Friday, May 5, 2017

Drive Safely. Arrive Alive.

I wrote this weeks ago.  Now back in Canada, it hardly seems possible that I was ever anywhere else. The most recent trip, to Italy, was truly wonderful - good food, wine, colleagues and friends, art, scenery and mild spring weather. Getting there was not half the fun however. We stayed in the Camargue for a couple of nights (more later) and then drove through France and Italy to Cortona. We stopped along the way in Laroque des Albere where we were had lunch with Valerie and Derrick Pellowe, and for a few nights in Tirrenia, close to Camp Darby on the coast of Italy. Even on the toll highways, which can be quite expensive, the driving is sometimes nerve wracking.

Imagine you live in the West Edmonton Mall. Not in a lovely WEM hotel – in one of the smaller shops – maybe sunglasses r us. Imagine it’s the busiest shopping day of the year. Now imagine you have to drive a car out of there, through all the people and into the parking lot. Imagine the parking lot continues from Edmonton to PEI - over the Confederation Bridge. It’s blowing a gale. Got it? Okay. Now imagine you’re claustrophobic and have minor panic attacks every time you enter a tunnel – and you enter a tunnel every 500 meters for two hours. That’s kind of like driving from Savona to LaSpezia on the Italian highway.

Go ahead – look it up on google maps and drop that little yellow guy onto the road and go for it. What you won’t get on google maps is the full experience of being in the middle of a mountain in the dark hurtling along like a confused moth surrounded by killer bees. 

I sang a few bars of “Don’t Fence Me In” and “Home on the Range”, channeled Southern Alberta and got through it. I can’t decide if it was better or worse than driving on the coastal road, which twists and turns with mind-warping irregularity and casually threatens to toss you directly into the ocean every few kilometers. Both have their charms.

But – drive I did! Survive we did. And thankful for the cheap wine in Imperia we were.  Cheap wine and fabulous spaghetti. I know – what could be that different? The pasta is fresh – the tomatoes are fresh – and the olive oil has flavor.  The crisp, dry, cool white wine was ever so subtly “frizzante”. Not quite prosecco, but definitely not warm chardonnay either. A full helping of just-being-there makes everything taste sublime of course. And by the end of the month, I was enjoying the drive!

Luckily I didn't realize until I tried to rent a car in St. John's that, in my absence, my driver's license had expired.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Mirror Image

Please head over to Lianne Mactavish's "Feminist FIgure Girl" blog to read my guest post, Mirror Image. You will want to follow the FFG and her deeply interesting, entertaining and informed writing. See you there.

Go to Feminist Figure Girl

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Lost - fail.

Today we tried to get lost. Didn't work. Neither of us really wants to get lost, and Dean's sense of direction is just too good. We did manage to go off the main drag into a town that looked kind of old and pretty from the highway. And it was both. As is more or less every town along this coast.

While it's not swim-in-the-ocean type warm, it is lovely to be here in spring. The fruit trees are coming into bloom, the bright red anemones are popping up in fields everywhere, and the wisteria is absolutely exotic and gorgeous.

The town we wandered into for a quick look was Bàscara (here's their web site if that helps). We saw no people. It was almost creepy quiet, but charming and beautiful. We decided we should really have lunch.  It was close to 2p.m. and neither of us had had breakfast - you know how it goes - trying to lose weight in Spain. We found what appeared to be a nice little outdoor spot,where we figured we'd get the usual. Wrong. "Upstairs - the restaurant is upstairs." I think the locals are taught to say this in every language. Dean went up, surveyed the scene, and determined that this was a big restaurant, and we would have a big lunch. "Is there a bathroom?" I asked.  "Yes". It's all good then.

I thought, and I think we both thought "I am in control. I can order only what I want from the menu. I do not have to eat too much."  I mean I think that's what we both thought. That's what I thought anyway.

So, we enter the restaurant. Sit by a large sunny window. Are presented with a book-like menu. It is large because it is in every language. The staff, however, speak only Catalan, Spanish and French. This is the only place in the world I have visited thus far where English is not the ipso facto second language. Children in Catalonia were taught Spanish only in school, with French as a second language. Those in my age group were actually forbidden to speak Catalan - most learned it later in life. One woman told us she still has hard time with written Catalan. As ever, there is nothing that will catalyse the will to speak and protect a language like banning it.  Today, speaking the Catalan language here is is a proud part of Catalonia - as in the communities in France very close to the border.

The waiter was a bit older than us - shoulder length grey hair and an almost imperceptible limp that suggested a hip problem. He pointed at each item on the menu and I noticed his fingers - the hands of a man who had not spent his life as a waiter. He was patient, which is a big thing for these people who have to deal with North Americans who have money but can't speak the language. He carefully translated the menu of the day into French for us. Not every waiter will do this. The larger menu was available in English but he wanted us to order the menu of the day - and - well - we wanted that as well.

So, despite our determination to eat small - we ate large. And what an amazing lunch. We are gaining weight - and I don't even like to think about what we may need to do to get back to our normal overweight levels. How do they do it? The Spanish I mean. From what we see lunch is 2-3 hours. Dinner starts at 8 and goes to 11 p.m.  I don't know what time they get up - I am not up at that hour.

Our lunch was a 'menu' - so everything included - for 16 Euros each.  First - a bottle of Vichy Catalan water.  Did we want red, white or rose? We wanted Rose - and expected one glass each - but got a full bottle. They brought a dish of potato chips (cooked in olive oil of course) with the wine. Because why?  And of course some crunchy, chewy hot bread with that....

Then the first courses. I had a brandade (salt cod with potatoes and olive oil) which was served with asparagus and shrimp (photo below). Dean had calamari. Now trust me - we have had "calamari" from St. John's to Edmonton to Greece to France to Spain.  We know from calamari! This was the boss. Thick slices of fresh squid dipped in light batter, fried and served immediately. No mixed herbs or dipping sauces required.

For the main course I had San Pedro (St. Pierre, John Dory) served with a tiny bit or roasted potato and a sublime spoonful of white beans in a salty broth. Dean had a carne combination that, we think, was chicken, rabbit and sausage.

Dessert! Had to have the flan. I have made Portuguese flan, and have made it my personal mission to eat creme caramel, creme brulee, crema catalan, flan, and all derivations of burnt sugar, cream and eggs, in whatever form that may take, everywhere I go. So I am the expert. I have eaten cream/egg/sugar combinations in France, Spain, Italy, Canada, Israel, Turkey, Greece and Newfoundland. And, I have to add, in the home of a friend from Portugal.  Dean had the lemon ice cream - which was really gelato. Followed by an excellent espresso. The flan was a bit over cooked (note the large holes) but the sugar was burnt to the very edge - bitter sweet perfection!

So maybe fate steered us off the road. I am writing this hours later - still too full to eat supper. 

Life is filled with opportunities that we mostly drive by. I think too often we miss things on account of our prejudices. In contemporary culture that there is a system that suggests that being exclusionary make us special. I don't eat (fill in the blank). But really - being exclusionary makes us alone. 

So - go off road. 

Thursday, March 26, 2015

The Bad Food Blog - #1 - hopefully last of series

Not ALL of the food in France, or Greece, or Spain, or anywhere is fabulous. We try hard to pick places that won't waste our time or money but, after many years experience, we still get burned. Here are a few of the best (er - worst) I saved for the Bad Food Blog #1. I really hope there is no #2.

Each photo caption details: Why we went there, what we expected, what we got, and why we have to label it bad food.

Why went there:  Long drive to beach vacation- figured the seafood would be amazing - right on the Mediterranean etc.
What we expected: Lobster! Love of god we saw them in a tank!
What we got:  Lobster facsimile cooked a couple of days earlier. I said "this is PEI lobster" (sorry Toby Leon) Dean said I was hysterical. Asked the Maitre d' and he confirmed that it was from Canada. Not PEI though - Nova Scotia. Likely bought in June and cooked in September. (Do they realize they should feed them in that tank??) I figure there was half an ounce of tired, soggy, tasteless meat in this "whole" lobster.
Why bad food? Seriously. Look at it!! Oh and by the way - the claws were completely empty. Poor shaggers.

Why we went there: It was late - we were hungry - and we got sick of saying "I dunno where do you wanna go?" while everything that was opened was closing.
What we expected: Well - I didn't order this - Dean did. He expected fish!
What we got: We got this. It's fish.
Why bad food: The menu suggested fried fish and fried potatoes. Something close to fish and chips. These are a local delicacy supposedly. (I couldn't help giggling and telling Dean he got bait - he didn't see the humour) But they looked and tasted like something that they wanted to get rid of at the end of the day.

Why we went there: Thought we wanted fast food and got lost looking for the place our host recommended (if you go to Athens -the place he recommended is called New York Sandwiches
What we expected: Something like what you would get at Burger Baron in Edmonton or Relish in St. John's
What we got: Something like MacDonald's but worse
Why bad food: When you want a burger and fries, you want a BURGER and FRIES. This was neither. Burger was some kind of recombined beef product. Onion rings had no onions in them. Fries were okay - but frozen. When in Athens - stick to Greek food.

Why we went there: Cheap but highly recommended Parisienne establishment.
What we expected: Old fashioned, but good Parisienne food
What we got: Cold skinny McCain fries and tough raw (and also cold) meat (lamb for Dean - beef for me - will we never learn??)
Why bad food: This place takes advantage of tourists, treats them like shit and serves them badly cooked and inedible food. If you are going to be condescended to by a Paris waiter (something I quite enjoy) the food has to justify it. At Bouillon Chartier you get all the condescension and none of the good food. Wrapped raw meat in paper napkin and took home for breakfast.

Don't go there Bouillon Chartier

See above - this is the Celeri Remoulade (yech)

See above.  canned shrimp! You'd think the Brits were involved.

Why we went there: I had dental work so couldn't chew real food. Figured McDonald's with a fork would work
What we expected: MacDonald's with a fork and some French flair. They were promoting their local beef with real French sauces.
What we got: MacDonald's (no flair despite promising packaging)
Why bad food: When you promise someone Bearnaise sauce you shouldn't fuck with them 

This is the table next to where we were sitting when we ordered the food in the photo below.

Why we went there: Side of the road in small quaint French village. Looked lovely inside (see photo above)
What we expected: Good rural French food
What we got: Canned beetroot cubes, canned peas and carrots, canned bean sprouts (??!!??) mushy tomatoes and squares of "lettuce"
Why bad food: Canned. Could hear Colin Firth as Mark Darcy asking Bridge if she had a can of beetroot. Nearly ruined trip to France. But didn't :)

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Swimming with the Minoans

Our month on Crete was defined by olives, Minoans and swimming. Even though it was November the water was warm even when the air wasn’t. Swimming in the Mediterranean off the coast of Crete is just as wonderful as you think it will be. Most days the water was calm and absolutely clear. The white sand beaches near Agia Nikolaos are clean and well maintained, and more or less deserted in the off-season. There are regulars, mostly women my age, who show up every day for a long dip. I'm guessing they go for the same reason I did - relief from arthritis - a chance to feel weightless - sun on the skin. Some people swim year-round; if I lived here I would be one of them. I doubt there are many days when the water temperature compares to the Salmonier river in early June.

With olive tress growing, literally, everywhere, olive oil is essential to Crete culture. We managed to finish off three litres over the course of the month. Not an unusual amount for us though – so I can’t blame the olives. We were there for the harvest which is carried out by hand - more or less as it always has been. The small green olives are beaten off the treed into nets and then bagged. Tiny trucks laden with stacks or burlap sacks bring the fruit to central plants for processing. More or less every family has a few olive trees, so there is communal interest in the harvest. At first glance you'd think they would have streamlined the process by now. Perhaps keeping the work small scale, as they have done with their fishery, protects more jobs. It certainly protects a way of life that would, and probably will, disappear if and when more efficient production models are imported. 
Even with this mechanical beaters, each branch of the tree must be harvested individually. It's not a fine art, and the olives drop with a lot of leaves. 

This truck is only half full. The roads are very small and windy, especially in the mountains, so it's not possible to have a North American style truck.

This is not top quality olive oil. These small olives are ground, pits and all, using heat to release oil. With "cold pressing" only the pure, easily extracted oil is captured. 

We didn’t eat as much fish as we’d hoped. It was hard to find good fresh fish, and when we did it was quite expensive. Marked up to match our Canadian accents I’m sure – but I can’t begrudge a Greek fisherman the chance to make an extra 10 Euros. As with other things, we seemed to be just off season. We did have a couple of delightful meals of grilled squid, exquisite lamb cooked with the wild oregano native to the island, and tried the rooster. Predictably enough, rooster tastes like chicken. The markets still had lots of local produce including bananas, which are grown in greenhouses there; wine, feta and yoghurt lived up to the country's reputation. 

The only time we saw fish in the market. 

Lots and lots of greens- in random bundles - everywhere!


Calamari, tzatziki, bread. One order.

Cutting bananas off the stem. 

Crete was home to the Minoans from 3,000 to 1100 BC (with some argument about the exact time frames) That means the Minoan culture thrived on this small island for a period roughly four times the span of current, post-European North America. And they did that, apparently, without war. They built and maintained their dominance through trade relations supported by their mastery of the sea. Even though the British archaeologist Arthur Evans named the civilization after King Minos, Minoans may more likely have been lead by a priestess class. The structure Evans called palaces, are now called temples by some archeologists. 

The foundations of Minoan settlements are easily accessible on Crete, and we visited sites at Knossos, Malia, Lato and Gournia. Knossos is the most spectacular of these, and was partially reconstructed by Arthur Evans. His rebuilding would never be permitted today, but is as much a part of this site as the ancient remains left untouched. I don’t think I lack imagination, but I have a difficult time looking at rows of rocks and imagining the reality of a community. Even in places more recently inhabited (like LaManche, Newfoundland, inhabited from 1840 to 1966) the surviving foundations and faint traces of paths in the sod don’t really help me envisage how it might have felt to live in a house here. So I’m okay with Evans’ painted walls and recreated rooms, passages and views. 
Partially rebuilt palace at Knossos

In Minoan art, we are told, females and white and males are red. This very popular and very dangerous game - bull-leaping- was practised by both boys and girls. The leaper ran towards the bull, grasped the horns and vaulted over the back. Or was gored to death I suppose.

Just weeks before we left Canada I read Paradise and Elsewhere – a book of short stories by Kathy Page. In one story Page imagines a future time in which old interpretations of an archeological site have been overturned. The story provided an intriguing lesson – and a reminder that what we “know” about the past is only a guess. Even what we know about our own past can be so embroidered, stories so frayed from retelling, images subverted by the suggestions planted by others who shared the past with us, we are half guessing at what really happened. As we change how we understand or feel about events, I think we also change our memory of them. If we struggle to be sure what actually happened to ourselves, how much more difficult it is to decipher the lives of whole extinct cultures?  I also read recently about a hairdresser with an interest in ancient hairstyles. Janet Stephens doesn’t have a PhD, but she knows about hair; archeologists confirm that she is probably right in her suggestion that hairstyles long believed to be wigs were in fact held up by sewing the hair - a technique archeologists wouldn't know anything about. Archeologists assumed the word “needle” must actually mean “pin”. With that one assumption based on what they didn’t know, as much as on what they did, even with a written account, they probably got it wrong.

Wandering around Knossos it was tempting to imagine a civilization lead by women, or by priestesses. The chair Evans called a throne, looked like a birthing chair to me. The surrounding benches are ideal for midwives, or members of the priestess class who would need to attend high-ranking births. The sunken anteroom (called a lustral basin) was where the various men who might be the father were allowed to wait.  Creative archeology. Try it. It’s fun.

The "throne" room - or birthing room - whatever.

We ate a few meals of ‘horta’ – wild greens cooked in olive oil, garlic and lemon. Exactly what greens are used depends on the season and who did the harvesting. There are apparently more than 100 different species of wild greens that can be picked and cooked for horta. Dandelion would work well, as long as you know it has not been sprayed with pesticide! This short video is from Crete’s Culinary Sanctuaries.  Horta Collecting in Crete. If you ever go to Crete – have a look through their page for goings on.

If you're interested in the Minoans and the mystery of their disappearance, this video offers one explanation. And it has terrific footage of the temple at Knossos!

I would certainly go back to Crete. Not sure I'd want to be there at high season given the tourist infrastructure along the coast. But spring or fall - absolutely. 

Fish on the grill in Agia Nikolaos. 

Dessert is always free with your meal. This thick fresh cheese is topped with grapes in honey. 

The view from our apartment.

Hot cheese and filo pie.

Just a pretty goat. Maybe like the one who suckled Zeus. 

The cave where Zeus was hidden as a baby to protect him from his father's appetites. Seems the best gods get born in caves, grottos and barn to protect them from old, jealous, violent men!

Over 90% of Greeks are Greek Orthodox Christians. This little church was too perfect to ignore.

Wild flowers are Gournia.

Minoan settlement at Gournia.

View of the Lashiti Plateau from the Cave of Zeus. 

Monday, March 2, 2015

Last week - in a place far away...

This blog post was written before we left New Zealand. A bit slow in posting – but the trip from there to Canada took up a bit of time. Here it is  -  mostly about the picturesJ


New Zealand is a parallel universe. After more than a month I still feel like I’m on that planet on the other side of the sun from us. You know the one that is an exact replica of earth – but backwards? I saw the movie (Doppleganger)  It messed me up for a while and I still wonder...I wonder.  Anyway - being in New Zealand was kind of like being on the "other" earth. 

It’s bad enough that everything that should be on the right, is on the left. I don’t have the nerve to drive here – just being a passenger is terrifying enough for me. And – could someone explain to me why the rear and side view mirrors in these backwards cars are so wonky? If you’re a passenger you can see nothing going on behind or beside the car. The mirrors don’t allow it. I cannot figure out the physics of this one. In North America the passenger can at least see what's in the mirror on the passenger side. And it’s not just the cars – pedestrians walk on the wrong side of the sidewalk. They have weird names for coffee (will that be a long black? Or a flat white?)  On top of that you have to get your head around the idea that February is the height of summer. Reading magazine articles about the best salads to cool off on Christmas Day is just the icing on the confusion cake for me. It’s all been mind-bending. I haven’t even tried to figure out cricket – enough is enough. 

Putting all of that aside, this trip has been wonderful. New Zealand in the summer is spectacular. Or I should say it was this year. The livyers insist it isn’t usually this nice, and tell horror stories of 8 degree days in winter with the possibility of snow.  It is a maritime climate, so we’ve certainly had some cloudy chilly days, and more or less constant wind. The community we are in is on a long thin spit of land with a deep glorious beach along the east. Nothing between there and Chile. The ocean is too surfy to really swim, but you can bounce around in the waves, boogie board (yes I did!) body surf, and generally have a lot of fun getting manhandled by the Pacific ocean.  And you can walk forever and lie around on the hot sand in near total seclusion. This week I found myself utterly alone on the beach with no human being in site. I admit it was a bit weird, and I didn’t take any chances in the water (I mean there could be a shark); it wasn’t long before people strolled past but for a good half hour I felt as if I were lost on an island.  A lovely feeling when you know you are actually only about a half hour walk away from home.

I love beaches. And I love the stuff you see on beaches. Drift wood, shells, feathers, kelp, jelly fish, bones – not the garbage – unless it’s really old garbage like sea glass and broken pottery and mosaic tiles we saw on the beach in Israel. I’ve probably wrecked my camera taking pictures in the sand, but I cannot help myself. Here are some photos of things I saw on the beach in New Zealand.

I call this one: The Pap Test

Albatross with Swiss army knife - my bird watcher brother wanted something for scale. 

Thing growing on bumper (see below)

Bumper from some huge boat - covered in sea life

Suitable for framing for your kitty cat's corner of the house

One good shag

Gabillions of tiny baby mussels

Not on a beach. A pasta dish sized magnolia on a tree in our garden

Lettuce-like kelp

Most gorgeous tiny jelly fish in the world.....look at that colour!

Female forms in nature - but surely you caught that by now