Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Happy Canada Day!

It's Canada Day - 8 a.m. in Provence, still the middle of the night back home. Tonight my mother will sit on her sister Do's balcony with a glass of white wine, and the two British expats will watch the fireworks explode over Parliament Hill. My Vancouver-born daughter will see many old friends at Chris Kitney's annual wild Canada Day bash, which she's been attending since the year high school ended. Chris Kitney is an important young man in our annals - he was in the basement with me when the fire started next to us; he burned his hands trying vainly to put it out.

My Ottawa-born son is in the Muskokas doing landscaping while waiting for the strike in Toronto to be over so the ferries resume and he can go back to work on the islands. Some, possibly even a great deal of beer will be consumed tonight, to celebrate our country. In Gordes, Canada will be toasted with a glass or three of rosé.

Here in this densely-packed country overloaded with rules, I miss the fresh, straightforward openness of Canadians and the absurd vastness of our country, those thousands of almost empty miles. Bears, mountains, poutine, Molson's, Margaret Atwood. I love the fact that most Canadians aren't sure of the exact words of our national anthem. Have we changed "in all our sons command" or not? Oh Canada.

But I also remember each landing back in Toronto from Europe, the highway drive in from the airport through a wasteland of industrial buildings, a lake barely visible behind a forest of apartments, the chaotic jumble of new and newer buildings. Each time, seeing it all afresh, I've exclaimed, "It's so UGLY here!" It would be different landing in Halifax with its pretty wooden houses and the sea, or in Vancouver, that loveliest of cities with sea and mountains. But Toronto, no two ways about it, is ugly.

It's a great, vibrant city, and I've just learned that Christopher Hume, the architecture critic for the Toronto Star, has named "any street in Cabbagetown" among the ten best streets of Toronto. My own tree-filled neighbourhood with its rows of Victorian brick is anything but ugly. But when you come back from somewhere beautiful, Toronto hurts the eyes. And as I sit here in Provence in July, the thought of Toronto in February and March - well, let's just not think about it.

Or about Stephen Harper either.

Toronto may not be beautiful in general but parts of it are and it's home. At the end of August I will be overjoyed to be back in Canada, my beloved country.


Meanwhile, back in France, time to talk about food - did some more cooking yesterday, from a recipe ripped out of the newest Elle magazine. Tuesday mornings, the Gordes market fills the village square. I was amazed at how it's grown in the last ten years, and, this time, at how few food stalls there are. Most of the stalls are aimed at tourists - filmy cotton clothing, hats, lavender, Provencal tablecloths, salad bowls, soaps. Incongruously, there was a group of people native I'd guess to Bolivia or Ecuador, wearing American Indian garb, floor-length feather head-dresses, loin cloths and ankle bells, dancing about to some vaguely South American Muzak. I've seen them at other markets; I guess it's their moneymaking schtick.

At some point I'll buy a dozen lavender sachets as gifts, but yesterday, we needed groceries - peaches, apricots, tomatoes, nectarines. I bought dried sausage from Arles and stopped at the olive lady's stall - a huge array of olives, nuts, dried fruit - and bought several kinds of olives and some tapenade, olive paste, and almonds. At the butcher's I bought a chicken - had to ask him to cut off its feet and head, thank you very much. Almost didn't make it back up to the house - it was well over 30 degrees by 11 a.m., broiling hot, breathless. Panting and sweating profusely by the time I got home with a backpack of supplies. When it's that hot, the sun can feel like a punishment; I understand now why during the day, Denis keeps the shutters down and the doors closed.

Following the recipe, I stuffed the chicken with black olives, sprigs of fresh rosemary and garlic cloves, then put more garlic, olives and rosemary with olive oil in a baking dish, rolled the chicken in it, covered the dish and baked it, with a pan of new potatoes also rolled in olive oil. In an hour and a half, there was dinner. The house smelled divine and the taste was pretty good too. Even the Frenchman thought so.

Tonight, the leftover chicken and potatoes will be good, but oh, for one of Chris Kitney's fat hamburgers doused in ketchup and an ear of fresh corn and some Caesar salad. Mmm.

One more thing: ol' Eagle Eyes, Bruce in Vancouver, pointed out an error a few posts back. I wrote that we had melon as an aperitif, but the aperitif is the drink before the meal. The melon was the hors d'oeuvre or the entrée. Thanks for the correction.

Happy Canada Day, Brucie. Glorious and free.

Monday, June 29, 2009

in the garden in Gordes

What can I hear as I sit here in the garden at nearly 9 p.m. with my little white Mac? The drilling cicadas have all gone to bed. Birds trill, an occasional one flaps past. Flies buzzing, wind breezing, a neighbour’s voice and barking dog from afar. If only these flies weren’t so noisy. There’s a car passing on the road above. Two cars. Ah, the rumble of an airplane, very distantly. More birds. More flies. A child chatting somewhere, and a mother’s response. Such cascades of birdsong - what are they saying? The sky is the palest blue to the left, richer blue to the right, puffy cumulus clouds straight ahead. A strenuous flapping of wings. My fingers on this machine.

For a writer, this is the planet of perfection. Today, after Denis left at midday for work, it was just me and my thoughts and dreams and stories at the desk in my room, which is the childhood room of my goddaughter. I tapped, thought, tapped, and went outside to warm up, because my host is so strict about the windows and shutters trapping the cool air inside and keeping out the hot that the house is like a cave, cold even when it’s roasting on the other side of the walls. So I went out to look at the garden, pull a weed or two, warm up my feet in the scorching sun, go back to work.

At 1.30, time for melon, ham sandwich, salad, chocolate. This is the summer of the ham sandwich, that’s for sure. The Frugal Traveller in the Sunday New York Times wrote about how to do Paris cheaply: picnics was his great idea. Ham sandwiches, in other words. Been there; done that.

Reading, email, and then, when the shops open again after the siesta – who can comprehend tourist stores that close for lunch for several hours, still? – I walked down the scorching cliff-side path to the village. There's a place on the path where the houses and trees stop and there's a panoramic view of Provence, its hills, farms, fields divided neatly into rectangles, houses, roads - with nothing stirring. Like looking at a giant photograph or painting. Ran into a German couple on the path, extremely red of face, who wanted to know where they were; I was happy to tell them, though I wanted to say, you are in Provence, which sometimes, like today, is heaven.

Arrived in the sleepy village and went to the stationary store to buy this week’s Elle magazine. Lynn says it’s not worth buying Elle in the summer, it’s all bathing suits and the staff are on holiday, but in this one there’s an article on the "normal" Frenchwoman who killed three of her new-born babies, and on whether the burqua should be allowed in French schools. I fingered newspapers – the International Herald Tribute, which has most of my favourite comic strips; the Telegram from England with a big article on the family life of Michael Jackson, but resisted. (Even the ultra-intellectual, serious Le Monde had a front page article on Michael Jackson. A sad, sad story.)

And then marched up the broiling trail home, to drink a very large glass of cold water, have a swim, do some yoga exercises under the trees, breathing and stretching, and then go back to work.

Denis came home and made a quiche in seconds – ready-made pie crust, toss in a packet of lardons – pork bits – cream, spices and Swiss cheese and put it in the oven. I washed lettuce leaves and in half an hour we ate, discussing, this time, whether the idea of negative and positive voices is a North American construction, when to him positive and negative are a matter of choice, balance and self-development. He told me he is in fact extremely lazy but has managed to overcome this handicap. I said of all the words I would use to describe him, lazy was the last. So we agreed to disagree, as we always do.

And now he is doing something somewhere and I’m here in the garden, tapping to the merriment of birds and the fading of the light. The sky has darkened; the clouds are dark grey with a lining of red gold. The child still babbles and the mother still responds, and I still listen, and tap.

Two hours later: All is not perfect in this Garden of Eden. There are bugs. Big bugs, small bugs, many bugs. I had to ask Denis to remove, carefully, two enormous Daddy Longlegs that had decided to keep me company in my room. Right now I'm at my desk, it's nighttime, and the quantities of winged creatures trying to get into my room is a tad offputting for a bugphobe like myself. There is a big horned beatle - I mean beetle, the other spelling is automatic - on the wall outside, preventing me from opening my windows to close the shutters. I will therefore wake at dawn, with the light, because of my stupid phobia. But there's no way I'm opening my window and getting near that enormous black creature with too many legs.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

meals in paradise

Two days ago, the cicadas in the garden abruptly started their piercing song. This afternoon, I was lying on a chaise on the lawn trying to finish Bill Bryson's book about Shakespeare, and one cicada in the trees above my head was so deafening I threw little stones in the air to shut it up, at least till I got the book read. Such are the sufferings of a summer's day in Gordes, Provence.

As I've written, my friend Lynn is in Lille judging candidates for the Capes, one of the gruelling French academic exams. She will spend the next four weeks in meeting rooms analysing papers and people. In the meantime, her husband Denis and I are house-mates in their spectacular home in the village on top of a mountain, he at work in Cavaillon most days, returning in the evenings; we also spend the weekends together. I've been earning my keep; an indefatigable worker, he sharpened his hedge-clippers and spends hours trimming some of the many bushes and trees around their huge property. My job is to follow him with the wheelbarrow, gather up the detritus and dump it elsewhere. Somehow, working in someone else's garden is easier than in one's own, particularly if the garden is in Provence.

Two of our most important discussions of a weekend day involve lunch and dinner. Denis is, as perhaps I've noted, French. This means that lunch and dinner are important discussions. For example, on Saturday he had to go to Avignon to buy a shirt and shoes for the wedding in July, so, because he detests shopping and I, for some reason, do not, I went with him. We spent the morning shopping at dear Galeries Lafayette and at the Mephisto store in Avignon, stopping also at a garden store and a fruit vendor by the road on the way home, returning at 1.30. (A great success this morning, I said to him. You actually spent money, and I didn't.) I was hungry and, I assume, so was he. At home, I would have made a quick bunch of ham sandwiches - again with the ham sandwiches! Lunch done.

Here, after the requisite food discussion, I ended up grilling two porkchops smeared with Dijon and herbs on the barbeque while Denis made a zucchini gratin. We made a cucumber salad, and I remembered to put the cheese outside in the sun to warm it up well before we'd want it. In half an hour, we were eating lunch. Aperitif: melon. Then - Denis likes to eat meat and vegetables separately - the chops, then the steamed zucchini with a crust of melted Emmental cheese, then the cucumbers - Denis does not like to eat more than one thing in a salad, a salad means lettuce of one kind or other or some other vegetable, alone - in vinaigrette, then cheese with his homemade bread - all this with rose - then peaches and apricots, then ice cream, and then espresso.

That's lunch. Then at seven we have the next discussion: supper. Which can be a simpler meal, but still requires thought, preparation, and serving all in the proper order at the proper temperature with the right utensils.

As you can imagine, I am learning quite a bit about France from this man. Our North American society is so vastly much more casual, ad hoc, laissez-faire, than this one, though this one is changing quickly, with "le fast food." My French friend almost never eats a piece of fruit or a vegetable out of season; you eat apricots now and when they're over, you don't eat them again until next year. You do not eat apples till the fall. And - this came out today - chocolate is better eaten in winter, not in summer. Even the Frenchwoman at lunch with us had never heard of that one.

We had a guest today - Isabelle, an old friend of us both, called out of the blue, said she was nearby and would drop in if she could. A guest coming for Sunday lunch - this required immediate attention. Thirty years ago, Isabelle gave me her recipe for tabbouleh, which I have made innumerable times since - it's fail-safe and delicious. (Recipe to follow.) So in her honour, I made her tabbouleh and then another ratatouille, since the window sill in Denis's kitchen was covered with eggplants, peppers, zucchini and tomatoes. If someone out there knows a better recipe than ratatouille, or even one almost as good, with those vegetables, please let me know. We had no onions, so Denis zipped down to the village on his youngest daughter's Mobylette, returning also with olives for the aperitif.

There was a discussion before the meal about when we would serve the tabbouleh - it was cold, unlike the other parts of the meal, so should we have it before as the first course or after as the salad course? I blinked in bewilderment - can't you just pile serving dishes on the table and choose yourself? No, you cannot. Once this important decision was made, we sat at the table on the terrace for two and a half hours, discussing a wide range of topics, mostly our children and other people's. We talked through the aperitif, then the meal - again, in order and with red wine, barbequed sausages and merguez, then ratatouille, then cold tabbouleh, then cheese, then ice cream, then espresso. And then, a swim or we would all have passed out.

What a thrill, to hear these French people say, "Elle est delicieuse, ta ratatouille." She is delicious, your ratatouille. Because ratatouille is female.

Okay, enough about the meals, though they occupy some time, and will again next week because I have undertaken to cook an evening meal for Denis when he returns from work in the evening. Schools have substitute teachers; I'm a substitute wife, a position I am rather enjoying. When we were shopping yesterday, Denis kept asking the opinion of the salesladies, who smiled expectantly at me, waiting for me to leap in and tell him what to buy. When I didn't, they didn't know how to react. What a strange marriage, I can imagine them saying as we left.

Next week looks like paradise: the days alone with computer and books (and swimming pool and garden full of oleanders and lavender) with as my only responsibility, besides a little garden maintenance, to cook a meal satisfactory for a French male of a certain age. Hmm. Actually, quite a daunting responsibility, but one I undertake bravely. After all, my ratatouille, she is delicious. And anyway, even not very good food ready for you when you get home is better than none.

I have finished both Bill Bryson's Shakespeare bio and the Guernsey Literary Society. Both great summer reads, recommended. I did find that the Guernsey book faltered some at the end, got a little sticky sweet. But a wonderfully happy ending in a book detailing an important piece of neglected history - as my friend Daniel would say, fighting against amnesia - and full of rich characters - can't beat that. Brava to the writers.

Now it's almost 9 p.m. Denis and I are both tapping at our Macs on the terrace dining table. The cicadas are buzzing still; the birds are twittering sleepily, the wind rustles the small, spiky leaves of the green oak (chene vert) trees. We had a simple supper: melon, salad (allowed: a bit of cheese and lots of fresh basil with the lettuce), fruit, yogurt. No, yogurt, then fruit. This is important. Denis asked why it's only Mediterranean societies - France, Italy, Spain, Portugal etc. - which celebrate the importance of gathering for a lengthy meal, not just on special occasions but every day.

I said that in North America in the Fifties, families ate together every night when Dad got home from work. What they ate wasn't very good but they ate together. Then came television, and then came TV dinners, and that was the end of that. Under the guise of making life easier for women, we lost family dinners, the all-important gathering to eat, speak and listen. I know families now who never eat together; couples who never cook. I have learned here that it really doesn't take that long to make a real meal. And then to sit down and taste it, and talk.

Nine soundings of the bell, in the distance, from the village.

Isabelle's fail-safe tabbouleh.

Put about a cup of couscous in a bowl. Add: a bunch (4? 5?) of juicy tomatoes cut up with all their juice (or during a Canadian winter, a can or so of chopped tomatoes); a lot of parsley and mint, chopped; a small onion, chopped fine; 6 or so tablespoons of vegetable oil; the juice of at least one lemon, maybe a bit more depending on the lemon; salt and pepper. Stir well, put into the fridge for a few hours. Stir and taste regularly. If it's dry, add a bit more tomato juice or, to taste, lemon. Serve decorated with mint leaves.

Isabelle told me at lunch that now she marinates raisins in something and adds them. I'll get the details and get back to you. Bon appetit.

There's the moon.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

not on strike!

Soon I'm getting the train back to Avignon so, seasoned traveller in France that I am, I went this morning to the gare to see if the train service is on strike. It seems that today, for once, it's not. Incroyable.

Then continued on the Galeries Lafayette where I found the beauteous half-price Lejaby underwear I'd tried yesterday and not bought, and bought it. I am wearing it now, and I feel like a queen. Too bad no one can see it, but I know it's there and carry myself accordingly. Lynn tells me that's the secret to the sexiness of French women; they are all wearing gorgeous underwear and carry themselves accordingly. Presumably French men divine their secret too.

Did go to see the Almadovar film last night - "Etreintes Brisees" here, Broken Embraces. Did not like it much, unlike his other films. Too much exposition done way too slowly, laced with melodrama - one poor wonderful actress having to twitch and look distressed in every single shot - and predictability. What brought it to life was the stunning Penelope Cruz. How can a woman be that beautiful and that talented? It doesn't seem fair. The Le Monde review that I just read said that the film, which was entered into competition at Cannes this year but didn't win anything, shows that even when a good filmmaker doesn't have any new ideas, he can still make an interesting film. I beg to differ.

Just ate too much, once more, of that perfect bread - got to get out of Montpellier just to escape that bakery. It's actually cloudy here today, not the usual scorching sun. I'm off for a wander and a walk and then I'll close down Julie's. Sorry to leave her place and all these amazing books. There's one right here on the desk called "Lima, Peking, Venice ... 1688, one year in the world." Reading the title, I thought, what about us, what about Toronto or New York? And then I realised that we in the new world barely existed as societies in 1688. Made me feel very young; an upstart.

Julie also has a bobble-head doll of Sigmund Freud and a fridge magnet of an angry-looking woman in a shop who's saying, "This is a feminist bookstore. There IS no humour section."

I'm reading The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society because Chris left it for me; otherwise it looks just too winsome and I would never have picked it up. A hundred pages in it's terrific, however, a great read, perfect for the train which is not on strike.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

here again

What a marvellous city Montpellier is. Tonight, among other events, I have a choice of a free concert in a medieval church, a free lecture by writers at the library, perhaps something at the opera, I haven't checked - and the newest Pedro Almadovar film at the Cineplex I went to last night - all of these choices a 5 minute walk away. Not to mention the urge to do a bit more shopping, which rest assured I will not do. When I came out of the art gallery this afternoon, I heard music on the long, wide, central promenade under the towering plane trees, and found a modern dance show on a padded platform. Two large middle-aged gentlemen in black - not your usual dance troupe.

It's hard to resist shopping here, because most of the streets are lined with shops and all of them now are featuring sales. But I shopped no more. Well, I did go to check a great shoe store but found nothing in my size, natch.

This afternoon I went to the Musee Fabre, the art gallery of Montpellier. It's huge, in a spacious old building, with modern art as well as the old stuff. But a lot is disappointing, a bit second-rate - the whole bottom floor seemed to be imitation Poussins, pastoral arcadian scenes but just not like his. It's interesting to see art that's a touch mediocre, to try to decide what the difference is between first rate and second rate and not even on the charts. Lots of the paintings were almost Hallmark-esque - the colours too bright, the light too harsh, cheeks too pink, skin too rosy, blues too blue and sentiment overflowing. Yet painted with great skill. But not great.

I wondered about the artists who painted Jesus as a blonde, both as an adorable golden-haired baby and a grown man. Here was a Jew born to Jews in the desert - just how many natural blondes are to be found there?

There was a marvellous painting of a woman called Clothilde de Surville, painted by Hillemacher in 1853. She was a fifteenth century poetess and mother; the painting showed her with her books on her right side and a bouncing baby cradled in her arm on her left, near a revealed breast. She's looking at the baby, not the books. There's a dog at her feet too, needing undoubtedly to be fed and walked and poop-scooped. "She was divided between writing and motherhood," said the caption, and I thought, I've found my patron saint. Saint Clothilde forever!

Upstairs, much better stuff - Corot, Ingres, Courbet, a whole room of Bazille - who painted Renoir, who then painted him in return - great Impressionists, a few Monets, a lovely Matisse.

Then I went to a special exhibit on Alphonse Mucha, the man responsible for those long, lavish, art nouveau posters of Sarah Bernhardt and others. The exhibit was extensive and terrific, including two stunning film clips - one of Sarah Bernardt in Hamlet, duelling in black tights with tiny feet and a big sword as she talks and talks, and the death scene in La Dame aux Camelias in which she talks herself to death. She had a high little voice and took an inordinate amount of time flopping about, talking and dying. Thrilling to see one of the greatest actresses of all time - so often, acting is lost forever.

And then they showed a series of films taken by Thomas Alva Edison of the Universal Exhibition in Paris in 1900 - Tom the American with his movie camera shooting from the elevator of the Eiffel Tower and at its base, horse-drawn carriages and omnibuses going by, the women with parasols and the men all in hats. Wonderful. Not that long ago, 1900, really. But in France, 1700, 1500, 1200 don't seem that far away either.

I bought a half bottle of good wine at Nicolas, complaining to the man that in Canada it's almost impossible to buy good wine in half bottles for us singletons. He sighed understandingly and showed me his superb selection. Then a delicious big salad from - where else? - Monoprix, and dinner is done. And then I'll head for Almadovar; can't resist good movies only steps away. Last night I saw an English movie with French subtitles and a French audience - sometimes I was the only one laughing. Tonight, a Spanish movie with French subtitles. Outside Julie's window, as I write, clay red roofs, the bright blue sky even now, at 7, and the ever-present swallows.

I was homesick for a bit back there, but now, I'm 100% here.

wind in my sales

If it's Wednesday, this must be Montpellier. No mistral here - hot hot sun, wonderful. By July the hot hot sun might not be so wonderful, but after the chill of that aggressive Provencal wind, it's great to feel some placid, soothing heat.

I've been complaining to you about having nowhere to put my weary head - well, not quite, but about the travails of actually RENTING - that is, finding a place to pay for when now I'm used to living rent-free. But here I am in a marvellous situation - I have two sets of keys. My friend Lynn's place is small and cool but after 4 or 5 p.m., the noise level from the bar below begins to rise until it's intolerable. My new friend Julie's place is big and quiet. So yesterday I spent the day at Lynn's and the evening and night at Julie's. How ideal is that?

Julie's is extraordinary, in a very old, dank building - huge rooms with ornate moulding on the ceiling and all around the doors and windows - giant windows they are, and giant closets and two fireplaces. For some reason, the bathroom - that is, the room with bath and sink- is just off the bedroom, and the toilet is at the other end of the apartment. C'est comme ca, en France. Julie left me yellow sticky notes all over the place, explaining how things work - very welcoming. What is wonderful about both places is that both women are linguists and thus most interested in words and have a great collection of books. I could sit in either for weeks and not move.

But instead last night was movie night. There's a cineplex just three minutes away, equidistant from either place; last night I saw "Good Morning, England," a Richard Curtis film about the success of the pirate boats playing rock music off the British coast in 1966. It features marvellous actors having the time of their lives - Philip Seymour Hoffman adorable as a grizzled American DJ, Bill Nighy superb as the boat's owner, the always odd Rhys Ifans as the superstar D.J. in velvet coat and feathered hat, and poor Kenneth Branagh as the government stooge who's out to sink the boat. It captures the joyful idiocies of the Sixties, the innocence, and most of all, the importance of that music and what it did for our souls. Highly recommended. Good time guaranteed.

And this morning, I did it, friends - I got through the famous Sales and survived. Yesterday I went to Galeries Lafayette to scope out the stuff, picked out a few things that interested me, and today, I confess I was there at 8 a.m. as the store opened - a special opening time for the first day of the Sales. People poured in. The longest line in the shopping centre, though, was outside a lingerie store - this is France, after all. I headed straight for the things I'd picked out, tried them on again to make sure - but today, unlike yesterday, they were 50% off. Bought them before the giant line-ups started at the cash and was done in 20 minutes. I went upstairs to lingerie - I am in France, after all - and after much trying found things in my size, but by now the line-up at the cash was impossible. I ascertained that there were several in my size and left, will return tomorrow morning. (It's also five minutes away.)

I can see why Lynn waits for the sales; 50, 40, even 30 % off makes quite a difference. I did find my famous purple pants on sale, 30% off - if I'd waited two months I would have saved 30 euros but I have worn them lots in the meantime so I don't mind. But when I bought the pants I tried on the t-shirt that went with them and decided I could wait till the sales. Bought the t-shirt yesterday.

As I am wont occasionally to say, woo hoo!

I got a free espresso on the way out - the shopping centre was advertising "petit dejeuner gratuit" but had run out of pain au chocolat. The coffee was good though, fuelling me for one more sortie to the main street five minutes away, where I looked at several things I'd noticed while shopping with Lynn last week. But they were not reduced enough to make them worth buying, so I desisted. There is the most perfect and wonderful scarf and I walked up and down in it again for a while, just my colours and the floatiest silk, but even on sale, it's 75 euros. Just not within the realm of possibility for a scarf.

I am now in a completely different colour scheme - I've been wearing greens and blacks for a long time and now am plunged into purple and mauve - back to my teens in the late sixties when I wore almost exclusively purple. And the styles are from then too - the same puffy little tops and swirly dresses I wore then. What looked good at 18 does not necessarily look good at 58, though, and not just because the styles are too little girlie - I am in better shape, more accepting of my body now than I was then and see no reason to wear shapeless clothes. I spent my 20's in maternity tops because I didn't look like Twiggy. Not going back there, thank you very much.

So now it's mid-morning, a whole day to explore Montpellier some more, and to work and read, and of course eat - the best bakery in France, I reminded myself yesterday, is just down the street, and I'd devoured half the loaf before it got home. The city is - the only word is festive, full of life - that impossibly grand Place de la Comedie with its ornate meringue opera hall at one end, and the narrow streets crammed with ancient buildings and great shops. Last night I walked back to Julie's after the movie with almost as many people around me as at midday. Lots of "sans abri" - homeless kids, sleeping right on the streets with their dogs. This is a city almost entirely without sidewalks. I still find it hard to believe that the trams run right through the streets without any protection or elevation - you just watch out for them and get out of the way. We would never do that at home, too much risk of being sued. Here, they seem to assume you're smart enough not to want to be run down by a tram. At home, we assume nothing of the sort.

Just admiring my new mauve tank top. I'm sorry to be so shallow. The world is a mess, the economy is a shambles and I'm at Galeries Lafayette at 8 a.m. to buy more unnecessary stuff, surrounded by thousands of people doing the same thing. My justification is that I don't buy new clothes at home, almost entirely second-hand, and I won't pass up this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to shop the sales in one of the two style centres of the planet. So if you see me looking particularly chic one day - in mauve - you will know: Montpellier, June 24th, 2009.

P.S. Many thanks to both Penny and Bruce who explained "rising bollards." They're posts that rise and fall if cars need or are blocked egress. I sort of suspected as much, but still, "rising bollards" is a marvellous phrase, is it not? It would make a good name for a rock band.

Monday, June 22, 2009

the mistral, encore

I'm feeling like a little pig, and not just because I'm in France and want to eat everything in sight. The mistral is still blowing like the big bad wolf - huffing and puffing, it does feel like it's blowing the house down, so much creaking and groaning in here. The wind is pummelling the walls, battering the trees - impossible to sit outside even in the relative shelter of the terrace. The portulaca flowers in the garden are shut up tight, and I don't blame them. Why subject themselves to that brutal force?

A day of reckoning. I counted the bedrooms here, not including Lynn and Denis's - there are four in the house and two, more or less, in the little studio house they also own next door. That's six bedrooms (all single beds) for - well, hard to tell exactly how many people are coming to Jessica's wedding on July 25 and will be staying here, but at least 20 - her four siblings with their spouses and two children, Lynn's sister Karen from Montreal with her 2 children, various Blin relatives with their children, Denis's mother who has Altzheimer's, and many friends of the bride. The groom is from Australia so no friends of his are coming, but his family is and will be lodged elsewhere. This morning, I saw the math, the scores of people who will need a place to stay divided into the available lodging. And I went to Google - thank God for Google - and got busy.

Much checking out websites, looking at guesthouses, b and b's, hotels. I walked to the village to get information from the tourist centre, drove out past Lynn and Denis's along the Route de Murs to see what was there, and called a bunch of places. Of course, Gordes is one of the most scenic and therefore expensive villages in Provence - not easy to find affordable accomodation in the middle of high season. The hotel in town - hotel and SPA, it says, and I invented a new rule, always avoid anything that's a SPA - is at least 200 euros a night.

It took all day, but success - I have booked two guest houses a five minute drive from here, or a 20 minute walk. I just drove out to one to pay a deposit - a beautiful stone house with big garden full of lavender and buddleia. Robert's family has lived there for 5 generations; his wife Christine is "nordique" - from the north of France. He held in his arms a tiny puppy, a Father's Day present - "le petit dernier," Christine said, because their 3 daughters have almost left home. It will be a wonderful place to stay for a week, getting out of everyone's hair here and arriving at Lynn's after breakfast to help and visit. And the other place looks wonderful too. I realised this morning - I'm not a student any more. I don't have to camp and be beholden. There's money to spend, not a lot but enough, and this is the time to spend it. Woo hoo!

The day after tomorrow, however, I will try not to spend it. I'm going to Montpellier tomorrow after making complex arrangements - Denis is driving to work in Cavaillon so I'll come in with him, get the train from Cavaillon to Avignon and the next train from Avignon to Montpellier. I have a choice of two places to stay, Lynn's which has air-conditioning but is noisy and Julie's which has no air conditioning but is quiet. And on June 24th, the sales begin. I can go to Galeries Lafayette and look at stuff on sale, and also the main streets, all five minutes away from either of my possible homes. I will try not to spend money, but if I do, it will be in the knowledge that at least the stuff is vastly reduced in price.

After supper this evening, Denis showed me his collection of old leather-bound books, including a "Pensees de Pascal" published in 1803 with the words "roi" and the date cut out inside, because it was published before the revolution at the behest of the king. What a thing to have on your bookshelf, with 20 or 30 like it. He also told me tonight, as we dined on leftover pork roast, ratatouille and tarte tatin aux abricots - even better the next day! - that McDonald's has effected a miracle in France. It has changed its style here, makes all of its restaurants different and unique to the region. The one in Besancon, said Denis, is beautiful, made all of wood. Because the buildings are different and interesting and the food, for what it is, isn't bad - the coffee of course is espresso and the beer is cold - the French don't mind McDonald's any more. Imagine what a company of that power has had to go through to make a success in this country, like no other.

I think this wind could drive people mad, and has done so. But not a Canadian. I know from wind.

a few more pictures

Just wanted to share a few more images with you:

The bustling hamlet of Potterspury

Yarnton Manor, where I spoke in Oxford

explanation, please

Going to classes in Oxford

Penny on the sheep farm bed and breakfast near Stratford

Place de la Comedie on a typically dark day in Montpellier

Sunday, June 21, 2009


This is the first time I've counted the weeks till I return to Toronto. Nine and a half weeks. That doesn't sound like a long time, though more than two months does. I know the days will fly by, as the time I've spent in Europe so far has.

But right now, despite the wonderfulness of it all, I want to go home.

a really big lunch

It's Sunday morning in Gordes; the church bells rang at 10.30 and Denis went off to mass on his bicycle. I was already in the village shopping for lunch - pork roast and ratatouille. First thing this morning, Denis made bread in his bread machine and a tarte tatin aux abricots, because apricots are in season and we had too many of them. He caramelised butter and sugar in a heavy pan, packed the bottom with apricots sliced in half, added almond syrup and cinnamon and cooked them slowly on the stove top for half an hour or so. Then he cooled them, added a top of thawed "pate feuillete" and baked it all in the oven for another half hour. The final and most thrilling step is the turning out of the tarte onto a platter - if the fruit has not stuck, you end up with the crust on the bottom and a stunning arrangement of beautiful apricots on top.

Three p.m. We put the pork roast in the oven with garlic and fresh herbs, and I made a rata, also with thyme and basil from the garden. Denis brought out a bottle of champagne because it's Father's Day in France, and he is the father of five children and the grandfather of two. We ate olives and drank champagne and toasted fatherhood and talked about "meres porteuses" - surrogate mothers - the raising of children, the necessity and yet destructiveness of feminism, ending inevitably in difficult issues like abortion, cloning and the uses and abuses of therapy. He ran a L'Arche community for many years but is now a psychologist in private practice.

And then, talking the while and finishing the champagne, we ate pork roast and ratatouille, then cheese with his homemade bread - chevre, banon, Roquefort and Camembert - then his divine tarte tatin aux abricots (two slices each), and, to finish, an espresso with some chocolate. All this, on the terrace overlooking the garden, as the mistral winds blew.

Because the mistral is still blowing fiercely. Yesterday morning, Chris and I became acquainted with this phenomenon - that one day it's 38 degrees and the next it's chilly with a relentless wind. Chris ended up wearing three layers of clothing and I was bundled up too; though the sun was hot, the wind was deadly. Branches were sailing across the roads and in Avignon we saw an old lady I was sure was going to be toppled by the gale force blast. We did see a fire-truck on a narrow street dealing with an emergency - pieces of a high wall were being blown down onto the sidewalk below, so the fireman in his cherry-picker was hammering the wall to bring the pieces down himself. Extraordinary.

Chris and I spent Saturday wandering around Avignon before his train - having lunch, stopping for coffee, poking into shops and interesting places. He bought a few more shirts at Monoprix and a new, bigger suitcase to carry them in; I found a great second hand clothing store where I bought a skirt for myself and several things for the Blin grandchildren for a grand total of six euros - nine dollars. The wind blew, the sun shone and the city was beautiful.

Finally it was time for us to say goodbye. Time for new adventures for us both - he off to friends near Toulouse and I in Lynn's car, without my chauffeur now, back to Gordes. I returned to an empty house, switched on my computer and began, for the first time in more than a month, to read the work begun in Paris. Back to work. I am happy it's so.

But right now - Denis home from Versailles and not at work on a Sunday - I am so full of lunch and champagne I could doze off in this chair. In fact ... excuse me for a moment. I'll get back to you soon.

5.30 I don't usually nap, but I couldn't keep my eyes open - had to lie down because my brain had ceased to function.. That's what half a bottle of champagne and a tarte aux abricots in a high wind does to you on a Sunday afternoon. When I awoke, Denis handed me a book he'd told me about: "The Star of Redemption" by a German-Jewish philosopher called Franz Rosenzweig, 589 pages of philosophy translated from German to French. As well as feeding them well, Denis likes to keep people busy physically and intellectually. So - to work.

Friday, June 19, 2009

One more.

Nature boy.

Friday in Gordes

Finally, I've downloaded my photos and done my usual clumsy, out-of-order job of posting them on the blog. But you'll get the idea. I'll try not to get so far behind again.

This afternoon, the village of Roussillon, a tiny village built on red soil - unbearably picturesque.
And as you can see, there were cats there.

Time for dinner.

a few more, to give you the flavour

the Peacemaker today with another of the innumerable pussycats

the "Maison du Costume Contadin" - museum of clothing in Pernes-les-Fontaines - crazy for those quilts and umbrellas

the tough life in Gordes - cherries, glass of rouge, computer

The Peacemaker in Provence

... with Denis at dinner in Gordes

... with plane trees in Fontaine de Vaucluse

... with meringues

... with dinner, in an improvised tea-towel apron

... with one of many doggies

pictures from England

The house where my mother was born in Potterspury - in the room behind the upper left-hand window. (The roof then was thatch.)

The schoolchildren in Potterspury

Penny and Beth hiking near Sheffield

Paul McCartney's house

Shakespeare's house

June pictures

Chris, the lord, in Gordes.

Lynn and Beth in Montpellier.


A rhapsodic commentary, not on France this time, but on friendship. Specifically, right now, the friendship between Christopher and me. We met in 1975 at the Arts Club Theatre in Vancouver and formed an instant bond that has endured ever since, despite cross-country moves, children, illness; I've written about his extraordinary life several times in the Globe. Here in France, people take us for a middle-aged couple. Yesterday, as he bent over, crooning yet again to a small dog in a doorway - "Oh, buddy, look at you, buddy," as the animal rolled over to have his belly stroked - the dog's owner grinned and said, "Il aime bien les chiens, votre mari." He certainly does, and just about everything else besides.

We are a marriage of true minds, Chris and I, brother and sister, family, best friends, one gay and one straight, with a profound bond of trust, love, understanding, respect, tolerance, and laughter. He thinks I can be impatient and driven (which I am sometimes, no, occasionally); I wish sometimes he would stop his silly jokes (which he won't), and that's about as far as our disagreements go.

We did the Enneagram test last night. I'm not a believer in simplistic answers to complex questions but of all the personality tests, I think this one is interesting and thought-provoking. I had thought Chris was "The Enthusiast" but no, he is "The Peacemaker," seeking spiritual connection, dreading separation. It's absolutely right about my adopted friend the Buddhist. And I am, without question, "The Helper." Today, this helper's heart is heavy because her dear friend is leaving tomorrow, going on with his journey and leaving me to mine. I will miss him deeply.

But it will be good for me to be alone again. For the next while, I will spend the days by myself in this beautiful place, to be joined by Denis most evenings. Time to work, write, read, take stock. Also swim, walk in the sun and eat cheese, let's not forget. Chris and I spent the morning working in the huge garden here - well, to tell the truth, he started when he awoke at 5.30 and I joined him at 8, so he did most of the work - but with his massive labours and my lesser ones, the garden here looks mighty fine - weeded, planted, raked, tidied, the soil turned over. Chris speaks to plants too, as well as animals, birds and insects. "Oh, buddy," he says to a wasp struggling in the swimming pool, "let's get you out," and he does.

After Chris leaves, every time I look at the flowers we've just planted, I will hear him loving them. I will feel him loving me, and I will send my love to him. He deserves as much love as the world can give him, because he has never stopped giving the world as much as he can.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Filling in Tuesday to Thursday

After our happy meeting and lunch, Chris and I got the bus to the TGV station, where Lynn's car was parked. What luck, to have access not only to a beautiful house in Gordes, but a car! Chris was eager to drive and I to let him, so I became the official navigator; between us we made it up the mountain to Gordes. The house was cool, dark and welcoming; Chris couldn't believe that on top of all its other pleasures, the place has a pool. We unpacked, emailed, had a swim and walked down to the village for groceries. My friend, it turns out, is not only the driver but the chef in this relationship. I am the official appreciator. At least, of food and driving, he is the appreciator of everything else. Everywhere we go, he is ecstatic about the flowers, plants, buildings, stones, trees, dogs and cats. Denis came home late and we gurgled ecstatically at him. He was polite, considering how often he must have heard it before.

On Wednesday, we came up with a simple plan: visit the nearby village of Oppede-le-Vieux. Denis supplied us with maps, including one so detailed that when open, it takes up the front seat of the car. Even so, believe it or not, we took a wrong turn, and so decided instantly on Plan B: visit the nearby village of Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, for which we were headed. It's famous for its antique markets, but those are only on the weekends, so it was relatively quiet. The Sorgue flows through a mossy water-wheel in the centre of town and is a fish sanctuary - lots of fat trout, good there are no raccoons here. Many ducks though. We poked into the one antiquey place that was open - mostly copies of the real thing but pretty and well-done. I was tempted to buy a seven foot high metal rooster for my mother - she collects roosters - but wasn't sure if it would fit into the elevator of her apartment building, so didn't.

Another try for Oppede, and this time, through narrow roads that wind through cliched fields of lavender, wheat and sunflowers, we found it. It's a ruined village on the side of a mountain; you begin at the bottom and climb straight up, imagining what life must have been like 200, 500, 900 years ago. Before the climb though, in the great heat, we stopped for lunch in the village square. This is what's great about being an adult travelling with an adult - lunch in a restaurant. When I travelled with children, and when I was a child travelling with my parents, we always brought our own sandwiches (or for a special treat for my kids, I'm ashamed to say, McDonald's.) The luxury of sitting down at midday and having strangers bring ready-t0-eat food for payment ... wondrous. There were lots of middle-aged bicyclists puffing into the village. Admirable.

We climbed and admired and descended, coming home, once more, to swim and then to garden. Denis is trying to beautify his garden for Jessica's wedding in July and there is a ton of weeding to be done, so my enthusiastic friend and I weeded in the broiling sun for an hour before another swim. And then it was time to take Denis for dinner, to thank him for putting up with us, no, I mean putting us up in this glorious house. We had chosen the night but not the restaurant - Denis had a suggestion which was at a half hour's drive away (and, in the end, full). During the day, Chris and I had tried to find a good but not exorbitant restaurant nearby. In fun, I said, we should write to Bruce in Vancouver and ask him to find us somewhere. Bruce did almost all the organising for our trip to India; he is a Google hiz and knows how to find anything, anywhere. We laughed and I emailed Bruce our joke - that we were hoping that from Vancouver he'd find us a place to eat in Gordes, ha ha.

Bruce emailed back immediately with two suggestions, one of which sounded perfect. Denis with his critical French eye read the review, agreed it might be all right and made a reservation. We walked there in five minutes. A lovely restaurant, open for ten years, that Denis had never visited, just down the road from his house, found by Bruce a few thousand miles away in Vancouver. Ain't life grand?

We sat in a garden surrounded by oleanders. The menu was simple, the food was superb, the rose flowed and we had a great evening, walking home in the darkness, admiring the panorama of stars in the black sky above. Chris saw a shooting star and Denis stopped to pick up and show us a huge beetle scurrying along by the road. Food, friendship and large busy insects - what could be better?

more boring bliss

It’s 6.00 p.m. Thursday after a long hard day of sightseeing and eating. Now we’re back in Gordes; I just took a photo of Chris sitting on a deck chair on the lawn after a swim, reading his book and drinking his diet Coke. And I am sitting on a deck chair under the trees with my computer, a little glass of local rouge and a bowl of sweet yellow-orange cherries. It was 38 degrees today – in mid-June! – and it’s still hot, the cicadas are chirping, the oleanders are blooming, and there’s a soft breeze. It’s so quiet, Chris says it’s as if he’s been transported to another planet. Welcome to Planet Provence.

I know this is becoming nauseating, but I have to say it: today was just about as perfect as a day can be. We did errands with Denis and gardened in the morning, then Denis left to visit his mother in Versailles, and Chris and I set off for our daily adventure. We’d planned a casual circuit though were prepared, as usual, to veer off in another direction if we felt like it. But our circuit worked out beautifully.

First to the Abbaye de Senanque, a 12th century Cistercian abbey tucked into a nearby valley in a field of lavender. I loved this building so much on one of my previous visits, after attending Evensong there, that I was given the gift of a poster photograph which hangs at the foot of my bed. The Abbaye is one of the most photographed buildings in this region – somehow its proportions are so perfect, its grey stone so serene that it’s impossible to take a bad picture. But I was shocked this time by the long lines of tourist busses in the parking lot. It’s still a working abbey, so you can only tour inside at certain times; the monks are doing their thing the rest of the time – praying, harvesting lavender, doing good works. But the number of tourists was vastly greater than 10 years ago. There used to be a small shop; now it’s a supermarket of items made by monasteries around France, books about religion for adults and children, and everything possible that can be done with lavender.

Chris bought us some CD’s for the car and we set off, listening to Gregorian chant, for Venasque, a mountain-top village which turned out to have a nice bit of ruined castle full of swallows’ nests, a great view of the plains of the Luberon valley and not much else. It was now after 12.30 p.m. so all Provence had closed down for lunch. We were headed to Pernes-les-Fontaines but passed through a tiny village called St. Didier, so pretty we decided to stop and have lunch there ourselves on the main street – just about the only street – lined with thick ancient plane trees. And what a lunch – a simple restaurant in a village so small it’s not even worth one line in the Guide Michelin, and yet the food was terrific. Chris had a plate of langoustines – shellfish of various kinds – and salmon, and I a salad with many things including grilled eggplant and zuccini and jambon cru. We sat next to a pair of elderly ladies whose poodles sat under the table and lapped a bowl of water brought by the patron. If only I’d had room for the cherry clafoutis, which looked divine.

The menu gave us some chuckles. It had been translated into English, so on offer were such delicacies as “salad of warm goats,” another salad consisting of “tomato, burned out toast, goat of Beaucet, snails of the old almond tree it croquille, marinaded vegetables,” and my favourite – cassolette de Saint Jacques, scallops, translated literally as “small dish of Holy Jacques.” Lynn told me that once she visited a small town that had translated its restaurant sign. In French it read, “Salon de the,” and in English, “Living-room of Tea.” Someone had looked in a dictionary and translated “salon” as “living room.” A linguist’s delight.

Replenished, now listening to Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater, we found Pernes-les-Fontaines, a lovely sleepy village, and wandered around, sticking to the shade – narrow sleeping streets, yellow stucco, old stone, blue and green shutters closed against the sun, swallows careening in the sky, not a breath of wind. Apparently there are 13th century frescoes somewhere, but it was so hot we did not search. We stumbled instead on a museum of local dress – an old draper’s store full of old quilts, embroidery and lace, top hats, dresses and a stack of Galeries Lafayette catalogues from the early 1900’s. The museum was created by local people with clothes and artefacts from their attics, lovingly displayed. Beautiful.

The final treat: la Fontaine de Vaucluse, a tourist mecca. The village features a powerful spring surging out of the earth, but we didn’t even get that far – again, in the heat, the thought of walking far or climbing was out of the question. We meandered, enjoying the rush of the ice-green river beside us; Chris bought several lemon slushies and a straw hat, and I bought some paper in an old paper mill. And then, slowly, we made our way home on roads so narrow there was sometimes barely room for 2 cars, Chris negotiating winding hairpin turns and I enjoying the view of plains and mountains. We stopped en route to buy cherries and supplies for tonight’s supper. Chris is barbequing chops and veggies and I’m making tomates provencales like Lynn’s – I hope, only they look much blacker than hers did – and a salad. All we can hear, right now, are birds and bees and the wind in the trees. It’s a song, it’s a rhyme and I’m going to sing it right now.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009


On Monday, an interesting experience - speaking to Lynn's colleagues at the University of Montpellier about the teaching of creative writing. Lynn and I caught the sleek blue tramway to a campus strewn with oleanders, where 12 or 14 linguistics professors and a few students came to hear one professor speak about the Aesthetic Movement in British art, and then moi. It was a little intimidating, all those sceptical French Ph.D.'s, who come from a country where creative writing is not taught at any level because everyone believes, first, that writing cannot be taught and second, that the kind of personal writing I teach is for self-indulgent, self-centred, confession-spilling North Americans and never for the dignified, private French. How could I convince them otherwise?

Especially with my bra strap hanging out. There I was in a silk cap-sleeved blouse, about to speak to this august assembly, when my bra decided to take a hike. God knows what happened, but suddenly the strap was dangling down my arm and I was trying to hoist it back without sticking a hand inside my blouse and yanking. It was so embarrassing. Finally, after some wriggling and writhing, I had to say, "I'm so nervous, my underwear is reacting," and they all laughed. Lynn said later that it was definitely the first time a group of French linguists had a chuckle about a brassiere before hearing a talk.

I told them how popular journals are now chez nous, that children even keep them in school and share them with their class, and about the burgeoning of writing programs, both for credit and not, at colleges and universities. Much polite rolling of French eyes. Then, the specifics of my memoir courses at Ryerson and U of T - how to help student writers relax, tell the truth, learn the craft. I'd dug up an impressive quote from Montaigne and one from Colette, and a wonderful quote from Marilynne Robinson, who has just won the Orange Prize and who has taught Creative Writing for many years. They seemed engaged for the half hour, and after I'd finished, there were some great questions. One asked how to handle students who are delving into difficult truths and might be harmed or go over the edge; Lynn asked how many students want to be published and how many achieve it. One elderly professor, who apparently used to be President of the University, asked a very complicated question involving "auto-romans" - autobiographical novels, some sort of new genre in France. I did my best to answer intelligently though I actually had no idea what he was talking about.

In the end, they concluded that it would be interesting to try to introduce something similar into the French system - I offered to come and spearhead it as long as I could live in Montpellier - but that there would be fundamental resistance, because the French simply do not do that kind of thing.

After this visit, I am left with even more respect for my friend Lynn. The French academic system is one appallingly difficult test after another, an endless series of hurdles, and she has somehow jumped them all and is flourishing. She loves her arcane field and relished telling me about conjunctive clauses in the work of Alice Munro. And she can make that sound interesting.

We weren't too sad to bid each other goodbye Tuesday morning - she is leaving for Lille for a month for work, and will spend her 60th birthday there, but will be back in Gordes mid-July. I am grateful for the time we've had but was glad to get out of her way; though she never complained, I've felt like a cuckoo, pushing her out of her nest. At the station, there was another strike somewhere so the usual tension - which train would actually arrive and which wouldn't? Mine, luckily, did, only 10 minutes late, and I was painlessly an hour later in Avignon, to meet another best friend, Chris from Vancouver. Chris used to live in Nice and decided to connect with me and my trip while reconnecting with his past. He'd come from almost a week in Nice with old friends, and there he was, in his plaid shorts, waiting for me at the station in Avignon.

We checked our bags and walked around the town for a bit, climbing the hill behind the spectacular Palais des Papes and then eating a pan bagnat - he described it as "a salade nicoise on a bun" - in a park.

To Be Continued

Monday, June 15, 2009


Gruelling, my friends, is the word - gruelling, all this eating, drinking, walking, admiring countryside, towns and villages, enduring the baking heat of the sun. All this French bread, cheese and wine - how much longer can I stand it, before I melt with pleasure?

On Friday, Lynn and I went to Galeries Lafayette, where I wanted to buy almost everything I saw and did end up with a simple linen dress (hot pink) to wear to my goddaughter Jessica's wedding in July. We were really out to shop for a dress for Lynn, the mother of the bride. Lynn is blessed with an extremely generous poitrine, which has always made it difficult for her to find clothes that fit. After trying on a number of dresses without success, she took me on a little tour of the store's underwear section, filled with the most delicious ruffly confections. In France, sales are legislated by the government. The summer sales for all stores in the south begin on June 24th and continue for weeks. Lynn buys most of her clothes during the sales. I may drop into Galeries Lafayette on or after June 24th, just for the hell of it.

We went, in the 30 degree heat, for an aperitif to Lynn's favourite cafe on the main pedestrian drag of Montpellier. It goes without saying that it's outside, under big umbrellas; Lynn often goes alone to sit with a drink and read or work, and can stay a long time even in winter because of outdoor space heaters. Joined by Lynn's friend and colleague Julie, we drank rose and mojitos as the crowds swirled past; I watched with fascination as a young woman approached and went around a table of 7 of her friends, kissing each one 3 times on the cheeks, right left right, and then walking away to sit at another crowded table where the kissing started all over again. What a lengthy process; we would have said, "Hi guys," and gone on our way.

Lynn, Julie and I went to dine at a small Italian restaurant. As I've said ad nauseam, the crowded, ancient, narrow, winding streets of Montpellier are extraordinarily picturesque; Lynn and Julie walked along talking seriously about work while I gasped with delight at each vista. And what a meal - outside on a tiny street, as an occasional car squeezed by, I ate grilled scallops on pasta in a truffle sauce. If only my children, both foodies who love to cook and eat, were here to taste and watch what and how the French cook and serve. This was not an expensive restaurant, but the food was four star. Sublime. Then back through streets as crowded at 11.30 p.m. as at noon, to home, where the bar was in full swing. But the live band is no more and I know now that the thumping will end at 1. So with earplugs in my ears and truffle sauce in my belly, I was lulled to sleep by the bass guitar.

Saturday a busy day - vital to find Madame Blin a dress for the wedding. We canvassed the main shopping street and eventually hit the jackpot - an elegant white dress with a little bolero jacket fitted her perfectly. I laugh to think of how often my friend and I have shopped together since our close friendship began in 1967, despite the fact that she has lived in France since 1970. We have both always loved fashion, she the Ph.D. in linguistics and mother of 5, I the impecunious writer and teacher, forty-two years of heartfelt talks about deep spiritual matters and also discussions and modelling of clothes, shoes, hair and jewelry. On this excursion I found shoes, yes, comfortable, pretty shoes to fit my giant feet. Thrilling.

Early evening, we caught the train to Avignon; Lynn read the latest "Elle" and I watched the stone farms, vineyards and olive groves of Provence flash by the window. An hour later, in Avignon, we found a restaurant and had an aperitif while waiting for Lynn's husband Denis to arrive. Because their main residence is in Gordes, a stunning but isolated village in the mountains, comings and goings are always complicated. Denis arrived, we had dinner, walked to the car parked beside the medieval ramparts of this great city, and drove with him through the Provencal countryside to Gordes.

I've wondered in my shallow moments if I would love Lynn as much if she had settled in Calgary or Windsor, instead of one of the prettiest villages in the world. I first visited their Gordes house in 1983, when I was pregnant with my second child, and my then-husband and 3-year old Anna and I stayed for a few weeks. Later I brought Anna again, and then both my children, and returned alone for the great celebration in the garden for Lynn's 50th birthday. This year it's her 60th and Jessica's wedding, which is the main reason I decided to take my mini-sabbatical now.

Gordes is a village stuck to the side of a mountain; impossible to take a bad picture of its vista of yellow-gold stone houses clinging to the rock face. Lynn and Denis live slightly out of the village in a big airy house designed by Denis and his father; the five children were raised here. Denis has made a lovely garden and they've added a small swimming pool tucked in at the back. Sunday in paradise - Lynn and I at the crowded farmer's market in nearby Coustellets filling our bags with apricots, peaches, lettuce, cherries, tomatoes, and melons, then sitting on the terrace for lunch - melon, grilled merguez - spicy sausages - with tomates provencales, salad, bread and cheese, and peach-apricot pie. All this with a glass or two of local vin rouge and the smell of lavender and wild thyme, under a bower of oleander.

After lunch, a long walk through le paysage, a swim, and then Lynn and I had to leave again for the train station in Avignon. The plan was originally that we'd stay in Gordes till Monday morning, but at the station in Montpellier on our departure, there was a big notice informing travellers of a strike on the Montpellier-Avignon line on Monday. Apparently a train worker had been injured and workers were striking in sympathy; something like that. This has happened several times to Lynn before, necessitating taking a packed bus to Nimes and then transferring to another bus, doubling or tripling the time it takes to get back. Luckily she remembered that the fast train line the TGV runs from Avignon to Montpellier on Sundays, so we managed to get back painlessly. Lynn cooked, at 10 we sat to eat dinner and at 1 we were still dancing, the two of us in our own private time-warp disco, whirling about to Elton John, Whitney Huston, Paul Simon.

One of the greatest joys imaginable is the company of an old and dear friend. And I'd say and mean that about this beloved friend even if she did not live in the south of France. But her place of residence is definitely an extra blessing.

Friday, June 12, 2009

enjoying Montpellier

Well, friends, now you know what I sound like when I'm put out and have lost all perspective and sense of humour. With more than a touch of my habitual melodrama in there too. In the heat of the moment - when the band was blasting and the floor was quivering beneath my feet - the words, "This too shall pass," were far from my mind. But this too did pass, last night's noise was tolerable with two earplugs in each ear, and here's another stunningly glorious day in the south of France. The problem is what, exactly?

Lynn and I went out last night to dine with a few colleagues of hers from the languages department of the University of Montpellier - translators, English or French teachers and linguists, like Lynn. When we arrived, everyone was there waiting - at French gatherings, apparently, no one begins to drink until every guest has arrived. Which I suppose is very polite but means the others had to stand around for a long time with nothing to drink, because Lynn and I, as ever, got lost.

We began with, as aperitif, a sweetish wine brought back from Spain that provoked much discussion about the exact qualities of its sweetness and where it was from; our hostess eventually provided a map of Spain to show us exactly where she had bought it. At home, we'd have knocked back three glasses and be telling jokes by then. Then we had jambon cru also from Spain, which also provoked a discussion about its qualities, its relative lack of saltiness ... How I love this concentrated focus on tastes. A very nice bunch and a most enjoyable soiree, which featured my friend and me, in a very non-French way, entertaining like stand-up comics , as we've been doing since 1967.

One of Lynn's colleagues who's leaving with Lynn to do the same job and be away the same amount of time offered me the opportunity to stay at her place, which is quiet. If that works out, I will be able to go back and forth between the solitude and lavender fields of Gordes and the teeming life and steak frites of Montpellier, which sounds just about ideal to me.

This morning I gave myself a treat - walked to a cafe on the Place de la Comedie and had a grand creme, a large cup of coffee, watching Montpellier go by in the late morning sun. Here is France at its best - all the great things without the arrogance or crush of Paris. Montpellier is so vibrant, elegant yet relaxed. The Place itself is extraordinary - a huge, wide open space with the opera building at one end, a big old-fashioned merry-go-round or carousel, many outdoor cafes. (There are old merry-go-rounds, with old-fashioned music and little kids going round, in public square all over France, a lovely throwback.) It's completely flat with no curbs - even the tram runs right through it except for a small platform where people wait to get on. Cars, bikes, motorcycles, wheelchairs, small delivery trucks, go through at any and all angles, and the foot traffic is incessant - this is a town for pedestrians, in fact much of the inner core is closed to traffic.

As ever, as I watched I found the French stylish in an effortless way, including the very old and the crocodiles of schoolchildren who went by in twos. Even adolescents aren't as extreme in style as ours (except for the ones who frequent the bar downstairs.) Despite the fact that everyone in this country cares so deeply for food, 99% of the people who went by were slender or a solid, sensible weight. It's because they care so much for food, not despite it, that the French don't overeat. On the other hand, so many people of all ages smoke here, far more than at home.

And then there's all of us sitting in cafes, enjoying the parade of people and the sunshine and, for those around me, conversation with friends. I felt that in England, the day is about work work work and then at 6 everything stops and people rush to the pub to drink away their leisure time. To drink really a lot. Whereas in France, even I think in the big cities, leisure and work are more integrated. There is more enjoyment moment to moment. Of course, Montpellier is in the south and has a Mediterranean rhythm, very different from the north.

Today it is predicted to go to 30 degrees. Foolish purchase #642 - the umbrella I bought just before leaving London. I survived more than 3 weeks without an umbrella in the downpours of England and then, just as I left, I bought one. Ah well. Occasionally I make bad decisions and occasionally I lose my sense of humour. Nothing that a bit of really good cheese won't fix. Right now.

Thursday, June 11, 2009


Alors, les amis, hard to believe it's Thursday already. Je suis de retour en France, but this time in the beautiful langorous south, Montpellier, in the Languedoc. The sun is hot. My, it's good to feel that unfamiliar sensation on my skin.

I spent a couple of days in Barnes getting myself organised, which included mailing home nearly 8 kilos of stuff. Or maybe it was pounds; I can't believe I had so much. Anyway, all my cold weather stuff including my heavy raincoat has gone home. That was a good morning's work. I walked and emailed, called my kids, left a message for my mother, and got ready for the next stage.

Early Tuesday morning I got a cab to Gatwick Airport. My flight was with EasyJet, a discount airline, so I was expecting chaos, but everything was well organised and efficient. There were only two problems - my bag was overweight even without its winter load, requiring an additional fee, and there wasn't a good selection of English chocolate in the stores there. Be warned next time you want a dark chocolate Mars bar at Gatwick.

The flight left on time and landed early; what a marvellous sight from the plane, the red roofs of southern France and, as we landed, flamingos in the water. Not England any more. The cars on the right side of the road! An odd sight at the airport, though - young men with Uzis again. Somehow the security is always more discreet in England. Nothing discreet about these menacing youths in camouflage.

I gradually removed layers of clothing as I made my way to Lynn's via the bus from the airport and then the sleek ultra-modern tramway - and then up her ancient, spiral staircase with my overweight bag. How good to see my old friend again, after our last visit together in Paris months ago, and to see her under the hot Meditteranean sky, with palm trees and old cream-coloured buildings with the usual black iron filigree balconies just outside her window.

We went out for dinner that night and I saw downtown Montpellier, a city which seems to live entirely out of doors - the gorgeous wide open Place de la Comedie filled with people; every restaurant has a terrace, the streets are narrow and winding and filled with walkers and diners, and there are squares around every corner filled with trees and the good smells of French cooking. We ate in one, and I had another first - octopus, which melted in my mouth. We dined with university colleagues of Lynn's. I loved how solicitous the waiter was, describing in detail the qualities of the "vin du pays" he was suggesting for us - not too dry, fruity but not sweet ... Not, not in England any more.

After that lovely interlude, however, I discovered the downside of Lynn's interesting old section of Montpellier. She rented her apartment, which is renovated, bright, just the right size with a luxurious bathroom, during the day; she noticed, of course, the bar directly underneath but was assured it wasn't too noisy. And, she said, for a while it wasn't. But recently the managers have converted an empty space just outside her bedroom window into an outdoor courtyard, so from 5 on there are revellers so close she can hear every word of their conversation, not to mention smell their cigarettes. But then, worse - the music. Heavy metal of the most violent obnoxious kind starts early and finishes late. The smokers also stand outside in the street, so there's noise at the front of her flat too, and even before the bar opens, there's the deafening screech of the trains going regularly by 200 metres from her front window.

But this, Lynn said last night, isn't bad! And it wasn't, as I was to find out the following night. But first, a great treat Wednesday morning - she had arranged for me to have a haircut with her hairdresser, Justin. I had a cut and colour before leaving Toronto - ten weeks ago - and now resembled a lion with a shaggy orange mane. Justin is British, had 2 salons in London and had worked in New York and Washington, and one day four years ago just decided that he didn't want to raise his four kids in London, they'd grow up too fast - so he sold everything and moved the family to Montpellier. He didn't even speak French. His kids hated him and resisted - how familiar - but now they're happy here and so is he. He lives in a village on the sea, his kids go to local schools, they all, of course, speak fluent French. He cuts hair a few days a week because he loves to do so, not because he needs the work. And, lucky me, he is a terrific cutter. The colour is great too. I felt like a new woman.

Lynn and I had a superb dinner at a place just down the street which serves only steak frites. That's what you get, no choices - a menu with a salad to start and then a big platter of perfectly cooked steak in a divine sauce and the best thin French fries ever, and before long the waitress comes around with a platter and offers you more fries. Which we took. I could hardly walk home with my distended belly. Heaven.

Unfortunately, what greeted us at Lynn's was hell - the bar had brought in a live band. The noise in her place was unbelievable; we couldn't hear ourselves talk. We went down together to complain and I went down again alone, but ... it's a bar. It's a bar with apartments above - what's the solution here? I don't know, but I did know that I could not stay here. I was supposed to stay at Lynn's for six weeks, from now, minus a few days with friend Chris next week, until the middle of July, but I simply could not stand the noise. Except for the trains, which are fine, the place is fantastic till about 5 p.m., and then it's hell until 2 or 3 in the morning. Intolerable. It doesn't bother Lynn so much - she works during the day at the university and goes to Gordes on the weekends, and in any case is a good sleeper and isn't bothered by noise the way I am.

So, suddenly I felt homeless. What to do where to go? This place came free of charge because Lynn had to go away for work anyway; I can't afford to rent a substitute place, though I did start to look on the internet, and I actually went to see a room in a hotel nearby, just for the next few days. Charmless and no guarantee of quiet there either.

But then, a logical solution: I am going next week with Chris to Lynn and her husband Denis's main house in Gordes, a beautiful village on a mountain. Denis works in nearby Cavaillon but returns to Gordes at night; otherwise it's empty right now, though everyone is arriving there for the wedding in mid-July. Until then - if it's okay with Denis - I could live in Gordes, have all the solitude and quiet I want during the day and keep him company in the evenings. Gordes is isolated and very small, but I'd have Lynn's car if I needed to get groceries or wanted to visit other villages. So I am hoping that's the solution to my dilemma.

Too bad - I adore Montpellier. Walked around today, had a picnic - yes, ham sandwich, on the best bread in the world - in the Jardin des Plantes - what a lovely town this is. The streets are winding and medieval, there are remnants of the ancient city walls, the buildings are lovely, old, ornate or crumbling - there's a university so lots of young people, and there seemed to be musicians practicing and their music pouring out of windows wherever I turned. Lovely music. Oleanders everywhere and bougainvillea. But, sadly ... impossible.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

back to Barnes

Well, my friends, my artfest has exhausted us both; time for a break. I'm in Barnes, where the only art is dreadful new stuff in the windows of shops. The real art here is the buildings and the wonderful gardens.

I squeezed as much juice as I could from my last hours in central London, despite the intermittent rain (and I'd left my raincoat, of course, in Barnes.) I did a speedy National Portrait Gallery - it's great to put faces to names, from far back in British history to the very present - including a nice portrait of Paul McCartney called "Mike's brother," because it was painted by a friend of Paul's brother Mike. I saw a bust of Aneurin Bevan, a distant relative of my friend Lynn Bevan's. Many great actors, writers, painters. There is, thrillingly, a whole room devoted to photographs of modern British poets. Can you imagine the National Gallery of Canada putting aside a whole room for photos of modern Canadian poets? I'm a Canadian writer and I can't name more than a handful of modern Canadian poets, so you can imagine what the average person knows. But here, the hoardes can not only see their photographs but read handwritten poems besides the portraits. Love it.

As always, I went into the shop to buy postcards afterwards; this not only allows me to take away a little bit of what I've seen, but shows what I haven't - the collections are so big that invariably, many pictures are not on display, so the postcards show them. Also bought an umbrella - I thought if I had an umbrella it wouldn't rain again. And it didn't, until a raging lightning and thunderstorm last night, after I was safely in bed. 

Then had to dash into the National Gallery for one last glimpse on the way back. Bruce had written from Vancouver about the special room of Poussins - that didn't ring a bell, for a good reason - I had missed it, and found it this time. It's in fact two Poussins and two Turners in juxtaposition - wonderful. As I walked out of this massive building, I felt like I was saying goodbye to a dear and inspiring friend. "See you soon," I said, full of hope, as I left - though again, my legs were wooden by this time. 

Back at Christopher's I cleaned and tidied, packed and left. I'm very grateful to Christopher and Christina for making London so accessible to this eager Canadian. It was an unforgettable time.

Managed to navigate the crowds on Regent Street and the Piccadilly tube and the bus to Barnes. The crowds in mid-London are overwhelming, the noise, the smell. Barnes is sweet heaven. Oh it is good to breathe fine scented air and listen to birds again. I have two days to sort out my affairs, mostly to pick the clothes I don't need and send them home, to lighten the load for my journey back to France. I have learned my lesson, yes I have, for good. It's all very well to think, I might need this, I'd better take this just in case ... but then you have to carry the @#$%^& things. Better to keep it all minimal. And even now, for me, minimal is not what it means for others. But I have quite a large pile to send home. 

Signing out from a Starbucks in downtown Barnes. The adventure continues. 

Saturday, June 6, 2009

winding up London

Spent last night writing a catch up – here’s Tuesday June 2 before “War Horse,” and Wednesday, and then yesterday, Friday. Today is Saturday; it's pouring with rain and I leave central London at the end of the afternoon for Barnes. I set off early this morning intending to watch the old City of London wake up, but was defeated by the rain - came back and went shopping instead, visiting Kate Moss's trendy TopShop - unbelievable crowds and quantities of stuff - on Oxford Street. Will try to get to the Portrait Gallery and then do a clean up and get out. Can't wait to get settled somewhere quiet. Can't wait to come back to noisy, vibrant London.  Here's earlier in the week: 

On Tuesday it took me all morning to make arrangements for my flight next week to Montpellier, wrestling with the EasyJet website for an infuriating hour in the net café before grinding my teeth in rage and returning to the flat to make a phone call and get it done. Made a ham and cheese sandwich and walked to Regent’s Park for a pleasant picnic in the last of the hot sun – for a bit it was full-on summer, 28 degrees, except that from then on, it got colder and colder until I was shivering in 3 layers again (and tomorrow may go as low as 5!) The Brits have no concept of heat and cold; when it’s freezing out they wear tank tops and shorts and when it’s boiling hot they’re in suits and sweaters. Incomprehensible. 

As I sat on my Regent’s Park bench, I read the new “Time Out in London,” remembering that my Ottawa friend Isobel worked for the magazine when it was new in 1971. We hung around a bit together in those days in London. She was so cool then and she still is; now she runs PEN Canada. “Time Out” was crammed with things I won’t get to see and do. (In fact right now, as I write this, it’s Friday night and there are at least 3 theatre things I should be seeing. But just could not get out again, once in. Writing to you, instead.)

Set off from the park to the British Library, to see an exhibit about the life of Henry V111 (who reigned from1509 to1547.) It’s a paper trail exhibit, really – birth and marriage certificates, a love letter to Anne Boleyn who was resisting his advances – with good reason, it turned out - letters from about-to-be-beheaded wives, analyses of the British monarch’s relationship to Rome, decrees, lists of hundreds of executed people, an inventory of his possessions after his death … It’s a lament for a man who was at the beginning an accomplished musician interested in many facets of life, and at the end was a closed-minded and unhappy tyrant. Who left a great deal of old paper behind.

I went upstairs to the permanent collection and as usual, my tiny mind was boggled. Boggled and, as a writer, thrilled. There are original pages from manuscripts by Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte (“Reader,” delicately scratched on the page, “I married him.”), Oscar Wilde, Lewis Carroll, Virginia Woolf, Harold Pinter, Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. There’s a page from Handel, Mozart and Beethoven, and the original of “Michelle,” by Paul McCartney, on the back of an envelope, and “A Hard Day’s Night,” scribbled by John Lennon on the back of his son’s first birthday card. Shakespeare, Leonardo, The Lindisfarne Gospels from the early 700’s, the Gutenberg Bible from 1450, a fourteenth century Haggadah, the Magna Carta – yes, the actual Magna Carta on parchment from 1215 – Captain Cook’s journal, a letter from Florence Nightingale … enough.

As I keep saying here … phew. I returned to email and dine on my Marks and Spencer microwave meal – roast lamb, new potatoes, carrots and peas, reasonable and delicious - and then to set off to see “War Horse,” which made me so happy and the woman behind me so miserable. 

On Wednesday, after my hour at the net café, I set off for the National Gallery. I loved this amazing, spacious, beautifully laid out museum, enjoyed my time there much more than at the frantic Louvre. I listened to the guides chatting to the many school tours going through – kids all in their uniforms looking so proper and tidy, not like our kids, that’s for sure. “When you look at a painting,” one said to the group of 11-year olds sitting quietly on the floor before him, “find things that catch your eye, that you find interesting or pretty, and put them in a special bag. Keep looking and putting things in your special bag so you can go back and think about them later.” 

What good advice, I thought. I’ll try that. Only before long, my special bag was packed to overflowing.

Vermeer – another of his funny little women, at the virginal. A particularly lovely Poussin – the discovery of Moses. Claude Lorrain, a landscape with Aeneas on Delos. Suddenly I was piling things into my bag: I have been to the holy island of Delos, now only ruins, and here was Lorrain’s evocation of it in its heyday with a domed temple of Apollo and sacred trees. In the Spanish room – Velasquez, El Greco – I noticed that suddenly Jesus, Mary and the saints all looked Spanish, much darker than usual with flaring eyes and dark brows.

After an hour, my new rule – I found a spot to eat my ham and cheese sandwich. Must take break. Must take break. Must go back to art.

Raphael’s portrait of a pope, so vivid and real. Leonardo’s famous “Virgin of the Rocks” is not here but even his “cartoon,” a preparatory sketch of the Virgin sitting in her mother’s lap and holding her child is beyond stunning. I hear a guide in the next room asking the children to guess how many paintings are in the gallery. “Close,” she says. “The answer is 2300.” It’s brilliant to get children looking at art at such an early age – every museum I’ve been to here was full of school tours led by child-friendly experts. Once kids know how to look and why, perhaps they’ll keep looking for the rest of their lives, and museums and galleries will flourish.

I learn from a sign what the INRI that’s sometimes written above the cross means: Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum – Jesus, King of the Jews. Have wondered about that for years.

Rounded a corner and gasped – an old friend! During my spring here in 1972, I was reading a book about art and loved a Botticelli painting of a young man. It’s in the National Gallery, I read, and realised that meant I could go, right then, and see the real thing. So I did – put on my jacket, got the tube and walked up to admire the actual young man. And now, here he was again, just as I’d left him more than 30 years ago. “How’ve you been?” I asked, but he just looked at me enigmatically. He was painted around1480, yet so alive he could be walking in the room beside me. 

By now it was 2 p.m.  Time to skip around the corner to Haymarket, to see “Waiting for Godot,” starring Ian McKellen, Patrick Stewart, Simon Callow and Ronald Pickup. An amazing cast but not an amazing production, I’m sorry to say – I felt somehow they were cheating us, sauntering through it, phoning it in, except for the least well-known actor, Ronald Pickup as Lucky, who was formidable with a gaunt, haunted face. Ian McKellen is so talented, he’s mesmerising even when he’s half-asleep, but Patrick Stewart was just too robust and jolly as one of Beckett’s tramps. I’ve never imagined Vladimir as jolly, with music hall timing. It just doesn’t work. I had no desire to stand up and offend the people behind me, luckily.

Straight from the theatre to the Leicester Square tube stop and onto the Northern Line to Hampstead, up the hill to #11 Pond Street where my friend Tony Bingham has his shop. While Tony finished work, I was happy to walk on Hampstead Heath. I’m sure we walked on the Heath when we lived in London as a family, in 1956-58. It looked familiar – green and wild. Much nicer, I thought, than tailored Regent’s Park.

I wrote about having dinner twice with Tony in Paris, and now was invited for dinner at his home here. When you’re on the road, these invitations into someone’s home mean a great deal. And into his shop too – what an incredible place. Tony could work for the British Museum antique musical instruments department – or at least, he runs his own. His shop is teeming with musical treasures, including ten foot high drums from the South Pacific, a very old inlaid spinnet, innumerable wind instruments, oil paintings of people playing or otherwise making music, and books, including a few scholarly works on instruments that Tony has written himself. To tell you the truth, I marvelled at his expertise and life-long persistence and also thought it something of a nightmare, all that dusty old stuff, hundreds, maybe thousands of special pieces that he has travelled to find, bargain for and buy. The first time I went to his home when we started dating in 1971, the sofa was covered with antique oboes. Nothing has changed, only now he owns the house next door to that apartment, plus the shop and many more oboes. The house was a wreck apparently, filled with squatters when he bought it. Now, he told me, it’s worth two and a half million pounds.

And nice it is, filled with paintings of music and books and old stuff. Oh yes jugs, Tony also collects jugs and metronomes and many other things. And his wife Blossom, who’s Australian, collects Australiana, so there are a lot of kangaroos. Luckily for me, Tony also collects wonderful wines, so we drank several my father would have adored – a Puligny-Montrachet particularly, one of his favourites. Tony cooked, Blossom who’s a sexual health nurse got home from work with a friend, and we dined. Very enjoyable.  Floated home on the tube. A touch of a hangover the next day – more Puligny-Montrachet went down than I’d realised.

A miscellaneous note about this green and pleasant land: the abundance of free newspapers. Every late afternoon, the streets are jammed with immigrants handing out free evening newspapers. On the tube, everyone sits reading them. I guess they pay for themselves with advertising; maybe this is the future of the newspaper.

Re Thursday morning and my determination to be at the Tate Modern as it opened: I’ve learned since there is simply not the concern here that there is in Paris about when and how best to get into museums, because here they’re all, extraordinarily, free. A much more pleasant experience than lining up to pay – you just walk in and there you are, surrounded by masterpieces. There aren’t even any bag checks like in France. You just walk in. Also, the commentaries beside the works are well-written and informative, the security is discreet to the point of invisibility, and many works are not encased in glass, so you are face to face with the brush strokes, the colours, the very breath of the painter – it makes such a difference.

I’ve written about the Tate and the British Museum, my day of art excess (until today.)

Thursday night, a delicious evening in with my feet up, watching telly. I delighted in a program called “Springwatch,” the most British television program ever, all sex and violence with two hosts and various field correspondents rhapsodising about birds and animals. We watched footage of ring plovers actually mating, how racy is that? We saw a kestrel mother kill a rabbit and feed it to her 5 chicks. “She has actually made a larder with the excess food,” exclaimed the hostess, “for later!”

We saw the full, noisy nests of weed-warblers, skylarks, swallows, wrens, goldfinches, goshawks, linnets, chaffinches, robins. “Those robins look quite tatty,” scolded the hostess. “Are they moulting already?” We were informed that the skylarks came to feed their young 23 times in an hour. You’ll be happy to know that this is a good year for the honeybee. And to finish, we glimpsed a wild polecat, a fox family and a rare albino badger. If you would like to check out this wonderworld of nature for yourself, it’s at bbc.co.uk/springwatch.

Today, Friday morning, I set off at a good clip through Leicester Square and Trafalgar Square – the school groups lined up already outside the National Portrait Gallery – to the Strand and, in the rain, to the Courtauld Gallery in stately Somerset House. I’d never even heard of this gallery on previous visits, and after visiting it, I can’t understand why. It’s a perfect small museum/gallery, a more diverse version of New York’s Frick. I was alone with a host of masterpieces for a very long time, till inevitably the school groups arrived. Since this is the only London gallery I’ve had to pay for – a whole five pounds – these must have been exclusive schools. But I managed to keep ahead of them as much as possible, to enjoy the work in solitude and quiet. 

The Courtaulds were Hugenots who fled persecution in France and settled in England – the lucky English. They were silver-workers and textile manufacturers, and eventually, art collectors who founded a school of design and this museum. Room after tranquil room of masterpieces, usually one or two per master – a relief after the enormous collections I’ve been visiting. One perfect Cranach the Elder – coy, knowing Eve handing a befuddled Adam the apple, while peaceful animals lie nearby unaware that the world is about to change for good. Tiepolo, Breughel, Rubens’ portrait of Breughel and his family, a tiny perfect Claude Lorrain, Botticelli, Bellini, Veronese.

For the first time I wondered, looking at all the stunning Virgins and babes, why Jesus in his infancy never wore diapers. He is always naked. Do you suppose Mary toilet-trained him at such an early age? Or perhaps, immaculately, he simply had no bowels.

Suddenly, in the next room, we jump 301 years from 1588 to 1889, Van Gogh with his bandaged ear. I watched a program on BBC last night about self-harm, an exploration of why people inflict deliberate physical damage to themselves, and here was Van Gogh, who mutilated his ear after an argument with Gaugin – self-harm more than a hundred years ago. Most of the paintings were without glass, so I could clearly see in the Seurats all the countless tiny brushstrokes of dots. Modigliani, Renoir, Rousseau, Manet’s famous “Bar at the Folies Bergere,” Monet, Renoir. Monet painted a single tree, bent in the wind on the Mediterranean – like a Provencal, Impressionist version of Tom Thomson’s famous bent tree by wind in northern Ontario. Made me homesick.

More! Pissaro, a whole wall of Cezannes, Whistler and another cherry tree, Degas bronzes, including a nude study for the famous child ballerina in her dress, Toulouse-Lautrec, Derain, Matisse. The collection includes gorgeous sculptures by these painters – how much more talented could they be? A group of school children were sitting in the room behind me, and when I heard them respond to questions about the art, I decided they knew more about it than I. Onward in my blithe ignorance, with my overflowing special bag, to Dufy, Vlaminck, Braque, Vuillard, Bonnard, Utrillo. A few great works by painters I don’t know – Van Dongen, Larionov, Sickert. A Bloomsbury room – Roger Fry, Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant – as far as I know, they were all sleeping with each other. A great lithographer called Winifred Gill, and then – be still my beating heart – a whole room of Kandinsky, including one called Improvisation on Mahogany, sublime blobs of colour that I would like someone, please, to buy for me. Just a hint. 

This museum, like baby bear’s bed, is just the right size. I am full full full but not groaning with excess, and make my way to the café in the basement, to rest, drink coffee and eat the ham and cheese sandwich that I’ve brought with me on my outings every day this week. I can’t help but overhear the women at the next table and think, everyone in Britain sounds pompous and affected to me. It’s because as a Canadian, I’m used to that accent meaning pretension and affectation, even arrogance. But this is just women chatting, in plummy voices.

“Do you awllways weahr gloves to do the washing up?” asks one.

“It’s not fayhr,” pouted the woman at the theatre the other night.

On my way out, I realise I’ve missed the room on the ground floor and I almost sigh – oh no, I’ve got to go and see more medieval masterpieces, including carved ivories. And then out into the pouring rain.

I catch the #9 bus to Knightsbridge, and sit on top with a Spanish woman falling to pieces nearby, sobbing into her cellphone about “este pais” – this country. It’s clear she is not happy in England. Then a family sits next to me speaking something incomprehensible – Yugoslavian, maybe, it sounds a combination of Russian and Italian. Anyway, the giant bus navigates the narrow streets and overflowing traffic – hats off to London bus drivers, true heroes – and I get out at Exhibition Road to walk down to the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Another overwhelming gorgefest – can I stand it? Can YOU stand it? A brochure tells me this museum has ten kilometres of exhibits; I attempt a kilometre or two. In through the array of sculptures – there’s my friend Rodin - to the fashions – a collection of tiny shoes from 1720, through Courreges white boots in 1965, to Manolo Blahniks from 1996. A pearl-strewn dress worn by Diana and many beautiful ball gowns, wedding dresses, funny outfits. There’s a group of extremely handicapped people here, being led and pushed in wheelchairs as cheerful caregivers show them the bejewelled ballgowns. A surreal moment.

The Raphael room.

The Great Bed of Ware, perhaps the biggest bed ever made – 1590 – like a room unto itself. Shakespeare refers to it in “Twelfth Night.”

In front of the exhibits of artefacts, where possible, are plastic pull-out panels in Braille. This is a teaching museum – there are little rooms everywhere with teaching resources. Silver photography glass ceramics textiles prints paintings furniture – beautiful beautiful things. A museum devoted to beautiful things from around the world, through time.

I go to the theatre and performing arts wing – costumes, scripts, publicity and posters, a tutu worn by Margot Fonteyn, a Les Paul guitar smashed by Pete Townshend of the Who, Mick Jagger’s tiny size zero jumpsuit – he has no hips or butt at all - Kylie Minogue’s entire dressing room from 2007. There’s a film about the process of rehearsal, showing National Theatre actors preparing to be Toad, Rat and Badger from “Wind in the Willows,” and I realise that the movement coach working with them is Jane Gibson, who taught at my theatre school LAMDA in 1971. She sounds and looks just the same only her hair is grey. She tried to coach us to improvise being waves of the sea; she does better with Badger. And among the maquettes of theatre sets was the set of a production of “Long Day’s Journey” I saw that year. It starred Laurence Olivier, who did an unforgettable thing: playing stingy old James Tyrone, he climbed onto a table to change a lightbulb and teetered for a whole minute as if he were going to fall over. The audience held its breath. But he didn’t, and almost 40 years later, at the V and A Museum, I relived that moment. And remembered that also that year, I was lucky enough to see Suzanne Farrell dance and watch Alan Bates in “Butley” and Peter Brook’s famous “Dream” set in a big white room, with swings. Gifts given by the artists of this city, many years ago, still with me.

Another “get me out of here” moment – exit through the jewellery, unbelievable jewels, tiaras, looking at all the stuff I’ve missed, China, Japan, the Middle East, endless. Missed William Morris, whom I most wanted to see. Missed seeing the giant milk jug I remember marvelling at on my last visit here in 1971. Next time and the next and the next – it would take many visits.  Phew.

Saw a great t-shirt on my way out. “Bad artists copy,” it said. “Good artists steal.”

Walked along Brompton Road to another kind of treasure trove – Harrod’s. I wanted at least to take a look inside, as I looked yesterday in Liberty’s, around the corner from where I’m living and where every single thing is exorbitant. In Harrod’s I thought I could at least afford to buy a gift for my host Christopher from the Food Hall. Settled eventually on a box of Harrod’s chocolates and got out through the cosmetics section, where a dolly with a forest of false eyelashes tried to sell me an anti-aging cream, “as good as Botox,” for only 215 pounds the little pot. “It’ll last you 4 months!” she assured me, but I had reluctantly, much as I need it, to turn away.

By now majorly exhausted, I headed north into Hyde Park for the walk home – what a welcome oasis, big and green and relatively empty. I happened immediately on the most spectacular rose garden – every conceivable colour of rose, and I thought again, this city is an explosion of treasure, even if it has worn me out. I sat and ate my apple amidst the roses, and exited at the northwest end of the park, walking east along a dignified street. Saw one of the oval blue signs that indicates a great poet or artist has lived here – in this house lived the Bee Gees, it said.

To email at the internet café, where the Senegalese waiter Benin has taken a fancy to me and brings me free coffee, much as I ask him not to. And then home for more Marks and Spencer dinner and a wonderful television documentary, a young poet called Robert Webb talking about how much “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” has influenced him, taking a journey to discover Eliot and also other favourite poets e.e. cummings and Philip Larkin. A whole documentary about the joy and importance of poetry – I must be in England.

And you must be worn out if you’ve actually plowed through all this. I am too.