Friday, June 29, 2007

Year one: A retrospective, in song

As today marks the day Amynah and I cleared customs and were sent into our new lives with a “bon courage” from the police officer in Charles de Gaulle Airport, I’ve been thinking a lot about home and where it actually is (I don't where a chapeau, so it isn't where I lay my hat). After a year here, the looming spire of Strasbourg’s cathedral now feels comfortable to me, even if it is not comforting like the potholes of Montreal or the salt air of Halifax are.

I have a lot of thoughts on life here, and how we’re adapting to it, but as today is the first day Amynah and I have had alone together in a couple of weeks, we’re spending it bumming. Maybe I’ll dazzle you with my self-regarding philosophizing some other time. Today, you will have to be satisfied with my very short list of songs is on the theme of my various hometowns.

I’ll work back in time and start with Strasbourg by the Rakes, a song I discovered while trying to learn about this mysterious town through Wikipedia. That worthy web-site describes it as “art punk,” take that as you will. It’s a little droning, but amusing and entirely un-evocative of the city: like many, the band seems to believe it’s in Germany. The song is about Cold War espionage. It makes me smile, once I learned to overlook the geographical errors.

Montreal, -40 Malajube: Now, I’m sure that some people I’d have picked Blue Rodeo’s Montreal, seeing as how that is what Amynah and I danced to at our wedding. Well, much as I like that tune, it actually isn’t on my iTunes. What I do have is this tune, which has a number of advantages over Blue Rodeo’s version in that it is more energetic, less goopily sentimental, French, and about something specifically Montreal, namely the freaking temperature’s of death. Plus, it was given to me by an actual Montrealer (thanks Tara!). It’s one of those songs that would be insanely catchy, if I could only force my way through the impenetrable Quebecois accent.

Suzanne, Leonard Cohen: It’s a bit obvious, but it captures what I, as a wannabe beatnik teenager wanted to believe Montreal actually was: meaningless hook-ups made memorable by poetry: “The sun pours down like honey, on our lady of the harbour.”

Fisherman’s Wharf, Stan Rogers: Barrett’s Privateers is a little more obvious, since it actually mentions the city in the refrain (“Now I’m a broken man on a Halifax pier, the last of Barrett’s Privateers”) but it is about a guy with an anachronistic longing for Sherbrooke, a city that had yet to be founded in the year the song was set (Stan was an Ontario boy, we’ll forgive him). Fisherman’s Wharf is one of those nostagia encrusted “time’s are changin’ and I don’t like it” kind of folk songs that Maritimers have perfected, but Stan does a good job sketching out the city, even if he and I disagree on which way it’s heading.

Hello City, Barenaked Ladies: Off their first album, the Barenaked Ladies evidently really, really, didn’t like playing Halifax (“I wish this seaside beerhall would sink into the bay,”) but they did it so catchily it’s hard to hold it against them. Plus, loth as I am to admit it, they do capture one of Halifax's less attractive undersides quite well.

City of Lakes, Matt Mays: My sister is a big Matt Mays fan, so I figured I’d give him a try and so “acquired” this country-rock tune. Now, back when I was in a band, my friend Tim and I tried to write a song about Dartmouth, where we both grew up. We only got as far as the ferry terminal, and then (lyrically speaking) immediately crossed the harbour to Halifax. That pretty much says it all about Dartmouth, so I applaud Mays’ attempt. On the other hand, this song bores me to tears (maybe evocative of Dartmouth after all?) and the lyrics make me wince, as he’s trying WAY too hard to sound like a world-weary troubadour.

So, in return, dear readers: what songs do you like about your hometowns? What songs make you think of your hometowns? And, given that I’m completely flummoxed on songs about Ottawa, where I was born, does anyone have any suggestions?

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Home again...

We’re back from Spain, finally, with the suntans to prove it. I can’t (or at least won’t) give a complete run down of the trip, other than to say that driving a mini-van full of my in-laws on Spanish city street no wider than an arms-span in width in 35-degree heat was not nearly so bad as I suspected it would be (or at least it wasn’t until my run-in with a metal pomegranate in Granada).

The trip had initially been conceived and planned by Amynah’s Mom who, with her extensive knowledge of Islamic history and art, was supposed to show us around the wonders of Nazarid Andalusia. Sadly, just before her flight was supposed to leave, she had to be rushed to the hospital for (minor) surgery, which forced her to cancel her entire trip. She’s still recovering, and we’re all very worried about her, so please send good thoughts her way.

Amynah, her Dad, and her two Aunts did make it, on Amynah’s Mom’s insistance. We started in Seville, then drove to the port city of Algaciris, caught a day-ferry to Tangiers in Morroco, then hit Gibraltar, on to the mountain city of Ronda, then Granada, Cordoba and finally Seville once more.

There’s an awful lot to write about – watching bullfights, appalled, with my father-in-law in our hotel, explaining Catholic iconography to my relatives (all of whom are convinced that we Papists are idol-worshippers now), trying to convince Amynah’s conspiracy-minded Aunt that Spain’s nuns were trying to convert her… good times. It is possible that I’ll write more in detail later, but for the time being it’s all one big blur of Arabic calligraphy and fetishized Catholic death art.

I’m putting a selection of photos here. More may come, but I make no promises.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

A break, with commericial

Hey folks,
The first wave of what looks to be a month-and-a-half long tsunami of family visits has begun. Right now it's Amynah's Dad and Aunts, who will soon be followed by her Mom and sister, followed by my sister and brother in law, followed by my cousin and his girlfiend. Amynah and I take a trip to Berlin somewhere in there, and visit Spain, Gibraltar and Tangiers while we're at it. I suspect that, as a result, blogging might become somewhat irregular.

For those of you who miss my writing, especially that which had research, structure, facts, narrative flow and editing, my most recent piece for the Beaver Magazine is now available on newstands in Canada. It's called (I believe) "The King of Anticosti" and tells the story of how a 19th century French millionaire tried to turn a Canadian island into his own private utopia/safari park, with consequences that are still being felt today. I believe it is my first article to ever incorporate cannibalism, satanism and chocolate.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Human remains

Because Mave was so kind as to indulge me and ask about the big pile of human remains I mentioned three posts ago (as an apparently ineffective means of trolling for comments), an explanation.

Kaysersberg is the pretty-little-Alsatian-village of choice for our tours when we have a car. It was the birthplace of Nobel Peace prize winner Albert Schweitzer, full of perfect little houses, has a castle accessible with a five minute walk and is only about an hour's drive from Strasbourg.

We've therefore been three or four times, meaning I've developed a tour of Kayserberg that is, proportionally speaking, nearly as in-depth as the one I have for Strasbourg.

As in Strasbourg, most of it centres on the church, which has a number of interesting features (including a wooden carving of the figure of Death when he was in short pants).

Awww, Baby Death! Didn't he have a Saturday morning cartoon?

The larger part of the church-tour is in the back yard, where few tourists (bar the terminally morbid, such as myself) tend to roam. Here there is a monument and small graveyard to honour the volunteers from France's North African colonies that fought to liberate the country that had occupied theirs from its own occupiers - explaining why, were the glare from the sun not obscuring them, you'd see many of the visible gravestones are decorated with Arabic writing.

Beyond that is a little chapel. It's almost always closed, but the first time we visited, I noticed there were some stairs outside leading down to its cellar. It was locked, but it's possible to see through the windows. Within are an enormous pile of bones, dating from the 13th century. They were stored here, presumably because the small graveyard couldn't accomodate them all. Or, given that they're from the 13th century it's also possible that people were dying too fast in the plague to bury them all.

In any case, if you look closely, you'll can see that the bones are not stored, as you might expect, according to the individual from which they came, but rather by bone type i.e. all the skulls in one pile, all the femurs in another. I assume this is to facilitate easier stacking. (I thought I had a decent photo of this, but unfortunately it just looks like a pile of stryofoam. And anyway, who wants to see a big pile of skulls?)

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Ministry of Music

You know, I mention a big pile of human remains two posts ago and not one of you asks what I was talking about? I need to find some new readers - you people are scaring me.

In the interests of keeping this thing alive, I've decided that rather than only writing to talk about all the glamourous, exciting places I've gone or exotic, gourmet meals I've eaten, I will introduce a new (and plagiarized from more widely-read online publications) feature that I'm sure will delight you all: The Arbitrary Theme List!

Here's the rules: I pick a topic. I then pick songs in my iTunes collection (or books on my shelf, though the former is certainly more searchable) that work with that theme. Readers (all three of you!) are welcome to suggest additions or new themes.

Today, as I am doing taxes, (and feloniously late at that), the theme is "songs related to the government." I've hobbled myself slightly by eliminating songs about revolution or law enforcement, saving those for future lists. That leaves me with four, which is probably a good thing because these taxes are refusing to do themselves, no matter how long I ignore them.

1) The obvious one is Taxman, by the Beatles. I'm of two minds on this song. It has some nice harmonies and rocks pretty hard. On the other hand, it is a song by a bunch of soon-to-be gazilionaires complaining about their tax load. I always thought George Harrison sounded like a sanctimonious SOB, turns out he was a big ole hyprocrite as well.

2) Don't worry about the government: Talking Heads - technically, I'm breaking the rules already, as this song is actually not in my iTunes, but we did own the CD. It's a lovely tune told from a bureaucrat's perspective: "Loved ones, loved ones visit the building/Take the highway, park and come up and see me/ I'll be working, working but if you come visit/ I'll put down what I'm doing, my friends are important."

3) Fortunate Son, CCR: Not about the government per se, but rather a alienation from it: "It ain't me, I ain't no senator's son." It killed me that they used this in a Levi's commercial a few years back, including the line "Born to raise the flag, ooh that red white and blue" along with a shot of someone's patriotic, denim-clad behind, but then cut out just before the "it ain't me" refrain.

4) Hmmm... this was harder than I thought. I'll throw in "Good King Wenceslas" - it is on my iTunes, and one always sort of hopes that one's government would be so hands on helpful with its taxpayers: "Hey Harper! My car's stuck! Push it out, and I'll immortalize you in a song that'll be sung exactly once a year!")

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Life in France

I just came back from my weekly language exchange with my friend Caner, during which we wander around Strasbourg and repeat ourselves for an hour or so.

Today we ended up around Place Broglie, where the old city hall is. As we talked, we became aware of a manifestation making its way towards us. Curious, we intercepted it.

And lo, I witnessed my first post-modern political protest, a genre that had to have been invented by the French. For the small group was dressed in their Sunday finest, hats and all, chanting “Sarkozy, we love you” and bearing signs reading “No taxes for the rich!” and “Culture is a waste of time!”

Amynah tells me that the nattily attired group made it down to View of the Marching Fishes Street, by which time they had changed their chant to an expression of affection for the police. This was probably much appreciated by the many bemused flics keeping an eye on the proceedings.

Caner and I were suitably bewildered. Were they remarkably honest Sarkozy supporters? A leftist parody of Sarkozy’s voters? A rightist satire of leftist views? Caner asked me what it could be about, my answer to which led to me embarking on a five minute explanation of what “too clever for their own good” means. I concluded with what I hope was a decent approximation of a Gallic shrug and “I don’t know guy, it’s your country.”

Monday, June 04, 2007

Last's year's pop-culture observations, today!


So, we just saw off Paul, Amynah’s former thesis supervisor, visiting us for the weekend from Montreal. We took him on the usual tour of Strasbourg, drove for two hours get to a historic Black Forest steam locomotive that we then did not ride and then on to Kaysersberg, one of the prettiest villages in Alsace, (though I am more interested, probably unhealthily so, in the enormous pile of human remains in the basement of their local chapel).

Paul was his usual eccentric self. We had dinner with him and my French teacher, her husband David and their friend Agnes. At one point in the evening, David started talking about Second Life, the “virtual world” about which he’d just been reading about that afternoon, I believe because Sweden has opened a virtual embassy there. He was fascinated that the place has developed a legitimate economy, with banks, a currency and marketplace. Apparently there is even talk they may need to hire some economic expertise to set interest rates and control inflation. We speculated it would reach the point where people would actually need to do work to keep the virtual economy going.

All of which would suck, not only for the obvious reason that no one – even if they’re a purple-haired Pamela Anderson look-alike in Second Life – would sign up in order to do whatever sort of work purple-haired Pam’s do in the virtual world (much the same as in the real one, I would hazard to guess). Such virtual drudgery seems even less appealing if the only place one could go on vacation was Sweden.