Tuesday, July 31, 2012


{I’ve been in Cape Breton for a week, away from internet access, staying with friends. I’ve written two blogposts while there, this is the first, posted from Halifax airport on my way home.}

I’m on a different coast this week, the west coast of Cape Breton, where the early morning sun has come up over the low hills to the east, the small birds are twittering, and the crows are giving an occasional caw-caw. The wind is coming up now, so the poplars are rustling in crescendo.

There was no hint of wind an hour ago, sometime before seven, when I walked across dew-silvery grass chilly to my bed-warm feet, down to the edge of the small tidal river below the house. The river is narrow here, about eight metres wide, with tuffted green banks. On the far side of the opposite bank is more water, sea water in the inlet. 

The river’s surface was smooth but moving, flowing gently out to the sea, drawn out by the receding tide. Looking east upstream where the river curves away in the distance, a soft mist flowed and drifted above the water’s surface, lit by the young sun, like a romantic Impressionist dreamscape.  I left my clothes and towel on the bank and stepped into the water, then pushed off, heading upstream toward the sun.  The top inches of water were soft and warm, and below that was the chilliness of the salt water. As I swam upstream with long breast strokes I disturbed the still water so that before me, like an announcement, the ripples headed upstream in parallel straight lines into the bright mist.

Do otters and muskrats feels the same pleasure as they slide through river water, leaving beautiful rippling wakes?

Swimming upstream against the outgoing flow, I made slow progress. I had time to look at the details of the long grasses on the banks, to notice the occasional darting bird, to glance up at the hills beyond. Eventually I got farther upstream, around a curve of river, and almost to the small wooden bridge that carries the coastal path across the water. It was time to turn around, for by now the water was shallow, not past my waist, the bottom firm-packed when I stood up.

The trip back was less beautiful - no sunlit mist - and much faster of course.  I zipped along  with the flow of the water, feeling like a strong powerful swimmer for once.  As I climbed out onto the grassy bank the crows in the big tree complained in loud caws, then went on to something more interesting.

This morning’s swim is just another in a series of delights since I landed in Halifax airport yesterday late morning. The three hour drive up with my friend C (she did all the driving, leaving me to gaze at the landscapes we passed through) was filled with layers of talk. When we got here to this welcoming wood house, the interior painted in wonderful colour combinations, the outside soft grey wood shingles, it felt like a coming home. In late afternoon we drove a short way to the Fish Co-op to buy fresh haddock and there in the lobster tank was a one in two million (they say) amazing sight: a cobalt-blue lobster, startling and beautiful, too beautiful for someone’s pot. 

Later, after eating grilled haddock with coriander chutney, and grilled kale, and basmati rice, we drove to a small hall nearby to hear the fiddling of Andrea Beaton, a young woman whose music flows from her in the great tradition of Cape Breton fiddlers. She’s a first cousin of Nathalie MacMaster, but that’s not the important thing about her; her fluid, supple, marvellous music is all. People danced as she played, sometime step-dancing, but to most tunes the wonderfully practised form of Cape Breton group dancing that has its own patterns and order. What a treat.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012


I watched sunrise looking west this morning. I’m on the Lake Huron shore, aka “Ontario’s west coast”. It’s a long long stretch of sand rimming the enormous subtle blues of the lake that runs from the Bruce Peninsula all the way south to Sarnia with few interruptions. I’m near Grand Bend, staying with friends at their cottage.  There’s an oceanside look to the shore here, but that’s lovely silky fresh water out there, and the waves are all from wind, not tides.
Back to the dawn display this morning.  I went out about 6, into the humid cool air, the sky a pre-dawn milky pale.  As I came through the trees and down the steps  onto the soft sand, I was lit by an orange-gold burst of light to the southwest, high in the sky. It was a ‘birth of a new world’ kind of scene: a vast pillowy cloud glowing with almost lava-like intensity, a rich pink-orange light. On one side of the huge cloud cauldron lurked a blue-grey menacing slice of clud and on the other a line of golden small cumulous towers stretching across the southern horizon.   
The sun was low and out of sight behind the shoreline and trees, perhaps not up at all yet, but the cloud was high enough to catch sun energy and reflect it back - quite magical. It was a Tiepolo angels in clouds ceiling painting come to life, and me with no eyes to see the angels!
I slipped off my sarong and waded into the “breakers” (the incoming waves curl into foam as they hit the sandbar out from shore) and then swam toward that high outsized glowing cloud of light. Between us the water radiated back a line of cloud-brightness, a brief shining path. 
As I stood drying myself and staring at the clouds, there was a rumbling and more rumbling. The glow of gold was fading, the cloud’s molten feel had gone, and then suddenly there was a spectacular vertical fork of lightning, and a second, long and skinny.  I listened for their thunder, but couldn’t distinguish it from the ongoing low rumblings. 
And now, nearly half an hour later, the rumblings continue though the cloud mass has moved east. There’s a feeling of expectancy, with no wind and the humidity climbing. Mother Nature has more surprises for us, TBA.
Sometimes her surprises are not beautiful or pleasing but instead just a hassle. So it was the other evening when we sat outside for supper. The cottage here is on a ridge made of old grass-covered sand dunes, so it catches the breezes and has a view out over the vast radiant blues and greens of the lake.  But as we were eating we were joined by a crowd, a crowd of what my friend calls “beer bugs”, small black insects with little white bands across them. They don’t bite; they just intrude, onto plates, into glasses of wine, onto hair, etc.  One of us was not drinking wine (or beer) and she was not invaded. And I guess that’s the reason they’re known as beer bugs: they’re attracted by the smell of alcohol. I’ve never seen them before. Are they special to Southwestern Ontario? Very strange.
And on to some more appetizing thoughts about food and meals.  Last night my friend R made salmon fillets, lightly brushed with olive oil then cooked skin side down under the broiler for five minutes, or slightly less. They were perfect with a Petit Chablis. 
My part of the meal was a mushroom salad: sliced portobello mushrooms dragged through olive oil mixed with a little soy sauce and Thai curry paste, then grilled. (My usual pre-grill bath is oil and fish sauce, but there was no fish sauce to be had.)  Grilled mushrooms are so succulent, all meaty and tender. And then I added to them a food new to me, fine strands of kelp that look like glass noodles, now being packaged and sold by a California company. They add wonderful texture to salads, and get coated with flavour. I also put in some chopped green onion, small half-slices of local cucumber for crunch, a spritz of vinegar, a dash of sea salt, and a generous squeeze of lime.  
There was a bowl of blueberries and “canary melon”, very sweet, with a squeeze of lime, for dessert, and a wonderfully ripe and ready Camembert from Normandy alongside.
When there are appreciative flexible eaters, and with the clear air and lounging lazy ambience of a cottage on the lake, everything is so easy to make and it all tastes so good.
Back to the city today, through the bleached hot farm landscapes of this year’s drought-oppressed summer. The dawn-of-the-world promise of the golden cloud, and the silky feel of the water from this morning’s swim will carry me through the drive and the chores that lie ahead...I’m sure of it.

Thursday, July 12, 2012


As I sat last week in Paddington Station writing my last blogpost about the energised landscape of commuters on that Friday morning, I had no idea that an attacker was lying in wait for me.

The attack came a few hours later, after I got to Oxford: I realised my chest was congested, my joints aching, and a fever starting to overheat me.  It turned out to be a brutal case of bronchitis. And it grew from strength to strength over the next couple of days, dulling my brain, clogging my bronchea, and giving coughing bouts and roller-coaster nights of fever and more fever.

I was in Oxford to attend the Oxford Food Symposium, an annual two day meeting of people interested in various aspects of food and food history. I’d never been to the Symposium before, so this was a big treat, a chance to meet people I’ve long heard about, and to reconnect with others whom I hadn’t seen in a long time.

Suddenly, though, rather than having the good energy of good health, I was limping around barely able to focus. And once supper was over each night, rather than heading to an evening of long conversations with interesting people, I took myself off to my room for a night of fevered dreams and sweaty sheets.

This all sounds like a whine, and my apologies if it does. I just want to set the scene for my thoughts about it all.

Being brought low so suddenly and unexpectedly has brought me up short, made me think. It’s been humbling, for sure. I take my good health and physical energy for granted, most days. I rely on them. To no longer be able to is a shock.

What would have happened had I come down with this in a more difficult place? Well, I would have limped through it, I assume.  I am grateful to have had friends around in Oxford to sympathise with me, and then after the conference my friend Annie in Devizes to feed me and fret over my hacking three-packs-a-day cough.

All of that made me realise that being acknowledged is so important, especially when we’re feeling down or weakened. Which means in turn that it’s up to us to take care of each other, be attentive to our weaknesses, and try to give support where we can.

The fickle virus, or hand of fate, or other intervenor, can haul us off the easy path we think we’re on and into the dark tangled underbrush of uncertainty or weakness, or anxiety.  What to do when that happens?

And I guess I’m finally coming to the point of this post. It seems to me that there’s no point moaning or complaining when things “go wrong”. Where we can act is when things are going “right”. In those times it’s worth sparing a moment to appreciate just how good we feel, or how happy, and to feel grateful in a whole-hearted way.  When times get tough, then, it’s important to remember that tough times are part of a larger whole. We’re not in charge of outcomes, but we sure can be in charge of our reactions to events.

My attacker seems to be on the wane. I’ve had a hefty traditional Chinese medicine treatment (yesterday) from the great Xiaolan that left purple weals on my back from the cupping, and now has me feeling like I have new life and energy. Tomorrow I take the more “traditional” approach and go to see my doctor. I’ll have one of those new residents I wrote about twelve days ago, checking me out. I must remember to enjoy the process of watching him or her learn and fumble!  

PS Speaking of entertainment, here's a http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=udS-OcNtSWo link to a very entertaining short clip; it's on topic, for the woman says "I got bronchitis!" Laugh out loud funny, I thought, with thanks to Tashi

Saturday, July 7, 2012


The great railway stations of London come grander, and more beautiful, but Paddington Station, where I’m sitting waiting for a train to Oxford, has a lovely energy to it, especially in the morning before 9. The high glassed curved roof, like impossible vaulting, gives a beautiful indirect light.

People stride purposefully in all directions. They’re in light jackets and coats, for it’s a chilly drizzly early July day here in London. Most are commuters of some kind in tidy office clothes, the men with briefcases and the women with good handbags; some are like me, with luggage large and small, heading to somewhere out of town...  A disembodied woman’s voice makes announcements, and then occasionally a man’s voice comes on the loudspeaker system , it’s the mayor of London on tape! - warning of the disruptions that will come later this month because of the Olympics and telling us to pay attention and “get ahead of the Games”, the slogan of the month here..

I got here by tube, two District line trains, both of them packed with morning commuters. They were clean and pressed, and also withdrwn into themselves, getting set for the day ahead, and trying to tune out the crush of people around them. At least that’s how I read their faces and body language. With my small pack and shoulder bag I was the awkward anomaly in my train car, taking up extra room.

My train to Oxford isn’t for another ninety minutes (I have a fixed-time advance purchase bargain ticket) , but I wanted to get here early to see this morning rush, to feel the energy.  There are people with bicycles, commuters of a different kind, who pedal to work then change out of their spandex and raingear and into office clothes. I saw small fleets of them in the rain-wet streets this morning from the bus that carried me to the tube. They look purposeful, like all dedicated urban cyclists. And there are people sitting waiting, chatting to ech other in many languages, and keeping a keen eye on the lit-up train schedule board, that shifts and changes all the time. And there are pigeons calmly strolling around on the marble floor and looking dazed.

What will the city look like in three weeks, in the middle of the Olympics? It’s hard to visualise. The transit authority has signs up everywhere exhorting people to plan ahead to try to avoid congeston. For those who are free to change their hours of work, or who can take weeks off, the Olympics is a hassle, but manageable. Many however are trapped here with scheduled jobs, and for them it’s going to be a frustrating time.

That said, I have to talk a little about the way that transit in London has transformed itself in the last few years. There’s the new Jubilee line, with futuristic gigantic cement tunnels and moving staircases, built to cross-connect Westminster, Waterloo, and London Bridge for example, a diagonal access route across town from northwest to southeast. It’s got the brute force and bravado of a big Chinese or Thai megaproject.

So does the Shard, a tall jagged-topped pillar of glass-clad steel that w as formally opened yesterday near London Bridge, the tallest building in Europe..

I was in the area near London Bridge to go to Borough Market. It’s one of the treasures of London, not just the market but the whole area to the south of the river there, full of old courtyards and generous factory spaces that date back centuries. It doesn’t take much imagination to picture horse-drawn carts carrying huge beer barrels through the narrow cobbled streets. 

Many traditionalists hate the Shard, an ultra-modern Renzo Piano-designed spike between the Borough Market and the river. I think it works. It’s a confident punctuation point in the traditional low-rise landscape, making us value it more.

Now the clock is almost at 9.15. The commuting crowd has largely given way to travellers with luggage. There’s less purposefulness and more questioning wandering.These are people who don’t come here every day, for whom the station is unfamiliar new territory.

Recent trains announced include trains to Cardiff, to Worcester, to Bristol, to Swansea, and several headed in the Oxford direction, to Moreton in Marsh and farther.. The mind’s eye heads west to rolling green country, softer accents, a slower pace. And this temple of transport is the key to all that.

Long ago  one of the first Agatha Christies I read as a ten or eleven year old was the”The 4:50 from Paddington” in which a woman sees a murder committed through a train window. It’s a good elaborate story, as I remember it. But mostly what has stayed with me is the title. Paddington as a place of departure, or story, or intersecting lives: that’s the large mystery in the end.

Somehow, in train stations as in life, we usually manage to find our way in the tangle of signs and blurry announcements and anxieties, and through the crowds of people all striving to get where they want to go...

A few London notes:
I was staying with friends here, the fabulous photographer Richard Jung, who shot the studio shots for the BURMA book and all the four-colour books I worked on before that., including Hot Sour Salty Sweet. He and his family live in London and it’s a treat to see them. Last night we ate out at a casual thoughtful restaurant in Clapham called Abbeville Kitchen. Highly recommended. There’s local meat and fish, slow-cooked mains, and a great relaxed-but-attentive staff.  (I had delicious lamb chops over simmered eggplant with a dash of romesco on top; other plates included salt veal over lentils and more; beef shin with huge butter beans; and simple mussels.)

And on my first day here I was lucky to get to the Tate Modern, where there’s a Damien Hirst retrospective, brilliant tour-de-force things, except (and you might disagree) that the room of gold versions of earlier work, pieces that he sold at Sothebys, feels empty and an undermining of what he’s done before. There’s a recreation of his life and death piece: one room has butterflies pinned to large boards, and shtrays full of butts; the other is humid and warm, with butterfly pupae on boards on the wall, and lots of emerged butterfiesl fluttering around the many plants and sugar water sources that are out for them.  It’s a spectacle of irridecent blue and dots of red, and leaf-camouflage, and dots of brown on huge quivering wings and... Mother nature kind of trumps the artist, and we marvel at her work rather than contemplating the construct within which the butterflies are presented.

And then I saw the Edvard Munch show, also at the Tate Modern. It was astonishing. I was very ignorant, had no idea of his work, had never understood what an exciting palette he had, or how compelling his paintings are. If you can, to get to it; the other option is to go to Oslo, for most of the work was from the museum there.