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Who was Cassandra?
In the Iliad, she is described as the loveliest of the daughters of Priam (King of Troy), and gifted with prophecy. The god Apollo loved her, but she spurned him. As a punishment, he decreed that no one would ever believe her. So when she told her fellow Trojans that the Greeks were hiding inside the wooden horse...well, you know what happened.

the cassandra pages
words, pictures, and a life
Wednesday, March 30, 2005  

Here is a Portugese recipe that sounds like the same thing as the basket-shaped, egg-bearing breads I photographed at Easter. In this case, uncooked eggs are pressed int the dough and baked just like that, along with the bread. I also looked through some Greek recipes for traditional Easter bread, and those use red-dyed, hardboiled eggs that are also placed on top of the dough prior to baking.

I'm dubious but I guess I'll just have to try it, and hope I don't end up with exploded egg all over my oven! Not one of these recipes talked about piercing the eggshell first.

5:21 PM |


A week or more ago, my friend Marja-Leena asked me to contribute to this meme, and I got all consumed with work and travel and forgot to even write back. So here is my apology (sorry, M-L, and thank you for asking me!) and an attempt at a response:

You're stuck inside Fahrenheit 451, which book do you want to be?
Sorry, I've never read it.

Have you ever had a crush on a fictional character?
Yes. Laurie in Little Women/Little Men. Rennie in the Jalna series (we’re really getting back there in time now.) Dr. Zhivago (which had more to do with Omar Sharif than the actual book, I’m afraid).

The last book you bought is?
Le Premier Siecle après Beatrice, by Amin Maalouf

What are you currently reading?
The Maalouf. Confessions of an Igloo Dweller by John Houston. Two Solitudes by Hugh MacLennan.

Five books you would take to a deserted island:
1. The Iliad
2. Collected Poems, Czeslaw Milosz
3. Oxford Book of American Verse
4. Collected Works of William Shakespeare (we’re going for length and re-readability here)
5. A Bible (maybe) or The Book of Common Prayer (although I probably have much of the latter memorized – I’d take it as a hedge against going completely insane). Or maybe Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier or a book of Beethoven sonatas, for playing air piano. (This is a rough choice.)

Who are you going to pass this stick to (3 persons) and why?
Maria, poet and writer, of eclectic tastes, who will make wonderful choices
qB, because I'm guessing she’ll choose some quirky things far less boring than my "classics"
Language Hat, who reads more than any of us but rarely reveals anything very personal. I'm not sure if he'll respond but I'm hoping he will.

3:43 PM |

Sunday, March 27, 2005  


Happy Easter, happy spring to everyone. These beautiful breads were in the window of a Portugese bakery on St. Laurent - they represent the cross, obviously, but the cross with resurrection in the form of colored eggs that are baked, whole in their shells, into the basket-form of the bread. Sorry the photo isn't better - there were too many reflections in the the window.

We're off to church; after digging through my closet I finally found a pink sweater to wear instead of my winter wardrobe of mostly black and grey wooly things. More later. But I hope the sun shines on you today.

9:11 AM |

Friday, March 25, 2005  


This is the first Good Friday in a decade that I've neither attended church nor sung in a choir. It feels strange not to spend Holy Week as an active liturgical participant in the progression of services that retrace the steps of the Passion narrative. It also feels – I must admit – liberating to do something different, and to be able to step outside of patterns and expectations, and observe how I feel.

I’ve sometimes tried to fast on Good Friday, and even when I was a college student and feeling perhaps the furthest away from religion and the church, I still observed the day in some way, consuming less, working less, spending time in reflection on the story and what it had to say to me, thinking about human beings and their tendency toward violence and the silencing of those who upset the status quo. The day has often been a time of thinking about my own “big issues”, which I’ve tried to identify during Lent, before letting them go after the season is over. It’s interesting that I find myself casting back now to Good Fridays during those college years, when war, governmental excess, and an uncertain world were so much on my mind: probably I surprised myself then by observing the day, so much so that I’ve always remembered it. We don’t really change that much, in our core.

But today I haven’t been especially reflective, and certainly not sad. In fact, it was another beautiful early spring day here, and I spent the morning working by e-mail and telephone with a colleague, finishing the first part of a big two-part project, and then, in the afternoon, went for a long walk, stopping in at some of the Portuguese bakeries I’ve never visited to see what traditional things they had prepared for Easter. I stopped in the North African “souk” on Duluth and bought a tile to try in our Vermont kitchen, where we’ve decided to finally finish the décor, and I bought a small solid brass camel for my father-in-law: something I had seen months ago and have thought about as a gift for him ever since. I was, in a word, happy.

Later I did a search for Good Friday poetry, and came up with the following poem by John Donne. I got fascinated in the excellent commentary by Ian Lancashire on the website of the University of Toronto English Library – a resource I’m looking forward to exploring.
These are lines 29-42 of a 42-line poem, written by Donne, who was a Church of England preacher, in April 1613. (I’ve put the lines into modern English.) The whole poem is very rich, both in its language and its content, which says a lot about English thought at the time – it contains a continual play on the word Sunne, for both “Son” and “Sun”, talks about astrological ideas like the harmony of the spheres, and uses the metaphor of Donne’s journey westward, toward the setting sun, as a way of talking about moving toward death – and the soul’s relationship to God as that approaches. The west, from London, also meant Tyndale – the place here criminals were hanged – and it implied going west to America, a symbol for seeking wealth.
In the England of his day, everyone was expected to spend Good Friday in reflection and fasting. Donne, who had been a lawyer, a member of Parliament, and was jailed for marrying against his father-in-law's wishes, was ordained in 1615. On this Good Friday, though, he was not in church but on the road, riding west; the poem is about his somewhat reluctant guilt for being where he was, and unreadiness to face his creator. So, like me, he spent an unconventional Good Friday in unconventional observance, and today the years between us collapsed.

I learned another thing about Donne today: other than two poems which were published, his poetry circulated only in manuscript during his lifetime.

Good Friday 1613, Riding Westward (last section)
John Donne

If on these things I dare not look, dare I
Upon his miserable mother cast mine eye,
Who was God’s partner here, and furnished thus
Half of that Sacrifice, which ransomed us?
Though these things, as I ride, be [far] from mine eye,
They're present yet unto my memory,
For that looks towards them; and thou looks towards me,
O Saviour, as thou hangs upon the tree;
I turn my back to thee, but to receive
Corrections, till thy mercies bid thee leave.
O think me worth thine anger, punish me,
Burn off my rusts, and my deformity,
Restore thine Image, so much, by thy grace,
That thou may know me, and
I'll turn my face.

8:44 PM |

Thursday, March 24, 2005  

Les pompiers do some spring cleaning

You know you're not living in a completely secular city when you download the bus schedules and find there is a special schedule (of greatly reduced numbers of buses) for Good Friday, and that everything in the city is closed on Easter Monday.

I've also never seen so much chocolate in my life, or so many variations on the theme of Easter basket: chocolate rabbits, trucks, footballs...I even saw chocolate beavers. And huge! Nearly lifesize! For the upscale shopper, the fancy boulangeries have cellophane-wrapped, ribbon-tied special rabbits and eggs in white and dark chocolate, or egg-shaped, foil-wrapped baskets that seem to be filled with fancy candies. I've seen little of the tacky Wal-Mart variety of purple shredded fake grass with plastic-wrapped standard candy and plastic and stuffed toys, although I'm sure those exist here too.

It's not making me particularly hungry, although maybe before the weekend is over I'll succumb.

Meanwhile, the snow is melting in the park, and the seagulls are starting to screech and fight as they pick through leftovers, emerging from a winter under the snow. The city doesn't look beautiful right now, but I don't care - to me it is glorious to feel the sun and ride a bus past people gliding joyously on roller blades; to pass the neighborhood cafe and smile at the proprietor, out sweeping the sidewalk for the first time in months, getting ready for the first day he can set tables on the sidewalk; to see bright pink and yellow and red tulips in galvanized buckets outside the florist's window. I left my bus at Champs-des-Mars and walked from the Old City toward downtown, keeping on the sunny side of the street where water ran down the sides of the old stone buildings and sparrows sang on the doorsills. In front of Notre Dame basilica, the horse-drawn carriages waited for tourists, while the horses in their flower-decorated harnesses patiently gazed down the street and the drivers talked animatedly with one another in their Quebecois accents. The sky was brilliantly blue, and the light shone on the ships in the port and the water beyond. Everyone was out, bareheaded, coats flapping open, and even in the business district where the usual casual Montreal dress gives way to dark suits and ties, there was an animated excitement at noon as people tumbled out of their glass-and steel buildings and winter underground existence, into spring.

8:17 PM |

Wednesday, March 23, 2005  

Sa’di, a great poet of Persia (c. 1213-1293, Shiraz) wrote:

"Every leaf of the tree becomes a page of the Book when once the heart is opened and it has learnt to read."

8:43 PM |

Tuesday, March 22, 2005  


to everyone who wrote with blogday wishes yesterday. I appreciate your ongoing presence and your kind words more than I can possibly say.

8:59 PM |


The family got together and gave my father-in-law a computer after he retired from teaching and full-time ministry. He hoped to devote himself to writing. That was perhaps twenty years ago, and despite being a disaster when it came to anything mechnical, he learned to use the computer for word processing by memorizing rote pathways for saving files and doing basic formatting – when he got stuck or lost things, he’d call and someone would bail him out. The computer, or “my machine”, as he called it, was a Big Mystery; he had no desire to know how it worked, he just wanted to do what he needed to do: write, save, edit, and print – and for the most part, it helped him do those things pretty reliably.

When the internet arrived, he was curious but even more mystified. His computer didn’t have internet capability, so my husband showed him on ours what you could do. He was baffled, but mainly because he couldn’t comprehend either the economics or the altruism. It wasn’t compelling enough for him to justify the cost of a new machine. When he moved to the retirement home, there was internet access for residents in the library, and for a while he had a password and an e-mail account. For the first time he had to learn to use a mouse, and navigate a graphical interface; he was always getting mixed up or losing his place on the screen, which scrolled unpredictably or zoomed in or out when he clicked in the wrong place, but he stuck with it for quite a while, always amazed to find mail. That ended about a year ago when he simply stopped checking his mail. He never learned how to do research on the web: he didn’t have to. There were always obliging young female librarians at the public library who were happy to fulfill his requests, and lately, now that he doesn’t go out, his neighbor across the hallway is glad to do the searching.

“I ask him for something, and he comes back in half an hour with the whole thing printed out on a sheet of paper. Incredible!” he says. “But what I want to know is, who pays for it?”

“What do you mean, Dad?” J. asks.

“Do you have to pay to use it?”

“Yes, you usually pay a yearly fee.”

“Oh.” He thinks for a minute. “But how does the material get there? For example, someone wrote a book about the school I used to teach in, and it mentions me, and it’s all there on the internet. Did he have to pay to put it there?”

“Well, sort of. When you set up a website you pay something, but it’s not that much.”

“I see. But why would he do it? Why would the person who wrote it want to put it there, if he’s not making any money on it? And all these other things that you can find out. Why are they there? Who puts them there? And you can read them for free! I don’t understand.”

“There are a lot of people who just want to share information, they know something or they love some area of inquiry and they just want to write about it or make a site where people can come to learn, so they do it as a labor of love.”

“Incredible. It’s beyond me. I was born at the wrong time.” He shakes his head, grins, and adds: “The century after Aristotle would have been about right.”

8:57 PM |

Sunday, March 20, 2005  

...back in the saddle again

Today is Cassandra's 2nd blogiversary, and she seems to have celebrated all weekend...

The party began with the early arrival (well, maybe "premature" would be a better word, I'm sure winter isn't done with us) of le printemps to Montreal and an excursion yesterday on my bike, with a long stop at Archambault where I searched for flute music in the extensive classical sheet music collection, then stopped for a cappuchino at my favorite cafe, where J. also arrived on his bike and looked in through the window to see me totally concentrated playing air piano over the score of a Bach flute sonata, while McGill students studied at the nearby tables.

The two of us took off for Cinema du Parc, up the street, and saw a new Chinese film called The World - about which more will be written later. After the movie we cycled home, had a fast dinner, and walked back to St. Laurent to attend the YULblog party at Zeke's Gallery, celebrating the fifth anniversary party of Montreal blogging (just to keep a measly two-year blog anniversary well in perspective). It was a loud, fun, rollicking party in a fairly small space; Cassandra was happy to see Mikel, Martine and Ed, Karl, Steph, and Helen again, and to meet Zeke, Andre and his wife, Chris, and Kate, aka la Blogeuse, for the first time. In this picture you can sort of see me and J., way in the back - J. is in a blue shirt, under the microphone hanging from the ceiling, and I'm to his right in the picture, smiling. (What this picture doesn't show is the saturation of the room with smoke - one thing I really don't like about Montreal is how many people smoke, and how it's allowed in certain areas of many public places. Afterwards I had to wash all my clothes and my hair, and this morning we both still had sore throats from the smoke and the shouting everyone was doing to carry on converstions over the din in the room. Which is all OK - it was a great party.)

Today we crawled out of bed rather reluctantly, and went to church for the Palm Sunday liturgy, which was very beautiful; then had lunch with a friend, came back and worked a bit, and in the late afternoon went to an organ and choir concert at Eglise St. Jean-Baptiste. The concert was disappointing; I had heard a fantastic concert of 19th century French organ music there earlier this month, but today's offering was a combination of well-performed but very contained and expressionless Renaissance music, sung by an a capella choir, and modern improvisations of his own composition played by Gabriel Marghieri, a decorated European organist who teaches improvisation at the University of Lyon. I was unfortunately left cold by the organ music, in particular, and was not alone in that reaction among the audience.

Maybe I should write something about two years of blogging, but nothing particularly new has come to mind, although I've thought about it a good deal this weekend. It's simply a part of my life now; as Andre and I were admitting last night, while our spouses pointed out observed symptoms and commiserated with each other.

As Paula wrote today, two years ago was the start of the Iraq war. I began my blog then to try to give myself an excuse to write about something other than the political issues that had been consuming me for the previous two years, and to lift myself out of the despair I felt. The same longing for peace and sanity exists in me today, maybe even more so, but I'm much happier and my life has literally changed, both because of the creative expression I've found here, and for having met all of you. Onward, with gratitude! Year Three!

8:20 PM |

Saturday, March 19, 2005  
Woman Leads Mixed-Gender Muslim Prayers

A BBC article reports on the controversial and potentially ground-breaking Friday prayer service which took place yesterday at facilities of the Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Divine, in New York City, after local mosques refused to host it. Amina Wadud, a professor of Islamic studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, led the Friday prayers, which were attended by 80-100 Islamic men and women.

Another article, from the Chicago Sun-Times, is here, and includes this quote:

Some Islamic scholars have said they were aware of a few other mixed-gender prayer meetings led by women, mostly in the West, but they are rare.

''The issue of gender equality is a very important one in Islam, and Muslims have unfortunately used highly restrictive interpretations of history to move backward,'' Wadud said before the service. ''With this prayer service we are moving forward. This single act is symbolic of the possibilities within Islam.''

There was immediate criticism from Muslims who felt this was unacceptable; before westerners jump to conclusions, it's important to understand some of the reasons on both sides, which are covered somewhat in the articles.

12:49 PM |

Friday, March 18, 2005  

Getting warmer...


Just three of many recent stories that show Toto this definitely isn’t Kansas. All of these news bits are gleaned from accounts in the Montreal Gazette, which unfortunately is not available free online in its entirety, or I'd give you the direct links.

Huge Student Strikes Protest Provincial Cuts in Education Aid

230,000 students went on strike, and nearly 100,000 of them marched this Wednesday in the biggest student protest in Quebec since the 1960s. The protests were in response to the Quebec government’s recent announcement of $103-million cut in student scholarships. I wish I could link to the electronic edition of yesterday’s Gazette and show you the photograph of the huge demonstration stretching as far up a Montreal street as you can see.

But get this: following in the footsteps of their elders, high school students have also been striking. 150 students from four high schools showed up as early as 6 a.m. on Wednesday to form a human chain surrounding their school building in Villeray. Unlike university and CEGEP (basically like a U.S. two-year college or technical school) students, Quebec law says that high school students are required to attend class. But their teachers refused to cross the picket line. Here’s the quote that really got me:

“On the other hand, teachers and administrators don’t want to discourage the students from being politically active,” said Claudette Lechasseur, a spokesperson for the Commission scolaire de Montréal. “The students are required to attend their courses,” Lechasseur said. “Except we realize these are important issues that will one day affect them directly. They’re learning an important lesson in citizenship.”

Big Business Loses in Court

The Supreme Court of Canada unanimously refused to overturn the Quebec government’s ban on butter-colored margarine. The suit had been brought by the international giant Unilever, saying that it costs the company $100,000 a month to have separate manufacturing and distribution processes for margarine designated for Quebec, which is the only place in the world still to have such a restriction.

“Quebec margarine, made in Toronto from Western-grown canola and Ontario soybean oil, is usually a lardish, pale cream colour because of a regulation that aims to protect Quebec’s huge dairy industry by eliminating potential confusion with butter.”

The Supreme Court ruled that the province did indeed have the right to protect its dairy industry.

Gay Activists Also Stage Protest

About 40 members of the Montreal queer activist group “the Pink Panthers” demonstrated in front of a conference center where Conservative Party leader Stephen Harper – an opponent of gay marriage and abortion - was appearing. They arrived in a vehicle topped with a papier-mache likeness of Stephen Harper in a, umm, homosexually compromising position with a pink panther. Some of the other protesters came dressed as bishops and pink pigs – the latter a comment on police brutality.

“His discourse is very homophobic, very anti-abortion, very pro-criminalization of sex work and pro-militarization. We’re sure he’s put on his best makeup for Quebec, and we want to strip him naked,” said Pantoufle, 28 (one of the organizers). The aim of the protest was to show delegates that the Québécois do not support Harper or his party’s policies, protesters said.

The demonstration seems to have been taken with good humor and it later disbanded peacefully, without incident or interference by police.

5:24 PM |

Thursday, March 17, 2005  

We're back in Montreal, as of yesterday evening. Life feels so much more tranquil here. I know - it's a city, what am I talking about? But it's true. And that's one of the impressions whose longevity I wonder about: will we always feel this way? Part of it is that this apartment feels like such a cozy nest, compared to our drafty, much larger wooden-frame Vermont house. Right now, there is jazz on the radio; J. is lighting a fire in the fireplace; the rice is cooking on the stove and the broiler is heating in preparation for a chicken breast glazed with apricot, dijon mustard and tamari. Cars go by, but I barely hear them; the streetlights reflect a pink glow off the snow.

This has been a demanding stretch of time, both workwise and personally. Basically things are fine, but there have been important meetings and potentially stressful discussions, all now in the past. As the one who had had the most sleep in the past few days, I drove yesterday, and arrived here with knots across my shoulders and a headache, both of which have eased away during the day today. Watching the fire reflect in the side of an old, carved wooden chest, I feel grateful for many simple things.

Readers interested in Thomas Merton might enjoy the post and subsequent discussion going on at The Vernacular Body (where yours truly has been hogging a good deal of airtime). For me, the discussion feels like it's resonating in the light of Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose, recently re-read, which is ostensibly about an Italian monastery during the Inquisition, but is actually about lust of all kinds - including lust for power between competing institutions, and lust for knowledge contained in books. The comments, however, are about Merton's choice to remain in the monastery, bound by his bows of obedience - and how we might conceptualize that in terms of our own lives.

The music on the radio, post-dinner, has changed to a live recording from the Fribourg Festival of Sacred Music of medieval chant and chanson, with lute, drums, bells, and women's voices, and it is very wonderful; instrumental interludes interwoven with the sung portions. The fire dies down. And for some reason, I keep thinking of a blue bird I saw hopping happily in a cage in a neighbor's window today, high above the street.

6:41 PM |

Tuesday, March 15, 2005  
Montréal, ville plutôt sécuritaire
Montreal and the other major Canadian cities have recently been rated the safest North America cities. Montreal ranks further down, at 22nd place, for quality of life in this rating of the world's cities (but what do they know - and we probably got minus points for the weather!)The top cities in both categories were in Switzerland. (Article from Radio Canada, via Montreal City Weblog. In French)

Orchestra on Ice
Since I like classical music and am very happy to be in a city with so much excellent live music of all kinds, I've been following the stories about the engagement of Kent Nagano to be the next conductor of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, beginning in 2006. But now there's drama, as always seem to be the case these days with major orchestras, opera, and dance companies - apparently the management of the orchestra and the musicians cannot arrive at a contract, and there is a possibility of a lock-out, right before Nagano is scheduled to conduct several concerts at the end of March and early April. Le Devoir has the story (also in French). (By contrast, I hope many of you read the fairly recent article about the Cleveland Orchestra and their new, young conductor Franz Welser-Möstin in The New Yorker; unfortunately it's not available online, but here's a review from the New York Times of their New York concert engagements last month, which included pianist Radu Lupu playing the five Beethoven piano concertos.)

1:09 PM |

Monday, March 14, 2005  


Quebec Literature is a large and growing genre, and one that the province is justifiably proud of. But I'm just getting my feet wet, both in Canadian literature, and that of Quebec specifically. I've got several lists that bloggers and newspapers have published, and I noticed in La Presse that someone has just come out with a book about the 100 best Quebecois novels. But I want to ask for suggestions from you who know this literature very well - I'm trying to get a better picture, especially, of Quebec and Canadian history, both past and recent. For now, I'm probably better off with books that are in English translation but I'm gearing up to tackle more and more French. (And of course there are English-language originals on the list too.) Favorites, please?

Hugh MacLennan, born in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia in 1907, studied classics (like me); he did his undergraudate work at Dalhousie University, then went to Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, and got his PhD at Princeton in 1935. He then taught at Lower Canada College in Montreal (does this still exist?), moving to McGill in 1951, where he taught for 30 more years; he died in 1990, probably wondering what on earth was going to happen to his city and to Quebec.

I didn't know about his teaching; just that he is an important Canadian writer. I read his first book, Barometer Rising, about the arms ship explosion in Halifax, a few years ago, and liked it very much. J. is halfway through Two Solitudes, MacLennan's classic book about rural French and Anglo Quebec in the first half of the 20th century, and I'm already stealing snatches of it when he's not reading. Mordecai Richler said that the book's title "entered into our language" as an expression for the Anglo/French cultural divide - he wrote that around 1990, when uncertainty about the province's future was very great and many English-heritage and English-speaking residents had fled to Ontario. The title actually comes from Rilke, and has a much more positive spin than Richler was able to read into it at the time. Although tensions between Anglo- and French culture still exist and can be felt even by newcomers like myself, I hope the Rilke fragment feels more plausible than it did fifteen years ago:

Love consists in this,
that two solitudes protect
and touch, and greet each other.

What I'm most looking forward to, in addition to the insights provided by MacLennan's narrative, is his prose. He's a really excellent descriptive writer; here's one of the opening paragraphs of the book, which begins in 1917:

Nowhere has nature wasted herself as she has here. There is enough water in the Saint Lawrence alone to irrigate half of Europe, but the river pours right out of the continent into the sea. No amount of water can irrigate stones, and most of Quebec is solid rock. It is as though millions of years back in geologic time a sword had been plunged through the rock from the Atlantic to the Great Lakes and savagely wrenched out again, and the pure water of the continental reservoir, unmuddied and almost useless to farmers, drains untouchably away. In summer the cloud packs pass over it in soft, cumulus, pacific towers, endlessly forming and dissolving to make a welter of movement about the sun. In winter when there is no storm the sky is generally empty, blue and glittering over the ice and snow, and the sun stares out of it like a cyclop's eye.

All the narrow plain between the St. Lawrence and the hills is worked hard. From the Ontario border down to the beginning of the estuary, the farmland runs in two delicate bands along the shores, with roads like a pair of village main streets a thousand miles long, each parallel to the river. All the good land was broken long ago, occupied and divided among seigneurs and their sons, and then among tenants and their sons. Bleak wooden fences separate each strip of farm form its neighbor, running straight as rulers set at right angles to the river to form long narrow rectangles pointing inland. The ploughed land looks like the course of a gigantic and empty steeplechase where all motion has been frozen. Every inch of it is measured, and brooded over by notaries, and blessed by priests.

Knowing how difficult it is to write that well, I look forward to reading 475 pages more.

3:14 PM |

Saturday, March 12, 2005  
Tomorrow I'll try to take some pictures that show the incredibleness that's outside right now: at least a foot of new snow, so wet that it clings in great clumps to the tiniest twigs, forms great gravity-defying white tophats on every fencepost, every hosta-pod and dried black-eyed susan; and adorns the telephone wire with a repeated symphony of mounded crescents, waiting for a running squirrel or landing blue jay to knock them all off with one flick of a flailing high-wire tail.

It's as if our whole world were inside an owl's wing: muffled, soft, white, and - while the snow fell, which is did most of the day - slightly blurred. I watch from an upstairs window, my form a flash of bright color in a monochromatic world, if anyone were looking. But they are not; no one moves on days like this, not on a weekend, save for the occasional snowplow or someone heading out for a prescription, or the milk the baby can't do without.

I stay inside with my computer, my tea, my flute; we remove the old wax from the kitchen floor, do the laundry, make French toast, speak on the telephone. There's no point being miserable about it: warmth will come when it's ready, and we'll all get what we've been waiting for - even the male cardinal, chipping impatiently below the window, refusing to let up on his spring song.

9:44 PM |

Thursday, March 10, 2005  

Spring Dresses, Montreal. I wish. We all wish.


A book order arrived from Powell's today, adding to the bedside stack of reading material. For pleasure, and in addition to the Amin Maalouf novel, which I'm chipping away at, a few pages a day (the protagonist is currently at an entomology seminar in Cairo, talking about scarab beetles), I'm re-reading Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose.

In our quest to better understand our second homeland, J. is reading Two Solitudes, by Hugh MacLennan, a novel set northwest of Montreal, starting in 1917, and A Solitary Pillar, a history of the Anglican church in Montreal and the Quiet Revolution - the enormous socio-political change that took place in Quebec when the population shook off the domination of society and personal life by the Roman Catholic church.

From Powell's I received another Canadian book, Mordecai Richler's Oh Canada, Oh Quebec, written in 1991, and subtitled "Requiem for a Divided Country".

The other book is Arabic poetry; I'm trying to learn a little more about it and hoping I might be able to share some of it with my father-in-law, since reading is becoming very hard for him now.

8:54 PM |

Wednesday, March 09, 2005  
Mes ami(e)s! YulBlog, the oldest known gathering of bloggers in the world, celebrates five years of blogging and camaraderie in Montreal. (article from La Presse, via Montreal City Weblog)
8:59 PM |


Lately my father-in-law has been feeling much better; his new doctor has changed his medications and given him something for his persistent indigestion, and for the first time in years, his prodigious appetite seems to be returning. He came to the lunch table with a plate loaded with toast points and creamed chipped beef. “I know,” he said, grinning and setting to work with his fork. “I shouldn’t. But I love it, it’s one of the best things they make here.” He ate the entire plateful, and a big bowl of chicken soup, and drank a glass of sugar-free ginger-ale.

“What else can I get you?” I asked.

“Maybe something for dessert…my sugar is normal now! Hurray! The last time they tested it the woman said, ‘Go ahead and eat some dessert!’ So I’ve been indulging a bit. What do they have today…something other than cake?”

“Do you want some fruit? No? Do you like pudding?” I’d never seen him eat regular pudding, which is always served at there – vanilla or chocolate in sundae glasses with cool-whip on top, or in layers in parfait glasses.

“What’s the kind I like?” he asked.

“Rice? Tapioca?”

“Rice is all right, but no, I mean that kind made with eggs and milk that gets baked…”

“Custard. Or crème caramel.”

“Yes! Delicious!” he said, rolling his eyes heavenward.

“They don’t have that today, I’m afraid.”

“I know! Just get something else.”

We were at the end of the lunch hour and the pickings were slim; I brought him some red jello with cool whip and an orange slice on the top; he made a face. “I’ll take it back,” I told him. “There wasn’t much else.”

“No, since you’ve brought it I’ll eat it,” he said, taking the orange slice out of the cream and popping it in his mouth. He ate a spoonful of the wriggling jello, grinning as he guided the fork precariously into his mouth. "Was it you who told me this stuff is full of sugar?"

"No," J. said.

"Why not, if you know it is?"

"Because I think you deserve to have some pleasure in your life once in a while."

We began talking about a friend who was going back to Damascus soon to settle an estate; my father-in-law said how much he wished someone had been able to buy back the family home there. It had been a lovely home when they lived there, he said, before it was sold when his parents died, and changed into a multi-family house. He and J. had visited the old family house when they were in Damascus five years ago, and the pictures bore out his story; it must have been lovely, with a traditional central courtyard and a rooftop garden and grape arbor. “I still can’t understand why we never really knew our neighbors,” he said. “We lived right on the edge of the Christian section; the people next to us were Muslim but I never ever saw them.”

“Couldn’t you see them from your roof?”

“Oh no!” he said. “There was one room you could have seen into, but they had hung a curtain or something there so you couldn’t see anything. And several of the other families near us were Catholic, and we didn’t really mingle with them because we were Protestant. It wasn’t because there was any problem, that’s just the way it was. There were some Orthodox families who we did know; that’s because we had been Orthodox, before, of course.”

I was always amazed by those “of courses” that peppered his speech, just as they had the comments of my mother-in-law; implied in them was a whole world of knowledge we were supposed to have but didn’t. “Of course.” Of course – what?

“How did the break happen in your family – how did you become Protestant?” I asked.

“Oh you don’t know that story?” he said. “It goes back to my paternal grandfather. He was a rich man. In those days the Ottomans collected tax from every village, and they would go around and visit the villages and decide about how much they thought that village should pay. Then they asked people from the village to come forward and say how much they’d promise to collect, and the person who promised the most got appointed and paid to be the tax collector. And my grandfather was one of those people.”

“Weren’t they hated by the people?”

“Well, the Ottomans knew the people wanted to be able to go back to their villages, so they weren’t exorbitant about what they tried to collect. Anyway, my grandfather had gone on a journey to one of those villages, and on the way, he got typhus and died. They brought his body back, and my grandmother was in trouble – the boys were all small; she was pregnant with my father at the time and he was born after my grandfather died. So she went to the Orthodox Church for help managing things, and turned over the family’s finances to them to take care of. When it eventually came time for my father to go away to school, she asked for the funds, and the Church said, ‘Sorry, there isn’t any money.’ But there had been plenty of money. My grandmother was very angry and complained and said the money hadn’t been managed properly, and the Church fathers just threw up their hands and said, ‘Sorry,’ and she came back to the house and from that day forward we were Protestants.”

He shrugged and smiled, a little mischievously. “I always was very fond of the Patriarch though.”

8:26 PM |

Monday, March 07, 2005  

I'm back in Vermont; there was another snowstorm today that we drove through, thinking it was going to be a not-fun ride, but suddenly, just after the border, we came out of it and there was sun and a beautiful late winter day. From what I heard during a phone call I made later in the afternoon, it seems the snow headed right up to Montreal.

I forgot to mention that yesterday in church the Prayers of the People were led by a native French-speaker whose voice I could listen to all day. (For you non-Anglicans, this is just about the closest we come to extemporaneous prayer - it's a section of the service where various people, usually grouped into categories (clergy, government, the sick, the needy, those who have died, and so on) are prayed for by name, and these prayers are led by a member of the congregation). One thing I especially like about the Cathedral is that the leader of these prayers each week seems to have considerable discretion about what he or she says; there's a wonderful Anglican informality - if that's not an oxymoron - about the variations in voices and personalities each week, while keeping to a fairly set pattern. Anyway, yesterday the leader reminded us that it was International Women's Week, and she invited us to remember especially the strong and important women in each of our lives. (Hearing something unexpected like this during the service has a way of undoing me; I was immediately moved just by the fact that women specifically were being singled out as worthy of prayer and recognition, since it is the first time in fifty years of church attendance that I ever remember this happening.) The leader went on to name some women who had "opened doors for all of us" - and it was a good list, ending with Rosa Parks - and there was time for all of us to think on our own lists. Mine is a pretty long and wonderful one.

When we went up for communion later on, something else extraordinary happened. The assistant priest, who is a woman, was giving out the bread. As she pressed the wafer into each person's hand, she began with the person's first name, if she knew it, and then said the traditional words "the body of our Lord Jesus Christ, given for thee" in the person's own language - I heard English, French and Spanish while I was up there, maybe she knows some others. It was special enough to be addressed by my own name, but the languages left me dumbfounded. She was so warm and so direct that even visitors who weren't known by name must have felt particularly welcomed. Now this, it seemed to me, was radical hospitality.

Liturgy can be used - and certainly has been used - to create distance and keep people squarely in their own little place; with some thought it can also be used to create a feeling of intimacy, acceptance, and community. How interesting it is that liturgy itself has been blamed and rejected for turning people off and away from the "traditional" church, with everything from folk masses to video screens and evangelical praise as substitutes, when actually the distance is created by people who want to maintain authority and power, or find it easier to hide behind "form" rather than letting their own humanity come through.

I've always liked the Anglican liturgy because to me it is poetic, beautiful, and comforting. Although we don't like to talk about it as "theater", much of it is theatrical. It also contains much that is symbolic: not just words and objects, but actions, movements, the management of participants and the way they are positioned in relationship to the congregation. Having watched this very closely for many years (being up on the altar, or "on stage", as a member of a choir gives you a good chance to observe and think about what's going on), it's clear to me that liturgy, in different hands and voices, behaves differently, and that people react to it differently too. And much is revealed.

9:08 PM |

Sunday, March 06, 2005  

This evening the radio announcer on Espace Musique tried very hard to explain in French that the next song she was playing was "Londonderry Air" - not "London Derriere".

8:54 PM |


I'm trying, but it's very hard for me to take a day off, even on Sunday: to turn off my more-or-less constant internal voice (which I can call my Yankee work ethic, or just plain old guilt, or, in my less charitable moments, determination heading in the direction of ambition) which tells me to be productive. Most days, from the moment I wake up to the time I go to bed, I am doing something: making food, writing, working, practicing an instrument or a language, helping out, listening, reading, getting some exercise. Even meditation can quite easily be fit into a category of "accomplishment": Excellent! I accomplished my goal of doing nothing! Ah, there are minefields everywhere. I used to be pretty hard on myself about this. Now, I try to notice, be gentle to myself about what I've noticed, and move on.

Lately - maybe for Lent? - I've been more intentional about trying to observe a time of rest on Sundays: deliberately not working, not pushing myself to use that day for formal work even though it's so good, because there won't be telephone interruptions. It's difficult, which tells me it's probably a good idea. As I watch myself struggle, I see things about myself that I didn't see as clearly before. I didn't realize how much my self-identity, and also my ability to let go at the end of a day, was wrapped up in being able to tell myself, "OK, you've done x,y,z." This doesn't mean I've been unable to see what's around me, or that I've descended into workaholism at the expense of caring for myself or others. It's more that, for the past year, because of life changes, I've just had so much to do, and so many different demands coming from so many sources, including myself, that the idea of consciously taking a day totally off from -- let's call it "accomplishment" - has seemed impossible. And of course, it's not.

I'm not at a place yet that feels like it's opening up into spaciousness, but I am beginning to sense some change.



Today, after church downtown, I wandered around with my camera, and did a little bookshopping. For the first time, I went into the French language section of the bookstore and browsed around with intent to buy, and picked out a novel by a favorite author, Amin Maalouf: La Premier Siecle apres Beatrice. Maalouf is Lebanese, but he has lived in France a good deal and writes (I believe) in French as well as in Arabic. There is a great deal of Middle Eastern writing that has been translated into French and not English; one reason I'm excited about finally beginning to feel more confident in the language is that it opens up some of this work to me.

So I took the book to the cash register and the woman there (who looked as if she could be Middle Eastern in origin herself) took it and, opening up the book to the list of titles inside, said, in French, how much she liked Maalouf and pointed to another of his books - a volume of essays - that she had especially liked. She went on, and I didn't understand everything she said, so we switched back and forth between English and French while she rang up my purchase, and then smilingly said goodbye.

This small exchange is an example of what I find so amazing and so different about being here, compared to where I have lived before: 1) no one says or implies "why do you want to read a book in a foreign language?" 2) no one thinks "why do you want to read something written by an Arab?" 3) even though I have some difficulty speaking the language, no one thinks it's weird or inappropriate for me to buy a book in French; on the contrary, everyone here seems to be in some stage of learning other languages; 4) this society is openly pro-intellectual, not anti-intellectual. Reading literature is not frowned upon; on the contrary, you see people reading everywhere in this city, and it seems to me that they are very often reading literature or non-fiction. People walk down the alleys reading books. They walk between metro stations and up and down stairs reading books. They sit in the park reading books. I can't get over it.

Some of you, who have had to endure "what do you want to do that for?" comments from others throughout your lives, especially about your choice to be a person who reads and thinks, will understand why these differences matter so much to me.

3:25 PM |

Friday, March 04, 2005  
DE-NEIGEMENT: a postscript

A fellow Montreal blogger told me this bit of additional information about snow removal in Montreal:

A bit of trivia: The little signs that are put up prior to snow removal (thin wooden sticks with a paper sign) are made this way because they are biodegradable and they can be pulverized by the huge snow blowers, along with the snow that is gathered.

Imagine that!


Montreal has one of the oldest, if not THE oldest, loosely organized blogger communities in the world. I've been lucky enough to meet some of these great people. This week marked the 5th aniversary of their monthly 1st Wednesday meetings for drinks and lively conversation; I missed it but hope to celebrate with them later this month. What's especially great is that they got some publicity for blogging and a chance to talk it up in front of the media. Way to go, Blork and Co.!

9:27 PM |

Thursday, March 03, 2005  


In Vermont they use road salt. The large crystals of salt are piled into town storage sheds, and loaded into huge sanding/salting trucks which spread the salt on the interstates and secondary roads through a spinner mounted below a big hopper - much like a giant version of a lawn seeder. This tidy yellow Ice-O-Way is a smaller version of the same thing, mounted on the back of a Vermont pickup truck.

In Montreal they do spread salt on the roads and sidewalks, but a bigger problem is clearing snow from the streets where residents have parked their cars. We've tried to fgure out the system, and it seems that special signs get put up prior to snow removal warning people they'd better move their cars.

This morning, still in bed, we heard an approaching sound that was completely unfamiliar - it sounded like a cross between a car alarm and a siren, but it moved down the street toward us very slowly, and, though penetrating and distinctive, never got very loud. Finally curiosity got the better of us, and J. jumped out of bed - but too late. What was it? He put on his clothes, boots and coat, and went out. In a little while he came back, Cheshire cat grin on his face, and quizzed me - "OK, what was it? Have you figured it out?"

The sound came from a tow truck. What they do, apparently, is to drive slowly around a neighborhood blowing this special siren to give people a half-hour or so warning before they start towing cars prior to clearing the snow from the streets. It seemed so...polite. So...Canadian.We tried to imagine a system like this in New York City: umm, I don't think so. But I'm curious - is this as benign as it seems? Where do the cars go when they do get towed? How do you get yours back and how much does it cost? It seems to us like snow removal here is pretty good - but in the paper we've seen continual complaints about les cols bleus and how crummy a job the current city management is doing. So...enlighten me, s.v.p., I'm new here!

5:10 PM |

Tuesday, March 01, 2005  

We spent today at a seminar given by the government for people who are considering starting businesses in the Quebec. It was one of the more fascinating days of my life.

It was snowing when we walked to the metro station this morning; we emerged at Square Victoria and searched for the right building among the tall offices of that complex. The woman who greeted us at the reception desk on the third floor looked at me and said "Elisabeth?" I was startled, smiled back at her and said, "How do you know?" "Oh, I just thought so," she said. When we entered the room of other attendees and looked around I immediately figured it out: there were only two other women, and, more than that, I was the only blonde, blue-eyed person in the room, and thus a good bet for being named "Elisabeth" (I'm always amused how the French automatically spell my name the way my French teacher did, with an "s" instead of a "z"; it was that way on my nametag today.)

The programme was very interesting - full of information about how to do business here - the legal system, the banking system, how to get financing, the necessity for a detailed business plan, where to get help, the services offered by the government and the strange (to Americans) entities known as para-givernmental (?) organizations - funded by the government to do work that the government considers important, but operating somewhat independently - a sort of middle ground between private enterprise and government which attempts to limit political/corporate influence and corruption.

In the middle of the day, we were all given a three-course lunch, with wine, by the Montreal Chamber of Commerce, along with members fo the business community, from many different sectors, who came to talk with us, offer some networking and friendship, and answer questions. One person from each table of eight was able to get up and give a short presentation on our work and what we hoped to do; J. spoke and was very amusing and well-received.

We were the only Americans there. Among the other seminar attendees we met a man from Iran who hoped to import construction materials that he already sells in Europe; an Argentinian who will be representing food exporters; an Indian man in the jewelry business; a Pakistani real estate entrepreneur; a Belgian who seemed to be considering buying a franchise business but was happy to talk about Flemish art; a Lebanese woman who lives in Nigeria and has an import/export gift business and another Lebanese woman who will be opening a restaurant when her husband joins her later this year; a Korean computer programmer who is looking for investors for his software company; a Frenchman in the film industry. It was completely fascinating to talk to these intelligent, ambitious, curious people and discover why they had chosen this city, what their families were like, what their dreams were for the future...and how they felt about the snow.

At the end of the day, we got off the metro one stop early and walked home through the slippery, white streets, talking about what we had heard and experienced. The night fell, and the lights came on above the new snow. In the park, a few families were sledding on the hill beneath the trees, and a lone figure walked across the frozen lake. The featherweight, pristine snow sparkled, and in spite of the traffic, the city took on the same magical hush that is found in the country after a snowfall: a wide enveloping quiet, grand enough to be enhanced by the cry of a happy child rushing down the hill on a sled, the hushed voices of lovers under a streetlight, the delighted short bark of a dog cavorting in the powdery snow. I felt the delicious coldness of my cheeks, and pressed my elbow against J.'s side as we walked silently, arm in arm, amazed at the twists and turns of my life that had contributed to putting me in this particular place, and then..stopped thinking very much at all.

7:17 PM |

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