Thursday, October 31, 2013

end of october... hallowe'en

Do you see the cat in the window?

I write Hallowe'en with an apostrophe which was how it was spelled when I was learning how to write. It must be another of those UK/US things. Colour, travelled... all those words Blogger and Word claim not to recognize. My texts are sprinkled with red squiggles. (Mind you, I write 'recognize' instead of 'recognise', so I'm not even consistent with my spelling allegiances.)

Everyone asks everyone whether they hand out candy on Hallowe'en. I don't, which (I'm sorry) is too bad for the kids in my neighbourhood, but I can't bring myself to hand out all that white sugar in whatever caramelized, chemicalized, glazed, crunched and chewy form it comes in. Homemade goodies with real ingredients would be acceptable, but if my child came home with homemade anything, I would throw it away. That's sad but that's that. It's the world we live in.

I do love the pageant of carved pumpkins and costumes. I wish Hallowe'en were a day when everyone disguised themselves in costume. Though then I suppose I would wonder about the fantasies and alter-egos people were acting out.

Here are some pix I took today when I was downtown. I like how the man dressed as a manikin didn't just do his head but his hands too. The young woman with the bloody dirndl painted the teeth over her black lipstick. The woman in the towel with Batman was still there an hour later when I walked by.


Sunday, October 27, 2013

big bend national park, texas 2008

For various unconnected reasons I've been thinking of a trip I did with R five years ago to Big Bend National Park in Texas. Dry and rugged terrain unlike anything I'd ever seen.

We flew to San Antonio. What struck me first was the sprawl and breadth of the streets, the overall sense that everything had melted and spread under the blaze of the sky.
Next I noticed the Day of Dead shrines. Día de los muertos. There are lots of Mexicans in Texas (which used to be Mexico) and they've kept much of their culture--for themselves, not just for touristic reasons.

The Day of the Dead was three days earlier, but the shrines were still in place: beribboned and draped, piled with photos, flowers, madonnas, candy skulls and wax skeletons grown soft after three days in the bright sun. We drove past cemeteries we might not have noticed except for the gravestones decorated with balloons and banners as if for a big family party.  

While in San Antonio, we visited the Missions which were compounds built by the Spanish from 1690-1730 (approx) to protect/civilize/colonize the natives. The churches are shells now, with sometimes only a single wall left standing. At one we saw a bride waiting for the photographer to arrive.

Here's a Madonna--not the usual slim and pale Caucasian we see in Canadian churches. Also a crucifix in a bed of cacti.

We'd been told that San Antonio is the hub of culture in Texas. Perhaps it is. I spent a couple of days looking for a bookstore, thinking to pick up a few small-press American books that weren't likely to be sold in Canada. Finally I asked in the Tourist Office. A woman with a big smile informed me that there was NO bookstore in the center of San Antonio--BUT there was a Borders on the outskirts. What a lousy reason to smile. The outskirts of a city in Texas means many miles. It assumes that people who buy books have cars. Borders is like Indigo, right? I went, since it was on our way out of town, but they had the same mainstream books I could have bought at a chain bookstore in Montreal.

On the drive to Big Bend National Park, we saw lots of fun things. For example, in Texas you don't even have to get out of your car to buy a drink or hydrogenated, garlic-powdered, fried snacks. These red barns are drive-through convenience stores.
Notice the sign for deer corn? People like to feed deer. Lots of other places have signs for dressing deer. Once you've fattened them up...

We chose not to drive through the Beverage Barn, but then we were thirsty. We pulled in at a place called The Hog Pen. Despite the rusted car carcasses out front, there seemed to be a building where one might buy drinks. Inside there were no lights. A voice drawled from the darkness, You lookin' for help? R said yes, we wanted cold drinks. How about a root beer? the voice suggested. We said that was fine. I asked if there was a washroom. The voice said, Billy, show the lady the toilet. A skinny kid with freckles jumped from the shadows and brought me outside to a door. He opened the window, reached in to unlatch the door from the inside and gestured for me to make myself at home. When I got back, the man behind the voice had appeared to take R's money for the root beer. He was amused that we were Canadians. He asked what it was like to live with snow all the time. We told him it didn't snow all the time--that, in fact, in the summer we went swimming. The kid with the freckles was agog.

Here's another shot of Texas Hill Country.

It's not all Southern Gothic. We also spent a lovely afternoon at Becker Vineyard where we sat on an enormous veranda with twirling ceiling fans, sipping excellent wine and eating fresh pecans. (Pecans weren't supplied; we'd brought them ourselves.) Behind the veranda were lavender fields, which were not in bloom in November, but still beautiful.


The drive to Big Bend was long and flat. Mile after mile looked just like this.

Stopping for food always felt like a social/cultural experience. At one place the counter was already decorated for Christmas--with tiny fairy lights inside coloured shotgun shells.
Sometimes I felt that when we stepped through a doorway, we'd time-travelled too.

It took the longest time before the mountains of Big Bend finally appeared on the horizon, and even when they did, it still took hours before we got there because the land between us and them was so stretched and flat. See how the road does that perspective line thing off into the distance? (Okay, it's only 6 hrs of driving from San Antonio to Big Bend, but we took all those interesting detours.)

We spent a night in the motel that was in Wim Wender's film, Paris, Texas, which in itself was neat. The motel isn't advertised as such, but we watched the movie a couple of years ago, after going to Texas, and recognized the whitewashed cinder block cabins with the corrugated roofs. Looked it up and yeah, one of the set locations was in Marathon, Texas.

So here are some pictures from Big Bend, an 800,000 acre park with mountains, deserts, buttes, mesas, canyons. On a single hike, we saw miniature palm trees, fir trees, blooming cacti, an armadillo, a road runner, gigantic kamikaze grasshoppers. We looked down onto ancient volcanic crowns. The silence of so much dead rock was astounding. We hiked through a canyon where the marsh grass towered over our heads, and the sand was so dry, it had cracked.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

police on the phone

I came home this afternoon to a message on the answering machine from the police. They were doing an enquête. How bizarre.
But even more bizarre their question: what did the middle initial on my Ontario driver's license stand for?
I moved away from Ontario in 1986. I haven't driven since then. The world should be thankful. I was a reckless driver. Kept forgetting that I was supposed to be in control of the vehicle. Too short to keep my eye on both the road and the speedometer.
But what's this assumption that I used an initial on my Ontario driver's license that I'd never used previously and haven't used since--that can't be found elsewhere in my documentation? For example, my birth certificate.
I mean... if the police are calling me to track down the name that belonged to my middle initial back when I had an Ontario driver's licence, they presumably have access to the rest of my paper trail. It's the only initial I use--when I use an initial.
The police did explain why they were doing their investigation. A couple of months ago I volunteered to work with children within a certain organization, which I cannot name; nor can I write about what I'm going to do there. At the time I agreed to a police check. They seem to be getting around to it. So that's good. People can't simply walk in off the street and infiltrate innocent minds.
I'm looking forward to it. If somewhat taken aback at how thorough the police check is. Or perhaps that's a sign of how insignificant I am... that they had to go looking for evidence that I exist as far back as 1985.

This is an illustration from my old Grimms' fairy tales. Thank you, Fritz Fischer.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

kaiserschmarrn or emperor's mess

By an emperor's mess, I'm not referring to politics or history--a Kaiser is an emperor--but an Austrian dish called Kaiserschmarrn. It looks like scrambled eggs except that it's made with pancake batter.

I grew up knowing that if you wanted pancakes, but didn't feel like standing at the stove and flipping them, you could dump the whole bowl of batter in the pan, let the bottom brown, and then scramble the mess, turning the bits and pieces until they were browned. It makes for a chunky mess but it's faster than making pancakes and it tastes the same. It's served with jam, compote or sprinkled sugar. 

It's called Kaiserschmarrn because it was a favoured dish of Kaiser Franz Joseph I (1830 - 1916). He wasn't the Austro-Hungarian emperor whose assassination led to WWI, but close. He helped botch relations with Serbia and it was a Serbian nationalist who assassinated the Austro-Hungarian heir presumptive, which, if you follow the thread, led to WWI. That's a loose interpretation. I'm talking pancakes here. Whatever else History wants to remember Franz Joseph I for, he was also fond of these messed-up pancakes.

Schmarrn might mean folly or nonsense. Or it relates to the simple messed-up pancakes peasants in 800 B.C. made with hand-milled flour, eggs and rendered fat, and called schmer.

Amazing how linguists earn a livelihood discussing the possible etymology of a word--and what people ate so long ago. I'll have to remember to become a linguist in my next life. I'm getting ready by learning how to say "pen" in four languages. Pen, stylo, kugelschreiber, boligrafo. One of the rare words that's the same gender in all the languages that (so perversely) assign gender to inanimate nouns.

A few weeks ago, when R and I were in the Gaspé, we found a plum tree laden with plums. This is unusual because it used to be believed that the summer on the coast was so short, there was no point in growing anything as delicate as raspberries. Forget fruit trees. However, our neighbours are devoted gardeners who plant all kinds of vegetables and fruit in strategic locations where the plants and trees get a maximum of sunlight and a minimum of exposure. Their's was the plum tree, but they had already boarded up their house and left the coast to return to their winter home. R and I grabbed bags and picked the plums. I cooked some of them down to a thick compote--and remembered Kaiserschmarrn.

I didn't have a recipe--and no access to internet--but it's pancake batter, right? As with pancake batter, there are simpler and fancier versions. You can use cream instead of milk. You can brown them in butter or in oil. You can separate the eggs, beat the whites and fold them into the batter.

I decided to do the egg white thing because it gave me a chance to use the vintage eggbeater a friend had bought for me at a flea market a few years ago when I didn't have $3 in my pocket and he did. Since we have no mixer in our house out in the Gaspé, I brought the eggbeater--in case I ever want to... make piles of whipped cream?

I took a picture of the Kaiserschmarrn too, but it looks so messy--and perhaps unappetizing unless you've smelled it cooking--that you'll just have to take my word for it: it's a great way to make pancakes all at one go. Try it. Just keep turning all the pieces till they're all cooked through. Serve with peach jam, plum compote, maple syrup...

Okay, fine, here's a picture I took off the internet.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

my history of crochet / or: you can probably crochet too

In July of 2012 I went to a lovely wedding, in which this yellow shoe featured.

It was held in the country by a lake and I thought the evening might be cool. I'd decided to wear a blue dress and to make myself a shawl to wear with it. I thought it would be fun to crochet it.
I didn't know how to crochet. When I was growing up, I thought of crochet as a fussy activity that resulted in fancy borders and antimacassars. I like the word antimacassar but wouldn't want any on my furniture.
More recently I was watching a friend who crochets. It's relaxing to follow the path of her hook plying in and out of the pattern she's knotting. Her string of yarn spools off a heathery nest she bought when she was in Edinburgh, or from a funky yarn store close to where she lives in Montreal. She makes all kinds of things, even dresses.

One advantage to crochet is that you can drop your hook or lose it in your bag, pick it up, find a loop and keep crocheting. Try that with knitting! You'd have a disaster.

Did you know that E.M. Forster crocheted?

I watched a few Youtube videos on how to crochet and taught myself how to do stitches. It's not hard if you already know how to knit. I bought a linen/cotton blend and started my shawl.

So it took a while. I wore a red dress to the wedding.

Good thing the bride and groom didn't wait. I finished the shawl last week.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

the sea calls in september

Since we first started coming to this stretch of coastline—before R bought Madonne’s old house and we were still renting a cabin—we used to walk along the beach and wonder about this abandoned bus. It sits at the bottom of a cliff.

We saw it for a few years running when we noticed that someone had put up curtains and blinds. Sometimes there's a kayak in the grass. Last fall we snuck up to look in the windows, expecting a primitive kitchen, maybe a camping cot—and were surprised to see a front-loading washing machine. This past week, we saw that a gas barbecue and a television had been added. R wanted to figure out how the electrical appliances were powered—from the bus engine? with a generator?—but I thought we’d done enough spying just by looking in the windows.

Usually I come to the sea to look at the sea. Water out to the horizon. Sky.
But this time I kept my eyes on the hills where the poplar and birch were starting to change colour. Sept 21, the hills looked like this:

For the next three days, it rained—but not in the way it rains inland. The way it rains by the sea. Wet blew, drizzled, dripped, misted, drummed on the roof.
We still went for walks because that's just something we do. The paths had turned into streams.

Pretty, but wet.
I got fed up. I was wet down the neck of my NOT-rain-proof jacket, wet up the sleeves as far as my elbows, boots sodden, socks squelching.
I'd thought a skirt and tights wouldn't get as wet as trousers. Ha. Ha. Ha.

We spent a lot of time by the fire. It’s a slow-combustion stove, but the general workings of a fire and how to tend it are the same since forever. Do you recall nineteenth-century novels where characters are always raking up the coals? I learned about raking up coals. You waste a lot of heat if you don’t know when and how to aerate. Granted, it’s not something one needs to know how to do in a world of furnaces and stoves. Nowadays, a wood-burning stove is a luxury—and I feel duly pampered when I’m sitting next to it with a book, writing, some yarn, a mug of tea.

The sky eventually lifted and lo, the leaves had turned while they were hidden.

I could go rock clambering along the shore, which satisfies my yen for the sea and my inner mountain goat.

We had two days of brilliant sunshine and went for drier walks up into the hills. Ate cod that we bought at the fishery where you can watch the women cleaning fish through the porthole window behind the cash. Drank wine. Picked plums, which don't normally grow in the Gaspé but our next-door neighbour is a gardener par excellence.

Here’s R at low tide during low tide.