aperitif. The inner city has a human dimension - the buildings, even the big churches, are relatively small, and so the people aren't dwarfed. We all fit.

At home, we talked and talked and talked and dined and talked - Denis has just been through open-heart surgery, Lynn is immersed in French academe and there's always fierce comparison of customs and countries, so lots to discuss - and finally went to bed. Today our weather luck ended - there's a dark sky and a cold rain. Lynn went out to get fresh bread and croissants for breakfast; we ate the croissants with jam and the bread with the pot of "Nuts to You"peanut butter that I brought from Canada for Madame; France can provide many things but not excellent peanut butter. We'd planned to go to a nearby village brocante - a flea market - and can't because it's raining! Misère! So instead, the plan is to talk and eat and talk and go to the art gallery and eat some more. And perhaps a little bit of talk, and some wine, and some cheese.

What suffering.

Friday, March 25, 2011

last day in Barcelona

I'm in my very small room, drinking a large glass of wine, remembering the day, listening to Spanish teenagers holler at each other in the park down below. Our last day in Barcelona is ending, and what a fine visit it has been.

Today, the miraculous Mr. Bruce had downloaded the Barcelona bus map to his iPod Touch and plotted our itinerary around town, to the Parc Montjuic, to the art gallery and the Miro gallery there, then back to the centre of town and up the other side, to the Parc Guell, to see more Gaudi. So we had four great bus tours of the city as we headed for our usual feast of art, and as we rode, we feasted on the art nouveau buildings outside the bus window. (First photo.)

The city is an explosion of art nouveau, the swirls of modernism everywhere - even in the art gallery, which had a beautiful collection of extraordinary Art Nouveau furniture.

And lots of other stuff - we had no idea the collection was so big. I noticed a Catalan altar there from the 1300's with the same tapering towers, topped with puffy topknots, that Gaudi designed for his cathedral. Maybe that's where he got the shape from. (Second photo.)

And there's a piece of pavement Gaudi designed, that is now, we realized, the pavement used in downtown Barcelona. Even the pavement, here, is art.

We saw an extensive collection of Spanish impressionists - pseudo Cezannes, Monets, Gaugins. In another world, their canvases would be wonderful, but not in comparison with the real thing. A Picasso room, of course - with one large portrait of his lover Marie-Therese Walter in 1937 and another large portrait of his new lover, Dora Maar, two years later. He was a busy priapic man, that Pablo, one gorgeous woman after another. Par contre, I noted later at the fine Miro museum that Joan Miro married one woman, fathered one daughter, and remained happily married for the rest of his life. Did Pablo have too much testosterone, do you think, or did Joan have too little?

Joan Miro, like Pablo, went to Paris, where he met the great French poets who changed his life. It was a time when writers influenced the world; when artists of all kinds fertilized each other. Does that happen now? I hardly know any painters. My world is writing. That's a flaw.

The Parc Guell, after our long bus ride and a hefty hike uphill, was jam-packed - tour-bus loads of schoolkids and tourists. It must be a great place when it's almost empty, with Gaudi's imaginative, fun buildings, benches and mosaics. (Gaudi adored mosaic, sprinkled his buildings with them, like freckles.)

But we didn't last long.

Home late Friday afternoon, to find the streets around the hotel, Las Ramblas and the others, overflowing with Spaniards and tourists, out for a stroll. What a street life this city has. I will miss it.

Fun with art on Friday in Barthelona

A Gaudi house in the Parc Guell,

Bruce and I at the Miro museum,

and two beautiful
Madonna's a hundred years apart,
one Bernardo Daddi from 1340,
the other, Fra Angelico from about 1435,
in the Museu Nacional d'art de Catalunya.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

a close call

Thurthday, continued ... BK suggested we try again, late, to get into the Picasso Museum, and sure enough, when we got there at 6.45, there was no line-up at all. What a treat - the collection focusses on his earliest work, starting when he was fourteen, just beginning and yet already pretty good - a lovely little oil of five birds, a study of hands, portraits of his friends, doodles, and then some great classic portraits and scenes. Picasso's father was an artist and encouraged and taught his son, who in his early teens went to art school in Madrid. Eventually he felt he wasn't learning anything new, dropped out and spent months at the Prado, copying the masters, mostly, of course, Velasquez, El Greco and Goya. There's a head of Philip IV he copied from Velasquez - made me laugh, Bruce and I marvelled all through the Prado at how exceptionally ugly the Spanish royal family used to be. But somehow, very young Picasso made the king sad, interesting, almost attractive.

Then he went to Paris and had his first exhibition there in 1901, when he was just 20 years old. And by 1903, it's clear that he has become who he will always be, his style is recognizable and dazzling, at 22. In 1906, Gertrude Stein introduced him to Matisse. Imagine that meeting: Pablo, meet Henri. Then, in 1917, he and Braque invented Cubism.

We jumped right through many years to 1957, when he painted many of his own versions of Velasquez's great Las Meninas; since we'd seen the canvas in Madrid, we had a lot of fun picking out the various figures and what happened to them at Picasso's hands. At the end were some canvases of doves, done at his home in Cannes.
"These look a lot like Matisse," I said to Bruce.
"Hmmm," he replied. "Not enough red." And he was right.

In the shop, some of Picasso's wisdom on t-shirts: "Others talk. I work."
And my favourite: "I've spent all my life learning to paint like a child."
He learned all the rules, really well. So then he could break them, and he did, with the greatest relish, for the rest of his life.

Time for more wandering, and finally we chose an interesting little hole in the wall for a tapas dinner. And there - a cautionary tale. We'd been warned about thieves in Barcelona; a friend's wallet was stolen here once, and a woman in a shop warned me to carry my shoulder bag not behind me but in front. Here, comfortable in a warm, funky restaurant, I put my bag on the floor under my chair. Bruce and I were drinking wine when a youngish, nice-looking man came in, seemingly with a group, sat alone at the table next to us, and then stood up next to our table, talking on his cell phone. I was aware that it was odd he was standing there to talk. And then I noticed something on the floor near his feet. And then I noticed that it was my bag.

He must have slid it out subtly with his foot, inching it across the floor as he talked and I talked. If I hadn't noticed, I assume that in the next moments, he would have gracefully picked it up, slipped it under his jacket and disappeared. Instead, I reached way over and picked it up myself, and by the time I had, in my shock, put together what happened, he'd snapped his phone shut, said something cheery to our waitress and swiftly left.

I spent the rest of the meal hugging my bag. Ironically, there was almost no cash in it. But my credit card, bank card, all my Canadian ID, camera, hotel key, notebook etc.

Motto from 2009 - do not leave your handbag on the train. Motto from 2011 - do not leave your handbag on the floor. Motto for all future travelling: Do not leave your handbag anywhere. Stick it to your body. Phew.

miscellaneous Gaudi

Sagrada Familia


If it'th Thursday, thith mutht be Barthelona. (I've started to lithp.) It was supposed to rain but decided not to, so we have to put up with more bright sun, though with a chill wind. But no, I must point out to my Toronto friends, snow.

Why are the trains in Europe infinitely superior to Canadian ones? We took the high-speed train from Madrid to Barcelona - it left on the minute, showed a film with free headphones, zipped smoothly through the countryside and here we were. Here we are. Bruce had found us a luxury hotel where we have a massive suite, filled with sofas ... no, sorry, only joking. We have a deeply non-luxury hotel in a perfect location in the centre of town - two monastic cells, each big enough for a narrow single bed and chair - but who needs more? Fast wifi, and when we walk out the door, we're in the heart of this fabulous city.

We settled in and went immediately for a walk in the sun, down the famous, crowded La Ramblas to the water, where we had a picnic lunch sitting on a bench outside. Back through the old city, around the Cathedral - we're getting a bit blasé about cathedrals now, except for the big one to come - and then more wandering before our afternoon break, when Bruce went to sleep and I went SHOPPING. There's a Zara store on every corner - Zara is a Spanish chain - so I just had to buy a cheap and cheerful t-shirt. Very satisfying.

We wanted to go on a Gaudi hunt in the evening - got as far as one of his apartment buildings, but the evening was windy and cold, so we found a simple restaurant for supper at the incredibly early hour of 7.45. Of course, there were only tourists for the next hour. Patsy has written to ask what we're eating, as I have not once mentioned cheese. We did buy a good cheese at the grocery store in Madrid, but I didn't notice what it was. We're eating tapas for one meal, usually, and picnicking for the other - the tapas wonderful, small portions of all sorts of interesting things, last night a dish of beans with ham, red pepper stuffed with tuna, a kind of ratatouille with eggplant and peppers, and some blood sausage and onions, all delicious. And the wine is heaven, even the cheapest glasses at the restaurants. We did go last thing to the big grocery story in El Cortes Ingles, a department store, to look for a bottle of wine for me, so that I can have an aperitif in my room before we go out. So frustrating - row upon row of sublime Spanish wines, and I with no corkscrew looking for a screw-top bottle - could only find one from California! So I bought little Spanish bottles made for picnics.

Today we set off early for la Sagrada Familia, having heard it got very crowded later in the day. It was a half hour walk from the hotel along the elegant Barcelona streets - this bit like New York and that like Paris - gaping at other Art Nouveau house facades, until suddenly, there it was, Gaudi's masterpiece, vast, with its crazy magic towers and complex, much-decorated facades - the life of Jesus amid stalactites and stalagmites. Inside, amazing, soaring light; what a feat of engineering, awe-inspiring, because it's not an antique Notre Dame, it's from our time and still being built. We took an elevator to the top to see a view of the city and to watch the workmen still plugging away on the top of the towers - the cathedral was started in the late 1890's and won't be finished until 2026.

It's just 4 p.m. At least five different churches are ringing their bells.

By the time we left, the line up for tickets snaked around the corner, with giant tour busses unloading on all sides. Always good to start early.

We walked to the Palau de la Musica Catalan, another Art Nouveau masterpiece, booked tickets for a tour (in Spanish, since the English tours were sold out) a few hours hence, walked through narrow, dark, medieval streets to the nearby Picasso Museum, where the line-up was so long, we decided instead to check out a huge church nearby - Sta. Maria del Mar, where the decorations were destroyed by anarchists - and then had lunch sitting at a bar in a great covered market, a Catalan restaurant where the menu was not in Spanish but in Catalan, which often comes first on notices here. I had calamares - fresh fresh - and BK had an omelette with the bread here, which comes baked, smeared with garlic and tomato. Everything, always, very salty. Sat in the sun listening to a great hot jazz combo outside - banjo, trumpet and, somehow, a honky-tonk piano, pushed through the streets.

Then back to the Palau - the palace of Catalan music - constructed from 1905 to 1908 by a contemporary of Gaudi's - and it's so ornate, fanciful, flowery and stunning, it puts Gaudi's work into context. He wasn't the only genius at work in this city at that time. Truly a beautiful concert hall, an extravaganza of stained glass, sculptures, glass balustrades, ceramic roses, mosaic peacock feathers and stone muses bursting from mosaic bodies in the walls - every inch decorated and lovely. We toured with a large group of high-school students from Toulouse, who were more interested in each other than in the architecture. As I would have been, at that age. Now, for BK and me, sadly, it's architecture, all the way.

I'd been keen to explore the nearby Museum of Chocolate, but was too tired. Even for chocolate. Back to our little rooms to rest until the next sortie.

Maybe, while Monsieur sleeps, I might deke out for another little bout of Zara ... or perhaps I'll sleep too.

Incidentally, Justin Bieber will be here soon. Vive le Canada libre. Now, after writing and downloading pictures, it's 5 o'clock, and all the bells, low and slow, high and fast, are ringing again.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011


The city on the hill

Bruce contemplates an old building and ladies' underwear

A "mudejar" - Moorish - gate

Beth contemplates Bruth

the terrible two in Madrid

Bruth in Plaza Mayor, the huge main square

Madame in front of the Palacio Real

In El Jardin Botanico. Spring will come to you too, Canadians!

Bruce and I disagree about the temperature inside the apartment. This was his subtle protest.

holy Toledo

Last day in Madrid - and we spent most of it 70 kms. south, in the Unesco World Heritage Site of Toledo. It would never have occurred to me to go there, it's the wondrous Bruth who insisted. And what a beautiful town it is, plastered to the side of a high hill with tiny winding streets up and down, lined with old buildings, churches, museums, opening out into typical busy Spanish squares. Toledo is at the geographic and historic centre of this country, once the centre of "La Convivencia," centuries during which Muslims, Jews and Christians lived in harmony. Until 1492, when sephardic Jews were expelled and forced to wander across Europe looking for a new home.

Bruth was on a hunt for El Greco's, which are scattered about the place, as the great artist lived here for many years and painted canvases for the local churches. And for the Cathedral, which is one of the most decorated and splendid I've ever seen - like Notre Dame, only a bit smaller and with almost no visitors. Stunning - with some superb El Greco's just hanging casually inside, the most beautiful Jesus with dark liquid eyes - I love how all El Greco's saints are dark-eyed Spaniards - as well as some Titians, a Caravaggio, a Goya and a Raphael or two. A soaring alter of unimaginable gold and carving, marble everywhere, stained glass windows ...

Up and down more narrow streets to other churches, other museums, to see one of El Greco's most famous paintings, The Burial of the Count of Orgaz, and to the old Synagogue, very simple but reeking of history and devotion, with a supremely decorated marble wall and a fascinating museum.

Lunch sitting outside - though it was a chilly day with a high wind, still, it was good to feel the pale sun on our faces. A 3 course menu for 12 euros, then off again, up and down and winding round, until it was time to head back over the medieval bridge to the fast train back to Madrid.

I was exhausted, and couldn't believe my ears when, as the train pulled in, Bruth said, "Last chance - let's go to the Palacio Real." The one that was closed the other day. So we did - he again wanting to see the paintings, and once again - this is the third time for him - the gallery section was closed. But we went through the palace rooms, appallingly rich in decoration, chandeliers weighing tons, walls covered with embroideries or porcelain, carpets, exquisite chairs and tables, a dinner table set for a hundred ... What we don't know is where the current king and queen of Spain live. "They have a little cottage somewhere," opined Bruce, as we shaded our eyes from the gold and silver.

So, last walk back through the crowded after work streets, home to flop on the sofa and then to make dinner and pack. This has been a glorious six days. Tomorrow - Barthelona.

Monday, March 21, 2011

creativity, good sense and daffodils

Another stunning day weather-wise, though a strange one activities-wise. We set off early for the Palacio Real, the enormous palace we left to visit till today because it's one of the very few things open in Madrid on Monday. When we arrived, we saw tourists circling disconsolately and found out why - the Palacio was closed on this particular Monday, for some reason we never ascertained.

So - the morning's activity curtailed, we walked instead, which I liked better anyway - who needs an old Palacio? We enjoyed Madrid in the fresh gleaming sun, especially the Chocolateria San Gines, which my friend Sherry had recommended, an old haunt of everyone famous in the world, according to the signed photos all over the walls, including several of the divine Javier Bardem, who has no nose bridge at all.

Steaming cups of chocolate so dark, sweet and thick, it was like syrup, accompanied by churros, long strips of light fried dough that's cut off to the lengths you require. Somehow, Bruce and I managed to slog our way through this feast, though neither of us could finish, and that's saying something for me and chocolate.

And then, pretending to be hungry, we bought groceries and had lunch! Another thrifty lunch cooked at home, after which my companion went to sleep and I went to the Reina Sophia modern art gallery, again, the only gallery open on Monday. I knew nothing about it except that it holds Picasso's "Guernica." Well - never before have I really, really disliked an art gallery. And now I have. I really disliked this one. It's cold and austere, confusing (with no map) with room after room of difficult, often ugly modern art. How much cubism can you take? Surrealism? How much bad Dali? So many of the canvases were colourless, muddy, incomprehensible blobs or weird unpleasant images - who curates this museum, I wondered? Someone with no sense of humour, no sense of colour, and no respect for the viewer.

No, wait, I understand, I think the idea is to shock the viewer, jolt us out of our bourgeois comfort zone. Well, phooey to you.

But then - there's "Guernica," so stunning and moving - worth it all. An extraordinary work of art, vital still, hanging on the wall, but was intensely meaningful politically in its time and place, commenting on the massacre perpetrated by Franco's forces, raining bombs on a small town's innocents, mostly women and children. There's a series of photos on the wall behind, taken by Picasso's then-lover Dora Maar, chronicling its creation - you can see how he sketched out the huge canvas and gradually filled it in. In the next room, the bits and pieces he tried out to put it together. It's wonderful, and, to be fair, so is other stuff in the museum. I loved a Picasso sculpture entitled "Woman in a garden," made of bits of metal, with her hair like a cock's comb in the breeze. There are lovely pieces by Miro and Juan Gris, and interesting films all the way through, including a hilarious Buster Keaton film, very out of place.

After the gruelling second floor, I took a break, went down to the lovely sculpture garden and sat in the sun, reading. Then went back to do the fourth floor; took a deep breath, got out of the elevator, turned the corner, and found myself confronted by film footage from Auschwitz just after the war, piles of emaciated corpses being bulldozed. I kid you not. I got instantly out of that room to the next, saw rows of monochrome panels, and just turned around and got back on the elevator. Couldn't wait to get out of there. Leave me my bourgeois comfort, please.

Which I found at the Botanical Gardens, where I went next on this beautiful afternoon. It will be spectacular in a month or two - I could see a hundred rose bushes, now just thorns and names (and, I was interested to note, some black spot on the leaves, just as on mine at home). But the daffs were out in profusion, rows and rows of golden trumpets, and pink and red camelias and even some rhodo's and a pale magnolia just bursting through. So welcome, colour and scent, birds and old trees, especially after the assault at the museum.

Later, BK and I went to the train station to get our tickets for Toledo tomorrow, found the system there so frustrating - we waited 15 minutes in the ticket office and could see it would be probably an hour before we were served - that we left to look for an internet cafe and passed a travel agency, where we bought our tickets in five minutes. And then we walked and walked. Monday night is definitely quiet here; we ended up back at the restaurant we'd been to with Eleanor, where, that night, they couldn't wait for us to leave, and tonight, the waiter almost begged us to stay. We walked and walked some more, narrow winding streets, and always - always a guitar and drums somewhere in the distance. Even in our apartment building, someone plays the guitar and the flute, often.

I bought a post card at the museum, a saying of Picasso's : The chief enemy of creativity is good sense. I like the card and the saying, but honestly, I don't know if it's true.

Sunday, March 20, 2011


When I met Bruce tonight, at the end of a very long solo day of art and wonder, I said, "I don't want to see another @#$#@ beautiful thing as long as I live."
"At least until tomorrow," said he, wisely.

The most gorgeous weather here - it was chilly morning and evening but hot hot midday - the forsythia and cherry blossom have exploded even since I arrived. We went first to the Rastro flea market, only held Sunday mornings and apparently the biggest in the world. On the first long street, I was disappointed - just the usual market stuff, scarves, socks, earrings. But then we turned the corner and realized that the market spread out in all directions, and there was mountains of my kind of stuff - vintage. Or, as it's known here, bintage. Or, as it should be known, junk. What an incredible load of junk there is in the world - and yet, what fun. I have now discovered that Madrid is the world centre of vintage radios. If I'd had a radio collection, I would have gone mad. Lamps too, books, toys, lots of great stuff. Bruce and I laughed - there'd be a group of 20 or 30 men, gathered around a pile of hardware junk spread on the ground, and next door, crowds of women looking at cheap makeup and perfume.

Reader - with all my poking about and admiring, I bought nothing. Not one single thing. There were some lovely things but either too expensive or not worth hauling home. Bruce had retired to an internet cafe with his iPad, so I wandered blissfully and then we walked home. Empty. Hooray.

I made us a Sunday lunch here and then he went to sleep and I set off into the hot afternoon. Back to the Thyssen, to see what I'd missed - an exhibit of the Russian avant garde, including one of the loveliest Kandinskys I've ever seen. I wandered around the second floor to see again in detail what I'd seen more briefly with Bruce, and then walked over to Retiro Park, behind the Prado; a stroll in the park is apparently the thing to do on a Sunday afternoon in Madrid. And today, the first really hot Sunday of the year, especially so. The park was packed - huge families of many generations, people speaking every language, rowers rowing, three women reading Tarot cards, lovers lolling and sprawled - and some feral cats. I found a spot on the grass in the sun and then had to move to the shade - it was too hot - and lay reading Laurie Lee's "A Rose for Winter," his memoir of Spain, written in the fifties. The man writes so well, he makes me froth with jealousy. Here's a two line description of a village:
Tarifa, within the walls, was packed as tight as a box of bricks. But the small square houses, decorated with delicate ironwork and built round tiny flowering patios, gave an impression of miniature spaciousness, a garden enclosed, an ancient perfection preserved in poverty and love.

Back to meet Bruce at 5, when the Prado is free on Sunday. But the line up was so very long, I left him to it and went back to the Thyssen, which was empty by comparison and breathtaking. A stop for a glass of wine in the cafe, then back to the Prado, no lineup, for a final hour and a half through the long dense halls, revisiting some favourites Bruce had shown me, especially Fra Angelico's stunning Annunication which decorates the wall of my office at home, Velasquez's holy family, the Italians, the Goyas.

Utterly exhausted, BK and I walked home along a narrow back street full of restaurants, stopping for tapas on the way - a bright cheery place where we picked a few things at random, all delicious, fish or vegetables on bread - for a huge dinner with wine, 12 euros each. And thence to a long hot bath at home, and to you.

The paintings I saw today were ancient perfections preserved in poverty and love. Except for the poverty part.

Saturday, March 19, 2011


Bruth warned me that jet-lag might hit on the second day, and it did. Perkiness vanished, temporarily. Luckily, it was not a heavy sightseeing day - we took an hour long bus ride through the scrubby countryside to El Escorial, a vast palace and monastery built by one of the many Philips. But it was disappointing: not very splendid, very cold and plain - because it's a monastery as well as a palace - and didn't even have that many works of art - way too many crucifixions and Marys and etc. There was a beautiful Velasquez so Bruth was happy, and I was happy when we walked in the palace gardens afterwards, in the sun.

After only 2 days in Spain, I am already sick of religious art, especially of martyrs being butchered in every conceivable way with tons of blood and agony everywhere. Religious porno. Horrible.

But back at the Prado, tonight, there's lots of stunning other stuff, including sublime canvases by Velasquez, Goya and El Greco, three of the greatest artists of all time. So moving, the humanity in the faces - Velasquez, painting an "adoration of the Magi" in which Mary has the face of his wife, the baby is his daughter - the loveliest baby Jesus ever - and he himself is one of the adoring magi. Later, his paintings of dwarves and clowns - profound, full of empathy - Bruth says they make him cry. We arrived together but then separated, he pursuing his own muse around the place, though we bumped into each other in front of a Velasquez. Ten minutes before closing time, I dashed into a nearby room, to discover a cornucopia of Italian geniuses: Titians, Tintorettos, Veronese. Too much. Overwhelming.

Luckily, there's tapas to revive us. We found a very loud, cheery place and ordered the bits and pieces of tapas - fun and delicious. Every face nearby reminded me of someone in a painting I had just seen. That boy - just like the pale, chubby John the Baptist by Goya. BK and I talked and talked and then walked and walked. Saturday night in Madrid - every Madrilieno is out, strolling, jabbering at top volume, music blasting everywhere - and those who aren't walking are eating outside in one of the countless pedestrian-only squares that make this city so friendly and open.

We went to a supermarket this afternoon and bought groceries; in a strange place, that is always exciting. Why is ham the biggest food in Spain? Why are my eyelids closing at 10.30 p.m.?

Friday, March 18, 2011

the two of us - yo y Bruth

Madrid, full day #1: I wish I could say all this in espagnol, but I can't. I have started to lisp, though, 0r to lithp, because most of the s's, c's and z's are pronounced th. Bruce is now Bruth. The sublime Velasquez is pronounced Belathketh. FYI.

Happy happy happy. First, the travelling was relatively painless - though I am so jealous of people like the woman in the seat next to me on the flight to Paris - after the meal, served because of a late take off at 10.30 p.m., her head simply dropped to her chest and she was fast asleep until we landed. I - well, you can imagine, an insomniac on a trans-continental flight... I had two pillows, an eye shade, earplugs, lip gloss, water bottle, blanket, special stretchy clothes so I could curl up as much as possible, even a special comfortable stretchy bra - AND I took a sleeping pill - nada. Niente in the sleep department. Flailing, squashed like a squashed banana, while Madame next to me snoozed blissfully.

Oh well. I saw a beautiful dawn, we landed in a cold and foggy Paris, and finding the connecting flight was easy. It left on time, it landed on time, my bag was actually there, having actually been transferred at Charles de Gaulle airport - and there was my dear Bruce, waiting outside the door. We took a very long metro ride, changing 3 times, to get to the apartment, which is ... basic, shall we say, plain, shall we say, without the charm it was cleverly arranged to show in the internet rental photograph. But the location is perfect, and we each have a bedroom and a bathroom, if not much else. The internet is slow, but it's here.

We went right out - my goal to get my face in the sun to counter jet lag and so many hours in stuffy planes and airports. A beautiful, exciting city, immediately dazzling - we had a beer in the sun in the magnificent Plaza Major, wandered the winding streets - and even went to the Prado, which is free from 6 to 8 every evening. But by then I was a bit woozy and couldn't take in much. We bought groceries and had dinner at a little nearby place with no English menu, so I ordered something - chinos con pollo with other stuff - it sounded like something with chicken. Chinos, it turns out, means Chinese. My first meal in Madrid was Chinese food. But delicious. And Bruth ordered empanadas, also delicious, which turned out, when we finally translated, to be made of blood sausage, apples, raisins and pine nuts. Who knew? I took another sleeping pill and slept till 8 a.m, and that's it - I'm here on European time.

We've lucked into perfect weather, a fresh spring morning flowing into a bright sunny afternoon. Today, briefly - it's midnight and my companion has gone to bed already - we made coffee and had cereal here, then set out, changing plans several times for various reasons. Saw an art exhibit called Heroines, paintings of women in various categories - Amazons, Martyrs, Readers, Furies etc. - odd, but interesting. Then we went to the amazing Thyssen museum, an extraordinary collection, absolutely wonderful, and there, who did we run into but Eleanor Wachtel! I knew she was here and we'd planned to meet, and, after a day full of art and walking and eating and more art, we did meet again, for tapas at a jam-packed place with no other tourists and a very impatient waiter. Delicious, interesting, fun. Bruth has an iPod touch on which he has downloaded Wikipedia, so any question we had - about the dates of Bosch and Brueghel, for example, could they have known each other? - he had the answer for. (No.) What a guy.

Walking home was the best part - we got to the restaurant just before 9 and easily had a table; fifteen minutes later, it was full, and by 10 it was overflowing. At 11, as we left, all the restaurants, all the narrow streets and the grand avenues were noisy, packed, full of life.
And though I too am full of life, logic tells me it's time to sleep, because manana is una otra dia.
Biba Thpain!

Thursday, March 17, 2011


It's 8.30 p.m. in Madrid, I'm here and alive, the forsythia and cherry blossom are out in force, and so, in force, are the Spaniards. More anon - if I don't go to bed now, I'll fall on my face.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

en route

8 p.m., in the strange ghostly netherworld of the airport, Gate 181. I got here absurdly early - 3 hours - thanks to my friend Sally who drove me to the subway, and then the absolutely effortless ride here on public transit. It cost me $2.75 to get here in just over an hour. Had supper with a glass of wine, reading the "Walrus," perfectly relaxed - long may this last.

A lovely day here, in the end - sunny and mild - my face pressed to the window of the Airport Rocket bus, to catch the last rays. Happy spring, my Toronto friends.

Bruce tells me it was 22 degrees in Seville yesterday. I have of course packed sweaters, boots and coats. Ah well - always fun to have to rush out and buy a few hot weather garments, if absolutely necessary. And it's still only March - better to be safe.

The roots are ripped away now, and I'm full of joyful anticipation. How lucky I am, to be able to get away for long periods like this, particularly this time with everything taken care of in the house, my kids completely independent on the other side of town, and the cat ... well, she will miss me, and so will my mother. Hard to leave Mum. But it's only a month, and it will do me much good, new places and faces, fresh air, no routine, no Y, no second hand stores, no teaching ... A new unencumbered me, in a foreign land. Let's see who she is tomorrow.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

one more sleep

I am a pot-bound plant, ripping myself up by the roots; I can feel them tearing as I scratch things off my list. Finished teaching two classes on Monday and one today, finished editing several last-minute student essays, suitcase nearly packed, plants watered, bird-feeder full, everyone contacted, papers cancelled, fridge nearly cleared, on and on. Roots, ripping. Painful and exhausting as it is, it's a good thing too.

Tomorrow night, late, I begin a journey of more than seven thousand kilometres and more than twelve hours. At the other end, my dear friend Bruce and the Prado and the great unknown that is Spain. And meanwhile, spring is dawning here, snow vanishing, days milder and brighter. Great joy for a Canadian - heard the first geese this morning, flying home. Welcome back, you great honking beasts.

Another Canadian sight today - a vast transport truck pulling backwards out of the narrow driveway behind No Frills, a very tricky manoeuvre, and when I got close, I saw that the trucker managing this particular great honking beast was an elderly Sikh, in a saffron turban, with a long grey beard. Not the usual donut-dunkin' Canuck trucker.

Tonight, I watched "Alone in the wilderness," a PBS documentary about Dick Proenneke, who single-handedly built himself a cabin in the remote wilderness of Alaska and lived in it for 30 years. Somehow he videotaped himself cutting down and dragging in logs, constructing the cabin log by log, roofing, hunting and fishing - utterly alone except for a friend who flew in once a month or so with supplies. Perhaps he had a short-wave radio, though he didn't mention or show it. No telephone, electricity, running water, no one to talk to, especially through the long winter months - he didn't even mention reading. He snow-shoed, canoed, hiked many miles, and was extremely lean and fit. When he wanted a bowl, he cut a burl from a tree and hollowed out a bowl.

Certainly, as I stuff my e-reader into my suitcase, my sleeping pills and high-heeled shoes for fancy meals - food for thought, about what we actually need.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

compassion etc.

Impending travel always make me aware of my status in the world - that as a single woman with tenants in her house, I'm able to take off and explore the world whenever it suits me (and my work schedule and budget, of course.) I don't have to consult anyone, take anyone else's needs and desires and habits into consideration. At the same time, I also don't have anyone to turn to if I leave my handbag on the train. I celebrate my freedom; I regret, at stressful times and at dinnertime, my aloneness.

But I've been feeling especially blessed in my singleness as I read reviews of Joyce Carol Oates's new book "A Widow's Story." Her agony, after her husband of many years dies in hospital unexpectedly and alone, is almost unbearable to read; hard to imagine living it. We read about it in Joan Didion's book too. And I think of the new widower, Elizabeth's husband. So hard. I've lived through divorce, and that was agony enough, even desired as it was. At least the death of a long-term partner is one thing I don't have on my list of 4 a.m. worries. The crabby cat, pretty as she is, just does not qualify.

Bruce, another singleton, sent me a very interesting recent article in the Boston Globe about the necessity of solitude.

An emerging body of research is suggesting that spending time alone, if done right, can be good for us — that certain tasks and thought processes are best carried out without anyone else around, and that even the most socially motivated among us should regularly be taking time to ourselves if we want to have fully developed personalities, and be capable of focus and creative thinking. There is even research to suggest that blocking off enough alone time is an important component of a well-functioning social life — that if we want to get the most out of the time we spend with people, we should make sure we’re spending enough of it away from them. Just as regular exercise and healthy eating make our minds and bodies work better, solitude experts say, so can being alone.

Imagine being a "solitude expert." Well, actually, maybe I am. Something else I don't have to worry about - getting enough alone time.

And an article today in the NYT is titled, "Being nicer to yourself may lead to better health." Self-compassion means being as forgiving of and generous about your own flaws and limitations as you are of those of others. It's "not to be confused with self-indulgence or lower standards," says the article, just kindness towards the self. It even suggests that if you're really nice to yourself, you can lose weight faster.

If you're really nice to yourself, can you write a book faster? That's the important question. Gosh, Beth, you are SUCH a wonderful person.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

filial devotion

It's a sad and terrible thing to go to the funeral of a friend - especially a friend like Elizabeth Harris who worked to make the world kinder, better connected, healthier and tastier - but today's service for her was one of the most beautiful I can remember. It was a secular ceremony held at the huge and grand Metropolitan United Church - that magnificent interior full to overflowing, a very fine community gathering place.

There was music and poetry, and there were speakers. Our counsellor Pam McConnell spoke of Elizabeth's forcefulness in fundraising for her various causes. "Elizabeth spoke many languages," she said, "but she didn't understand 'no' in any of them." Jamie Kennedy, one of Toronto's most famous chefs, spoke of the boost she gave to the "local food" movement, with her two farmer's markets. Stephen Strauss, who was a great host, told us of Elizabeth's last days, receiving an endless stream of friends in her bedroom, including the singer Michael Burgess who did a concert just for her. Stephen spoke most movingly of the care given Elizabeth by her daughter. "If you want an example of filial devotion," he said, breaking down, "look no further than Anna Murtaugh." A life well lived, Elizabeth; a death well honoured.


Speaking of filial devotion, my son gave me a wonderful present for Christmas - the "Bliss" package at a spa - manicure, pedicure, facial and massage. So I booked it for last Thursday. The masseur was sick that day, so I just had the first three - which was good, because there was so much bliss in those that I was glad to save a bit for another day. Afterwards, a pampered poodle, I floated two blocks up Yonge Street to Sam's restaurant, where he asked the chef to make a special salad for my lunch. Pretty damn filially devoted, I'd say.

But now - reality. It's still viciously damp, though not so cold - spring is teasing in the air and it's daylight savings time tonight. I am at the exhausted, overloaded stage with packing and preparation where I say, "I will never leave my house again!"

You've heard this before. It's like childbirth; you forget the pain it took to get you there, once you're there.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Elizabeth Harris

Friend, neighbour and inspiration Elizabeth Harris died last night, at home in Cabbagetown, surrounded by her family.

On our first Hallowe'en in Cabbagetown, in 1985, I took my 4 year old daughter trick or treating. We had just moved in and knew no one. At one house, a laughing voice shouted from inside, "Come on in! Candy for the kids and tequila for the adults!" So I met Elizabeth.

She was a beacon in our neighbourhood, hearty and open, first known as "Madame Harris," the French teacher at Sprucecourt School; then as the organizer of the annual American Thanksgiving party at her home, with scores of hungry guests packed in, devouring one turkey after another and huge bowls of veggies and dessert, pouring back the wine, gossiping and jabbering, while the Murtaugh/Harrises, from their tiny kitchen, kept the food coming. And all on real plates, with real glasses. A labour of love.

Elizabeth was a powerhouse who got things done. She fundraised continuously for her beloved Mexican project, Casa, went there often and to France. She founded the essential Friends of Riverdale Farm and got the kitchen started there - and the brick oven, above, with its sublime wood smokey pizzas and bread. Then she founded the farmer's market outside the farm, that's not only the best place for fresh food but, again, a vital neighbourhood meeting place. And then moved on to do the same at the Brickworks.

In the letter I wrote to her recently, I thanked her for championing many of the things I care about most in all the world: family, education, food, travel, and most of all, community. I thank you again, Elizabeth, from us all. A strong, generous spirit like yours cannot be replaced.

The memorial is on Saturday at 2 p.m. at Metropolitan United Church.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Dip di dip di dip

My friend and student Sherry pointed out today that on Sunday, I blogged about my "guided mediation session." Well, I guess I could use some mediation too. Maybe I'd be better at that than sitting still and quieting my mind.

Classes are winding down, and packing is gearing up. This trip, I think, is going to be different from my past two European jaunts. The house here, first, is all organized and set, with friend Sally moving in to keep it running, and handyman John ready for crises, making it much easier to walk out the door. I'm not setting off into the wild blue, coping with strange cities alone - memories of last year, standing with my suitcase in the rain in Prague, unable to get the apartment building's door open ...

Bruce Kellett will be waiting for me at the Madrid airport, he'll already have found the apartment he's rented for us, and he has very strong ideas on where we should go and why. I am happy to follow meekly. He has booked our passage to Barcelona and another apartment there, and then we're off together to Montpellier, where Lynn and Denis live and which is familiar now. And then Lynn and I will travel together to Paris, where I'll spend two weeks in the little Latin Quarter flat that feels like a second home.

I hesitate to say that this trip sounds easy-peasy, because that's asking for trouble - for me, say, to leave my handbag on the train, or the equivalent. (See the epic journey of 2009.) But oh, my soul is ready to get out of this snowy vale and into a world of colour and smell and sound. I've got "Ghosts of Spain" from the library, recommended by my friend Margaret, a great read about how the Spanish buried the history of the Civil War of the Thirties and how the excruciating stories are emerging now. I have two Spanish phrasebooks and a book about the Prado. All I need is time to read these things, which, in the whirl of finishing many classes and preparing to depart, is hard to come by.

More excitement: after last Sunday's wonderful interview with Isabel Allende on "Writers and Company," I wrote to Eleanor, as I always do, to tell her how great it was. She wrote back that she was in Marrakesh. Of course you are, I replied; where else would you be? She's on her way to Barcelona and Madrid to interview Spanish writers, and it turns out we'll be in Madrid at the same time. I hope her schedule allows her time to meet with humble Toronto writer BK and humble Vancouver musician, also BK, for tapas.

Last night there was a fundraising show on PBS - mostly black groups of the 50's and 60's reunited to sing for an equally elderly and 100% white audience. My God, those groups still can sing. The Crests, the Chantels, the Ronettes, the Crystals, a group with the imposing name the Monotones ("Who wrote the book of love?" Good question for Eleanor), the Jarmels ("a little bit of soap"), the Platters, the Rays, the Marcels with the best song of all, "Blue Moon." The same guy, who must be 80 now, still singing the immortal words:

Bom ba ba bom ba bom ba bom bom ba ba bom ba ba bom ba ba dang a dang dang
Ba ba ding a dong ding Blue moon moon blue moon dip di dip di dip
Moo Moo Moo Blue moon dip di dip di dip Moo Moo Moo Blue moon dip di dip di dip
Bom ba ba bom ba bom ba bom bom ba ba bom ba ba bom ba ba dang a dang dang
Ba ba ding a dong ding

How great is that? Are those not the best lyrics? And the best group names ever? Kids these days have to try so hard to be weird and different. The Monotones!

At the same time, I watched an incredible show on Discovery about the history of the entire planet, with amazing animation - from the dawn of time to now. There was a real blue moon on one channel, and another, more melodious kind on the other.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

homes needed and offered

My lovely basement suite is available for renting as of April 22 - ideal for a student.

And ... my friend Terry is looking for a home, above ground and close to downtown. So if you have or know of a suite to rent, please let me know and I'll contact her.

shenpa - hooked

You all know how much my local YMCA means to me; my membership there has transformed my life in many ways, and certainly my body. And now, perhaps one day, my mind. This morning I went to a "guided mediation" session with Judy Steed, who's organized an informal Sunday morning get-together to share what she has learned. She teaches the words of Pema Chodron, an American Buddhist nun. There were five of us, sitting in a quiet corner of the extremely busy Y; we closed our eyes and relaxed our bodies while Judy talked us through, urging us first to accept and love ourselves, to help find peace within. "It takes a lot of courage to have compassion for ourselves," she said. Yes indeed.

She spoke about releasing thought, "the monkey mind," as they call it, trying just to stay in the moment, this very moment, nothing else exists but the breath of this moment. She spoke of taking something that's bothering us or producing pain, "sit beside it, release the story, the details. Take it into yourself, and feel it transform, flower into something beautiful. We do not need to fear or fight our pain."

She took us up into the right brain, to a place of peace and transformation - all your favourite people and things are there, she said, and I nearly cried, seeing the faces of family and friends in a serene room, even - perhaps especially - friends and family I have lost. It was a profound connection. "I take myself up there whenever I need to during the day," Judy said later.

Wow. I've wanted to meditate for a long time, I the speediest, most impatient of souls. I often suffer from insomnia in wintertime, the lack of light and air, I'm sure. This winter has been especially gruelling - almost every night, for months, I've been awake from 3 or 4 a.m. on, for hours, making lists, tossing about with my monkey mind stuck in high speed. Perhaps I can take all the stories I tell myself at 4 a.m. and turn them into something beautiful. Certainly worth a try.

On Friday, another gift from the Y - my friend Debra brought me a few pairs of a new kind of sublime, very stretchy jeans from the store where she works, so I tried them on there in the change room, all the semi-naked women walking by adding their comments. And bought a pair, right there. And then went upstairs to class with a packet containing all my income tax material, to give to John, the accountant friend who does my taxes and takes the Friday runfit class. So I shopped for my trip and got my income tax taken care of during my Friday visit to the Y. The most useful place. If I find inner peace there too ... I may just have to move in.

The past two days, savage rain, brutal cold grey days, days to just curl up and drink hot beverages until it's time to drink alcoholic ones. I went to bed last night listening to, yet again, the rhythm of the pouring rain. Then at 5 a.m., I heard the snowplow next door doing its work. "What the hell is he doing?" I thought. "Shovelling rain?" And looked out the window. What a shock - somehow, in a few hours, the rain had turned into many inches of snow. It's very pretty. It's more than enough. Let's move right along.

Below is a quote from Pema Chodron, from Wikipedia. What she's talking about is another, more peaceful version of the "relaxing into the punch," that I was musing about last month. The concept of not being hooked - vital, for someone who has spent her life trolling for hooks. Onward.

A central theme of Pema Chödrön's teachings is the Tibetan word shenpa,[10] or how we get hooked.

Somebody says a mean word to you and then something in you tightens — that's the shenpa. Then it starts to spiral into low self-esteem, or blaming them, or anger at them, denigrating yourself. And maybe if you have strong addictions, you just go right for your addiction to cover over the bad feeling that arose when that person said that mean word to you. This is a mean word that gets you, hooks you. Another mean word may not affect you but we're talking about where it touches that sore place — that's a shenpa. Someone criticizes you — they criticize your work, they criticize your appearance, they criticize your child — and, shenpa: almost co-arising.[13]

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Missing James Travers

Terrible, sad news for my country today - James Travers, the suberb "Star" columnist, has died at the age of 62. At this dire time in Canada's history, with Stephen Harper's Republican Party hacks pushing the country ever further to the right, and the loathsome Ford brothers just beginning to hack their destructive trail through this city, we desperately need the truth-telling clarity, the conscience and the sharp-eyed intelligence that Travers brought to his columns.

A powerful and important voice has been silenced, just when we need him most.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

pink and maroon and forest green and ...

Okay, thank you, it's been a long, cold, lonely winter, and that's enough. We passed the test, we're still alive and more than ready, now, for something else. Today the sun poured in my windows, so I leapt onto my bicycle - and nearly froze to death. It's @#$#% cold, still. But the sun is glorious, and there's hardly any snow.

Of course, I am speeding up the arrival of spring by flying to Madrid in exactly two weeks, where presumably it will be warmer. My friend Sherry just sent me the address of a hundred year old place there famous for its thick, dark hot chocolate, eaten with churros - long doughnut things. I am, as they say, so there.

But no, I am not so there, I am so here, getting speedier by the minute with lists as long as my arm, comme d'habitude. Income tax, for example - got to get the T4s assembled and figure things out and get it all to my tax guru John. Have to make lists for the tenants who'll be looking after the place - instructions about cat, mail, plants, ants. (A determined little colony has decided to establish base camp in my kitchen and help the cat eat her food, and I'm having a struggle to dissuade them from this plan.)

And of course, most importantly, lists of what to bring on the trip. Piles of yesses, maybes, and are you out of your minds? But as you know, I learned my lesson in 2009 with my hundred pounds of stuff. I will be packing light.

To help with that, I asked my friend Debra to come by. We've been in the same runfit class for years and are Cabbagetown neighbours; I recently found out that Debra is a personal shopper with a keen eye for what looks good and what does not. She has been here twice now, helping me clear out my Goodwill-orama closet. One hundred pounds of other people's castoffs have now become my castoffs - bulky pleated pants circa 1982 ("But they're so warm!"), coats that neither suit me nor are comfortable ("But look at the label!") etc.

Most importantly, she patiently helped me understand colour. I have just begun, at sixty, to figure out which colours look good on me and which emphatically do not. A colour I call "goose shit green," for example, which is the colour of my eyes, has been a favourite for years ("It brings out my eyes!") and now I see that it actually looks hideous against my sallow skin tone. Pale mushroomy or grey shades - hideous. I should be wearing bright colours, even ones I've never worn before. So I'll be bursting into spring in chartreuse and turquoise and purple. You'll see me coming. (I don't even know what colour chartreuse is, to tell you the truth, but it sounds sparkly.)

I know, events of vital importance are exploding in the world, Libya is beseiged, crazy famous people are spinning out of control, and in Minnesota, working Americans are fighting the Republican forces of darkness. And here Beth sits, looking at herself in the mirror. Ah well. It's not that I take PLEASURE from looking in the mirror, you understand. But every once in a while, it has to be done. Just as I depend on an editor for my words, this time the objective eye of another kind of editor helped me cut and paste my person.