Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The Iceman Cometh

Technically, this is the last picture I took of the day in question, but I'm leading with it anyway. I'm the Editor in Chief here: Tremble Before My Whimsy!

There are many things I'd never tried before moving to France: a number of smelly cheeses, monopod-based foodstuffs, duck, mushroom picking, attending a professional "football" match, and rock climbing among them. Had I made a New Year's Resolution that I remembered for 2007 or 2008, trying new things might have been a good one.

This past weekend, was another first, albeit a slightly embarrassing one for one from the Great White North: snowshoeing.

Danielle shows her off-roading chops

I had, technically, done this once before when I was in the Boy Scouts. Except that was still back in the days when snowshoes were as the Huron had made them: you strapped your boots the leather webbing which in turn was bound to wooden frames, the size of which forced undersized adolescents such as myself to walk like John Wayne after a full day on a clinically obese horse. In my experience, waiting for the snow to melt was a quicker means of getting about.

This time, I was in the company of Danielle and David. They and the posse they had assembled managed to not appear too crestfallen when they realized that I was not accompanied by Amynah, as she was too ill to make it. We drove to a ski hill somewhere past Freiberg, in the German Black Forest.

There I discovered that snowshoe technology has progressed rapidly in the (cough) two decades since last I attempted to walk on water, so to speak. The devices I attached to my boots were light, and narrow enough that they barely interfered with my stride at all.

The greatest difficulty we encountered was finding lunch: none of the four restaurants we investigated were serving, or were full up. We gathered what scraps of food we had lying about, and hit the trail. We stopped after twenty minutes outside a chapel (oddly placed: it would have made more sense to have it at the top of the ski slope, I would have thought).

Tragedy struck almost immediately: Danielle set a package of Reese's Peanut Butter Cups, brought all the way from the U.S. by Amynah on the snow. As soon as she turned her back, they made their break for freedom, sliding all the way down the hill, sixteen hungry eyes watching them disappearing in an orange doppler blur in the distance.

The Chapel of Our Lady of the Absconding Chocolate

That said, the rest of the hike was delightful, as outings with this crew reliably are. The weather was perfect, and the snow glittered like diamonds. We only hiked for a few hours, making it back into the village just as the sun set. The evening ended at a German restaurant where my policy of ordering the item with the longest word paid off: the duck with orangenpfferenrahmsosse was delicious, all the more so because the restaurant actually served second helpings at no extra cost.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Putting the "No more!" into "Noël

The Strasbourg city tree on Place Kleber. Ours looks just like this, trust me. Photo by Stefan Hamm.

Hope everyone had a merry Christmas, or, failing that, enjoyed your day off with friends and family. Amynah and I stretched our Christmas out over three days, though our social obligations are continuing.

On Christmas Eve we invited over a small group of friends to treat them to a Canadian-style Christmas dinner. All of our guests were international researchers at Amynah’s institute, and none celebrate Christmas normally (thus why we were fairly certain they’d be around for dinner).

We aimed to put on a feast: garlic mashed potatoes, two different kinds of leeks, green beans, stuffing, cranberry sauce and not one but two chickens (one spiced with tandoori, made by me, one “whitey style” made by the only person around here that would call something “whitey-style.”)

The guests, about to tuck in

Most of the food was not entirely new to the group, of course, except for the stuffing. Lama, who speaks more French than English, asked what the word for this would be – I had no idea, and so we just called it “Le stuffing.” The dinner was a success, in the sense that everyone finished the evening clutching their stomachs, eyes glazed as their digestive systems commandeered all reserve energy to cope with the protein avalanche.
Of course, we then had dessert, which consisted of a cranberry tart made by Amynah, egg tart thingies made by Qi and some sort of delicious Syrian crepe-marzapone confection brought by Lama.

We woke up at roughly 10 AM the next day, having been awake until 2:30 AM cleaning up the mess (I’ve no idea how my Mom, making at least as much food pretty much on her own, managed to do so without leaving so much as a speck of evidence of having done so in our kitchen). We exchanged our presents, and opened a few gifts that my parents sent, the highlight being a pair of underwear I’d left at their place this past summer.

We then headed to lunch at David and Danielle’s in Kehl. We opened Christmas Crackers, a British tradition that was a first for me (inside mine: a miniature roll of tape. You won’t shut me up that easily, Beeson’s!) Then we enjoyed another massive feast, the centerpiece of which was an enormous leg of lamb.

Everyone now suffering badly from seasonal over-consumption, we rolled ourselves back across the border to St Thomas’s Church, an ancient stone heap whose amazing acoustics had been enjoyed by Mozart and Nobel-winner Albert Schweitzer, who raised money for his hospital in Africa by holding concerts here. This time, it was hosting a concert of gospel-style Christmas music, sung by a woman from North Carolina, and Marcel Loeffler, a blind maestro of the accordion. I’d wanted to see a concert in this church since coming here and I was not disappointed: when Lisa hit a high note, the entire space was filled with flawless, beautiful sound.

Lisa and Marcel doing something considerably less seasonal

Yesterday, we reverted to our more usual Christmas traditions: watching Bollywood movies in our pajamas. I think that’s how Jesus would have done it, don’t you?

Monday, December 22, 2008

The Hairy Potter

The semi-reflective faces in this nativity scene allow you, if you look at them at the right angle, to put yourself in the scene. I found I make a rather fetching, if surprisingly hirsute, Mary.

A couple of weeks ago, Amynah’s friend Ani and her husband Jean-Luc were kind enough to treat us to a lunch at their home in Marienthal, north of Strasbourg, followed by a shopping excursion. Faithful readers of this blog may well be able to predict what the shopping was for.

Ani is an enthusiast of Alsatian pottery, waking up every Sunday at 6AM during the summer to hit the brocantes (flea-markets) in the local villages to acquire older pieces. Her home is a museum of the stuff, and she can identify pretty much each piece not only by which village it came from, but which potter, and which generation of potter.

Betchdorf pottery, pre-fired. When it's done, it'll look like the stuff above.

Needless to say, she is very well known in both Soufflemheim and Betchdorf, the two main pottery villages, and Amynah and I were very lucky to have her guidance. The day we went was an open house for all the potters in both villages, so Woerlings, the first place we visited, was packed with patrons. Nonetheless, both the owner and his daughter made their way through the crowd to say hi to Ani and tell us a bit their work. The duo were glowing: Woerling fille had made an all-pottery Nativity scene, that. earlier in the day, had attracted the local Cardinal (in full red-robed regalia), who praised it as being worthy of being displayed in a church. As such, the Woerlings were happy to press vin chaud upon us, letting us keep the tea-cups they came in.

Next stop was Betchdorf Christine Ruhlmann, a personal friend of Ani’s. She had turned in for the night, but came back to open up for us when Ani called. Her shop was nearly empty – Ruhlmann husband and wife being more interested in creating art than churning out beer-steins. There were a number of interesting items on display, as far as I could see through the cigarette haze, and when I was not distracted a love-starved cat that woke up from his cozy-slumber by the ceramics-oven to follow Amynah and I around like we were made of catnip-marinated-steaks.

Some of the Ruhlmann art. We bought a sugar bowl.

As usual, we came home with far more pottery items than we could possibly use, or need. Half of it was wrapped for us at the store, so we’re going to slap each other’s names on the packages and call it Christmas. Nor do we have any idea how we’re to get this stuff back home when we eventually leave France. Perhaps a ceramic suitcase?

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Vanity, thy name is Fish Marcher

Thanks to everyone who posted on the previous entry - it's very gratifying to know that people enjoyed my account. I was very fortunate to have been able to attend the event, and am glad that I could share my experience.

I do hate to follow up the last post with something so utterly facile, but I did promise readers a peak at my facial hair's progress, once it had reached the not-embarrassing stage (though, on reflection, no one specifically asked to be exposed to such horrors). In her ongoing campaign to rid my of my whiskers, Amynah has progressed from Three Musketeers references to pointing out, that they make me look "Old" and "Haggard" - but in a bad way. For those of you who wonder what Amynah's eyes have to endure every day, here I am in all my hirsute glory.

Good lord, it looks like I don't have any arms in this photo! What the heck am I typing with?

And for comparison purposes, here I am earlier this year, in more innocent times.

I myself am undecided - I think I look a little like evil Spock, but am not entirely convinced that is a bad thing. Feel free to share your opinions.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Paris Darbar

This is a massively long post – sorry!

For those of my readers for whom Amynah is a only an occasional name on the blog (perhaps a figure of my writerly imagination), some background. Amynah is an Ismaili Muslim, a small Shi’a religion with roughly 15 million members worldwide. They are one of the only Islamic sects with a living spiritual leader, a man known as the Aga Khan (or His Highness, or the Imam).

The present Aga Khan took on the job from his grandfather in 1957. Starting last year, the Ismaili’s worldwide began celebrating the Golden Jubilee – the fiftieth anniversary of the start of the Aga Khan’s tenure.

There are many events to commemorate this, but the most eagerly anticipated are the “Darbars” (or Deedars, depending on one’s orthographic whimsy). These are gatherings of the faithful to hear the Imam speak. For the Golden Jublilee, the Aga Khan visited Dubai, Syria, India, several cities in Canada and the United States and Singapore, among others. This summer, I accompanied Amynah to the one in London. This week was then final one of the Golden Jubilee Year, in Paris.

Being a minority with a somewhat mystical bent, and a living leader who traces his spiritual authority directly back to the Prophet Mohammed, the Ismaili’s have historically had a rough time of it, vis a vis their fellow Muslims. With the exception of a Golden Age some thousand years ago, Ismaili history is one of persecution divided, as Amynah says, into “The Greater Hiding Period” and the “Lesser Hiding Period.” That’s not entirely ancient history either – Canada’s population of Ismaili’s is disproportionately large because our then-Prime Minister agreed to accept as refugees thousands of members of the community that were being exiled from Idi Amin’s Uganda and fleeing from nearby Kenya and other African countries.

It would be easy, with a history like that, for a community to draw in on itself, remaining inward looking a secretive. However, the advantage of having a living spiritual leader is that the community remains adaptable, able to evolve with the modern world. Under the current Aga Khan the Ismaili’s reach out, not in – the Aga Khan Development Network is one of the most effective of its kind, operating through much of Africa, the Middle East, South and Central Asia. They build schools, establish business, found universities and preserve significant heritage sites.

For the last Darbar we attended, in London, I spent an inordinate amount of time in the room set aside for non-Ismaili family members, chatting with other hangers-on while we waited for the prayers to finish so we could get to the food and dancing. While I met some interesting people this way, and Amynah’s friends and family were very good at checking in on me to say hi, for the most part I was bored out of my mind.

The Darbars, especially in Europe and North America, are enormous events. There were 35,000 people at the London event. The French Ismaili community is much smaller than those of Britain or Canada, but – as this was the final Darbar of the year - they were planning for some 20,000 people to show up. Knowing that the local congregation was likely to be overwhelmed, Amynah and I decided to sign up as volunteers.

Amynah had sent in forms to register us as attendees, indicating our willingness to earn our supper. A week or so before we were to leave for Paris, I received a phone call, from a Chamsia in Paris, telling us that Amynah was signed up for “communication” – helping to coordinate the radio traffic between the various teams. I told her that I was available as well, and so she added me to the schedule.

A few days later, I received a phone call, telling me that I had been signed up to work the Parking detail. I said fine, and, having guessed from my name that I was not Ismaili, the caller told me to contact the non-Ismaili-spouses coordinator. I did so, thinking I was just letting him manage his numbers.

We showed up Wednesday evening at the Paris Conference and Exposition centre, not far from the Charles de Gaulle Airport. For reasons not entirely clear to me, the registration process to get into the Darbar is somewhat more involved than that required to board an international flight. Part of the difficulty stemmed from the fact that as there is no active “jamat” (mosque) in Strasbourg, Amynah had registered us on-line as coming from abroad (as it was, one of the women at the desk actually said, with unbridled Parisian hauteur “They’re from Strasbourg? That’s not in France.”) Even so, this was easier than the registration process for London, which I took on myself while Amynah was in prayers: thrown by our differing last names, the officials at the registration desk demanded that I present both of our passports and a wedding certificate. I lacked the latter, but finally convinced them to give me our event passes through a combination of a wedding photo I keep in my wallet and crying).

After registering, Amynah and I found our way to the communications room, which was tucked away in the nether reaches of the enormous complex. On arrival, we were greeted by coordinators Chamsia and Rheishman, both of whom appeared to have been on the go for the previous 72 hours straight. Our job, it was explained to us, was to monitor one of the ten radio frequencies in use. Most of the traffic would be irrelevant, but if someone from one team needed to call another team (“Parking” for “Medical,” for instance) they would ask us to patch it through.

It should give you some idea of how desperate for volunteers they were that they put me, a man whose French breaks down entirely when deprived of facial cues to glean meaning, on the radios, whose static-to-language ratio was roughly 1:1. Fortunately, they put me on “Frequency 1,” which was nominally reserved for the big-wigs, all of whom were in meetings with each other for the duration of the event. I therefore spent three-hours on the first evening listening to absolutely nothing, during which time I sketched out a plot for my next novel (I got as far as the aliens landing in post-Revolutionary France, but am unsure how to link them to zombie-Napoleon).

Fun Fact:: “Walkie-talkie” in French? Talkie-walkie. Ask me not why.

The next day, Amynah and I woke up at 6 AM to catch the commuter train from our hotel near the Gare d’Est to the Exhibition grounds. On arrival, we tried to acquire some Volunteer identification at the registration desk, only to be told that they had run out. I was also told that I had been expected in Parking some two hours earlier, and was scheduled for the non-Ismaili spouses zone for the afternoon. Somehow, between those two tasks and Communication, I had been triple-booked.

Discretion being the better part of valour, and having forgotten my toque, I elected to check in with Chamsia and Reichman in Communications before wandering outside in the cold to play traffic cop. I told Chamsia about my dilemma – she said she would contact the parking guys to find out where I was needed most. I do not know how sincere she was – she never had a full table of radio monitors, so I doubt she was eager to lose even incompetent staff. In any case, I never saw her make the call, but she did put me on Frequency 10 – monitoring the Parking guys I was supposed to be assisting.

For the most part this went smoothly – they only called in twice, and both times I calmly shouted “Un moment s’il vous plait” before throwing my “talkie-walkie” at Chamsia as if it were a disgruntled cobra. At some point, I heard one volunteer radio another asking what to do with “Un Anglais” that had shown up looking to help. He was told to station him near the main gate. Twenty minutes later, a message came though: “We’re getting complaints about the guy at the front gate – he doesn’t speak a word of French.” Meanwhile I sat, helpless (yet warm) in Communications Central, cursing the fates: That should have been me, damnit!

As the morning wore on, more volunteers poured in, and Chamsia felt confident enough to set me free. As the guys in Parking sounded like they now had things under control (also, they sounded very cold) I made my way over to the non-Ismaili area. Things here were much calmer – I asked what I could do, and was told to inform the dozen or so people that had shown up so far that food was available on the enormous food-bearing table that they had to walk around in order to take their seats. I did so, earning the bemused looks one would expect under the circumstances.

Looking to do something a little more productive, I offered to give the two ladies behind said table a break. They were suspiciously grateful, and assured me they would “Be right back” before disappearing, never to be seen again. Running the table was no hardship – the only hard part was fending off the hordes of people streaming by the table who were stealing sandwiches to which they were not entitled (not surprisingly, I had trouble, as a non-Ismaili, stating with any conviction that the free food at an Ismaili event, paid for by Ismailiis, was off limits to everyone but non-Ismailis, especially as it was all came from the same storage area down the hall).

After some time I was joined behind the table by Collette, a woman originally from Burkino Faso, now a resident of Montreal. Together, we made sure that none of the 200 or so non-Ismailis present ever wanted for a croissant or tea. Truly we were heroes.

Collette, I discovered, had a wonderfully open view towards religion in general. At one point, she saw a man pass by with a thusby, which is a set of prayer beads used by Ismailis. She asked where he had acquired it and he (and this is utterly typical of the kind of generosity I see all the time at such events) gave it to her without a moment’s hesitation. As Collette returned to the table, counting off the beads as she prayed, I asked her if she was Muslim, to which she replied no, she was Catholic: “But I know how to use this.” I thought it was great, though I’m sure the Pope would not approve.

While all this was going on, all of the Ismailiis in the hall had retreated into the Darbar Hall for the ceremonies. These lasted roughly two hours, during which the faithful were addressed by the Aga Khan, who arrived earler with his family.

For the Jubilee Year, His Highness has made a point of coming outside of the Darbar hall to speak with the non-Ismailis gathered outside. In London, there were roughly 700 of us, and as I was helping with crowd control, I ended up in the back and thus didn’t get very close to where he eventually spoke. This time, there were only 200 of us, tops, and I got into the front row, thanks to some speedy footwork on Collette’s part. This did not occur without some difficulty: they ran us through metal detectors beforehand, and confiscated my nail-clippers. Were they perhaps afraid that I was going to groom him? (To his credit, the security guy who took them from me tracked me down ten minutes later to give me a tag so that I could reclaim them. That’s dedication!)

It has been pointed out to me many, many times that this is a great privilege – Amynah’s never had such an intimate audience with His Highness in her life, and here I was within handshaking distance. So, for my Ismaili readers, I’m going to do my best to relay what was said, though I’m afraid I can’t do a very good job.

He took the podium, having changed out of his traditional clothes into a suit. He seemed to be in a good mood, though his voice was a little hoarse from speaking at the Darbar. He spoke in French, so much of the subtleties of the message were probably lost on me.

First, he thanked us all for coming, and welcomed us into the community, even if not as Ismailiis. He said that Ismailiis were a people that believed in pluralism, and were a part of the Western world, but were also very much a part of the Muslim world, not apart from it, despite theological differences. He then spoke of the work of his charitable foundations, especially the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN): It was through pluralism, and strong institutions that societies thrived: countries like Bangladesh and Kenya may have their political troubles, but are by and large peaceful countries, and that is because their citizens have a sense of civil society – over time, that will translate into stability. To that end, he invited all of the non-Ismailis present to contribute what time or expertise they had to the AKDN, to further this goal of building more pluralist, “cosmopolitan” societies world-wide.

It was only a brief speech, but afterwards he stepped down to greet people more personally. We’d all been told not to address his unless we were spoken to, but when he came near where I was standing, Collette, standing beside me, couldn’t resist, asking for a blessing by calling out “Benediction! Benediction!” I don’t think he heard, much to her disappointment.

He moved on shortly thereafter, but it was inspiring nonetheless: in the last few weeks, the Aga Khan had done Darbars in Toronto, Calgary, Vancouver and Singapore, returning to Canada again to open a Centre in Ottawa. That is a grueling schedule, especially for a 72-year-old. That he cared enough to speak to a miniscule crowd as us on what must have been a long day showed a commitment to his message, and to living what he speaks.

The rest of the day went pretty quickly – once the Darbar was over, the feasting and dancing could begin. Amynah and I returned to the “talkie-walkie” room, but the channels were all dead, as 18,000 people caught up with friends and family and ate the lamb-curry that was being ladled out by the ton in the main hall. Eventually Amynah’s relatives from England found us, so we managed a mini-family reunion, albeit one partially spent cleaning ear-wax out of returned radio-headphones. I was eager to see if we could find more people we knew from Canada, but the night was getting on - we left our friend from Montreal (in Europe working for the AKDN) near the stage, where the band had the remaining crowd bashing sticks and dancing in circles for the dandiya. Amynah and I caught the last train back to our hotel, in order to catch four hours of sleep before heading home to Strasbourg.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Mary, Mary, Why dost thou buggeth?

These are just a bunch of candles. Do I need a reason for everything I do here?

One of the many features of Christmas in Strasbourg is the annual return of the 18th century tapestries. The 14 draperies show the story of the Epiphany, and used to hang year round. Today, they are only displayed for the month of December. You can see why – the ones exposed to the sun are noticeably faded, while the other half are still quite vibrant, even after 250 years.

Taking pictures in a dark church poses a bit of a challenge with my camera; relative to modern devices, it’s a primitive beast that may well have crawled out of the Paleolithic ooze. The dim image here was the only one that came close to capturing the colour on display.

Get your hand away from the vicinity of the Sacred Bellybutton!

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Umlaut Ahead! Strasbourg's Marché de Noël

Roughly half the 700 hundred Strasbourg Christmas market vendors are selling these miniature Alsatian houses. One day, I will buy enough to make a model Alsatian village, in which I will hold a miniature Christmas market, half of which will be selling even tinier Alsatian houses. Did I just blow your mind?

For a small city, Strasbourg claims pre-eminence in a startlingly broad spectrum of fields; it is the capital of the Bas-Rhin department of course, and the largest city in Alsace, but claims also to be both the crossroads and capital of Europe, by grace of the number of European Union institutions based here.

However, Streetsville, France, claims to be central to something much, much more important that a mere region, or even continent. It brazenly advertises itself as the Capital of Christmas.

The reason, of course, is the Christmas market, one of the largest in Europe and definitely the largest in France (though not, of course, unique, as Zurika can attest). Several hundred stallholders set up all around the city, selling all manner of toys, handmade objets, ornaments and, of course, vin chaud.*

The event draws tourists in their thousands, who choke the narrow alleys between the stalls as they search, usually in vain, for that one vendor selling something, anything, unique enough to make enduring the cold, damp, and crowds worth it.

Outdoor skating rink with the Musée Oeuvre Notre Dame behind. Where are their hockey sticks?

I sound cranky about it, but in truth I’m rather fond of the market, even if I rarely buy anything from it. It is divided into many sub-markets around the city, ranging from the main market in front of the Cathedral (where the whole tradition kicked off in 1570), to an almost hidden square near our apartment where, in my first year here, I sampled garlic bread smeared with a paste made from escargot.

Two for one sale: God and Mammon. Why choose?

My favourite market is the “guest” market located on Place Gutenberg, next-door to my former apartment on View of the Marching Fishes Street. Our first year here, it was occupied by Romanians, from whom I failed to buy anything as I was still in anti-materialist shock from having sold all my possessions in Canada. Last year, it was occupied by merchants from Québec, of all places, from whom I bought a number of nostalgia-inducing items, mainly of the winter-clothing variety.

Did I mention the Christmas lights strung up throughout the city? No? Well, then this photo doesn't make a lot of sense then, does it?

This year Gutenberg is occupied by the nations of the European Union, thus featuring artisans from everywhere from Malta to… errr… France. I got suckered by the Bulgarian stall, staffed by a trio of ladies who proffered to me almost every item in their inventory, from soap to plastic figurines, each one offered with the hopeful assertion “It’s from Bulgaria!” Being a sucker with a soft touch for the exotic, that actually worked. I am now the proud owner of the prettiest children’s doll you’ve ever seen. It’s from Bulgaria!

* Vin chaud is, I believe, wine of insufficient quality to merit use as insecticide, mixed with a packet of chemicals that make it taste like turpentine. The potion is then heated; if you're lucky, you may scald your tongue and thus be unable to taste how awful it is.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Not a rant, per se...

Update: As the discussion moves to what the Governor General will do, we are shocked to find that a bimonthly history magazine has managed to publish up-to-the-minute commentary relevant to her role in brouhahas of this nature.

So, Canadian politics somehow got interesting while I wasn’t paying attention.

The bulk of my readers here are, of course, Canadian (Hi Bob! Hi Doug! How’s it goin’ eh?) and therefore need no background on what’s been going on in my ice-bedecked homeland, but I do have some readers, (beyond the imaginary ones in my head), that are less familiar with how things work over there. Canadian readers can skip directly to paragraph 8.

First, and most importantly, Canada has a Parliamentary democracy, modeled on Britain’s legislature. Throughout most of the last century, the Liberal party has governed either with a Parliamentary majority, or in minority governments propped up by the NDP. Normally, the official Opposition is the Conservative party – being an equitable people, we Canadians occasionally let them take the wheel to allow the Liberals some shut-eye/corruption purging.

Irrelevant entertainment break! I also hope it reinforces the French stereotype that Canadians are flannel-wearing lumberjacks. Or, it's a metaphor - but for what? Suggest yours in the comments!

The last federal three elections in Canada have yielded minority governments – the first was Liberal led, followed by Parliaments in which the Conservatives held the most seats, but not the majority. Our last election was six weeks ago, during which the Conservatives picked up seats, the Liberals lost more seats, the NDP picked up a few and (if memory serves) the Separatist Bloc Québecois (BQ) held steady.

Here’s where things get interesting. The current Prime Minister has managed, up until now, to keep the scent of Liberal blood in the air, so that the NDP and BQ (both parties of the left) continue to chase after that party’s central/left voter base. As long as he continued to engineer a situation where the Liberals were constantly on the back foot, he was able to do pretty much anything he liked, even though, as a minority leader, he would normally need to be in constant negotiation with the opposition parties to get his legislation through.

His government recently threatened to introduce a measure that would remove a subsidy that grants political parties funds on the basis of their popular vote. The subsidy was introduced by the Liberal government as a way to limit the influence of big money in political fundraising. The Conservatives, being much better at raising “grassroots” funding (many, small donations), are less reliant on these funds. The three opposition parties are heavily reliant on them.

All three parties were now backed into a corner – without those subsidies, they may well be out of competitive politics for a generation. Crises sharpening minds wonderfully, they decided to do something that has not been attempted in Canada since Confederation – create a coalition government.

In Canada, this is causing consternation in some circles: the Liberal leader, who will, under the new agreement, be Prime Minister, lost seats in the last election. There are complaints that this agreement goes against the will of voters, expressed just six weeks ago.

In theory, the members of the House of Commons decide their own leaders – voters get almost no say in the matter. Of course, this is neither how the system actually works, nor is it how it is perceived come election time.

The reason for this dysfunction (and subsequent ignorance) is the Party Convention. To steal an argument from historian Christopher Moore, historically, the Prime Minister was chosen by his peers – that is to say, other MPs. Today, party leaders are chosen by their party membership*, and thus do not require the confidence of the MPs who are elected in the same party in order to govern. Meanwhile, as leader, he has the power to give them Cabinet posts and party funding. *(Often this means people who had their memberships bought for them by the leadership campaign).

The effect of this is that MPs, to use Trudeau’s phrase, are nobodies fifty feet off of Parliament Hill. In fact, they’re nobodies on it either. Unlike Congressional members or Senators in the U.S. they do not, for the most part, have the ability to modify, let alone oppose, legislation. Those that do are booted from the party. This leaves the Canadian Prime Minister with more power within his government, relatively speaking, than the President of the United States.

A coalition government, would hopefully loosen up Canada’s Parliament, in all parties. MPs with real power will be more held to account by their constituents, and Prime Ministers who actually have to answer to their colleagues in the house can only be more responsible to their civic, rather than political, duties.

Pre-confederation coalition government. Yes, these things actually play on TV in Canada.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Today in French justice

Nicholas Sarkozy voodoo dolls are found to “Offend the dignity of the Head of State.”

The fine for such an outrage? One Euro, which would seem to imply something unflattering about the market value of Sarkozy's dignity these days.

Worse, the gentleman in question is allowed to keep selling them, so long as he mentions on his product that doing so is a very, very bad thing.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

All for one and free for all

Amynah is now back in Strasbourg, and has spent the last two days attempting to come up with a remark suitably cutting enough to encourage me to shave my nascent beard.* So far, she’s taken to calling me D’Artagnan, as in the Three Musketeers. That’s backfired, as I rather like looking like the kind of guy who could whip out his epée at the slightest provocation.

Anyway, shortly after her arrival, as we chatted in the cab on the way back from Strasbourg’s airport, I realized that I had spoken barely any English while she was gone. I had, of course, been over at Danielle and David’s place, but that barely counts as he’s British, and thus still clinging to some near-incomprehensible island dialect with only a distant relationship to English as it is spoken in the civilized world.

Otherwise, most of my socializing was conducted entirely in the language of Molière, as long as you believe Molière was a stammering bumpkin with a vocabulary of 400 words and no grasp of the future-conditional. I was quite proud of myself, frankly. It became natural enough to me that, by the end of the week, it was my default language in which to start a conversation - even when speaking to English speakers whose French was no better than mine.

Though, to be fair, much of my “French” conversation was conducted with people who were trying to improve their English, and thus spoke to me in English even while repressing their wincing as I mangled their language. My fragile comprehension skills were therefore subject to almost no duress at all.

Attempting to explain the ins-and-outs of English to none-native speakers really does make one realize how ridiculous some of our language actually is. My friend Félicie, for instance, cannot wrap her head around the expression “I feel like” meaning “I would like.” As she points out, “I feel like chocolate” would seem to imply that you’re made of chocolate. Her regular English teacher told her that “I fancy chocolate” would be a way to get around this, but personally I feel that’s so insufferably British it would be better if she just grabbed the chocolate without asking. People would understand.

Of course, my North American language biases do have their drawbacks. Earlier in the week I was having coffee with my friend Mirna, during which I complimented her on her collier - at which point she asked me for the English word.

“Necklace” I said, with perfect Canadian diction.

“Like…. N-E-C-K-L-E-S-S ?” she asked.

I explained that no, as funny an image as it may be, this was not the case, and vowed to improve my pronunciation. However, given that Mirna’s thinking of doing a postdoc in Canada, perhaps I should teach her the proper way to end a sentence with the word “eh?” and that “where’re y’at?” is a perfectly acceptable formulation. Working on another language has improved my English in other ways as well – French is a very precise language** which, I hope, has spilled over to my spoken English. As well, I remain forever grateful to Félicie for giving me the phrase “Big hugs on Amynah” which I think is a wonderful turn of phrase. Though I may be biased due to its subject.

* Photos of said beard will be posted when it graduates from “nascent” to “not laughable.”

** I say this despite that they have the same word for “spire” and “arrow,” i.e. flèche, which I’m pretty sure translates as “pointy thing.”

Thursday, November 20, 2008

What? Still no point?

This video has nothing at all to do with this post, which in turn has nothing terribly worth reading in it. However, the song is pretty good, and will hopefully make up for any entertainment shortfalls in the text that follows

So, I’m now on day seven of occupying myself on my own here. Here’s the report.

As is customary when I go camping, I have ceased shaving. Amynah, despite her many other wonderful qualities, does not like beards, or at least not on me. So, in her absence, I am attempting to grow a chin curtain, with which to surprise/appall her on her return.

The problem I always have, when attempting this, is that none of the major facial-hair growing zones actually connect with one another. I am thus left with sideburns dangling uselessly off my cheeks, fruitlessly attempting to reach a goatee that, in turn, falls just short as it strains to reach my moustache.

Rather than have my face be decorated with a fuzzy archipelago, I eliminated the cheek-fuzz, leaving me with a ‘stache and goatee combination. Last time I attempted this, Amynah described the result as making me look like “an angry Backstreet Boy,” thus goading me into putting and end to the experiment. This time, having much more gray in my hair, I expect that I look like a Dirty Old Backstreet Man.

Other observations from the week:

1) I’ve discovered the owners of this apartment own the first season of Law and Order. The intervening years have not been kind to that series – the episodes I saw would not be out of place on the Comedy Channel today.

2) Attempting to learn any Arabic words, when you are an English speaker labouring your way through a French conversation, will cause your tongue to explode.

3) Vicky Christina Barcelona was, despite a trailer that made it look it would be like Woody Allen at his dirty-old-man-artist-scores-the-babes worst, was not bad. Penelope Cruz was worth the price of admission alone.

4) No one I've encountered this week, except those I explicitly told, has commented on my increasingly hirsute appearance. This means that I have the facial hair of a pre-pubescent, or folks just think I'm forsaken basic hygeine.

Tip readers in Halifax: my friend Tim is going to be in a musical based on the Nativity story, featuring songs from Queen, David Bowie, Tom Petty and more! It will be Friday, Saturday and Sunday (this weekend) at Saint Matthew’s Church on Barrington. I promote it not as an endorsement of Tim’s talent, but because it’s for a good cause, and I find the idea amusing (and I’m trying to guess what songs go with what parts of the story: The Talking Heads Psycho Killer for the Slaughter of the Innocents? The Police’s Every Breath You Take (I'll be watching you) for the Visitation? Tom’s Petty’s Refugee for the Flight to Egypt? The mind boggles).

Thursday, November 13, 2008

If you think you see a point to this, you are mistaken

Hey folks. Sorry I’ve been incommunicado, but I have been somewhat overwhelmed the last couple of weeks. Fortunately, the wave has now crested, and I am now back to my normal state of idle lethargy (or at least focus on those projects that are not as deadline-driven).

In any case, I'm going to take this blog in a brave new direction: rather than hiking misadventures and odd-ball history, I'm bringing you, my lucky readers, something never before seen on the Internet: a little something I'm going to call "Inane, self-absorbed ramblings."

Just in case anyone was wondering exactly how I earn my keep around here, over the last couple of weeks, I have written, among other things, articles on Canada’s culpability in one the worst ethnic massacres of the 20th century, particle physics, two entirely different human genetics discoveries, and a pan-European linguistics archive. Woven throughout, I compiled 65 speaker’s biographies for an upcoming conference in Stockholm. Yeah, I’m a hero.

Sadly, because I’ve been so busy, Amynah and I have not had much time to hang out. And now that my schedule’s normalized, she’s gone: for the next ten days, she’s at a conference and visiting friends in the United States of Obama.

Now, I have spent time apart from Amynah before, but it’s a little different this time. First of all, this apartment is too big for two people. For one person, it’s positively agoraphobia-inducing.

Second, while I have plenty of reading to catch up on, I will not be able to watch TV I’ve “found” on the Internet, or go to the movies: we have so little options for either, I want to be able to savour them with her. Nor am I a big one for watching re-runs: while I’ve come to love watching TV on DVD, I have yet to re-watch TV programmes I’ve already seen.*

I can and will go out with friends here, but because almost everyone I’ve met here I’ve met as the less articulate half of a “Married Couple” (with all the perceived stodginess implied therein) socializing not as natural for me as it was in Canada; no one here just “pops over” for pizza and a game of pool.**

Speaking of movies, here’s a question for the peanut gallery: do any of you go to movie theatres on your own? I don’t think I’ve ever watched a movie on the big screen by myself. I realize there’s no reason not to, but for some reason, I consider sitting silently in the dark eyes fixed on a screen to be an experience best shared. Anybody who can help me break through this irrational block will be treated to… I don’t know, a paean to your wonderfulness here on Strasmark.

* The notable exception being Flight of the Conchords, which Amynah and I will occasionally re-watch, but only the song portions.

** Do people play pool anymore, or was that strictly a ‘90s Halifax fad?

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Remembrance Day

This is the major War Memorial in Strasbourg. It stands on Place Republique, in front of a Palace built during the occupation to assert the Kaiser's authority over his conquered territories.

Because Alsace was annexed to the Prussian Empire after 1870, men here were required to fight for Germany when the Great War broke out in 1914. Some refused, or fled across the border to fight for France, while others - friends and family - fought under the Kaiser. This statue, erected as new hostilities loomed in the 1930s, captures the particular dynamic of war in Alsace. It shows an Alsatian mother, mourning her two sons, one of whom faces west into France, the other Germany, shorn of the uniforms that marked them as enemies, united in death.

I've always distrusted Remembrance Day, for reasons I won't get into here, not least because I have a truly frightening amount of work to get done today. Nonetheless, I can't help but be moved by this memorial, if only because it reminds us there is no justness in war.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Beat of a different, not very bright drummer

Happy Hallowe'en!

In honour of the day, and in order to write about something other than hiking, I bring you an installment of View of the Marching Fishes Irregular Digressions into Alsation Folklore Hour.

Our story happened many centuries ago, during the terrible years of the Swedish War.* During the Swedish invasion of Alsace, a regiment of soldiers was stationed in the village of Obersteinbach. The regimental drummer was a romantic young man, who was quartered in the home of a local farmer. The farmer, as farmers in these stories are wont, had a lovely young daughter.

Our percussive friend fell in love with the comely young lass and – happy day! – she with he. However, being as how he had his regimental drumming duties to attend to, and she her family, they were never able to be alone, to do whatever it is that young couples in love did in the days before they invented sex.**

Our young drummer found himself walking off his frustrations, stalking the village and the surrounding fields. At the stroke of midnight, he found himself near in a place called “Teufeltisch” – or the Devil’s Table. Evidently not realizing he was in a cautionary folktale, he cried out: “My body and my soul for just a kiss of this woman.”***

To no one’s surprise but the drummer’s, a sardonic laugh came out of the darkness from the direction of the Devil’s Table. A tall man stepped out of the gloom. Frightened, the drummer asked what he wanted.

“You called me. I am at your service.”****

The drummer, perhaps catching on that he might be in a bit over his head, wisely said nothing. But for naught, for our Mephistolian friend said “Ah – I understand all. You want a woman. Good, take these drumsticks.**** If you play your instrument with these, she will have no choice but to march to your beat. All I need is for you to sign this paper.”

I need not recount what happened next – Army life having afforded our dim hero no opportunity to learn that sulfurous strangers seeking sanguinary signatures are generally bad news, he proferred his finger, signed in blood, and found himself the proud owner of a brand new pair of drumsticks.

Dazed, he returned to the farmers house. Tentatively, he hit his drum once, then twice. The farmer’s daughter appeared at the door.****** As the boy continued to play, she drew nearer, and he began to walk away. She followed, drawn forward even as her family tried to hold her back.

The couple disappeared into the forest. The following night, screams, demonic laughter and wild drumming filled the darkness. Neither of the doomed lovers was ever seen again, but on certain nights, a faint drumming may still be heard in the forests around the village, and will be until the end of days.********

(In case anyone is wondering, when I was drumming, I preferred Vic Firth 5B’s and I couldn’t even get my bandmates to follow my beat, let alone our largely imaginary groupies).

* I am not making this war up. The Swedes were right nasty back before they discovered nationalized medical care and Volvos.

** 1993

*** Though presumably he cried this out in Swedish.

**** Technically, no one called him, but hey – how good would you expect the Devil’s Swedish comprehension to be?

***** Which are, no word of a lie, “baguettes” in my little book of Satanic Tales. Unless they actually played drums with bread back then.

****** I suspect that, given that it was probably 1 AM, and Obersteinbach is tiny even today, everbody in the village appeared at their door at this point.

******* I’ve totally lost count of how many asterixes I’m supposed to have by now. The story was taken from “Les Legendes du Diable en Alsace” by Gérard Leser. The translation is obviously mine.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Cunegonde's revenge

Chateau St Ulrich; Cunegonde lies in wait

I swear to God, I will eventually write about something other than hiking here soon. Right after this one.

When Amynah and I first arrived here in France, some of our earliest social events were visits to the countryside. Julie (another post-doc in Amynah’s lab) and her boyfriend Sebastien, a couple recently arrived from Bordeaux via England, took us out to visit some of the prettier villages on the Wine Route that winds its way through the Vosges near here. Shortly thereafter Dom, another colleague of Amynah’s, invited us to join his family and their friends on a hike near Saverne, an experience I was able to spin into my first story for the Globe and Mail.

These experiences meant a lot for us: not only because we were being made to feel welcomed in our new country, but also because we were able to familiarize ourselves with the local geography. Once the deluge of visitors we have hosted over the last two years began, we were confident in our ability to show people around Alsace, a confidence that has gone a long way to making us feel at home here.

Some of the local geogrphy

What proved to be the biggest boost for us, proved to be my former French teacher, Danielle. Danielle is one of those people that makes friends the way other people breathe. Together, she and her husband David are one of those couples who have an innate ability to spread the wealth of friendship around: if you meet a friend of Danielle and David’s, chances are very good that you will have made a new friend in the process.

Danielle would occasionally organize outings into the countryside (usually in the Black Forest, across the border) for her pupils from Amynah’s institute. All were foreigners like Amynah and I, and came from all over the world. Though those outings, Amynah and I have made some of our best friends in France, (including the famous Sami the Finn).

Sadly, Danielle and David have since moved to England. However, since Amynah and I have, thanks to Sami the Finn, our many guests, and Amynah’s lab-mates, traveled extensively through the Vosges, we felt we had the wherewithal to duplicate Danielle’s magic, and organize a hike of our own.

Ribeauvillé. This is as close as I would get

I picked the three castles hike near Ribeauvillé, which is about 80km south of Strasbourg. I had done variations on this hike a few times before. The first time, I took the wrong path and wandered aimlessly over the mountain, failing to find any of the three castles. The second time, I found St Ulrich and Girsberg, but was thwarted in my attempt to ascend to Haute Ribeaupierre by an “access interdit” sign at the beginning of the trail. The third time, we ran out of time to tackle the third castle. All of which has led me to conclude that the trail is cursed. Events would bear out my theory.

I look healthy, don't I?

I invited a number of people from my French class, and the beginner’s class – they, in turn, invited their friends. We ended up with 14 people – Germans, Spaniards, Romanians, Argentinians, French, Chinese and Australian, all depending on my questionable trail-guiding skills.

We set off a little later than planned – the time change was this weekend, and one of the drivers thought the clocks needed to move an hour ahead – but still made it to Ribeavillé by about 11 AM.

Qi is not supposed to be up there

It was very busy on the trail to the first castle, and the trail was very steep. I had woken up that morning feeling extremely stiff and poorly rested for some reason, and as I struggled up the trail, I began to break out into a cold-sweat as well. By the time we made it to Chateau St Ulrich, I also began to develop a cast-iron headache.

I should point out that St Ulrich is quite possibly haunted: it was famously used to imprison Cunegonde of Hungerstein, a noblewoman who had decided to end her marriage through the unorthodox but not-yet-legal means of murdering him. Prison life not agreeing with her, she seduced her guard, who helped her escape. She was never seen again – especially not by the guard, who was executed for his complicity shortly thereafter. Other possible specters in residence include the scion of the Ribeaupierre family, whose construction of a monastery nearby was unlikely to outweigh, in St Peter’s book, looting the Holy Land of holy artifacts during the Crusades, or possibly even the poor souls from the colony of lepers isolated here in the 17th century.

In any case, one of those candidates obviously had it in for me, because by the time we stopped for lunch, I was full-blown sick – unable to ingest more than half a sandwichm - meaning I missed out on Amynah’s cake, Qi’s cookies, and the strange Argentinian “matas” tea that Carolina and Danilo had brought.

I'm not sure not drinking this was such a loss

Cunegonde and her ghostly cohort may have had it in for me, but I had numbers on my side this time. Nothing was going to stop us from reaching our final destination: Chateau de Haute Ribeaupierre, the giant castle atop the mountain that I had missed on my three previous attempts.

It was, of course, barred by a thin wire fence and a sign warning us that entry was forbidden, due to the danger of falling medieval masonry. Carolina, having no particular use for anyone telling her what not to do, especially some vandalized French sign, simply climbed up a ruined wall next to the gate and hopped over. Soon, the barbarians were swarming the walls of Ribeaupierre, and it fell to our onslaught. Amusingly, another group arrived at the castle as we were doing this. One of them looked at me an said – “I’m a guide.” I stopped, thinking that we were going to get ratted out to the French-ruined-castle-police. “Are you a guide?” she asked me. “Sort of” I replied. She then turned and told her charges that it must be ok to enter.

Barbarians at the Gate

The third castle conquered, we set back down the hill to where we’d parked the cars. I was feeling increasingly worse, but everyone else was chattering, making new friends, and enjoying the near-perfect Autumn weather. On our arrival at the cars, it was decided that a celebratory coffee was in order, and so we paraded into the village. Or rather, they did: I was too sick at this point, and elected to stay in Carlos’ and Merixtell’s car for a nap. Matters were even worse on the drive home: we had to make an emergency stop in the parking lot of the Ribeauvillé casino, so that I could inspect the ground behind the bordering hedges.

However, everyone else had a great time. Perhaps I should just skip the next one of these things I organize.

NB: All the photos, except the one in which she appears, were taken by my friend Qi

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Rock walk

Misty mountains

Boy, my blog production really has slowed down of late, hasn’t? Well, this marks my 200th post. Significantly, it also marks my third wedding anniversary*. Coincidence? I think think so.

In any case, I’ve been more than a little swamped in the last few days. Sadly, this has not been of the traveling-Europe-having-zany-adventures kind of swamped, but more of the why-is-it-all-my-freelance-clients-give-me-assignments-at-the-same-time-it-must-be-a-conspiracy kind of swamped. So why am I writing here about this, instead of, say, nuclear physics? Because I love you, that’s why.**

I did manage to escape my office and increasingly wonky laptop long enough to take a hike this past Sunday. Now that Sami the Finn has returned to the land of Frozen Monosyllabic Angst-sters in the North, Amynah and I find ourselves hiking with, unexpectedly, Amynah’s boss Brigitte***, and her husband Alain.

Amynah and Brigitte, on one of the less perilous sections

They chose a hike in the southern Vosges that translates roughly as “The Trail of the Rocks.” Having seen photos of the trail on-line, I had assumed that this name referred to the views it affords hikers of the bare granite cliffs that loom over the Munster valley.

I was wrong.

Turns out that when the French call a trail “The Trail of Rocks” they really mean that the trail is made up of rocks. Lots of them, all sharp, and crazed angles and covered in wet, slippery leaves.

Alain explained that the trail was built in 1915. With my razor sharp grasp of history, I asked if the folks in the neighbourhood didn’t have more pressing things to do at the time than hacking trails out of cliffsides.

See that cliff? We had to climb that.

“Ah, it was made by contrabandieres” explained Alain – men running illicit merchandise back and forth over the border between what was then the Kaiser’s Germany and wartime France. Given how much trouble I was having navigating the steep, rough ups and downs of the trail, I had to give those smugglers of yore, traversing this route while burdened with backpacks of blackmarket cheese or what-have-you, a tip of my hat. Or would have, had my hands not been otherwise occupied holding on for dear life.

Smugglers made this? I guess they have a more industrious breed of criminal around here

*The leather anniversary, apparently. You do not want to contemplate my underpants right now, trust me.

** In that needy, craving approval, writer-reader way.

***Who, amusingly, complained all day that she was fatiguée from a dinner that had gone until 1AM the previous night. I'd have called her on it, had only I known the French word for hangover.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

In the Court of the Pumpkin King

Gaspard greets the guests

Well, as hinted at in last week’s post, Amynah and I hosted a pumpkin carving party chez nous this past weekend. It was a little early for Hallowe’en, but perfect timing to celebrate the temporary return of our friends Danielle and David. The latter showed his gratitude by rushing home after the soirée in order to scoop me on his own blog. His take on things is well worth a read.

Our goal, in hosting a pumpkin party, was to allow guests to engage in an activity that, by it’s goopy nature, tends to break down people’s reserve. Hallowe’en being an almost entirely North American phenomenon, it also allowed me to show that we burger-munching lumberjacks do have cultural traditions as well, inexplicable as they may be.

We ended up with nearly forty guests. About half were from Amynah’s lab, many of the rest were former French or English students of Danielle’s from Amynah’s institute. A theology professor, on sabbatical in Strasbourg from McGill showed up with his wife and daughter were the only other Canadians - but every other inhabited continent had a representative, almost none of whom had ever been encouraged to play with their food in this way.

The massacre begins

I had spent much of the week fretting about local pumpkin quality. Strangely, French people seem to believe that the primary purpose of pumpkins is to be eaten, rather than turned into a ghoulish effigy. Most pumpkin-like objects are therefore unsuited for carving, being too small or too fleshy for the purpose.

So when people showed up with miniature squash that might serve as earrings on one of Howard Dill’s monster gourds I was convinced that we were going to have to make an emergency run to reinforce the battalion of 17 pumpkins we’d already recruited to sacrifice themselves in our cause.

Natasha wants in on the fun. Sebastien begs her to reconsider

I needn’t have worried. While I hovered anxiously over the operating table we assembled in our living room, pumpkin novice after pumpkin novice turned out Jaques de Lumières worthy of any discerning collector from even the least promising of vegetables.

The artist and her masterpiece

The ridiculousness of my worry became clear fairly early on, as I was attempting to instruct a friend on the finer points of carving a lid. I asked the theologian’s daughter if she’d done this before, to which she replied “Yeah. Twelve times.” “How old are you?” I asked. “Nine,” she replied. Given that I had only carved my sixth-ever pumpkin earlier that afternoon, I left her to supervise everyone else’s efforts, in order that I could do my part to lessen the load of food causing our sturdy dining room table to sag in the middle.

By the end of the evening, our friends and colleagues had produced some twenty grinning, shrieking, cringing, laughing, grimacing visages. We assembled the fruits of our labours on the back verandah, where they formed a flickering, gruesome choir. Many more photos here

Monday, September 29, 2008

Train in vain, Melancholy and the infinite cabbage

Not the train in question. Use your imaginations, people!

So, Amynah and I were supposed to go to Geneva this week, at the invitation of a family friend. Friday evening, we made our way to the Strasbourg’s glass-bubble-encased train station (of which I’ll post a proper photo one of these days) and got on the train.

Well, we sort of got on the train. Friday at five is not the best of times to hopping on mass transit of any kind, and the French train authority is not exactly famed for planning ahead. The train was over-sold by probably 20 percent, meaning anyone that showed up any less than 20 minutes early was forced to stand.

And stand we did… the train was scheduled to leave at 5:20, which came a went with a merry wave. At 5:25, the conductor came on the intercom to tell us we would be delayed for about five minutes. Ten minutes later, he made another announcement that we’d be delayed for another ten minutes. Ten minutes elapsed, at which point he made an announcement asking for some guy to come to the engine compartment. Five minutes later, he made the request again, prompting the chattering teenage girls surrounding Amynah and I to joke that they must be looking for someone who knew how to drive the thing.

Finally, capitulating to the inevitable, the announcement was made that our train was to be delayed indefinitely, and that there was another train leaving from a different platform. Amynah and I made our way over there along with several hundred other disgruntled commuters, only to find that the other train was bursting-at-the-seams full, windows smeared with unhappy faces desperate for a gasp of air, the doors manned by blue-suited rail employees telling people they couldn’t get on.

Desperate, we made our way back to the first train, on the off chance there was any chance of making our connection to Geneva at a later hour. Nope.

Left with a weekend in Strasbourg we hadn’t anticipated, my insane and beloved wife suggested we go for a bike ride: to Molsheim, 25 km to the west of Strasbourg, and then to Offenburg, 25 km to the east of Strasbourg in Germany. For anyone interested in the math, that makes for a ride of precisely 100 km (well, 100.46 km, according to my odometer).

Now, unlike some people, Amynah and I are not accustomed to triple-digit kilometerages on our bike trips. However, the distance was not entirely arbitrary: we actually had business at either end of the loop.

We are planning on hosting a little housewarming this weekend – to be seasonal, we’re introducing our non-North American friends here to the aesthetic pleasures of pumpkin carving. That means locating pumpkins, which me managed to do in a little pick-it-yourself market in a village called Dachstein.

Perfect pumpkins, prepared for picking

Pumpkin supply confirmed, we made our way onward to Offenburg, where Amynah intended to buy shoes and have a decent cappucino. And where last week we were biking through wine country, this time our route took us through the redolent pays de chou: Cabbage country.

Perhaps we could have saved ourselves some biking an made Jack O'Cabbages instead

For some reason, it is a point of local pride that Alsace produces 90 percent of France’s cabbage. They normally fail to mention that 90 percent of France’s cabbage is consumed here as well, in the form of choucroute , a dish that is basically a heap of fermented cabbage supporting another heap of foodstuffs derived from pig.

In any case, we had a pleasant ride through the cabbage fields, which are just about ready to be harvested. We were lucky in that sense, after the harvest we would have been obliged to have biked 50 km while holding our noses.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

When you don't have anything nice to say... photos.

These are from a bike ride we took this Sunday to Obernai, a town about 40 km from Strasbourg. I've written about the route and its glories before, plus I checked the forecast, meaning that I managed to avoid getting lost, subjected to a rain of toads or any similarly entertaining disasters. On the other hand, it was the first time I'd done the route just prior to the harvest, meaning the fields were dripping with purple orbs of Reisling-to-be. I only took pictures, but Amynah assures me that they were plenty tasty.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Dear Sir

Look who got published in The Economist (a while ago, and on-line, but still, pretty cool).

Hint: it's not me.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

More velocipedic villainy - and heroism!

I do not have good bicycle luck in France. Within three months of arriving in this country, I broke my arm, falling off my bike. Three months after that, said bike was stolen outright from my apartment building.

Earlier this year, my seat was stolen. And yesterday, I returned from picking up some quail's eggs for dinner, only to discover that my front wheel had been stolen. Replacing it will cost 50 Euros.

Attached to my front tire was a little magnet, without which the fancy odometer/speedometer thing my sister bought me last year cannot function. Even if I replace the wheel, I will still need that part. Not knowing where I could find one, I emailed the company,
VDO Cycle Computing in Germany, asking for information. Within an hour they had responded, promising to put one in the mail for me today - for free!

So, in return, I'm giving them a free ad - if you ever find yourself in need of a bike computer, VDO Cycle Computing is the way to go. I love mine: it's a basic model, yet still keeps track of trip distances, total distances, average speed, and time of journey. It's very easy to use, wonderful for motivation, and their customer service is great. In Canada, you can get them at Mountain Equipment Co-op.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Un Canadien Errant Part III: Chignecto A-go-go

Cape Chignecto Park: all these gorgeous views do get wearisome

Dear lord, I can’t believe I let that hideous birthday photo sit atop this blog for so long. Clearly, I have no shame.

In any case, I will dispense with the rest of my Canada trip over the next few days. At that point, I’m hoping to get back to my local adventures, such as they are, and possible turn over the blog to a very special guest blogger.

Every year, for the last several years, I have tried to go camping with my friends Tim and Jon. This year, taking advantage of my return, we decided to go to Cape Chignecto Provincial Park for a 51 kilometer, four day hike. Cape Chignecto juts out like an arrowhead into the Bay of Fundy, and has been a provincial park for only ten years.

Proof I didn't just download these photos from a tourism website

We arrived at the park about three hours later than planned (due partially to a truck stop waitress that decided to spend her shift taunting me, much to Jon and Tim’s amusement. I think it was the phrase “chicken weenie” that earned her the extra tip from them). The weather was perfect: unusually for Nova Scotia, there was not a cloud in the sky, and the temperatures were in the low twenties. Perfect for hiking.

Then we started walking.

Chignecto’s main appeal for campers is the view: stunning vistas of sandstone cliffs, topped with wind-warped evergreens teetering anxiously over the blue seas 200 metres below. Problem is, the topography is, how shall I put this delicately, uneven.

Of the 51 kilometers we hiked over those four days, 25 of them were straight up, 25 were straight down, and about one was flat. By day two, what conversation we could manage between gasps for air consisted of a) cursing out Jon, who had picked the route and b) searching for synonyms for “ravine.” (we came up with crevasse, gully, gulch, canyon, fiord, valley… we ran out of words long before we ran out of specimens). We were eventually informed by another hiker that the trail was rated “Level 5 Extreme” which meant that it had portions where one had to climb one meter up for every meter forward. This, with a bottle of fine Alsatian Pinot gris sloshing around in my backpack.

Refugee Cove. Being at sea level just meant we had to climb back up

Nonetheless, we did all eventually find our camping legs, and began to enjoy ourselves. In addition to its natural beauty, the park is redolent with history. Our first campsite at Refugee Cove was a place where the Mi’qmaq helped Acadians hide from the Expulsion. Later, we pitched out tent by a stream running though a former field, one of the few remains the ghost town of Eatonville, a shipbuilding hub killed by the switch to steam vessels.

As usual, I didn’t see much in the way of wildlife: a seal bobbed in the waves below the clifftop where we ate lunch on the second day, a hawk flew so close enough to us at lunch on our third day that we could here the wind in it’s feathers, and a rabbit reportedly saw us off on our third day, but I was too beat from the previous night's festivities (stargazing, throwing rocks at a log, making increasingly non-sensical "Yo Momma" jokes) to bother investigating myself.

The privy, in a ghost-field from Eatonville

In any case, it was gratifying for me to be reminded that while my hikes here in Europe do tend to be enlivened by castles and their fair share of beautiful views, Europe still has a way to go before they can catch up to North America’s wilderness advantage.

The inevitable sunset photo, on our own private beach

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Un Canadien Errant Part II: On to Ottawa!

After Montreal, I continued my Canadian adventures in Ottawa, Canada’s Capital of Boredom (coincidently, also the actual capital). I stayed with my friends Jon and Lindy and their kids Abby and Nate. I managed to catch up with Danielle to talk writerly shop before she fled Ottawa for the more stimulating environs of Rock Springs, Wyoming. I also managed to interrupt Julie from feverishly updating her blog long enough to have a quick lunch.

Jon and Abby, in the heritage garden where Jon is a volunteer.

However pleasant all this socializing may have been, I was a man on a mission. That mission: to uncover the truth of Canada’s invasion of Costa Rica in 1921.

Yes, the Great White North engaged - more than once – in some fairly Imperialistic muscle flexing in the Caribbean region in the early part of the last century. In Costa Rica, the immediate cause was a debt owed to the Royal Bank of Canada. According to a poorly remembered footnote in a book I read five years ago, Canada sent down it’s entire navy (all three ships!) to engage in a little gunboat diplomacy to encourage payment.

Reading this, I had images of blockades, the people of Costa Rica cowering as our warships fired warning salvos off their coast.

The truth, it transpired, was somewhat more polite.

The squadron showed up in one of Costa Rica’s ports, where it was greeted with a 21 gun salute. The three captains were then whisked to San José, the capital, by special train. There, they had a pleasant dinner with the President, and enjoyed an opera in his private box.

Not, to say the least, exactly hostile behaviour. Though legend has it one of Costa Rica’s bluebloods gave the Captain of the HMCS Aurora a dirty look when he applauded after the aria.

This is going to be a gripping article, I can tell.

Next: Camping adventures! Unless I get distracted!

Monday, September 08, 2008

La Canadien Errant, Part I

The Cartier monument in front of Mont Royale

Well, I’m back. I’m still battling jet lag, and the multifarious ways France is conspiring to welcome me back with as much annoyance as I can stand (Lost luggage? Check. Unexpected tax bill? Check. Broken oven? Check. Broken toilet seat? Check).

I’m not sure how to account for the last three weeks in Canada on this blog, especially as roughly 95 percent of my readership saw me during that time and thus can correct the distortions and exaggerations to which I am prone. And what fun is that?

Portuguese church on the Plateau

I suppose the biggest surprise was how familiar everything felt. Our last dinner in Montreal was shared with people with whom Amynah and I have had almost no contact in the last two years. Nonetheless, it felt like we’d last fought over the last shreds of JJ Chicken in a Pot* two weeks ago, not two years.

That is not to say that there were not some moments of culture shock. I was astounded at how different Quebecois is from France-French. I waded in gamely, to some effect, but I suspect I’ll have to lose my Old Country accent to really succeed in La Belle Province.

Dilapidated house guarding the corner of Guilford street

The bigger surprise was how much held up to my snootified Euro-standards: living in a UNESCO World Heritage site has not made Montreal or Halifax look any less beautiful to me. Tim’s is as good as I remember it, notwithstanding my recent taste for cappuccino, and I decided, in future, to refer the Rhine Creek after re-acquainting myself with the mighty St Lawrence.

Of course, my main reason for returning to Montreal, other than friends, was to raid Fairmount Bagels.

The Fairmount Bagel experience starts with the purchase. Located in a tiny shopfront in Montreal’s Mile End neighbourhood, the bagel “factory” has been in operation for roughly 70 years.

Where the magic is made

Walk inside, and you see men behind the counter, cutting broad slabs of dough from a giant mass of the stuff on a central platform. These are broken down and hand rolled into tiny, pale rings, that are then boiled in a honey mixture. These are then placed in their dozens into a wood fired oven that burns 24 hours a day, seven days a week. You can buy bagels here any time of day, meaning there is often a rush on weekends at 3 AM when the bars close.

I bought my first thirty six the day after I arrived, with the intention of bringing them back to Halifax: 30 sesame, 6 poppy-seed. The counter-lady brought me a tiny bag, in which there were nine bagels. When I gently pointed out the error, she replied “You asked for three and six.”

“Well, I want thirty and six,” I said.

“You said three and six,” she insisted, chin jutting.

“Sure,” I said, which seemed to satisfy her enough that she retrieved the rest of my bagels, muttering under her breath.

Despite her disdain for my communication skills, she did pick out those bagels freshest from the ovens. Stepping out onto the Fairmount street sidewalk, dyed black from decades of ground-in sesame oil, I pulled out a golden cherub’s halo, dusted with angel’s dandruff, warmed as if from the love of a benevolent deity, and took a bite.

It was good to be home.

Next: Canada’s Navy goes to the Opera, and other adventures in Ottawa!

* A specialty of New Dynasty on Clark Street, south of Rene Levesque in Montreal’s Chinatown. Highly recommended. I’ve no idea who JJ is, but I remain forever grateful for his poultry.