January 28, 2012

A Whiteout and a Silver Thaw

Last week, we in the Fraser Valley experienced what local long-timers are calling 'the worst storm since '96'. One Vancouver TV meteorologist temporarily named our region 'The Freezer Valley,' and my husband, who commutes a mere ten minutes by car to his work at a hotel just north of here and has years of winter driving under his belt admitted that the driving certainly had been 'a bit crazy'. On one of his days off, the police even closed the road to the next town where my husband works because of white-out conditions. The next day, the road was open, and my husband acted as a taxi for a few employees in his department who didn't want to drive themselves. I had asked him to let me know when they had arrived at the hotel, and when he finally called me he said he had been unable to see anything at all for 18-20 seconds of his drive. Several of our friends who work in the city west of here gave up trying to get to work at all.

Our road crews worked overtime to keep the main thoroughfares passable, but with farm fields knee deep in powdery snow which was lifted and tossed ceaselessly by arctic winds for days on end, the drifts in some places were meters high. While the Real Canada laughed from afar at we wimpy west coasters, we, unused to the blasts of winter felt regularly by the rest of Canada dealt with it as best we could. Our temperatures reached shocking lows of -16 while Alberta had -45. While our children gloated on Facebook about their schools being closed all week, my sister's kids in Manitoba where it was -41 were miffed because their buses only stop running when the temperature dips to -47. Dressed in multiple layers and a scarf up to my eyes, I ventured out everyday as well, just to get some exercise and a few supplies from the dwindling shelves of the greengrocer. My kids spent at least part of every snow day outside, building forts and tunnels, and shovelling the driveway.

Amazingly, even though I had pots of water at the ready in case of a power outage, which I thought was inevitable, we never lost power nor did we lose internet access. The days were spent in relative contentment by all of us at home. I finished the archaeological adventure I was reading and started a murder mystery which I had been given for Christmas.

We watched movies, baked cookies, played a few board games, and caught up on our sleep. All in all, our snow-week was a gift, a chance to gear down and spend some time holed up together.

The weather had calmed considerably by Friday and many of the shops that had closed their doors for a few days were back in business. The grocery stores were restocked with milk and bread, but everyone was bracing themselves for the freezing rain that was promised. Saturday morning, we woke up to a world covered in several millimeters of ice. I went outside to capture some of the beauty on camera before the 'silver thaw', as my friend Sue called it, began in earnest.

Within half an hour, the sun was burning through the clouds and the delicate ice which coated everything in sight began to lose it's grip. Every motion of the wind sent a brittle shower onto the shell of ice-covered snow below. As the morning thaw continued nature provided a chorus of water music. The powerlines and the eaves on the houses dripped in constant percussion, and the hungry, noisy birds came out from their shelters deep within the cedar trees.

Sunday was a gloomier day. The lovely silver thaw had turned to a gritty brown melt. The rain dissolved the white crust to reveal the layers of sand and gravel poured on the snow and ice over the week by the road crews. I was beginning to be desperate for a run, so I went off to the local gym in search of a treadmill.

The week of being mainly housebound may have been good for my spirit, but it had done a number on my waistline.

January 20, 2012

Shrinking the Generation Gap, Part Two

My son Galen loves to play for people, and he thoroughly enjoys playing with other musicians. To my continued amazement he thinks nothing of getting up in front of a large audience and performing whatever he has been rehearsing. He plays with a local orchestra and recently took part in a performance of Handel's Messiah with a youth ensemble. Practicing his violin is a daily solo effort, so he relishes the chance to get together with other like minded people to do what he loves best.

When our friend Diane asked him if he would consider playing some duets over the Holidays with her 95 year old friend and neighbour, Ella, the answer was "Sure!" Galen had heard me exclaim over Ella's talent and continued abiltity at the piano, and he had no reason to disbelieve me. Ella, on the other hand, had been informed of Galen's talent but it was clear she wasn't holding her breath. She had been sent musical partners recently and had been disappointed. She, however, agreed to give him a try and after a few more calls back and forth, a date was set for their musical meeting.

It was agreed that Galen and Ella would meet at her home at 2:00 p.m. the following Thursday for a one hour session. Diane and Jim would be away that day, but they were to leave me a key so I could go in their house for a cup of tea after letting out the chickens and herding the ducks into the garden. My youngest daughter Katie came with us and after we had dropped Galen off at Ella's, Katie and I went off to do our farm chores. The rest of the hour passed quickly with me stoking the fire in the kitchen wood stove and enjoying some tea, and with Katie discovering a Garfield comic book in the house.

We pulled the car around the circular driveway in front of Ella's and peeked in the living room window. Ella and Galen were in the middle of a piece and so, not wanting to disturb them, Katie and I stayed outside to listen. From where we stood the duo sounded great and we let them finish. They noticed us but started another piece at Ella's request. Katie and I continued to stand awkwardly outside the window, enjoying the sounds coming from inside and the view of Ella's diminutive, incredibly animated form at the Steinway grand piano. The hour was stretching by the minute and fearing that Ella would soon grow tired I knocked on the door at what I thought was an appropriate moment.

The door was opened and we entered the foyer. Ella's face was full of excitement. She clapped her hands together and exclaimed, "I had heard Galen was good, but not this good! I made so many mistakes. I was so amazed I just wanted to stop and listen to him. So much talent! How? Where? From whom did he get such talent?" she demanded.

"I do have a very musical family," I said.

"My goodness. And you! Don't you play the piano?" she asked.

"Yes, but not very well. Let's just say I have a nice touch." I said. "He gets his discipline and goal-driven determination from his father."

Ella continued to talk about the session in a disjointed way; I think she was rather stunned by how it had gone. I do not think she ever expected Galen to be so accomplished, not at his age, not of his generation, perhaps. She also questioned Katie about her piano lessons and encouraged her to carry on.

"I'm sure Galen would like to play with you again, if you would like to," I said.

"Do you?" she said. "I would think he might not after all the mistakes I made. I'm afraid I was not very good today." She laughed and abashedly put a wrinkled but fine hand over her mouth.

Galen assured her that he would like to, and we all left it at that.

We have not heard from Ella since that day, but I do hope she will give playing with Galen another try. During a phone call the next day, Diane and Jim assured us that Ella had indeed been delighted with the session, and that she probably needs some time to let the experience sink in.

At the very least, even if she decides not to invite Galen for another session, I hope this disappointing world appears just a little bit brighter since that afternoon.
I leave you with another great Victor Borge clip, this time another unlikely but successful duet. Enjoy!
Wishing you a wonderful weekend.

January 13, 2012

Shrinking the Generation Gap

It must be a challenge sometimes for the elderly to stay hopeful in this world, especially when so many of them watch daytime television. If the world were truly represented by what is available as news and 'reality' TV, even Pollyannas would lose their irrespressible optimism. The world has changed a great deal over the past century, and those who have been through one or both of the Great Wars really must feel as though they have seen all there is to see. The advancements in technology alone are enough to make one's head spin; for example, cable television used to require only a cable plugged into the wall and voila! Now, it requires research and excess equipment, decisions about PVRs and digital boxes, and mysterious contracts in a language hitherto unfamiliar to most people.

Thanks to the digitally shrinking globe we are surrounded, bombarded almost, with the events of the day from around the world. It takes a bit of detachment and a philosophical attitude to keep everything in perspective. I can see how an elderly person might be tempted to despair if all they see of the younger generations are bad news stories and the baggy-pants swagger of the texting, smoking, swearing young who hang around outside the shops of our downtown streets.

Some good friends of ours, Jim and Diane and their two children, live on a farm just outside of town. On their farm are two houses, theirs which they built and a larger one which was once the family home of Jim's parents. A few years ago, Jim and Diane renovated a section of the house for their elderly friend, Ella. Ella is now 95. She cooks for herself, still drives her red sedan, and likes things around her, home and garden, arranged just so. Jim keeps her house warm by tending the fire and looks after any maintenance issues which may arise. Most of Ella's family live in the U.K. but she is by no means friendless. She enjoys company but like any elderly person, in small doses. She enjoys the view of mountains and fields in the distance and the pond with its bird life only a few meters from her kitchen windows. Wonderfully, Ella spends time most mornings playing one of two pianos in the spacious, light-filled living room of her apartment. Ella has maintained her amazing sight reading ability, and having heard her play once or twice, I can attest to her tremendous talent.

I have had a few conversations with Ella, mainly outside the greengrocer we both frequent, and while she is sharp and quick-witted, she has gained a rather jaded view of mankind in his present form. The world is often referred to as 'going to hell in a handbasket' or something like it. Families don't stay together anymore, children are badly behaved and have no attention span, no-one has any discipline, people are far too materialistic, politicians are evil, crime is rampant, life used to be simpler, life used to be better. She subscibes to cable via a sattelite dish, and enjoys television which I will admit can be fine company depending on the show, but perhaps, as stated above, it can be blamed for some of her despondency. I can hardly blame Ella; I sometimes get fed up with the world as well, but perhaps my relative youth and health work in my favour and I can never despair for long. My children and their friends and cousins with their talents, their energy and their optimism serve as examples (most days) of why there is also hope for the future.

On an evening before the Christmas break, our local high school put on a band concert. As has been the tradition for two years now, my violinist son Galen played a solo sometime during the concert. This time he teamed up with his pianist friend, Kieran to play a duet of Vittorio Monti's Czardas. Unbeknownst to us, while they were rehearsing during their lunch hours in the band room, they were concocting a slightly comical rendition of the piece. They realized that they had to turn their pages at precisely the same moment in the piece, and rather than appeal to friends to turn their pages for them they decided to perform the song in a style similar to the great classical music comedien Victor Borge. When it was time to turn their pages, they would stop, turn them together, then start up again. What made it so funny and surprising for the audience was the fact that they were so skilled at their instruments, but willing to show the lighter side of 'serious' music.

Diane and Jim happened to be at the concert that night and thoroughly enjoyed the boys' performance. A week or so later I received a call from Diane. Apparently, Ella had recently been partnered with a student from the local academy of music. The student came out to Ella's house and attempted some duets with her. For whatever reason the partnering was not a success, and the search was continuing for a suitable partner. And that is where Galen came into the picture. Would he be interested in playing some duets with Ella, whom he had met once or twice? Diane had heard Galen at the concert and thought, 'aha! There is the perfect partner for Ella.' Should she approach Ella with the plan if Galen agreed to it?

Would you like to know the answers to the above questions? Read part two of this story. In the meantime, here is a lovely video of Victor Borge and  violinist Anton Kontra performing their rendition of Czardas:

As for the photo above, unfortunately, I can't find out who took it. I found it on a careers website.

January 5, 2012

The Reluctant but Enthusiastic Gourmet

Someone once said, "Restaurants are to the 80's what theatre was to the 60's." Actually, it was a character in the Nora Ephron, Rob Reiner movie When Harry Met Sally, and judging by all the restaurant scenes in the film, his comment must have been trueThe 80's were also a great decade for film, so my kids tell me, and, strange, imaginative child that I was, I think I spent half my time back then trying to emulate the scenes, characters and clothing from Hannah and her Sisters, Out of Africa, or select John Hughes movies.

When I was a teenager, a few of my friends and I would save up our spending money and go out for a fancy French meal at Justine's, an establishment no longer open in my hometown. Justine's was an airy, peach and white downtown restaurant with glass block dividers and live jazz. We would dress up in our finest 80's fashions and, I'm sure, impress and/or amuse the adult regulars with our yuppies-in-training ways. Until I found out it was raw meat, I always ordered steak tartare as my appetizer, and generally an entree with chicken or scallops. Eating out at Justine's was the epitome of elegance to we small-town kids looking for a bigger life, and the atmosphere caused us to sit up straight and use our best table manners and hushed voices.

And then there were the dinner parties. My childhood friend Molly's mother, Panny was, and I'm sure still is a phenomenal cook and she and Molly's dad had newly purchased the former Anglican manse which had a large dining room. With Panny's help Molly hosted a few dinner parties, with each of us guests supplying a dish. I remember making Greek salad. How exotic it seemed back then. Molly's mother cooked from books with names like The Enchanted Broccoli Forest, and later, opened a great little restaurant, The Wild Onion, with her sister Vicky. My own family was into good eating as well, though generally of a slightly humbler variety - one of our commonly consulted cookbooks was called More-with-Less.

When I was a child I did a fair amount of baking, but I didn't start cooking until I'd pretty much left home. When in university I lived with my sister, Clare who taught me how to make soup from scratch and other budget-friendly meals. My last year I lived with a pack of roomates and we were each responsible for our own meals. I lived on veggie burgers and stirfry. And vietnamese salad rolls from the canteen in the UBC arts lounge. When I got married a year later, I could throw together a meal of sorts, but I was far from being an artist in the kitchen. For a wedding gift, Clare bought us a subscription to Canadian Living magazine, which was perfect as a teaching tool for me. My husband had become a decent 'cook for one' from his ten years as a bachelor, but when it came to cooking for a family I was more the natural in the kitchen. Plus, I was keen. I love food, and I love good food more, so I was eager to learn all I could. Still, there were never what I would call gourmet meals issuing forth from my kitchen. We had children straight away and so it was healthy family cooking, trial by fire. Over the years, I became a fairly good children's cook. To this day, other people's children tell their parents what a good cook I am, and how they like eating at our house. While I appreciate their praise very much, I am humbled by it. I know Michelin, the organization that grants restaurants the highly valued 'Michelin Stars' would never grant me so much as a a twinkle. But I don't mind that. To me, that's what restaurants like Justine's are, and were, for - to give we family cooks a break from spaghetti and home-made pizza - and give us a taste of something fresh and exciting, which in turn will enhance our own home cooking and dare us to try something new.

In this town of few restaurants of any real quality there exist a surpising number of skilled culinary artists, and many of the best meals to be had here are cooked and eaten in the home. Our friend Marilee's husband Stefan is a fine chef who happens to run the kitchen in one of the area's major prisons (one of the largest employers here), and last weekend, they gathered twelve of their friends together for a New Year's Eve meal to remember. A week beforehand an email was sent to all the guests with the information that Stefan would be making Saltimbocca with local pork scallopini (to prevent the usual outcry against veal) with prosciutto and sage, and parsnip gratin with wilted pea sprouts.  Each couple was asked to choose a side dish or dessert to prepare. At the fashionable hour of 8:30 pm the guests began to arrive and gather in the beautifully transformed dining/ living room of Marilee and Stefan's home. The menu consisted of small and beautifully plated servings of the following courses:

mini crab cakes with dill mayonnaise

mixed greens with walnuts, goat cheese and orange sections

carrot ginger soup (my contribution)

Saltimbocca and parsnip gratin

meyer lemon granitee served in frozen blood orange halves and garnished with pomegranate seeds and candied lemon zest

triple chocolate dessert: white chocolate mousse, chocolate cassis pate and a hazelnut ice cream macaroon garnished with a champagne sauce and sugared rose petals.

And of course there were endless bottles of wine passed around during the meal.

At precisely 11:58 pm pink champagne was served and we toasted the new year in high spirits, to say the least. The platter of 'Lady Jane', 'Castle Blue' and 'Cranberry Caerphilly' cheeses was then brought in with a bottle of port and most of us found a bit more room for them. It was during the dessert course when I looked up from my incredibly delectable chocolate pate and said to its creator, the local cheesemaker seated opposite, "I'm wondering how I got here!" And she said,

"Well, you must have done something good this year!"

The conversation flowed as quickly and as richly as the incredible meal deserved and soon it was time to organize rides home with sober drivers. I am not much of a drinker, so I had enjoyed my usual small amount of wine and could drive my husband and I safely home to our house across town. In fact, when we were toasting the new year, Marilee asked us to proclaim our resolutions. I don't tend to make resolutions, so I made a joke instead: "I'm not going to drink anymore!" to which there were resounding 'boos'. "I'm not going to drink any less either!" which brought forth cheers and laughter from the crowd before I admitted the joke was a favourite line from a movie.

Meryl Streep's character in Postcards from the Edge says another favourite movie line of mine: "I don't want life to imitate art, I want life to be art!" Every once in a while I will reflect on an event in my life and think it has come pretty close to being art, or at least come close to being a scene in a good film.

If my dreaming, sixteen year old self could have looked forward into New Year's Eve, 2011 she would have thought the future looked promising indeed.