Thursday, April 30, 2015

Writing classes start next week

For those of you who are interested in more than my love of cheese - my classes start next week.
At the University of Toronto, starting Tuesday May 5, from 6.30 to 9 at University College:

At Ryerson, starting Wednesday May 6, from 6.30 to 9.15 on Victoria Street next to the Chang School:
Please get in touch if you have any questions. I'd love to meet you and hear your stories.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

the issue of truth in memoir

A terrific, very entertaining cartoon exploration of the issue of truth and fictionalizing in creative non-fiction.

opening doors

First, most importantly, word from Kathmandu: Denis has written to us all to say that though his daughter Sarah and her kids did not lose their home, they are sleeping outside along with everyone else, for fear of more aftershocks. Sarah is an extraordinarily strong and accomplished woman, director, as I've said, of Handicap International for the whole region of Nepal, so she will have an enormous amount of work in the months ahead. As well, she is the newly single mother of three small children. If anyone can triumph under such difficult circumstances, it's Sarah. Here's a link to a Paris Match article with a photo of her and one of her twin boys:
Comment s'organise l'aide humanitaire - Paris Match

Thinking about that devastating chaos makes being at home seem even more safe and tranquil. I relish every moment: opening the fridge door, my clothes closet door, the front and back doors. Bill the toothless neighbourhood helper came twice; he raked and I pruned and we cleared away all the dead leaves - 5 huge bags worth. The garden is tidy if brown and bare, though I ache to see the ivy, which for the nearly 30 years I've lived here has flourished on my south wall, shrivelled and brown. Much work to be done. But the birds are at the feeder and I see a few daffodils struggling to open to the light. Soon we'll be complaining about the heat. In fact, yesterday it was hot, heavenly hot - this whole week will be.

In praise of screen doors and windows - there seem to be none in France. Denis said it's because there are no mosquitoes. But there are many other bugs, with which their house in Gordes is filled - beetles, huge grasshoppers, even scorpions - not this trip, but on others. I praise the inventor of screens.

And though there is, as I always notice on my return, so little beauty in and on the streets of this city, still, it's a vital, vibrant place to live - so much theatre, music, dance, art. My piano teacher has written to say I must see the film "Seymour, an introduction," about a classical pianist, so I will. The Hot Docs festival is on, every day a flood of fantastic documentaries. The neighbourhood festivals are beginning - next Sunday one of my faves, the Forsythia Festival right outside my door. I love it here.

And here's another reason - an article on the fast pace of social change in North America. Home.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Thirty years ago ...

Eli's Uncle Sam. (See next post for context.) Different hair colour, better eye-sight, same enterprise.

love is

Here's happiness. (He loves his new blue "hemoot" and doesn't often take it off.) We played football and lined up all the toys; he made a tower of blocks with Wayson and got a dinosaur calendar from Carol and a hug from neighbour Monique; got his presents from Glamma - a pair of toy "nocklears" - binoculars - from Monoprix, a French t-shirt, a bell for his strider bike which he dinged as we went to the farm to see the baby lambs, kids and piglets. And best of all, a chocolate bunny, because I was not here at Easter.

I cannot imagine a love greater than the force in my soul for this boy. And soon there will be another one; my heart will need to stretch even bigger.

In the picture above, however, I look just like my father. This is not a compliment. But it is life.

thoughts on home

It's 7.30 a.m. Last night, keeping busy (including scanning the weekend papers and watching "Call the Midwife" at 8) I managed to stay up till 9.30 - 3.30 a.m. my time - then took a sleeping pill, woke at 5 and 6 but managed to get back to sleep till 7. Perfect. Despite the glorious sun yesterday, I can see now it's barely spring here - a hesitant bit of yellow on my forsythia, the barest sprinkling of green on the willow, otherwise still brown. The big worry is the massive ivy that covers an entire wall of the garden, that seems to be dead. There are no leaves, just a vast intricate tangle of stem. That has never happened before.

I opened the front door this morning and there was the Star, just where it should be, but then I wondered if I should have left it outside. Terrible news of aftershocks from Nepal, child porn in Canada, attacks in the Middle East. It's a blessing it's such a lightweight paper - not that much international news to digest first thing.

Here is the joy: routine. Ritual. Familiarity. For the first time in five weeks, my own coffee in my own mug - and every mug in that cupboard has a story, this one I bought at Marks and Spenser ten years ago and gave to my mother because it has a rooster on it, my father's symbol.

And space. For five weeks, I've lived in tiny hotel rooms or in bedrooms at my friends' houses, or, at Christopher's, on the living room floor. Here are rooms, one after the other, big room with high ceilings to walk through, each arranged the way I like it, because they're my rooms. Everything has its place. Including me.

Distraction. I realize just how much is in the way here of concentrated work - newspapers, limitless internet (which I now realize is a privilege, a tool to use properly and wisely, not a right), the phone, TV and radio, neighbours family, friends, and countless household chores, not to mention teaching and editing work. No wonder I don't get enough writing done. Got to figure out a new way.

But first - a visit from Booboo.

9.30. Eating a slightly stale croissant from my favourite bakery in Paris - with peanut butter. Talk about the best of both worlds. And ... I can do laundry ANY TIME I WANT!
10. I can pee ANY TIME I WANT! And eat and sit down and go out and come in and ... rake leaves. Any time.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

there to here

 This morning in Paris - poor suitcase.
This evening in Toronto - new Provencale tablecloth from Nice.

chez moi

Home. Sitting in the Toronto sun on my own deck IN DIFFERENT CLEAN CLOTHES with a glass of wine. Hear those birds? MY birds. Well, not exactly, but they’re in my trees and eating my birdseed. See that gigantic mess of dead leaves and brush in the garden? MY mess. Hmmm. Everywhere I look, work to be done. And that’s okay.

The flight was much better going than coming, for sure – the movies were much better, for a start, so I got to see two films I’ve wanted to see for ages, Keep on keepin’ on, a documentary about a brilliant old jazz trumpet player mentoring a young blind pianist. Very moving – not just about music but about the power of a great teacher, very inspiring. And then Selma, ditto. Riveting. So, trying not to weep for the first few hours of flight. And then squirming and dozing and feeling sorry for the young couples with babies and little kids – except for the couple with a two-year old who had their Filipina nanny with them - in first class. Four tickets in first class.

My kids and I were texting before we’d reached the gate.

Carol my friend and tenant was out but had left a welcoming note, half a bottle of red wine, some dinner in the fridge, and a neatly towering stack of mail. Five New Yorkers, groan, the weekend newspapers, bills, stuff to do. Responsibilities. Real life. I unpacked and sorted and inspected, got out my daytimer and made lists. So good to get everything out of the suitcase and put it away – I do not want to see a @#$# suitcase for a long time. Had a long hot shower – MY shower, my shampoo, when I opened a drawer, there were my hairbrush and facecream, just where I left them. What a blessing.

The oleander is covered with scale; I need an oleander whisperer. 

Went to the corner to buy a pot of pansies and daffs, some colour for the deck, then got out a bike and took a tour around the neighbourhood, saying hello to neighbours - someone knows me! - checking out the farm, Riverdale Park – families playing ball and having picnics, idyllic. My heart was bursting. Yes, Harper is still here, there’s an election, I’m going to have to get up to scratch and be depressed. I gather that Obama made a funny speech. Devastation in Kathmandu, but Lynn’s Sarah and her family are okay, if without power and many other things. The world is staggering along, the world is vast, the world is magnificent, and I am home.

Behind me – Paris, London, Florence, Cortona, Lucca, Cinque Terre, Nice, Gordes, Villeneuve, Montpellier. Behind me – friends Lynn and Denis, Michele and Daniel, Annie and Paolo, the Daudier family, Christopher, Cristina and Marina, the other Christina, Penny and Lizzie, and, always and forever, Bruce.

My next-door neighbour is arguing with another neighbour, right now, about their dogs. It’s hilarious, all last year the dogs were trying to kill each other through the fences, and they still are. What makes me happy is that if she’s fighting with him about the dogs, perhaps she’ll be too tired to fight with me about the trees. Neighbours. Haven’t had real neighbours for five weeks. And there they are, still arguing. What bliss. Can hardly hear them over the birds.  And someone's barbecuing burgers. Mmm.

It’s 6 p.m. here, midnight my time. Was hoping to stay up for Wolf Hall at ten, but there’s no way. If I last two more hours, I’ll be lucky. 

I am reunited with house, garden, kids,  bicycles, plants, friends, piano. But most importantly, tomorrow I see my boy.

P.S. Randy Bachman on the CBC! Dancing around the kitchen! Does life get better than this?

Saturday, April 25, 2015


Paris, 7.30 a.m.:Those who know me know that my friend Lynn's oldest daughter lives in Kathmandu with her three children. She's the head of Handicap International for the region. I'm happy to tell you that she and her kids and her entire team were unhurt in yesterday's devastating earthquake.

And now I have a plane to catch.

les copines

Got this from Denis: another view of our evening eating warm cheese with bread on sticks. Lynn and I met in 1967, and though she moved to France in 1970 and never came back to live in Canada, our friendship has flourished for nearly 50 years.

la fin

Done and done. My adventure is nearly over - early tomorrow, I drag the suitcase to CDG (it's so full, I bought string today to wrap it up, in case it bursts open) and the very long flight home. A final day of pleasure - this morning in Montpellier, Lynn went out early for fresh croissants for breakfast and fresh bread to make us ham sandwiches for the train to Paris. Denis was going to Versailles to visit his mother who has Alzheimer's, and I for one night at my little hotel before going home. A last farewell to my dear friend, who was looking forward to getting back to work, and her husband and I boarded the superb speedy TGV; we'd bought 1st class tickets as they were barely more expensive than the regular ones, so we rode in wide reclining seats watching the beauties of France whizz by. Denis pointed out parts that had not changed in almost a thousand years - fields, farms, villages, chateaux, churches. As green as Ireland, very tidy and beautiful.

At the Gare de Lyon, he set off to see his mother and I to the hotel, and then to wander the city for the last time. It rained on and off today, as it did my whole first two weeks here, but it was mostly sunny and warm. I bought gifts, even though there's no room in my bag - macarons, croissants and pains au chocolat, little things for Eli. Visited Dad's tree in the Jardin des Plantes and then the Jardin du Luxembourg, both glorious in the spring sunlight. Walked until 7.15, when it wouldn't be too gauche to eat an early meal, and sat on the rue Mouffetard to dine outside, watching the French go home from work with their baguettes.

Any country built on the twin pillars of bread and cheese has my full devotion. And as for Italy - any country built on the twin pillars of tomatoes and noodles, ditto.

I feel perfectly at ease in this city. Hard to leave, though I can't wait to get home. There's such grace here, such a grand old civilization that I love. When I bought my 10 euro ticket for CDG tomorrow, I decide to buy one for the return. There's always a huge line-up at CDG to get a ticket for the metro into the city, and now when I come back, I'll already have my ticket. "Il ne faut pas le perdre," said the ticket seller, when I told him I might not use it for some time. Don't lose it, he said. I won't.

Montpellier - Paris

Click to enlarge
Monsieur et Madame sur la Place de la Comedie, the central piazza of Montpellier. Lynn very proud of her boots from Austin, Texas, where she did a stage and I visited her last year.
I took my hosts to a gourmet dinner in an old courtyard - this was Lynn's risotto with shrimps
Montpellier at night is bursting with life, most of it under 30
This morning, the view from the TGV to Paris - hard to shoot as the train reaches a speed of 300 kmh
Paris! My favourite street - la rue Mouffetard. Spring most definitely here.
Bought a slice of tarte tatin at my favourite bakery on Mouffetard and ate it in the Jardin des Plantes.
Dad's cherry tree - when I was here 5 weeks ago, there were no flowers, and now they've almost gone
La manege - as in almost every park in France
They sure know how to carve their plane trees.
Jardin du Luxembourg on a sunny Saturday - heaven.
The band playing in the park bandstand to a huge appreciative crowd turned out to be from Victoriaville, Quebec. YAY! I later chatted with a ticket seller when I went to buy my ticket for CDG tomorrow. He asked where I was from, I said Canada, and he said, Canada ou Quebec? Grrr. Then he launched into a diatribe about how everyone in France hates the government, both Sarko and Hollande, all the French people are leaving and the only ones left are Arabs, blacks and Jews. I wanted to say, you're black and I'm half-Jewish, what's the problem? But I didn't.
An exhibition of the mountain ranges of France on the gates of the park had this map of French mountains.
 Jews. They're still here.
Dinner on the rue Mouffetard - grilled scallops with rice and bread and two glasses of wine, with a fantastic street view in the fading sun, for under $30.

to the Alps for fondue

Click to enlarge
Vallouise, scene of my misery at age 14
The grocery store in the small ski town of Villeneuve was closing down for the season. This is their tiny selection of wine and fine Champagne. Jealous.
 On our walk through an alpine meadow, M. Blin took his office with him.

 My kind of church.
 Both Lynn and Denis took their offices with them.

Back at the chalet in the hot sun, improvising sun hats.
 Until we found the real thing. Lynn and I called him Jose, the Mexican handyman. As soon as we got there, the toilet broke and he fixed it, then got rid of the dead salamander in the living room and the live bee that could not get out. Men are invaluable.
Beautiful downtown Briancon, which has a medieval gutter running down its main street.
Not Tibet, Briancon.
At last - after waiting since 1964, I had real Savoyarde fondue, made with 3 cheeses and wine. Superb. Worth the wait.

Nice - Gordes - Embrun

Click to enlarge
 The view of the courtyard from my hotel window in Nice
The Riviera - summer already!
 The Nice flower market and my favourite flowers, renoncules.
A small selection of the spices offered.
Candies and little bowls, just what everyone needs.
A presence everywhere in France - young soldiers with machine guns.
The streets of vieux Nice. See those Matisse colours? He lived here for a long time.
Just to show that the Italians do not have the corner on over-decorated churches ...
On one side of the barrier, the 10% who pay for the privilege of sitting on chairs. On the other, the rest of us.
After my trip to Avignon to meet Lynn and Denis, on the way to Gordes we stopped at a market stand. Fresh garlic.
Lynn and Denis's garden in Gordes. Very old stone fence and many olive trees.
L, D and I had lunch with Bernard and Isabelle in the Alps. A spectacular wisteria.

Friday, April 24, 2015

the second last stage - Montpellier to Paris

It's Saturday morning - I'm in Montpellier about to haul the enormous suitcase to the train station - the second last stage, the trip to Paris, one night there, and then tomorrow - HOME. Can't wait.

I wrote this to begin a catch-up a few days ago:

Thursday. A moment yesterday – standing in a grocery store in a small skiing town in the French Alps, talking on my cell to my daughter who was giving me details about her pregnancy and latest doctor’s appointment. I could not have felt further from home, the craggy snow-tipped mountains looming all around outside, a shelf of fine wine and Champagne in front of me – at a small ski resort grocery store! - and my daughter in Toronto talking in my ear.

And soon, soon, I will see her face.

But first, my Tuesday morning in Nice, where by noon it was full-on summer and the beaches were filling up. Sadly, as I’ve said, I could not visit Matisse or Chagall, as all the museums were closed – I had to stroll along the Promenade to the old town, visit the flower market, and buy piles of lavender as a gift. Found a hardware store that had been open for more than a hundred years, and from the clerk – who’d been working there 50 years – I attempted to buy a classy French chef’s knife for my son. But he advised me that it’s not done to buy knives as gifts, so I bought Sam something else, and something for Anna, and found other gifts. A good time. Sat on the beach in the hot sun to eat lunch of the bun I’d made from what was offered at breakfast. Back to the hotel to get my suitcase and to the train station, for a painless journey, again along the Cote d’Azur and then up into Provence. Well, almost painless. First I got on the wrong train and had to rush off, and then when getting off my own train I almost forgot my backpack. But otherwise painless.

Late Tuesday afternoon, friends Lynn and Denis picked me up in Avignon and we drove to the famous mountain village of Gordes, where they raised their five children in a huge stone house I’ve visited many times. We had dinner – as usual, Lynn can whip together something delicious and healthy in no time, with much wine and cheese and talk.

Wednesday morning we packed up and drove through the glories of Provence in spring, gold stone villages full of budding green trees, pink and white blossoms and spring flowers, to the town of Embrun in the Alps, where we had lunch with an old friend, Isabelle, and her husband Bernard. A magnificent view of the mountains that ring their town, which Bernard told us is very near where the German co-pilot drove the plane into a wall of rock. He said people living nearby didn’t hear a thing.

And then on through the growing mountains to the alpine town Vallouise, the reason for this trip. Those who’ve read my memoir know that in 1964, shortly after my family arrived in France for a year, my father arranged for me to leave Paris on the day of my 14th birthday with a troupe of Belgian girl guides for a camping trip in the French Alps – in Vallouise. I hated every minute – didn’t speak French, loathed camping, didn’t know anyone. When Denis read my memoir, he wrote to say his family chalet was very near Vallouise, he should take me back some day.

So he did. as we strolled around the small town, I remembered being small, frightened, bewildered and lost, and was happy I’m now none of those things. Something new registered – the fact that the mountains there are not magnificent and snowy, just big, brown and rocky. I didn’t know France, and I also didn’t know mountains. They must have terrified me. They almost did yesterday.

On to Villeneuve, where Denis’s parents built a ski chalet in the 50’s, to which he and his siblings have continued to come with their children and now grandchildren. A simple house with no internet (AAAGH!) and no TV, just mountains and air. We ate and talked – and talked and talked, because this is France, and that night, lungs full of mountain air, I slept more soundly than I have for weeks.

This morning we went for a more than two hour walk along an alpine path, miles of jagged snowy mountain and fields on all sides, tiny flowers poking through, animals to be seen by the sharp-eyed – a few mountain goats in the far distance, an eagle, a puddle full of tadpoles, a family of marmots keeping an eye on us. What an array of experiences I've had this trip!

Home to read and rest – I MISS THE INTERNET – and then out tonight to eat fondue. Because – another part of the story – on the second last night in Vallouise with the Guides, we marched to a nearby village for a special treat, fondue. Only this 14-year old Nova Scotian hated the strong cheese and only ate the bread. I’ve always wanted to fix that loss, so tonight, Denis drove us to Briancon, an ancient mountain town, and we ate fondue – three kinds of cheese mixed with wine, heated in the centre of the table as we dunked the bread in the thick melted cheese and swirled it around our sticks. The giant pot vanished in no time. So so good. I have remedied a forgivable mistake made in 1964. A great feeling.

And mostly what’s a great feeling is that these are people I’ve known most of my life – Lynn, a best friend since 1967, and Denis, since Lynn introduced me to her fiancĂ© in 1971. What Lynn is famous for is her laugh, and laugh, and laugh, we do. Today – trying to remember the profound lyrics to “My baby does the hanky panky.” Twisting in the kitchen. Remembering absurdities of our youth. Singing and dancing and laughing, these two grandmothers – though I only of one and a half grandchildren and she of seven and a half.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015


In France, on the road with Lynn and Denis, no internet. More anon. Suffice to say: the cheese is good.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Chris Cameron's piece in the Globe

Chris Cameron, once a writing student and now a friend and sometime editor of mine, has a beautiful piece in today's Globe. He wrote it for class, refined it for our So True reading series, and rewrote it once again for the Globe. A great piece of writing. Don't miss it.

And for another dose of delight, the marvellous John Oliver has produced a video about the end of the world:


Monday. I took a sleeping pill last night, had a very full sleep and feel human today. A day of train travel with a heaving stomach would not have been fun.

Instead this is a new kind of pleasure – a slow-moving Italian train heading northwest, and I’m sitting on the left side, of course, the Mediterranean side, as we follow the sea from Riomaggiore all along the coast of Italy to Ventimiglia, at the border with France. Seaside towns, palm trees, resort hotels, tall pink, cream or yellow buildings with dark green shutters. Wisteria, hanging in huge purples bunches; cacti, oleander, lemon, orange, redbud trees, and always churches, and, sparkling just beyond, sometimes only a few metres away, the sea. 

I have the car nearly to myself. A few towns back, a group of Americans got on, and the woman scrabbled in her bag and discovered her phone and money had been stolen as she got on the train. “A bunch of kids were pushing me,” she said, “there were two young girls must have managed to open my bag and help themselves.” She went to look for them but not surprisingly, they'd disappeared. “Oh well,” she said. “They didn’t get my cards.”

A cautionary tale. Everywhere I go in transit, since the terrifying experience of leaving my handbag on the train in Montpellier, I’m always counting, “One two three.” My suitcase, my backpack, my purse. Keep them close. Plus there is a 20 euro bill in my pants pocket. That time in Montpellier I was left without even 50 cents to go to the bathroom. The one and only time in my life I’ve thanked the lord for Mcdonalds.

Of course it is a perfect sunny day. Poor BK and I had poor weather in Cinque Terre, cold, grey and wet, but we made the best of it – it wasn’t raining much, and we piled on layers and went out anyway. I will miss Brucie, but the two of us are such independent and solitary souls that though we fit so well together, we’re also happy on our own. What’s really marvellous is that we are neurotic in the same way – both of us thinking ahead nervously, anticipating difficulties, getting to stations very early, avoiding any possible stress – and yet stress hits. 

Now he’s headed back to Firenze, tomorrow off to Venice for the day, then later to see a Piero della Francesca exhibit somewhere, and other day trips – an amazing man, making a life for himself every year in Italy, working hard – he has a teacher in New York with whom he Skypes weekly – to teach himself Italian. Such a fine appreciation for great art, which he teaches me. Luckily, there’s stuff I know that he doesn’t, so we balance, like when we’re listening to music in a restaurant and he says, Who’s that? And I say, That’s Chris Martin of Coldplay.

He is a warm, kind, funny man and I will miss him. But another treat’s in store – one of my oldest and dearest friends, Lynn, whom I’ve known since 1967, and her husband Denis. Three days with them. And I can do laundry. At last. 

Later: I'm in a wonderful little hotel in Nice, once patronized by Chekhov which is why I chose it, and Lenin. In the little lounge where they put books left by guests, there are lots of books in Russian. A painless day of travel, except in Ventimiglia where I got a ticket to go on to Nice, dragged my bag in the subterranean passage to the train with ten minutes to spare, settled in and then realized I had not stamped the ticket as you are required to do. Had to drag my bag back down the passage and up to the station, stamp, and haul it back. Just made it in time. I hate that stamping business. Stress! 

Arrived in Nice, asked a nice man at the station where my street was - rue Gounod - he accessed Google maps on his iPhone and pointed it out. A five minute walk and here I am, a lovely little room with a kettle. Made a cup of blessed tea and went down to ask some questions. SADNESS: I am walking distance from the Chagall Museum, which I wanted to see tomorrow, but it turns out that every museum in Nice is closed on Tuesday. Every single museum. Oh well, I said to the clerk. I guess it's the beach for me. 
There's a market, she said, and made my day.

I walked along the Promenade des Anglais, such a splendid avenue, had a bite to eat outside near the hotel - my stomach completely restored - and here I am.
One of the cream puff hotels on this huge avenue
I happened on an event on the Promenade- a red carpet with cameramen and these two as hostesses ...
cadaverous, criminally thin young women wearing almost nothing -
 thin young men allowed to wear clothes and flat shoes.
Stick legs in very high shoes.
 It was the pilot for a new TV show, apparently: semi-naked women starving to death and tottering in sky-high shoes with callow skinny young men. Sounds fab. Can't wait to see it.
The casino, or one of them.
The view from my restaurant table. I had a salade nicoise, of course - and two glasses of wine. Of course.

I am barely aware of news as I float about, but I did hear the terrible story of another immigrant tragedy off the coast of Italy. In every city here there are crowds of Africans who seem to have no means of support except selling bits of stuff - and yet they're desperate to get to the west. What can be done?