Monday, August 26, 2013

creeks i have known

Do you know the expression "up shit creek without a paddle"? The word is creek, not river or stream, because a creek has that low-lying, sluggish feel. Torpid, especially in the summer. Silty brown.

I grew up in southern Ontario amid fields on the Niagara Escarpment. In that part of the world a creek is called a crick. Not much going on at the crick. You could watch minnows hanging in the water. A crayfish scuttling out from under a rock. Not as often, but sometimes, the glide of a larger fish.
Here's a picture of me at Twenty-Mile Creek. I was given a bundle of branches to look more picturesque than, I suppose, I was all by myself.

I learned how to skate on this crick. Crick skating isn't like skating on a river or a lake because the water might be so low when it freezes that the ice is textured with dried grass, twigs, even rotting logs. You skate knowing that the ice might trip you any moment. That's where I developed my Frankenstein style of staying upright, arms out to brace me if I fell--which is how I still skate even on a city rink.

My parents moved and my next crick was Spencer Creek. That was where I learned how to swim. My father threw me in the water. He believed that if I had to, I would figure out how to paddle. He knew it wasn't dangerous since all I had to do was stand up. The water didn't even reach my chest. Silly me, I spluttered and thrashed until he hauled me out. I did learn how to swim that same summer--not by being thrown in.
What I recall about that crick is the marsh grass that grew high over the water so that you kayaked as if through a tunnel. The slide of the kayak against the stiff grass. The turtles sunning on dead trees half-sunk in the crick, pretending you couldn't see them until one lost its nerve and plopped off with a flat splash, and then they all plopped. One by one by one by one. I remember lying on the bridge and watching the brown shadows in the water for movement.

Here's a picture at the beginning of the summer before the grass got high and engulfed the water. It's not an interesting picture--but what do you expect? It's a crick. Nothing happens at the crick.

I swam in the crick to cool off in the summer but did my best never to stand in it for an instant longer than it took to scramble out. The bottom was mossy and slimy, and there were bloodsuckers. Bloodsuckers flatten skintight on your flesh. You can scratch and poke and screech all you want. A bloodsucker stays stuck onto you until it's sucked its fill of blood and it decides to drop off. If you're a kid with an active imagination, that particular scenario might just make you neurotic for the rest of your life. I don't know who finally enlightened us about bloodsuckers and salt. Sprinkle them with salt and they squirm off right away--not fast enough for me.
No one in our family fished, but I had a boyfriend at some point who persisted in standing by the crick with a fishing pole. He caught a few bass which were so small and bony that even he gave up.

The water level in Spencer Creek rose in the fall, flooding the surrounding marshland so that in the winter we had acres' worth of skating, if we didn't mind the tufts of dried grass, crusted snow, air bubbles the size of plates, sometimes breaking through.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

where do the horses sleep at night?

If you live in Montreal, or if you've visited Old Montreal, then you've seen the horse and buggies--or calèches--that are available for hire.

Here's one with velveteen upholstery, room for four--maybe six if you don't mind sitting tight--plastic flowers along the back of the buggy. The drivers double as tour guides. They can tell you the names of notable buildings and a bit about their history. A half-hour trip costs $48 and one hour $80. I asked this woman who was waiting at the back of the line in front of the basilica.

She had a few words to say to everyone.

I don't often go to Old Montreal, but I think of calèches fairly often because the neighbourhood where I live--Pointe St-Charles--is where some of the horses sleep at night. Toward the end of the day, if I'm walking along Wellington, I can hear a horse clopping along, the plastic flowers still stiff and sprightly, the driver and the horse fatigued.

Last week I saw a buggy with a passenger heading away from Old Montreal en route to the Pointe. A woman with bags of groceries on the floor of the buggy. She and the driver weren't talking, not even pretending. I guessed they were a couple who'd been with each other as long as the horse had been with them. Man and horse had picked her up at the grocery store on their way home.

Most of the horses sleep on the other side of the Lachine Canal in Griffintown. If you're driving across the canal on the des Seigneurs Bridge, depending on the heat of the day and the direction of the wind, you'll smell the horse piss. Hidden by the trees, there's a crumbling block of falling-down stables.

When I was in Old Montreal looking at the calèches, I saw this woman currying her horse with a soft brush, talking in his ear. What are the chances that she has a grassy backyard and feeds him carrots at night?

Monday, August 12, 2013

jazzing up an old recipe

You know you're dealing with something old when even the modern innovation has to be manipulated by hand. We no longer beat clothes on a rock by the river; we toss them in a front-loading washing machine. Instead of hitching a horse to a wagon, and loading blankets and food to get to the next settlement, we spend a few hours in a bus or train or car. There have been significant advances in time needed and energy expended.

In the case of this recipe for spätzle, the new-style hobel you need to make them isn't all that much different from the one my grandmother used. And who knows how old that was? It might have come with the house, which was built in 1673.

The metal bowl has holes in the bottom--can you make them out? It stands upright with its legs in a pot of boiling water. Dough gets pushed through the holes to drip button-sized noodles into the water. In Switzerland, these are called knöpfle or little buttons. In Austria and Hungary these are called spätzle, which I'm going to guess means little sparrows. A sparrow is a spatz. (You form the diminutive in German by adding an umlaut and a cute suffix. People who don't speak German think umlauts are cool. There are any number of English or French designer labels peppered with what someone thought looked edgy. "Hey, let's add an umlaut!" Sometimes an umlaut only makes a word sound kittenish. Huh.)

As far as I can recall, I never had spätzle as a child. I first tasted them in the Hungarian restaurants along Bloor St., east of Bathurst in Toronto, when I was a student in the late 70s. Cheapest meals in town--schnitzel and spätzle.

Years later, one of my aunts in Austria showed me how to make them with a modern hobel, which looks like this:

The dough is poured into the metal square that you slide back and forth.

The dumpling or noodles take only a couple of minutes to cook. I scoop them onto a baking sheet so they don't clump together.

The next step is to cover them with cheese or fried onion or sour cream or whatever occurs to you.
I like this amazing recipe R found on Epicurious. (He's always trying to get me to cook Austrian dishes and make clothes out of curtains.)
The batter has lots of chopped sage, oregano and thyme. Once cooked, the spätzle are stirred into browned butter with arugula and radicchio, and garnished with lemon.
 R is not complaining.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

new german fairy tales / but grimms not forsaken yet

This is very exciting for someone like myself who loves the fantastic fatalism of old-time fairy tales. A manuscript of German stories, collected by Franz Xaver von Schönwerth (1810-1886), have been found in an archive in Regensburg, Germany where they were locked away. What a fitting plight for fairy tales--locked away then discovered. All we're missing is the wooden barrel or treasure chest.

In fact, the stories were discovered a few years ago but they are only now being translated into English which is why it's made news in The Guardian.

I have ordered a copy of a selection of the stories published in German by Erika Eichenseer in 2011. I'm wondering... am I allowed to translate a couple of these stories and post them here--since I'm not being paid? Will I get slapped with a copyright charge? Anyone know how this works?

I'm not sure I like how the article in The Guardian, quoting Eichenseer, compares these new stories to Grimms' fairy tales as if the latter are stuffy with "literary gloss". There are many, many versions of Grimms'. The copy I have, published in 1957, sounds very folksy to me with its dialogue in dialect and nonsense rhymes. Apparently the newly discovered stories are more charming and rough and authentic. (Interesting concept, authentic.) Well, I can't wait to read them to see.

I will note that the particular story of a maiden who escapes a witch by turning into a pond, which Eichenseer states does not appear anywhere else in European fairy tales, does indeed have a parallel in Grimms'. I'm referring to the Grimms' story "Fundevogel".

Two children who are inseparable are trying to escape a mean-minded cook, who wants to boil one of them for her supper. She sends three servants into the woods to find the children who have run away. When the children see they're being chased, one turns into a rosebush, the other the rose on it. The servants return to the house and tell the cook they couldn't find the children, only a rosebush with a rose on it. The cook screams that they should have torn the bush in two and brought the rose home. She sends them off again and as the children see them coming, they once again swear eternal loyalty to each other. One turns into a church and the other the crown inside it. Again the servants return home and again the cook screams at them. They should have broken down the church and fetched home the crown. Convinced of their utter stupidity, the cook sets off after the children herself. One child becomes a pond, the other a duck swimming on it. When the cook sees the pond, she bends down to drink it but the duck swims across the pond to snatch the cook by the nose and pull her in where she drowns.

I have not yet read the Schönwerth stories, but it seems to me the developments in this story bear some similarity to the one used as a unique example in The Guardian. I am not about to toss my Grimms' aside.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

self storage

Last week R rented a bazoo and we drove to Ontario where I have family.

I was born in Hamilton. When I was a child, my parents moved to the country. In my private lexicon, the property where we lived is called The Swamp. I believe the correct environmental term is Wetlands, but I am neither a heron nor a mosquito. To me, Wetlands = Swamp. My parents, who took nature photography, and my siblings, who liked to play outside and climb trees, loved it. I didn't. As soon as I possibly could, I left and moved to the city. First Hamilton then Toronto. In 1986 I moved to Montreal.

Since I don't see family often, going back always brings a small--sometimes lesser, sometimes greater--jolt to my sense of who I am. They believe things about me which I feel I've outgrown or that no longer apply. Or that were a misconception from the start. Of course, they think I am who they think I am--until I show up and act like an aberration, disturbing misconceptions which have become so firmly entrenched with the years that they've become truth. What is Alice doing? Boy, has she gotten weird, living in Montreal. To be fair, I probably do the same with them.

The same phenomenon can happen with friends you haven't seen for a long time. You, for example, remember the purple tent dress a friend wore for a whole summer (because she was mourning an ex-boyfriend who'd made a specific comment about the dress, but you don't know that. You only remember the purple dress.) Now, all these years later, when the two of you are supposed to get together over lunch and she walks into the restaurant in a smart suit, you might be so startled that you remind her of the purple tent dress. She won't find the memory cute. She especially won't like that, for all the years since you've last seen each other, you thought she never got past the purple tent dress.

This kind of thing can happen with family members who don't see each other often. With families, it's potentially more problematic because they know you from childhood. Older siblings can even remember when you were born and drove the family crazy with colic. Three months of constant wailing? How can anyone forget that? Not that anyone ever says, "You had colic and drove us all crazy, and every time you say something that bugs me, I'm remembering how you had colic!" But the memory is there. Always there.

This past visit with my family was fine. I'm thinking along these lines because of a disturbing vision I had while on the road going there. We'd left Montreal at 6:30 pm, since R refuses to drive past Toronto any earlier than 12:30 am which is the only time traffic on the DVP moves. I was feeling mind-bent and weary after 6 hours in the car, and was mightily confused by the many signs I kept seeing for SELF STORAGE.
What is self storage? How do people come up with such nonsense jargon? Sure, I can figure out what people want to say. They're advertising storage units. So why not call them storage units? If there's a distinction to be made between storage units that someone else organizes and storage units that you alone organize, why not call them... DIY STORAGE? Or something that makes sense.

Self storage means storing yourself, as in storing your own person--as in buying a coffin.
Or visiting with family, since that's what families do: remember who you were once upon a time, and depending how tenacious/affectionate/aggravating/good-hearted/resentful/indifferent they are, trying to keep that version alive.