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by Mary Soderstrom

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Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Real Bagels Live on in Montreal

Time Magazine is bemoaning the demise of the bagel this week, as one of New York's big bagel bakeries, H&H, goes out of business.

The story by Joshua Ozersky begins: "There are few foods that are truly unique to New York, and the bagel is one of them. Pizza belongs to America now, but the bagel was always the undisputed property of New York, and now it has been diminished." It goes on to protest that making bagels puffy, sandwich buns was the downfall of the bagel, and adds that maybe the closing of H&H is a good thing.

Maybe. I don't know. But I do know that Montreal bagels are not the soft, huge, fluffy kind of thing that Ozersky is writing about. Both the St. Viateur and the Fairmount bagel bakeries turn out chewy, delicious bagels that a better than anything I ever had in New York.

Ozersky ought to come up here to sample them. Maybe he'll learn something about uniqueness.

The photo, BTW, is of the St. Viateur bakery, two blocks from our place. When Lukas was about 3, he spent an hour with a long board, loading blocks in and out of a low cabinet chez nous. When asked what he was doing, he said he was making bagels. You can see what he was thinking about in the photo.


Strawberry Time: Maybe Lee Will Get His Fill, as We Eat Locally

The Jean Talon Market is full of strawberries right now--and I even saw some in a supermarket. The strawberry season is not long here: about a month, except for a couple of varieties that bear all summer.

The weather has been mostly cool, so I don't think the ones I bought were as sweet as they usually are, but while they last we will have them for dessert at night and along side cereal in the morning. In the past it's been worth the trek to the market to get freshly picked berries, direct from a producer. The fact that there were displays elsewhere is a good sign since getting the berries placed in chain groceries has been a problem for producers. Why eat berries trucked across the continent when better ones are just a short haul away?

Health Care Is A Provincial Responsibility Dept: Quebec Drags Its Feet in Going After Medicare Extrabilling, Compared to Ontario

This morning Le Devoir reports that Ontario is going after illegal extra billing for medically necessary services. Last week the McGinty Liberal governments, in pre-electoral mode, announced inquiries into the practice for colonoscopies and cataract treatment, as well as a hot line for complaints about extra billing. This year alone there have been 189 investigations in Ontario, suggesting that charging for everything from valet parking to membership fees is becoming more and more common.

In Quebec, there are 12 on-going investigations, but that doesn't indicate the practice is any less widespread here that in Ontario. Rather, Le Devoir notes, there is no official encouragement to protest extra fees. Patients who pay them may well be too overwhelmed to complain: certainly there is nothing to compare with Ontario's campaign to root out extra billing.

Provinces are responsible for health care in Canada, but the federal government--if it wanted to--could play an important role in stamping out extra billing. It provides part of health care funding and could withhold grants to provinces in the amount of extra billing charged. But do you think that Stephen Harper would go along with that? Not bloody likely.

Tuesday, 28 June 2011

The Up Side of Traffic Snarls: Getting People out of Their Cars

I know, I know, school's out, so there is less traffic on the roads, but the rather speedy amelioration in Montreal's center city traffic snarls these last two weeks is remarkable. There are many, many construction road repair projects under way, festivals which shut down streets for a weekend or a week, plus emergency repairs to bridges which haven't been properly maintained. Voices raised were loud and angry.

Yet this morning walking around the Plateau along streets which had gridlock a few weeks ago when construction forced a detour around a heavily-used intersection, I was amazed at how smoothly traffic was moving. Maybe people have turned to other way to get around, which is what Jane Jacobs and her friends noted when they refused to let cars run through the park in Greenwich Village which Robert Moses and the city of New York wanted 60 years ago. There certainly are more bikes on the road, and in the area affected by bridge repairs, additional trains appear to have become popular.

Of course, discouraging cars is exactly what a lot of European cities are doing. The New York Times has a interesting story on this: "Across Europe, Irking Drivers is Public Policy." And as one blogger notes; "If you're in a traffic jam, you are the traffic jam."

Certainly, Monteal may be doing

Monday, 27 June 2011

Painting Removal and Other Difficult Tasks

Scratching the last bits of paint from the staircase this morning. It is a project begun when we bought the house decades ago, but which stopped about 10 years later. That is the paint has been removed except for those tiny bits that have been left in the cracks--the hardest part. But since this is the time to get this job done at last.

Saturday, 25 June 2011

Rooky MPs Take the Floor: Great Experience in Canada Post Filibuster

There has been a flurry of Facebook posts from the young NDP MPs about the epic struggle being waged in the House of Commons to try to amend the back to work legislation Stephen Harper has proposed to end the Canada Post lock out. Seems that everyone is getting a chance to take the floor!

This is an unintended upside to the filibuster. All those bright young people who ordinarily wouldn't have been given a chance to say much now are carrying the flame. Great experience, even if in the end the Cons can pass whatever they want, given their majority.

Saturday Photo: More Walls Signs, the Good and the Ugly

Walking down lanes and alleys gives you a different perspective on a place, and I've come across some fascinating contrasts on the Plateau. Among them are the carefully painted works of arts which grace some walls and garages. So are the boring and disrespectful graffiti.

This combination from St. Christophe street--just a tiny lane, really--is a striking example of the contrast.

Friday, 24 June 2011

Québec's Fête nationale: No Chasse Galérie This Time, Just Stephen Harper Being Mean

Practically everything is closed in Quebec today, except pharmacies and a few corner stores. St. Jean Baptiste Day, the Fête nationale, is one of the two or three holidays when this province shuts down. There will be parades, open air shows (despite a forecast of rain) and many local parties.

But no MPs from Quebec will be here to join in the festivities because they're all stuck in Ottawa, debating the Harper government's back to work legislation to end the Canada Post lock-out. The bill actually would give less money as a settlement than Canada Post put on the table at the beginning of negotiation.

"Bullies!" was a term heard often last night at a little 5 à 7 reception for people who worked on Thomas Mulcair's very successful re-election campaign. We'd hoped to have the deputy leader of the NDP there to join in the fun, but he, of course, was helping lead the charge against the bill in Ottawa. The whole business is a put-up job on the part of the government--locking out the workers, the provocative back to work terms, the fact that the government refused to suspend the session for the St. Jean, despite the fact that the common practice is to take the holiday into account.

But given the fact that the Cons were nearly wiped out in Quebec in the election, they have nothing to gain by giving a little to win points here. The bill will pass--it is a majority government, after all--but Stephen Harper wants to be as mean as he can....

And, by the way, note that the official poster for this year's celebration features the flying canoe of the Quebec folk tale, the chasse galérie. In it, a bunch of forest workers are stuck at Christmas time in the woods of the Gatineau, and make a pact with the devil to get back to Montreal to celebrate by way of an enchanted canoe. They come to a bad end. Let's hope that doesn't happen this time to the NDP MPs.

Thursday, 23 June 2011

Barbara Kingsolver's La Lacuna and the Story that Follows


The last book discussed at the Atwater book club was Barbara Kingsolver's fascinating La Lacuna. It has haunted my days ever since, so I was delighted to find a New York Times video this week of an interview with a descendant of one of the characters.

She is Nora Volkow, Leon Trotsky's great grandaughter, who grew up in the house where Trotsky was murdered and currently is head of the National Institute on Drug Addiction. Check out the video here.

And to learn about how Kingsolver went about creating the world of Trotsky, Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo and the fictional Harrison Shepherd, here's an interview with her.



Nora Volkow

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Bixi Troubles Shouldn't Be Allowed to Make it Pedal Backwards

Montreal's popular bicycle rental program, the Bixi, has been in the news lately for all the wrong reasons. A few weeks ago, the city of Montreal was asked to guarantee $108 million in loans in order to allow the semi-public Bixi agency to expand into other markets. Since then a series of bad news has come out, including yesterday's charges by a former city councillor that the agency has been been badly managed from the beginning.

Sounds rather disturbing. Municipal mismanagement is far too common around here, but I certainly hope the current kerfuffle doesn't lead to Bixi's downfall. Not only is the system used by thousands every day, but its presence seems to have raised the "cool" factor of bike riding in general. This is all to the good when it comes to making a city workable. Getting people on bikes--or on foot--is making a huge difference in reducing traffic snarls at a time when we are paying for decades of inattention to our infrastructure.

Hmm, that makes me think: wouldn't it be simpler to do things right from the first, be it maintain roads, bridges and water systems or set up alternative transit initiatives like Bixi?

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Summer Solstice on the Plateau

Six months ago, I never thought we'd still be on the Plateau, but now we're at that other solstice and I see a different world than what greeted us when we alighted here after the fire. Here's the view from the terrace, which shows just how green this densely populated neighborhood is.

And here are winter and summer versions of the view across the street. You'd never think you were in the same place.

Monday, 20 June 2011

They Gave Jack a Huge Vote of Conference: Wish I'd Been There

The NDP convention in Vancouver over the weekend has been making headlines. Seems there's was some controversy over whether to talk about a "socialist" or a "social democrat" party, as well as a possible fusion with the Liberals. The first question has been around for as long as I've been involved in the party, or about 30 years. The second is something that's newer, and comes out of the spectacular success of the NDP in the federal election last month.

Boy, I wish I'd been there. Jack the Leader got a 97.9 per cent vote of confidence, which is hardly suprising. The debate about a possible merger was more or less dismissed, it seems, although certainly there are some in the party who think it would be a good idea.

Uniting the Left, the way the current political configuration that is the Conservative Party of Canada united the right about a decade ago, is probably a good thing. But whether it should come by letting the Liberal Party die its own quiet death or by swallowing it up, is a serious question. The NDP has usually stood for more than center-left opportunism that is the hallmark of the Liberals. The NDP has a well-defined party platform--sometimes forgotten when convenient, admittedly--that should be the basis for any discussion of merger and/or coalition.

Two years from now--provided our ongoing house saga is finished by then--I want to be at the convention to help shape the future!

Friday, 17 June 2011

Saturday Photo: A City is a Palimpsest

Once upon a time, the Plateau district of Montreal was on the edge of town, in the country in fact. The house on the left bears witness to that nearly-countrified past. It is now in the heart of the action, but still boasts the graceful galleries that made summer here liveable particularly on the edge of town.

But after the Plateau became the center of the economic action, many houses were built for the workers who lived not far from the places they were employed. Some small manufacturers even provided (for a fee, of course) housing right next to the work place. These houses--now nearly all gentrified--once were homes to people who worked in a nearby bottle factory.

More on Tatoos from a Tatooed Lady, Five Years After

And as I was walking around yesterday, looking at the artfully tatooed arms and shoulders on the young folks here, I remembered that I have two tatoos. They're the marks made to guide the radiation therapy I had nearly five years ago after suspect tissue was excised from my left breast after a diagnosis of ductal carcinoma in situ.

As it happens that operation took place five years ago this week. I'd almost forgotten the timing, which goes to show what happens when everything goes well.

Moral for this morning: routinue mammograms for women over 50 shouldn't be neglected. My DCIS was picked up in just such an exam, and all is well, thank goodness.

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

More Signs of the Times: Tatoos

No pictures so far--it's a bit embarassing to stop people to ask--but I'm struck this year by how many young people now have tatoos. Not just roses or "I love" someone tatoos, but multicolour tendrils, flowers, birds, and mandalas that cover shoulders and arms. The weather has turned nice, and so sun dresses and undershirts are popular apparel, showing off designs that must have cost a fortune to have done. And must have hurt like hell.

A vanity!

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Time to Make Reading Lists for New Year!

This is the week when I do book discussions, and I've been working on reading lists for the season that will begin in September. Here's a preview:

2011
September
Secret Daughter by Shilpi Somaya Gowda
A runaway best seller about adoption, ethnicity and family love

October
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronté
A classic novel that means more with each reading

November
The Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys
The "back story" of Jane Eyre, told by a master stylist of the 20th century

December
Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
A landmark novel by Africa's most read author

2012

None of the groups meet in January, because January in Montreal is really January

February
The Way to Paradise by Mario Llosa Vargas
A novel about Gauguin and his militant grandmother Flora Tristan by the Nobel winner.

March
The Bridge at San Luis Rey, by Thornton Wilder
An Inca suspension bridge collapses: a novel about destiny by the American novelist and playwright

April
The Postman's Round by Denis Thériault
A short novel about poetry, letter carriers, and love

May
The Sentimentalists by Joanna Skibsrud
Surprise winner of the 2010 Giller prize by the young Montreal writer

June
The Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar
The fictional autobiography of a Roman emperor by the French writer

Plus a list of other good reads suggested by book group members:

The Power and the Glory, Graham Greene
Scarlet and Black, Stendahl
Freedom, Jonathan Franzen
The Grapes of Wrath John Steinbeck
The Great Gatsby F. Scott Fitzgeral
Portnoy's Complaint, Phillip Roth
The Long Song, Andrea Levy
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society by Mary Shaffer
The Empty Family Stories, Colm Toibin
Girl in a Blue Dress, Gaynor Arnold
Black Girl in Paris, Shay Youngblood
Little Bee, Chris Cleave
Changes, Ama Ata Aidoo
A Thousand Splendid Suns and The Kite Runner,
Khaled Hosseini
Trinity by Leon Uris
Chicago by Alaa Al Aswany
Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
American Pastoral by Philip Roth
Mistress of Nothing by Kate Pullinger
On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan
Family Matters by Rohintin Mistry
Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon
A Student of Weather by Elizabeth Hay
The Stonecutters by Jane Urquhart
The Siege by Helen Dunmore
Brick Lane by Monica Ali
Dirt Music by Tim Winton
The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood
Madame Bovary by Flaubert
Anna Karenina by Tolstoy
Pride and Prejudice by Austen

More Signs of the Times


Monday, 13 June 2011

Going Green in Order to Grow Greenery: The Sweet Potato Experiment

Many, many years ago, my first house plants were sweet potatoes and avocado vines. They were cheap, and satisfied my hunger for greenery. Guess that wouldn't work today!

Saturday, 11 June 2011

Saturday Photo: Signs of the Times on the Plateau

The Plateau district of Montreal was until about 30 years ago a working class neighborhood, full of small houses, neighborhood commerce and light industry. It was scheduled for urban renewal in the 1970s, but was saved, partly by government inertia and partly by Portuguese immigrants who bought and rebuilt the houses through sweat and community financing.

Now it is among the trendiest in Canada. Much of the basic housing/building stock remains but has been transformed. The store at the top--the sign says it's the "Butter Market"= -has been changed to condos: too bad the graffitiers have defaced the sign. The building on the left now houses a theatre troop. The sign is hard to read because of the Virginia creeper which now climbs up the wall: I had meant to take a photo of it before spring advanced too far, but once greenry starts to sprout here it advances very quickly. On the right is a more recent sign in the parking lot--one of the few on Mont Royal boulevard-- of a shoe store/factory.

Thursday, 9 June 2011

Plant Perennials: They Come up Even When You Neglect Them.

There are many varieties of columbine or Aquilegia, as it is known botanically. This lovely flower is a descendant of a couple of plants I bought about ten years ago, and which has naturalized in our small garden.

This spring the joys of perennial plants like columbine have become evident for us. Before our fire Nov. 30, I had more or less put the garden to rest for the winter. Since then I have done nothing, except pull up a few weeds or too-agressive violets. Yet from early spring, flowers have arrived in their usual order, brightening our spirits each time we visit the house and its oh-so-slow rehabilitation. They are sort of a visualization of the idea that hope springs eternal.....

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

The Earth Is Full, and I'm Too Hot (almost) to Care

Today it is hot, heading for the low 30s (the mid 80s F) with humidity that makes the temperatures much more uncomfortable. Last night it was cooler and about 2 a.m. I opened several windows, tryng to fill the place with a reserve of coolness. As I write, that reserve is exhausted and I fell like rag doll.

This is the kind of weather which brings the reality of climate change to mind. Not that it is unusual for Montreal this time of year, but the prospect of lots more than "usual" has been news lately. Is this going to be the pattern for the future?

Looks like it Thomas Friedman says in The New York Times today: "You really do have to wonder whether a few years from now we’ll look back at the first decade of the 21st century — when food prices spiked, energy prices soared, world population surged, tornados plowed through cities, floods and droughts set records, populations were displaced and governments were threatened by the confluence of it all — and ask ourselves: What were we thinking? How did we not panic when the evidence was so obvious that we’d crossed some growth/climate/natural resource/population redlines all at once?"


The Earth is full, and we're living as if we had an extra planet some place where we could get energy, food and other resources, he quotes Australian "environmentalist-entrepreneur" Paul Gilding. What is coming is a "Great Disruption" when we'll have to choose between business as usual and some major changes, based on lives where enough is fine. Friedman quotes Gilding: We are heading for a crisis-driven choice,...We either allow collapse to overtake us or develop a new sustainable economic model. We will choose the latter. We may be slow, but we’re not stupid.”

Glad to hear that. But I must say that this heat decreases my intelligence considerably. Hope it doesn't have that effect on everyone.

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Even The New York Times Gets Cot--Ulp, Caught--in the Spell Check Trap

Here's the latest from a New York Times feature on the mistakes they make:

A quote about the DSK case:

"While the American justice system has its origins in British common law and involves ordinary citizens at almost every level, the French judicial system is rooted in the Napoleonic Code and is largely conducted behind closed doors. Suspects are typically ushered into courthouses through discrete side entrances, out of view of the public."

The comment:

"The side doors may indeed be “discrete,” meaning “separate.” But we seemed to mean “discreet” — that is, allowing for privacy — and eventually changed it to that."

Glad to see that even the mightiest get caught (cot) not reading for sense (cents).

Here's a classic argument for the need to pay attention to what your writing (righting.)

Monday, 6 June 2011

Four Years of Rants and Reflections but No Eden Recreated...

...but then I didn't expect to do that on June 5, 2007 when started this blog. It was born in a conversation at The Writers' Union of Canada annual general meeting in Vancouver, where I found myself sitting next to Marc Côté of Cormorant Books. He had recently agreed to publish my novel The Violets of Usambara, and during a workshop on the internet and writers, we joked that maybe an African violet blog might be good promotion.

Some 1260 posts and nearly 80,000 visitors later, I'm not sure that it was. A parallel blog on how the book came to be may have done more. But this blog--whose title comes from another book, Recreating Eden: A Natural History of Botanical Gardens-- has become a link with relatively large circle of friends, both old and new. They check in regularly to see what I'm on about this time: that they com back frequently seems to me to be proof that the things I'm concerned about also concern others.

Thanks for stopping by. My friends and family also thank you because your interest relieves some of my insistence about talking about my obsessions! There are times when they just roll their eyes...

Saturday, 4 June 2011

Saturday Photo: What a Difference a Few Months Makes..

This is what it looked like from the terrace yesterday, with Mount Royal covered in green. Below you'll find pix taken from similar points in December and in March.

Friday, 3 June 2011

Roadwork in the Walkable City: Necessary, and Less Trying for Pedestrians than Drivers

Traffic is mess in Montreal these days. Because not enough infrastructure maintenance was done for the last couple of decades, the city and road and bridge authorities are having to do a lot of catch up. At the same time, municipal officials in one center city borough are changing traffic patterns in order to cut down on conflicts between bikes, pedestrians and motor vehicles.

This has caused a storm of protest in some quarters. In the Plateau, where we are living now, residents and merchants clashed at a recent public hearing: residents rather liked the plan to cut down on vehicles, but merchants warned of economic disaster. At the same time, major work is underway on several bridges, and plans are being made to redo a huge traffic interchange.

All this controvesy doesn't concern us, even though we're right in the middle of roadwork. That's because at this point we're walking practically everywhere and taking public transportation when we're not walking. Amazing how efficient living in a walkable city can be....

Thursday, 2 June 2011

Because, Given the Weather Yesterday, We Were All Screaming for Ice Cream


So hot yesterday, so nice and cool today. But given the approach of summer, and the fact that local fruit is still several weeks away, I trotted out a delicious hot weather dessert recently that I thought I'd share, just for fun. It's an adaptation of a pear mousse recipe with a little zing to it.

Pear-Ginger Ice

Four pears (storage ones, like Bosc, work fine)
1 cup of water
3/4 cup of sugar
2 Tb of chopped fresh ginger.
1 envelope of gelatin

Core and cut the pears in dice (no need to peel). Put them, the water, sugar and ginger in a saucepan and cook over medium heat until the pears are cooked through, about 15 minutes. Remove from heat, cool a bit, and blend until smooth.

Dissolve the gelatin in 1/4 cup of water, or whatever the envelope suggests. Stir into the pear-ginger mixture. Pour into a dish that can go in the freezer. Freeze for several hours or over night, removing at least once to stir (you can let the mixture sit on the counter for a half an hour if its too hard to stir) in order to break up the ice crystals. Freeze again.

Delicious! Before you stir after the first freezing step, you can fold in a cup of whipped cream, but I think that doesn't add much.

Photo: Pears last summer on our trees in back: too many for the squirrels to steal completely.

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

The Silver Lining to the Clouds of Disaster: Rebuilding is Like Stimulus Money

The New York Times reports on this probably up side of recent tornados and other disaster in the US this morning, "Reconstruciton Lifts Economy after Diaster." The story says: "There is no silver lining to a funnel cloud, as anyone who survived the tornadoes can attest, but reconstruction can help rebuild local economies as well as neighborhoods."

A little less than 15 years ago, heavy rains and a burst dam led to severe flooding on the Saguenay River, north of the St. Lawence. I remember having supper with friends that July week where there was much tut-tutting about the damage. One guy, however, said, no, the aftermath was going to lift the area out of the slump it was in since reconstruction financed by insurance settlements and government rescue payments would pump in what amounted to "stimulus money." To my surprise, he turned out to be more correct than the doomsayers who said the disaster was the death knell for the towns. I needn't add that he was a Keynes economist who understood the consequences of investment by government.

There are economic historians who argue that Japanese and German prosperity in the 1950s and '60s was in part due to the fact that the two countries had to rebuild their industries and infrastructures, while Britain, for example, struggled on with what had been left over after the war.

Don't know how true that is, but certainly it can be terribly unhealthy to dwell on the down sides of bad things--paralyzing even. However, I must say that even though our house will be freshly painted etc. once the post-fire work is over, I'll be extremely glad to have it done!