Category Archives: History

The gift of mangos and colour…the beautiful spirt of a people

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Charles and Mary have helped restore me – helped soothe the some-time ‘abrasiveness’ of living in a populous Indian city. The couple’s three-wheeler is tucked against a wall in a quiet leafy street, five or so blocks away from our apartment. After a long Sunday morning walk, we find them sizzling masala omelettes and fluffy dosas on their cast irons. When they reveal they’ve been setting up here for twenty-seven years, I suggest that they must have been the original ‘food truck’. They’re happy to have the attention and we spend some time together.

The tools of their trade are neatly stacked and at the ready: variants of stainless steel, gas burners and tanks, prepped veggies. Charles dips his hand into the bucket of chopped chilies and onions, giving it a further blend. Mary shyly reveals that June 14th is their anniversary. “Thirty-one years together and this,” she gestures with a sweep of the hand across their thriving business.

They are in perfect sync as they prepare their street food. Motioning to a photo gazing magisterially down at them, Charles wants me to notice the small shrine. “We’re Christians, Mother Mary and Jesus.” He nods at his Mary as if counting his many blessings. As workers from a nearby high-rise construction site make a beeline for Mary’s dosas, we take our leave – a few dosas and omelettes in hand.

A young lady floats past on the street, her sari matching the stunning blooms of a Scarlet Cordia. It’s been an inspiring corner: the vibrance of colour and the personal, genuine encounters. I pause to reflect…yes, it’s almost always about the people isn’t it?

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Allow me to back up…

After more than two months away, it’s been wonderful to be back in my modern Bangalore apartment with its soft hues of greens, blues and whites – its cool marble floors and lush ‘mural’ of trees and coconut palms beyond. It’s been a relief to sit at my desk and write in one spot. For much of the first week I cocooned myself; to transition, to slow down and yield to jet lag, to finally unpack.

The weather is cooling as summer passes and the monsoon rains are upon us. I gazed down to the profuse flowers and to the Headmaster’s garden, my adopted backyard. It’s pleasant, as are the charming interruptions. I heard the thwack, thwack of a coconut harvester’s knife, coconuts tumbling to the red-clay earth below. “Would Madam like coconuts?” a harvester asked as I stood a few wide meters away on my terrace. Minutes later the phone rang, Kajul’s voice informing me, “Madam coconuts here, I bring.”

I welcomed the cry of Raj, my dependable vegetable wallah. “Madam, long time since,” he said, whacking open a coconut, chiselling out its delicious contents. “Good for coconut chutney,” he suggested, as if to answer my ‘what to do with the gifts from next door?’ As I chose my vegetables, I received the usual reprimand from the villa ladies for being away so long. They have also gathered around the neighbourhood ‘water cooler.’

“How lovely, your homes have been repainted,” I commented, noticing the lemony wash on the aging villas. Now somewhat restored to their former glory, their statuesque mango tree is now framed more prettily. “Mangos are soon ready,” Anu said, pointing to the masses of plumping fruit.

The next day a hefty bag of mangos was presented by our landlord. “Welcome back,” Nando said in his affable manner, “the gift of mangos.” He has also recently returned after time in his other home in Belize. He and his wife will now spend six months enjoying the downtown view from their perch on the top floor – from their terrace that floats amongst the tree tops. “Come up for a drink sometime,” Nando adds.

“We will,” I agreed, “you’ll have to meet our Matt.” And as is the Indian way, drinks will start about 9, dinner not served until at least 11 pm.

On my second week home, I became absorbed with my book and also with another writing project. One which demands honesty and vulnerability, and so I’ll continue along that vein.

Matt is here with us in Bangalore, it’s been some years since he was last in Asia. He’s embraced the neighbourhood, the food (especially Preya’s) and he’s also opened our eyes. Seeing a place anew through someone else’s perspective is always thought-provoking.

Not long after arriving, Matt returned from the nearby five-star hotel that is also our club. “They treat you like royalty, almost over the top. Does it get tiring?” he asked. My mind paused…it struck me that I take this completely in my stride. Yet this is my present reality.

“It feels like I’m in a tropical rainforest,” he contunued roaming his eyes around the apartment. “It’s all beautiful Mom.”

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“I love it too. And I never tire of this view, it’s my solace,” I told him.

And in saying that, the question was…solace from what exactly?

Allow me to back up, yet again…

While I was away, I was interviewed from afar by the Economic Times of Bangalore. The article featured me as a writer and as an expat living in this booming city. What did I think of the city? Why was I here? How much did you know before you arrived?

I mentioned how Bangalore’s people and history inspired me to write. How I could relate equally to security guards who leave their villages to work and to altruistic entrepreneurs who give up careers to care for children in need. I’m fortunate to hear their voices and write their stories.

I was pressed to compare Bangalore with other former homes – Osaka, Amsterdam, Aberdeen, Doha, Muscat, Stavanger, Aktau and Houston. Encouraged to give anecdotes, even as a writer I asked myself…how honest should I be? Too many answers, where do I start?

I related that I love the unexpected. What’s around the corner. I adore the tropical greens, the vivid saris and sumptuous fabrics, the spicy curries, the moveable feasts of fruit and vegetables carts and the cool roof-top bars. And wonderfully, I am always made to feel at home. But I was also honest.

I admitted that Bangalore’s congestion, waste management and lack of green space is a cause for concern. I lamented. “They must stop chopping down these magnificent trees for the sake of continued growth. This city would be so much more livable if the sidewalks were not as hazardous. If city ‘fathers’ recognized pedestrians were as important as vehicles.”

But there is an unwritten rule in an expat life; one shouldn’t offend their host country. I try to live by this. Yet just once, I’d love for someone to allow me to cross a street safely. Could traffic yield to me while I’m on a cross-walk. Perhaps education from the government educate. Elevated pedestrian bridges to avoid the senseless monthly death-toll. Should this not be a basic human right in a city that attracts investment from companies worldwide?

“Mom has anyone ever stopped for you?” Matt asked one day, alarmed by the craziness. “Yes”, I answered, “Twice.” He was amused that I actually had an exact number for him.

“I know,” I told him, “it would be funny it it weren’t so sad.”

I also could have elaborated about the pitiful waste management. Trash defiles many of the streets, though we are more fortunate in the heart of the city, and at least here we don’t have open fires burning garbage and further polluting the air. Thankfully, we are remote from the many toxic city lakes that froth and foam, that catch on fire due to volatile chemicals . The papers report this, people protest, promises are made, on and on it goes…

DSCF0464These are a few negatives that I might have mentioned in the article, had I been more candid. After time in pedestrian and cycle-friendly Holland and the beautiful mountains and cityscapes of Canada, there is the inevitable adjustment to India. This coming and going in an expat life takes one across the full spectrum of experiences and emotions, there are many of them.

When adjusting back into this other world, exploring is often my antidote. This past weekend we headed to Bangalore Fort with its gate ‘tall enough for an elephant plus howdah‘ and its robust Islamic-styled granite walls. It stands testament to the struggle of the Mysore Empire against the British. I had been here before but again I’m captivated by its imposing elegance.

Tipu Sultan’s Summer Palace is close by, beautifully adorned teakwood pillars, arches and balconies, evoking scenes of the great Sultan holding court, planning his strategy to hold back the British.

Now, the fanned traveller’s palms and nearby temples evoke peace, not war. Serenity, not plunder. I soaked it up, breathed it in, not wanting to leave the hushed walls and enter back into the fray of the frenetic streets.

These landmarks of Bangalore’s history stand in one of the older pets, those neighbourhoods where many people barely scrape by…day by day, rupee to rupee. After taking photos of the fort and the palace, I put my camera away. That day I didn’t feel comfortable taking photos of vendors who line the streets. The wallahs for whom I have great respect and often empathy for…the back-bone of this country of 1.3 billion people. Many do well, like our Raj, but many sit under the baking sun; maybe just a few limes to sell, some shrivelled brinjal that no one is going to buy. And simply, many are too young.

“Let’s go home,’ Matt said, “I feel like I’m intruding.” That sentiment has crossed my mind many times. The wallahs are hard working and a contrast to those who beg for alms; but then I can’t judge their circumstances. It remains disconcerting for me, the inequity never making sense either to ‘seasoned veterans’ or ‘fresh eyes’.

DSCF0520The following Sunday morning we walk through nearby Cubbon Park. It’s not exactly manicured, but lush and peaceful nevertheless. There are glimpses of the city’s past as a British cantonment, military legacy of the final Mysore war. A reminder of when residents strolled through this once glorious ‘garden city’.

We come upon the Government Museum, a 19th century neoclassical. A troop of gardeners and one security guard, are digging ragweed from the lawn. “Good Morning sir, you’re working early. And you’re making progress,” I offer, spying a pile of weeds.

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The guard introduces himself and adds, ‘Yes too many weeds are there, much work.” Motioning to Matt to give it a try, he hands him the weeding tool. He watches as his new apprentice-gardner up-roots a few pesky weeds, encouraging me to take a photo. A brief but sincere encounter…the geniality of Southern India.

We meander to another neighbourhood, the small houses making rainbows of colours. Without hesitation, the children run to me, “Auntie, auntie, where from?” They are playing happily in the street, pestering at the local corner store and as always, pleading for their photo to be taken.

It seems that households have been busy. Reams of laundry dry in the warm June morning, dishes await scrubbing, garlands decorate doorways and a young mother poses eagerly with her toddler. The colours and images are vivid and again I reflect that this is when I’m most content in India. On peaceful streets with daily activities like anywhere else – without the reminders of perpetual toil and poverty.

As we make our way out of the neighbourhood, a pack of mangy dogs mark us as interlopers. They snarl and yap until a kindly lady steps away from her heaped cart of pots and pans. Offering her apologies, she escorts us around the corner, swiping and scolding the mutts. The chickens let us pass.

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So I come full circle to Charles and Mary at the end of that second outing. It was as if they greeted us back to our own bustling, yet reassuring neighbourhood, more privileged than most yet still typical. Vibrant colours, chaotic traffic, life lived on the streets – lives of difficulty and of prosperity. Simply, it is India.

Above all what I’ve come to love here is its people. I respect their industriousness and for many their perseverance. So yes, I could have added more to that article. I would have implored the government to do more: fix the sidewalks, protect the trees and greens spaces, combat the pollution, ensure the water supply for farmers and for all, try to eradicate the vast inequities. People like Charles and Mary, Raj, Kajul, Preya, the children who welcomed me as ‘auntie’, they all deserve a voice. I advocate for them, not myself, my time here will be only another year.

One last quote from that article, “Bangalore has become like the other cities I’ve lived, I cannot imagine not having been here.”

I embrace India for the complex layered story that it is and I’ll continue to cherish the beautiful spirit of the people.

And so I await the next playful unpredictability, the next enchanting exploration and naturally more sincere encounters to come.

It seems that will happen this coming weekend. It’s time to initiate Matt into Indian train travel, a passage to the bewitching ruins of Hampi has been booked. Another chapter in our Indian story.

 

 

The Cameron Highlands…tea plantations and intrigue in Malaysia

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img_2936Forgive me for musing that death by trampling elephant, marauding tiger or mysterious jungle disappearance would have been more intriguing. Instead, and rather ignominiously, Sir William Cameron succumbed to an accidental overdose of medication for insomnia.

Needless to say, I’m not wishing for any such wildlife encounters here in the Highlands. A visit here had long been on my wish list – the romance of a hill station, vestiges of colonial life, sweeping tea plantations, and the mystery of a man who truly did disappear into the jungles of the Cameron Highlands. But more of Jim Thompson in due course.

In 1885 after the British cartographer’s death, his detailed maps of this area were somehow lost. Yet Sir William’s stories of a Shangri La-like plateau lived on in popular lore and fuelled the imagination of the generation to come. Malaysia’s Cameron Highlands pay homage to this intrepid explorer. His explorations would often last for months…risking malaria, leeches, snakes, tigers and Malaysia’s ferocious sun bears.

We begin the 60 kilometre ascent from the main highway towards the promise of the temperate retreat. Kuala Lumpur with its modern skyline and grand hotels is now a few hours behind us. This road, the infamous Government Route 59, snakes treacherously to an altitude of 1600 meters with its precipitous and ‘prone to landslides’ slopes.

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The narrow thread of tarmac hugs the contours, dipping in and out of verdant valleys past whale-sized palm fronds, dense creepers and riots of wild hibiscus and tall, crimson poinsettia trees. And bamboo, so tall and wayward, it arches into a natural canopy shading the road below. I am struck by the sheer enormity and improbability of forging a trail though this impenetrable, primal landscape.

I imagine Cameron’s forerunners hacking a pathway for the convoy, elephants steadily plodding, shouldering and crashing through. I picture the explorer sleeping atop his sturdy pachyderm, safer there than on the ground below. His is an image of the quintessential British adventurer; intense and curious, indomitable and stalwart. Perhaps like others he hoped for fame, but the spirit of the times also created remarkable individuals driven by sense of duty…and many who simply craved the adventure.

The plateau that Cameron spoke of would later entice the British Government to the Highlands. They desired a hill station – a retreat of cool, misty air – also ideal for cultivating tea and vegetables and flower gardens.

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Forty years on, Sir George Maxwell launched a new expedition. Starting where Cameron had left off, it was soon evident that elephants were not suited and Maxwell diverted to the once bridle path that we are now cruising on.

Route 59 weaves its way through settlements of the indigenous Orang Asli people. Their traditional wooden houses are set back from the road and stand on short stilts, protection from floods and ideal for air ventilation. Dogs laze out front and roosters peck all around. We pass the most basic of settlements, a woman cradles a pet monkey like a precious baby and children play with make-shift toys. I take a photo of a vendor’s baskets. They are brilliant against a striking vista and I buy something…anything…just to contribute to the family’s income.

Between the villages, the road is punctuated with hut after hut, in reality just rudimentary lean-tos with atap roofs. They are crucial venues from which to sell, providing income for the Orang Asli and other locals. Often just a few bunches of an unknown fruit, bananas and long, long runner beans dangle from the lengthy bamboo beams. And maybe some vivid dome-shaped baskets (to protect food from flies)…it isn’t a lot to sustain a family. But then, I don’t know the whole story.

This contrasts a small, hectic village where a gaggle of tourist buses threaten to block the junction. Mass tourism has reached the Highlands and stalls are grouped to entice the crowds, and the odd backpacker more prone to jungle treks than shopping.

A young man at a well-stocked stall notices me eying the mysterious fruit. Wedging out a piece from the tough, unadorned skin, he offers a sample of the fleshy fruit inside, “Jungle mangosteen,” he tells me. It tastes like the anti-oxidant-rich mangosteen I’m familiar with and this variety seems to be in abundant this time of year.

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Further down the road we pass a trio on a motorcycle. Junior is napping on the handlebars, nestled into dad who threads the family vehicle along the twisty road. A tall basket hugs the young mother’s back. I know these rattan vessels are used for collecting the ‘King of Fruit’, the durian. Despite its spikey armour, the durian is a fickle fruit. Once it has tumbled to the jungle floor, it must be collected quickly before its freshness fades.

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img_2827Risking tiger attacks as they scour the jungle undergrowth, durian pickers rush to bring the costly commodity to market. The putrid aroma of durian belies its creamy, sweet taste. Or so I’m told…I can’t bring myself to try the noxious fruit. In hotels and public transportation throughout S.E Asia, signs strictly forbid durian on their premises.

As we arrive in Ringlet, the first township in the Highlands, we chance upon Mr. Lee offering the coveted produce from the back of his battered Land Rover. He has an awarding-winning smile and does his best with his limited English. Yet he seems distracted, peering up and down the road for potential buyers. Mr. Lee needs to sell his ‘heavy as a bowling ball’ fruit…durian has a short shelf life.

Nearby, Sun and Crystal run the family nursery shop. “The Cameron Highlands is also the land of orchids,” Sun shares, “and for vegetables and strawberries.” She shows me stalks of spear-like asparagus, while Crystal peels back the husk of a sweet corn cob and proffers it raw. “It’s how we eat it here,” she says. When I attempt to buy some strawberries I’m refused, “No these aren’t tasty enough today, can you come back tomorrow?”

Sun shares that she has lived in Kuala Lumpur, yet prefers life in the hills amongst family, friends and fresh mountain air at the family farm. We’ll soon see the vast number of small farms for ourselves as they compete for prized terraced land alongside tea plantations. As I bid farewell, Sun and Crystal insist on having a photo taken with my business card. Promising to include them in this blog, Sun’s radiant face beams even brighter.

img_2894We arrive late afternoon at one of the former colonial hotels, The Lakehouse. Upon retirement Colonel Stanley Foster opened it in 1966; relatively late as guesthouses and bungalows sprung up here from the 1930’s onwards. The Lakehouse is how I envisioned.

It sits pretty in Tudor style and stately atop a manicured terrace with its white picket fence and pristine gardens. Once inside, reminders of the past conjure days when British government employees left their ‘posts’ and retreated to the hill station…or indeed decamped here to work for ‘The Empire’.

Victorian furniture and Persian carpets decorate The Lakehouse, objects from simpler times: archaic desk telephones, copper vases and spittoons, framed polo photos and worn church settles, cozy next to walk-in stone fireplaces. Yet a framed collection in the hallway conjures the true tonic of the Cameron Highlands, its flora and fauna. On display are green blumeis, lemon migrants, jewelled nawabs and Malay lacewings – delicate butterflies of breathtaking beauty.

Lemon migrants have flitted around us in abundance today. But as we enjoy a pre-dinner drink on the terrace, it isn’t what we see…it is what we hear.

Dusk is approaching and if you have not heard the ‘call of the jungle’, it is an awakening in itself. A rousing masterpiece, a veritable soundtrack of curious and mysterious notes. The din of frogs, insects, birds and monkeys. A sizzle of an electrifying buzz that vibrates the dense evening air. A backdrop for a second melody of chirps, coos, hoots and howls, of slow languid flutters and then long, rattling rattles crescendoing to a lingering his-s-s-s-s.

From the gorgeous terrace view, the silhouette of the jungle provides a provocative  backdrop. All aglow under the luminous super-moon, magical and mysterious. Nevertheless, I simply cannot contemplate the thought of stepping into the clamour and its known dangers (and I now fully understand how poor Cameron could not sleep.) And then I remember the afore mentioned Jim Thompson.

It was 1967 when the American architect, former spy, art collector and founder of the Thai Silk Company holidayed here with friends…just up the road at another colonial guesthouse, the Moonlight Bungalow. After an Easter church service and tea on the terrace, Thompson chose not to take an afternoon nap as the rest of his party had. He fancied a light stroll. Perhaps he donned his straw trilby hat and grabbed a walking stick before stepping into the jungle. Jim Thompson would never return.

I know of Thompson from his House On The Klong. On my first trip to Asia I visited his home, now a museum. The art collector assembled a number of houses into a luxurious long, open air home along a muddy canal in Bangkok. I was bewitched. Its art, sculptures, thai silks, and the sultry air intoxicated this young traveller. Was the wonderment due in part to the disappearance of the flamboyant owner who simply never returned?  And so this is where the mystery lies, in the thick of a Malay jungle…

At the time of the disappearance, local guides with extensive knowledge spent days searching for the 61-year-old. But to no avail, Thompson’s body has never been found. Any number of theories exist – devoured by a tiger, a planned disappearance, or being a former OSS agent, perhaps an elaborate kidnapping? But I digress…we are here to visit the tea plantations after all…img_3007

By chance we only have time to visit one of Cameron Highlands tea estates. The narrow road leading to the BOH Plantation is layered with small farms, providing a peek into daily life on the terraces.

Verdant terraces of vegetables…colossal cabbages, patches of mint and scads of corn.

Greenhouses with creeping strawberries, silky orchids and festive poinsettias.

And places to worship; a Chinese shrine, an Indian temple, a simple sacred family alter. It is a picture of cultures in harmony.

Yet before we arrive at the oldest plantation in the Cameron Highlands, we do stop once or twice. I must capture these dated Land Rovers that are ubiquitous and innumerable in this highland terrain. They have clearly been the work-horses for decades – rather endearing in their rusty, run-down, yet reliable condition. The Rovers ply these roads with produce on its way to market, with workers back and forth to the fields.

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The family business of the BOH Tea Plantation reveals itself like an emerald, undulated carpet. Rather than busing it to the base of the entrance, we choose to walk the kilometre to the factory. img_2995We pass barrack-like cabins where the pluckers live and we take the liberty of skirting the road, treading on water channels that double as steps and define the vast fields of the Camellia Sinensis.

The higher the tea plantation’s altitude, the better quality of the tea. A tea plant can live to 100 years, the BOH’s planted their first  in 1929.

The estate sweeps in all directions. One wants to roll a hand over their manicured patterned rows. Glide it across their unblemished, waxen leaves. How is it, how are they all plucked? One can’t imagine.

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We climb to the lookout for the view that must be one the finest in the Highlands. We sip tea on the terrace and sit contentedly. Yet now I’m distracted. One can’t help but theorize about poor Mr. Thompson. Yes, it must have been a tiger…

The joy of womanhood and a Tante…of tulips and hofjes in Amsterdam

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IMG_2279Her name was Klara. She was a true Amsterdammer who rowed the Amstel and cruised the cobbled streets, stylish and carefree on the back of her paramour’s motorcycle.

That was many years ago, just after the second world war, long before she succumbed to old age and a mind stripped of precious memories.

I thought of her this past trip as I strolled from my hotel to the FIGT Conference in Amsterdam. I not only luxuriated in the cool air, but in the Anton Pieck perfection of doll-like houses along serene canals. I take my level of comfort here for granted, yet I owe much of that to Klara who shared it with me eagerly from my first visit.

Not long out of college, I fell head over heels for this city of Rembrandt and IMG_2219Golden Age architecture, of stout upright bikes and tulips in infinite bunches…of tall homes with gables of necks, steps and bells.

From her simple, postage-stamp sized home, Klara seldom joined me, but would send me forth with explicit directions to explore. Then on my return, would relish in every little detail.

To my delight, Klara’s book-shelf was stuffed with musty history books of Amsterdam that I would thumb through, then return exactly to where I had found them. In a small space, everything has its place and she liked things just so; we were quite similar it seems. Klara could be stubborn and delightfully opinionated (a little like all of the women in our family), but she grabbed life and dangled it enticingly before you.

IMG_2490I keenly felt tante (aunt) Klara’s absence one chilly day of exploring. I warmed in a simple cafe; one that serves mushy pea soup and burns long stemmed candles on scratched, worn tables. One where velvet curtains encircle the entrance to keep out the draft and the locals linger over a Heineken.

I longed to practice my Dutch with my great-aunt as I always had and explore with her this neighbourhood that I found myself in, the Jordaan. This had been a working class neighbourhood, where the tanneries once bustled, where masons and road builders had lived. Where stone carvings on building fronts tell stories even today…ah, there lived a cobbler, a builder, a mason, a cooper, or a seller of hot water and heated bricks so you could warm your feet when the fog and damp settled over the canals and froze you to the bone.

IMG_2494These chiseled cartouches implore us to slow down and conjure that time. I come across shops that aren’t fancy and offer ‘stuff’ spullen, places where one can browse endlessly. I see a vision of Klara’s home that once proudly displayed all the trinkets gifted to her…I wonder what happened to it all.IMG_2453

Yet as much as I miss Klara, I hear her Dutch accent echoed in other women that I have the pleasure to meet during my stay. I’m befriended by Patricia at the Van Loon Museum; her English has the same cadence and warmth.

“Are you enjoying the exhibit?” she asks as I’m intently perusing faded receipts from Parisian corset and lingerie shops. They’re arrayed beside an ‘evening wear diary’…so vital was it to not repeat frocks and evening gowns in the social whirl of a wealthy Dutch family at the turn of the century.

Patricia and I continue together and marvel at the exquisiteness of the Mode Exhibit. We appreciate collections of jewellery and fine beaded handbags, then transfix on lush fabric wall-covering that adorns this stately mansion. We admire the chandeliers, detailed family portraits and even modern-day tulips and perfumed roses. I brim over with the richness of, simply…beautiful things.

I sense Patricia is familiar with the giddy lifestyle of cocktail parties, soirees and lovely homes as she relates her ‘swinging’ Paris days. She’s a striking, refined lady of a ‘certain age’ which she reveals to me over a cup of strong Dutch coffee.

“I’ve had it all,”Patricia tells me, “now my life is art galleries, museums and concerts.” It seems this cultured life suits us both and as if to prove it, she implores…

IMG_2207“If you like this, you must see the Catwalk IMG_2192Exhibit at the Rijksmuseum.” Off we go on a sun drenched, yet brisk day, to soak up yet more exquisite fabrics and designs. Gathered from centuries past, as early as the Golden Age when Dutch culture was at its zenith, the creations rotate slowly on an long oblong stage, as if on a sumptuous sushi belt. Enthusiasts of all ages sit at this avant garde fashion show, coveting the delicate, aged designs.

IMG_2241 (1)“Oh how my Tante Klara would have loved this,” I proclaim to my fellow culture lover and relate how years ago Klara had given me a black lacy dress, sleeveless and hand-stitched. She had once worn it with panache; I was thrilled to have it as mine and wore it with infinite pleasure. Klara’s seamstress eye would have devoured this collection that was swirling slowly for appreciative fashion- lovers.

My new friend and I admire the ‘poster’ of the exhibition. Model Ymre Stickma’s image is super-imposed into a print of the voluptuous wedding dress, the elaborate ‘masterpiece’ of the collection. It’s captured by the renowned Dutch photographer, Erwin Olaf. He has her hair deliciously coiffed and her décolletage devilishly exposed; it was the ankles during that period that were seductive and kept hidden under heavy hems.

I take a photo of Olaf’s work, brilliant in its marrying of classic fashion with the vitality of a beautiful, empowered young woman. Prachtig, prachtig, I hear Tante Klara’s approval…superb, superb!

IMG_2214Through the following days I meet many empowered and interesting women. The Families in Global Transition Conference brings many together; they thrive in careers and raise children globally, they are entrepreneurs, authors, publishers, educators, life coaches and more. We network, learn from each other, dine, laugh and lament as one. We comment on how fortunate we are to come together, how marvellous it is to share stories of womanhood against the backdrop of a global life. We hug our farewells, restored and uplifted.

IMG_2506 (1)The company of these kindred spirits comforts me in this first return to Amsterdam; the first time that Klara is no longer here. The last few visits, dementia had stolen her spirit, her creative and inquisitive mind and just a few months ago, her life.

Late one afternoon a few of my friends and I are on our way to dinner. “Come with me,” I say,”there’s a special place I want to show you,” and I guide them off a busy street through a carved, stone archway that reads…Begijnhof. We emerge into a serene setting, the rattle of trams and the whirl of bicycles disappear. The courtyard is quaint with churches and houses that beg you to whisper and reflect.

This tucked-away sanctuary was similar to a monastery for women, the Beguines, a Christian religious order whose members lived in semi-monastic communities. First mentioned in 1346, the Begijnhof is the only medieval almshouse founded in Amsterdam. The last Beguine, Sister Antonia, died here in 1971 and still today, all the inhabitants are female.

IMG_2375Klara first introduced me to this serene oasis, and as I was then, my friends are charmed with its beauty and calm. The houses and churches that line the square are mostly from the 17th and 18th centuries; beautiful in their aged grace as is the elderly lady we encounter.

Shielded from the chilled March air in a camel-coloured fur, she has just placed her walker at a solid wooden door. When we ask if she’s fortunate enough to live in this lovely Begijnhof, she nods and points to the first floor. Books crowd her window sill along with one of those simple brass candle holders…all framed by delicate lace curtains.

We introduce ourselves,”My name sounds much prettier in Hebrew, “she says with an engaging smile and she lingers to speak to us. “Where are you from,” she wants to know and her eyes twinkle even brighter when she hears that we come from various continents and yet live in others. Susan is inquisitive and delighted to hear this and then earnestly tells us to enjoy our time together. It warms my heart to know that these hofjes were once scattered throughout the city, sanctuaries for women.

IMG_2444 (1)A few days later I spend the day with a dear family friend, we were both fortunate to have been the children that Klara never had. Hetty tells me of her final days and the peaceful end.

We had planned this gathering to reminisce. “These are for you,” Hetty says softly, motioning to an array of ‘stuff’ on her dining table…it’s heartwarming that it remains.

There are photos albums with dried flowers from my wedding and pressed heather from a trip to Scotland; moments in time. There’s a tea cup from a visit to Canada and tarnished silver spoons embellished with Delft blue and white.

“Choose some jewellery,” Hetty continues, “and I think you’ll like these.” A passel of thimbles lay close by and my finger-tips brush over the dimpled silver. I know that Klara used them often. She loved stitching and creating of all kinds; it’s what she ‘did.’

Just one woman’s pursuit that fulfilled and gave satisfaction. No, her creations weren’t as beautiful as the lovely things this trip has put before me, but that isn’t what’s important. Engaging in anything from stitching to poetry, from reading to golf, to quilting to hiking, …anything that we women pursue for pleasure, for the joy of womanhood is to be coveted and embraced.

IMG_2579The first thing I had done when I arrived in Amsterdam was to buy tulips, “I’ll need a vase for my bloomen, please Meneer,” I said to my host Pierre when I checked in at the charming Seven Bridges Hotel. As if by design, my room had thick velvet curtains, an armoire and an antique oval table for those tulips and at which to sit and enjoy an evening aperitif. I felt as if I was back at Klara and Alberts, my mothers beloved uncle.

Before departing from the city that I adore and returning to my new home in India, I posted a card to my mother in Canada.

As a ten year-old, she had waved farewell on the S.S. Waterman as her family sailed away for a new life, leaving not only their family but also country behind. She remembers doubting that she’d ever see them, or the Netherlands again. Happily, they have both been a special part of our lives through the years.

That card to my mother was decorated with tulips and I penned the details to her; of remembering Klara, the lovely mementos and time with Hetty, and that she had most certainly been there with me in spirit…it seems that Klara had been as well.

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Notes from a Thai Island…singing birds in bamboo cages

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IMG_0285 (1)We packed our pens and notebooks for a grown-up field trip. With our hats donned and cameras poised, the destination was Koh Panyee, in the inlet of Thailand. I had been here before with my family. This time however, a writing assignment was on my mind.

The village of Koh Panyee is surrounded by shadowy, fingerlike mountains. Reaching up from calm waters, they are serene, yet evocative and mysterious as they entice visitors into their enclave.

As our longboat glides into the harbour, we circumvent fish lines and crab traps, and groups of traditional longboats. This is how one arrives in Koh Panyee…for it’s a village that resides on bamboo stilts.

IMG_0305Sturdy longboats have long been the desired mode of transport in these waters. A solid column rises from their prow like an IMG_0426upturned tail. Adorned with vibrant tassels of cloth, I’m told they protect the safety and spirit of the vessel.

Thai people believe that each mode of transport possesses a spirit, so best to honour and respect it. The swishes of cloth compliment the often brightly painted vessels and provide a grip for fishermen to drag their boats home into shallow waters.

Koh Panyee’s population is descended from just two seafaring Muslim families. Settling here at the end of the 18th century, the fishing trade that they established is still evident as we disembark on the simple dock. Bamboo fish traps rest on knotted planks, tangles of nets cluster on poles and colourful netted piles lay at the ready.

A puzzle of spartan homes and shop fronts greet visitors to Koh Panyee. This once secluded island has welcomed tourism. ‘James Bond Island’ is nearby which attracts  sightseers and snorkelers alike.

IMG_0310After disembarking, we wander the humid labyrinth that offers the usual array of elephant printed skirts, frocks, sarongs and slouchy bags. By day five in Thailand, we’re a little more discerning and hope for something unique.

And we soon find it. Fresh water pearls are here in abundance with their milky shades of cream, lemon and white, on offer for a pittance.

A vast array of sea shells is also displayed, much of it having been fashioned into jewellery, key chains and tinkling chimes. It crosses your mind…does it eventually all get sold?Perhaps stuffed into suitcases and carried off to other lands where it’s appreciated…or sadly, perhaps not?

And then there is the abundant coconut merchandise, carved into spoons, bowls and combs or left in its organic form of IMG_0306cooling coconut juice. Hollowed coconut shells appear stuffed with orchids, hanging here and there, thriving in the sultry air.

I notice slivers of bamboo that have been coaxed into welcome mats, baskets, water buckets, paddy-bins and rice vessels.

Rice is vital to daily life; what with carrying, threshing, winnowing and measuring of its vital staple. Pliable cane is also abundant and forms the basis of many kitchen essentials.

IMG_0325Most of all the bird cages speak to me. Intricate strips of bamboo have been crafted into round, square or hexagonal enclosures. They’re not gilded, but somehow the earthy material seems less restrictive for the ruffled birds that inhabit them. Cages hang in most store fronts, between narrow strips of buildings and in shady corners of simple homes.

The lyrical chirps and serenades seem to lighten the lanes and distract from the still, suffocating air. I ask about the cages as I approach a shop.

Sawadee-kaa,” a man greets me as he comes forward from the shadows of his home to his shop front. His batik sarong is knotted at his lean waist and he seems open to conversation.

“Bird competitions very important in Southern Thailand,”he tells me with a knowing smile.

“High status to have winning bird. Which bird can sing best, longest, maybe happiest.” TheIMG_0387 affection for his feathered friends radiates from his eyes.

“What kind of birds do you have,” I ask, noticing multiple cages in his home.

“Red-whiskered Bulbul,” he says proudly, “the best, sing better, ka?  Must have tropical fruit first, no sing without sunshine.”
“Hmm, I didn’t know,” I admit, and it dawns on me that I’m surrounded by more than just pet birds. They’re performers, competitors, even prize winners. And they’re discerning.

“Rainy day very bad,” the shop keeper assures me, motioning to the patter of rain on the tin awning above us.

IMG_0321I discover that competitions are cancelled if there’s rain, for seemingly the birds are only willingly to serenade when the sun shines. Competitions are held in open fields with the location only revealed to those who enter, and maybe to those who want to bet a bhat or two. And perhaps not surprisingly the earthly competitors are men…it seems it’s a man’s pastime.

I linger at the cages, watching the birds flutter and flit. It’s easy to adore these delicate aviary homes and appreciate the valuable species inside them. I check the latches of their tiny doors; and yes, they’re most certainly locked.

We make our way out of the covered market street, desperate for a breath ofIMG_0356 air. The chatter of school children greet us as they slide into their shoes that await outside the classroom doors. The open-air school transports me back to schools that my sons attended in Qatar and Oman with their hallways open to the elements. As here, I find it creates a joyous, uninhibited atmosphere as children go about their studies and play. Happy memories of my children’s early school days flood back to me and I am transported by the familiar scene.

IMG_0363This island school is awash with colours of pink, baby blue and sea green; uniforms for both girls and boys alike IMG_0351are a soft pink. The youngsters play tag, giggle for photos and gather for after-school band practice. It’s difficult to pull myself away from their carefree presence.

But the moment is soon lost as yet more tourists pace through the school yard. I peek down a side hallway for quiet. I delight in a scribbled note on a chalkboard in both English and Thai. I gaze out to the calm of the scenery that encloses Koh Panyee. Yet more boats crammed with eager tourists are edging their way towards the stilted settlement, eager to see the sights – part of me is dismayed with our intrusion.

IMG_0367I imagine there is a serenity that returns to this community at nightfall, when the tourists retreat and the waters are silent from boat engines. Around 1700 souls live here and I’ve been welcomed into their unique way of life. For the villager’s sake, I hope their culture is preserved despite the continuous curiousity of tourists.

Today, I was yet another of those tourists. I took away some strands of pearls and appreciated the ‘little things’…like intricate bamboo bird cages, smiling children absorbed in their school day and the camaraderie of fellow writers on a field trip that we Phuket Paradise Writer’s, happily found ourselves on.

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The Ktunaxa people, Gordie’s story…part two

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The former St. Eugene Mission School on an autumn day

This is a continuation from part one

“My grandmother brought me to the school, it was 1957. We pulled up in a horse and buggy, my brother and sister were already here which helped a little.”

I’m standing with Gordie at the bottom of the steps that lead to the imposing door of the St. Eugene Mission; once a Residential School. It’s easy to imagine the foreboding, the instinctive fear that young Native children like Gordie felt when they entered the school for their first ten month term.

“I was frightened and remember the feeling of resentment towards my grandma. She had helped raise me, it wasn’t until later that I realized she didn’t have a choice but to let me go.”

Gordie is tall and lean, his long greying hair topped by a baseball cap. It’s the tradition of many Natives to keep their hair long as it’s an extension of their spiritual self.

Having offered to give me a tour and talk about his time at the school, Gordie greets me warmly this cool autumn morning. He’s just finished his shift as the night-time superintendent of the St Eugene Mission Resort. As a student, Gordie lived and breathed this school, his memories deeply etched. He now walks through it with some measure of peace.

From 1912 to 1970, more than 5000 Native children were removed from their families to comply with the government assimilation program and brought to this school, one of eighty former schools across Canada. However, its perfect postcard setting in the interior of British Columbia is deceptive.

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Refurbished and renewed

“I suppose I was lucky, I was dropped off by a family member. Some kids were left here by Indian Agents, whisked away before their families even knew they were gone.”

Gordie explains the cruel truth that Agents were often paid to ‘round up’ Native children, especially in remote areas. The children were sometimes taken when they ran to a plane that had landed, then spirited away with the promise of a ‘ride’.

“They were given a number, with no consideration of their name, then placed in a Residential School.”

Gordie will tell you that this was by no means the worst of the Residential Schools. The entrance of the former St . Eugene Mission School is now a hotel lobby. It has a welcoming and dignified atmosphere, vastly different than it once was. Solid in their longevity, the red brick walls are invisibly marred with strife and untold hurts. People like Gordie are now willing to tell their story.

“Our hair was chopped off, and from that moment the school did its best to eradicate our language and culture. This is where you waited to be taken away by the nuns to the dormitories.”

‘Indian Hall’, I believe Gordie called it as we begin a tour and conversation that lasts five hours, yet felt like just a few. He points to a black and white photo near the front desk. The image shows a group of older girls, smiling astride their horses, gathered in front of the school.

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Gordie Sebastian with a plaque that pays tribute to his role in the refurbishment of St. Eugene Mission

“Do you know anything about horses?” Gordie asks, pointing to their bridles and saddles. “Does this look like we were poor or wanting? No we had a culture, it was taken away.”

I’m instinctively drawn to the collection of photos in the nearby corridor that I had been so taken with the day before. Gordie reveals parts of his story through these, bringing the images to life with his narrative.

A seemingly typical school is portrayed; a hockey team, the school band, a choir, children in uniforms seated at their desks.

“It looks like you were involved in a lot of activities?” I ask.

“We were. Saturday was hockey, we also had a baseball field,” Gordie tells me.

“Are you in any of these?” I wonder as my finger scans over children positioned in front of the school steps. Standing behind the children are a number of priests and nuns some dressed in black habits, others in white.

“No, I usually had some kind of injury when it was time for photos. One time I had a bruise on my eye from a hockey puck so couldn’t be in it, it might have looked like I had been hit by one of the staff…”

Gordie is referring to the now well-documented mental, physical and sexual abuse, even death, that students suffered at the hands of the priests and nuns who came from afar to work in these schools.

“I didn’t have as many issues as some. I was from one of the more respected Native families so usually safe from the abuse of the staff and other students. My dad held some sway.”

Gordie Sebastian comes from a long line of prominent Ktunaxa who owned and bred horses. He points to a photo of a group of men, four sit on their horses. One of them wears a blanket, tucked-in at the waist.

“That’s my great-grandfather, Sabas, Joseph Sebastian. He was a medicine man.”

A medicine man was a highly respected member of an Indian tribe. They were healers or ‘shaman’ who didn’t believe in bloodshed.

Gordie explains that Sabas and the tribal head at the time, Chief Isadore, believed that no man had the right to erect fences on the Ktunaxa land. This held fast until European and Canadian settlers usurped their ancestral land following the signing of Treaty 7 in 1887. This treaty confined the First Nations peoples to Reserves where many of the Ktunaxa stil live today.

Gordie gestures to the photo of St. Eugene Mission, the once cluster of tipis and houses around the church where his forebears would have gathered.

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Red brick walls

He shows me a detail that had escaped me. A house stands with the top of a tipi sticking out from its roof. Like most First Nations, the Ktunaxa people didn’t adapt well to the confines of a house.

“That’s Indian Pete’s house, set his tipi up in the middle of it.”

In another photo dated 1887, a man dressed in baggy trousers and a waist coat stands in front of the St. Eugene Church. He smiles widely, beside him is a priest. They seem to know each other.

“That’s Father Coccola and Indian Pete. They paid to have the church built. In fact Indian Pete paid our way into heaven,” Gordie says with a  chuckle.

Gordie is open and candid as he explains the more serious and devastating impact the Residential Schools have had on generations of First Nations people.

“But I’ve also been told by some people that these were the best of days, away from poverty and their alcoholic parents on the Reserves.” Gordie explains that many parents weren’t well adapted to parenting as they only saw their children during the two-month summer break and perhaps for a few hours once every three weeks. Also, many of them had been students themselves; their own wounds ever present.

“My father was a student here, he never told me but I think he had been sexually abused. He always checked us for signs.” Gordie says quietly.

We talk about the Priests and Nuns whose frequent indifference to their students’ humanity exacted so much pain.

“Some of the priests weren’t that bad, but the nuns were battle-axes. Some of them could teach well enough but they had little or no compassion. Through their actions we were taught hate. It was drilled into our heads that we were useless…little more than savages.”

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The healing power of the tipi

Perhaps because of Gordie’s influential family, he reports having pushed the envelope a little further than other students. By the time he was a young teenager, he railed against his situation.

“One time I argued with a nun over a basic fact that she was teaching,” Gordie confided. “Now you know that St. Eugene Mission sits between two mountain ranges, the Rockies and the Purcells. Well she had the two ranges mixed up and I told her so. We argued back and forth, I wasn’t backing down. All of a sudden she hit me and I pushed back.”

Gordie was made to sit in the Priests’ office for the day as punishment. Once he told his side of the story, he wasn’t reprimanded further.

“Did she teach the correct mountain ranges after that,” I ask.

“Oh no, she kept telling us the wrong thing,” he says, making light of the story all these years later.

But not all punishment was that easy. Male students who ran away from the school were often found again by the Indian Agents and returned to the school. For the next two weeks they were forced to dress as girls. As shaming as this would have been, it pales into comparison of other punishments that Gordie leaves untold.

I’m particularly haunted by Gordie’s accounts of the tuberculosis outbreaks. Nodding to a photo of a clearly ill student, his head bandaged, he precedes to tell me of the infectious conditions that existed in the school.

“That student had TB, he shouldn’t have been with other students,” Gordie says ruefully. The rate of deaths in the schools from influenza and TB far exceeded that of anywhere else in Canada.

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The St. Eugene Mission Resort and Golf Course

Unlike many Residential Schools, only one death occurred here.

“This is her,” Gordie says pointing to a young girl. “She died when snow fell onto her from the roof. It’s good that her relatives have been here. Her name was Anette.”

Gordie and I have coffee in the former chapel. It’s being readied for a function and we sit at a long table that will soon be set with linen and fine china. I’m told that healing occurs at St. Eugene on a regular basis. As painful as it is, many former students and their families return to confront the hurts of the past.

“The tipi outside is there for a reason. Even as the school was being re-purposed, it was provided for prayers and counselling.”

We glance out towards the tall white canvas. I learn that the poles of a tipi represent the different spiritualities of all people, yet they are bound together as one.

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A painting of Elder Mary Paul

“Facing the past is difficult, but it brings peace. Just as Elder Mary Paul gave us the permission to do so.”

Gordie had pointed out the painting of Elder Paul as we entered the lobby. It is with her blessing that the re-construction of this building was undertaken.

We make our way upstairs to the ‘inner sanctuary’ of the school. Now mostly hotel rooms, Gordie points out the areas which were once dormitories, kitchens and mess halls. The rooms of the nuns and priests were close by.

My sense of this building’s history is suddenly very real. I’m shown the place where Gordie’s bed had stood. We look toward the window and beyond, where the road lies.

“At least I was able to look out of the window and see my father or grandfather pass on the road once in a while. Many kids were far, far from home.”

I’m shown where a young boy stood on a precarious ledge while attempting to run away. I see the burn marks from two arson attempts on the school. I become emotional as I contemplate the daunting stairs that girls as young as four had to negotiate in the middle of the night to go to the washroom. I feel their loneliness, the longing for their home, the yearning for a mother’s touch.

“There are 68 stairs,” Gordie tells me. “I should know, it was my job to sweep and scrub them.”

He tells me it was here that a young student was kicked down the stairs by a priest, tumbling helplessly to the bottom. Thankfully he lived.

a-first-nation-partnership-success-story-8-638“One of the workers saw it happen and pinned the priest up against the wall by the throat. He warned him never to hurt a student again,” Gordie recounts. “The next day we noticed that all of the straps had been removed from the classrooms.”

As the students reached their mid teens, I imagine control must have become more difficult. By the time Gordie is this age, one of the ‘Fathers’ uses government money to fund a swimming pool and provide horses for the students. Gordie takes on the role of the ‘horse guy.’

“Finally on Sunday afternoons we were allowed to leave the school premises and ride free on our land.”

I agree with Gordie how important that must have been; that sense of independence and freedom. This also evolved naturally as the older students were sent to a local school to complete their education.

“It didn’t get much better for us. We weren’t Native anymore and we weren’t ‘white’, so we didn’t fit in. We were ‘apples’…white on the inside but red on the outside.”

Gordie was eventually asked to leave his new school over an incident that he didn’t explain. When his father found out, he was also told to leave the house. He was 17 and on his own; he went north to work in the logging industry.

I don’t hear the entire story of the years between then and now. But I know a number of family members passed away because of alcohol abuse. I know Gordie is raising the young daughter of a relative who still battles with the trauma of Residential School.

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Solace and Peace

I also know that Gordie is one of the good guys. Not only is he helping to heal his own family, but also many of those who walk through the doors of St. Eugene Mission. They seek solace and peace from the past.

I admire Gordie greatly.

An autumn of colour, a discovery of the Ktunaxa people…part one

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“Dappled with crimson, copper and golden leaves”

There are times when a story travels along an unexpected path, bringing you to a place you were hesitant, yet curious to venture into. Once enveloped and drawn into its emotion, you know you must share it.

Autumn foliage against a blue metal roof

Fall, against a blue metal roof

I set out with the intention of writing something less significant than the story that unfolded. I simply wanted to convey the splendour of autumn in Kimberley and the East Kootenays.

This broad valley, book-ended by the Purcell mountains and the Rockies, is ablaze with colour. Nature has dappled crimson, copper and golden leaves onto a backdrop of stately pines and tall firs…a vast Monet canvas, breathtaking in its scale. Evening skies parade spectacular vistas as alpenglow brushes lavender and indigo over jagged peaks. Each dusk comes just that little bit earlier as autumn settles in and winter looms.

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Hues of autumn

It’s unusual that I’m here to appreciate this season. This time last year I had just joined my husband in Kazakhstan and recall yearning for the hues and trappings of autumn.

It’s now before me; a riot of nature, a time of harvest and impending hibernation. I marvel at the changes in our yard/garden where deep ruby leaves cling to barbed branches, nature’s natural deer proofing. Delicate red maple leaves flutter onto the lawn, each one cookie-cutter perfect. I see the familiar doe grazing nearby. Her two fauns have grown through the summer, their white Bambi-like patches now replaced by a thick coat that will warm them through the first winter.

A trail of delicate leaves

A trail of delicate leaves

And so I’ve revelled in these tranquil days…treasuring time with friends and family, savouring walks through fallen leaves, climbing the ski hill to be awed and inspired. An early dusting of snow on the mountains hints at nature’s march of the seasons.

In the spirit of autumn, I sign up for a canning workshop. We chop plump tomatoes, garlic, onions and luscious peppers. Large steaming canning pots transform the colourful chunks into flavourful homemade salsa. We work together to sieve the recipe into tiny mason jars, dunking them back into boiling water to preserve.

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Plump tomatoes and luscious peppers

Mason jars of prized preserves

Throughout the evening we laugh and learn with new people. I meet Dirk from Wildsight. He and his colleagues work within the community to protect regional ecology and promote sustainable lifestyles. Organizing grass-root events and workshops along with the Kimberley Farmer’s Market, Wildsight champions many issues that locals are passionate about.

As we leave the workshop with our prized preserves, Dirk implores us to use the Open Gate Garden, a communal vegetable patch.

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Kimberley Open Gate Garden

“You don’t have to work in it, but there’s still vegetables to be had,” he says encouragingly. Taking him on his word, the next day I fill a small basket of tasty sharp arugula and leafy kale. I chide myself that I hadn’t known about the garden throughout the summer but resolve to do some weeding here next summer. A meagre contribution for the opportunity to pick fresh produce at will. Vegetable gardens in Kimberley are typically fenced from the groups of deer that roam and help themselves to weeds, flowers and those elusive veggies.

The mingling of reds

The mingling of reds

Colours beckon at every turn. Metal roofs of reds, greens and blues cap many buildings in Kimberley; vivid backdrops for the changing foliage. More importantly metal sheeting is practical, helping shed the thick blankets of winter snow…to be honest the odd spring or autumn snowfall as well!

“Vivid backdrops for the changing foliage”

This technique of roofing, adapted in Quebec in the late 18th century, was referred to as ‘metal roofing Canadian style.’ Wonderfully they suit this mountain town. Actually Kimberley is a small city, competing with a few others as the city with the highest elevation in Canada.

On one of those rare Sundays that I’m alone, I drive a short while and take a walk on a warm, cloudless afternoon. With my tinkling bear bell and pepper-spray ready at my hip, I climb a butte, an almost conical hill rising from the valley floor. It’s a walk that invites reflection…it overlooks the traditional land of the Ktunaxa, the Kootenay.

I gaze out over barbed wire and faded green fence posts, out to distant horses grazing in tawny fields. The majestic Rocky Mountains rise above this ancestral home of the Ktunaxa. I’ve tramped through here before but today I linger, conjuring an image of a time when horses roamed free and tipis dotted the landscape.

Looking out the land of the Ktunaxa

Gazing out to the land of the Ktunaxa

A mere 130 years ago, this land was all theirs. They were not nomadic people ‘just passing through’. They had hunted, fished and gathered in this territory for more than 10,000 years. The Ktunaxa lived a spiritual life, in complete rhythm with the land. Obtaining all their food, medicine, clothing and shelter from nature, their reverence for this land was rooted in their culture. Then it all changed…abruptly.

A few days later, I find myself on their reserve, ostensibly to take a few photos. Or was it with the hope that I’d learn something, draw someone into conversation, make a connection?

St. Eugene Mission Church

St. Eugene Mission Church

I meet Dorothy Alpine.

I drive into the ‘new’ school yard of the Ktunaxa. The playground is alive with chatter. The school is attractive with its basic architecture, standing in the shadow of St. Eugene Mission Church. I take photos of the church and its fading white facade. Its precarious yet enduring steeple and crosses, all set against an impossibly blue sky. Built in 1897, it seems out of place on this patch of open prairie, encircled by low rolling hills that merge into the mountains beyond.

I soon chat with a lady enjoying the afternoon sun and casually ask about the history of the church. I broach that other subject; the old school, the former ‘Indian Residential School’ across the road.

“You’re in luck!” she tells me. “There’s Dorothy driving up, she’s the one you should speak to.”

I’m introduced and Dorothy graciously invites me into the school. As the Traditional Knowledge and Culture Instructor for this tribe of the Ktunaxa, the St. Mary’s band, she is committed to preserving the history and culture of her people. She is petite with a warm smile and kind eyes.

A steadfast steeple and crosses

steeple and crosses

“This was all the St. Eugene Mission,” Dorothy says, the sweep of her hand indicating not only the church, but also encompassing the cluster of wooden houses and tipis that surrounded it at the end of the 19th century.

“Right here was the meeting place of our people, the tribes of the Ktunaxa whose land stretched to the areas of Creston, Fairmont, Windermere and into Alberta, Montana, Washington and Idaho.” I would later read it was a vast 70,000 square kilometres of land; the size of Scotland.

Dorothy takes the time to write the names of the other ‘bands’ in the Ktunaxa language. Zaq’am she writes for St. Eugene Village.

Dorothy Alpine, framed by a colourful rendition of the 'new' school

Dorothy Alpine, with a colourful painting of the ‘new’ school

“Back in my grandfather’s time, about 1884, there was already a one room school that the missionaries had set up. Eventually Father Coccola was put in charge here.”

Father Nicolas Coccola was French and ventured to the ‘wilds’ of Western Canada in 1881. He would ultimately spend 63 years as a missionary, working with eight different First Nation Tribes. Tasked with the charge of St. Eugene Mission in 1887, Father Coccola also taught, provided medical attention and built houses. He had the help of the Sisters of Providence.

“They did a lot of good,” Dorothy says, “but we didn’t adapt well to houses. Our houses were mostly tipis, we had the first mobile homes after all,” she quips with a chuckle.

“Is it true that Father Coccola built the St. Eugene church, I hear most of it was transported from Italy?”

“Yes that’s true but it wasn’t just him, there was Indian Pete as well.”

I learn that soon after Coccola arrived in the area he staked a claim with a partner, Pierre Cronin, or Indian Pete as he was known. They had discovered valuable ore. Before long the St. Eugene mine yielded a good return, allowing both men to contribute to the the building of St. Eugene Mission Church.

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Explaining the creation story of the Ktunaxa

Dorothy explains that despite the Ktunaxa’s creation story, they believe that different beliefs are all under one God. Going to church was therefore a continuation of their spiritual experience to some extent and most importantly, a meeting place.

The Government and the arrival of European settlers had not only stripped the First Nations of vast amounts of land (which led to Indian Reserves) but also of their right to hold traditional gatherings and ceremonies, such as the potlatch. Thus for many of the Ktunaxa, the church was very much a compromise for what they had lost.

The Mission grew into a self-supporting community with the first flour mill in the region, a school and hospital. Yet I know that things changed drastically in 1912; the year that St. Eugene Mission School was built.

Residential schools were established by the government with the intent of ‘taking the Indian out of the child’ and assimilation to the ‘white man’s culture’. The St. Eugene Mission was the first comprehensive ‘Industrial and Residential’ school to be built in the Canadian West.

It’s a striking Spanish-Colonial style building that rises abruptly out of the prairie, incongruous even in its stately beauty. I’m well aware that the walls of these former Residential schools hold stories that are difficult to comprehend.

“Dorothy did you go to the school?”

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St. Eugene Mission area in the late 1800’s

“Oh yes and my two sisters as well, we had no choice. Our parents would have gone to jail if we hadn’t.”

I learn that Federal law dictated that all First Nation children were to attend Residential schools; to be assimilated and stripped of their language, culture, even their families.

But Dorothy relates mostly good stories of learning the basics and valuable skills.

“Some of the nuns were better teachers than others, I remember singing away most of grade 5, didn’t learn much that year.”

When I ask how often she was allowed to see her parents, Dorothy tells me that it was only the third Sunday of each month, and two months in the summer. She doesn’t dwell on it and brings the conversation back to the present-day.

“Things are getting better. Our children are learning but also exposed to their own language and culture again. We hold pow wows every summer, we’re trying to move forward.”

After expressing my thanks and taking leave, the storied building across the road beckons to me. It didn’t close until 1970 when the government changed their policy. A plan to turn it into a facility for psychiatric care faltered. Stripped of its original fixtures and artifacts, it lay abandoned for more than twenty years; a constant reminder for the Ktunaxa people of that dark period.

Eventually the Ktunaxa, the Samson Cree Nation and Chippewa’s of Rama First Nations formed a partnership. Since the early 2000’s, the transformed building has welcomed people far and wide as the St. Eugene Mission Resort, Golf Course and Casino.

It’s a success story of healing, through rebuilding. By sheer determination and tenacity, an old Indian Residential School has become a powerful economic engine, but not before families and former students were invited back to confront and lay the ghosts of the past.

Dorothy had made this very clear. “Our beloved elder Mary Paul gave us the strength to go forward.” In 1984, Elder Paul had declared, “Since it was within St. Eugene Mission School that the culture of the Kootenay Indian was taken away, it should be within that building that it is returned.”

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The St. Eugene Mission with Fisher Peak rising in its shadow

It’s late afternoon by now and I walk almost reverently through the Resort. The walls of the former school have been stripped down to the original reddish brick and they do seem to talk. Many beautifully framed black and white photos from the school days are arranged along the solid walls; I have a thousand questions. I sit in the cozy Fisher Peak lounge, the Peak itself framed brilliantly through the tall paned windows.

I ask the waitress if she knew what this room had been in the school.

“If you want to know more, you should speak to Gordie, our night watchman. His father came here, as did he. He knows pretty much everything.”

At that point, I want the full story to unfold full circle. Around me people are dining and enjoying a drink, staff members both First Nations and non, work side by side. Great strides have been made.

I leave my number, hopeful, but not fully expecting a call. My phone rings at 7:15 the next morning.

It’s Gordie. “I just got off work and was given your number. I hear you want to come for a tour and talk.”

I arrive at 10 that morning, notebook in hand…I leave at 3 in the afternoon.

To be continued….

Alpenglow on the Rockies

Alpenglow on the Rockies

A bicycle built for two and a Dutch fiets…exploring on two wheels

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Bikes and canals in Amsterdam

I’m the proud, new owner of a tandem bike, a bicycle built for two. It’s old, a classic Canadian made CCM and I can assure you that it’s rather cumbersome to ride. Yet somehow it evokes the romance of cycling experiences enjoyed around the world. Bikes have been our conveyance of choice in many places, affording glimpses into varied, everyday cultures that could not have been replicated by car, train, or even on foot.

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Options for transporting on a Dutch bike

We’re in Canada for a number of months awaiting our next overseas posting and I’m sure we’ll master the tandem. Yet in our mountain city of Kimberley, BC, most townspeople either own a mountain or road bike. Cycling is a way of life here and like most locals, I took to biking on the wooded trails this summer. I enjoyed it, yet admit that my active imagination was preoccupied with the thought of bears, moose or deer crossing my path. Admittedly, part of me is more at home cycling in urban settings. I love the vibe of a bustling city; even better if you can discover it on a bike.

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Artful in Denmark

On a recent trip to Amsterdam I wanted to get to the root of cycling; how does a society embrace it so completely as a mode of transportation? It’s common knowledge that bikes have evolved into the daily fabric of Dutch life. The Netherlands has one of the most efficient cycling infrastructures in the world. Many cities enjoy similar accommodations for cyclists; Copenhagen, Stockholm and Montreal for example, but the Dutch have truly mastered it. Almost 70 % of all journeys are made on a bike, or as we say in Dutch, a fiets.

I fondly remember taking to my fiets daily when we lived in Holland. Through the cobbled streets of Oudewater I cycled, my first-born strapped into a seat slung from my handle bars. A wicker basket attached at the back, ready to carry home the daily shopping. No helmet, even on my little guy, and yes the thought of it now alarms me. It seems I became complacent to the obvious perils or simply, I adopted the Dutch culture.

Bike stories from previous generations in Holland abound in my family. During war time, my grandparents improvised using garden hoses as tires when none were available. My mother and grandmother had a narrow escape when mercifully they hesitated to lean their bikes at a neighbour’s farmyard, then saw from a distance the building destroyed by a bomb a short time later. But there are also fond memories; three generations of us cycling across the border to Germany, evenings out in Amsterdam then cycling back to family along moon-lit canals, absorbed into the pulse of the city.

“Build paths and they’ll be used”

I visited the Amsterdam Museum and discovered that the bike culture is not simply happenstance. Of course the flat landscape has long been ideal for biking, but by the 1960’s new found wealth and progress came in the form of increased car ownership which marginalized cyclists. Quaint town squares were transformed into parking lots. Historic buildings were demolished to widen roads for the burgeoning car culture. Deaths from car accident deaths increased alarming; thousands in 1971 alone, tragically 400 of them were children. This along with the 1973 oil embargo prompted the ever-pragmatic Dutch to protest, ‘stop the slaughter of our children and end the car culture.’

The Government responded and promoted cycling as a mode of transportation; bike paths, junction lights and bike parks were built.

“Build paths,” said one official, “and they’ll be used.” As the Dutch rationalize, “Is biking not the fastest, cheapest, healthiest way to get around? Why would one not take to two wheels when given the opportunity?”

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A type of child carrier in Christiania, Denmark

In fact today, there are more bikes than people in Amsterdam. About 800,000 of them, and as 84% of people have more than one bike, it’s fair to say the city is a ‘sea of bikes’. I still bemoan the loss of my beloved Dutch fiets that transported me along many charming streets. It had been stored in Amsterdam in my great-aunt’s shed but was eventually given away. How I wish it was in my garage today, at home with our seemingly endless array of bikes; if only for posterity.

On my fiets with a great-aunt in Amsterdam

On my fiets with my great-aunt in Amsterdam

Those solid Dutch bikes are ‘people-movers’ as they’re pedalled with one, two, three, even four children at a time. Riding in any Dutch city during rush hour is a sensory experience. It’s terrifically busy, a constant flow of solo commuters as well as parents transporting their youngsters as they chat about their day. Sitting on the bike or in a cargo box (a bakfiets) the weather is of little consequenceAfter all, there are rain/cold weather covers which help during inclement weather. Especially when the family dog, the daily groceries or a case of Heineken is stuffed along-side the kids!

Additions such as bakfiets are extremely functional but would have been unimaginable when two-wheeled machines first emerged in 1817. The invention is credited to Baron Karl von Drais from Germany. Drais invented the ‘running machine’, called a draisine. It was human-propelled and with no pedals, it was more walked than ridden. Hence it’s nickname of hobby-horse.

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A typical sight in Sweden

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A vintage penny-farthing

Eventually came the bone shaker, then the oddly shaped penny-farthing with a large front wheel and much smaller rear wheel. Rubber tires replaced steel-lined wood and in the 1890’s the safety bike evolved. It was the first machine to be called a bicycle; similar to the design we’re familiar with now.

Many variants of the bicycle have evolved; to road and touring, mountain bikes, unicycles, rickshaws and back to fixed-gear bikes. ‘Fixes’ are single speed and use back brakes, stripped back down to the basics. The zest for simplicity has created a new subculture of riding ‘fixies’ in urban settings.

I came across such a group in Montreal, long a city of cyclists. They posed willingly for my camera but it wasn’t until later that I discovered they were sporting ‘fixies’. Chatting with a young man at a cafe in Calgary, he told me that he was studying in Montreal. I mentioned my blog and showed him my photos. “Ah, they’ll be on ‘fixies’ for sure,” He explained the new subculture that these riders have created with this retro trend; the old will be made new again it seems.

'Fixies' in Montreal

‘Fixies’ in Montreal

For many of us who grew up in Canada, our bike experiences started with a trike, graduating to a set of rattly training-wheels, then onto a ‘banana seat’, and finally the thrill (in my day) of a 10-speed. We cycled endlessly. We got ourselves to school, around town and to our friend’s homes on our bikes. Whose front lawns didn’t have bikes splayed on them when friends came over?  We would also jump on our 10-speeds after dinner, eager to see what was ‘going on’. “Be home by dark,” our mothers would holler as we sped off.

Once you become a parent yourself, teaching your child to ride a bike is a rite of passage for you, every bit as it is for them. I recall the joy as my children balanced their bikes for the first time as I reluctantly let go. Running nervously behind them and anticipating the fall I’d exclaim, “You’ve done it! Don’t forget your brakes!”

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Our youngest, left, and friends out for a pedal

Even today when my grown ‘kids’ hop on a bike, I find it heart-warming. Perhaps it evokes memories of those carefree childhood years, yet I believe there’s more to it than that.

Riding a bike allows us an elemental, exhilarating connection with the world. No hard shell around us, no peering through a window, we are at one with our surroundings; and what surroundings we’ve been fortunate to have explored.

I leaf through my journal from our six month backpacking trip in ’89. I find enticing cycling entries.

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We cycled to the non-tourist view

Agra, India, February…We chose the non-tourist view of the Taj Mahal today. With rented bikes we cycled through a small village along a train track to the nearly dried Yamuna River. There we beheld the most wondrous sight, the Taj Mahal to the south, the Agra Fort to the west. We were transfixed, not able to pull ourselves away from the view. At twilight the moon rose creating an ethereal mistiness that mingled with the Taj; regal and impossibly beautiful. We finally had to pry ourselves away to return our bikes, pedalling home with the moon guiding our way.

 

Kathmandu, Nepal, April…We managed to find bikes to rent and cycled from Kathmandu to Bhaktapur. The Nepalese greeted us as we passed, children ran behind us with mischievous smiles and antics. The friendliness continued as we rolled into the medieval city of Bhaktapur and got swept up into the improbable spectacle of the ‘Biscuit Festival’. An immense, brightly painted wooden pagoda was hauled through the street with much excitement. But the side streets we later cycled were the highlight for me with stunning intricate carvings of Nepalese architecture.

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Offering a ride in Yangshuo, China

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The evening of the Tiananmen Square massacre

Beijing, China, June…Last week the experience of Bruce offering a ride to a rice farmer cut through culture and language. Against the emerald green rice paddies in Yangshuo, with water buffalos ploughing the fields, we cycled in bewilderment. It was as if we had been dropped into a National Geographic article.

Contrast to today, we tackled ‘bicycle kingdom’ as it’s called. There are 4 million bicycles in Beijing! We dodged and weaved. We passed locals going home from the market with upside down chickens tied to handle bars; their squawking adding to the cacophony of tinging bike bells and incomprehensible Cantonese. I can’t believe we found our bikes after we had stopped for lunch, for there must have been thousands of them alongside each other.

Our cycling experience in China would become far more dramatic as shortly after that diary entry, we were trapped in Beijing during the Tiananmen Square Massacre. Our bikes played an integral role in planning our escape; that however is a story for another time.

Cycling the Islands of Norway

Cycling the Islands of Norway

We gladly embarked on an overnight cycling trip while we lived in Norway, only bikes and ferries on that adventure. Along the shores and through the islands we meandered, only sheep impeding our progress. The Norwegian cycling infrastructure is also superb; paths routed along lush green fields and colourful fishing villages nestled tidily beside icy fjords.

But unlike the Dutch, appropriate gear and helmets are the norm, one does not casually jump on their bike without paying heed to their attire. And I’ll give the Norwegians credit, there isn’t such a thing as bad weather, only inadequate clothing.

By the time we had left Norway, I had acquired the requisite rain pants, jackets, boots, reflectors, even a ‘rain cover’ for my backpack. It all makes good sense when your bike becomes your chosen mode of transport.

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World Bicycle Relief

As I wrote this blog, I was conscious of the millions of people that don’t have the privilege of owning a bike, despite the vast improvement it would bring to their life. I came across World Bicycle Relief. This organization believes that a bicycle in the hands of an African student can change many things, and it does.

Bicycles for Educational Empowerment Program provides bikes to students, teachers and healthcare workers in rural Africa. 70% of the students this program donates cycles to are girls.

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Students with a WBR bike

In places such as Botswana, Kenya, Rwanda, South Africa, Tanzania and Zimbabwe, to name a few, students using bikes mean covering greater distances, arriving safely at school on time, less fatigued and ready to learn. Grades and attendance improve for those students that have received bicycles.

I listened to the story of Ethel, a vibrant fifteen year-old. Before owning a bike, Ethel walked more than two hours each way across hilly terrain to attend school. Now on two wheels, she is able to dramatically reduce her commute time, allowing more time to pursue her dream of becoming a nurse. Ethel also helps others in the community by offering rides when possible.

I’ve decided to donate to World Bicycle Relief, to give someone like Ethel the opportunity to improve their life. I think of it as paying homage; to all the cycling experiences that have enlivened, coloured and enriched my life. I wish the same for them.

Our tandem, bicycle for two

The tandem, a bicycle for two

Postcards from Malta…a Mediterranean treasure

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 Valletta, the heart of Malta

images-1I’ll be honest, it hadn’t been my first choice to spend a special anniversary, here on this isolated island in the Mediterranean. We arrived late on a humid evening and awoke to a stunning view from our balcony; the fortress city of Valletta before us. The morning sun played on the water and radiated off the honeyed hues of limestone that dress the city. I was instantly captivated. Valletta, a city of bells, bastions, harbours and limestone, has a story to tell.

Valletta is the heart of this tiny island nation and the most southerly capital city in Europe. A four hour sail from Sicily, Malta is a country rich in architecture and long in history. My husband promised I’d fall in love with it. He was right, and without a doubt, I now consider Valletta the equal of many other European cities.

DSC07074 That splendid view offered more church domes than I’ve seen in any one vista. Bells chimed constantly from nearby steeples, at times melodious and dissonant. Although the Maltese language is an ancient fusion of Arabic and Romantic languages, the country is staunchly and passionately Catholic. Their faith plays a part in everyday life with churches at the center of each parish; 360 of them serving a population of little more than 400,000…quite astonishing.

And then there’s the question of size. The Maltese islands (Malta, Gozo & Comino) are a mere 316 square km. but they have assumed a significance far exceeding that meagre landmass. Coveted as a strategic port and defensive position, the islands were given by the Pope in the 16th Century to the Knights of St. John who had lost the island of Rhodes to Ottoman invaders.

DSC07111 Also known as the ‘Knights Hospitallers’, the Knights of St John followed their religious calling to care for the sick and shelter the poor, their origins dating back to the early Christian pilgrimages. They controlled the islands from 1530 to 1798 and in that time constructed massive fortifications, lavish churches and cathedrals, and beautiful urban architecture.

I find it somewhat intriguing that The Knights were chosen from noble and wealthy families, taking vows of chastity, obedience and poverty, often giving their own property to the order. Though originally not allowed to shed blood, a new class of warrior knight was formed to circumvent this. Thus, the Knights not only preached and healed, but they were also formidable soldiers.

Valletta is a baroque city of piazzas, palaces, churches and gardens, said to be a city built ‘by gentlemen, for gentlemen’…those accomplished Knights. In 1566, Jean Parisot de Valette, directed his Knights to fortify the Christian stronghold against Ottomans invaders. The Knights and Maltese became legendary after successfully repelling the Turks in the Great Siege. Funds flowed in from European rulers to further transform this city. De Valette’s imposing bastion walls still enclose this UNESCO World Heritage Site.

IMG_7968It may seem curious, but in Malta one drives on the left hand side of the road and passes by red British post boxes. These British remnants are reminders of when that nation was invited to assume control of Malta. After a fleeting occupation by the French, the British were offered control of the Island in 1800. Other vestiges of their presence endure in statutes, architectural embellishments, English as a second official language and most charmingly, the abundance of archaic signs. Those ‘old fashioned’ ones that I love so well. It’s all enchanting, yet somehow down to earth in its faded elegance.

Gallarija and signs from a bygone era

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Local limestone was the predominant building material in Malta. 16th Century Churches, villas and auberges, the once stately dwellings of the Knights, are all chiseled from this malleable stone. I marvelled too at the tall, four storied apartments. They are narrow and deep, made distinctive by the Maltese version of the Italian logia, the gallarija.

Even today they afford residents an ornate perch from which to peer down onto the narrow cobbled streets. I watched neighbours chatting through the narrow side windows, though many gallarija seemed to double as laundry rooms, the rare breeze on tiny lines of clothes.

IMG_7977Wonderfully, many of these wooden enclosures are brightly painted. Those untouched and neglected are also interesting; layers of peeling paint hinting at their former glory. When wandering the streets of a Maltese town, your eyes are drawn instinctively upwards. But you’ll be distracted and delighted too by the archaic signs that still announce stores and services, many of which have long ceased trading. Even boarded-up shops recall close knit communities and family ventures.

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One can easily envision the scene. People stroll from shop to shop as carriages rattle by. Horses slumber in ground-level stalls of the tall homes; reminders still in the large wooden doors that now house vehicles. Valletta’s hilly streets must have been burdensome for beasts and humans alike as they strained to haul goods to merchants from the wharves below.

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Evocative street names reveal a vibrant past such as Old Bakery Street, Merchant Street and Old Theatre Street. These narrow side streets are much quieter these days, most tourists preferring the chance to promenade on bustling Republic Street.

We came upon a small square with beautifully refurbished apartments and, through a chance encounter, were graciously allowed to peek inside a law office. Our host, Hugh, unbolted the heavy wooden doors that separated his powder blue gallarija from the interior of the offices. We gazed out to the nearby steeple and to the busy harbour opposite.

I admired the beautiful centuries-old Maltese tiling at my feet and the frescoes adorning the high ceilings, imagining many such treasures hidden inside the buildings of Valletta. Hugh assured us that many of these once-grand buildings are being restored, perhaps prompted by the declaration that Valletta will be Europe’s Capital of Culture for 2018.

The Waterfront

IMG_8109If you live in an archipelago, boats are a daily part of life. Ferries, harbour craft, sailboats, cruise ships and traditional Maltese boats are in constant motion. DSC07230The luzzu is a traditional fishing boat with the ‘eye of Osiris’ painted on each prow, Phoenician style to ward off evil and bring good luck. They bob prettily in the harbours and troll the blue seas for lampuki, the national fish.

DSC07203 We hitched a ride on a venetian style dghajsa in the Grand Harbour. Disappointingly our Sicilian ferryman fired up his outboard, waving off our romantic notion of rowing across. Enrico delighted in telling us that a celebrity couple had sat in his small boat just a few days earlier. He pointed out their massive yacht, still anchored against the imposing backdrop of the St. Angelo bastion.

There’s yet another movie being filmed in Malta; previous ones include Monte Cristo, Gladiator, and Popeye. In fact, the next afternoon we were caught up in a car chase scene, turning to see machine-gun toting renegades coming our way. We were hastily ushered off ‘set’ and reluctantly meandered away from the  action. No ‘star’ sightings I’m afraid and to be truthful, filming in the 35 degree heat looked long and tedious.

A full moon, formidable forts and Caravaggio’s daring escape

IMG_8124 We crossed the waters daily from Sliema. At the foot of the massive fortifications were ranks of warehouses, resplendent in vividly painted doors and windows. They say this tradition of colour coding was for illiterate sailors, making it easier for them to identify the correct store house. Malta straddles the east-west Mediterranean seaway, plied for centuries by one civilization after another. Time and again its strategic importance has been proven.

One evening with a brilliant full moon overhead, we cruised the harbour of Valletta and the neighbouring Three Cities. One of them is Birgu, where the Knights built their second capital, the precursor to Valletta. The three towns were enclosed around 17th century ramparts along with Fort Angelo. We heard tales of battles and heroes, and of a daring escape by the famed and volatile painter, Caravaggio.

DSC07275Despite not being of noble birth nor of good character, the Italian Caravaggio was nonetheless admitted to the Knights of St. John in 1608. Not long after, the talented painter tangled with a high ranking knight in a brawl who was seriously wounded.

Caravaggio was hasitly imprisoned in Fort St. Angelo. Thankfully his beautiful paintings already graced the Palace of the Grand Master and St. John’s Co-Cathedral. The supposedly formidable walls of one of Malta’s strongest forts were soon the scene of Caravaggio’s daring escape. He was bundled off in a boat back to Italy; it occurs to me that this would indeed be a story line for a thrilling Maltese movie!

Counting bells and Festa

DSC07113From that first sitting on our balcony at The Palace Hotel, I continued to count bells. There seemed to be a melodic ‘ting’ to announce the quarter of the hours…then a tinny ‘tong’ to announce the hour. Yet, just when I thought I had detected a pattern, the bells would cut short or ring incessantly, my theory left in tatters. But it’s festa this time of year, which plays an integral part of Maltese culture and perhaps the bells are more relentless than usual.

IMG_7993Every summer each parish celebrates festa, a religious festival, and preparations in ‘our’ neighbourhood were underway. Lavish banners were hung the width of the narrow streets. Lights were strung and churches outlined and decorated with an impressive, though somewhat gaudy array of lights. Life size statues of saints positioned on pedestals oversaw the festivities.

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Fireworks displays coloured the night skies, each parish vying to out-dazzle the other. We followed a marching band on our return one evening, tell tale signs of the upcoming festa. Copious amounts of confetti already littered the lively streets. Just one solitary sweeper was tasked with the clean-up as the rest of the parish strolled behind the marching band, sing-song meeting the rhythm of drums and horns. Music is vital to festa.

Mdina, the ‘silent city’

IMG_8042We sought a more quiet side of Malta the next day and hopped on a local bus to Mdina. Settled by the Romans, who had built on even more ancient settlements, Mdina was the island’s capital until 1530. Positioned on the edge of a plateau with verdant vineyards below, the fortified walls are entered through imposing stone gates. Once inside,a mix of baroque and Norman architecture grace the narrow streets in Palazzi or grand old houses and religious buildings.

Tall walls shelter Benedictine nuns in convents; they commit for life. There are beautiful Cathedrals and Chapels, now restored to their original brilliance after Napoleon’s troops looted them in 1798. When the soldiers returned for more, the local folk rebelled and eventually put an end to France’s short rule.

These days the Maltese aristocracy mostly live here and with fewer than five hundred residents, its tranquility is part of its allure. We wandered, then treated ourselves to a horse and carriage ride which trotted us through the only complete medieval gate in Malta, the Greek’s Gate.

IMG_8066We ventured across a main road to Rabat, a suburb of Mdina. Saint Agatha is IMG_8009their patron saint, a statue of her resting in the church and is paraded through the streets during festa. This village was also in full preparation for the upcoming festival; banners, bunting and flags coloured the townscape. We soaked up the atmosphere, foregoing the Roman and Byzantine attraction of catacombs and tombs; uneasy that these labyrinths as well as bomb shelters lay beneath our feet.

Bombs rained down on the Island for 142 days and nights during the second World War. As the most bombed place in Europe, the entire population would go underground into a warren of shelters. King George the Sixth awarded Malta the George Cross for ‘their heroism, bravery and devotion.’ We encountered memorials and plaques that remind the Maltese of this still today; they are justifiably proud people.
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We preferred staying above ground and found ourselves back in Mdina on the bastion top patio at Fontanella’s. With the view rolling out to the sea beyond the vineyards, we indulged in our favourite local ftjira and chilled Maltese wine for a long lunch. The languor of a hot July day and the perfect view kept us rooted to this idyllic spot.

It seemed church bells had followed us from the city.

“The bells are crazy,” our waiter tells us. “One hour yesterday, gave me a big headache.”

The so-called ‘silent city’ was very much alive that afternoon. If Valletta is the beating heart of Malta, then surely Mdina embodies the soul of this land.

Nights in a Palazzo

IMG_8243Somehow it seemed fitting, by good fortune rather than design, we found ourselves in a suite in the Palazzo Cupua, a treasured annex of the Palace Hotel. Perhaps it was a nod to our anniversary from Thomas, our obliging concierge whom we came to know.

As I had taken such interest in the architecture on this trip, it was a thrill to see the grandeur of these once stately homes and actually stay in one. Carved limestone staircases led to polished marble hallways, delicate IMG_8207painted frescoes graced the ceilings and once again intricate patterned tiles covered the floor. Perhaps it isn’t surprising that my only souvenir of the trip was a small print that depicts tiles in a lavish villa; it seemed perfect.

Tall shuttered windows looked out to the colonnaded verandah, of course, it was all sublime. This Palazzo was referred to by Thomas MacGill’s in his book, Handbook for Strangers. He visited Malta in 1839.

“It is a fine colonnaded palace built by a Russian banker and the only building worth noting in the village of Sliema.”

We concurred, though the real pleasure was that it spoke to us of a time long past when it stood mostly solitary on a hill DSC07255overlooking the same timeless view that beguiles travellers still today.

We flew away from the tiny island in the morning sun; over the ramparts, the cathedrals and smooth limestone. On top of the waters that we had sailed on and snorkelled in, the impossibly blue Blue Lagoon calling back to us, along with the cobalt blue waters of the Azure Window. The Hypogeum also beckoned, those Neolithic temples and carvings older than the pyramids themselves. Sadly, we hadn’t found time to visit.

It seems we’ll just have to return to this fascinating treasure in the Mediterranean. Not to mention, there’s still the puzzle of the bells to solve!

Smitten by Spain…of tapas and new shoes on the esplanade

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In Alicante

“Your cortada, señora,” the waiter says, placing the tiny coffee before me. Soaking up the atmosphere in a small Spanish plaza, it strikes me how lovely it is to be called señora. Far more exotic sounding than Ma’am or Mevrouw.

Having visited three countries in a two week period, it’s been hectic. I have half-written blogs on the delights of Quebec City, Canada’s gem, and picture-perfect Netherlands. But for now…I’m smitten by Spain.

An unexpected trip with my mother and Dutch relatives has found us in the Alicante area, on the Mediterranean coast. Overlooking the Costa Blanca, we’re happily ensconced in a family villa. The terrace wraps around the long bungalow, leading to a ‘pool with a view’. We sunbathe and float, our gaze lingering on the sailboats and the fishing vessels beyond. The azure sea melds into the endless blue sky; I now understand why people adore Spain.

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Architecture and ‘siesta blinds’ in Alicante

Indeed, this is the good life on the Mediterranean. We indulge ourselves with moonlit swims and champagne lunches by the poolside, happy to drip-dry in our swimming suits and wraps. Our hosts, my second cousins Alda and Margienus, don’t permit us the luxury of afternoon siestas however. There’s too much to see, as Alda knows well.

Her father acquired the villa some forty years ago. “I was about fifteen when we first came here for holidays. I feel some of my roots are here at Casalmar,” Alda told us as we feasted our eyes on the spectacular view for the first time. We soon appreciated why one would chose to vacation or live here.

Villas crowd the coastline, bouganvila of fuscia, deep purple and crimson spilling over stone walls. Palm trees, cacti and giant aloe vera spring from the dry earth. Tiny corner stores and family run eateries seem to welcome on every street. Local markets sell the essentials for Spanish cuisine such as oranges, pimentos, chorizo, olives and rice. Fun, seaside attire entices us and we all come away with something; flouncy blouses, flowing pantaloons and billowy kaftans. But best of all, the sea is never far away.

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‘pool with a view’

Our neighbourhood of El Campello is tranquil, yet comes to life on the promenade. Large intricate sandcastles guard the beach, children dig with bright spades and pile fine sand into plastic buckets. Bars welcome us with vistas of the waves lapping against the shoreline. Naturally, a 16th century watchtower catches my attention.

The Alicante region wasn’t just a magnet for traders and settlers over the centuries, but also for the dreaded Barbary pirates or Ottoman Corsairs as they were also called. They plied the coast capturing local population, building their slave trade on Spanish captives. Some twenty defence towers still perch on prominent cliff tops; as if still watchful for the North African invaders.

“a handful of pencil crayons’

Some invaders came to stay and their legacy remains. The Moors over-ran southern Spain but brought enlightenment in the form of medical knowledge, irrigation and education. The coast also became a major Mediterranean trading station; rice, palms, olive oil, wool, wine and oranges. Valencia is further north and I can attest that the oranges are the tastiest you’ll ever try. And the wine? We sampled much of that as well; a delicious Spanish white costs no more than 2 Euros. It really is la dolce vita. Or should we say…la buena vida!

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The boulevard at Villa Joiosa

One afternoon sees us enjoying a bottle of white in the picturesque town of Villa Joiosa. A short trip along the coast, its name means ‘jewelled town’. The vibrant colours are intended to guide local fishermen home from the sea. Narrow, centuries-old houses lean against each other, each distinctly hued. Shades of powder blues, reds, pale lavenders, yellows and seaside greens. Imagine selecting a handful of your favourite pencil crayons and living amongst them…it’s fanciful and alive, jewels every one of them.

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Lavender and terracotta pots

As we while away the late afternoon at the small Placa Castelar, the town awakens from its siesta slumber. Locals emerge from the warren of streets that radiate from the cobbled square. Church bells peal laconically, shop doors unlock, dogs stroll with their humans and hats tip to neighbours.

We hear the the swish of blinds and shutters roll up. These outdoor coverings for doors and balconies are drawn down during siesta. It’s 5:30 now, time to come to life for the evening. I notice a few señoras trickling water into terracotta pots on tiny balconies. ‘Hola’, they venture.

I mention to Alda that we might peek into some shops back along the harbour. “I think you’ll want to wait for tomorrow,” she says and I remember what I’d read about Spanish shoes in Alicante.

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Waves of marble on the esplanade

We begin our outing the next day (after a stop for the promised pair of Pikolinos) with a stroll along the heart and soul of the city, the Esplanada de España. This grand boulevard stretches around the Alicante marina, all 6.6 million tiles of it; red, black and cream.

Created in 1867, it offers the place for a perfect paseo, a romantic evening stroll. The dramatic marble tiles depict the waves of the Mediterranean and rows of palm trees offer shade. Well-dressed couples stroll hand in hand, people peruse the kiosks, others sip coffee.

At a nearby bustling square we enjoy a cocktail and I befriend two charming waitresses, Maria and Katrina. We chat and pose for photographs, their natural friendliness epitomizes the hospitality of Spain.

After a first tapas at a nearby outdoor bar, we encounter them once again. Maria is standing in the elegant entrance of Le Turronena and I stop to ask the name of the imposing tree that shades the square.

New shoes on the esplanade

New shoes on the esplanade

“It’s a dragon tree, there’s another famous one in Tenerife,” she informs me, then asks if we’ve come back to dine.

“No,” I say a little apologetically, “we’re on the search for our next tapas bar.”

“Well then come with me, I’ll take you to where you’re going next.” And with that Maria marches us down the street, shouts Hola to fellow shop workers as we pass, then turns a corner. We’re suddenly upon a crowd gathered outside a small tapas bar.

As custom dictates, many of the locals are outside socializing in the warm June evening, tapas in hand. Maria informs one of the staff that she has a group of six and voila…we’re lucky enough to be seated at the bar. We know immediately that Maria is an angel in disguise.

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Katrina and Maria, our ‘angel’

Alda had promised that we wouldn’t leave without an authentic tapas experience and this was it. The small bar is like a beehive; busy, exuberant and productive. Cured ham strung against mustard walls, tapas orders shouted out over the laughter and chat, staff weave in and out like a choreographed salsa dance. Each time their hospitality is rewarded with a tip, a loud clang erupts from a voluptuous bell behind the bar. “Fantastico!” one of the guys would sing-song and we in the bar would loudly echo it back. The ebullient Sara tells me it also means…”Our new friends are leaving and we hope they’ll come back.” I like that.

As the wine flowed and sumptuous dishes are presented to us, it’s understandable that tapas has evolved into a sophisticated cuisine. Perhaps eight to twelve different dishes are savoured one by one, designed to encourage conversation. We sampled octopus, tuna, chorizo alvino, calamares and dishes in between. But the art of tapas has far more humble beginnings.

It’s believed that since one would stand while eating a tapa in traditional Spanish bars, you’d need to place your plate on top of the drink to eat, making it a top. Others maintain the name originated sometime around the 16th century when tavern owners realized that the strong taste and smell of mature cheese disguised that of bad wine, so offered free cheese.

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Fantastico!

Another theory is that King Alfonso X of Castile recovered from an illness by drinking wine with small dishes between meals. After regaining his health, the king mandated that taverns shouldn’t be allowed to serve wine to customers unless accompanied by a small snack or “tapa”, the meaning of the word.

Then again, it’s said the same king once ordered a cup of wine on a windy beach. The waiter covered the glass with a slice of cured ham before offering it to the king, thus protecting the wine from sand. “I’ll have another, with the cover!” the king is said to have bellowed. He was onto something…in our opinion, wine and tapas go hand in hand.

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Sara and Roben

At one point in the evening, I ask Alda about her time spent here over the years. She fondly recalls shopping for a long gown, so she could stroll the esplanade as a teenager.

“Everyone dressed up then for the paseo, it was a special time,” she says and feels privileged to have experienced that era. Alda relates that Spain became her father’s home and in fact chose to be buried here, rather than back in the Netherlands. “He contributed a lot to improve our village, it became a tight knit community with pockets of Dutch and English.”

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“a new dress for paseo”

That had been evident over the days as I heard Dutch and distinct English accents throughout the area. Yet while living a true Spanish experience in the tapas bar, Cervecería Sento, one’s home country is miles away. It’s difficult to imagine yourself anywhere else at that moment in time.

My story might leave you in our favourite tapas bar, yet I must share one last vignette. Our last day finds us back in the village for a traditional Sunday lunch. To complete our culinary experience, Margienus insists we have traditional paella, the Spanish rice dish that originated in the Valencia area.

We climb up a rocky hill where the restaurant sits, open to the breezy afternoon. Beach goers and picnics enjoy the sand below us, the day feels pleasant and timeless.

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At Casalmar before Sunday lunch, in our ‘flouncy blouses, flowing pantaloons and billowy kaftans’

No, it isn’t a fancy place, but the food and the family atmosphere is the attraction. Children play on the hillside and occasionally make their way to their parents who are enjoying yet another course and likely another bottle of wine. People wander up to the bar in bikinis or sit smartly dressed…and yes, the Spanish do craft beautiful shoes!

We’re offered a small plate of a national dish from a generous local at the table next to us. We feel welcome and at home. Yet, I long to hear some Spanish music, you know how I am about these things.

I ask one of the Thomas family members if they could indulge me. Generations of the family have welcomed the neighbourhood into their restaurant over the past forty years. On cue, a flamenco tune fills the restaurant. Now the experience is complete.

The Spanish melody drifts past us, out towards the Costa Blanca. Really and truly, every Sunday afternoon should be like this.

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Generations at the Casa Thomas

By the way, how was the paella? Like everything…it was Fantastico!

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Paella, bright with saffron

They’ll be home…where the garden is, where memories live

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The pond, for fishing and skating

Our evening stroll offered swooping owls, waddling ducks and darting dogs. The sun sunk low into a newly planted field that borders the acreage, we call it home…’the farm.’ I’ve made my way back to Canada to surprise my parents for their 40th Anniversary, returning to a plot of land that embodies nature’s bounty, a lifetime of work and more memories than can be captured on film. But there’s no need; the images are imprinted on our hearts, embedded into our collective family memory.

This land, a grain field forty years ago, is now an oasis with towering blue and white spruce, and ponderosa pine that shelter from howling north winds. The grass is verdant this spring, its rich emerald hue a backdrop for flowers in bloom, golden spurge and delicate May Day trees.

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At the garden shed

These are the prairies of Western Canada where settlers have arrived for the past few hundred years; enticed by fertile farm land, hopeful for idyllic homesteads and new beginnings.

From their European homelands they ventured by ship, uncertain of what the future held. They journeyed onward by train, along the newly laid Canadian Pacific Railway, disembarking at communities across this vast country.

As with my mother’s family in the ’50’s, many arrived from the Netherlands, risking all for a new life; hard work and toil yielded success. Proud, new citizens in a welcoming land. Some settlers trekked from the east or the U.S. in caravans of wagons, stacked high with furniture and family. The wagon parked on the acreage from my father’s family, is a proud reminder of their storied journey. Now a backdrop for a yellow rose bush, it was once a means of transport. A working wagon for hauling hay, feed, grain to elevators.

Quiet country roads

Quiet country roads

In my family, you garden, work in the yard, grow things, landscape and stroll the land; just as our ancestors have done. Is it in your blood, this need to commune with the land, I feel it is. I felt it wouldn’t be spring for me until I could dig a little, plant, walk the dogs along scented lilacs and quiet country roads.

And so, I’ve come home to my parents and I find them where they should be…where I’m delighted to be.

They’re ambling below dreamy blue skies, dogs nudging at their sides and geese gliding over sky. I’ve found them plucking asparagus, planting gladiolas and poking hollyhock seeds into tilled earth. It’s time to cut first grass, take the ‘storm plastic’ off and let the deck breath, prepare the planters and the ‘beds’. Soon the kitchen table will display their bounty; bouquets of lupins, tulips, dahlias, peonies, lilacs and glads.

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Tulips in bloom

My parents awaken, work and stroll to a symphony of cooing, cawing; a melody of birds. Plump robins, doves, meadowlarks and elusive owls. Partridges, pheasants, hawks and cowbirds chirp and squawk. Butterflies flutter and bees flit past, en route to blossoms and buds.

Where grandchildren played and played

Where grandchildren played and great- grandchildren now play

Under billowy clouds, skunks duck into warrens and gophers tunnel, deer prance through fields past gangly hares. The dogs wait patiently on a weathered deck as we have a ‘wee dram’ at dear, long time neighbours. Storm clouds brew, awakening our senses as we rush home through the shelter belt of trees.

These glorious days of spring find us reminiscing of grandchildren that grew up in this haven of outdoor activity. My children who were raised on different continents, came here…to be home.

Towering elms

Towering elms

Here, with cousins, they learned how to skate on a frozen pond and ‘hold on tight’ for tractor-drawn sleigh rides. How to build snow forts and duck snowballs. Summers passed in perpetual movement…running barefoot over green lawns, soaked and squealing. ‘Secret missions’ played out through trees and fields. Golf carts, bikes and trikes circled the yard, eager for an adventure.

It’s here they played ball, built campfires and gazed at a million stars. Where Grandpa taught them how to fish, to golf, to ‘drive a standard’ in a rusty, green pickup truck. Where Grandma ensured they knew how to play ‘Texas Hold Em’, sing ‘Hollandse leidjes’ and bake waffle cookies. Yes, it’s here they came to bond with family, find their roots, to become…Canadian.

This oasis has been a constant in our lives, a refuge on the beloved flatlands of the prairies. I find my parents offering the same inviting hospitality that has always been for my family, since the day I was married…here, on this land. The elms and pines are taller now, the wagon more weathered and the kitchen table a little scuffed from hearty meals and lively gatherings.

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Grandfather’s wagon

And as it was recently when I crept into their home from halfway around the world, it was as always, gezillig…that Dutch word for cozy. The surprise was genuine; as were the friends and family here to celebrate these two special people. I know we’re fortunate to live and travel the world. Yet, we have a haven to come home to…it’s just east of Barnwell*, Alberta, Canada. And my parents, I’ll find them here…home.

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An Anniversary surprise

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The colour of beehives

*Barnwell is not named after a barn and a well, but after William Barnwell who immigrated from England. His family dates back to the Baron de Barnwell who came from Normandy with William the Conqueror in 1066

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An early spring bouquet

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The neighbour’s barn