Random Notes from Shangri-la

happy squirrelMy last post was called “Of Stillness and Slow Time”, since then things have got more still (stiller?). I am now staying in a small hotel -3 rooms, no wishing well- no phone, no internet. If I hike cross town, that is past as many as six buildings, I arrive at the internet cafe. It is furnished with sturdy tables and chairs and free internet access. Pas du café. Something about a permit as yet not granted. I hear rumours of available phones at, for example, the Laughing Squirrel Restaurant. The laughing squirrel seems to have split, leaving the field to Mommy’s Roadhouse. Excellent Angus burgers and maybe a phone there somewhere. We tried semi-phore. I am on the second floor on a height of land. Smoke signals are out pending an end to the draught. Shank’s mare works. Just walk up and knock on the door. Thus was I summoned to breakfast this morning.

Amazing how restful it is! My smart phone turns into a stupid phone up here where AT&T gets no reception. Still coping with the altitude, I went to sleep at 8 p.m. and didn’t wake up until 6. Blissfully out of touch.
view from hotel 1

When I first got here I received a  relayed call from a shut-in to bring Black American Spirit. I went to the closet to find a black t-shirt made by that company in L.A. that insists on making its garments in the U.S. Only to discover it is the name of a cigarette.

view from hotel 2Before I moved to the small hotel, I borrowed the Prius one morning to go to the Bear Claw Bakery for croissants. I couldn’t find the usual electronic key. I grabbed the second one. I walked up to the car, pressed unlock. Got in. Put the key in the coffee cup holder, started up and drove away. I bought the  baked goods, returned to the car. The door wouldn’t unlock. I tried again. I tried the other doors. I tried the trunk. It’s a hatchback after all. I took out my stupid phone and gave it a good talking to. I left the croissant bags on the roof of the car and went back into the bakery. Could I use the phone? Wordlessly the chap I call the grumpy baker handed it to me. I called home. Eventually, someone woke up and answered. That remote key doesn’t work. Hasn’t for years. How did I even get the car to go? Hard to explain how to extract the manual key. Help would arrive via golf cart. Meanwhile I managed to get the actual key out of the remote device and unlocked the door. Now the dash kept telling me “no key”. There was a slot below the ignition button. I poked and prodded. I swear I was about to insert the remote key -well, I would have figured it out given five more minutes- when the cavalry arrived.

view from hotel 3The town is remote and perched at 5000 ft. The road up is serpentine. For 30 years, people could and did die waiting for an ambulance. Recently, a helicopter pad was built so that emergency patients can be air-lifted to the Bakersfield hospital. Even so, not everyone arrives alive as we learned last week. In addition there are now paramedics stationed here at the new fire hall. Imagine having to wait half an hour to an hour for the fire trucks to arrive in a town of wooden houses and tinder dry forests.

Today the ribbon cutting ceremony for the fire hall was scheduled for high noon. In deference to my low-land lungs, we drove over. “The whole town is out,” my companion declared. “Really?” I replied. “It’s a small town,” she rejoined. In fact it was just mountain time all over again. We stood in the shade with a dozen other people, all willing to chat. Noon passed. Twelve fifteen passed. Gradually others began to arrive. The crowd doubled and tripled. Around 12:25 -I shouldn’t have even noticed of course – the dignitaries arrived. In due course and with blessedly few speeches, events unfolded.

It had taken over 30 years to get the fire hall and much lobbying and in-fighting, marching with banners and the deaths of two beloved residents. Finally Kern County agreed to build it. It cost 9.5 million and came in 10 months ahead of schedule because there were no snow days. That would be because of the 5 year-long drought. President Obama has declared this a disaster area.

The fire hall is a thing of beauty. Since it is our fire hall, we got to tramp through it. It is still waiting for its brand new furniture, but everything seems to be of the best quality. Stainless steel and granite counters. Two person bedrooms with private bathrooms and built in desks set under the window. One room to accommodate a person with disabilities. (Fire halls are also refuges for battered women, as well as collection depots for unwanted new-borns.) A fitness room lined with mirrors. And of course room for the two fire engines.

view from hotel 4Some advice, in case you need it. If the great recession has done you in, move to a place like Kern County where the unemployment rate is double the national average. Such places have access to funds because they are poor. The medical health clinic is 40 minutes down the hill beside the I 5, again beautifully new and up-to-date. Another is due to open up here next month, smaller no doubt but no travel necessary. The new library down the hill has soaring ceilings, an auditorium, a beautiful children’s room, computers, a good collection and remarkable art work. Certainly people are here because the cost of living is much cheaper and many are retired so unemployment doesn’t matter as much to them. Nevertheless, there are service jobs available and every second person seems to be a realtor.

view from hotel 5For several weeks, we have been trying to identify a certain bird call, almost piercing, two noted, pendulum-like. It seemed to me it must be made by a large bird. We hear it in the morning and then again about 5:30 in the afternoon, often from a tall pine across the road. We crane our necks, we sneak around and peer upwards. No dice. We listen to bird calls on the Audubon app. Perhaps it is a woodpecker. That could account for its invisibility. One morning, the mystery is solved. The singer sits upright on a rock pile outside the kitchen window and pipes up. It is a squirrel.

sunset over mtns

 

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Pack in Haste: regret at leisure

suitcase(howtodothings.com)

You’ve see those movies where the grifters have to leave town asap. They throw their clothes, hangers and all, into suitcases. Easy to do, because they had only one suitcase of clothes to begin with. Or the flee-ers scoop everything out of drawers into suitcases, which they slam shut. In comedies, some personal item trails out.

This time I had a 2 hour notice that I had to get from Toronto to Southern California. (Last time I got maybe 20 hrs.) It took me a half hour to figure out how to book  ticket while in a state of shock. (Definitely, on-line. Definitely don’t pay attention to prices.) Signed, sealed, delivered, checked in, bag paid for, boarding pass printed. Now what to pack?

I had made the same trip under more relaxed conditions, in early May, four weeks earlier. No problem, pack what I took then.

I dragged the purple suitcase out of the back of the long narrow cupboard. I set it on the blanket box at the foot of the bed, opened it and began flinging clothes at it. I had to be at the airport at 6 p.m. It was 5. Okay, this isn’t working.

I phoned Blake, my ex-husband. He knew he would have to drive me to the airport already. I said, “You have to come now,” I can’t think. He was with his young female friend. Let’s call her Noreen. “As soon as he could,” he said. They were caught in traffic. I kept flinging clothes. Breaking off now and then to empty the fridge, tie up the garbage, unplug the fountains. Forget the timer for the lights. I could cancel the papers once I got there. I was a whirling dervish.

5:20, they arrived.

“Joyce, this is Noreen” etc. I had heard a lot about Noreen. She seemed amiable enough.

“Can you two roll all this stuff up tightly and pack it.” The first time I’d met her and she was rolling my underwear.

I was stuffing toiletries into a plastic bag. When they finished, I put the dresses, etc. into the top compartment where they stood a small chance of not getting wrinkled.

They dropped me at Pearson International airport at 6:15. Noreen helped me put the bags on a cart and hugged me goodbye. Big surprise. No crowds. I self-served all the way through baggage check, customs, immigration, baggage loading – a nice Jamaician man lifted my bag onto the belt and sang me a song of his own devising- and finally, that metaphysical hurdle, security check, to arrive in good time at the gate for an 8:15 departure.

I forgot to mention the stop at the exchange counter. I have several hundred untouchable U.S. dollars in the bank, untouchable unless I present myself at the bank counter to claim them. I paid $138 Cdn for $100 US.

Fine.

At the first of June, on the mountain, north of Los Angeles, I survey my suitcase. What a difference a month makes! 24 times 31 little hours! It is hot, even at 5000 feet.

The grey wool suit, however light, is a non-starter. The tights will work on cold mornings or for midnight trysts. The desert cools down at night, especially at altitude. I have one t-shirt. No problem, here are 3 t-shirts from my male host. They should work. No shorts. Not even any capris or clam diggers. Well, here are 3 dresses and a wrap-around skirt that my size 2 hostess can give me. I am a size 14, but by some miracle, these are loose and flowing – on her. On me, not so much. I have brought the top of my bathing suit but not the bottom. (You should have some fun even in the middle of an emergency.) You know how they always say, “You can buy what you need when you get there.” They weren’t talking about the wilds of Kern County, but it is true in this one case. I find myself in Bakersfield and  buy a black bottom in Walmart. No sandals. No problem. I order some from Birkenstocks. I do not upgrade the shipping. Two weeks later I try to track the package. It has just been accepted by the mail service. In China. I pull out the silky tank top. It’s not the plain, soft one. It’s covered with glittery bits of plastic, like scales. I bought it for a costume.

Everyday, I discover new left-behinds: the list of my passwords for example. And no one will believe that I know my mother’s maiden name.

Bell has handed my cell coverage over to AT&T. The mountain is served only by Verizon. I send pleading texts from other people’s phones: please water the plant, did my parcel from Amazon come? Have they stopped paper delivery?

I can get most websites on my computer up here, but not my bank’s. I am reduced to telephone banking. How 90s!

They say that new experiences keep the aging brain young. I figure mine has dialed back to 17.

 

 

 

Bulletin #2 from Shangri-La: altitude

The village I am visiting in the Sierras sits in a bowl, at about 5000 ft., surrounded by 9000 ft. mountains. The mountains I was born in are the northern end of the Appalachians in Quebec, Canada. Mt. Hereford is less than 3000 ft. high, but down the way in the New Hampshire, White Mountains, Mt. Washington rises to over 6000. I went up it once with my young children and had to fight the urge to crawl. My additional 5 ft. 4 in. were just too much. I had the same impulse on Mer de Glace in the French alps.

One summer, I went camping in Yosemite with my daughter and her family and my French brother. He joked about being the only member of a film crew on a mountain shoot that had to go down to sleep. Poor thing, I thought. Then I lay down in my tent at 9000 ft.

Half an hour later, I woke up suffocating. I got out of bed, unzipped the tent flap and walked around in the pitch dark. That got tiring. I crawled back into my sleeping bag. Repeat and repeat and repeat. Around 1 a.m., I ran into my brother, who was even worse off than me. He was babbling. My daughter emerged from the tent where she, her son and husband had been sleeping soundly. Being a health care professional, she questioned us about our symptoms. Her most alarming question was, “Are you hallucinating?”  She advised us to go down to sleep.”Don’t sleep in the car. The cops don’t like that,” her husband called out from inside their tent.

I’m not sure what happened next. Rob seems to have set out to walk to the car, some distance away. I must have gone back to my tent to get something. My next memory is of walking the long dark track wrapped in my sleeping bag. A figure up ahead suddenly came toward me.

“Joyce,” it cried out.”Is that you?” Rob walked up to me. His face in the moonlight was full of horror. “I thought you were a giant ninja turtle come to take my soul.”

This was hysterically funny to both of us. We staggered toward the car, laughing. We laughed and laughed until we started to cut down through Tioga Pass where a huge full moon hung in a velvet black sky. Then we both began to cry, convinced that no matter how difficult our lives had been and they certainly had, this moment made it all worthwhile.

It took some time to find a motel. Rob disappeared into reception and came out laughing and waving a key.

“I told her you were my sister,” he chortled. “And I think she believed me.”

There were five beds in the room. It took us an age to chose.

So I scratched vacation spots of 9000 ft. off my list. The town where I was able to sleep was 7000.

Peppermint Creek up the Kern River in Kern County qualified. We spent several vacations there camped under the redwoods beside the rock pools. No problem. Well, there was the time I was getting breakfast food out of the car trunk when something breathed down my neck. Something taller than me. I took a breath. I slowly turned to meet death by bear and found myself nose to nose with a cow.

Then came the year after I had had major surgery, a whole year after. Shouldn’t I be ready to camp up there?

Obviously not. This was my daughter’s dream vacation after a very hard year. Both sons-7 and 16-were there, the latter of whom lived with his father across the continent, her newish man, her best friend and me, old short-lunged me.

Suffice to say that I spent my nights sitting in a car seat, only slightly reclined, the only way I could breath. Well some of the night. The rest of it was devoted to taking the trenching tool and the flashlight and hying myself off into the bushes. This time, altitude sickness featured the runs. But rattle snakes hunt at night and we seemed to be camped in the middle of rattlesnake city. And the flashlight seemed to have a black spot in the middle of the beam. True I could see the bowl of heaven above me and it was absolutely dense with stars. I felt as if God were talking to me. During the day, I got more and more skittish. I was getting about 2 1/2 hours sleep a night. I didn’t want to spoil the holiday. Guess whether I did.

So now I am here at  5000, among pines and bird song. And sun. I’m Canadian, don’t forget, and we’ve had a cold, rainy spring. I  have taken two walks. All roads are uphill! I stop frequently. I aim for benches. Getting showered and ready for the day makes me breathless. I sit gazing out windows at the pines. I sit on the deck gazing at the pines. I sit and read. Once in a while, when I get rested, I do tai chi. Down at sea level, I am full of energy, all those new red blood cells racing around.

I want to stay of course.

 

 

Bulletin from Shangri-La: the boxcar house

boxcar house #2

Shangri-La, here in the Sierras at the bottom end of Kern County has a type of house called the boxcar house.

This is the possible view from the back of the boxcar house.

mountain view from boxcarmountain view #2This is the actual view.

actual viewThere are no windows on the long side, except around the front door. There are sliding doors at either end, but we are enjoined not to leave them open, in case of bears. THey are the only windows that open.

During the day when we are out, the temperature inside soars. It is still about 90F/33C when we return. There is no AC. Someone used to live here full-time. How?

My room-mate and I have 163 years between us. The bathtub is two feet off the floor. Tai chi and a well-anchored bar makes it possible for me into it to take a shower. The other gal showers elsewhere.

Our first night is amusing. It is about 60F/15C inside. We have been told there are wall heaters. And yes there are. I turn on the one in the living room. It heats well enough, but not as far as the open kitchen and certainly not to the bathroom or the bedrooms, which are at either end. I turn on the heater in my bedroom. The fan powers up. A little guy inside is hitting heavy metal with a sledge hammer. I actually try to bear it. After three minutes I shut the heat off. I prefer silent cold.

The phone will not make long distance calls. The owner lives in Ventura. My cell phone gets no reception at this spot. Who carries a phone card these days? Next day, we learn that the noise will quit after the first five minutes. That proves to be true.

I start to make my bed. Like all rental cottages, this one does not provide linens. We have brought linens from the house in the pines, over the way. The bed is queen-sized. My sheets are not. If you turn the top sheet crossways and tuck it in at the sides, it more or less covers the mattress. Then the fitted sheet can be tucked in at one bottom corner to serve as a top sheet. I pile the five blankets, I find in the cupboard on top.  Quite a heavy load. I wrap what turns out to be a padded baby crib mattress cover around my shoulders and endeavour to read in bed.

In the morning, I decide to boil water for tea. I search all the cupboards. No kettle. For a few dizzy moments, I can’t find any dishes at all, until I spy the narrow cupboards built into the front wall. I find a pan to fill with water. How to turn the ceramic top burner on high. I take a guess. Ten minutes later the pan is still cold. My room-mate is an outgoing, former actor, a famous joker, but with less salty language. I stand there in exasperation and hear myself exclaiming, “Bad word, bad word, bad word.”

But here’s the best part. It is silent. No railway trains, no traffic noise. One jet – overhead in two weeks -a fighter from Lompok. No light pollution. Great beds. Excellent water pressure. Lots of hot water. And it is costing less than $60 a night. I have the address.

 

 

Septuagenarian Hobbit -another adventure

cinco de mayoAs a septuagenarian hobbit (a stay-at-home 70-something), I board a plane the way I get into an Athens taxi: I accept my death. After that I can relax.

I leave the pseudo-leather folder containing my will and insurance policies out on my desk. Clearly labelled.

When I was a mere 50-something hobbit, I actually flew to the other place. Very instructive. https://115journals.com/2012/07/20/i-dream-of-etherica-life-changing-dream-2/

My eastern medical adviser says this idea results from liver heat. General Liver is trying to help my weak, damp digestion by going into battle. The fire rises to my head and produces scarey images.

My western medical adviser prescribes Lorazepam. Which I carry on my body in case I have to slid down the escape exit without my purse.

I have given up wine with airline breakfast. Too dehydrating.

Last time this hobbit went on an adventure it was Christmas season and I flew to Belgium. See https://115journals.com/2013/11/28/the-septuagenarian-hobbit/ and posts following. There I contended with the confusion of three languages and found myself embraced by mon frère and his many friends. Turned out I was so Europianized by my three week stay that I found it hard to adjust back. https://115journals.com/2014/01/05/the-septuagenarian-hobbit-gets-a-parking-lesson/

This time there will be no language problem. Well almost none, although Los Angeles is near the top of the list of large Spanish-speaking cities.

I am due to arrive on Cinco de Mayo, a day of celebration. So nice of people to party on my birthday. For indeed it is. After this, I’ll have only one more septuagenarian birthday. Figure it out.

So what to do? Shall we immediately set out for the mountain fastness where Julia now lives. Not a chance. Let’s round up a little party of our own, hit that place in Culver City and crash at someone’s house when we are partied out.

I don’t travel for the love of travel. I travel for love.

 

How the Light Gets In: Louise Penny’s latest

At the beginning of her new novel, Louise Penny thanks Leonard Cohen for generously allowing her to use a line from his song “Anthem”. Cohen tells us in that song that “There is a crack in everything/ That’s how the light gets in.” I have read all nine of Penny’s novels, so, presumably, I must have enjoyed them. And those lines by Cohen struck me from the first time I heard them as a neat summation of how good comes out of bad. Why, then, do I dislike their use as the title of her ninth and latest Armand Gomache mystery, How the Light Gets In?

Reviews, including one in the New York Times ranged from very positive to rhapsodic. Fans told of staying up half the night, of being totally emotionally engaged, of how they had waited breathlessly since the dire conclusion of book 8, The Beautiful Mystery for the resolution of this book. My goodness, I thought, and here I’ve been sleeping soundly oblivious to Gomache’s terrible suffering. I was so cold-hearted that I plodded through the book in my usual three days, closing it up at my regular bedtime.

How the Light Gets In, unlike The Beautiful Mystery, is set once again in the village of Three Pines, a place that cannot be found on any map, hidden and sheltered by wooded mountains where cell phone towers and internet connections cannot penetrate. And, despite its high body count over the years, an idyllic place with its village green, its outdoor rink, its used bookstore, its gourmet bistro with two fireplaces and its eccentric but helpful villagers. When he isn’t solving the latest murder there, Gomache retreats to it for solace, something he greatly needs now that his department in Quebec’s Sureté has been dismantled, his reputation is in decline and his good friend Jean-Guy Beauvoir is a drug addict.

Three Pines is south-east of Montreal in Quebec’s Eastern Townships.  I am familiar with this area. More or less. I recently made a sentimental journey back there to my birthplace. (See https://115journals.com/2013/09/11/septuagenarians-on-the-road-3/) While I was there, I stayed at Auberge Ayres Cliff (https://115journals.com/2013/09/14/septuagenarians-on-the-road-5/ ),an excellent hotel, every bit as cozy as the one in Three Pines, although much more on the beaten path.

When it comes to the willing suspension of disbelief, I’m a hard case. I spent my first five years freezing and starving in the hills of the Eastern Townships, albeit in a place that couldn’t be found except by those who had been there. True we were on a hill farm which produced a bumper crop of stones every year. Over the hill and down the valley, there was rich land with fat herds of dairy cows. Presumably, the hilltop soil had been scraped off our high land and deposited there. One of those farmers held the mortgage on our place. In the end, it seemed better to move to town.

But okay, I’ll go along with this Brigadoon-like village. I’d even like to sit by one of those two fire places drinking hot chocolate and eating hot buttered croissants. (No wait I’m gluten intolerant.)

Something I won’t dispute is fear of the Champlain Bridge. Too long, too high, too confusing with those changeable lane markings and too prone to traffic jams. In the opening chapter, a woman driving across that bridge comes undone. Some time later, her body is discovered dashed against the rocks beneath. It used to be the bridge that took you from Montreal across the wide St. Lawrence to Auto Route 20 and so into Les Cantons Est. Imagine my delight when I discovered this past summer that a new bridge allowed me to cross the river without going near Montreal.

Another thing I won’t dispute is the corrupt reputation of Quebec’s construction industry and its bureaucrats or some of them at least. Whether it is believable that they could be quite so dastardly or that the dastardliness could reach quite so high is a stretch. (Whoops – I seem to have lifted “dastardly” from Marilyn Stasio’s New York Times review.)

Nevertheless, the mystery of why a 77 year-old visitor to Three Pines is murdered on her return home to Montreal is intriguing. What does her murder have to do with her siblings? And, of course, there is the ongoing question of whether Gomache is going down to defeat as some terrible act of terrorism befalls La Belle Province.

Why do I resent Penny’s appropriation of Leonard Cohen’s line? I think it’s because Cohen’s idea belongs to the real world, which, let’s face it, is fraught with suffering and hard-earned insight. Penny’s world, on the other hand, is a fantasy, an imagined place of cozy friendship and monstrous villainy. It is the dissonance that bothers me.

Living in 3 Time Zones: a matriarch’s tale

There were stars overhead. A long-legged eight year-old had plunked himself down in the bed beside me. We could hear the revelers downstairs, but youngest and oldest, we craved rest. The stars on the ceiling glowed in the dark and I remembered sleeping under just such stars 20 years ago in Venice Beach, California, an ocean and a continent away. This is how far my family has spread. This is how far I have had to spread my arms to keep them – what? – not safe, for that is impossible. Let us just say “to keep them”.

Technology has made the job easier in the last 15 or 20 years. E-mail was a great help, so much faster that snail mail. Answering machines and FAX machines appeared. Then long distance rates started to fall, the mobile phone came along, and texting became possible. Distances were easier to bridge.

In Brussels last week, I watched the last episode of the BBC’s David Copperfield in which the Micawbers embarked on a sailing ship for a new life in Australia. Something had finally come up, as Mr Micawber so optimistically kept on saying it would, throughout his disastrous life. The villain of the story, Uriah Heep, was also on his way there, barefoot, chained to other prisoners, to pay for his crimes. His mother cried out, “My poor boy. I’ll never see him again.” Australia was just too far then, even supposing Heep lived to get released. Letters might be exchanged, but probably only two or three a year, given the time the voyage took.

In 1945 when my father moved us from the Eastern Townships of Quebec to Hamilton Ontario, my nine year-old self seriously doubted that I would ever get back to the mountains and the family I loved. Letters were posted and received weekly, but we had no phone. In the event of something momentous like a new baby brother, we could borrow the neighbour’s phone and pay the exorbitant long distance cost. In fact, we did return the summer after my brother Rob was born, in 1947.

Rob was the first family emigrant, hying himself off with a backpack at the age of 19 to explore the world. Our mother cashed in his life insurance policy to finance his getaway. By then it was a tossup whether our father would murder Rob or Rob would murder our father. All of the three older girls in the family harboured the same homicidal urge, but were not as capable of the deed.

Rob stayed safely out of reach of familial harm in Afghanistan, India, and Turkey, where various strangers had a go at him. Finally, he settled in Belgium. Where he had a phone which I could now afford to call to tell him our mother had been given only weeks to live. He thought it was a trick, and indeed, our mother survived against all odds for another 6 years. She had that ace in her pocket though -imminent death- and he came back for a visit – 3 years after he had left. He invited us to visit him and  2 years later I did, with my young family. We formed a friendship then that had not been possible before. So I began the process of long distance living. What time is it here? What time is it in Belgium or Italy or Sweden, wherever his career as a film gaffer took him?

Just when I got the knack of that, my daughter Julia took off for New York City. No problem, same time zone. But -what’s this? She’s off to the west coast. She’s getting married in Las Vegas. And so I began living in 3 -count’em – 3 time zones.

It’s quite dizzying. Whenever I want to talk to Rob, he’s already asleep. Initially, after I returned from Brussels last week, I woke up at 4 a.m., Eastern Standard Time, thinking it was already 10 a.m., and called him then. My daughter up on her west coast mountain would be snoozing away in her 1 a.m. world. As I acclimatized to Toronto time, I kept missing windows of communication. I ended up texting Rob while he slept and getting his reply when I woke up. Julia is beyond the reach of cell phone texts at present, but I catch her at odd moments as she builds the fire in early morning.

As I lay there on Christmas Eve, looking up at the stars, I thought about all the grandparents who travel great distances to be with their far-flung families and sleep as like me in children’s bedrooms. I thought about older women alone in their cars on lonely highways and on long distance flights. Like me, they may well count over 50 such trips and see the results in maturing children who know they are part of something bigger.

That something is family. I can’t help it. I have to communicate, to be there. Someone needs to hold the family together and time has made me the matriarch.

The Septuagenarian Hobbit Gets a Parking Lesson

Oh, stop trying to make me hate you, Toronto. You’ve already got sub-zero temperatures, vicious storms and week-long power outages going for you. Why did you have send the SUV woman to give me parking advice?

I was in the under-ground parking garage at Mountain Equipment Co-op, still jet-lagged from my return from Brussels, but putting a good face on it and taking advantage of a break in the weather to return a faulty product. I had already paid for parking at the wonderfully old-fashioned booth. The attendant was happily gossiping with a friend. There were many empty spaces. I was taking the opportunity to change the carpet floor mats to the rubber winter ones, when a woman in a beige SUV pulled up behind me.

“I realize it’s hard to see the lines,” she said, “but you are parked so that no-one can use the next spot.”

I could just barely discern a yellow line when I looked down. It was covered with salt and dirt.

“Thank you so much for telling me,” I replied. “But try not to get hysterical. I’m leaving immediately.”

“I’m not hysterical…”

No, just really, really annoyingly self-righteous and hidebound and so very, very puritanical, typically Torontonian, indeed typically North American.

While I was thanking her again for rendering my day more pleasant, I was remembering how cars on my brother’s one-way street in Brussels were often parked facing the wrong direction. No tickets. No outraged neigbours. Oh, carry me back!

I’ll hate myself for saying this later, but at least our mayor is a little looser.

(I know that’s an allusion, but I figure you’ve all heard about Rob Ford.)

The Septuagenarian Hobbit Returns: New Year’s

(This is one of a series of posts in which I have explored my hobbit-like reluctance to travel.)

The arrival of 2014 was confusing for me. My body-clock registered it at Brussels time and took me to bed shortly afterwards, but not before I received a text from my brother Rob, who had probably just set off fireworks in Bois Fort: Where are you? I have looked all over the house.

I can’t imagine how confused my fellow travellers must be. I joined their flight at the Brussels airport, half way through their journey from Delhi – mothers, fathers, grandmothers, children, babies and one grandfather. Shortly after take-off at 10:15 a.m., the lights were turned down and  most of them went to sleep. I joined them.

Even as I was swept south on Highway 427 from YYZ, otherwise known as Pearson International Airport, I felt as if some essential part of me had still not landed.

It is after 3 a.m. eastern standard time. My neighbours have just come in from partying and gone to bed. I went to bed at 6 p.m., so here I am.

I postponed the return to my home by stopping to eat. I was ready for dinner. Blake, who had picked me up, wanted brunch. Easy to get dinner at noon, but brunch on a weekday, New Year’s Eve or not, took some convincing.

Finally, I got home. The lights were on. I had carefully set the timer to put them on at sunset, but the ice storm cut the power, so the timer clock thought it was dark already. Warily, I approached the refrigerator. Four days without electricity! Nothing. No dreadful smell. My landlord had come in, I knew, and all the frozen meat was gone, but all the glass containers of stock, soup and stew were still there. For a brief moment, I thought there was a reason, but of course, there wasn’t. Refrozen they sat patiently waiting to give me ptomaine. For the third time in a year, I had lost everything in the freezer. (But global warming is a myth and all this crazy weather is just part of a natural cycle!!!!!!!)

The news showed me poor people in long lines waiting -many in vain – for food vouchers. They had lost their Christmas food and very likely had spent the holiday freezing in the dark.

I had gone with Rob to the fish market in Brussels to pick up a huge iced platter of oysters, sea snails and shrimp, destined to join turkey as our Christmas Eve feast. (The snails were particularly delicious.) I had been warm and cozy throughout. Evidently, there are advantages to travel.

(I will post one more blog in this series, in which I will explore the surprising fact that my Brussels family, whose language I can barely follow, has so much in common with my Canadian family and my Southern Californian family.)

Happy New Year.

The Septuagenarian Hobbit: honored guest

(Fifth in a series in which I explore reluctance to travel)

The 13th century poet Rumi said “You are the honored guest/ Don’t go begging for bits of bread. (Trans. Coleman Barks) I have been learning what he meant by that during this Christmas trip to Brussels.

In part I am honored here because my brother Rob introduces me everywhere as “ma soeur” with great affection and any sister of Rob is instantly honored by his vast number of friends. They are constantly in and out of his house here in Bois Fort. A remarkable number of them seem to have keys and the rest ring the bell at all hours.True two of them are his grown up daughters. Others have found refuge here until they could get on their feet. Still others drop by to see how his recovery from surgery is going or to borrow his sander or soy sauce, just to chat or on the off chance there is dinner.

Christmas Day, Rob interrupted my nap. He sat on the edge of the bed and presented the problem. He had invited 4 people for lunch, intending to serve Christmas Eve leftovers. (Christmas Eve is the main event here in Brussels.) One had cancelled. In his mind, lunch was cancelled. Now the other 3 had arrived.  No leftovers had been left. What to do? In 5 minutes, we devised a menu of smoked salmon, quiche from the freezer, Polish blueberry-stuffed pasta, his famous green salad and cheese. In half an hour it was on the table. Each guest specialized. One made a meal of salmon, another of cheese and salad, etc. Only the exotic pasta got short shrift. And of course there was wine. He had sent me down to the wine cellar, being hampered himself by his “changed knee”. Absent-minded he may be, but he honors guests.

In turn, these friends invite us for dinner. At home in the west end of Toronto, I lead a quiet life. The door bell never rings. Dinner out is, at most, a monthly event. Cozy it may be and introspective, but not dinner out every other night. And, to my embarrassment Christmas gifts for me. I protest to Rob that I have no gifts in return. “You are the gift,” he assures me. I contemplate tying a red ribbon around my neck. “You came so far,” he says. A lifetime of self- criticism stands in my way. How is it possible to feel worthy of this outpouring?

But that is the point Rumi was making. We don’t earn this honor. It is a given. We show up. We are the honored guest and the bounty of life is ours.