August 30, 2017

French Women Don't Get Fat - or, I wish I were French

Recently, I was given the book French Women Don't Get Fat by Mireille Guiliano, a Franco- American. I was happy to get a copy of this book (even though it may have been a hint) after wanting to read it ever since I saw the author interviewed on Oprah way back in the mid-2000's. I was nearly finished reading a novel called My Brilliant Friend written by Italian author Elena Ferrante and thought perhaps a transition from one European sensibility to another might be natural. I am anything by willy-nilly in my choices of what to read and when. I did find Guiliano's 'non-diet' book easy to get into, but to stay with? That is another matter, and fitting don't you think?

After explaining the French woman's loving relationship with food and pleasure in a delightedly light-handed way Guiliano launches into a series of meal plans and recipes that further illustrate her philosophy. Light, varied but satisfying and delicious meals seem to fill her life, with a glass of wine at supper each and every night. She grew up in France fairly privileged (with a nanny and a gardener) and food preparation and mealtimes were  near-sacred ceremonies, especially lunch, which was the main meal of the day as it is in many countries. Her mother seems to have been a wonderful cook who got the family involved in the harvesting and preserving of the fruits of their orchards and gardens. The main bits of wisdom I take from the book so far are the following: if you are going to have dessert - and dessert is very important - skip the bread at dinner (although bread is also very important, so skip the dessert if that makes you happier), set the table beautifully and present small portions with panache, eat what is in season when it tastes its best, and enjoy a hearty, healthy breakfast containing yogurt because that will start your day off right and prevent over-eating later in the day. Try not to snack, but if you are stuck in the airport waiting for a delayed flight, keep a handful of nuts in your Hermes handbag. Moreover, enjoy every bite of your precious food, simply take fewer. In any case the pleasure of food is tasted only in the first few bites.

Guiliano's way of living and eating is admirable and enviable. There is something beautiful and classic about her approach. To our North American way of thinking the French woman's philosophy may seem elitist. We immediately shout at her, "I can't afford halibut and lamb chops and all that wine and fancy cheese!" In France, however, food and wine ARE the center of everything, and she explains how life works there. Markets exist in every town and shopping is done daily on foot, not by car, so you get some exercise, too. One purchases for ultimate freshness and quality. I think the anecdote which impressed me the most was when she writes about going to the melon seller and him asking when she wanted to eat the melon. When she replies "In two days when my husband arrives from America - these melons are his favourite," the seller carefully chooses a melon that will ripen perfectly by then. Her husband arrives in Paris, enters the apartment and his nostrils are filled with the perfectly ripened aroma from the melon. "Wow!" is all he can say. French people would rather eat an ounce of good, what we would call 'artisan', cheese than a pound of  American cheese from the 'hypermarche'. The difference between North America and France is defined by how the poor eat as well. In North America, she observes, the poor eat low quality carbs and junk food because that is what is immediately available to their budgets. In France, however, their culture has shown them how to buy food in season when it is at its most plentiful and cheapest, and since less is more they fare better than North Americans health-wise. Eating well seems to be written into the French person's DNA. How lucky they are! We seem to live a lifetime learning how and what to eat.

Living in New York half the time, Guiliano has access to year-round European style markets selling everything from asparagus to fresh caught fish and seafood. Most of us are lucky to live in a town with a farmer's market open once per week in the summer months only. The 'hypermarche' is the reality for most of us. We've all heard the advice, "Shop the outside aisles only" because that is where the fresh food is. Everything else in the center aisles is bottled, packaged, and processed. Well, I shop the center aisles, too. Where else can I find pasta, oats, jam, peanut butter, crackers, coffee, tea, those mint Oreos my kid loves, and the juice my husband needs to survive? In France, perhaps, all of this is available freshly produced at the market, apart from the Oreos (but then, who needs Oreos when you have macarons?). I know from experience that my area's local farmers produce oats and even jam, and I can access these by a bit of extra leg work, but I don't always have the time. I do stop at the pepper farm once a week for a bag of bell peppers in season, and visit farm stands often for berries, eggs, and fresh corn, for these are all on my way home from work. I have always made it a priority to feed myself and my family the way I need to for our health and my peace of mind. That being said, I could stand to lose a few pounds.

So, what can I learn from Guiliano's book? I think I can take her principles and apply them realistically to my own life. I do many of the things she suggests - eat a good breakfast, eat what's in season, make most of our food at home, drink a lot of water, move my body, etc. I do not refrain enough from snacking, especially at work where I am surrounded by food. I do not set the table every night with nice dishes and cloth napkins, sipping wine while I chew slowly and thoughtfully. Perhaps that is the ticket. When all my children lived at home and my husband came home every night we sat at the supper table most nights of the week.  Most nights now, I and my youngest kid, the only one still living at home, eat sitting in front of the TV watching an episode or two of our latest favourite show. Our supper hour is a routine for the two of us and we both enjoy it.

The other night I served myself smaller portions of supper, sat as usual in front of the TV for an episode of Father Ted, and took smaller bites, trying to savour them slowly in between hoots of laughter. Life is all about compromise. Oui, oui!

August 20, 2017

The Need for Peace

I am quite certain most of us feel like the world is a scary place these days. I do not have to list the reasons why. We are bombarded daily with new images and descriptions of violent acts and bad news stories, and feeling overwhelmed and powerless to change things in any meaningful and lasting way seems to be the norm for many of us. As if the global situation is not enough of a threat for us, 2017 in my part of the world has proven, thus far, to be a year of climatic events of biblical proportions. Our winter on the West Coast was the fiercest we have seen in a decade or so with one raging snow storm after another (yes, the rest of Canada laughed). The month of April saw only one day without rain, and British Columbia has been locked in a chronic State of Emergency this summer due to the hundreds of forest fires raging across the extremely dry southern half of the province. My own sister was evacuated from her city for two weeks, and another relative was kept from her home for a total of thirty-nine days due to the threat of nearby fires. I cannot help but move toward fall with a slight sense of trepidation, as in, 'What's next?' Still, I am glad to be alive and constantly yearning for a sense of balance and peace on this crazy planet. What else can I do?

Last evening my husband drove me up to the main lookout point at the resort where he works. He wanted to show me the stars without the diluting effect of ambient light. We drove up around nine pm and watched the sky as it darkened and the constellations revealed themselves one by one. The night was windy and quite chilly so we stayed in the truck as long as possible before getting out to gaze up into the night sky. Satellites and airplanes cruised across the starry dome. Shooting stars pierced like arrows and then were gone. The Big Dipper, the Little Dipper, Orion's Belt, and the Milky Way shone boldly as monuments to eternity. "We are so tiny down here compared to what's out there," said my husband at one point. "It's amazing to think that some of what we are seeing no longer exists, but we are seeing it now due to the time its light has taken to travel to a point where it becomes visible to us." Then, he told me again about taking groups of people on evening snowshoe treks up at Mount Seymour years ago when he was doing his practicum. He had made a chart with holes pierced in it in the shapes of the various constellations. He would shine a flashlight on the chart and the 'constellations' would appear on the snow. Then, the snowshoers would look at the sky and identify the matching constellations. He wore a little satisfied and delightful smile as he talked about those memories, and I felt so glad he was back doing a job where he could live and work in the outdoors and share the magic of nature with the public, and with us.

Just before ten we climbed back into the truck and drove down the mountain. Earlier he had been describing the look of the resort's wedding tent - the resort hosts a lot of weddings in the summertime - and decided to drive me 'round to see it all lit up. The tent glowed with ropes of white lights and Middle Eastern music filled the air. We could see a crowd of people dancing and hear them laughing and enjoying themselves. Earlier, there had been some tension between the families - one side Iranian, one side Cuacasian - but from what we could see that seemed to have dissipated with the celebrations. Perhaps the wedding had shown them they were all family now and they had better get along. I mean, if the bride and groom didn't mind their cultural differences, why should their families?

Earlier, in the truck, as we were waiting for the growing darkness to reveal the stars fully, I sat quietly. My husband asked me if I was alright. I said I felt sad, not for me, I had a good life, but for some other people. I felt sad for people who hold onto prejudices and grudges. I felt sad for people who refuse to forgive others, and for people who go so far as to foster hatred for people they don't even know, only because they represent some perceived threat to their comfort and security. Mostly, I felt sad for people who didn't know or cherish peace.

This morning as I sit typing in the morning chill with a second
cup of coffee to warm my hands between sentences, I am grateful for everything good. I am glad people are standing up in the thousands to speak for peace and harmony in the world. I am grateful for stars to remind us of our limited time to do some small good on this planet - so, let's do it! I am grateful for the difficult people in my life because they teach me patience and understanding. I am grateful for the ones who by loving me unconditionally keep me afloat. I am also grateful that stars, the ocean, lakes and mountains, trees and wildflowers are free for all to enjoy and to have in common.

I remember a song we used to sing in elementary school. In my mind's eye I see a crowd of kids dressed in corduroy bell-bottoms, crocheted vests and shirts with wide lapels sitting cross-legged on the carpeted floor of the assembly room. They are rocking slowly back and forth while singing:

Peace is flowing like a river,
Flowing out of you and me,
Flowing out into the desert,
Setting all the captives free. 

Let it be so.

August 6, 2017

Smoke and Magic

Sometimes in life we get to take part in something magical. Last night was one of those times, although I have no photos to prove it.

My daughter and I spent the first part of Saturday morning packing up enough food and clothing for the BC Day long weekend which we would spend with my husband at the resort where he works and lives part time. By ten-forty-five we had gassed up and merged our way into the stream of vehicles heading East for holiday time away. The drive is a fairly quick one in good weather so we arrived at the resort by noon. The smoke from the interior forest fires had been heavy all week and we were hoping to drive up, up above the smoke into clear skies. No such luck. We had to content ourselves with the thinness of the smokey layer up in the mountains and make the best of it. We arrived at the main lodge and immediately spotted my husband in the parking lot talking with some very good friends of ours, the kind you want to see when you are escaping your busy life for the weekend. They had come up to the resort to spend the day. That was magic moment number one, come to think of it. We all embraced and made plans to spend the day together. We would meet in an hour and a half at the lake where a barbecue and lantern festival was happening. My daughter was tired from a long and energetic week teaching theater camp and chose a nap and a quiet afternoon in our cool cabin instead.

Things did not go as planned. Somehow our wires got crossed and the friends and I didn't end up meeting. We spent about three hours looking for each other. I circled the beach area twice and then, hot and a bit worried, decided to commence a hike around the lake with a first stop at a favourite little swimming beach from where I could hear people on the path above and be able to intercept my friends should they walk by. I dove into the beautiful, clean, clear water and swam for a quarter of an hour. The physical relief of swimming in a lake after being hot and sweaty is something I have always considered the penultimate in outdoor activities. No sign of our friends, though.  They, too, as it turned out, had hiked around the lake in search of me and had also gone for a swim. Somehow we missed each other but at least we all got a hike and swim in. We also enjoyed a pleasant dinner together. Saturday happened to be Leo's birthday and we toasted his years with a beer for him and wine for us. They left for home at eight and my husband, daughter and I changed into warmer clothing for our evening activity, which was to be volunteering at the lantern festival with other staff.

We had to be at the boathouse at eight-thirty so we could launch all the canoes and kayaks while there was still daylight. Within minutes about twenty staff members were assembled and choosing PFDs (life jackets) and paddles. We chose a canoe and hurried to get in and push off to make room for everyone else to do the same. The lanterns would be launched at nine-thirty from Spruce Bay, which is the beach for the lake's main provincial park campsite, so we had plenty of time for a paddle down the lake. The smokey skies had greatly suppressed the wind in the past few days and we enjoyed a calm surface in which to dip our paddles. As dusk settled bats flew above our heads and the dark outline of duck families floated past. Those with lights on their canoes switched them on. Earlier in the day families had attended a lantern-building workshop on the grassy lawn by the lake. They constructed wooden frames with a holder for a candle and covered the frames in coloured tissue paper. On my last walk around the beach in search of my friends I caught a glimpse of an impressive 3-D maple leaf lantern receiving its finishing touches in red tissue paper.

From the water we could see and hear a large crowd gathering at Spruce Bay. The lanterns would be launched a few at a time and let drift with the current. Our job was to keep them from drifting into shore and also, after they had traveled far enough to gather them up, blow out the candles and place them in our canoes. We would then paddle to the bay and return them to Jo and the other staff members who were standing in the water waiting for us. The families could then retrieve their lanterns and take them home if they wished. Approximately seventy glowing lanterns in all shapes and sizes were launched. The designs ranged from a white Pac Man replica to a tall lighthouse to a beautiful pink whale with pink and purple scales. Two maple leaf lanterns, one with 'Canada 150' emblazoned on it, were set adrift and glowed proudly red for the occasion. Such a beautiful sight! My daughter, ever cheeky, started singing a song from the Disney movie Tangled, which features a lantern festival, and saying, "See, it is Tangled." 

And at last I see the light
And it's like the fog has lifted

Except in this instance it was smoke, not fog.

As the night set in completely, I kept an eagle eye out for other boats and my husband steered us in and around the lanterns. We gathered a boat full and brought them carefully back to shore. The usually boisterous and noisy young staff seemed a little subdued by the ceremonial aspect of our task, as if we were all honoured to be out there on the lake in the dark returning lovingly made creations to their rightful owners. After the last lantern was gathered and the last candle blown out we all turned our canoes and headed back to the boathouse. An orangey-red orb of a nearly full moon was rising up over the hills and accompanying us as we paddled across the blackened lake. Keeping an eye out for the log boom we found the opening and steered through it to the dock, my husband calling out to the other boats, "Watch out for the log boom!" Earlier in the evening I had chuckled after hearing one of the young men on the staff call out jokingly to my husband, "You're not my real dad, you can't tell me what to do." My daughter and I put away our paddles and PFDs while my husband helped with the canoes. I had been warm out on the water, but now with the extra insulation of the life jacket gone, I began to shiver a little. After a short chat about a successful event - no staff members had flipped their canoes or cursed (water would carry sound to the families on shore most effectively) - with Mike, the resort's GM, we drove back to our cabin.

After my active day sprinkled with little bits of magic I fell gratefully into bed and slept until my husband arose for work. As I write this the clock stikes ten, and my daughter is still asleep - she rarely sleeps in late. I suppose she was sprinkled with some magic dust last night as well.