Thursday, May 31, 2007

Vosges, vanquished

Lac Vert

I am going to attempt to keep this one short, for I am actually making a vague attempt to make some money here.

So, this one will be nearly as picture heavy as the last, but considerably less wordy. However, I'm still going to make you read to the end before providing the link with more photos.

Amynah and I were kindly invited by our new friend Sami the Finn (who, for purposes of my blog, I will always refer to as Sami the Finn because it makes him sound like a mobster, instead of the metabolic researcher he is) for a 16-kilometer hike in the Vosges, Alsace’s answer to the Black Forest.

ON Saturday, when I made my packing decisions, it was 32 degrees, and I was wilting in the heat. Not wanting to sweat to death, I therefore decided to pack a long shirt, in case it was cooler in the hills.

On Sunday, it was 16 degrees and overcast in Strasbourg. As we drove closer to Munster (home of the stinky cheese) it started to rain. As we got closer to Col Schluct in the hills, it started to pour, plus a stiff breeze kicked in. By the time we reached the trailhead on top of the mountain, it had graduated to a deluge, with a full-throated, icy wind as accompaniment.

Which way do you think the prevailing wind goes here?

Fortunately, there were four competing restaurants on top of the hill (not a village – just restaurants. It’s France – they’re required by law every two kilometers, whether there’s a population around to support them or not) so we popped in for a coffee and tarte aux myrtilles. Here matters became awkward – it was insane to turn back after a 120 km drive, yet none of us wanted to continue. On the other hand, Sami the Finn didn’t want to let us down, and we didn’t want to disappoint Sami the Finn. So, once the rain had reduced its ferocity to a level where it wouldn’t strip a man of his flesh in five minutes, we set out.

However miserable we felt walking into the swaying and dripping trees, we couldn't have been a miserable as the crew of Scouts trooping out. The poor kids had gone to sleep the night before with sun burns, but woke up in a Bible story. Their misery didn't stop them - each and every one - greeting us with a weak "bonjour" as they passed us on the trail, thus forcing us to respond in kind. Really, an all-inclusive "bonjour" from the first in line would have been fine.

In the end, it wasn’t so bad. The trees cut the wind considerably, and the rain eventually stopped entirely. Sami lent me a fleece, rescuing me from certain freezing death. Soon, we were both snapping photos like crazy – the area is a natural reserve with many rare species of plants (not that I think we saw any – I’m not a botanist).

Lunch Lake (no, not its real name)

At the first of what was supposed to be three lakes we stopped for lunch at a ferme auberge where I had artisinal apple juice (remarkably good) and mashed potatoes and – to my regret – a quarter wheel of Munster cheese. Hiking with a quarter wheel of Munster cheese in you is about as pleasant as it sounds (“A post-prandial sleepiness," said Sami the Finn, impressing me with his second-language facility until Amynah reminded me that as a metabolic specialist “prandial” was just jargon for him). Amynah had an omelet – the only foodstuff on the menu that had no pork (though who knows – maybe they made it with hog-eggs).

The rest of the hike was fairly smooth – it started by sending us over three peaks of about 1200 meters each but most of the rest was through grassy pastureland, complete with grazing cows.

Bonjour, mesdames!

The very last bit (which, we are all convinced, was not supposed to be part of the trail) got a little hairy and added an hour to our time. It sent us along a cliff edge with unreliable looking rubber hoses for support. Not particularly relaxing, considering how wet and slippery everything was, but it did take us through a mini-ravine with it’s own warm and lush microclimate. It reminded me a bit of Costa Rica.

Sami the Finn

More photos (though not nearly as many as I took) are here.
Oh for Pete’s Sake – I say short and write nearly 600 words. I will attempt to exercise restraint in my description of our upcoming adventures with Amynah’s former supervisor and our planned trip on the Black Forest Steam Railway.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007


Before taking up all your time with my blatherings, a quick note: should you not want to read all my painstakingly wrought observations and witticisms and want to skip straight to the pretty pictures, you may do so here.

And now, on to describing a trip that is now two weeks old...

Given that Amynah has been spending much of the last month or so planning for her family’s 8-country, 3-continent visit next month, I was put in charge of planning for the Maastricht visit. This consisted pretty much of e-mailing Babet, booking a couple of hotels online and reserving the car.

Actually researching what there was to do in any of the places we were planning to visit sort of escaped my attention. Therefore, on arrival in Antwerp, we were a little flummoxed as to what there was to do there. All we knew about Antwerp consisted of what little we’d seen of it in diamond heist movies. Even then, those heists usually occur pretty early on in the film with very little time spent in the city.

Thus unarmed, we ventured into town. As is my wont, we immediately located the Cathedral and wandered inside.
The cathedral is home to some pretty impressive wood carving – despite the fact that I am unable to capture the true feel of dark wood carving, I futilely took some pictures of the row of confessional booths, each guarded by a three-dimensional Apostle and their fictional female doppelgangers.

The pulpit was also something to see, supported by four men each representing one of the then-known continents (these were as politically correct as you might expect) and topped by an angel blowing a trumpet (and showing a remarkable dedication to his music, given that he also appeared to plunging to his death).

Here we also discovered that Antwerp was home to Peter Paul Rubens (I would love to say “We were reminded” rather than “discovered” but you, gentle reader, have been too good to me for me to start lying to you now). There were three enormous triptychs there by him. As Amynah pointed out, it was refreshing to see art like this in the milieu for which it was intended.
After some aimless wandering, we headed to the Plantin-Moretus Museum, the one-stop ancestral home/publishing house/printing facility/bookshop of the Reformation-era Plantin-Moretus family. Here, we saw more of Rubens oeuvre, three second-run Gutenberg bibles and a lot of old printing presses.

There was also a copy-editors room, which our audio guide solemnly informed us was a respected and intellectually rigorous profession. As a writer whose blameless prose has been the recipient of numerous unprovoked attacks by these red-ink spewing monsters, I feel somewhat differently (mind you, as an editor whose ass has been saved numerous times by these angels with eagle-eyes, I feel will grudgingly admit they perhaps deserved the best office in the building – bigger even than that of the proprietor).

After the museum, Amynah did some shopping and we grabbed a bite to eat in that most Belgian of establishments, “The Sicilian Pizza House” (before the food people ask – yes, we also bought chocolates and waffles. The latter were far too sweet for my taste).

To wrap up the evening, we decided to cross the river, which is accomplished via the Saint Anna tunnel a 500-metre pedestrian/bike passage that travels under the Scheldt.

After a desultory snapping of the town (European cities don’t offer much in the way of skylines) we caught the tram back to our hotel. And what was the movie playing in our hotel, situated in a city world famous for its trade in precious stones? Why “Blood Diamond,” of course.

Next day was Brussels. I will be up front here: I had heard nothing good about Brussels from anyone, ever. I was probably predisposed to not much like the place.

Brussels did itself no favours, however. We drove in, immediately losing the ring road and ending up in the middle of the city. Our directions were therefore useless, though we appeared to be on a main road. I turned off it and asked a pedestrian for directions to Toisson D’Or Street. He gave us a look as if to indicate we were practically in the wrong city, and told us to turn around and drive to a completely different quarter.

The town, the name of which means "House in the marsh." Who the heck builds their city in a swamp? Belgians, that's who.

We got back on the main road (which, for simplicity’s sake, I will call Waterloo) and headed back. Except it was blocked for construction now, though it had been clear five minutes before. So we followed the rest of the traffic into the city, until it became clear that no one else had any intention of circumventing the detour and were evidently driving to Holland.

So, we stopped in a gas station, and she told us we were actually close to our destination. All we had to do was head back to Waterloo St (which, though some weird space-time flux I’ve noticed European cities are capable of, was now around the corner, despite us having driven three kilometers since the detour) and make an incredibly complex series of turns and we’d be at our destination of Toisson D’Or.

We got onto Waterloo, tried the suggested maneuvers, got lost, asked for directions again. Again, we were told we were close, told to get back on Waterloo, drive straight down, and we’d see the sign for Toisson D’Or. So, we did this, saw the sign, followed it, but since it pointed us to the wrong street, we got lost.

This time, a kind soul told us to follow her, drove us back to Waterloo, turned on to it and stopped: “Here it is!” she said.

Yes folks, Waterloo Street and Toisson D’Or were the SAME GODDAMNED STREET! It had different names for different directions. Why? Who does that? We had in fact been on it as soon as we entered the city, and not one single person deigned to tell us.

Needless to say, I was not too pleased with Brussels at this point. In search of lunch we walked towards the Royal Palace and tourist zone beyond. Now, I don’t want to make fun of King Albert, who I’m sure is a worthy individual, but you have to feel bad for the guy. Where Buckingham Palace has fur-hat clad dudes in red and ill-disguised security forces with automatic weapons keeping an eye on the hundreds of tourists, it is considerably lower key in Brussels. In fact, I’m fairly certain I saw His Royal Highness peek through a curtain and wave in gratitude when I took a picture.

Hey Al!

We headed down to the tourist zone (identifiable by the fact that every single establishment had some kind of TinTin poster in their window, though, to be fair, so did the royal palace). We had lunch –the famed Belgian mussels and fries. As we had, in our hunger and desperation, selected a tourist trap restaurant in the tourist-trap zone, they were terrible – I swear the fries were McCain’s. Strike two.

While we were there, there was also a large immigration protest going on (pro immigration). Amynah and I managed to get ahead of it, in order to walk on streets cleared of traffic. As we walked, we noticed that the sidewalks were crowded with Japanese tourists, cameras at the ready - I'm not sure if they were just really interested in Belgian immigration policy, or if they thought they were about to witness the world's angriest parade.

Brussels most famous tourist attraction is the Mannekin Pis – a fountain with a statue of a young boy relieving himself. They dress him up in different costumes depending on the season and current events – when we saw him he was all dolled up in a suit of armor for some reason. Legend has it that the statue commemorates a heroic six-year old who saved the city from being blown up by gunpowder by putting out the fuse by, well, in the way you might expect. One almost wishes that he didn’t bother.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

The white spears

This photo has nothing whatsoever to do with the content of this post, as it it clearly depicts cornfields. If you want asparagus photos, I suggest you click the link in the text that follows.

Before I bore you all with accounts of our Belgium trip, another one for the foodies out there.

Before we left, when we told people we were moving to Strasbourg, most people reacted with “In Austria?” though some thought it might be in Germany. Very few knew much, if anything about the place (this is not a knock against, anyone, I didn’t either).

One friend of ours, however, being a restaurant reviewer and nascent wine snob, immediately responded with “Oooh, the have very good wines there that are perfect for asparagus.” I remember this, not only because of the specificity of her knowledge, but also for the specificity of the wine.

This was further driven home when we were flying in to Strasbourg from Paris. We had a family sitting behind us with a young boy named Henry. How do I remember his name through the haze of that hectic and jet-lagged time? Well, because his Mother kept repeating “Henry, don’t kick the chair in front of you. Henry, you’re probably annoying that man. Henry, please don’t.” I, meanwhile, was thinking, “Henry, the micro-chicken leg and soggy salad they served really left me kind of peckish. Touch the back of my chair again and I’ll be happy to rip your limbs off with my teeth.”

In any case, Henry’s Dad, at one point pointed out the window in an effort to distract the little monster and said “See Henry! Look – asparagus fields!” This stopped Henry briefly, if only through sheer bewilderment. Meanwhile, up front, Amynah and I began to giggle.

All of which to say, asparagus is a big deal here. Despite the claims of some bloggers, they are an Alsatian specialty (along with every other foodstuff you could care to name, up to and including General Tao Chicken, the good soldier having perfected his recipe here while studying Napoleon’s artillery techniques).

To rather slowly get to the point, last night we were invited out for our first Alsatian asparagus meal, at the home of a woman who goes grocery shopping with Amynah in Germany every month.

The season for these things is fairly short, and they are impossible to find after May. Our hosts sincerely informed us that as yesterday being St Sophie’s Day, traditionally the last day a ground frost is possible (Alsace invent frost as well. And ground.) and generally the end of season, we tucked in for our last chance.

The meal started with a quiche, each serving shaped vaguely like an eggy, vegetable-ridden cupcake. Then came the main show – the asparagus. Now, the Alsatian version of this plant is like the one I was familiar with from North America. First, each indivdual spear was considerably thicker and slightly longer. Second, they’re white.

Our host presented us with a bowl of mayonaisse and invited us to tuck into the albino spears with our fingers. At first I demurred, cutting mine into little pieces with my knife and fork, but as our hosts were grabbing them with the aplomb of sub-continental snake charmers I decided to follow suit.

First of all, asparagus are considerably more water filled than you’d think. Also, considerably more bitter in taste stringier in texture. This combination inevitably meant that I’d bite into a stalk, scrunch up my face like a cranky marmoset, only to have to gnaw my way through plant-tendons while smelly plant-blood and watered down mayo dribbled down my arm onto my pants. It was a massacre, I tell you.

* Ironically enough, the wine we had brought, recommended by my trusted caviste wasn’t even Alsatian, but rather from the Rhône. Go figure. Our hosts went with a bottle from their own 400-strong collection. They did say my offering was "original" which I am deciding to interpret as a compliment.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Maark visits Maastricht

This amused me.

Hmmm, I disappear for more than a week and not a peep. I’m hurt.

Well, had anyone asked, I was in the BENELUX countries, which is what the Euro-hipsters call Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Belgium, despite the fact that it makes them sound like some kind of 1960s cleaning product. I am also uncertain why these 2 1/2 countries are lumped in together despite a lack of a common language.

The spur for the trip was an invitation from Babet, a friend of a friend who visited us back in January. She lives in Maastricht, which is in that part of the Netherlands that looks like it’s being pinched off between Germany and Belgium.

Babet, explaining a series statues that look like moulded turds.

Having the typically Canadian attitude that no city in Europe is that far from any other, and anxious not to jeopardize my thus-far perfect attendance record in French we didn’t leave Strasbourg until 7 pm. We immediately ended up in a traffic jam (un confiture des autos) that kept us near home until 8 pm.

The ride was fairly smooth – French highways have a bad reputation for some reason, but I’m pretty impressed by them. We hit the so-called Grand Duchy of Luxembourg at about 9:30, where we stopped for gas.

The wonderful thing about the Grand Duchy (in addition to its Dancing on the tomb of Saint Willibard festival, which I’ll have to visit) is that it is really small, and fairly rich. This means that its highways had streetlights – more numerous and brighter than those in many cities. Twas very civilized.

Under these conditions, we crossed all of Luxembourg in about an hour, including the gas stop. Belgium’s highways were nearly as well lit, though decorated with signs that appeared to be warning us about an aggressive tribe of flying, shovel-flinging constructions workers, who apparently swoop down from the sky to attack passing motorists. These highways also featured two different restaurant/motels located in overpass like structures. Because, after all, nothing adds to a good night’s sleep like the soothing rumble of 18-wheelers passing under one’s bed.

This old city entrance was called the Hell's Gate. Way to welcome visitors!

We didn’t get to Maastricht until 12:30, after some difficulty locating Babet’s boyfriend’s apartment (no one warned us that he lived in a 600-year-old convent). Despite being roughly 2 hours later than we promised, our Dutch hosts were awake and prepared with a selection of snacks.

The next day Amynah and I, armed with a selection of maps provided by Babet, wandered around the town aimlessly. We saw the river (the Meuse from which, with some linguistic contortions, Maastricht gets it’s name), we saw the shopping district, we saw ton of bikes. I am suffering from some serious Dutch bike envy now – there were some sweet rides in this town. And, contrary to expectations, there were very few bike lanes: bikes are not segregated from traffic as they are in Strasbourg, but a full-on, elbows-out army in the thick of the fighting of the road wars.

Yes, bikes and the Dutch: big stereotype. I don't care.

After what was probably one of the best cappuccino’s I’ve had since leaving Montreal with Erik and his two boys, Babet took Amynah and I around on a tour of Maastricht.

The city reminded me quite a bit of North American burgs, though that might only be because I’ve become so accustomed to Alsatian architecture. Almost everything was red brick, making all the buildings look like they were built in the 1940s, instead of the 1490s.

Coal barge, with Bridge of St Sevatious in the distance. The end bit was bombed in WWII

It’s a fairly small city, and Babet explained that up until this century the main industry had been mining, removing minerals from the Netherlands’s hill (yes, I intended the singular. No, I am not one hundred percent sure I’m joking). Otherwise, the main industry seemed to be God – not churches, though there were some impressive ones. On the other hand, the place seemed to be littered with ex-monasteries and convents, most of which seem to have been converted into condos.

For the food-lovers amongst my miniscule and indifferent readership, we intended to feast on Dutch cuisine that evening. However, Erik informed us that “Dutch cuisine” consists mainly of mashed potatoes and boiled vegetables. We therefore went for the next best thing: Indonesian cuisine, which I am happy to report, was delicious. In fact, should you ever find yourself in Maastricht, I highly recommend the Indisch eetcafé “De Branding” on Koestraat, and not just because I wanted to type “Eetcafé.”

Anyway, more photos here.

Tomorrow: Antwerp, where, through inattentive walking, we ended up with diamonds on the soles of our shoes. Those things are impossible to get out.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

The bright side

I'm doing an article on research that indicates that Global Warming, and specifically the melting of Greenland's ice sheet, is worse than previously believed. Given that pretty much all recent climate change science indicates that things are worse than we believed, I'm having some difficulty in coming up with a fresh approach to writing this one.

So far, I'm trying to resist the temptation to start with "Good news today for Nordic real-estate speculators...."

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Schwartzwald of Babel

Spent the weekend in the Schwartzwald/Forêt Noire/Black Forest. The trip was organized by my French teacher, Danielle – she invited all of her pupils plus a few of her friends. In all there was about twenty of us, with nothing in common other than mutual imcomprehensibility.

Nonethless, it was an excellent time. In all, there were about a dozen countries represented, everyone game for a good weekend of hiking in the hills of the Black Forest.

We arrived at the lodge at around noon. It was a fairly rough place – quite literally in the middle of an isolated cow pasture, without any cows. It’s main vocation is as a cross country skiing post. There were only four rooms for two – Amynah and I were lucky enough to snag one. Everyone else had to bunk together.

Considering that most of us had never met, conversation came easily. We set out immediately, led by Danielle’s dog and the Inn’s resident canine/host, sped on our way by a jaunty harmonica tune played by Danielle’s son.

The skies looked pretty threatening, but that actually worked in our favour – it is only appropriate that the Black Forest be shrouded in gloom, after all. We stopped for lunch overlooking a deserted valley, not a sign of human life disturbing the view.

We headed on just as the skies opened up. Amynah and I were the only ones who were completely unprepared for the rain (despite having been well informed by the German weather service that this eventuality was a near-certainty). However, a couple of folks with waterproof jackets lent us their brollies and we made it too the “tea house” lodge without getting entirely soaked.

After a nice hour long rest there, we headed out once more, under the curious gaze of some German cows. The rain let up pretty quickly and we were back in the lodge by 3 in the afternoon.

Back to the lodge

This being Germany, we then had to participate in some communal nudity – the lodge may not have had private rooms or adequate plumbing, but it did have a sauna. The girls went first, while I played cards with the Niky the Brit, Sami the Finn and Hiroyasu the Japanese guy.

Our turn came. Needless to say, we relied entirely on Sami the Finn to explain the etiquette. I have to say, I’m not a big fan of the sauna concept – fifteen minutes sitting in 85 degree heat (that’s freaking Celsius people!) stops being pleasant after the first five minutes, unbearable after ten for someone of my delicate constitution. I understand why jumping into a hole hacked into a frozen lake seems like a good idea after that.

After we all showered (separately), we headed down for dinner. The innkeepers were unilingual, as was the menu, and I missed the translation that Danielle (who speaks Alsatian, French, German and English perfectly). I therefore decided to order the dish with the longest name on the menu: wildschweinruckersteak mit spaetzel. Apparently, word length is directly connected to cooking time, so I had to wait until everyone else was finished eating before my rump steak of wild boar arrived. Also, they ran out of spaetzel, which is a kind of pasta that I love (the steak was very good nonetheless).

Afterwards, Qi (a Chinese post-doc) suggested we play a game of “killer.” This is a great parlour game for a group of people who don’t know each other: everyone draws a card. All the cards are red except the joker and a black ace. Whoever draws the ace is the killer, the joker is the judge who runs the game. The judge asks everyone to close their eyes, then the killer opens theirs and selects their “victim.” Everyone opens their eyes, the judge says who has been killed, and everyone needs to guess who does it by voting. Whoever gets the most votes has to reveal their card – if they aren’t the killer, they’re dead, and the killer goes free for another round.

A game like this requires a certain amount of energy to be fun, and Qi provided it. Seemingly shy, she turned into a total drama queen (despite having no French and very little English) once the game started. She went out of her way to accuse me (“His face is so red! Why is his face so red? He must be the killer!”) in such an over the top way that it convinced everyone that she was the “killer,” (she wasn’t) thus sacrificing herself so that everyone else would have a good time. Anyway, it made me wish that I spoke Chinese, as there is obviously a wicked sense of humour on the other side of the language barrier: “you accuse me? You must understand – this is serious business! There is a life at stake here!”

I ended up being “killed” twice, by complete strangers both times. And both times, everyone blamed Amynah, as she would obviously have motive. Her defence, which I hardly found heartening, was that she found me too amusing to kill.

The next day was much sunnier and we all headed out for a 10 km hike through the hills. After the bonding through the murders, suspicion, accusation and counter-accusations of the night before, conversation was much easier. Amynah and I even scored an invitation to Aleppo from Lama a Canada-obsessed Syrian (who, incidentally, had killed me with no provocation the night before), which we fully intend to take advantage of.

Lama surveys her realm

It was interesting walking and talking with people – with twenty people, conversations tended to shift according to one’s walking pace, not language. Amynah and I had to make a point of slowing down so that we wouldn’t end up speaking only with each other for the whole trip), as we were consistently at the head of the pack along with the German dog. At one point, I therefore ended up in a conversation with an Italian girl who had very little French and a Lebanese woman who had very little English. My French, I was happy to discover, was pretty much up to the task.

Most delightful yet, at some point Danielle took Amynah and I aside and invited us to another hike for the following weekend. I feel like we passed an audition or something. More photos can be found here.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Disco Death

Busy weekend - spent Saturday and Sunday hiking in the Black Forest/Forêt Noire/Schwartzwald with twenty-odd other folk largely drawn from Amynah's institute. Much fun was had, and a proper write up will follow.

On our return yesterday afternoon, we went to see a live Bollywood-style show, (called, appropriately enough, "Bollywood") along with Strasbourg's only other Ismaili and a few of her relatives.

The show was a travelling production that aimed to bring all the melodrama, paegantry and razzle-dazzle of a typical Bollywood movie to the stage, largely through show-stopping dance numbers.

It was entertaining, though what the largely French audience made of it I can only wonder. It told the story of a girl trying to make it as a choreographer in the Indian film industry, despite the opposition of her grandfather, who wants her to focus on traditional dance, despite having been a legendary Bollywood choreographer in his own day. Needless to say, they stop speaking, he starts drinking and eventually falls on to her deathbed, thus bringing our heroine back to her home village, disillusioned with the industry and looking for her childhood love.

The show rattled though a number of latter-day Bollywood hit songs (many of which, I'm unafraid to admit, I quite enjoy) though many of these were the modern MTV influenced stuff that must have been utterly bewildering to the numerous French and German ladies who had dug actual saris and shlwar kameezes out of God knows what closets, presumably out of respect to this traditional cultural event they were about to witness.

Interestingly, the guy who played her love spoke nary a word in the whole show, prompting Amynah to speculate that he had an undisguisable Cockney accent (the show was in English). She also speculated that he earned a premium for having to perform shirtless through the whole show.

In any case, I enjoyed myself right up until the end when our heroine, having just won a major award for her choreography, dedicates a dance to her recently-departed grandfather - the one who wanted her to focus on meaningful, traditional dance. So, what song does she pick to honour his memory, and to serve as the grand finale for a show ostensibly about the superiority of the old ways? A little tune called "It's the time to disco."

Eyes still smarting from the blinding glare of a million sequins, we stumbled out into the fragrant Strasbourg night, only to discover that Sarkozy won the election. We fell asleep to the sounds of his supporters celebrating in front of the cathedral. Or his opponents forming a rebellious mob. It's hard to tell. One thing's for sure - they weren't doing no disco.

Friday, May 04, 2007

Worst Canadian

So The Beaver (Canada's National History Magazine) is running a contest to name "The Worst Canadian."

As someone who cares about history, I generally loath these "worst/best/most important" type lists. On the other hand, a project like this fits well into my cranky tempermant and I am a fairly frequent contributor to the Beaver, and happy to help them out with their publicity stunt, providing they refrain from the temptation to bring in any of these pompous goobers to act as "advocates."*

Now, a contest like this is going to have some very predicable nominees. Most of the East will nominate the current Prime Minister. Most of the west will nominate Trudeau. Most people under thirty will nominate Celine Dion. Apparently the current leader is Harold Ballard, proving that Torontonians self-regard truly is an infinite quantity.

Because I am fairly humourless when it comes to history, I am going to actually take the question seriously and nominate someone who has been pretty near forgotten by history, which is probably the worst punishment he himself could conceive of. My nominee, is Sir Sam Hghes, a bigoted, incompetent, self-aggrandizing martinet whose mismanagement of the Canadian Forces in the early years of WWI led directly to who knows how many needless deaths of Canadian soldiers.

Image from

This delight of a human being built much of his political career on Catholic- and French Canadian bashing. He lobbied to have himself given a Victoria Cross for an action in the Boer War for twenty years after the fact - after, in fact, he had already had effectively appointed himself a General.

When war came, he insisted that the Canadian Expeditionary Force be equipped with material provided by his industrialist cronies, meaning troops were sent into the trenches with cardboard shoes and jamming rifles with bayonets that would fall off.

That he was paranoid and almost assuredly insane does nothing to mitigate his status as the greatest - and deadliest - bufoon ever elected to Canada's Parliament. More here.

So. Anyone have any suggestions for your favourites? Margaret Atwood? Mr Dress-up? The X-Men's Wolverine? Let's hear them!

* Excluding Paul Gross, who I quite like, even if I don't know why.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

We are the champions

And as a final note to the relative marathon of blog posts this week (five in three days!), a quick congratulations to my friends and former colleagues at McGill, who recently found out Headway has won the Gold in the Canadian Council for the Advancement of Education "Prix d'Excellence" in the magazine category.

This is impressive for a number of reasons: as a twice-a-year publication with a small budget, it was a minnow in a sea of well-funded alumni magazine sharks. Not to mention, 2006 (the nomination period) was the first full year of publication. And finally, every issue so far has had a different editor, (the last of which has brought it to the current peak of success it deserves, even if I get half the prize money anyway. What? No prize money?)

History comedy

We saw 300 last week, if only so that I would understand all the various Youtube parodies floating around the Internet. And while I know the movie has received much criticism for its historic inaccuracies (which are legion), it's fetishization of militaristic fascism and it's arguably pro-slaughter-the-Mulsims propagandistic slant, I personally found it to be great comedy.

By far, the laugh out loud funniest scene occurred just after King Leonidas had learned that the Persians had found that infamous goat path and had surrounded them (Damn you, traitorous goats!) He gives a rousing, anachronistic speech about freedom, fighting for what you believe, honour etc, in the much-mocked I. AM. SPEAKING. INSPIRINGINGLY. BECAUSE. I'M. YELLING. EACH. WORD. INDIVIDUALLY! As he finishes, his captain, who has just lost his son, approaches him, and a great hush falls over the assembled troops, all of whom have sent the previous hour lopping off Persian heads like they were whiffle balls. The captain, speaking in lower case letters to indicate his seriosity, says "I've lived my life with no regrets. That is the Spartan way. But I wish I had told my son I loved him while he lived."

Honest to God, I half expected "Cat's in the Cradle" to start playing. That kind of comedy requires a sure directorial hand and a brilliant scriptwriter to pull off. The farcical nature of the film was heightened by blood being splattered in such copious amounts you suspect they were using off-camera army of blood-wranglers to toss buckets of the stuff at the actors. That, with other subtle notes of satire like introducing each actor with a panning shot that started with his six-pack and worked its way up, made 300 funniest action-comedy spoof I've ever seen.

Though the Youtube clips are pretty good as well...

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

More election stuff

Two posts in one day? How lucky are you?

Having indulged at least one of my reader’s thirst for adventure (NB – For the purposes of the blog, “Adventure” is defined as any physical activity that takes me outdoors. Danger need not be a part of adventure, nor novelty) I will now proceed to the deadly serious business of politics.

The second (and final) round of presidential elections are on Sunday. The candidate of the “right,” (such as it is here), Nicholas Sarkozy, is still enjoying the lead. Segolene Royal is still trailing.

It reminds me of Canada, somewhat. “Sego” is doing her best to remind the French that Sarko feasts on foie gras stolen from orphans – hell, made from orphans, just like Stephen Harper's foes accuse him of adopting stray kitten solely for the pleasure of putting them in bags to throw into the Rideau Canal. And, as in Canada, people believe it. But they’re voting for him anyway.

Partially, this is because of a well-documented desire for change. The 35-hour work week and other restrictions on companies are insane, and impose a heavy burden on both companies and job seekers. It also forces the ambitious abroad. I am engaging in a language exchange with a guy here who is learning English specifically so he can leave his contract-to-contract existence and get his highly qualified butt to a country where he can get a permanent job and support his wife and three year old daughter. He’s not alone either. Many of the highly educated and congenitally left-leaning folk we know here want a real change and Sarko is the one promising to do it and nevermind rumours of his habit of terrorizing the countryside during the full moon.

So, Sarko is likely to win it, even though a) no one believes he will actually manage to change anything in the face of the unions and street protests and b) he is very effective at making people think he hates immigrants, muslims and the poor.

The kingmaker in this race is François Bayrou, the “centrist” who came in third. Both Sego and Sarko are prostrating themselves in front of his voters. In a fit of pique or principal (it’s so hard to tell) Bayrou has refused to endorse either.

Jean-Marie LePen, the extreme-right Front National candidate that Sarko was so desperately emulating during the first round has, for his part, called on his voters to boycott the vote entirely. He didn’t try to dress this up as anything but pique however – Sarko had “stolen” his program, leading to his worst showing in decades (10 percent) and didn’t deserve to get in at all.

That embarrassing attempt to remain relevant in the second round probably won’t work. Even if all LePen’s voters got the message through whatever communications network cave-dwellers use, Sarkozy still only needs to pick up 30 percent of Bayrou’s vote to win. Sego, according to the math, needs around 80 percent.

My call? None yet. I’ll wait and see what the Internet tells me.

May Day

Yesterday was May Day which is still an actual holiday in France. In terms of holidays, it’s a bigger deal than Christmas, if the importance of a holiday can be expressed as an inverse ratio of public tranport service (Christmas, the trams ran once every half hour. Yesterday, not at all).

The telephone poles of Strasbourg had been plastered with retro-revolutionary “Take to the streets” posters, so we were unsurprised when our morning was interrupted with loud chanting and music. Turns out the May Day parade was going right by our house.

As a history enthusiast, this was sort of like going to the zoo for a wildlife biologist: Hey look - actual Communists! I thought they were extinct! They followed the much larger union contigents, but they were honest-to-god Communists (not a bunch of teenagers with an ill-understood copy of the Manifesto. Reflecting the hard times they've fallen on in recent years, the Marxists were splintered into about a dozen factions, including the three dudes (one of whom was about 7 years old) representing the Union Senegalese Communists. The largest of the communist groups even had a banner with the faces of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin. (Dear Comrades: If I may share just a thought for your consideration. Stalin - really? That’s the face you want on your banners to advertise your ideology? You don’t think he might be even a little off putting for anyone who isn’t a complete sociopath?)

Parade over, we hopped on our bikes to have a nice outdoor lunch with a Canadian family we know here. On the way, we passed about a dozen sellers of fleur de lys. It is a tradition, (strictly enforced” to sell little nosegays of these things on May first. This being France, which has no shortage of rules, you can actually be fined for selling them any earlier than May Day.

Despite my curiosity, we didn’t buy any. Instead, for your viewing pleasure, we did acquire some roses from our friends, whose front yard is overgrown with them. They are now sitting in our plastic water bottle cum flower vase and making the apartment smell nice.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Rainbows and ponies

One of the delights of living in Alsace is the incredible network of bike trails that meander through the countryside like rivulets of melted cheese. Roughly 8,000 kilometres of melted cheese, if one can imagine.

I had purchased a new-to-me bike to replace the retro-styled 400 lb one that was stolen from my apartment lobby in December, yet so far had only used it to make the trip out to Amynah’s lab for my French lessons. Amynah had taken it into her head to go to a town called Molsheim, which is the terminus of a cross-border bike trail (the other end is the German city of Offenburg, where we plan to go next week).

We didn’t end up hitting the road until 3PM (a “getting to know you meeting” with a guy I’m planning on doing a language exchange ended up going longer than I thought, forcing us to have an impromptu lunch, the rough nature of which was revealed by the presence of but a single cheese on the mid-feast cheese plate).

The weather was perfect when we headed out – very little wind, temperatures in the high twenties, only a few clouds of innocent aspect.

We had no real idea how far Molsheim was, nor did we have a clue as to what delights the town held. We weren’t worried about that however - it rarely matters in Alsace, since every village reminds me of still-in-their-boxes collectors’ items: “Each one unique! Get the whole set! Bound to gain value over time!” The only thing missing is a little price tag and certificate of authenticity.

The trip started off well enough. The path followed a tiny canal that seemed too small to be for navigation. Perhaps it had originally been meant for irrigation. As always, we were out of Strasbourg and into the countryside in a time that I still find surprising, accustomed as I am to fighting through the thick cocoon of suburbs that envelope typical North American cities.

It being a delightful afternoon, the path was chock full of Sunday strollers, rollerbladers and fellow velocipedists. Now, despite the fact that neither of us are exactly athletes, we were passing everyone on the path, except for the spandex-tube-clad hardcore dudes on the racing bikes.

Amynah attributed this to our North American impatience, though the fact that we were probably the only ones on the path with any sort of destination probably helped. Not knowing how far that destination lay was plenty motivation to keep up the pace as well.

Not to say that taking it easy didn’t have its merits – farmers fields gave way to quiet woods, in which isolated cottages nestled beside babbling brooks. Horses played in grassy fields while cattle grazed nearby. I think I even saw a little deer cavorting with his talking rabbit friend.

Nonethless, it all merged into a greenish Doppler blur as we zipped past at top speed. For we had to make it the wonders of Molsheim, whatever they might be.

Well, we were not alone. The closer we got to the town, the more the bike path cleared of all the human detritus that was slowing our headling pace. In a way, we thought that we would be able to have a an ice cream to cool down, a coffee to perk up, and then a nice stroll around a quiet French village.

It looked promising at first – we passed an old Jesuit College and city walls before coming to the Medieval city gate. However, once we made it inside, we were immediately assaulted by a veritable army of bugs.

VW bugs. Turns out there was an automobile enthusiast convention in town, and the place was more full of German engineered vehicles since 1944. Like any auto show, it had a semi-proficient country-rock cover band, trophy girls, and mustachioed dudes in cowboy hats (apparently blissfully unaware that VW Bugs aren’t exactly macho vehicles).

I suspect the reason the Buggers (ha!) picked Molsheim is because it is home to the Bugatti Foundation Museum. That this was an Italian motor company makes no difference – the first syllable of the name matches, they make cars, so bring on the Herbies!

Needless to say, the amplified cries of “Est-ce que vous êtes pretes pour rock and roll?” and the awe-inspiring hum of one hundred VW engines revving weren’t exactly relaxing, so we beat a hasty retreat.

Now, despite the fact that we have a nearly unblemished record of being caught in torrential downpours on our Sunday excursions, I decided to tempt fate and stop in a little town called Dambach on the way back, since it looked pretty. These little villages are funny, in a way – it is hard to comprehend how small they are. Dambach, for instance, occupies an area smaller than a shopping mall. You could easily fit Wolfisheim, Riquewihr, Kayserberg and St Marie aux Mines in the parking lot and still have room for the Toys ‘R Us.

SAdly, if Alsace is the West Edmonton Mall of pretty malls, Dambach is the Gap – enticing store front, nothing that interesting inside. On the other hand, if you look closely at the roof of the mansion in the background, you can see and excellent example of the colourful tilework on their roofs.

So we hit the path back, hoping to make it home before dark. Though we were pretty tired from our sprint out, we set a good pace, and since it was close to dinner there was nothing else on the path. Or so we thought.

In fact, the crepuscular hours in France, as in Canada, are prime “flying around irritatingly” time for Mayflies. It was a horror show. They got in our eyes, in our clothes, behind our glasses, in our ears. Any time I tried to talk they’d fly in my mouth. It was horrific. At one point I looked at my bare arms only to see them writhing with hundreds of the little monsters trapped in my arm hairs.

When the first drops of rain began to fall, it was a welcome relief. The cold drops were refreshing, and it seemed to clear the bugs away. It intensified slightly, but not enough to cause real distress, but enough to clear the air of the plague.

"What's that idiot doing taking our photo? Can't he see it's starting to rain? Moooo-ve it!"

Soon, the rain stopped. We passed through a zone where we had brown fields just beginning to burst with green stalks of corn on our right. On the left the canal, and beyond that cavorting horses. Framing it all, an arc en ciel.

I then had one of my God-I-love-this-place moments. It’s all rainbows and ponies here.

About five kilometers from Strasbourg, France decided to quell my ardour, by dumping a few hundred gallons of water on it. First, a rumble of thunder, as if God himself were saying “Pedal fast, little man. Try to outrun my wrath!”

We couldn’t. It rained, and rained. Those few people still on the path took shelter under the trees, looking at us in bewilderment as we zipped by, soaked and trying to see through our fly-speckled sunglasses.

Worse yet, the rain stopped as we got into Strasbourg – apparently it was an extremely localized storm. Drivers slowed to gawk at us, probably certain that we had fallen into a lake.

The laugh was on them, for we were harbingers: as we locked up our bikes in the local parking garage (they have parking garages for bikes here, can you believe it?) the skies opened up again, but this time with the obvious purpose of sweeping all of Strasbourg into the Rhine. Buckets of water cascaded from the heavens while tourists and locals scuttled into doorways to take shelter.

Not Amynah and I though. We strode confidently through the tempest as the townsfolk looked upon us in awe. We would not cower before thunder, lightning, flood, plagues of bugs or plague of Bugs. Not today. For this day, we were the conquerors of Molsheim, Lords of Strasbourg and Viceroys of the Velocipede.

We graciously ignored the plebian muttering of "Ils est fou!" as we passed.