Saturday, April 7, 2018

Rome diary: The chainmail purse

The modest exterior of my new travel purse hides a big surprise for thieves. 

According to its information tags, the purse is so tough that knives would have a hard time cutting through it. Which raises the question: what if the alternative is slashing the human who carries it?

It’s not a purse, no, it’s a “lockable stainless steel cage,” says the tag describing my new travel accessory. “Like chainmail for your bag,” it says, with a little sketch of a vase-shaped sack with lines portraying, I suppose, the stainless steel wires that will foil knife-wielding thieves hoping to slash and grab.

That’s not all. It has zippers that clip into locks, a steel-wire reinforced “slashguard strap” covered with a special tough fabric, and puncture-resistant double zippers. You can even lock it to your chair at a restaurant. And in case the bad guys don’t come with knives, it has blocking material to shield passports and credit cards against RFID skimming.

Preparing for a trip to Rome after decades as a homebody, I may have been carried away by the precautionary goods offered at my local travel store. An RFID-blocking neck pouch to hide valuables under my clothes – why not? And just to be really, really sure, perhaps a little pinkish-satin pocket to clip to my bra!

I expect I will feel quite foolish about this eventually. The thing about not travelling for a long time is that  you forget that wherever you go is just a place where other people live. I’m pretty sure Roman women choosing their summer purses right now aren’t thinking chainmail and lockable steel cages.

One tough purse isn't enough: I also bought a neck pouch and a pocket to attach to my bra. Just in case!
Travel stores are big on RFID blocking material to prevent people from skimming passport and credit card information.

John bought me this backpack as a gift long before the Rome trip was on the horizon. But I will use it on the trip along with the purse, as it is also meant for travel.

Yup, it too has internal pockets with that RFID blocking material.

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Spring is somewhere

Our spring in Vancouver has been cool and wet, but at least it's spring.  It seems the message hasn't gotten through to parts of the rest of Canada, though. My sister Betty, who lives outside Montreal, says she's still deep in winter on this Easter weekend, and she has had enough. My Alberta relatives are in the midst of a particularly frigid blast, with daytime temperatures hovering below zero, and night-time temperatures plunging to minus 20.

Vancouver pays big-time in housing costs for its earlier springs  -- so I'm not gloating -- but here are a few weekend photos that might bring hope to those still trudging through snowbanks on April 1:

Pink blossoms against a blue sky. How spring-like is that?
My little showing of primulas, hyacinths, daffodils and hellebores. I used to restrict my front-yard beds to blue and white, but I'm finding bright colours a cheerful addition. 

The hellebore flourishes in this spot, but I have others scattered around that have only put out a few blooms this year.

Cherry blossoms in a park near my place. In the distance, you can kind of see the mountains.
Through the hedges from my front steps you can see a red camellia bush that is having the best spring ever.

A close-up of a camellia blossom. 

The two magnolias over my front walk are just getting started. 

A closer look at the star magnolia.

Daffodils by the rock border in  my back garden.

A flowering current is doing well down the hill from me. 

Another view of the front-garden bed at my place.

The winter pansies have recovered from the heavy snow that flattened them for awhile in the winter, and are blooming happily.

Home-grown daffodils!

Monday, March 19, 2018


Compared to prairie crocuses, which show up in small precious groups in hidden places, the ones we grow from bulbs on the West Coast are right out there and  proliferate like mad. They've been given free rein on this lawn; from a distance, it looks like it's been sprinkled with purple confetti. 
A closer look at the crocus lawn just a couple of blocks from my place. The blooms are still going strong after several weeks. What a beautiful treat for the neighbourhood!

Striped crocuses, which are just starting to proliferate in my own garden.
Where I grew up, crocuses were shy, retiring things, glimpses of mauve in fuzzy grey coats. They hid in winter-dried grass on the sunny side of a hill, at the base of a tree or fencepost, magically appearing when the snows finally retreated. If you lived on the prairies, you knew their secret places, and seeking them out was a solemn ritual of spring.

In Vancouver, there is nothing secret or subtle about crocuses. A different creature completely from the drought- and snow-hardy prairie crocus (actually anemone patens), West Coast crocuses  proliferate madly. After poking up in January or February, they provide a long showing of yellow, purple, white and purple-striped blooms.

For some reason, I held off planting crocus bulbs in my Dunbar garden until a few years ago, but this spring, they’ve taken hold and are showing up in all kinds of unexpected spots.  I’m loving their bright clean colours against the winter beds, but they’ve made me remember the subtler pleasures of the crocuses I used to know. A carnival compared to a pilgrimage; a visual blast compared to a quiet, joyous reminder of summer yet to come.

Where did the yellow crocus come from? Did I plant that? One of the pleasures of spring is unexpected discoveries.

A brave little troop of crocuses out to conquer the garden bed.

By the front walk, they're already well established.

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.