Wednesday, July 31, 2013


The end of July this year feels like the end of summer. I’m trying to push the thought back, vigorously! Perhaps it’s just that after intense summer heat and monsoonal rains, the weather is cooler, a hint of autumn in mid-summer? Perhaps it’s that I have not been home for most of this month and was busy and under the gun with deadlines for much of June?

I’m back in Toronto, after a July full of travel and movement.  And I’m glad to be home, with no immediate plans to go anywhere farther than an hour out of town.

As I’ve reflected on the way this summer has spooled away and left me feeling I’ve missed out on it, I’ve come to realise that I think about summer much in the same way that I used to anticipate a weekend. That is, when I visualise the summer, I somehow have a feeling, a magical feeling, that it is of infinite length and contains infinite possibilities. When I worked as a lawyer, a time when weekends of one day or two were sharply etched beacons, on Thursday evening or Friday morning I would have a long loose list of all that I wanted to do on the weekend. And then come Sunday night I’d face once again the dismaying realisation that most of what I had imagined or visualised had not come to pass.

In the same way, summer in anticipation carries the promise of infinite possibility. This surely goes back to childhood, when summer was the liberation from the routines of the school year. And our school holidays were so long that summer did always feel wonderfully “infinitely” long and luxurious. Some part of me seems to expect that still.

Hence my feelings of dismay each year in late July or early August when I realise how much of the summer has passed by…and how little of it remains. It’s not the hot weather, it’s the feeling of long days and infinite possibility that is precious: time not measured out but available in generous dollops to spend with friends or reading books or just in blissful unawareness of its passing.

Yes, I guess I should grow up and stop this magical thinking…but I am rather attached to it. Better to have to face and swallow disappointment each year than to never have the exhilarating feeling that anything and everything is possible.

Speaking of possibility, it seems that some of us do not find it possible to engage with new technology. Those who can are a different species: they experiment with dials and instructions and figure out how to, for example make good use of their smart-phone. This was brought home to me the other day when I was in Maine. I was driving with my friend Nancy in her Prius and wanted to turn the fan off. “I can turn it down but I don’t know how to turn it off” she said. “It’s stupid because I’ve had the car for three years.” Some time later another friend, Ed, was with us in the car, and I suggested to Nancy that she ask him to figure out how to turn off the fan. He fiddled for a moment and bingo! there it was. Solved.

My theory about these things is that Nancy and I and many others like us, mostly not a young crowd, I admit, resist the kind of rat-in-a-maze learning, the trial and error button-pushing, that is required to explore and figure out our smart phones, computer programs, etc. I am happy to play around a little, to take a run at a tech problem. But the process of learning a series of steps that someone has designed? I balk. If someone tells me how to do it, I’m fine. But somehow I resist engaging with the trial-and-error- with-the-machine kind of learning that many people, especially the young, do effortlessly.

It’s lucky for me that I know a number of young people who are generous and tolerant and willing to bail me out of tech impasses. The most recent was a situation where I upgraded something on my Mac desktop and it resulted in my Word and related programs refusing to load. Argh! But there was a rescuer named Thomas, who kindly figured things out.

When I think about the why? of all this, I think it’s an impatience with a situation that requires trial and error but has little or no content or inherent interest to me, except the need to get it to work.

People like Nancy and me would like to be told or shown how to work our tech devices rather than being left to be beginners stumbling along. And because we refuse that process, we get further and further behind, we lose the skill to do trial and error figuring out, we become more dependent on others.

But in the kitchen both she and I are prepared to figure things out and work by trial and error. We both like that process. In the kitchen we are in search of understanding what’s going on, whereas with technology it’s all a blackbox. And so we lack both curiosity and patience for working out the how-to.  

Sorry to be so pedestrian in this post so far. But I've been mulling about these things and wanted to explore them on the page. 

I haven’t talked at all about the fun I had at the Kneading Conference in Skowhegan. I drove down with my dear friends Dawn Woodward and Ed Rek of Evelyn’s Crackers, and they and I and Nancy Jenkins of Camden, stayed with Barbara Sullivan, a wild and wonderful artist, and had loads of great conversations and engaged with each other and many more friends old and new.

We gave a tandoor workshop that was fun and oh-so-interesting for us as well as for those who came. So many people put their hand into the oven to slap a bread on the hot wall.  So many people gained confidence.

If you have an interest in sustainable agriculture, bread, milling, oven building, etc, then you should seriously consider coming to the Kneading confernece in Skowhegan next July, or else travelling to northern Washington State for the Kneading Conference West in the Skagit Valley this September. Being immersed in grain-related talk and learning is so satisfying. And grounding too.

Once you’re in Skowhegan, or in the Skagit Valley, you’re so close to sea coast and wonderfully beautiful natural environments (and great wild-gathered food), that it would be a pity not to take an extra day or two to explore. We ended up eating lobster at The Slipway in Thomaston Maine on Friday night – worth every minute of the long drive back the next day.

That’s the answer of course to the summer problem: just extend yourself, take risks, pack in as much fun and interesting activity as you can. Do not pace yourself. Don’t be sensible, if you have any choice in the matter. And suddenly summer becomes elastic, full of rich events and fruitful possibilities.

Thursday, July 18, 2013


In the TGV speeding north toward Paris. Fields of ripe pale-gold wheat punctuated by lines of bushy trees, the occasional village ith tints of grey and ochre,. Earlier, as we raced through Provence, there were fields of sunflowers, facing east and aglow, and the shining golden straw stubble of freshly harvested wheat, and then rain in Lyon at our brief station stop. The sun is back out now, the colours the slightly dull green of full summer, the grasses by the verge already yellow and drY.

I was sorry to say good-bye to the little stone gite this morning just before dawn, and to its owner, the graceful Elsabeth. I’d be happy to return. Things I’ve learned: Not to buy olives without tasting them, ever (I bought olives de Nyons at Tarascon market that looked fine, and I love Nyons olives, but were tired and tasteless); to get up before dawn to catch earliest light and coolness, a truth I know from elsewhere but needed to be reminded of; tht a simple sandwich of good baguette buttered with good ham is better than almost anything; that I would rather be in a town or a city, to people-watch and wander, then driving through countryside, however lovely; that cherries in Provence can be as delicious and amazing as Ontario cherries; that a good religieuse still tempts me where other sweets and pastries do not; that I really enjoy the polite phrases and “formules” in France that grease the wheels of everyday - “bonne journee Madame” on leaving a shop etc.; that citron presse is still my preferred drink at a cafĂ©, by far.

And so, in the TGV, which somehow has no wi-fi, a curious omission in this ultra-modern efficient France, we’ve made our last stop; the next one is Charles de Gaulle airport, where there’ll be a bit of a dash to Air Canada.

I bought a book for the plane, this year’s winner of the Prix Femina, which so far is wonderful. It’s  a novel by Patrick Deville called Peste & Cholera, set across the first half of the twentieth century, in France and Vietnam, about a medical researcher who worked with Pasteur. I am already engrossed and enchanted.

Now posting this from the airport, before boarding the plane.

Adieu belle France…

Monday, July 15, 2013


The following may well fall into the category of "things you never wnated to know". If so, just skip it and move along to something more appetizing.

Now that I have better computer access (power to the computer, plus some wi-fi at last) I've found out a little more about the black millipedes that seem to be swarming here, in the morning and again the evening 9described in my previous post). Here's a link:
which explains that these common black European millipedes like damp places and calcareous soils. The photos give a good idea of what each one looks like, but not of how wild it is to see flocks of them moving across the terrace outside the house.

And here's an article about a black millipede invasion in Scotland:
Sounds ghastly.

The French name is Iule (pronounced ee-oule). The woman whose gite I'm staying in, Elisabeth, explained that they are around for about a month (it all just started) and that the problem with them began about ten years ago. That's when the authorities told everyone in Provence that they needed to cut their grasses and undergrowth, to reduce the risk of fire. Somehow this has led to a surge in the numbers of iules, and also to a displacement of them from the fields to the areas around people's houses.

Every place has its advantages and it downsides. Toronto has winter and snow and a few other issues. Provence, while beautiful and romantic, has scorpions and a few other goodies, including these non-biting, non-hurting but somewhat creepy millipedes.


The cicadas are deafening this evening, as they have been since we got back here after five this afternoon.

I’m staying in a small beautiful very private gite not far from Aix-en-Provence. There’s a fresh water spring nearby (set between a pair of beautiful “platanes” -plane trees), a big meadow, a treed hillside, and a graceful classic stone farmhouse beside the gite, but facing the other way.

Other wildlife here declared itself this morning when I walked out shortly after sunrise: long sinuous crawling things like ambulatory black worms, both thred-thin and fatter, were moving purposefully over the pale terracotta tile terrace and up the stone walls of the gite, like a absract pattern of moving wiggling black lines. This afternoon after a day of heat, they were mostly gone, with the odd remnant creature that had made it to a shaded crack then starting to move again. I need to find out what they are. Did they all just hatch? Not possible given that they come in different sizes. Will they turn into winged creatures at some stage? Hard to imagine. They aren’t very caterpillary, too sheeny shiny and so black and unpatterned.

It’s the quatorze juillet, Bastille Day, here in France. The bunting and tricolores were hanging out in the nearby town of Pelissande late this afternoon. People were sitting drinking aperos in the place in the town centre, but that was the ony sign of life: all the shops, and all the boulangeries but one, were closed tight.

Some people must have been having big Sunday lunches or going for hikes in the Luberon or out fishing in the many streams that bring this hot dry country to life. And a lot of them, it seems, spent the day out bicycling up steep winding roads in the heat, in groups of two to thirty, most in trim little bicycling outfits and helmets, lean and fit. The Tour de France cyclists, meantime, made it up to the top of Mont Ventoux today in the heat; tomorrow they have a day off to recover, then Tuesday they head from Vaison to Gap. We came across a caravan’s worth of  media trucks and buses, all sports stations, lumbering up the hill to the town of Venasque. You can see Mont Ventoux from there. Perhaps the race stage had finished for the day and the media cameras were just looking for local colour, and a view of Mont Ventoux from afar – it looms so large compared to the rest of the country around.  In any case, whatever the reason for the trucks’ being at Venasque, I imagine it’s the closest I’m ever going to come to the Tour de France…

Today’s explorations included backroads to the town of L’Isle sur la Sorgue, which has a crowded busy flea market on Sundays…it is quite amazing to hear all the languages and to see all the stuff out for sale, from old boules balls to cleavers and chairs and ceramics and you name it… There are also food merchants of course. We bought a huge basket of beautful (and delicious) cherries, as well as zucchini, tender lettuce, a slender elegant cucumber, and a Cavaillon melon (irresistable at a market ony a few kilometres from the town of Cavaillon, of course).

We went on from there to the not-far Abbaye de Senanques, one of the best-known of France’s Cistercian abbeys. It’s not open to visitors on a Sunday, but people come anyway, as we did, to stare at the graceful buildings framed by field sof lavender and the grey rock of the surrounding hills. The lavender is in full intense purple bloom right now, and dotted with the silken sheen of small white butterflies, as well as some orangey ones that look like small monarchs. In between the rows of lavender the ground is palest yellow-white and stoney.

We were really hitting all the cliché tourist high-spots, and continued with a drive through and past the hilltop town of Gordes, now a chic pricy spiffed up place very crammed with cars and people. The ochre and purple-red town of Rousillon a few kilometres down the road was also busy, but had more life to it, and felt more welcoming. Cliffs of richly coloured dirt frame the town on its hill, unreal looking and memorable, even in the glare of early afternoon sunshine.

From there the drive to Bonnieux,  a small hill-town south of Rousillon that I wanted to visit because of its bread museum, was winding and forested, very calm, and very uncrowded. We’d left the extremely touristed trail at last. The Musee de la Boulangerie was open (last time I visisted, in 1988, it was closed) and beautifully full of interesting tools and documents and pictures. Highly recommended (along with the bread museum in the southern German town of Ulm, on the Danube).

By then it was time to beat a retreat…via Cadenet, a crossing of the Durance River, and thence to our small stone gite near La Bannet. The cicadas are a little less cacophanous now, their intensity lowering in the last fifteen minutes as the temperature has started to cool (it’s now after 7 pm and the sun is low in the sky). The laundry I washed when we treturned less than two hours ago is almost dry, I’ve eaten a huge number of cherries (no point kidding myself about how many, given the evidence of the pits and stems in the wide bowl beside me here on the terrace), and it’s time to open a bottle of chilled white wine and drink to La Belle France.

Tomorrow is my birthday, so perhaps I’ll drink to that too.

PS Because of connection problems, I didn't get a chance to post this on July 14. Now it is the fifteenth, so i can tell you that I did have that glass of chilled white wine and it was delicious...