Thursday, March 8, 2018

Rome diary: luggage

Mr. Darcy checks out my new suitcases. They were the cheapest I could find, but  I'm hoping they will stand up to the rigours of  at least one trip to Rome.

After decades without setting foot on an airplane, it seems I am going to Rome to do essay research next month.  One of the many things you realize when you haven’t travelled for that long is that you will, in fact, need luggage. A mangy old duffel bag stuffed to bursting will not serve for a month in Europe.

If I was young and contemplating a lifetime of travel, I would (if I had money), buy something stylish and strong, long-lasting and elegant. The rule about buying well once would definitely apply.

But for someone at my stage of life with no plans to travel again? Cheap, was the only answer.

Alarmed to learn that a small carry-on case alone could run to $425, I contemplated Craigslist and begging friends for loaners. But the Hudson’s Bay, in one of those eerily timed coincidences, just happened to be having a luggage sale.

I saw some subdued, beautifully elegant luggage with pricetags to match. I saw plenty of luggage that seemed to exceed Air Canada’s size guidelines. I saw some “smart”  luggage that adds electronic complexity to the simple matter of packing a suitcase (it tells you when it’s coming down the baggage carousel, locks remotely, and has a built-in scale – plus it may soon be banned because of the possibility its batteries could explode en route.)

It went against the grain, but I stuck to cheap. I got two blue plastic cases, one for $99.99 and one for $79.99. They’re called “hardside” luggage, and they come with a 10-year warranty, but they seem like just the kind of thing that would crack when flung onto (or under) a pile of other suitcases.

I may be learning some lessons that have nothing to do with Rome on my trip to come.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Winter's last gasp

We had 20 centimetres of snow in Vancouver on Friday, with winds reminding me of the prairie blizzards of my youth. Snow swooped in white sheets across the windows, and on the roads, there was the usual traffic mayhem. A young man in a snowtire-free BMW skidded down the hill on our street, bouncing off  our car and our neighbour's, damaging all three. The resulting insurance claims were among thousands reported for the afternoon.

 On Saturday, the temperature rose and the sun shone -- time for photos to record what we hope is the last snowfall of the winter.

John couldn't resist taking a photo of a big snowball -- the base of a huge never-completed snowman perhaps? -- in a nearby park. I wondered if it could also serve as a metaphor for the big, seemingly immovable essay that I'm working on.

Birdbath boy in my back yard looks a little annoyed to find himself up to his shoulders in snow -- again.

The pillow of snow on the other birdbath gives a sense of the amount that fell on Friday.

My poor winter pansies look defeated under their snow layer. Every time they've tried to bloom this winter, they've been hit by severe cold, floods of rain or a blast of snow. Luckily, they usually recover and bloom well into the spring.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Oh snow!

On Saturday, I was noticing how many people have crocuses growing like wildflowers all over their front lawns, and wondered whether I should try the same thing. On my walk the same day, I saw a row of perfect -- too perfect -- daffodils lining a neighbour's front walk. Did she buy them in full bloom and plant them ready-made, avoiding the drudgery of digging in bulbs last fall?

On Sunday, all spring-like observations and questions were buried under a thick blanket of snow that melted and froze and sat like rocks on my hedges and trees. Our big chill is expected to last a week or so; I look forward to resuming my spring musings.
Now that we have bylaws that residential sidewalks must be cleared by 10 a.m., John knows what his first job is after breakfast.

Snow-capped birdfeeder in the back yard. The birds won't stick around if I get too close, so I can't show how many made use of it this snowy day. At times, the food cylinder in the centre was covered with birds.

The ice and snow melted off the suet container when the sun came out later in the day. Sometimes so many birds were perched on it that it turned into a feathered ball.

My shady garden is always late, but the earliest daphne bush near the bird bath had started to push out some blooms last week, and somewhere along the hedge buds were appearing on the daffodils. All progress toward spring will slow down for awhile now.

Friday, February 9, 2018

Shadbolt's ghosts

Nobody could call the paintings in The Ghost Universe cheerful, portraying as they do "crawling insects, totemic shapes and stick figures contained in fields of colliding forces." The allusions, according to the description of the Jack Shadbolt exhibition now on at the Equinox Gallery, are to environmental destruction, war and the collisions of indigenous and colonial cultures.

Why, then, did I find it all vaguely comforting? The paintings were done between 1949 and 1959, after Shadbolt had spent time in war-bombed London, going through Holocaust images for the Canadian military. A quote excerpted for the show revealed what he was thinking at the time --  about "growing tensions in the world situation," an "undercurrent of unrest and unfilfillment in our contemporary society," and the problem of individuals adjusting "to a disheartening complex society."  

Yesterday, today -- the issues are the same, slightly reworded. To see that understanding encapsulated in beautifully realized paintings, neatly displayed in the serene white space of the gallery's great hall, is, somehow, wonderful.

One of the paintings in the show. I see unhappy faces, a dog perhaps, and maybe some insects, but  I don't pretend to understand it.  In a 1980 interview,  Jack Shadbolt  told art historian Ian Thom that  seeing the ruins of bombed-out London helped even him understand the nature of abstraction. "When the bomb blows the building apart it abstracts it, the pieces fall back together again and you get a memory image of what was there but vastly altered and psychologically made infinitely more intense than the original thing."

The quote on the gallery wall that made me wonder whether Shadbolt, who died in 1998, was speaking contemporaneously.
Outside the Equinox Gallery's new location on Great Northern Way. The clouds were scudding over the mountains, and the colourful graffiti looked like outdoor art. John, who took the photo, says he always finds something to photograph from this parking lot.

Monday, February 5, 2018

Spring things

When I talked to my brother in the Red Deer area last week, he was pleased that the weather was improving. It was to be minus 16 the next day, he said -- balmy compared to the minus 20s and 30s his part of Alberta has seen this winter. Not to be too gloaty,  I told him we'd had the fifth-wettest January on record, with almost 250 millimetres of rain and hardly any sun for a whole month. I didn't say the crocuses are almost blooming, and the daffodil buds are showing yellow.

 Here are a few scenes I've come across lately in my wet -- but very very warm -- city.

The on-again, off-again lake in our local park is back, thanks to a winter of heavy rain. People seem to be enjoying it so much I think it should be a regular feature. One little girl (wearing rain boots) was wading in it with her dog.

The pier-like structure is the base of the kids' zip-line in the park. The bench their parents usually watch them from has its feet in the water.

The pink dawn viburnum is blooming in front of our house.

Elderly kale that has seen a hard winter is almost as big as a shrub in this boulevard garden box. It doesn't look very edible.

Crocuses ready to bloom with a little bit of sunshine.

The winter sweet by my front steps. It doesn't look like much, but the scent is tropical.

A batch of white snowdrops and yellow spring flowers in someone's front garden.

I always learn the name of these yellow ones, then forget it for the following year. But I know they're not dandelions!

This is how my brave little delphinium looked after our week or so of snow this winter. I thought it was going to make it -- perhaps put out some early blooms -- but shortly after I took this photo, it turned black and died. 

Hellebores are a cheerful splash of colour in early spring gardens.

My neighbour's drift of snowdrops. 

The earliest  daphne, one of three different types I planted last year, should be scenting the garden soon.

My primulas are a little ragged, but they're on their second season, and I applaud their efforts to make a comeback. 
I have one big witch hazel in my garden, but planted a second one last year because I want the scent in stereo. This is the little guy, blooming away.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Old ladies now

My little sister Betty (left) and I are learning what old age is all about. She turns 65 in February; I'll be 68 in September. All photos by John except where noted.
Now that we’re in our 60s, my sister Betty and I spend a lot of time discussing the mysteries of aging. Our necks. The paper-thin skin over the knuckles. Feet so hot that standing in a snowbank at midnight is a good solution.

We’ve both had the old-person’s transit experience before, but during her recent visit to Vancouver from Quebec, we got it in stereo. On a packed Canada Line car, polite young people on each side of the aisle both offered us their seats, almost simultaneously. Betty, who always sees the funny side of things, thought it was hilarious. The shift from the two little girls she remembers to the present-day reality was too much.

 “We’ve always been young together,” she laughed when I inquired. “And now we’re two old ladies.”

The generations come and go. Betty, her daughter-in-law Aya (carrying daughter Emi) and me in North Vancouver. 

Betty, who wore her hair short during most of her career, decided she wanted to experience long hair again now that she's retired. It's now like I remember it from her youth.

Betty and I ponder deep questions while her son Etienne and Aya make dinner.

The cooks in the kitchen. Betty was visiting to see their new home.

Betty and I agreed it's a relief not to have to worry about appearances so much in our old age. The goal, we decided, was not to look alarming. She doesn't look alarming at all when I took this picture of her during breakfast at our place.

Saturday, January 20, 2018


The sweet spot. A well-filled backyard bird feeder is as good as an Olympic podium for a squirrel.
Speed, flexibility, cunning and audacity -- if that's what you need to get into next month's Winter Olympics in Sourth Korea, I'm thinking my backyard squirrels should take a run at it. Ever since I switched to a type of birdseed without squirrel-deterring hot pepper sauce, I've been battling with them to leave a little food over for the birds. Yelling "bad squirrel" out the back door has no effect. They look more interested if I walk down the steps, but  I have to get within a few feet, banging a plastic container for noise effects, before they take me seriously. Then they somersault to the ground or zip up the string holding the bird feeder and politely run a few feet. By the time I shut the door behind me, they're back on the feeder. I think they have won this contest.

Here's a look at today's squirrely action, photographed by John.

A strong start: Off the branch, target in sight.

The string attached to the bird feeder makes it easy if you're a squirrel.

What form! A perfect straight line.

An excellent two-point landing.

Now, just to disentangle the back  toes from the string. . .

. . . take a look around. . .

. . . decide whether to attack from this angle. . .

. . . or this. . .

. . .and down we go. Food in sight. 

No position is too difficult when the prize is so glorious.


And over again for the food on the other side.

Oops. Did that big person open the back door?

Agh. She's spoiling a perfect performance. Must abort.

But I will so be back!

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Moving day: so much stuff

My nephew Etienne and his wife Aya thought moving to their new house in North Vancouver wouldn't be that big a deal. Everyone still looks pretty optimistic at this point, as John captures our arrival at the front door at noon Monday to pick up the keys from the realtor.

Etienne makes one of his first trips up the stairs with boxes. Many such trips were to follow. Photo by John.
The U-Haul was equipped with a ramp, which made things easier. Here, Aya pitches in. Photo by John.

First lunch at the new house -- a picnic-style feast to keep everyone moving. 

A tour of the house reveals a clawfoot tub in the upstairs bathroom and some really beautiful stained-glass windows.

This is the kitchen of the downstairs apartment, which is so well lit it doesn't feel like downstairs.
The living room before anything has been moved in. Etienne, Aya and John are inspecting something.

By nightfall, with the truck unloaded, the living room has taken on another look entirely. Here, Etienne searches for a lost jug of milk while I look on. Photo by John.

When John and I last moved, it was from separate bachelor apartments in Vancouver’s West End to our house in Dunbar. I was in my mid-20s, John had just turned 30, and we didn’t have much by way of belongings. But when the move was over, it was grueling enough that I clearly remember John saying: “I will never move again.” Four decades later, we haven’t.

So a little red flag went up when my nephew Etienne and his wife Aya, who have been living in a 650-square-foot apartment in Yaletown with their three-year-old daughter Emi, said they were planning to move to their new North Vancouver house on their own. They didn’t have much – they couldn’t have much in an apartment that small – they said. They had rented a U-haul; they’d have only a few boxes; it would just take a few hours.

I told Aya the “never move again” story when things first began to fray at the start of moving day Monday (John and I volunteered our services). None of the trio had slept well the night before and Emi was starting to get sick. The only available parking space outside the lockers where the family had stored their carefully-packed boxes over the preceding weeks had a big “no parking” sign on it. Every box had to go through multiple locked doors, one nastily alarmed. There was a noon appointment with the realtor at the new house that had to be gotten to before the loading was well under way. Then, because people have to actually live in one place before transferring themselves to another, there was the last-minute gathering-up of everything left in the apartment, the emptying and cleaning of the fridge, the forgotten plant in the corner, the baby stroller, and the call from the day care that Emi was sick and needed to be collected.

In the end, three vehicles were involved – the U-Haul, John’s pickup truck, and a car Etienne and Aya had rented to help them through the move. It was dark by the time the last storage container came down the ramp from the truck, through the back yard, and up the back steps to the house. The living room, kitchen and hallway were almost impassible with boxes, suitcases, furniture and storage containers. Four people had worked almost non-stop for half a day to get to this stage. “Who,” said Etienne, “would ever have thought that a little apartment could hold so much stuff?” 

The front gate of the new house is charmingly surrounded by greenery.

It's a different world from the Yaletown area, where Etienne and Aya have been living. Here, Emi, Aya, me and Etienne have a chat in the parkade loading zone area, where the U-Haul is being filled. Photo by John.

Emi gets one of her last rides down the condo hallway, on a flatbed dolly pulled by her mom. Photo by John.

Any moving day involves some waiting. Out in front of the new house, John waits for Etienne and Aya to arrive in the U-Haul for the first trip of the day.

Etienne snapped this photo of John with his camera and his dolly, sending it to us with the comment: "The only man on earth who won't give up his camera even when helping to move!"

John (with camera) coming up the back pathway of the new house. The garden has been beautifully planted with perennials that won't require too much work, Aya was pleased to learn.

Etienne and Aya in their new back garden. . .

. . . and by their new back deck.