blending an assortment of thoughts and experiences for my friends, relations and kindred spirit

blending an assortment of thoughts and experiences for my friends, relations and kindred spirit
By Alison Hobbs, blending a mixture of thoughts and experiences for friends, relations and kindred spirits.

Monday, December 30, 2013

The Australian National Maritime Museum

Back to November and Australia!

On Monday Nov. 18th, we went to visit the Australian National Maritime Museum in Darling Harbour, a fine piece of architecture with a roof that looks like sails. I took this photo on a clearer day than the 18th, when we had to shelter in a business district bar for lunch on the way there or we'd have been soaked to the skin in a torrential burst of rain. We sat watching people's umbrellas blowing inside out before venturing over the footbridge.

The museum was excellent and deserved a whole afternoon; we could have explored all the ship replicas and the submarine outside, had we wished.

As in the art gallery, I learned an enormous amount. Near the entrance is the fastest boat in the world, the Spirit of Australia, as driven by Australia's Ken Warby in 1977 (511.11kph). He had built it in his backyard (which reminds me of the entertaining film The World's Fastest Indian starring Anthony Hopkins as Burt Munro, a New Zealander who'd built the world's fastest motorcycle in his backyard. I first watched that film on board our container ship, the Flottbek, half way across the Atlantic).

As you walk further into the museum you see a mural showing the Sydney wharfs and the union of "wharfies" in the 1930s, during the world wide Depression before World War II. On another wall is a series of "Saltwater Visions": Aboriginal bark paintings, some of which have been used as evidence of indigenous rights in court cases over the ownership of saltwater lands. They depict turtle fishing from dugout canoes with sails. It seems that Australia's first peoples learned their boat building techniques from Indonesian sailors. The artwork also represents the crocodile eggs and dugongs found in the mangrove swamps of the Northern Territory. Fish or sharks are carved from branches.

The old maps of Terra Australia (New Holland) show how little white men knew or understood about this part of the world before the expeditions of Captain Cook. When the white men took over though, they were arrogant about it. From 1901 a racist "White Australia" policy forbad any non-European immigrants, especially Asians, from settling here and after the 2nd World War the situation changed only gradually. British immigrants were positively encouraged to come, especially solitary but healthy war orphans, teenage boys, 7000 of whom had been dispatched overseas, care of the Big Brother Movement, to be met by Australians and put to work on Australian farms. During the long weeks on board the ships they and the immigrant families from Britain were entertained by Poncho and Bubbles, clowns.

Another part of the museum was dedicated to a collection of famous surf boards and yachts including the yacht belonging to Kay Cottee who was the first woman to sail round the world single handed in 1988. The vessel's appropriately named First Lady and you can clamber over it in the museum.

The first warships of the Royal Australian Navy were built in 1913 to accommodate the men who responded to the wartime appeal for service, as illustrated on a typical poster, saying:
It is nice in the surf, but what about
Nowadays the RAN is more involved with peaceable activities such as a hydrographic survey from the Torres Strait to Antarctica.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Singing, then more singing

At the carol party (me conducting, with Jennie on the left)
Photo by Chris.
I am hoarse. On Saturday night we sang for hours at Bill's and Jennie's Christmas carols party, some of the diehards still going strong at 11pm when most other guests had left. Then we were so tired that we left too, driving carefully through the blizzard down the Sir John A. MacDonald Parkway (Ottawa River Parkway, as it used to be known). There'd been a blip last year when Bill and Jennie were away living in France, but normality has resumed and we met the usual people back at their house; all of us had remembered Bill's warm up round (I heard the Bells on Christmas Day from The Canadian Pub Caroler) pretty well, and it sounded harmonious! We didn't have a pianist for the harder carols this year so had to tackle them a cappella. I did a bit of conducting to keep the pace going.

When we took a break I chatted to a gentleman who used to run the Ottawa Kiwanis Music Festival, a music competition for about 10,000 local students young and old. He'd been Vice Principal of an Ottawa high school too, where he'd encouraged the music to great effect. That school still has a reputation for excellence which I'm sure is no coincidence. Another person I talked to at the party was Tina Fedeski, mentioned in my previous blogpost! She comes from Bedford in the UK.

Yesterday evening in imitation of the Kings College Cambridge Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, which I'll hear on the BBC tomorrow, Christ Church cathedral on Sparks Street offered its own service, the choristers carrying candles and starting their processional not with Once in royal David's city (that came second) but with Tomorrow shall be my dancing day, very well sung. I liked that.

I thought the whole thing a considerable improvement upon last year's service, after which I'd made a few criticisms––maybe someone had noticed my blogpost!––though they still had a choir boy read the first Lesson in unnecessary French, and still wanted us to "hear what the Spirit is saying to the Church" all the time.

Never mind. I do like the way that Matthew Larkin, the cathedral's Director of Music, chooses unusual items for his competent choir to perform (the long, mystical and complex Seek him that maketh the seven stars, by Jonathan Dove, for example, by which I was utterly enthralled despite the restlessness of some of the people in the nearby pews, or an African one, a Yoruba carol with drum accompaniment, Betelehemu). Even the more familiar ones are sung to in unusual arrangement, such as I saw three ships, arr. Simon Preston, and Il est né, le Divin Enfant, arr. Paul Halley, which cleverly combined chorus and verse melodies together in the last verse and served as a very bouncy introduction to the first chapter of St. John's gospel, which followed, solemnly read by the Bishop.

The congregation joined splendidly in the hymns. We did all the verses and descants were added by the girls' and boys' choirs. After a final Hark the herald... , Mr. Larkin repaired to the organ seat to give us the closing organ voluntary, full throttle: the last movement of Louis Vierne's Symphonie 1. Those of us who stayed till the last ringing chord applauded.

Afterwards I put my hood up against the freezing wind that funnels down Sparks Street in our winters, passing the trees with their beautiful blue Christmas lights around the war memorial, and met Chris for a rather too substantial but tasty pub supper on Clarence Street.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

The OrKidstra's great success

I don't just mean this week at their end of year concert, I mean altogether! Since 2007 when the initiative began with 30 children, they are now making musicians out of 300 of them. Those 300 come from 42 different cultural backgrounds, a colourful crowd in every sense as they stand there in their bright T-shirts, radiating enthusiasm.

awesome, fantastic, wonderful, cool, special, great, soooo fun...
teamwork, harmony, smiles, perseverance, family, love, life...

These were some of the words used by the children themselves to describe how they felt about being part of it––pictures of the Kids holding up their words were projected on a screen the audience could see, as we waited for the performance to begin. The excitement was palpable. A large proportion of the audience was of course parents, siblings (some of the tiny ones very keen to join in themselves) and grandparents. The rest, well wishers like me.

In the foyer a string quartet of Orkidstra players was welcoming us with arrangements of Christmas carols. Inside the auditorium at the Bronson Centre, the other performers were still rehearsing. I went in. Tchaikovsky's Trepak, the Russian dance from the Nutcracker, was being conducted incredibly well by a young boy in a yellow t-shirt, 13 years old. Wow! Then the little ones (Kiddly Winks) finished practising their song and recorder piece, Fais dodo (my son learned that one at the French school in Berne when he was 4). It's easy because it only has 3 notes in the tune. In the actual performance their conductor and her assistants sat on the floor to direct them, so that they wouldn't hide our view of the children. Some are as young as 5.

As the concert finally got under way, the wind players processed in, down both sides of the auditorium, to take their seats in the orchestra, playing Deck the Halls from memory. This was an impressive feat but the audience was too distracted to pay them enough attention, parents still leaping up out of their seats to take pictures of their children up front. Things calmed down as we all stood up for O Canada. Then came the Tchaikovsky piece I mentioned, followed by an arrangement for strings of Jupiter from Holst's Planets Suite, performed by the Senior and Intermediate Strings who got two thumbs up from their conductor Margaret Tobolowska. She, along with Tina Fedeski, co-founded the Orkidstra projects.

The children––singers and instrumentalists––are mentored by a team of professional musicians along with young and old volunteers. I really like the fact that high school students and university students are involved in this way. The youngest violinists, Kid Players who aren't yet advanced enough to play in the Orkidstra, gave us a three-part piece in the mixolydian mode called Old Joe Clarke. After the beginner violinists came a small group of children playing a Song of the Wind on violas and the 'cello, assisted by two of their mentors. I wondered if one of the violas was the one I used to play, that I donated to the foundation. Someone was playing it somewhere in this concert.

As well as Fais dodo, the Kiddly Winks managed a syncopated song for spoken voices (whispering, chanting, shouting!) in 3 parts. It takes a considerable amount of effort and discipline to get little children to do this sort of thing; I was impressed.

10 Leading Notes was another inspirational shouting song involving everyone, with a tap-tap-clap-fingerclick accompaniment from the audience. Then the Kid Singers (middle school age) sang a two part song with a solo cello obligato. Heartwarming story: the 'cello was played by a young man who had come to Canada as a 7 year old refugee, had heard and seen the 'cello at an OrKidstra event and had demanded to learn it. He's now the leading 'cellist in the OrKidstra. The Singers also sang an African song to a drumbeat, Zulu Mama, with the children doing dance actions as they sang, especially the little boy in the Afro haircut.

A 14 year old girl (the one whose word for the OrKidstra was "life") introduced the next two items, one of which was an arrangement of the theme music by Klaus Badelt to Pirates of the Caribbean, challenging music––I wrote on my programme: "Well done!" It was rhythmic and dynamic. Having accomplished musicians in the orchestra to help the children make a good noise makes a difference, eggs them on and masks their hesitations and mistakes.

"Energy and joy happen here," said the Executive Director Tina Fedeski. The whole team, all 200 of them or so, then performed a sloppy number called We are the World which I didn't think much of; they followed it with Beethoven's Ode to Joy from the 9th symphony. "Everyone -- please join us!" so I sang along to the words on the screen, definitely not Schiller, but still. Last of all "Everyone" sang Jingle Bells as well, the orchestra being conducted by one of its chief sponsors, but this lady had been outshone as a conductor by the little boy we'd seen earlier.

In the foyer as we came out little boys were already tucking into the chocolate cakes on the table with as much enthusiasm as they'd had for the music, and older people were dropping cheques into the donations box. I hope they raised loads of money. The Kiddly Winks were getting tired. "It was long," said a little girl. "It's past my sleeping time!"

Here's a recording of the OrKidstra and singers made in 2012. Read the "show more" notes to see what they were doing (I was there on that occasion too):

"I believe in the power to change things. I believe in power of youth!"

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Persian meal and tombak solo

We were invited by a very gracious Iranian couple to share supper with them at the weekend. They have a huge hammock hanging in their living room, from which the gentleman likes to watch TV. His nephew from Tehran lives with them at present, studying aeronautical engineering at the university and playing the piano and the tombak (a Persian drum) at home for relaxation. He demonstrated on the tombak, our host singing along, Persian style, in the background.

Black tea was handed to us on our arrival, with bowls of sugar crystals, to warm us up on a cold evening. Chris drank all of his without complaint (he doesn't usually touch tea)! Four other people had been invited, besides: one was a retired Professor of Philosophy and another was the CEO of an Ottawa company that, to quote from the website "manages a large portfolio of accessible taxicabs, airport transportation cars, executive black cars, limousines, shuttle buses and tow-trucks." We had a wide ranging conversation, talking about Wittgenstein and Aristotle, the analysis of 'plane crashes, the enjoyment of crossing Canada by train, various interpretations * of Schubert's Ave Maria, how to make hummus, how to give children their freedom, linguistic pedantry, etc., etc. It was that kind of dinner party. Chris and I were charmed by the company and ate a delicious Iranian supper of that homemade hummus and pita, chicken with apples, saffron rice and crispy slices of roast potato, served with a casserole of celery, onions, mint and parsley (Khoresht karafs). Small cakes topped with creamy yoghurt and dates, along with a plate of big grapes, were served for our dessert.

*Helene Fischer's version uses neither the original script nor harmonies!
Ave Maria. / Heut sind so viele ganz allein. / Es gibt auf der Welt so viele Tränen und Nächte voller Einsamkeit / Und jeder wünscht sich einen Traum voller Zärtlichkeit. / Und manchmal reichen ein paar Worte, um nicht mehr so allein zu sein. / Aus fremden Menschen werden Freunde und große Sorgen werden klein. / Ave Maria. /
Ave Maria, weit ist die Reise durch die Nacht. / Es gibt so viel Wege zu den Sternen und jeder sucht eine Hand die ihn hält. Vielleicht ist jemand so traurig wie Du. / Komm und geh auf ihn zu. / Verschließ heut Nacht nicht Deine Türe und öffne heut Dein Herz ganz weit. / Und lass den andern Wärme spüren in dieser kalten Jahreszeit. / Ave Maria. Ave Maria.
Fashions change, don't they? (although sentimentality remains). The original Schubert Lied went like this:
Ave Maria! / Jungfrau mild, / Erhöre einer Jungfrau Flehen, / Aus diesem Felsen starr und wild / Soll mein Gebet zu dir hin wehen. / Wir schlafen sicher bis zum Morgen,  / Ob Menschen noch so grausam sind. / O Jungfrau, sieh der Jungfrau Sorgen, / O Mutter, hör ein bittend Kind! Ave Maria! 
and so on for two more verses. This was the German translation of a hymn to the Virgin, extracted from The Lady of the Lake, a long poem by Sir Walter Scott.
[...] Ave Maria! undefiled! / The flinty couch we now must share / Shall seem this down of eider piled, / If thy protection hover there. / The murky cavern's heavy air / Shall breathe of balm if thou hast smiled; / Then, Maiden! hear a maiden's prayer, / Mother, list a suppliant child!  / Ave Maria! [...]

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Talking about New South Wales in French

It's La Nouvelle Galles du Sud, in French.

This post is intended as an aide-mémoire for when I next want to talk to French speaking persons about my recent trip to Australia. Today I gave such a talk at Danielle's house, and showed the ladies there some of my photos on the iPad. I had to prepare for this by looking up the following vocabulary:

Poteaux funérailles (tutini) indigènes
la Papouasie Nouvelle Guinée ... à travers le détroit de Torrès (whence the original Aborigines may have come)
l'art indigène
poteaux funérailles

espèces indigènes
pin de Norfolk ... conifère endémique de l'Ile de Norfolk dans le Pacifique Sud
zone pluviale
climat subtropical humide
la brousse ... feux de brousse
une canicule (= heatwave)

l'arrière pays

Île aux Cacatoès (I should pronounce the S)
camp pénitentiaire ... cellules aux fenêtres barrées
chantier naval
grue à vapeur
les premiers colons (= settlers)
une ruée vers l'or dans les années 1860 (= gold rush)

affleurements rocheux (outcrops) ... grès d'un brun rougeâtre (red sandstone)
cacatoès soufré ... à crête jaune 
mésanges bleu vif (= fairy wrens)
loriquets arc-en-ciel

un koala ... un kangourou
bébé dans la poche

planche de surf ... surfer ... surfeurs ... école de surf
les brisants (= breakers)
flots de retour (= rips)
lagons / lagunes d'eau salée
forêt de palétuviers ... la mangrove 
navires sabordés

Ned Kelly, un hors-de-loi

Saturday, December 14, 2013

A peaceful afternoon in Bourget

Chris having given a short lecture at the Aviation and Space Museum about a pilot's "Envelope of Ability" versus "Envelope of Comfort" this morning, we drove east to Bourget along the 417 and Russell Road. Bourget, is where Tracey and Bob live. They have a fir tree plantation and each December we're invited to help ourselves to some Christmas trees or decorative branches from beside the snow covered drive to their house, while pots of soup and chilli warm up in Tracey's kitchen. It is a warm, welcoming, attractive house, built by Bob himself, with huge, south-facing picture windows overlooking the fields and pond (all white today).

Don trundled down the drive on the little sit-on truck, branches piled up behind him, and pulled up, saying "I'm covered in trees!" The boot (trunk) of our car is still full of them.

Before setting off home towards Ottawa in time to avoid the forecast blizzard, we sat round the fire on the TV-screen and ate our late lunch / early supper in good company. Another tradition is that Tracey gives us each a Christmas decoration and a hug as we get up to go, stumbling over the great pile of boots, hats, mitts, scarves and other winter paraphernalia that we've left at the door.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Christmas coming

Australia feels a long way off in time and space, now, although I haven't finished blogging about it and have promised to give a talk about it in French on Tuesday. The sky is dark and clear tonight, all the coloured Christmas lights are shining in the trees, downtown, and tomorrow we're due for an intensification of the wintery weather. We're driving to Bourget and back in the afternoon to visit our Christmas tree friends, and we must get back home before the blowing snow starts to reduce visibility and hamper the wheels.

Last night I walked to the Château Laurier in the bitter cold wind to attend a crowded reception for supporters and friends of Palestine and its diplomats, the General Delegation of Palestine in Canada. I had a glass of wine and some roast lamb with mint jelly. The Chief Delegate, Mr. Said Hamad (whose wife I know her through our Spanish conversation group) made an excellent speech announcing that next year, 2014, is officially designated The Year of Solidarity with Palestine.

Listening to the Hungarian choir.  The empty seat in the picture was mine.

Today I was at the banquet room of the Ottawa Hunt and Golf Club for an elegant and tasty Christmas lunch with some more diplomats, about 100 of us altogether, where we were entertained by a choir of Hungarians, the ladies dressed in Hungarian blouses. They sang advent carols in Latin, Spanish, German, French, Italian, English and their own language (Mennyből az angyal) and wishing us Boldog Karácsonyt!––Merry Christmas––at the end of the performance. We all joined in Deck the Halls, an old fashioned British carol which must have absolutely flummoxed the Vietnamese ladies at my table. I mean, what on earth must they have thought of these lyrics?
...Don we now our gay apparel, fa, la, la ... 
Troll the ancient yuletide carol, fa, la, la ...
See the blazing yule before us, fa, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la! ...
I told them these words were very old.

At this party I had an interesting chat with a lady artist, Fortunée Shugar, whose paintings and wearable art ("fused" glass jewelry) were on display at one end of the room. She told me she was rethinking her past, her childhood, through abstract paintings which I thought very good. She'd also done a series of mixed media paintings in response to her visit to Giverny in France, to see Monet's garden. Her husband was at the party too, taking better photos than I.

While all this was going on, the snow-covered golf course outside, seen through the windows, looked very peaceful and inviting.

The artists of New South Wales

What do you do if you want to understand a nation better? Sitting in a café and watching people interact is one way, or walking round the residential areas to make further observations, or riding on the slow, suburban trains, ditto, but the most direct way to the heart of things is to read their novels and stories (I bought a copy of Tim Winton's The Turning when I was in Australia, for that very purpose) or to see what they have painted and drawn.

On Sunday 17th November we had a walk before breakfast through the Lane Cove park and on our way back up the hill saw two wallabies in the wild, a mother and a young one. They were either swamp wallabies or rock wallabies, I'm not sure, but when they sat still they were well camouflaged against the sandstone outcrops. Then it started to rain heavily again, so we decided to go into town by train from Macquarie University in order to visit the Art Gallery of New South Wales. The picture above shows it in sunnier weather a few days beforehand.

We have visited this place before. It hasn't changed; it's still marvellous ... and free, and very popular. Other countries can take a lesson from that.

The Golden Fleece
Once inside Chris and I made arrangements to meet at a central point in an hour's time, and went off to explore in separate directions because we are interested in different things. I made a leisurely tour of the Victorians before homing in on the art that really grabs me, the mid-20th century canvasses. It's not surprising that the early Australian art is really homesick British art or documentary in style. There were paintings of settlers receiving letters from "home" in a "distant land," one portrait by Gordon Coutts of a decorously posed girl in a pink dress sitting in an outback railway station (the model actually posed in a studio and the background was added later)––this was entitled "Waiting"––and several large canvases depicting the NSW scenery, the creeks and beaches, the sheep shearers (Tom Roberts' "The Golden Fleece", 1891) and the gold prospectors. "Bailed Up" (1895) was another big painting by Roberts depicting an encounter with highwaymen in the outback. All somehow noble and grand. The artists who came fresh off the boat to this country were full of enthusiasm for it: "Sydney is an artist's city," said Arthur Streeton, "––glorious!"

The bridge in curve,
G. Cossington Smith (1926)
The next generation of Australian artists are the ones who impress me, their styles changing as they developed, Roy de Maistre in particular (he was the mentor/ close friend / platonic lover of the novelist Patrick White, whose books have a powerful effect on me, too); on this visit I was also struck by the versatility and forcefulness of a woman artist, Grace Cossington Smith––The sock knitter (1915), Bonfire in the bush (1937), etc.

The Aunt
Roy de Maistre works that I want to remember:
The boat sheds in violet red key (1919), an example of "colour music"
Rhythmic composition in yellow green minor (1919) (ditto)
Botanical Gardens, Sydney (1918)
The red boat (1934)
Deposition (1952)––crucifixion picture, a masterpiece!
Figure in a garden (The Aunt) (1945)–– this faceless figure inspired Patrick White's novel "The Aunt's Story."

Then came the idiosyncratic school the 1930s to '50s painters: Arthur Murch, William Dobell, Margaret Olley, Russell Drysdale, Arthur Boyd, visionaries all. The famous Sydney Nolan is in a class by himself!

(I'll add more to this blogpost when I have time.)

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Back to winter

I'm in the departure lounge at Vancouver airport, en route to Ottawa via Toronto. Our holiday's nearly over and we're returning to an early and severe winter in Ontario, with deep snow in the garden already. Here in BC it's mild, but damp and grey. There's a picture of the Sydney Opera House and harbour bridge on the TV with Australian voices on the commentary-- a golf tournament taking place there--sounds like the cricket on ABC radio. We were swimming in the breakers on a Sydney beach three days ago, which seems as incredible and as unreal now as the wall painting of tropical sands with palm trees around the hot tub at the Accent Inn airport hotel that we sat in for half an hour last night, relaxing our back muscles in the stream of bubbles.

We spent another pleasant afternoon walking around Vancouver yesterday, on a cloudy day that suited our mood, winding down after the goodbyes in Sydney and the very long trans-Pacific flight, two thirds of which was in darkness again. Our seats were over the wing, not allowing us much of a view beyond a brief glimpse of Bondi beach in the rain on takeoff, choppy waves below us, a few anvil shaped cloud tops at sunset, south of the Equator, and the dark mountain tops near Seattle at dawn before we came in to land on the Vancouver runway right beside the water again. There are so many similarities between Sydney and Vancouver that it's hard to remember which place you're in, after experiencing two November 29th dawns within 24 hours. I felt rough during the second one and hardly had the brainpower to order breakfast at the IHOP, but a couple of hours sleep and a late lunch at an Italian cafe on Prender Street helped. Chris bought his second hand book about Emperor Julian that he'd spotted on November 8th and we walked right round Canada Place and by the Lost Lagoon again to English Bay where 14 container ships lay at anchor in the gloaming, some with their lights on. It was very romantic to see them there beyond the pine trees and the beach. Might cross the Pacific by ship one day!

Saturday, November 23, 2013

An evening of music and thunder

After our trip to Narrabeen, I went out in the evening with George to the home of a lady who befriended him some years ago--they play together in the 'cello section of the Beecroft orchestra--and who is a most excellent pianist. Gaby, a young mum who lives nearby and plays the viola, drove us to Maureen's bungalow in her car along the winding, up and down, Delhi Road, and when we arrived, Maureen was already practising her piano part for the music they were going to rehearse, the Dvorak piano quintet. We went into the kitchen first where I helped to slice the chicken to go with the salad she'd prepared. Prawns and wine goblets were ready for us too. The other members of the ensemble turned up: Katrina, Liz and Nicole, and we all sat down to supper, but I could tell that they were all dying to get to the musical part of the evening, so I offered to wash up while they began to play.

From the kitchen sink I was quite startled by the quality of their playing and soon came in to observe at closer quarters. In the background a long and noisy thunderstorm raged, with rumbles and flashes that punctuated the music, but it didn't seem to bother the players. They were concentrating so hard that I don't think they noticed. Nicole and Liz were doubling the second violin part. After the first movement (that they played once again at the end of the evening) I turned the pages for Maureen. It took some concentration, being the page-turner!

Scuttling back to the car with the instruments from Maureen's porch we got drenched again.

On the lagoon at Narrabeen

(Friday, November 15th)

With George's car at our disposal, we drove along the Pacific Highway and other highways through Chatswood to Narrabeen. The roads in and around Sydney always seem very busy, whether or not it's the rush hour, but there was a pretty stretch of the Lane Cove / Mona Vale Road that wound up and down through the Bush and crossed a ravine; then we started to catch glimpses of the Tasman Sea (Pacific Ocean) through the eucalyptus branches and beyond the tiled roofs and palm trees. The last stretch of road skirted the Narrabeen Lagoon. From the car park by the shops we could walk on the other side of that lagoon to a place that rented kayaks and other watercraft, such as paddle boards for standing on. Chris and I took a double kayak, left our shoes and valuables with the man at the desk, we set off to circumnavigate the island at the business end of the lagoon, getting increasingly wet from the drips off our paddles. Later, someone told us we'd have got less wet had we paddled more vigorously, but we preferred to drift slowly along and look for wildlife.

The water was clear. We saw fantails, a white-faced heron, cockatoos, ducks and a few fish. No jellyfish. On the shore of the island were tiny sandy beaches framed with palm trees.

After our kayak ride, we walked over the hump of land where Narrabeen's houses are, and had our first proper view of the sea, with rolling breakers and miles of sand, morning glory and yellow sea flowers (climbing guinea flowers?) growing in the dunes. There were no shops or lifeguard stations here, so this beach was fairly deserted. I don't know whether or not it would have been safe to swim here.

For lunch we discovered a really good South Indian curry place on the main road, that opened just for us, when they saw us coming.

Friday, November 22, 2013

To the Forestry Trail, koalas and 'roos.

We shook the sand off the bed sheets after our swim in the waves on Tuesday. Our first visit yesterday was to "Athlete's Foot" in the Macquarie Centre where a politely assertive salesgirl took Chris in hand and insisted that he replace his old shoes, ruined by rain puddles and overuse. Then George drove us to Cumberland State Forest for a walk among the skinks in the arboretum, under the giant hoop pines and bunya pines which grow massive, green pinecones weighing up to 10 kg apiece. At this time of year they are not fully grown. We saw some leopard ash trees too with splodge patterned bark. Wonderfully tall and straight eucalyptus trees with white trunks were marked for chopping down. I was reminded of the white pines of Canada. Both these species were chosen for masts in the days of sailing ships on the high seas.

"Once they get their tails up against Australia, there's no stopping them," said the cricket commentator on the radio, referring to the England side at the start of the current Test Match.

We were back in the car and on our way to the Koala Park, where we fed wallabies and kangaroos handfuls of dried grass and saw dingoes, parrots and peacocks at close quarters as well as miniature penguins being fed whole pilchards---they refuse to touch them without the heads.

For the first time in my life I stroked the ears of a live koala and of several tame kangaroos. They are soft and warm, their faces a sort of cross between a sheep and a rabbit. Some of the females had "joeys" in their pouches, with a head or feet sticking out for proof. It seems a shame that we have a pack of kangaroo meat for stir frying in the fridge, chosen by George.

Koalas, so were learned, are not called koala bears in Australia. That's an English mistake. These animals live in the wild not far north of Sydney, though they are not numerous. They only wake up for 4 or 5 hours a day; the rest of the time they're curled up in the fork of two eucalyptus branches, somewhere high in the trees, sleeping. I was advised to watch out for their sharp claws.

P.S. (later) I hate to say it, but the kangaroo meat was very lean and tasty.

Come hell or high water!

Whale Rock in the rain
Today I waded barefoot across three fords of Lane Cove River and Devlin's Creek, carrying my shoes and socks, while following the Great North Walk through Lane Cove National Park. I am giving up all attempts to keep this blog chronological. Normally it's not necessary to wade, but all the waterways are full at present, after the latest bout of thunderstorms that came through at daybreak this morning, and there were more this evening. Here's a description from one of George's guidebooks of the local area:
The river valley is shaded by steep wooded slopes with stands of tall Blackbutts dominating the hillside and valley ... Among the 97 bird species found in the National Park you may see or hear whip birds [we definitely heard them!] scrub wrens, Grey Fantails, thornbills, Crimson Rosellas, White Cockatoos, Galahs and Rainbow Lorikeets.
This is all within a few minutes walk of George's house and I've noticed most of the above. A lot of today's walk was like a sandy riverbed, Chris soaking his feet again well before we reached the extraordinary whale rock (among other dramatic sandstone rocks) on the way up the hill to North Epping and so back to suburbia. Never mind that it was raining again and my umbrella was broken in two places. We continued 2 km down the side streets, Chris' left foot squelching as we went (because he hadn't bothered to remove his shoes to cross the fords), and found a coffee shop with outdoor tables near the station where we could watch some more of the Test Match from Brisbane on TV.

Then we came home on the 295 bus and played with the baby again who has now mastered the skill of grasping things after reaching for them, and is thrilled to find out he can throw things too, and let other people pick them up for him so that he can do it again. He makes ecstasy noises as he's doing this, especially with his jingly ball. The piano keyboard is another such excitement.

Baby Eddie sang a duet with me the other day.

The other activities of today were cleaning the bathroom, Chris devising a way of getting the garden hose through the upstairs window by means of a ball of string, then making a chili beef with tacos for supper, which Sha seemed to relish, followed by apple crumble and ice cream by request from George, followed by the washing up.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Eddie's routine

Eddie at breakfast time, Zigzag Cafe, Marsfield
This isn't at all like our previously trip to Australia, our activities being circumscribed by a six month old baby's needs. It's a restful mode of existence, I find. George takes Eddie for an early morning walk (while Sha catches up on some sleep) down Waterloo Road past the local shops and then a lap or two of the playing field. Everyone he meets says hello to George: "They're all Chinese," he says, "apart from one Indian man." The influx of Asian people to Sydney is very striking, with the younger generation wearing British style school uniform, with sunhats, and talking in Australian accents. Even so, we hear as much Mandarin being spoken as English, and at Macquarie University a large proportion of the students seem to be from China. Yesterday afternoon I went for a swim at the outdoor university pool, open to the public-- next time, to avoid quite so many children, I'll go at a time that isn't just at the end of the school day.

If everyone is ready in time we can have a sit down and a little something at the Zigzag Cafe by the shops with its outdoor tables in the plaza, circa breakfast time. The owner knows us now. Next door to it is the clinic where we took little Eddie for his 6 months old checkup. He also went with all of us to the West Ryde town hall with all the other babies for his inoculations.

There are several walks per day with Eddie in his pushchair. He looks at everything with great fascination: the traffic and people going by, the trees moving in the wind, the raindrops on his pushchair cover. Seeing the pushchair from a distance, I see his legs kicking up and down with enthusiasm. Sometimes he sits very still and falls asleep. The day is a pattern of sleep, play, feed, play, feed, sleep ... Sounds give him great pleasure, especially rhythmical music. George has been finding recordings of children's songs in different languages on the internet; Bulgarian, English or Korean, they're all surprisingly similar and familiar. We heard "The wheels on the bus go round and round" in Chinese. I love watching Sha sing Chinese nursery rhymes to her baby, some of them action songs.

At the end of the day, if the weather's fine enough, Eddie says hello (in his way) to one-year-old Eva next door, over the fence, and his parents read to him on the patio, sitting in the big wicker chair. He stares at the picture books with concentration, but doesn't point at things yet. At supper time he sits in his own rocker chair to watch us eat and goes "Mmm, mmm, mmm!" meaning, I think, that he'd like some supper too. Then comes the bath and bedtime drink routine.

All four adults are near enough exhausted by then, so our evenings haven't been very full of activity. We watch a few videos after sorting the washing, and washing up, and feeding the guinea pigs spinach and cucumber. Chris has been working on some maths problems for George's work and reading Aristotle's Physics written ca. 330 BC in a modern translation from the ancient Greek! He found this two-volume gem of a book at Abbey's bookshop on York Street, opposite the Queen Victoria Building. And I have been trying to summon up the energy to add to this blog.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

In the Bush

Unexpectedly, we've had rain, unremitting, heavy rain on our second day in New South Wales that flooded the roads and drenched us thoroughly on a walk to the local Woolworth's supermarket and back, showers that have rinsed the patio and watered the pot plants, and, last night, hours of noisy, flashy thunderstorms while George played the 'cello part of Dvorak's Piano Quintet at Maureen's house. More about that later. It's pouring again as I write this on Saturday evening: George and Chris have taken the umbrellas on their after-supper walk.

Burnt area of bushland
The good thing about all this moisture is that it has soaked the forests and dampened the possibility of more bush fires springing up, next time the wind blows on a dry day. We're very close to the steep hillsides along the Lane Cove River, here, with miles of dry Bush to explore---a wilderness within the city where you can see many eucalyptus trees with scorched black barks. George drove us to the "wildflower garden" at St. Ives last Monday and for part of our walk through the Bush there we went through a post-fire regeneration area where all the trees' remains were black. All the same, the forest seems full of life, wild turkeys scratching at the undergrowth with their feet, and cockatoos (mostly white ones with yellow crests, but we saw a flock of the rarer black cockatoos as well) squawking away as they fly past, more musical ones calling too. I saw the Australian equivalent of warblers and a fairy wren with luminescent blue feathers on its head and back. Apart from the eucalypts, palm trees and oak trees, Banksia trees are ubiquitous, their bottle brush flowers full of nectar for the long-beaked species. There are termite nests up the trees and on the sandy ground.

Turkey on the bird feeder
Today, after a fish 'n' chips lunch by the water at Bobbin Head, we visited another nature reserve, the Kuringgai Chase National Park above Cockle Creek, traditional home of the Guringai people, some of whose photos we saw on the information boards. We walked part of the Birrawanna Track, starting from a Discovery Centre with a display of the local flora and fauna (stuffed), and the first thing we saw was a turkey on the bird feeder and a wallaby sitting beneath it. It hopped off when we tried to take its photo. A family of kangaroos was gathered in a grassy enclosure, lolling on the ground or standing on their hind legs, boxing.

Cockle Creek from the top of the hills
Sydney is far hillier than I remember it and in the nature reserves are sheer sandstone cliffs and rocky outcrops that look as if they might hide all kinds of dangerous beasts, but we haven't spotted any. This is black snake territory. I found some big lizards in the "Eden" garden centre near Macquarie University this week, but none in the wild as yet.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Arrival in Sydney

November 9th never happened, unless you count a few hours of darkness while we tried to sleep until south of Hawaii. South of the International Date Line we went through an area of turbulence and cloud at 37000 ft. that lasted a good half hour, perhaps distantly associated with the disastrous typhoon over the Philippines and Vietnam. The day (Nov. 10th) had dawned by then, with a fiery sunrise. No sign of Fiji or the other Pacific islands, and we didn't see anything of the NSW coast, where it was raining, till I caught a glimpse of the Sydney Harbour bridge just before landing. At the gate we had to remain seated for 10 minutes while the crew sprayed everything in the luggage bins to eliminate any stray bugs that might have hitched a ride. That had happened on our previous arrival in 2003, as well.

Chris with his grandson
Immigration and baggage reclaim was smooth and easy; we were singled out for the sniffer dogs as we came through the customs / quarantine area, which entailed some more queuing, but then we were through the barriers and George could greet us with a Welcome to Australia balloon. We bought a "flat white" coffee and a coke to keep us awake, then splashed along to George's car through the puddles of rainwater. It's a 40 minute drive along the motorways to his house in Marsfield where all the streets are names after British battles. He and Sha live on Waterloo Road. She gave us a most affectionate welcome and we all tiptoed upstairs to see little Eddie fast asleep and spreadeagled on the bed. When he woke up he greeted us with smiles.

The streets are full of jaracanda trees, covered with purple blossom.

In the afternoon, Jonathan, Alyssa and Vikram came round to visit, as well as the rainbow lorikeets, tame enough to perch on our hands, noisy mynah birds, and a lizard. We had a walk in the rain, and supper, and an early bedtime. In fact all our bedtimes have been early since we arrived in Sydney.

Monday, November 11, 2013

On the way, in Vancouver

We chased the sunset west from Ottawa, and a very dramatic sunset too, like a red ink blot seeping into the grey clouds on the horizon. The flight to Vancouver was less romantic, with a baby screaming at its poor mother a couple of seats in front of us all the way. Thank goodness Chris had his noise reducing headset with him. I watched the documentary Industrial Landscapes about Edward Burtynsky's photography of the modern industrial revolution in China.

From the train ride into Vancouver
In Vancouver (Richmond, really, near the airport) we stayed at an Accent Inn on the road to Seattle, with shuttle bus service to and from YVR airport, comfortable and convenient except for the lack of nearby restaurants open after 9pm, except for MacDonalds, which didn't appeal. In the morning after a hearty breakfast at the IHOP diner--now open!--we were able to leave our luggage at the hotel, take the shuttle bus to the local station and catch a train that became an underground one after the first couple of stops, to central Vancouver and the waterfront.

Our views of the coastal mountains couldn't have been better, in clear weather with clouds swirling over their ridges and a bit of snow on top. Vancouver's a beautiful city that we haven't seen since 2003. We followed the seawall paths and lingered near the sea plane base to watch the takeoffs and landings.

Houseboats in the marina, Vancouver
Once we reached Stanley Park the sun was warming us, so we sat on a bench by Lost Lagoon to watch the birds in the bushes. There were semi-tame raccoons being cute, and pestering passers by for food. We wandered on to English Bay and then back to the streets where we discovered a French restaurant serving well cooked, well presented food (fish and chips, actually).

Canada Place at dusk

Vancouver skyline seen from the sea bus from N. Vancouver

Still having hours to fill, but too tired for museums, we wandered via a second hand bookshop on the corner of Richard and Prender Street down to Gastown with its famous "steam clock" then back to the Canada Place, waterfront area where we caught a ferry (sea bus, for commuters) across Burrards Inlet to North Vancouver and back, just for the sake of the ride, and another sunset.

Eventually, unlike the clock in Gastown, we ran out of steam, so rumbled back on the self driving train to the airport, caught the shuttle to the hotel to pick up our luggage, picked it up and hopped straight back on the shuttle, back to the airport. The international departures terminal was almost deserted which made for an easy passage through security and a quiet supper at the restaurant in the departures lounge.

Then we boarded the plane for Sydney and sat on it for something like 17 hours.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Relevant numbers

We're flying from Ottawa to Vancouver on Thursday, in order to continue travelling from there across the Pacific Ocean (from Friday night to Sunday morning, over the International Date Line), to visit our youngest grandson and his parents. Here are the numbers to bear in mind:
The flight distance from Vancouver International Airport to Sydney Kingsford Smith International Airport is 7777 miles (12515 kilometres, 6758 nautical miles).
Estimated flight duration, 15h 13min.
Time difference between Vancouver and Sydney, 19 Hours.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

A hike in the morning sun

After the rain and scudding grey clouds, today's blue sky has been a blessed relief. This morning we drove into the Gatineau hills and went for a walk from the O'Brien parking lot to the carbide mill ruins near Meech Lake, stopping for a coffee at Chelsea on the way back. The air is cold––best wear a hat and gloves––there's ice underfoot in the shadows, but it's a super time of year for hiking, with hardly any leaves on the trees to obstruct our view of the scenery from the trails. Plenty of people were out, like us, enjoying the Gatineau Park.

Red berries on the shore of Meech Lake

A series of waterfalls above the mill on Meech Creek

Mill ruins and the adjoining waterfall

P.S. We saw a sad sight on the way to Chelsea. At the side of Highway 5 were the remains of a black bear that had been run over by a vehicle on the road: the first time we've ever seen that particular example of road kill. On the drive back home we witnessed someone's unpleasant job of clearing the body out of the way.

To report an animal killed or injured on the road, dial 311 and ask to speak to an animal control officer.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

The stream of day-to-day

On our living room walls we have three framed photographs by Raymond Aubin, a one time colleague of Chris' at Nortel. Since 2008, Raymond's work has become more experimental. He has an exhibition of his more recent work running at the Ottawa City Hall until November 17th, and you can pick up a leaflet about the show if you go to see it, explaining that
Aubin is interested in public places and the ways in which we connect to them. He sees organized chaos within them, where the unfamiliar overlaps with the familiar.
An image from Au jour le jour, by Raymond Aubin
Because this notion of juxtaposing the familiar with the unfamiliar appeals to me, I went to hear him give a public lecture about it last weekend. His exhibits are images reproduced on vinyl: selected photographs of webcam shots taken by a webcam (Earthcam) positioned above Times Square, New York. At any moment of the day or night, a viewer, from anywhere in the world, is able to look at Times Square from different angles, zoom in and pan the camera (click on the symbols in the bottom left corner of the virtual screen) and this fascinates Raymond, as does the way the colours of the scene change through the changing seasons, even in this urban environment. Of 7500 momentary images he captures from the continuous display, Raymond keeps about 320, then from these he carefully and deliberately selects perhaps eight pictures, invariably rather blurred but having an interesting composition, and aligns them along a scroll-like strip. He says he's influenced by ancient Chinese art that tells stories by means of paintings on a scroll. As for the subject matter, "I look for strange situations," he says, and adds that he has no difficulty in finding them, every hour, every day, asking himself, "What breaks the stream of day-to-day?"

On his website, Raymond puts it this way:
Comme artiste, j’explore la phénoménologie du quotidien dans les lieux publics. Je m’intéresse à leur désordre organisé. Je suis attentif à l’interstice entre l’ordinaire et l’étrange. Je travaille la plasticité de la photographie et sa mise en espace.
During the lecture he told us that his preference for a long, thin picture format, where the normal rules of composition do not apply, was influenced by photographers like Geoffery James whose Utopia/Dystopia * was shown at the National Gallery in 2008.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Art songs and Newfie jigs

Jean Desmarais, Denis Lawlor and Isabel Lacroix are described on this page. On a recent Sunday afternoon, we went to a concert to hear them all perform at close quarters at John's house on Marlowe Crescent. For the past several years, John has been organising a series of concerts in his living room (filled with a variety of chairs that he sets out in rows) and we're lucky enough to be on his mailing list!

For this concert, the baritone and the soprano took turns to sing to us from a programme of art songs followed by...

The songs from Europe:

The lengthy and demanding Adelaide by Beethoven, to start with. I always think of my son George during this, who loves its piano part. Then we heard six Schubert Lieder… Liebesbotschaft, Der Neugierige, Frühlingsglaube, Im Abendrot, Gott im Frühling, and Sehnsucht (four of which I know note for note and word for word). Two Mädchenblumen songs (Kornblumen and Epheu) by Richard Strauss were new to me, before Mr. Lawlor sang Strauss' Morgen to the accompaniment of piano and violin. For some reason this one never fails to conjure up the magic of Lake Thun, for me, as seen from Spiez*:
... Und zu dem Strand, dem weiten, wogenblauen, werden wir still und langsam niedersteigen ...
* Am Strand, Spiez
The legato sounds more effective on the violin than it would under the right hand on the piano, which is how I remember it. Chris reminded me that there's also an orchestral version of that accompaniment. Next came Schumann's Widmung and Wehmut and Brahms' Von ewiger Liebe which I actually sang in public once when I was young, though not half as well as Ms. Lacroix. But I learned it, and that was something. What impresses me now in retrospect is that my dad was able to play the accompaniment! I knew Fauré's Lydia too, which is a man's song
O Lydia, rends-moi la vie, que je puisse mourir, mourir toujours!
and recognised his Rêve d'Amour.

In marked contrast to that arch-Romantic selection, the concert finished with ...

The songs from Newfoundland:

On the Newfoundland coast
All of these were sung by Mr. Lawlor, who comes from there. He was on the home straight now in more senses than one. Salt Water Joys was in jig style, to the accompaniment of Isabel's fiddle, as the decorous audience almost tapped its feet. He performed She's Like The Swallow unaccompanied. It's a beauty of a folk song, that I used to sing at school, though I remember slightly different words. And the concert finished with a really funny song or story, the iconic Newfoundland jig about Aunt Martha's Sheep


Friday, October 25, 2013

The richest man in France

Jacques Coeur was the son of a furrier who lived at the time of the 100 years' war between the French and the English, who became the right hand man of Charles the Victorious (Charles VII) son of Charles the Mad (Charles VI) when in middle aged he was made Master of the Royal Mint, maître des monnaies.

Françoise belongs to the Cercle des Amies de Marion. Marion being long gone, I never met her, but I see some of the others once a month or so, and it was Françoise's turn to talk about something that had caught her interest this week. She told us about a novel she'd been reading, entitled Le Grand Coeur. It's by Jean-Christophe Rufin of the Académie Française and was published last year to great acclaim. It tells the life story of Jacques Coeur, born in Bourges, who as a child meets men from the Crusades and Santiago de Compostela pilgrims and wishes he could travel likewise. In his late teens he also observes the devastation of the French army at the Battle of Agincourt, attacked famously by Henry V and his British troops.

There were four women from France in our group this week, and it fascinated me to hear them talking about that period in history. To them the English are the baddies, no doubt about it, laying waste to France until Jeanne d'Arc finally saves the country from that plague of raping and pillaging. The Battle of Agincourt (Azincourt) is lost because the French nobility are too chivalrous. In England the story is told from quite a different angle.

In Rufin's story Jacques rises to power by means of a love affair. He feels humiliated, enragé, by the way the Chevaliers have treated his father with scorn, but through his marriage to the daughter of an argentier the nobles eventually pay him some respect. He travels across France with his father-in-law and teams up with a coiner who works for the King. Their success in this trade is ensured by the fact that they make more coins than the King has ordered, keeping some aside for themselves! Jacques ends up in prison when the trickery's found out, but not for long. He becomes a reformed character and sets out for the Levant, by ship to Crete and Alexandria, then taking the road to Damascus. In this city is a richesse inouï of gardens and fountains, spiced foods, caravans of 2000 camels passing through it, and he is tempted to continue on his travels towards China, but then he remembers his wife and children. He is robbed on the way and returns home "sans un sou"!

Once again he starts up his business with childhood friends whom he trusts and by trading with the Orient he becomes a rich and successful merchant, meeting the King and building modern (i.e. Renaissance style) châteaux. I lost my concentration at this point and didn't catch how or why he comes to be tortured and has to flee the court. I must read the book to find out. It is something to do with his close connection with Agnès Sorel, who dies a suspicious death. Anyhow, Jacques is exiled, but manages to travel again via Marseilles to Rome, is granted a fleet, writes his memoirs and in 1456 is tracked down by his enemies and assassinated (at least that's how the novel tells it, apparently) on the island of Chios, on his way to fight the Turks.

I never knew about any of this before, which makes me wonder, as often, how much else I don't know.

When it's my turn to give a talk to the Amies de Marion this year, they want me to tell them about Australia and my Australian son's occupation, pulsar astronomy––in French of course. Mon Dieu! That will take some preparation.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Treating myself to an outing

Poem at Ottawa's railway station
Train journeys really appeal to me, and to other people it seems, as witnessed by the poem that's displayed these days in the ViaRail station on Tremblay Road, Ottawa. A translation into English is displayed too, on the other side of the entrance, but it's not as good as the original.

My husband being in Vienna, I took myself off to Montreal this morning, just to wander about in the streets and shops and enjoy myself. I didn't go on the metro but once out of the Gare Centrale I walked everywhere, without needing a map. I had lunch in the Vieux Montreal crêperie (Café Muru Crêpe) that I remembered from a few years back, and my "Crêpe d'Accord"there with a café au lait came up to expectations in all respects.

Then I lingered in the Marché Bonsecours with its attractive boutiques, walked through the Vieux Port and Chinatown, then past the Place des Arts and so back to the city centre in the vicinity of McGill University, shopping (or "just looking," mostly) in a perfunctory sort of way. I'm not the world's most avid shopper and my feet and legs got too weary for me to consider visiting a museum as well; anyhow I was quite happy without that, today. The weather had cleared up by lunchtime.

Shades of Paris in the "Square Victoria"

View down rue Bonsecours (after lunch)

Place des Arts, Montreal

The former concourse of Windsor Station
Before getting back to the station I made another detour to take a look at the old Gare Windsor that came into service in 1889 but is a station no longer. It is an imposing building on the outside, nicely preserved inside, and seems to be haunted by the shades of early 20th century immigrants moving westwards in droves, or of Canadian sailors, soldiers or airmen moving to and from the great World Wars through that former ticket office and concourse. It was deserted this afternoon except for a few early home bound commuters taking a short cut through there to reach the metro at Bonaventure.

The train ride home took me towards the sunset all the way that I could appreciate from my window seat.
Speeding home across the Ottawa River, west of Montreal