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Those of you who are familiar with Japanese cuisine  would recognize the name of a popular conveyance for a mid-day meal.  Plastic or wood, lacquered or enamelled, to call them just a “lunch box”, is like calling tango just a dance:  it may fit in the same genre, but the underlying meaning might be very different. 

A Bento Box is an expression of a mother’s care, a wife’s devotion (or indifference) and a single persons defiant independence.  Like a Bento Box, Tokyo is incredibly clean, the city (or Box) divided into neighbourhoods which are discrete entities, and the city is clever or beautiful or charming in design by turn.  And much more green than than we expected:  there are many public parks for walking through, preferably in a Zen state of mindfulness, or just for admiring from a distance ( like the huge ones for the personal use of the Emperor and family).

In totality, the city is unfailingly neat. Precise.  As are most of its inhabitants. 

 

An unexpected and welcome feature of our visit to Tokyo was the attention paid to personal hygiene.  Unlike in Beijing, where you must “mouth breathe” to survive in the crowded subway cars, nothing to do with bodily functions and odors is left to chance here:  most Japanese bath once a day, and some women bath twice.  The toilets themselves made me giggle, and when was the last time you laughed out loud while on the toilet?  There are buttons which control the pressure of the spray of water up your nether regions, fast or slow, front or back, and then will deodorize and clean the bowl after you go. When Artifical Intelligence is applied to bodily functions, the Japanese will be the first to apply “deep learning” algorithms to the lower intestine.  

Another completely inexplicable (to us)  passion of the Japanese was Kabuki Theatre.  These highly stylized and formal plays were created  around the time of Shakespeare.  Of course Shakespeare’s plays are now performed by both men and women, but the Kabuki tradition is still male.  (And that is just one of the ways in which a favorable bias toward males is displayed in Japan:  this is not a culture that has embraced gender equality.) The audience was very engaged, clapping enthusiastically at points in the action or dialogue that meant nothing to Ben and I.  Apparently, the play we saw has been “wildly popular”  for 400 years! So we returned our simulcast displays and snuck out during intermission.  

We spent some time in 2 art major galleries:  the beautiful Nezu was full of Japanese treasures from the Bronze Age and gorgeous grounds, some captured in my photos. The National Arts Museum had a special exhibit of Impressionist paintings, collected  in the 19th & early 20th century by a wealthy European businessman and art lover.  That exhibit was packed, with people 3 deep,  proceeding silently in an orderly fashion from painting to painting.  I asked our guide why it was so popular and she said well, it’s a national holiday but also, the Japanese will revere anything that is also revered in the West.  Hence all of the Prada skirts and Louis Vuitton bags I presume. 

I don’t pretend to understand or be able to communicate the nuances of Japanese culture:  the movie “Lost in Translation” actually made sense after only a day here.  For example, Ben called the incessant bowing, “Death by a Thousand Thank -Yous”.   Now, we are staying in one of the city’s  top hotels, so sure, a little “bowing and scraping” might be expected.  But they do tend to fall over each other.  Their smiles actually became broader when they learned that we are Canadians.  

How could I forget another mystery to Western eyes, Sumo Wrestling!  We went to a small “sumo stable”, one that had been prominent in its time but no longer.    What surprised me was the obvious dedication and physical effort these young men (the oldest was 37) put into their daily morning routines. ( I thought the “sport” was just 2 obese guys noisily pushing each other around).  About 30 minutes into the practice, they were sweating, red with exertion and from being slapped, pushed and pummelled by the other fellows.  Two men lined up across from each other in a small circle of  sand , crouched down on all fours, ape like, staring each other down.  When one made his move, they smashed into the other, trying to get purchase on a chest, an arm or the piece of cloth wrapped around the loins (and no, there were no wardrobe malfunctions, and given the pimply state of some exposed bums, it would not have been a thrill. There was one cute one though)   The objective was to push the other either on his back or out of the ring, and the bouts were fast and furious.  They practice daily for only 6 competitions a year  that take place in major cities on raised platforms surrounded by a least a thousand fans. As a national sport, it is diminishing in popularity, being replaced by more lucrative spectator sports like basketball and baseball.

 

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Very little gets me out of bed early in the morning.  The aroma of coffee perhaps.  The sound of the Sunday newspaper hitting the front door.  The prospect of heading out predawn to a fish market, could only happen in Tokyo.

My destination is Tsukiji, the largest fish market in the world, and the source of fish and seafood for chefs, specialty fish and grocery stores all over the globe. There are high end sushi chefs  in New York that design their evening menus around what is fresh and best at Tsukiji this morning.

Since I chose to put this market visit  on our Tokyo itinerary (and dragged poor Ben along) I made a sincere effort to be, if not alert, at least not comatose.  In ill fitting rubber boots and neon bright vests, we met our attractive young guide at the hotel at 4:20am and the handsome sushi chef just outside the market. (He does not have a restaurant:  he is a chef who is great demand by a global, celebrity filled clientele.  If you had to choose between say, David Chang of Momofuku restaurant fame, and this fellow, I know who I would pick 🙂 We were warned repeatedly about getting in the way of the small one man forklifts that buzz around the stalls like determined hornets at a picnic.

The normal, almost excessive, politeness of Japanese culture does not apply here.   This is a place of business, most of which happens between the hours of 4 and 5.  In the words of my Finn friend, “You Snooze, You Lose”.

Our chef host for the morning was a good customer of the wholesaler who provided our passage into the market.  (The public is allowed in at 10, after the real commercial action is over. ) After the shrimp and tuna auctions, we walked carefully to their stall  to watch the process of breaking down a large fresh tuna, dodging forklifts, trucks, and splashing in puddles tinged with blood. But absolutely no fishy smell, anywhere!

Even at wholesale prices, these fish are expensive:  the one in my photo was $6,000 USD.  (Whole tuna prices have exceeed half a milllion!) First, the carcass is carefully partitioned into quarters along the length and then sliced through with an extremely long specialized knife:  it was at least 10’! The  man was incredibly focused as he sliced into that tough shimmery grey skin, looking for just the right angle to separate out the precious loin.

Next, an expert butcher carefully sliced off large portions for sale to high end sushi restaurants.  For a watchful restaurant customer, (she had already taken photos of her chosen piece, presumably to email back to the chef) he cut and packaged up a sizeable chunk like it was a delicate piece of Japanese porcelain.  Our guide told us that sushi of this grade is reserved for special occasions, perhaps seen on a family table only a couple of times a year.

The details are still being finalized, but soon the 82 year old market will be moved to a new location outside of the city.   It is showing its age, with its rusted girders, bare bulb lights hanging down and ramshackle stalls. Only 2/3 of the stalls here will move with it and a lot of traditional family businesses like this wholesaler will disappear.

 

 

 

 

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(Sing to the tune of “Hungry Heart” by the Boss. )

TreeTown, is of course, my tongue in cheek moniker for Oakville, the town where I now live with my handsome husband of almost 3 years! We just arrived here from our winter vacation home in San Miguel de Allende in Mexico, and it has been unseasonably cold.  As in, a foot of snow fell yesterday on our poor, beleaguered daffodils! But you know, all Canadians are hardy souls, snowshoeing to school & work, building igloos for outhouses, using icicles as tooth picks, etc etc.  

Whenever I come back to Oakville from the beauty and warmth of San Miguel, I try to think about what I appreciate about this place. ( Sometimes, like when I slip down the ice on our front stairs, I have to go a little deeper into that gratitude well 🙂

So what is wonderful about springtime in Oakville, Ontario?

Those harbingers of spring, robins, are so plump they risk toppling forward on their shiny red breasts. 

Reuniting with the sailing crowd, the gardening guild, my spinning buddies, the book club and my precious neighbours who are always up for a coffee and a chat.

Homes built in the last century have huge yards that, for a brief period,  are carpeted with hundreds of bluebells which are the intense azure blue of the spring sky and Lake Ontario.  

You can jog for 5 miles along a flat road nicknamed the “Gold Coast”,  where the homes have yards so big that the garden services guys need porta potties.   Now, I wonder if that is because they are worried that they can’t make it back to the main house in time, or because “The Help”, is not allowed to use the indoor facilities.  With so many bathrooms, who would miss an errant flush or 2?  Does “The Help ” say it all?

 

The Boys of Summer:  outside the window of the gym, I can see the intrepid paddle boarders in wet suits, going up and down 16 Mile  Creek (really a river) with measured, slow stokes as they push the ice out of the way.  These lads start training early!  By mid summer, they are effortlessly moving up and down the water, dodging sail and power  boats, and dazzling the ladies with their naked finely carved V shaped backs and broad shoulders. Oh my.

Apples, apples & more apples.   In  Mexico, apple choices are limited to those miserable & mean green apples, mushy Macs, only good for sauce,  and yellow and red Delicious, that are anything but.  There are Royal Galas occasionally, but the quality is uneven.  

So think about the average grocery store apple aisle in Ontario, where you can gaze on many glorious apple varieties that are still tasty, firm, and aromatic, even if they have sat in bins since harvest in the fall of 2017.   Pink Lady, Spartan, Idared, Cortland, Fuiji, Ambrosia, and the aptly named Honeycrisp. 

And not least in my gratitude journal, is waking every day to the sound of three sets of church bells and the pretty sound of song birds, all looking for love & like me, hoping that the snow will finally melt.

 

***  of course, nothing and no where is perfect.  So what drives me around the bend about living in Oakville? Beyond the wealth that permits a family to have a Mazeratti as a third car?  Range Rover driving, Lululemon wearing, Starbucks swilling, iPhone chatting, (while driving to hot yoga class course)   “yummy mummy’s.”  These women could likely run a Fortune 500 Company, but since hubby has taken on the big kahuna provider role, they are left to nash over drapery choices for their enormous, picture perfect homes which have stunning modern kitchens that rarely see a dirty pot or  pan.  (Whole Foods takeout & Pusatari’s Gourmet do very well here)  And does the idea of a room devoted just to gift wrapping make you slightly nauseous?  It’s a strange bubble out here.  I am still working my mind around it.

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Asked a good friend from Toronto, upon reading my latest email account which attempted to cover all of the wonderful  food that we have consumed in our past 3 months in San Miguel de Allende, our winter vacation home.  Our great dining experiences have not just been in restaurants either:  there are some really good cooks here who have never donned the whites.  And fortunately for us, some of them are our friends. (This means you Cathy, Lorain, and of course, Sharon)

But in 7 short days,  it’s over. At least for the next 6 months, where my husband Ben and I will be sitting in front of a desultory bread basket in Oakville, Ontario looking at a menu of over priced and average food, wondering when can we get back!  So as a pictorial reminder to me and and as a temptation to all of you who have been thinking about visiting us or coming again, here is a sample of what you missed this winter.

P.S. And the answer of course,  is not really, sometimes we get off our butts and waddle around.  Until the next meal, of course.

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New York State of Mind

I should have known. Should have put 2 and 2 together and figured out that it would be an incredibly difficult time to be in my favourite city.  But no, we watched the Donald on TV,  delivering his typical load of bombast and bull to the United Nations, and then blithely got on a plane to NYC, never connecting the speech with the City until we landed.  And then the cab driver at La Guardia told us, “Well I can get you near (to our hotel, the venerable Algonquin) but I cannot guarantee I can get you to the door”.  Oh sh*%t.

That was one of a series of long, expensive cab rides that marked our holiday. (Yes, the subway is an option, but not if your beloved is dying in the heat.  And it was sweltering.)  I swear that every black Escalade ever made in the US, (and every high class hooker) was in NYC last week!

The trip was ostensibly to celebrate Ben’s 73rd birthday.  In truth, I picked the date because that was when I could secure tickets to my favourite all-time musical, “Hello Dolly”.   I get shivers when I think of Streisand in all of her glory, standing at the top of the stairs of the fictional “Harmonia Gardens”, looking down at all of the waiters who gazed up adoringly.   Of course, there was Louis Armstrong, singing out a greeting in his trademark raspy voice. Most adults are shaped by the music of their pre-teen or teens years,  and of course, I had my share of Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, and Queen. (Bob your head to the music of Bohemian Rhapsody if you can relate 🙂 But the movie musical “Hello Dolly”,  released in 1969, was my particular touchstone.

And what made it so compelling was that “Dolly” was being played by another musical icon of mine:  Bette Midler!  The mermaid in the wheelchair with the sly grin,  who was the queen of the Continental Bath house in New York, had graduated to respectability with movies like “The Rose” and saccharine songs like “The Wind Beneath my Wings”.  Blehh. (Just my own view)

The crowd that lined up for the performance certainly was more Rose than Bathhouse.   Silver rinses everywhere.  And the wheelchair line took forever!  (I keep telling Ben that he needs to get a collapsable cane for just such events!) But perhaps there were some subversive souls underneath the pearls and twinsets.  Only saw a couple of gay couples, which surprised me actually.

Regardless, the Divine Miss M. was worth every inconvenience:  we were 5 rows back stage right, and I knew all the words (Before the Parade Passes By, It only takes a Moment, Elegance, and of course “Hello Dolly”) but I was too overwhelmed to sing along.  One of the highlights was when she had a senior moment during the singing of “Parade”, and had to ask the conductor for the next stanza:   she turned back to the audience, shrugged her shoulders and said “I am old, these things happen”, and proceeded to sit cross legged on the stage, in her big flouncy costume, singing the song from the beginning, as herself I like to think, and not the character, with pathos and genuine feeling, until the end when she walked herself up gingerly, (always the performer) It brought the house down. (Ben thinks it might have been all part of her act but whatever) The place erupted when her voice reached a crescendo and the marching band appeared and the conductor threw her one of those big swirling batons for the big finale.  It almost eclipsed the big showpiece song “Hello Dolly”,  when she comes slowly down the stairs in a fabulous red dress and even more fabulous feather headdress. I will always love Streisand in the movie but

this was so so much better.  Oh, and David Hyde Pierce was good too.  Looking frail though as Ben observed.

The story line is corny and the dialogue is hackneyed but the staging, costumes, and dancing were just so visually stunning.  Had me in in tears.  I will remember this experience for a long time.  And Ben will too! And it was his birthday on Sunday after all😎.**
For those interested in neuroscience here is a short video which uses Swan Lake to illustrate the different aspects (music, story, movement, social interaction) in the relationship between live performance and the brain.    https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2017/lifestyle/your-brain-on-art/?utm_term=.e05bf1a0bbdf
 ** To help him celebrate, we did some consignment shopping for me 🙂   I am fortunate to have a man who loves to pick out clothes and shoes/boots for me! It says something about my stage in life that after I tried on a stunning Chanel jacket, I decided to put it back:  it fit perfectly, but I don’t go to places anymore that require such a formal article of clothing, and I am not one of those “ladies who lunch” in that way.  Good to know about oneself I think.

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Actually George, it was me, last week, butt in the air, head in the euonymus, fiercely yanking out the rampant Bishop’s Weed.  Recently, I have been volunteering with the Garden Guild of St. Jude’s Anglican Church, in Oakville.  After an unsuccessful fight with The Dreaded Weed last year (it deserves to be capitalized for its sheer mendacity),  I inquired if we might embrace its virtues and consider it just an overly aggressive ground cover.  I was greeted with horrified looks. (Truly, I jest:  there is a gentle camaraderie among the members of the Guild.)  Bishop’s Weed kills plants that we plant. And that is a universally understood definition of gardening:  man imposing his will on nature.  For what is a weed, but a plant that is growing somewhere that it is not wanted!

I do not have much of a garden at our town-home in Oakville:  my back yard consists of paving stones and a lovely big fountain that would not be out of place in the centre of an Italian village! But I have a need to get my hands in the earth, and the Garden Guild fulfills that yearning for a connection with the soil and the plants that can be coaxed from it.

Gardening is wonderful hobby for many reasons: beyond the exercise and cathartic benefits of weeding, there is the constant planning, learning, designing, selecting and then of course, the actual work of hauling them to your car trunk and getting them into the well tilled wet ground unscathed. Mix with daily or weekly tending and you have a source of satisfaction, pride and wonder at the perfection of nature.  Work may be hell, your kids drive you mad, and your house a mess, but every spring, the flower of the clematis vine is reliably, consistently, and apparently without effort, beautiful.

Time passes quickly in the garden.  I never seem to get everything done, but that is also the attraction.  The garden is always there, and with some attention, it always seems to get better.  The cycle of the seasons is of course reflected in the garden, and while it does mean another birthday marked, I can feel productive and useful, rather than just older.   Small rewards;  the smiles on the faces of those that pass by and wonder at the beauty of the summer roses.  There are memorials in the garden.  I almost ripped one out before knowing what the little markers meant.  A pink carpet rose in this garden is a tribute to someone’s wife and mother:  even if her family has forgotten it exists,  I take special care.
My parents live in Northern Ontario, and are passionate gardeners.  When I was a child, every fall we would pour over seed catalogs like they were the “Sears Christmas Wish Book”.  Remember that 300 page door stopper? My mother and I sighed over the more exotic treasures of the garden, like rhododendrons and azaleas, meant for climate zones that did not suffer extended periods of below zero weather, snow and ice.   I wondered at her refusal to concede to bitter nature:  in our crooked, barely upright, DIY greenhouse, she grows bountiful crops of sugar sweet cherry tomatoes (started from seed of course),  nasturtiums to garnish the plate, and tiny, delicate Alpine strawberries.    Can someone’s character be defined by their garden?  If so, here is my mother:  determined, optimistic and a lover of flavour as well as beauty.
My father is a farmer’s son.  His focus is on turning our oversized lot into a miniature experimental farm, filled with hardy vegetable plants, and every year, a new variety or two.  Yellow Gold potatoes and Peaches & Cream corn, were commonplace at our dining table at least a decade before you put them into your shopping cart at Loblaws.  He still strolls amid the summer rows, snapping the beans and opening the pea pods.  I can remember an ever hopeful pet rabbit from next door, hopping along beside him.  Here is my father:  always thinking, always reading, always taking care of his family.

Garden centres are one of my favourite forms of retail therapy, right alongside any kind of grocery store.  I walk around in a daze, overwhelmed by the colour, the fragrance, the possibility.  That too, is what gardening gives:  a belief in the outcome, however improbable, that your garden will look like those contained in the glossy pages of a catalog.  I read an article in the Times recently that suggested that what ails depressives is not to be found in past trauma, but in an inability to plan for or imagine the future.

I cannot imagine anyone being depressed, who also gardens.

I am attaching a bunch of photos from the recent garden sale:  it is the major fund raising event for the Garden Guild, and as usual, it was well attended.  Oakvillians love their gardens. If you live nearby and would like to join the Guild, I know that you would be welcome.  You give one morning a week and you get back so much from the knowledgeable members who are eager to help and share.  All you need bring is your own gardening gloves:  all else is there.

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Recently, Ben & I were fortunate enough to be invited to a destination wedding and this time, the destination was San Miguel!  The “Again” in the title of this Post refers to the magical meeting of Ben and I, just over seven years ago.  We were in a roof-top hotel bar when we first entered each other’s orbit,  not too far from where we now enjoy the winter months. (He was going on a dinner date with the owner of that hotel but that’s another story. Another Post perhaps?)

This bride and groom are a sophisticated couple from Toronto, who decided to celebrate their nuptials in the company of their many friends who “winter” here. They also decided to give themselves up to their eager San Miguel party planners and just go with it. In greeting the beautiful but clearly nervous bride at the warmup party, I said that she had the “look of a deer in the headlights”.  Her eyes darting around, she said it was because she did not know what the hell was going on. Or what would happen next.

What happened next was a traditional wedding parade around the Jardin, the central town square.  Well, the parade was not really “traditional” in the sense of other wedding traditions like long white dresses, walks down the aisle and “something old and something new”.  This tradition involves large quantities of tequila being drunk by increasingly tipsy participants following the bride and groom and a white burro ( how often do you read those three nouns together in one sentence?)down and around cobblestone streets for the better part of an hour. As is usual in San Miguel, high heels were only for the fashion foolish!

By the end of the parade, I suspected from the happy silly looks on their faces, that she and her husband-to-be in two days, (the actual ceremony was later) were enchanted with the town, the huge paper mâché “Mohigangas” puppets of a bride and groom that twirled around them*, and of course, grateful to their planner friends.  Even the burro got a big kiss on the nose!

*A mojiganga (pronounced: mo-he-gang-ga) is a giant puppet also used as sculpture or a grand scale design element for a large event. The head and bust are made of paper mâché which is then mounted on a tall supporting A-frame structure. They twirl madly and swoop their huge heads down on the unsuspecting:  quite startling actually!

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