Monday, September 28, 2009

for the love of theatre

Feast or famine: sometimes months go by without theatre, but last weekend I saw three plays in two days. On Friday night, Michael Redhill's "Goodness," which has been receiving rave reviews here in Toronto and is about to be performed, apparently, in Rwanda. And on Saturday I took the train to Stratford, where friend Lani, with connections at the Festival, treated me to a matinee of Chekhov's "Three Sisters" and I treated myself to "The Importance of being Earnest" by Oscar Wilde in the evening.

Unfortunately, I can't concur with the raves for the first play, which is about a writer named Michael Redhill investigating the circumstances of a genocide in some unnamed country. Certainly the topic is vitally important. Perhaps you just have to touch on genocide and people will applaud. The play was annoyingly confusing, with jumps in time and character, and completely unbelievable in several instances, such as a purported marriage between an adolescent self-pitying schlump and an attractive blonde. The production got unpleasantly melodramatic - when characters start screaming in each others' faces, it generally means that the director doesn't know what he or she is doing or the actors have run out of ideas. The performances were competent or good, the music was wonderful, the whole thing well-meaning, to be sure, but with a whiff of self-righteous pomposity. And they're going to take it to Rwanda??

I go to the theatre to be changed in some way - to feel, to think, to experience. In this play, none of the characters really changed, no matter how much they screamed, and so I walked out unchanged as well. Unmoved, and more than a little disappointed and annoyed. In writing, there's an expression, "No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader." But here, it was as if the actors were revelling so in tragedy and disaster, there was no room left for the audience.

Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you enjoy the show?

But then, in Stratford, I was reminded of the true glory of the theatre. I have appeared in "Three Sisters" twice myself, as Irina the youngest sister in a theatre school production in 1971 and as the vile wife Natasha in Vancouver in the mid-seventies. So I thought I knew the play well. But Martha Henry's sublime production showed me that I didn't know the play at all. She has brought out the subtleties, the rich nuances of character and circumstance and the humour for which Chekhov is famous.

Among others, I saw the character Chebutykin, the old doctor, played by James Blendick, as if for the first time - his corrosive passivity and despair. Tom McCamus was stunning as the lovesick major, but all the performances were good, even the smallest roles - Fedotik, the bit part of an eager young orderly, as fully portrayed as all the others. The performances were a marvel, the set and lighting perfect, but it's the depth of understanding that Ms. Henry brought to that complex time and place, to the lives of upper-class Russians adrift in a world about to change, brutally and forever, that will remain with me.

A show like this is why Stratford can justifiably call itself world class: I've recently been to plays in the West End of London and in Stratford-on-Avon, and this production could and should be in either place.

In the evening, a wonderful production of the Wilde play, featuring Brian Bedford, who also directed, as Lady Bracknell. I was afraid that having directed himself, the performance would be self-indulgent and over the top, as can easily happen with this marvellous role. But he played it beautifully and with restraint, in a sparkling, hilarious production.

What a thrill to go to this small farm town in the middle of the Ontario countryside and see the best that theatre can offer. It made me very proud. And it made me want to go back as soon as possible to see other shows. Thanks to Lani for putting me up in her comfortable living-room, making it possible for me to afford this treat.

Chebutykin says, at one point, something like, "Look at me - my life is over. I'm an old man. I'm fifty-nine!" Poor Chekhov died of TB at 44, having written some of the most brilliant plays the world would ever know. I, like the doctor, am 59, and feel that my life is getting more interesting all the time. My doctor called today to say that the results of the bone scan I had recently weren't great; that I am at risk for osteoporosis, need more calcium, etc. etc. She mentioned, swiftly and in passing, that at my next check up, we would do some extra tests; that her predecessor, my former doctor Mimi Divinsky, died of bone cancer - multiple myeloma, which is also what killed my beloved Sarah Torchinsky. Some extra tests, she said lightly.

I felt the finger of fate wavering about in the sky. Will it point at me?

Nah. Too much great theatre to see. No time for that sort of thing.

Monday, September 21, 2009

celebrating love and Canada

"The lesbian wedding of the century," someone called it, and it was - at least, so far this century in Canada. And my daughter Anna and I were at the party afterwards. It was a mah-vellous party.

Anna works as a part-time nanny for Ilana Landsberg-Lewis, whose parents are Stephen Lewis and Michele Landsberg, two of the best-known and loved social activists in this country. Michele had a feminist newspaper column for years, has written many books and is involved in countless good causes; her husband was an NDP politician, then at the U.N., and is now the Canadian envoy in charge of AIDS advocacy in Africa. Ilana runs the Stephen Lewis Foundation. She has two young sons, 4 and 7.

Her love is Lorraine Segato, rock star, whose band Parachute Club was one of the fixtures of Queen Street West in the heyday of Toronto's groovy club scene. The two have been living together for some time and were married yesterday afternoon at a huge estate in Paris, Ontario, owned by a gay millionaire who paid for the entire event - 50 guests in a lush garden in the hot fall sunshine, the ceremony written by the couple and presided over by Eve Ensler, writer of The Vagina Monologues and an ordained minister, followed by a banquet. A film of the afternoon's events ran in loops above the stage throughout the evening.

And then, the party on Queen Street West West, as the further reaches of the street are now known. I was Anna's date. And what a group was assembled - an extraordinary mix of Canadian, particularly Toronto, creme de la creme - gay royalty, leftist Jewish activist royalty and African royalty, perhaps literally in that case. I knew more faces than names. For example, I spent some time chatting to Stephen Lewis's interesting sister Nina, only to be told that she is the famous architect Daniel Liebeskind's wife and business partner. And of course Ilana's brother Avi Lewis and his superstar wife Naomi Klein were there. What a family!

I talked with old friend Gerry Caplan and his wife Carol - Gerry, writer and activist, is a leftist pundit and the Canadian expert on the massacres in Rwanda, and Carol is a key figure in provincial labour relations - and to a beautiful woman with thick white hair - Barbara Coloroso, author of "Children are worth it," my bible when the kids were growing up.
"I went to hear you speak once," I told her, "and the product of your advice is playing with Ilana's kids in the next room." Barbara turned from general parenting advice to a book on dealing with bullying and from there, a hugely painful leap to a book on genocide. She told me she is supposed to be writing another book about this last topic and has found she just can't. She has grandchildren now and wants to return to parenting advice. She's on the board of the Lewis Foundation and had flown in from Colorado for the event.

Then I chatted with another old friend, Susan Feldman, executive producer of literary programming at the CBC. We discussed my afternoon spent cleaning my kitchen, as I usually do from 3 to 4 on Sundays while listening to Eleanor Wachtel's superb literary interview program. And then with Ann-Marie Macdonald, one of only two Canadians to have been selected for Oprah's book club and to have appeared on her show. It's exactly 20 years since the opening of the Phantom of the Opera, which my then-husband produced for Garth Drabinsky; Ann-Marie was one of our guests in the limo that spectacular night. She and her partner Alissa have two children; Alissa is a busy director so Ann-Marie is the stay-at-home parent.

Who else? Politicos, artsies - actors, writers, producers - Sandra Schamas, the great comedienne - and advocates. So many fascinating people. Rita Zekas, the Toronto Star gossip columnist, came to sit at our table and complimented me on my sweater. "Vintage?" she asked. I didn't even need to answer, given the state of it with bits of thread hanging off - but it is lovely, of 50's acrylic with sequins and embroidery. FYI, I was dressed entirely by Goodwill of Gerrard Street, the sweater worn over a classic 50's little black dress - "Dresstown," says the label - with my mother's sparkly jet beads. There were as great an assortment of wardrobe choices as social groups, as you can imagine, with one woman in a floor-length ball-gown, some of the lesbian contingent resplendent in snazzy suits, the Africans in traditional clothing and headdresses of magnificent fabrics, the Jewish social activists in plain "I don't dress up for anyone" garb, one of the brides in a fluffy white wedding dress with a train and the other in satin suit jacket and ruffled blouse. "Are you a friend of the bride or the bride?" Susan Feldman asked me.

Time for music. Folksinger Murray McLaughlin sang a love song, Molly Johnson sang several great jazz numbers, colleagues of the rock star bride did some numbers while we all danced, and then we were invited to dance the hora, the traditional Jewish wedding dance. So we formed a chaotic circle, weaving around and clapping, while the two women were hoisted onto chairs held above our heads, Lorraine flapping the traditional handkerchief used after a Jewish wedding ceremony. That was about it for tradition, except that the dance ended with Lorraine waltzing with her father. Her parents immigrated to Canada from Italy. I do not think that the events of the day would have figured in their wildest imaginings about what awaited them in this new country.

Michele and Stephen spoke beautifully and with humour about the passionate love and commitment of the couple and their own joy. Then Lorraine leapt onto the stage and sang a fabulous number - she's a live-wire performer, and spoke and sang about love as her spouse watched and clapped from the dance floor.

Like everyone else in the room, I was extremely proud last night of my city and my country - of the diversity and absolute tolerance, racial, socio-economic and sexual, in the room, and of the fact that these two women, devoted to each other, to their children, to their work, were able like any other couple to celebrate their union with an official, legal ceremony and a grand party.

Best of all, Ilana spoke to me with affection of a young woman who works for her. My Anna was exceptionally beautiful last night in a white pants suit and a sparkling diamanté bracelet recently bought for her on the Boulevard St. Michel. She was supposed to be a guest and enjoy herself, but when the woman who was going to keep an eye on the kids called in sick, she had suddenly to be in charge. So instead of relishing the spectacle with me in the great hall, she was in the next room with all the children, not only her boss's but those of the other guests. She didn't complain.

My daughter and I spent the end of the night lying on mats on the floor, I with Ilana's elder son's head on my shoulder, watching an animated film about ant bullies. A perfect end to a thrilling soirée.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

harvest bounty

Talk about luck - all summer long, Toronto was flooded with rain, and then in late August - co-ordinating nicely with my return - the rain stopped. We have now had a record-breaking spell, for September, of hot, dry days. Mind you, this morning, as I rode my bike to St. Lawrence Market, my hands froze. It's time, already, for gloves, at least on the bike. The mornings and nights are cold, but the days are still blessedly sunny and bright and hot.

One of the greatest treats of the week was the return of Wayson Choy from his book tour in Australia. Wayson and I are immersed in as great a love affair as a gay man can have with a woman. Joyful reunion, hugging, catching up, eating, celebrating. But best of all, I was able to tell him that during the class at Ryerson on Monday, when I asked each student why they were there and what they hoped to achieve, one replied that he was an engineer, had never done any kind of creative writing, but had recently read a book that so inspired him, he'd decided to learn to write. "Wonderful - what book?" I asked.
"Not Yet," he said, "by Wayson Choy. It was so beautifully written, I could see, hear, smell everything that happened. I'd like to learn to write like that."

So would I. But we'll do our best to imitate the master. That story meant a great deal to Wayson, modest man that he is. When telling about the standing ovations he received on his book tour, he said, "They wired the seats to give the audience electric shocks, so they had to get up."

The market this morning was awash with late summer produce and a profusion of multicoloured dahlias. I loaded up, and this afternoon, after yoga class at the Y, came home to cook - a chicken, eggplant and basil stir-fry, a tomato sauce with pounds of fresh Roma tomatoes, peppers and more basil, and a tabbouleh with yet more tomatoes and mint and parsley from the garden. That should keep me going for a few days. Mona, in my Thursday home class, brought as a gift a Quebecois cheese - Sauvagine - absolutely delicious, as good as any subtle French cheese. I have been leaving it out for an hour before lunch or dinner so it's melting and slightly stinky, and then diving in after the main course. Just as if I were still in France.

Which I may be again before too long. I have been negotiating with my extremely kind and generous boss, Lee Gowan, at U of T, to slightly change the dates of my winter and spring courses to ensure four consecutive weeks off next April. I've asked my Paris landlady to put a tentative hold on the apartment for me - depending on my situation, and on whether anyone in her family wants the place then. But if not Paris, next April I will be going somewhere. Next year is my 60th birthday. A good excuse for more globe-trotting.

So much to celebrate.

In the midst of all this celebration, I 'd like to share a little heartbreak, a small cloud, a shadow. I called my publisher, Syracuse University Press, to ask if they were considering reprinting my book. Surely, I thought, the thousand copies of the first print run must be nearly gone; the book was published more than two years ago.

They informed me that there are still over 300 copies in the warehouse. The book, which took me 25 years to research, write and get published, has sold fewer than 700 copies. It hurts. I thought that at least, if it didn't appeal to a mass audience, it would be a textbook for universities with Yiddish courses. It seems not. Gordin is just too obscure, the book just too dense, perhaps. Or perhaps they just don't know it's there. Syracuse made a lovely book, but marketing is not their strong point, to put it mildly.

Well, I decided, the book is like my kids. I have put every bit of love I can into their upbringing, and now it's up to them. At the moment, they're not living up to their potential, but that's all right - they're young and finding their feet. And anyway, their definition of success and happiness is different from mine. All three of my offspring are out in the world slowly making their way. I can only leave them be, dig into my stir-fry dinner, savour a bit of Sauvagine and get on with vital projects - writing my next book and dreaming of the next foreign adventure.

Oh, and by the way - I flipped through a fashion magazine the other day and read that "a velvet blazer is the key wardrobe item of the season." Guess what I sold for $7.00 at the garage sale? You guessed it - the most beautiful velvet blazer. Ain't that always the way? I want it back!

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

still figuring it out

Another heavenly day, sunny with a twist, an undertone of chill. When will we encounter the true reality of Canada in autumn? Soon enough, I hear. No rush. Ol' man winter, take your time. Yesterday, I saw a perfect red maple leaf curling its edges on the ground. Beautiful but ominous - we know what it portends.

Now that the big hurdle of the garage sale is over, here it is, normalcy. I'm back in the saddle, as they say - one class started at Ryerson last night, another tonight, my home class Thursday, U of T class in 2 weeks, and on my desk are lists and lists - call the contractor about the basement floor, regrease the downspout against raccoon invasion, prune and bag faded summer flowers, get groceries, cook food. Back to the day to day. Was my grand adventure a dream? Was this woman with her long lists of things to do actually swanning around Paris only recently?

Despite my daily immersion in the mundane activities of the householder, yes, Paris is still with me, and so are Liverpool, London, Sheffield, Montpellier, Hossegor, Aix-en-Provence, Stratford, Potterspury and Gordes. As I empty the dehumidifier and iron my work clothes, they're all there inside, all that great art and cheese, the friendships and adventures, all those memories. They are still shining. I am still shining.

I do wonder about this woman into whose shoes I have recently re-stepped, this lunatic woman with all her second-hand coats, single mother of two marvellous and worrisome adult children, with a huge unwieldy old house to run, classes to teach, books to write and not enough money. I don't understand why she didn't sell the house years ago, find somewhere small and manageable, get on with her writing work instead of spending vast chunks of time managing the plant. It's almost too much for one person. Why bother?

That's the question I went away to resolve, and as you can see, it's not resolved yet. The house is too much, and yet I love the house. The garden is way too much, no question about that, and yet the garden is a source of enormous pleasure. Somewhere, in some crazy place, I think I am keeping this house not only for my children, because they grew up here and it's a touchstone in the chaos of their young lives, but for my grandchildren. Who I hope I won't encounter for some time.

So, somehow, for now, we'll make it work. And on days like this, soft autumn days when the sun shines and the local farmer's market is overflowing with heritage tomatoes and homemade bread, it seems easy.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

what a team!

The junk store and staff

getting and spending

Yesterday was our garage sale, the last I will ever hold. My grandfather Mike Kaplan was a shrewd, successful businessman in the schmata trade. His granddaughter inherited from him love of clothing and cloth, and turned this love into an ability to spot and buy great stuff at second-hand stores. But as for the all-important part of Mike's talents - business, selling, making money - she inherited no skills at all from her savvy grandfather.

So luckily my daughter and her friend Holly took over yesterday morning, after we'd risen at 7.30 and set up our second-hand clothing and junk store in a neighbour's wide front yard. It looked great - some of the dozen coats suspended from the iron fences around the yard, some 15 jackets hung on a pole between two ladders, scarves and vintage tablecloths on a twisted piece of wood stuck in the fence, books, pants and sweaters in bins, handbags suspended from the fence posts. It's when people started to trickle in that my incompetence arose. On the one hand, I'm desperate to get rid of the stuff and could give it all away; on the other, I remember where it came from and how hard it was to get it and want to receive its proper worth. So the staff took over (earning their 50% commission) while I went home and brought back coffee and bagels to keep them going.

The Cabbagetown Festival, which runs all this weekend, is a marvellous neighbourhood event; Parliament Street is closed down, Riverdale Farm runs special events, there's a huge crafts fair, all the local restaurants put tables outside, and every other house holds a garage sale. The thought of a French neighbourhood celebration involving households putting their goods on display on the sidewalk, for sale - non, absoluement pas possible. But here, people stockpile their unwanted stuff all year for the sales. I have never had a sale before because I love wandering around seeing what's going on - the parade, the dog show, the music, the food - and, yes, quite possibly buying some of my neighbour's junk to add to my own. I bought my Mark Rothko that way - well, a canvas with bold mauve stripes that looks remarkably like a small Mark Rothko, painted by one of my neighbours, sold for $20. I staggered home once with a wicker sofa. When my kids were small, $10 would keep them busy for the whole weekend, buying food on the street and toys and books.

It was a long hard slog yesterday but we made almost $600. The stuff on sale probably cost twice that, but the point is, a great deal of it has gone. I did have to take back the Armani raincoat and several other treasures that didn't sell, and I changed my mind about a couple of pairs of shoes I'd put out - these are great shoes, why would I sell these? But at 4, the girls and I hung or dumped all that was left outside the house and began to clean up. People went on shopping, and we made an additional $12 after closing down. Finally I put out a sign, "Help yourself," and when I left at 5.30 to go to an annual neighbourhood bash, people were picking it over. Some of the pile is still there, but not much.

I will never buy anything again as long as I live.

As the great man said, "Late and soon, getting and spending, we lay waste our powers."

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

is there a twelve-step program for bloggers?

Perhaps - is it possible? - this blog is replacing Goodwill as my primary addiction. Now I am addicted to you.

If this is Wednesday, it must be Carol's class. Another addiction. I have taken Carol's lunchtime runfit class at the Y on Wednesdays for at least 15 years. Carol is a grandmother of 3 whose hobby is running marathons around the world; she and her husband are off in 2 weeks to Florence, where she'll run the Florence marathon and then eat a lot of pasta. She did a marathon in the south of France where they served wine and sausage at the rest stations! Her class is superb - she's always bringing in new stretches, new ideas, and pushing us to go a bit faster and longer. And then, for the rest of Wednesday, I can't do much because my legs are a bit sore.

This evening there was a pleasant dinner at the annual Continuing Studies gathering at U of T. Great to spend time with my writer colleagues. This summer, while I was galavanting, the supremely talented Alyssa York sat nailed to her desk, hence her alabaster skin. She is delivering the first draft of her new novel in three weeks. While I, to show for my summer profession-wise, have this blog. You, my four or five faithful readers. And a 62,000 word manuscript of something which, in 3 weeks, I might be organised enough to get back to.

On the streetcar home, I got an earful from the seat behind. First two homeless teens sat talking about their lives on the street, how they learned to beg, how one of them got off drugs and is in subsidised housing for only $120 a month. At least our government is doing something right. When they got off, two girls sat down and began to talk about their friend Megan, "such a sweet girl," whose boyfriend has beaten her up several times and has had three weapons-related arrests. "She was like so apologetic that she called the police when he hit her," one of them said. "I was like, girl, don't let him treat you like that. But she felt so bad for him when the police came."

And then they talked about getting stoned with pop cans. "Such a great high, much better than when you roll and I don't know how to roll anyway. I used to go to school baked all the time. It was hilarious."

By the time I got off, I felt like a prim little old lady clutching my handbag tightly to my chest. What a wild world out there on the streets of Toronto.

Last night I began to fantasise, for the first time, about how to get back to the streets of Paris. I have a few weeks off next April. Perhaps Paris in April will become a third addiction.

You, Carol, Paris. Can't live without you.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009


These days are a gift - the hot sun of early fall, gradually easing us out of summer and into ... what's coming. Let's not think about that.

I did not think I would take such pleasure in the food of downtown Toronto, but there's so much great stuff. My all-local dinner was delicious. I know others have been doing this forever, the "hundred mile diet" and all that, but France has taught me, too, to seek out what's in season and available nearby. Today is the Riverdale Farm farmer's market, where I bought "heritage tomatoes," whatever they are. It seems to mean they're funny-looking - odd colours and shapes, bright yellows, purply green, huge, tiny, oblong. I also bought two big bunches of basil, which bushed out of my backpack as I rode home on my bike. Nature Woman.

Had tomatoes and basil in vinaigrette for supper with corn and grilled chicken. I do not think my French friends would have turned up their noses at this meal, simple as it was. Though Denis would have eaten the corn, as he does hamburgers and pizza, with a knife and fork.

My student Mona, who's been following the blog, has just emailed me the names of some of her favourite delicious Quebecois cheeses. "If you can't find them," she said, "I'll be your supplier." Yes! That's what I need - suppliers. Supply me with your Canadian treats, and I'll blog about them once they've been devoured. What a fine idea. Hmmm?

As I made my way back home from the market, I gloried in my neighbourhood. In the park, a group of mid-Eastern women, heads covered and one with only her eyes showing, with their children, a group of Caribbean women with their children, an Asian family, a South American couple, a couple of men strolling hand in hand ... diversity, thy name is Cabbagetown.

Monday, September 7, 2009

totally crazy

It is a hard thing, my friends, to confront your own mental illness. But that's what I've been doing, as I open box after box that was shoved into storage before I went away. What the hell IS all this stuff, and why the hell did I keep it all? And what's worse, acquire more? Who needs four warm blue bathrobes from Goodwill? I must have been afraid that if three suddenly caught fire, I'd have one more. I would not be cold and naked at night.

I'm getting rid of two of them. It's not a bad idea to have one spare, is it? I'm getting rid of at least nine second-hand coats. But there remain at least twelve, to cover every eventuality. That includes a vintage floor-length velvet and satin opera coat used in my university drama club's production of Hamlet in 1968.

Keeping that. I might go to a vintage opera or stage Hamlet some day. And it's lovely.

There's a documentary on right now about hoarding, but I don't need to watch it. I've lived it.

Okay, not totally pathological - I did recycle newspapers, and I've always given as much as possible away. But I also bought costumes, just in case ... in case what? I was cast in a play and there was no money for wardrobe? At one point, I actually considered doing a one-woman show simply because I had such great costumes. A flapper dress with fringe and feathers; a Rosie-the-Riveter one piece outfit; a floaty black negligée and matching peignoir. (Do they even make peignoirs any more? And what does it mean?)

Crazy crazy crazy. Out with the costumes. (Except the negligée. Definitely might need that.)

Sunday, September 6, 2009

the cheese chronicles

Was awakened at six by a scrabbling sound right outside my bedroom window. What the ... I opened my window and was face to face with a raccoon, obviously thwarted by the freshly-laid axle grease on his usual downspout, climbing up the other downspout next to my bedroom. As I said, the beasts are invincible. Today I bought a fresh supply of axle grease for the creature's new highway. The man in the hardware store tried to sell me $50 worth of spikey things, but when he heard my simple and inexpensive plan, said he was going to recommend the grease solution to others. Let's hear it for axle grease. Mind you, after this post, I'm Googling "How to remove axle grease from clothing."

After the hardware store I went to the little deli the Epicure on Parliament Street for bread, and wandered over to their cheese display, which I usually ignore. Well bless my buttons - not bad at all. I bought a Morbier, a chevre and some Canadian Oka and had them, nicely softened, after lunch. Forget all that about not bothering to buy and eat cheese - that was a brief moment of discouragement and madness. There will be cheese. A friend just told me about a great cheese shop, specialising in Quebecois cheeses, on Church Street, not far from here. There's good cheese everywhere in Toronto, I just wasn't looking in the right places.

Lunch, by the way, after a grocery shop at No Frills, was three of of North America's greatest contributions to world cuisine: grilled hamburger with ketchup and fresh corn. I have missed corn, and, yes, ketchup. Yum.

Before that I went for my usual half-hearted, meandering jogette down our side of Riverdale Park and up the other side, to Riverdale Hill, where there's an extraordinary view of the high rise towers of downtown Toronto. What I do miss and need is the open sky, so cherish places where it's visible, that comforting canopy. The other side of the park is one.

This morning, I woke to an almost silent city. It's the Sunday of a long weekend, a hot, sunny long weekend when most of the city is at the cottage and the Don Valley Parkway nearby, for once, is nearly quiet. Oh my friends, despite the raccoon outside my window, despite the chaos here, the mountains of clothes to give away or sell, the rotting basement, the overgrown garden, the lack of sky - it is unbelievably good to be home.

Friend Bruce called this afternoon, to tell me he and his brother Stan and sister-in-law Carolyn are still following this blog faithfully. I thought that now there are no exciting overseas adventures and great art to note, my readers would vanish. But perhaps, a bit of ordinary chronicling isn't too dull. A lifelong diarist, I no longer keep a diary, I keep a blog, so it's still is important to me, despite the time it takes, to keep track of the day to day in this public way.

Stan, Carolyn, Bruce and whoever else is out there, if you're still up for reading, I'm still up for writing.

For now.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

settling in and munching

Already Canadian-ness is setting in. I find myself nibbling all day long, eating at any old hour in any old order. Soon it'll be back to grilled cheese sandwiches as my hot cooked meal. Well, perhaps not, but I'm certainly backsliding. It also has to do, of course, with living alone. Who can be bothered to get the cheese out to warm before the meal, just for oneself? For that matter, who can be bothered to buy a lot of great cheeses when you're going to be enjoying them alone?

I'm not complaining. As you have gathered by now, solitude is vital to my well-being. But it does affect my eating habits, whereas on my travels, I was either with others, in England and in Gordes, or alone in France able to buy delicious food already prepared. Here, it's back to the labour of planning, shopping, cooking; back to not being interested.

Which is a shame, because I'm still throwing out clothes, and one reason I'm doing so is that I lost a bit of weight in France and am getting rid of my droopier things. I didn't believe it either, kept getting on and off the scales at the Y to be sure - but I lost at least a kilo on the French cheese/chocolate/rosé diet. I guess the loss came from eating with care and relish and also much walking, weeding and worrying. A kilo was probably sweated off the day I left my bag on the train, and never returned.

But now - not so much care and relish, weeding and walking - (the same amount of worrying, but about different things). So perhaps I shouldn't be tossing quite so many clothes, as I'm sure to regain what vanished in France, especially as winter approaches, fresh fruit becomes harder to find or afford, and exercise, except for shovelling, is more elusive too. Oh well. For a few brief shining moments, I was at my ideal weight, thanks to smelly cheese and marching about.

The Toronto Film Festival is about to open, and the Palestinian film I saw in Montpellier, The time that remains, plus the new Almadovor, neither of which I liked much, are going to open here. So we'll see what the Canadian critics, or you, say.

On this glorious hot sunny Saturday, I did an unpleasant chore - I smeared axel grease on my downspouts and picked up raccoon waste. Every morning I've been doing battle with the one raccoon, or sometimes the three, who sleep huddled in a corner of my upstairs deck; now I'm trying to make it impossible for them to climb up - and relieve themselves - there. The spout they use as a ladder is covered with thick grey grease. Take that, raccoons! But they're smart and stubborn. Don't bet too much on the human being.

Then I rode my bike down to the lake to visit Ben, the husband of my dear friend Sarah who died while I was in France. This is a man who has been through a nearly unbearable ordeal this last while, and all I could think to do was offer to take him out in the sun in his brand new wheelchair. Vigourous Ben lost not only his wife of 62 years, but shortly before, to fight his own cancer, he had his right arm amputated and almost lost the use of his legs because of the chemo he endured. We went along the waterfront, enjoying the crowds, heat and breeze though not the deafening American jets flying above, performing for the Canadian public. We sat in silence and then talked a bit about Sarah. Ben is a brilliant man of dignity, energy and pride. I cannot imagine spending an entire lifetime, from adolescence, with a helpmate and soulmate at work as well as at home, and then to lose her and independence and mobility too. They were a couple who argued only once in my hearing, about the amount of sugar to put in the jam they were making. "We almost never fought," Ben said today. A true partnership and a most happy marriage.

My heart is with him.

Friday, September 4, 2009

feeling free

Sitting on the deck in the hot late afternoon sun, swatting at wasps, listening to the cardinal make his rounds, smelling the mildewed bedding roast. A glass of red, a big ratatouille in the fridge - one happy woman.

What a fine country this is, even with the cold and calculating Stephen Harper running it. Toronto is so big! There's so much space, so much air, a sense of freedom. Yes, most streets of this city are ugly, but I love the casualness of life here. Imagine trying to tell a Canadian that there's a right and wrong way to cut his cheddar. He'd think you're mad.

All this to say - regular visits to Europe are I believe a necessity for the soul, to spend time in countries where what human beings have wrought through the centuries is both beautiful and respected. I have come home nourished to my very core. But I'm also glad to live in a country so open to the future, unbound by the past. It just feels unfettered and free.

And - be still my beating heart - my neighbour's son has just told me he's running a gourmet cheese shop which specialises in French cheeses. I may never leave home again.

I've spent a gruelling day beginning the great throw-out, and at this point I am thoroughly disgusted with myself. Friends kindly called me a packrat, but I was a hoarder, a sick person piling up stuff. Going to the Goodwill and then the Doubletake second-hand store around the corner was one of my daily treats, my hobby. I just kept buying for years, for decades - vintage chachkas, clothing for me and all my friends, coffee table books, junk. And now it's all here and I've got to pile it up and get it out. The spare room is packed just with clothes to get rid of, much more to come. What use was all that stuff? It wasn't that I needed it, no - it was that I needed to collect it. Something new to look at, to fondle, to try on.

Well, I don't need it any more. OUT! Soon I will feel free not just in my city but in my closet.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

homemaker's bliss

Lunch today: pork roast, broccoli and fresh new peas. Supper: just-made ratatouille followed by cheese with whole wheat sourdough bread from the Riverdale Farm farmer's market yesterday, with an Italian red. No one is here to say, "Elle est bonne, ta ratatouille." But she is.

Bet you didn't think I'd be reporting on culinary delights here in Canada. I spent half an hour today reading a thick, impressive magazine left here by my tenants, the 2009 Toronto Life Guide to Eating and Drinking, and it was an eye-opener. I've ignored all the foodie developments in this city, the chocolatiers, the bakeries, the cheese shops, not to mention the restaurants. Here I am moaning because I've left all that good stuff behind, when it's all here. Not as easy to find as in France, but all I have to do is make the effort to find it. And I will.

En plus, friends are showering me with goodies. This afternoon I opened the front door to find a tray of mangoes, with a note: "Welcome home - the mango lady." The mango lady is Bernie, a dear friend, who took me last year to Little India to buy the special mangoes that only come in at this time of year. Today, unfortunately, I had guests and had to share them, because I want to keep them all for myself. They're sublime.

I did not eat mangoes in France.

For those of you who've been following the ups and downs of the last months, an update: Jerry the plumber came today. No disastrous scenario, digging down into the basement, major excavation, no - I needed a new sump pump and because of the flood, will need to lay a new basement floor. And that's all. Quel relief. Unfortunately, anything stored down there is now powdered with mildew, so there are about fifteen loads of laundry to be done. On the list.

My daughter and her friend Holly who's setting up and opening her own daycare in a few weeks came over to help unpack and sort. Eventually a friend of my son's hauled a whole truck's worth across town for the girls - a chair, a bed, some shelves, bags and bags of other stuff. The great get-rid-of has begun. God, it feels good. Get this stuff OUT OF HERE! Give it to someone who needs it!

Dave who helps with the garden materialised early this morning to bag the yard waste and put it out for pickup. Bill the toothless homeless man with long grey hair came by to wash my windows and clean out the eavestroughs. The household staff are back at work. And tomorrow I see my bank manager to figure out how to pay for all this, and five months in Europe besides.

Cycle Solutions pumped up my bike tires and I had a ride around the neighbourhood. There's a new caution in the air because of the fatal motorist/cyclist confrontation last night downtown. I'll be careful - but I've got my wheels. Wheels, ratatouille, no yard waste and sparkling windows - who could ask for anything more?

P.S. Meant to report - I saw Julie and Julia in Ottawa with my mother and aunt, and we all loved it. Meryl Street is heavenly (brave is the young actress who take on the job of the story parallel to hers) and so is the film, which is about love and companionship, determination and courage more than it is about food. But there's lots of great food. One of the things I liked best is that there is absolutely no mention of Julia Child's size. She's a big woman and very tall, her husband is thin and shorter, and this is a matter of absolutely no significance to them or anyone else. Ah, the good old days, before cadaverous models were foisted on us as beauty.

Beauty is Meryl Streep as Julia Child tasting food in France.

more home

This morning, after a deep sleep, I awoke at 7 to hear the sparrows singing in the ivy outside. From bed, I pushed back the curtain to watch them flitting from branch to branch, to see the sun rising, the tops of the trees. I am in my own bed, I keep repeating; those sparrows live in my garden. This is my house.

Downstairs to make coffee and breakfast in my own kitchen, as the sun streams in the back door. At the moment, with no tenant either above or below, all is quiet and solitary here. Still woozy with jet lag, I've managed to unpack the bags from France and begin to pay bills, make lists, get organised; my wonderful cleaning lady came yesterday and we got things shining and in order. When the phone rings, it's for me. I know where things are; when I sat down on the sofa with the newspaper, my reading glasses were right where I'd left them five months ago. Every time I venture outside, someone stops me to say, "Welcome back!"

Bit by bit, I'll begin to figure out what's different. Food, for one thing: I made a pork roast yesterday, cooked some broccoli, sat down to a proper meal, which I certainly would not have done before France. There's new confidence in my physical self, my clothes - not that I am wearing trendy French things, the opposite - what I learned there is that if your clothes make you feel good, if they're more or less the right colour and cut for you, if you present yourself with ease and confidence, you'll look good no matter what you actually put on your body. That's new, too.

I'm appalled by the amount of stuff here, way, way too much of everything; my goal is to get rid of half of it. Perhaps having stuff around was a kind of security, like taking too much stuff to France - what if I need this? Don't need it.

But mostly, right now, I appreciate every aspect of my life here, the simplest things - the CBC, which seems now to be entirely young men playing soft rock or folk; opening the front door to find the Star and the Globe; the streetcars, filthy as they are (are they not cleaned at night?); my street and neighbours, internet connection, telephone, shower - my own shower, with its notable absence of water pressure - just the same. The desk I'm writing on right now, with the morning sun pouring through the window, the flickering shadow of leaves on the computer keys. The weather has been a gift - perfect early fall days, sun with a hint of chill.

Most importantly, last night my son organised a celebration of his dead friend; they planted a tree in D.'s honour and gathered to toast him. In the middle, he called me to say how hard it has been for him recently; he was in shock for so long and now is truly feeling his friend's death, the fact that they were asleep in the same room when D. died. He is in terrible pain, he called me, I answered. I am in the same town, at the end of the telephone line, able to say, I know how you must be feeling, I'm so sorry to hear that.
I love you very much, I said.
I love you too, he said. Talk to you tomorrow.

I will go away again and come back again. But of all the joys of my return, being close to my children is what matters most.