Saturday, January 31, 2004

Is anybody out there with an email address at Yahoo having trouble logging in to their account? We are all on Yahoo in this house, and so far we've all failed, because of "invalid password". Can it be that there are problems at Yahoo? Have they been hacked? What is happening to my account while I can't log into it?

Friday, January 30, 2004

From left to right: Sim, The Boff and me. And a lot of snow. And some sunshine.
Did I forget to mention that we were all twelve feet tall?

Montréal and HIV/AIDS 

These are interesting times in Montreal for people involved in HIV/AIDS issues.

In December, The Grand Seminaire de Montréal announced that from September 2004, all applicants to the priesthood would, among a battery of physical and psychological tests, be screened for HIV/AIDS. At first they boldly announced that it was to flag up a homosexual lifestyle, which they imagined would be incompatible with the demands of the priesthood. After the ensuing outcry, they back-pedalled and claimed that they did not want to waste the resources and eight years needed to train someone who might die. When it was pointed out that people could equally well develop cancer or some other life-threatening illness that had not been detected, they reverted to version one.

At the beginning of January, 2,600 children were called in by one of the childrens hospitals for HIV testing, following the announcement that a surgeon at the hospital had operated on them whilst HIV positive. There was an uproar about duty of disclosure, until it emerged that the doctor in question had told her employers years before, as soon as she became aware of her status. The hospital had covered up her status since then, and allowed her to continue her career. "Why?" everyone demanded to know. So the hospital relayed more nuggets of information. The doctor had developed the illness at the start of her career after treating a baby with HIV without wearing gloves in 1991. She was innocent! She had developed the illness through no fault if her own. She was allowed to continue with her career, and her status was hushed up by the hospital. Which raises some interesting questions. Does that mean for example that "innocently" developed HIV is less contagious than HIV developed as the result of a "high-risk" lifestyle? Or does it mean that other doctors are dismissed not because of their disease but because of their lifestyle? It might almost be justifiable if you could say that a doctor should set a good example of healthy living, and that those who do not follow standard medical advice about how to minimise risk to themselves are unlikely to make good role models for their patients. However, it is equally possible to argue that for a doctor to treat a patient without wearing gloves is a high-risk lifestyle, given the known risks regarding blood products, which were equally well known in 1991. I am quite certain that the necessity of wearing gloves is underlined extensively at medical school.

The third interesting situation is the one faced by new applicants to the police force in Montreal, who from now on will be rejected if they are HIV positive, ostensibly to minimise risk of contagion to the public. After an extensive and uncomfortable interview on the wireless today, a police spokesman finally admitted that it was a move designed to limit legal exposure should any memeber of public become infected- in other words, to avoid the police being sued for passing on the illness. The proof of the silliness of this move is that paramedics, doctors and ambulance staff, although likely to be in similar situations with accident victims, stabbed people etc, will not be required to be tested.

An HIV/AIDS campaigner interviewed today claimed that these moves would be shown in the courts to be against disabled peoples' employment rights, and that the only circumstances in which one may refuse to employ a person with a disabilty such as AIDS (I wasn't clear whether or not symptomless HIV could be counted as such too) would be if they were actually unable to do the job- eg a quadraplegic applying to be a tree surgeon. This is clearly not the case here.

My own feelings are that each of these three cases involves different issues, most of them misguided and superstitious. The Séminaire may be suffering the after-shocks of peadophile priests in North America, and may well be confusing "homosexual" with "paedophile", in a typically bigoted person's way. Or they may be under the impression that homosexual men are more likely to be unable to maintain celibacy. Either way, more research is called for on their part I think. The doctor's case in a interesing cover-up, and is a far more complicated position. They knew about the doctor's status, and they feel strongly enough about it to call back very one of her patients since 1991, yet they allowed her to continue practising. The risk of any patient contracting AIDS from the doctor being infinitisimally small, and certainly way smaller than the reverse situation, the call for testing is an odd post-script to the story. The police are the most upfront about their position: they are doing to avoid being sued, and as such are opening themselves to being sued for employment discrimination. It may be misguided, but at least it's honestly misguided.

Thursday, January 29, 2004

Questions, questions, questions... 

I marched up to the Basilica at a fast pace this morning for my constitutional. I believe that I mentioned the Basilica some months ago, but suffice to say now that it was completed in the 30s, and is monolithic and beautiful inside in a plain art-deco style. As I sat in the silent gloom on one of the institutional chairs bolted together in long, straight orderly rows, several thoughts popped uninvited into my head (I love it when that happens).

For instance: why, when I hear someone in a public building jangling keys, do I irrationally presume that they are employees of that building? That could get me into serious trouble, that could.

Why, when I glance at that statue of the Virgin Mary gazing in pain and adoration at her crucified son, do I see her robes shift slighty, her hands vacillate and her eyes move further heavenwards? Could it be something to do with the high index of my spectacles lenses?

Why does the altar, flanked on either side by immensely long strips of red cloth, remind me so completely of a between-the-wars National-Socialist convention hall that I really expect to see a moustachioed fascist leap up and begin raving?

Staying at home- it works for me 

People keep asking me if I'm not bored being at home all alone, with the children at school all day. They seem incredulous when I say that I'm really enjoying being at home. They ask when I will go back to work. They even secretly think I must be depressed and in denial. Sometimes even I get pangs of guilt about "wasting" my extensive education.

I can honestly say, having worked for five years out the ten I've been a parent, that nothing I've ever done is more stressful, in order, than these two things:
1) Being a full-time working mother of three
2) Being a full-time stay-at home mother of three children under five.

What I'm doing this year by contrast is a complete, laugh-inducing breeze. I am on top of most household things, apart from a spot of boring mending. I am knitting a jumper- wool piling up for several years finally being used creatively. I am spending a lot of time every day thinking, which I love. I have time to talk to my children. My children have more respect for me now that I am their main carer again. They had begun to be unruly and bolshie under the care of their grandmother, particularly Dill, who was two when I went back to university to train as a teacher. I feel that I've missed a vital part of her, but I'm making up for lost time now.I have time to help them with their homework. I have time to speak to my husband, among other things. I have time to read a lot. I have time to potter. I have time to write. I have time to go for a walk daily, even if I don't actually do it every day. And I have time for wasting time.

People ask me if I miss the intellectual stimulation of work. No, I don't. I have never felt intellectually stimulated at work. I get more out of a conversation about philosophy or science or religion with my ten-year old than I ever did from snatched small-talk in the various workplaces I've been in.

The things I usually feel at work are:
1) Time constrained
2) Unreasonable expectations
3) Lack of autonomy
4) Lack of time for reflection
5) Total exhaustion
6) Being pissed off at office politics and people deliberately taking offence
7) Being watched by my boss
8) Lack of creativity
9) Mutual distrust between me and boss
10) Dispair at most people dragging their feet or passing the buck

So thanks, but no thanks. We are effectively being subsidised in expenses to the tune of what I would be earning in a 60 hour week teaching. So I am being paid to look after my own children, which I feel that we all earned during the three years of me working 50-60 hour weeks including weekends, and compromising the integrity of my entire family. I am in seventh heaven and I have no intention of leaving any time soon. To recap, I have time, autonomy, creativity, physical exercise, better relationships with children & husband, and enough money. I'd have to be mad to pack in a lifestyle like that.

Wednesday, January 28, 2004

A mother's daymares 

Since California Elaine was kind enough to tell me in my comments that she didn't think I was a freak, here it is. If you don't have kids and think you might one day like to have them, please don't be put off. This is just one small yet significant aspect of parenting- there are many many compensating thoughts and emotions.

As I dropped off to a fitful sleep last night -- I must have ODed on caffeine again -- I was suddenly violently awake again and thinking against my will about all the people I'd ever met who'd died. It turns out there were quite a few, but most were quite elderly, apart from a few notable ones: a motorbike accident- the seventeen child of family friends, who'd just spent the summer with us; a girlfriend of another family friend, suicide; the man who bought our old family home- suicide, in the house. The rest were a quota of superannuated relatives, mostly in their late eighties and early nineties in the case of my family, and in their sixties and seventies on The Boff's side. Actually I think I have got off rather lightly. My experience of death so far has mostly been peaceful.

My ma-in-law on the other hand, knows a frighteningly large number of people who've lost children- to accidents, cancer, suicide, Muscular Dystrophy, even murder. One of her own two children died in young adulthood. If there's one thing you don't expect when you first hold your newborn, it's for them to die before you do. That is not the accepted order of things, although I suppose that if it is your time, then you have to go.

It would be a poisoned chalice to know, like the central character in "Big Fish" (excellent film by the way), exactly how and when you were going to die. The fear of death keeps us from doing many things while we are living, so knowing would be a liberation in many ways. What if you found out that you were going to die at 17 in a motorbike accident though? How to live the short remainder of your life, before you've even had the chance to really live it? What if you weren't ready to go when your fate said you should? Should you fight, or engineer never to be in the circumstances laid out for your demise? This is the path that Sleeping Beauty's parents chose, but to no avail. She still pricked her finger and "died" anyway.

I worry about my children preceding me. It scares the living daylights out me in fact. It's not the logical order of things. My heart is in my mouth if they do dangerous things such as climbing trees or ski. If I started thinking about it too closely, I would barricade them into the house until they are twenty-five, and make sure they at least reached adulthood. It's a position many mothers adopt in an attenuated form, but it's not reasonable. Children need to explore the boundaries for themselves. They can never become agile and cunning vicariously. They certainly don't tell you, when you take delivery of your squawling infant, that you will visualise that child's death, in a different way every time, every single day. Thus are my nights filled with waking nightmares.

Opinion poll 

Yesterday evening I posted a thing which I subsequently withdrew, because on re-reading I decided it was too gloomy. On mature reflection, I think that it may be a topic of interest to other mothers. So I'm just putting a toe in the water here. How many of you mums have daymares about your children having nasty accidents, or imagine them dying rather more than you feel is healthy? Just so I don't feel like such a freak.

Oh Gawd, I'm scared about being found out. I have done a terrible thing. Last night I rounded up all the soft toys and put them through the washing machine. Given they hadn't had a bath since May, they were pretty grubby. Why so many of them are white or off-white?

Anyway, all hell broke loose this evening at bedtime, when Hen hugged Billy (Bear) only to discover that he was "all rough" and "ruined". It seems that his ride in the tumble drier might have left him feeling frazzled and with split ends; I don't think it's quite a job for V5. She went on and on, crying and recriminating, until I felt guilty enough to do something.

So, half a bottle of hair oil and a sneaky haircut later, (Don't worry Hen, it'll grow back...oh, it won't actually will it?) he is a little better, but I'm still getting the evil eye.* If she ever finds out what I did to him this evening, I am dead meat.

* This is a picture of a glass "evil eye" as given by Turkish people to blue-eyed and/or pretty children. Someone explained at the time that it is unlucky for a child to have blue eyes, and the "evil eye" will ward off evil. Also in Turkey they never say nice things about a child's looks, because they believe that it leaves the child vulnerable to being taken by the devil. When we went to Turkey with our one-year old and three-week old, it was not until we had about eight of these small glass eyes that we learned to leave one pinned visibly to each of the childrens' clothes.

Tuesday, January 27, 2004


I have this problem, see. Don't get me wrong, I can think as well as the next person. I can handle quite big numbers and concepts. I'm quite high-functioning in most areas of my life. There's just one particular thing that I cannot do no matter how hard I try, no matter how many times I will myself to stay calm, that it'll be all right, that most people in the entire industrial world manage it daily. Still I get panicky, my heart races, and I tend to become impulsive and flighty in a way that is fairly out of character for me.

I'm talking about shopping in supermarkets. There's something about the way my brain is set up which prevents me from being able to clearly see my way through the overload of sensory information in a supermarket, which leads me to dither for hours over twenty-five different brands of washing-powder and hundreds of different shapes of pasta. I can't help- I just can't see why any firm would want to produce something which another firm already produces perfectly adequately, and still expect to get a decent market share. I stand there wondering why they think their product is different/ superior/ more popular. Perhaps they have a point. Maybe their triglycerides or whatever really are an improvement.

Things would be so much easier for me if I had brand loyalty. However, if there is such a thing as brand loyalty, I am a brand harlot. I will pay the least amount of money possible for the product that I want, given that most brands are pretty similar anyway. I refuse to acknowledge to Value=pikey attitude. If supermarkets are stupid enougn to want to carry loss leading products- ie products sold with no profit margin to themselves, then more fool them. The only value product I've found that is not up to scratch are value cornflakes, which look as though they need a long holiday in the Mediterranean- pasty to say the least. Value products are basically the same prioducts- they're not going to spend money investing in different production processes after all. The only difference is that they packaged in a garish way designed to shame the buyer- or possibly to help them find the product- thank you Mr Tesco.

How then, do I shop, given that I do not navigate straight to the favoured brand, the one my mother/ grandmother/ Mrs Jones next door uses, and which I have no reason to doubt is infinitely superior to every other brand?

My technique is simple- I avoid supermarkets wherever humanly possible. I have a code of shopping ethics which enables me to justify not going into large supermarkets anyway, where sensory overload designed to confuse people like me is deliberate, I'm sure. I shop instead at small local shops (for local people). I buy local produce in the shape of vegetable boxes, and shop at local butchers who buy local meat- to my mind cutting down the distance travelled by my food is both good for local producers and good for the animals involved. I read somewhere that you can buy carrots in sainsbury's in Dorset, which may have been grown locally, but haven been, since being pulled from the ground, transported by road to a wholesaler in London, then bought by Sainsbury's buyers, and then shipped back to Dorset. Carrots! Cheap and cheerful, particularly in season, yet made a lot more expensive by being taken on a touring holiday of southern Britain before making it to your pot. And fresh? I don't think so...

I think sometimes that I might have been happier in Soviet Russia, where there was only one type of anything, and even then at a push. I really wouldn't like all that queuing though, although Tesco on a Saturday lunchtime and Loblaw's any time, come pretty close. Give me a nice small shop with a few of everything any day, even if it means paying a little more, it's worth it I think; by the time you've gone around the supermarket making impulse buys, you always end up spending more than you intended anyway.

Monday, January 26, 2004

The oracle 

Found via a link at Billy's, I bring this wonderful thing: Google Talk. You can type in the beginning of a sentence and have Google finish it for you. I tried for a really good insult, but it got itself into a frenzy of prophesy really quickly and told me this:

ugly dog face and floppy ears. that cover the whole of The Moon. The moon is A Harsh Mistress. The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress. The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress. The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress.and so on ad nauseam...

Oh, and one last word to my readers from the Land of Albion: since you are about to suffer an arctic blast, remember that it isn't girly to wear a woolly hat when it's minus 20 out; it's common sense.

Touching base 

This is me, blogging to say that I probably won't blog today. Sim is sick and at home- only a nasty cold, but experience has taught me that it's best to keep him at home to avoid nasty coughs that go on for weeks. I'm making the most of my enforced stay at home (Ha! like you usually go out a lot! Ed.) to sew name tapes into his clothes. I swear the boy could represent England if they ever bring in a "losing items of necessary clothing" event at the Olympics.
I'll leave you with one of the sweetest children's poems of all time:

by A.A.Milne

Christopher Robin
Had wheezles
And sneezles,
They bundled him
Into his bed.
They gave him what goes
With a cold in the nose,
And some more for a cold
In the head.

They wondered
If wheezles
Could turn
Into measles,
If sneezles
Would turn
Into mumps;
They examined his chest
For a rash,
And the rest
Of his body for swellings and lumps.
They sent for some doctors
In sneezles
And wheezles
To tell them what ought
To be done.
All sorts and conditions
Of famous physicians
Came hurrying round
At a run.

They all made a note
Of the state of his throat,
They asked if he suffered from thirst;
They asked if the sneezles
Came after the wheezles,
Or if the first sneezle
Came first.
They said,"If you teazle
A sneezle
Or wheezle,
A measle
May easily grow.
But humour or pleazle
The wheezle
Or sneezle,
The measle
Will certainly go."
They expounded the reazles
For sneezles
And wheezles,
The manner of measles
When new.
They said,"If he freezles
In draughts and in breezles,
Then phtheezles
May even ensue."

Christopher Robin
Got up in the morning,
The sneezles had vanished away.
And the look in his eye
Seemed to say to the sky,
"Now, how to amuse them today?"

Sunday, January 25, 2004

Carpe diem 


ow long is a day? Scientists have a ready answer for this question; it is the length of time our Earth takes to revolve once on its axis: 24 hours, give or take a few milliseconds.

For most people however, a day does not include the time spent asleep, that glorious period of wandering freely around our own mind. For most of us, a day is the length of time between rising and retiring, between dawn and gloaming, the length of time during which life must be lived, battles fought and won or fought and lost, sustenance found.

And a day's length can change from day to day; it can change according to one's frame of mind.

Days vary in length according to the number of tasks to do. "If you want something done, give it to a busy person" says the proverb. Good task managers seem to fit more into their days than seems possible. A busy person might fit huge amounts into every day, retire to bed every evening with the satisfaction of a long day well spent, yet twenty-five years will for them pass in a flash. For someone with a tight deadline, the last day can seem the shortest day in the world. Yet when the end of the last day is reached, and the deadline met, the day seems in retrospect the longest one ever.

Someone with few things to do may upon rising see their day stretch out ahead of them, unsurmountably long. Yet at the end of the day they may not even have accomplished what few things they set out to do, and their day will nonetheless seem to have passed in a flash. Often such days will seem small and mean, as though the very sky were reaching down to choke and stifle us. The elements conspire against us, cause us to lose whole hours to unconscious ineffective battling. Those days seem like a waste of time and leave us feeling unsatisfied. Often the means to change a bad day into a good one are within our grasp, but we are not in the mood to appreciate that until the day is over, and we have had the chance to sleep on it.

Some days spent doing little under a gigantic sky, with one's mind totally calm and at ease, will leave a happy and lasting impression on us, as though the world were contained in every moment- can it be because we have both the time and the right frame of mind to perceive every separate moment? We need days such as these, days when contemplation becomes the task, when our mind takes us over and allows thinking time. Ideally, they happen during holidays, in both congenial company and congenial surroundings. Our soul is nourished as well as our body. Bad times for contemplative days include during a busy work day- although who can honestly say that have not spent a day dreaming instead of working?- and when one is ill, when the odds are already stacked against us, when the day will seem short and mean no matter what we do.

We should have the chance to have a slow day, even if only occasionally. What good to each of us is a life brimful of tasks, but with little or no reflection? We all need "staring" days, when we are able to reach up to the sky and feel in harmony with the world.

Saturday, January 24, 2004

Domestic gripes 


ll households have little bugbears, areas of disagreement between the inhabitants which may never achieve a conclusion satisfactory to all sides.

For example, the lavatory.

Why oh why do boys and men need to pee standing up? I mean I can see the point in a public toilet- it's quick, convenient and takes up far less room than girlie stalls. But at home? The splatter zone is seriously unpleasant, and made all the more unpleasant to the women in the house because men rarely see the need to clean the lavatory. Also they tend to spend their time at the porcelain throne not enthroned, but dreamily splattering a metre wide zone around it. Pigs! The Boff, when asked why he needs to pee standing up into a device clearly made for sitting, answers: "Because I can". Bastard! Perhaps he can start noticing the nasty whiff which is only perceived near floor level and actually getting out the Marigolds and detergent. I don't even want to think about carpeted bathrooms, which are utterly disgusting...

Or the kitchen sink.

Why is the speed at which washing up happens inversely proportional to the size of the items? Why is it that the sink needs to be brimful of bitty things before any of us can be bothered? Why are big saucepans, even greasy and filthy, so much nicer to wash up than itty bitty Thermos flasks and plastic pots for recycling? Most of the dishes and cutlery go into the dishwasher, but why does the rest of it daunt us so?

The bin.

Why does it have to be overflowing peelings to the extent the Boff and the Purple Bofflets are hammering the contents down to make new rubbish fit, before someone has the bright idea of changing the bag?

I could go on, but you get the picture...

Friday, January 23, 2004

Le paradoxe français 


ll this talk of diets, and the to and fro about whether or not a high intake of carbohydrates is actually good for you, has made me reassess the way I ate as a child, and the possible reasons for the "paradoxe français" (or this link in French), the aberration of the traditionally low French rates of heart disease alongside dietary habits which seem to go against most Anglo-Saxon guidelines.

Most readers will by now be aware that I grew up in France, the child of expatriate British parents. I attended standard French schools from the age of 6 until the age of 18. Throughout that time, in common with most of my classmates, I ate at the "cantine" of my school. French schoolchildren have a long lunch break, two hours, which is designed both to give mothers who so wish the chance to fetch their child from school and feed them at home, but also enables the pupils eating at school to eat a large lunch and relax afterwards.

Meals at the "cantine" were three course affairs, many of which would actually put certain British restaurants I've eaten in to shame. The French believed then in educating their childrens' palates, and the earlier the better. A standard starter would be "crudités" ie raw vegetables such as grated carrots, beetroot or tomato salad, or cold meats, or hard-boiled eggs, or in winter a soup of some description, always prepared from scratch. Bread was served with the starter to mop up dressing, and clean your plate for the next course.

Next came the meat or fish: this was typically roast meat or some slices of meat in sauce. Fish usually came with a white sauce of some description. The only meat and fish I can recall loathing were "andouilles" (a kind of mince wrapped in something horrible and tied with string) and "anguillette", a kind of fish, whose bones were gelatinous and made you gag if you were unwise enough to bite them.

Next came vegetables. Often green beans, carrots, or salad in summer. Everybody ate them, nobody pushed them away or refused them. Vegetable eating then was still deeply engrained in French mentality thanks to the proximity of most families to the land- at most three generations for most people.

Next came the starch- often mashed potatoes, macaroni in butter or rice. By this stage, we were rarely very hungry, and most people did not eat masses of carbs. You might use the rice to mop up the sauce, but you could hardly say that the meal was based around its carbohydrate content. Many of the girls in my class would not eat much starch saying that they would get fat if they did, proving that an anecdotal connection between carbs and fat storage must have been in existence for some time in France.

Pudding was often cheese, yoghurt, fruit or petit suisse. It was never heavy on carbs, and was usally dairy of some sort. This means that almost every day we were eating a three course lunch. Yet throughout secondary school, and although due to the intensive nature of our schooling, we were all pretty sedentary, I only met one overweight girl. Most of the people in my year were very healthy, there was no anorexia that I know of. The girls neither starved themselves nor over-ate.

My point about all this is that in such a meal, prepared from scratch, there are very few empty calories. Every morsel of food was nourishing, yet it was often high in fat and oil- butter and dressing, red meat, sauce etc... By contrast, in the school I taught in last year, around 30% of the girls were damagingly overweight, yet they were probably eating less than I ate as a stick-thin child.

My personal theory is that carbs, although useful to fuel muscles, are providing too many empty calories to relatively sedentary people, and pushing aside food containing valuable vitamins and minerals, with the result that people feel still hungry- fuelling over-eating and over-weight.

One last tidbit, as it were: Tonga, a Pacific island with frighteningly rising rates of obesity, has switched way from a traditional diet of pork, fish and complex carbohydrates such as yams, to a diet of imported simple starches such as rice and bread, and mutton. Here is a link to a study conducted there about the dietary changes. Furthermore, Sumo wrestlers condition themselves by eating anything up to 20kg of cooked rice a day along with a high calorie stew containing meat and potatoes.

The jury is out.

Just because we have to keep this one going until something changes, here is a link to the biography of a "miserable failure".

Thursday, January 22, 2004



aving lived all my life in a series of very tame climates, I still find myself childishly wondering at the snow. How beautiful it is, how different it looks according to the intensity of the light, the angle of the sun, the type of snow even.

It really is no wonder that the Inuit have so many words for snow; there are so many different types. There is the snow that falls when it is very cold, hard and small and mean, well known to skiiers: whipped into a frenzy by vicious blasts of wind, it leaves a stinging sensation on any exposed flesh. As the temperature rises towards freezing point, the snow clumps together in huge extended families of flakes, which, thus united, drift sedately to the ground and lie shining in an improbably beautiful way.

Much of the beauty of snow remains hidden to those of us in warmer areas whose exposure to the stuff is so short-lived. The very wind patterns are made tangible by the ebb and flow of snow-drifts; wind currents are made evident by contrasting deposits of snow on either side of the object over which the current passes. Snow, compacted by human or animal footprints, is left standing proud in a positive echo of itself after a wind has swept away all surrounding powder. Snow is set into ripples by unseen freezy breezes.

It also plays tricks on you. On the same day, you will find identical patches of snow; some the upper surface of which is solid enough to take the weight of an adult, three steps further on, a drift in which you will sink to your knees with no clues about how to tell the difference. Snow will happily mask slick black ice: you, unwary, will tread in an inviting patch of white snow, only to find youself lying on your side in an ungainly heap. Snow will round off edges, soften angles, render even familiar features unrecognisable. Is there a bush under that hummock, or is it just a pile of snow? You have forgotten, it has been two months since you last saw the bush anyway. For all you know, there may no longer even be a bush; best wait till spring and the thaw to find out.

The important thing to remember is that the snow is not choking the life out of plants, but protecting them against the biting cold. Soon enough, spring will be back, with the promise of the hot summer. In the meantime it has jokes at our expense, exacts payment for services rendered, for the winter sports and the protective blanket, for the beauty and the stark contrasts it provides us. It can be both cruel and kind in the same swipe, emphasizing and erasing, raising and levelling. It is wonderful.

Wednesday, January 21, 2004

Fighting flab 


'm trying to lose some weight at the moment, not because I'm a huge blob, but because I'm about a stone (14 pounds) heavier than I'd like to be. I maintained my late adolescence weight right up to my thirties, but over the last three years, I have gone from somewhere between a size 10 and a size 12 UK, to more like size 13 (not quite 14, but definitely no longer 12). I draw the line at leaving 12 behind (as it were).

This was due to the change in eating and exercise habits which happened when I went back to work. When I was at home with the children, I walked at least 4 miles a day, and often further, but since becoming a sedentary teacher, I've effortlessly put on anything up to a stone and half depending on when I weigh myself. I realise that I don't have a huge problem (as it were), but I'm fed up with the new challenges which come with the increased girth. For example, that the slight flabbiness of my new thighs means that I have "grown out" of many pairs of trousers in the last eighteen months. Throughout my twenties, I use to be able simply to cut out snacking in order to lose the flab, but it's definitely getting harder as I creep through my thirties- damn my portly genes!

So, inspired by Ron, I've started a campaign to regain my natural body shape- the one which had my father asking me if I was eating enough. Funny, the way he goes straight from asking me if I'm eating enough to making rude remarks about pot-bellied pigs. In order to achieve this, I've started going for a walk every day after dropping off the children, and I will be starting a Pilates class on Friday. I'm also cutting down on carbs, but only the obvious ones. I refuse to give up fruit or vegetables, but I'm returning to the hunter-gatherer diet which seems to work for me; I will eat grains and starch only in small quantities. I have stopped eating between meals.

I'm feeling confident enough about this to go public now; I'll tell you when I achieve what I'm after, which is to fit my trousers again.

Toot and chain mail 

While searching for Mr Toot, sometime phantom emailer, I found this interesting site- looks like I might be on the right track after all, since it describes itself as a "Final Fantasy Site". Anyway, trawling through the site, I discovered this funny submission about chain mail. You may already know it, but I didn't so I'm inflicting it on you lot now.
A kind anonymous commenter (hello anonymous commenter) left me this message: "You could at least put a warning up not to read this link in an office environment - trying to suppress laughter can do untold damage." So apologies to those of who have been reprimanded for laughing at work because of this link, and I hope you haven't been given the sack because of it...

My blog's broken again; I can't view it, except through the edit window in Blogger, so i'm assuming that nobody else can either. The question is: why the devil am I writing this then?

Homework whinge 


et me start this by saying that as a teacher myself, I loathed people making excuses about why their little Johnnie could not behave, work or progress like the other children, so if you think that I'm making excuses for my children, please tell me.

I must have been spoiled by the English education system, which I really believe is very good at the primary level now, particularly in the early stages. My children were lucky to attend one of the outstanding infant schools in the country, which turned out 60% level 3 at Key Stage 1, for those of you who know about these things. This was the school which my daughter Dill left at the beginning of July. She turned 6 at the end of July, knowing how to read well, write in joined-up handwriting, and do straighforward maths, on target for end of year 1 for that school. Additionally she had a good grounding in RE, Art, History etc...

She started school here in grade 2 with, children up to two years older than herself, to avoid having to cover the same topics again. The first thing her teahcer did was to stop her from writing in joined-up handwriting, because they don't learn that here until grade 3.

It seems that although the topics are a progression, we have slipped into a parallel universe as far as methods are concerned. Whereas she used to have nightly reading, and would have had a weekly sheet of spellings to practise this year, she now has over an hour of homework each night. Homework now means: 20 minutes reading in French (no problem), 3-4 weekly grammar and comprehension sheets in French (slightly more of a problem for her, but still doable); dictation practise nightly, which involves writing out the same four sentences every evening for four days; learning French vocabulary: 15 minutes each night; going over the words of that week's song (we NEVER get as far as this); and two or three weekly maths sheets, with pages of exercises along these lines:
2 hundreds + 5 tens + 3 hundreds=

Not very exciting, but with considerable encouragement, she can complete them. When the children first started school here, everyone made sure to tell us that the maths programme in Québec was among the best in the world, and that children who went through the entire programme to grade 12 were outperforming many other countries. Why then did my son, always a third-rate mathematician at school in Britain, suddenly find himself reclassified as a genius, in need of extension work in grade 6 (11/12year olds)? Why were they still working on place value in grade 6? Something is not quite right. I fail to understand how they can go from the ridiculously overambitious abstract maths they offer in grade 2, to being completely backward in grade 6, and still keep assuring me that their maths programme is the best.

The other gripe I have is about relevance of the homework; my daughter Hen has always been both assiduous and organised. She makes sure she finishes and hands in her homework on time. Yet even she is coming home from school with tasks that I have to teach her the topic for first. I did not believe my landlords in the summer when they said that homework took three hours nightly, and that they each had to sit with one of their two kids. Now I do, and I feel as though I've attained one of the outer reaches of Hell with it. What kind of purgatory is this? And how do people manage it when they work full-time? We barely manage to complete all the homework, and that's working at it from 4pm to 6.30pm. If one of the children has an extra-curricular activity such as swimming or judo, you can wave goodbye to completed homework for the night.

Can anyone attempt an objective assessment of the situation here, with the one-sided information I've just given, and tell me if my gripes are justified, or whether I just need to get better organised, because frankly I feel as though I'm doing another day's work with them when they get home at the moment. And I'm wondering why exactly I'm sending them to school.

Email puzzlers 

I today received this message from a fellow alien humanoid into my Purple Pen inbox. I'm not sure what to make of it. How did he blow my cover? I'm distraught. I thought I was doing such a good job with all that concealer, but I might as well have saved myself both the expense and the bother.

"Fabbo - abso-bloody-lootelly fabbo.

I once thought I was the only one from our planet ever to have landed here, but about 25 earth years ago I did become aware of one other. When did you arrive? Did you all come together? Where is your craft? Do you think you'll ever manage to leave here for home again? How fortunate you are to be all together. Like I said, I only know of one other - she's in Australia but I lost her address. Let me know if you bump into her. I'll tune in from time to time just to see how you're getting on. Wear a balaclava.



Tuesday, January 20, 2004



art of the charm of moving to foreign country is the process of discovery of all the little quirks and idiosyncracies which make the new country different from what you're used to. Some of these you find out because people kindly volunteer the information, some you find out by keeping your ears and eyes open and watching what other people do, some you find out the hard way.

Take insuring your car for instance. We lease our car on a long-term basis from a standard car hire company. We are insured through the hire firm, with an excess of $1500 Canadian. In Québec, everyone who has a licence also has basic third-party insurance through the driver licensing body. The Boff in fact purchased his Québec licence at a cost of $117 barely a month ago. It seems however that car insurance in Québec operates a no-fault policy, which means that no matter whose fault the accident was, the damage to each car is paid by that person's insurance company.

Imagine how pissed off we were then, when after a nice half-hour spent spent shopping in our local Sears department store on Saturday afternoon, we came out to discover that some silly old buffer in a souped-up penismobile had written off our rear bumper, leaving a depressed circular fracture 15cm in diameter- ie well-nigh irreparable. And then he'd just driven off, without leaving so much as his details. A lady had witnessed the whole incident and, noting his licence plate number, had been kind enough to leave us a post-it note explaining what had happened. Silly old Buffer was waiting for his wife to emerge from the shop, a few parking spaces further up the car-park.

So to recap, we go shopping, come out of the shop and find that we suddenly owe anything up to $200 to our car hire company for repairs. No wonder he thought we were mad to be taking down his details, writing without gloves in minus 17 C. Fantastic eh?

Monday, January 19, 2004

Ad going free 

I've upgraded my commenting system at Haloscan, and as a thank-you they've given me a text ad across their commenting system for free. I think this means that an ad will appear in every comments box run by Haloscan. The point is, I'm certainly not going to use it to advertise my own site, so I'm willing to donate it to a good cause. Suggestions and petitions please, in the usual place.

Requiescat in Pace 

It is with great sadness that we announce today the death of Hubble Hamsterro. Hamsterro died peacefully yesterday after a short illness. Never much of a party animal, Hamsterro preferred the quiet of his bedroom to the hustle and bustle of the household, although he was occasionally to be seen out in his Hubble-Bubble. A hamster of independent means, Hamsterro listed among his hobbies seed-collecting-- his collection of sunflower seeds was unrivalled in The Flat- and "running on his wheel", and extreme and little-known sport outside hamster circles. Never a violent animal, Hamsterro preferred sleeping to biting, and put up with ham-fisted handling in a good-natured way. Hamsterro was unmarried and left no children, but is mourned by his many friends.
Due to adverse ground conditions, his funeral has been postponed until the spring. He is in the meantime lying in state in the freezer, where his body may be viewed at any time by anyone unwise enough to open the door for some ice-cream.


I have merged my old Blogspeak comments with my new Haloscan account, but although the old comments are now there, they don't show up as a number beside the comments link. Does anybody know if anything can be done to rectify this? Purely in the interests of symmetry you understand...

Sunday, January 18, 2004

Here is the name of a gentleman (? or lady) who was good enough to send me an unsolicited email today: Rattlesnake H. Fluoridate. They really are taking the piss now. Sadly I have not opened it, so I can't tell you what Mr Fluoridate is trying to sell me.
Update: Curiosity got the better of me- it was TVi@gQR@. So now we know.

Daisy suggests a competition of the most stupid spam names to cross your inbox; so far we've come up with a few between us. Feel free to add your own... I'll get Fray Bentos in to judge later.

The snow dump 


ome people
have been badgering me about the snow dump for ages, and I've at last managed to get you all some exciting pictures of the place where most of the snow collected off the streets of West Montréal ends up: Angrignon Snow Dump. It's very convenient for the shopping centre, cinema and little go-karting track, and except for the fact that it is not open to the general public, it would be very handy for dropping off your excess garden snow.

Luckily, Montrealers pay an obscene amount of taxes for the privilege of having some of the best public services I've ever experienced. This extends to snow clearing. To people who are not used to cold countries, it may seem odd that snow would have to be carted away, at least as odd as our quaint British custom of waiting a few days to see if it melts before gritting. The problem with the latter approach here is that the temperature usually stays below zero for three solid months, so whatever else happens, you can be sure that the snow will just lie there, making parking, driving and walking difficult or impossible.

So the snow has to be removed. This operation is carried by huge behemoth machines, a little like diggers, but with a snow-plough attachment. The pavements are cleared by little zippy snowploughs, which push the pavement snow into the road. The snow is collected into banks at the side of the roads, and huge piles at the end of roads. Next comes a machine a little like the dalek-like attachement used to harvest wheat, for those of you who know about farmy things- this shoots the snow into a lorry which is driving alongside. When the lorry is full, it goes off to Angrignon Snow Dump, and large empty piece of land about three miles away from here. Here's a picture of the dump, taken from a mile away-note the lampposts in the foreground for scale- I waited for a lorry, but it was Saturday, so I suppose they weren't working...

By this stage of the year, it has snowed around 8 or 10 times. We have a foot and half in the back garden. At Angrignon Snow Dump, they have a pile about 500 metres long, and about 50 metres tall. That is a lot of snow... and the beauty of it that you do not need to wait 500 years for it all to rot. By June, it will all have run into the canal below it, and made its way to the St Laurent river.

Saturday, January 17, 2004



en over at Random Gestures is talking about accountability (distinct from accounting, which wouldn't be that interesting), and more particularly about accountability in blogging towards the people you know. She mentioned Pob in passing, and how she misses him (I miss him too), but how in the end we none of us owe anything to anyone. Pob retired for uterly understandable reasons. As a private person, the pressure of laying your exposed nerves out for all to see can become unbearable. And he no more "owed" us our next fix of him than anybody else providing a service, like a plumber- and nobody forces people to plumb. He chose to blog publicly for a time and for that we should be thankful.

Elsie I believe retired from the public arena for slightly different reasons, feeling that she no longer had editorial control over her online life-too much accountability again- she felt too indebted to her readers. I am less distraught at the loss of Elsie, because I still feel her presence round and about, and I think that she may well still be blogging. I haven't given up looking for Elsie, but I get the feeling that Pob would not want to be found, so I'm not looking. That's probably why I feel more upset about Pob- it's been like losing a a friend, although we've never met.

Advertisers love the phrase "life is too short for..." because it suggests that instant gratification and by extension consumption are justifiable because you won't be around to pick up the tab. But that's just rubbish designed to sell stuff; life, to each of us is actually the longest thing we'll ever know. We only get the one chance at it. If we are lucky and play our cards right, we'll spend that time pleasantly and with a minimum of bother to other people and get to do what we want without being thrown in jail. If we are unlucky or ill-judged, we can end up living by the whims of others- accountability becoming our way of life.

Excess accountability and loss of self-determination often lead to unhappiness. I'm thinking here of classic "passive-aggressive" people, who try to control people but at the same time try to keep the moral upper-hand. I'm afraid to say that these are often traits found in stay-at-home mothers as their children reach teenage and they start to lose total control over their children's lives. If you neglect your "me-time", if accountability takes over your life, if you feel that everyone owes you because you've been a good boy or girl, then practically everyone will fall short in your eyes. Because nobody really owes you anything.

We are all responsible for living our own lives. If we want happiness, it is up to each of us to identify and engineer the circumstances in which our happiness can flourish. We are not indebted to anyone (apart from the loan shark we resorted to get that new wide-screen telly despite our appalling credit rating) and no-one is indebted to us. So we should not expect anything from anyone, not even our nearest and dearest. Our nearest and dearest in an ideal world will be part of our "happiness circumstances", but if they're not, then so be it. As my father, that closet passive-aggressive (closet because he's in total denial about it) would say: "you make your own luck, kiddo."

We're going through a Kate and Anna McGarrigle* phase in this house, particularly their latest album "La vache qui pleure", so I started a spot of research about them. I already knew from the CD sleeve that Kate McGarrigle was the mother of Rufus Wainwright. What I didn't realise was that Loudon Wainwright III, apparently a famous singer, was her children's father. With those genes, it really is hardly surprising that both children of that marriage became folk singers.

After mining deep in Loudon Wainwright's web site, I realised that they are the kind of family that passes on all sorts of things, like names for example. Now, I don't know if I'm old-fashioned about this, but I don't really think you should call a child after a relative who is still using the name. I mean what next? Their chamber pot? No you can't have it, I'm still using it, ya little sod! Loudon Wainwright the Third's parents evidently disagreed, and he and Kate McGarrigle gave their daughter the name of Loudon's mother, Martha. Just imagine if they'd called the boy Loudon IV- and he'd still become a musician- talk about following in your father's footsteps...

*Incredibly, most of their website dates from 1996, and is still under construction- they might have done better to put one of their kids to IT instead of folk music; I forgive them though because they have a purple pen on their front page.

Friday, January 16, 2004

Lunchtime melancholia 

It's around about this time of the day that I suddenly realise that Europe is a very long way away. You see, you lot in Britain and France and Belgium are just about to prepare dinner, whereas I've only just had lunch. There's always a deadish period on European people's blogs and comments boxes as everyone makes their way home from work, and that somewhow reinforces the feeling of being 3000 miles away.
Away from where, you ask? Well, home, really, I suppose. Most of the time this neither crosses my mind nor bothers me- I've explained at length in other posts about not feeling the need to belong, but the fact is that most of my friends and family are 3000 miles away; not one of them is interchangeable with anybody. It's not the place, it's the people. With The Boff at work and The Purple Bofflets still at school, I sometimes feel that more acutely.

Public information broadcast 

The Boff just sent me this interesting link about windchill. Windchill is extremely significant in these parts, since it can lower the perceived temperature by 15C or more. Earlier today, for example, it was -25C, but with a whippy wind of the East, bringing the perceived temperature down to -37C. Right now, it is -18C, but the windchill factor makes this feel like -32C. This chart tells me that frostbite is virtually inevitable at these temperatures, and that wrapping up is the only option. If you are planning to travel to a cold area (skiing in the Alps, say) and don't know how to dress, remember to check out the wind speed as well as the thermometer temperature. Then use this handy chart to work out the perceived temperature. And don't take anything below minus 20C, including windchill, lightly.

Thanks to all of you 


gain today, not the kind of day you'd want to be out in the open for any length of time. This makes the extraordinary effort put in by the many people in this city who actually go out to work in minus 40C all the more remarkable; despite a few passing problems such as postmen (why are postmen bolshie in every country?) refusing to go out in the cold, the city keeps on running.

I find few jobs more admirable than the crossing patrols. In common with many parts of the States and Britain, there are crossing patrols at every crossroads near a school. The "brigadière" at our school is Arlette. Like with many Québecois, Arlette was not born here. She was Egyptian originally, and thanks to French being the "lingua franca" for several centuries in North Africa, she speaks French better than the Québecois themselves.

Arlette is sometimes very French in her behaviour. Like many French women of her age group, she is quite needy. She needs people and warmth around her. She loves to speak to the children and their parents, and following a recent knee operation which kept her away from her job for 6 weeks, she was desperate to get back to work. She also feels the cold very badly, and spends a fair amount of quick chat time not exactly complaining, for she is too gentle, but remarking that life would be better if it were not so chilly. You would be hard pushed to find a more contrasting climate to Egypt, yet she loves her job.

And then there are the people who repair mains water pipes when idiots drive their trucks into them during morning rush hour; the people who re-establish broken electricity supplies (not fun in this cold either for the electricity-free person), the road clearing crews (yes Hans, I'm still planning on doing it, I've just go to get over there): thanks to all of you for helping to keep this city running effectively despite the appalling cold.
And then there are the traffic wardens.

Thursday, January 15, 2004



hilst browsing for an iPod, I chanced upon the American Declaration of Independence. It makes for fascinating reading in the present circumstances.

To place it in its historical context, this document was written at the end of 18th Century, when Rousseau, Voltaire and a number of other philosophers in Europe and America were debating the concept of Natural Justice, of the "noble savage"- ie that man, uncivilised, was not decadent but innocent, and of "rurs in urba" the idea that the rural idyll was attainable (think Toile de Jouy, shepherd girls and shepherd boys); it was the cusp of the Industrial Revolution, many people facing starvation in Europe had emigrated to the colony on the other side of the ocean. These words are of their time- they display a basic search for happiness and self-determination. Somehow I feel that they should be treated with more circumspection nowadays; now that the former underdog is the most powerful nation on earth, the quest for these "rights" is being used to justify some pretty unpalatable things and in my opinion to justify bullying of smaller nations. Judge for yourself in the light of what the American people are undergoing at the moment, and remember that their current leader "has done more for human rights than any other American president".

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.--That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, --That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.

How I arrived 


hirty-six years ago yesterday, my mother leaned over to pick a roast from the oven, felt a little faint, and remembered nothing more until two weeks later. She had been nine and a half months pregnant with her first child, me, and it seems that the silent pre-eclampsia picked the very moment of her reaching down for the beef to turn into full-scale eclampsia. Later that day, she had a series of convulsions so severe that my father was told not to expect either her or the baby to survive. The powerless doctors drugged her into a coma to prevent a fatal cycle of convulsions back-to-back known as "status epilepticus" and induced the baby- the only known cure for the condition.

Thus was I born the next day, January 15th 1968, in a hospital in Newcastle upon Tyne. My father, as was the custom then, was down the pub; not to be near the phone, but to be near strong drink. He was legless when I was born, trying to drown his sorrow at almost certainly losing his wife, and now, it seemed, having a baby to bring up alone.

My mother was strong; thankfully she did not die, but got better day by day and graduated in just a few days to being the only breastfeeding mother in the maternity hospital. Nurses and student doctors came from far and wide in the hospital to observe the modern wonder of a mother feeding her baby the food that nature intended for it. My mother was left with health problems from her brush with death; ill-understood health problems which led doctors to medicate her so inappropriately and so viciously that they deprived her of most of her short-term memory throughout our childhood. In all honesty, she remembers very little of us when we were growing up. This might well be a blessing in disguise.

Wednesday, January 14, 2004

Wiggly ones 

Just for Dill, who's going through that phase, here is that old classic: Nobody loves me



am a lazy writer (in the sense of person wot writes, rather than "author") and write strictly when inspired. Some (some?? Ed.) days, inspiration does not visit me, and I feel stupid and stolid. This week has mostly been like that. It's usually directly proportional to the niggleyness of my sinusitis, which now seems to be a permanent winter feature. Normal service - ie what I consider to be stuff I like to write- will resume when my muse visits again; until then, you'll get tidbits of Montreal news, as you have this week.


I have this weird sinking feeling that I may well be the last person left alive who says "oopsydaisy". Curses on my 1950s mother! (hello Mummy) Dash, bother, blow and all the other naughty words that send us down below.

Cops and Indians and Mob Rule 


esterday while the weather was a balmy minus 10, I went for a long walk, part of my bid to lose bulk. Today however, it's physically painful to be outside for more than 5 minutes, so I'm going to have to stay in and tell you about cops and Indians; or is it cowboys and robbers? Last night a Mohawk Chief's house was burned down.

Dotted around Montreal are various areas reserved for Mohawk people. Peaceful golf courses and tobacco shacks are people's main sources of income. It is widely rumoured that since First Nation people do not have to have a passport for travel within North America, and may pass the US border freely and unsearched as often as they like, that they are pretty central in the trafficking of both cheap cigarettes and drugs.

Hence the presence of a large number of cheap tobacco shacks in reservations, usually by the side of the main road.

The area where this trouble happened yesterday, as I understand it, is not officially a reservation. Reservations have a very careful set of rules covering their policing- in general they are autonomous- and are usually without the federal laws on most things. The village where this trouble happened does not have the status of reservation, hence the presence of a local police station. The Mohawks have had their own trained police force since 1996, after a fatal standoff between Mohawk and Sureté du Québec officeers in 1990. Because it is not a reservation, its poeple but abide by federal law, which precludes trafficking and drugs growing.

Local people, angry at their Chief's new stand on illegal drugs traffic and at the probe into marijuana growing on reservations, had barricaded 60 police officers inside their statiopn for two days. The conflict ended last night with the torching of the unpopular chief's house. The Chief has been overthrown for faiiling to listen to his people. What his people wanted was to continue living outside the law of the land. So he had to go. Mob rule rules it seems. And leading is not as easy as it seems from the comfort of one's armchair.

Tuesday, January 13, 2004


As I typed that last entry, a mini snow-plough was clearing the pavement and gutter outside our house, back and forth, back and forth along the road, sometimes with the traffic, sometimes against it. And it was on one of those against trips that it scared a woman into stopping as it headed straight for her. Unfortunately the private road-salting crew truck driver behind her didn't appear to have noticed that she'd stopped, and rammed straight into the back of her car, bull bars and all. Not fast, but from where I'm sitting, it looks like there's quite a lot of damage: the boot doesn't shut, the bumper is seriously fractured and both parties look jolly pissed off. I know, I hear you say, how dare she stop? In the road? With no other warning than brake lights and the presence of a snow-plough two feet ahead? Guilty as charged I say. Poor salting crew, it's not as though they have a privileged view of the road ahead or anything...

Over-egging the pudding 

This afternoon, Sim, Hen and I are busying ourselves making an eggless cake for the Boff's birthday tomorrow.

Bizarrely, it was because of an inability to barbecue eggs in a subsequently edible way that we discovered The Boff's problems with his first food.

His mother jokingly refers to weaning him "around two months" (she's vague about the details, so possibly even earlier) onto scrambled eggs, then considered to be a perfectly digestible infant food. Luckily this fashion lasted only long enough for for large scale studies on infant deaths from gastro-intestinal disease to be conducted. The Boff was one of the lucky ones, condemned to egglessness or itching, rather than Crohn's disease.

The Boff suffered from exzema throughout his childhood. When he was two, he was prescribed a topical steroid cream to treat one particuarly nasty spot on his head, but his mother was not told about when to stop using it- do you think 18 months was too long? He now has an alarming depression on the top of his head where the bone failed to grow properly- useful if he ever needs a lobotomy to let off pressure, but not for much else.

Anyway I digress. In 1997, we went on a four week camping and motel holiday to California. We camped for two days running, then stayed in a motel for a bath on the third day- shower facilities being rather hit-and-miss in the campsites we stayed in.

On motel mornings, we would eat breakfast at Denny's or some such establishment. The Boff invariably ate a stack of pancakes with bacon. On camping morning, we ate bacon sandwiches, barbecuing the bacon at our site. And that's when we noticed that every three days or so, The Boff's exzema would flare up. We wondered whether it could be the baths. So he stopped baths for a few days. No difference to the exzema, but people began to shun him.

Then we thought logically, and he tried cutting out eggs. Bingo! No more exzema. Now he is condemned to a life of eggless birthday cakes, lovingly prepared by his adoring children. I don't know which is worse.



've pretty much decided that today's weather is my favourite winter weather of all time. Improbably perfect department-store flakes of snow have wafted gracefully down most of the day from high vapid snow cloud, proving that it can snow and be sunny at the same time. The temperature has been a manageable minus 12 to 14- you can just about walk up the road without gloves. And the snow is so beautiful! Does the wonder at snow ever stop? It papers over any blemish, smooths off rough edges- it's like a makeover for the outdoors.

Monday, January 12, 2004

No I don't know where my comments are either. Been gone about two hours. I'm assuming a Blogspeak problem, and using watchful waiting as a remedy.
Update: Or putting up Haloscan comments instead. Whichever.



n weather like this, public buildings become a magnet for the heat-seeking homeless, anxious to spend their days in the warm before facing an uncertain night outside the closed shelter of the Metro, the ATM lobbies of banks, window sills in covered walkways and back staircases of office buildings. Using these buildings in this way is a fine balancing act for both employee and tramp. Access to the facility by the paying customer must not be compromised, yet banishment may mean death.

Compromises are reached. I remember with particular poignancy the bearded tramp in Atwater metro station the other day, blissfully sleeping through the day -since shelters do not lend themselves to sleep- stretched out in the glorious warmth without blanket or pillow, his back towards the automatic ticket machines, but leaving two clear feet behind him for the paying customer to reach the machine. He knew that his life depended on this two-foot strip of nothing. Who could feel comfortable knowing that at any minute, a clumsy ticket buyer might tread on your hair by accident? Who could feel comfortable sleeping uncovered? Who could feel comfortable sleeping in the middle of a public floor, one of the busiest stations in the city? Yet this was preferable to the alternative.

I was reminded of a tramp fifteen years ago, attempting sleep on a bench on the Backs- Queen's Road if memory serves me- coldest night of the year, wind straight from the Urals, no blanket, in one of the richest towns in Britain. My tangible offer of the blanket in my bicycle basket declined: "I don't want to go soft". How could anyone possibly imagine that?

Another thought- whoa, steady on! 

Everyone has depth- it's just that some people are better at expressing theirs.

Right- after two thoughts today, I'm ready for a nap. 'Nite!

Sunday, January 11, 2004

A thought 

Good writing comes from an unsettled soul. Happiness and settledness are rarely creative.



eeling tired and confused? Try decluttering... If you, like I do, suffer extreme confusion when faced with clutter- ironic, since I have to really be in the mood to tidy- you might enjoy some of the tips on FlyLady.net. Happy little soul FlyLady devotes her life to advising us how to how to declutter our homes. I love bare surfaces, but somehow, stuff seems to creep in, and I really don't have the amount of willpower that an old acquaintance of mine displayed: she virtually had an account with a rubbish skip (dumpster) company.

Most of my family on the other hand are would-be bag ladies and men- my sister takes this to an extreme and has clutter in two separate countries. I don't want to be like that, but it is sometimes very hard to part with things that have sentimental value. My technique so far has been this: keep something in a box for five years, and then sort the box. Anything I find that I can remember neither the use for or point of keeping goes o.u.t. Unfortunately I have a good memory.

Anyway I feel a decluttering urge coming on- I'm off to try the 27-Fling Boogie now.

My favourite quote from the site: You cannot organize clutter - you can only organize the things you love!.

Saturday, January 10, 2004



ix months ago, I could never have imagined what real cold was. The coldest I'd ever experienced was one day of minus 17 including in 1985. Commenters safely tucked away in places with positive temperatures have said that they cannot think what this sort if cold is like. Extreme cold is pretty much of a muchness below minus 10 or so. After all, we and most other living organisms are mostly water, so any temperature below freezing level is life-threatening. Each degree lower than 0C merely brings closer the time of death.
Cold here means not leaving your house with any square inch of exposed flesh. It means the very real possibility of frost-bite on your ears, nose or face, should you be foolish enough to leave home without a hat or scarf. Having said this, as you step out of your front door, it feels no colder than ny other freezing day. The only clue that it might be somewhat colder than normal comes with your first few breaths of the outdoors- they are painful- breathing air this cold hurts, and the humidity in your breath freezes onto the hairs just inside your nostrils, blocking yoru nose at each in breath. It's all quite interesting really.
Having said all this, the lack of frost is refreshing- in Britain any temperature below freezing means automatic frost, yet here, at minus 30C, there is nothing on the car windscreen. And as long as you have the right kit, you don't actually feel that cold. Of course, should you foolishly stand around in a howling gale for a few minutes in these temperatures, your legs, feet and fingers start to suffer.
Interestingly, the coldest I've ever felt was in my grandmother's house in England- a damp, unheated terrace in Northamptonshire, my grandmother, elderly and uncommunicative, staring at the television screen, pointedly ignoring my sister and me. We were the kind of children she loathed- too bouncy, too clever by half, and too critical. She disapproved of us, and her way of showing us was self-sacrificially to put up with our visits but ignore us. After this freeze treatment, any amount of freeze seems warm, particularly if it is also sunny.

Friday, January 09, 2004


Oh and the electricity company, Hydro-Québec, has asked us not to run the washing-machine, dishwasher or any other unnecessary appliance today (surely computers don't count?), because they're having to buy in power from the States due to the extreme cold- Canadians like to heat their houses to 21C, which today means heating to 50C above outside temperature, and that's a lot of power... Frankly I'm gutted about not being to do the washing. I suppose I'll just have to get out the old washtub and mangle...



y goodness, I think I might have to avoid Métro sausages in future- it can't have been the carrots and green beans, surely? That was the worst night's sleep I've had in a long time. For a start, as soon as I went to bed, I could feel my heart racing as thoguh I'd just had 5 espressos, and then the waking nightmares started.

At one point and for quite some minutes, I'd managed to freeze-frame my father, stopping him from arguing or going into a sulk like he normally does, and I was walking up and down ranting at him, and gesticulating with such vehemence that at one point I prodded him in the chest and discovered to my horror that he was actually a large father-shaped loaf of bread, a bit like the Pillsbury doughboy, but baked, and my finger went right into his chest- it didn't seem to to bother him much until he unfroze and started shouting at me.

Then I was going for a nice walk in a park of some description, over a stone bridge with no stream under it, the kind of Capability Brown landscape which included rural idyllic detailing such as stone bridges over artificial ponds. As I walked over this innocent stone bridge, it turned abruptly into a motorway bridge, roar of traffic in my ears, but with a chasm opening up like the portal to some medieval imagery of Hell, and disembodied voices screaming. I think this may have something to do with a conversation I had with my landlady on Wednesday about (her) postnatal depression, but still...

The worst about all this as that I wasn't actually asleep, as evidenced by the fact that I can still remember everything vividly- that kind of dream is normal for me in sleep, but I usually do not remember them in the morning.

I think someone at the sausage factory must have been dropping something in the sausage mix- either that or I'm cracking up completely. Still it was moderately entertaining, apart from the heart thing. I'm not drinking coffee today.


Temperature at 7:45am: -29C ; with windchill, a mere -39C. Boo hoo, no records last night...

I don't believe it! 

What a wonderful story this is. It knocks "While you were out" into a cocked hat anyway, and what a labour of love... Found at Stupid Evil Bastard.

Cold, cold, cold.... 

The Boff pointed out this cheerful little table of record windchill temperatures in Canada over the last 30 years. Montréal is in there at -49C, and we've got -44C forecast tonight, but frankly they're so rubbish at predicting accurate temperatures that we might break some records tonight. Or not, as the case may be.

Thursday, January 08, 2004

Hey, The Boff, if you're reading- our wonderful friend Ruth says you shouldn't be freezing your bollocks off even if you do already have three children. Take note!



ne of the most famous and endearing qualities of the Canadians is their remarkable tolerance and acceptance of outsiders. Everywhere we go, they ask "You're from England, right?" not, I hasten to point out, "you are English". They are almost invariably surprised and saddened to hear that we'll be going back to England next year, assuming that anybody mad enough to stick out the winter must be here for good. Sure, they do play mind games with us about the winter, especially when they think we're being too gung-ho about it. But almost without fail is the assumption that we're here for good, and that we are therefore as Canadian as they. It's almost a "blitz" mentality, that we're all in this together (the weather particularly) and that unity is the only way to respond.

What you have to understand about our part of Canada, and I can't speak for any other part of Canada since I haven't been there yet- Jen? Quasi? K8?- is that the mere fact of moving here makes you Canadian. You are pretty much as Canadian as the next person- since many Canadians are at most third generation, and many have parents not born here. Obviously there is such a thing as a Canadian accent, but you don't lose marks in the Canadianness test because you speak with a Scottish/Chinese/Iraqi accent. It is really refreshing to be in a place where you do not need to fight to be accepted socially, such as England for example, where more people than is healthy would really quite like to go back to the days when we were all blue, wore wolfskins and killed each other for fun, "but at least we were Inglish!".

I remember feeling extremely pissed off and isolated when I came back to Britain at the age of eighteen, when no matter what I did or said in an attempt to fit in, it was taken against me as evidence of my lack of Britishness. Any minute deviation from the norm of what a British person is, was pounced on and used to identify me. "Oh but you're French!" people would say contemptuously, "they do things differently there" - sub-text: "in that land of the barely civilised bunch of garlic-eating Johnnie Foreigners". This bothered me a lot, particularly since I had spent a good part of my childhood in France struggling for people to forget that I was British, and fitting in there.

Here, the most wonderful thing about this country is that we feel no pressure to fit in. We are allowed to progress at out own pace with our assimilation. People seem pleasantly surprised to see that we want to do what they do. In many ways, Canada displays the same tolerant attitude as the tolerant parts of Britain- without the jackbooted stirrers who like to make other peoples' lives crap merely because they messed up their own education and now cannot get a job. I'm sure that there must be racism in Canada, but in 6 months, I've heard only one comment, from the mouth of an elderly, very French lady.

I just wish that the bigots who give Britain a bad name could look at themselves objectively and see their feelings for what they are: a refusal to admit that they've fucked up somewhere along the line, without any help from anyone, and that they are now suffering the consequences.

As for "belonging", my opinions are obviously coloured by my life experiences, but I can confidently say that I do not feel the need to belong to anywhere- no piece of land is worth harming anyone for; and frankly there is little about the British way of life, apart from tolerance, which is worth defending- Burberry clothing, fish and chips, eyebrow rings, lawns and brown sauce- give me a break! If that's Britain, then thanks but no thanks.

*Waits and watches* 

I wonder if I'll get to 5000 today?
Update: It seems that it may have been someone using BTOpenWorld, possibly Daisy or Ruth? Anyway, Billy deserves a purple pen as well, not only for being number 5001, but most importantly for helping me all day to reach 5000. Thank you very much Billy. Just as I receive the (beautiful, purple) pens, I'll be asking for your address. Beware!

The Boff has just gone out in his pyjamas, ostensibly to take a picture of the moon, but really to find out what -39C (including windchill) feels like in pyjamas. What can I say- we're mad newbies.

Wednesday, January 07, 2004


h.My.God. I have just picked up the children in a temperature, with windchill, of -23C, and I felt myself freezing where I stood (no snow trousers on, silly me). Tomorrow we are to be treated to -39C including windchill. Dill just asked if she can stay at home in bed under the covers all day tomorrow. Sounds like a damn good idea, Dill, but the answer is no.
And on a different note, go to see "Les triplettes de Belleville" - the "Belleville Rendez-vous" (thanks Ruth) in Britain- if you get the chance, even if you're not a fan of animation. You have to admire a film in which the heroes are four elderly ladies, and supporting characters include a strong but totally silent champion cyclist grandson, a morbidly obese dog and the French wine mafia. It has different ratings depending on country, but most children would enjoy it, even though it has a few "slice life of moments". Disney it most certainly is not. Life, dammit, life! Why did no-one tell me my post made no sense? Oh, oh I see. Not enough hours in the day...

A little assumption is a terrible thing 


ust every once in a while, fate smiles down on you, and someone in your entourage does something so monumentally stupid that you have blackmail material to use against them for ever. Like that time The Boff blew up the car's engine by...ooops, better not. On Monday my dopey little troll Sim did something that we should be able to to our advantage for quite some time. As you know, I went for a walk on Monday, to clear my head, but also to stock up on the eco-friendly washing powder which we like to use. While I was at the shop, about a mile away, I picked up some other things, to a total of $52.87. When I came home, my back was hurting, so I left the things still in their bags just inside the hallway to put away later.

Later, during dinner preparations, I come down the corridor with the rubbish bag to put out for the bin men a few minutes later. I ask Sim to take it out, and I go back to the kitchen. You can see where this is going, can't you?

Yesterday, I decide to do some washing. I look everywhere for the new washing powder, "just assuming" (remember that expression) that the Boff has put it away somewhere strange, but do not find it. Over dinner last night, still puzzled, I ask around the table- we don't eat together on Monday nights because The Boff has a choir rehearsal. That's when I notice Sim shrinking into his chair. It turns out that the daft little bugger has only thrown away $52.87 worth of perfectly good shopping, "just assuming", without checking, that it was rubbish as well.

Now my mother is the queen of "I just assumed", and "just assuming" has led to some spectacularly disastrous situations in the time I've known her, with the result now that when I hear that expression, I just want to run down the street pulling out large chunks of hair and screaming until they put me in a straight jacket. Please tell me that "just assumed" is not genetic...

Faux blogs 


ot on the heels of the controversy surrounding the identity of BdJ, I bring you this disturbing net offering, which would be extremely alarming if I didn't believe it to be entirely fake. For one thing, someone really planning to commit suicide does not call their blog "My Suicide Diary", nor do they leave it as a publicly accessible site on Blogrolling. Furthermore, for a diary supposedly written by a teenager, it is unconvincely grammatical and spelling error-free. Having said all this, it is so far very well written- six days into what allegedly is a thirty day run. You've still time to read the lot. Judge for yourself.

Tuesday, January 06, 2004

Dans le Lot et Garonne 


hen I was a little girl, and we first moved to France, we lived in a 500 year-old house in an area of France which had been in Occupied Territory during the war. Our house had been lying empty for twenty years, nobody it seemed wished to live there. It had metre-thick stone walls, 5 hectares of field and forest, no insulation and doors with huge gaps all around them. Nonetheless, it overlooked the entire beautiful valley and the rolling slopes of vines. To we suburban children, the freedom we had there was like paradise on earth.

What was odd however was the initial reluctance of the locals to come anywhere near our house, even out of naked curiosity. My parents assumed that some ignorant peasant superstition attached to the place. It would be two or three years before we found out the true cause of their reluctance. When they did come, they offered cryptic and strange advice. The neighbours would motion to the two wells, pointing out the one we could safely drink from, and the one we should avoid, wink wink you don't know what's in there.

It seems that during the war, our house had been a centre for the Maquis, the Resistance- a place way off the beaten track where they could meet to organise raids and coordinate. As was so often the case in villages like ours, not everyone viewed the invasion as a bad thing, and a good many people preferred the easier route of collaboration. So it was that, according to the details which dripped into our ears- it was always important even as young children, to keep our ears open- one day a small search party of Germans came to the house.

According to the reports, they were all slaughtered there by the resistants ensconced in the house. The bodies were disposed of in various ways- two down the well we should not drink from, others buried in the woods.

By this time, I was 8 years old, feverish imagination set further ablaze by reading adult novels. We were left to our own devices a lot, and my sister and I hatched a plan. The moss-covered rectangular hummocks in the woods we were sure contained the remains of German soldiers. We would dig one up, and prove the theory one way or the other. It started off well, this campaign. We gathered everything we needed to carry out our plan- shovel, fork, wellies. We started one Easter morning. We dug all morning into the hard clay. At lunchtime, we'd dug about a foot down and found nothing. This did not strike us as odd- after all, they wouldn't have wanted the bodies to be found easily, would they?

After lunch, we started again, only this time, as we imagined our goal drawing near, each turn at the spade filled us with more trepidation. In the end, I was seeing skeletons in every corner of the darkening wood. My knees were trembling, I could barely stand up. My sister and I looked at each other- we knew then that we could not carry on. I mentioned that it was beginning to get dark, she agreed, we looked at each other and ran as fast as we could for the safety of the house, leaving the spade and fork where they were. The next day we went back and filled in the hole, all the while apologising to the occupant.

After that, we could never walk past those hummocks without a shiver. I took to picking wild flowers and leaving them on the "graves", particularly the one we'd been digging- to say sorry and as an attempt to keep him in his grave, and away from my dreams.

Now, more than 25 years later, I find that I can't forget that house. It has had a rather nasty history even since we left it- rented at first to a boys' home, which turned out to be a front for a paedophile ring, and later sold to a middle-aged couple, of which the man hanged himself in the house in September. It is now for sale again. Some of my best memories are tied up in that house, even though it seems blighted.

For Epiphany 

The Journey of the Magi- T S Eliot

"A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The was deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter."
And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
And running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires gong out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty, and charging high prices.:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we lead all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I have seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

Monday, January 05, 2004


When the first migrants from Europe arrived in this country, what can they have expected? Many were fleeing persecution in France and other countries- for example the Huguenots. Others were simply seeking larger horizons. Whatever their reasons for coming, they invariably landed in summer, their ship carrying large amounts of supplies to restock the nascent towns. For the first few months, they would have lived much as they would have in France; the weather and social systems were pretty similar to what they were used to, and only the tall stories of previous immigrants would have given any clue of what to expect of the winter. Dangers came, during that summer, in the shape of unfamiliar and potentially poisonous vegetation, of unfamiliar and potentially fatal wildlife, and of unfamiliar and potentially hostile natives. Nothing in those first few months could possibly have caused them to feel homesick. They had wine, saucisson, bread baked in just the same way. They were busy surviving and living. Plus they had relative freedom.

Yet still the vineyards back in France tugged a little at the heartstrings.

The first winter though must have been a different affair. In January, far from laughing at the locals' habit of wearing furs, the new arrivals must have begun to envy them their troglodytic appearance as the first bitter north-easterly winds whipped through the coarse weave of their clothes and bit into the tender flesh. It is not for nothing that Lasalle, on the shore of the St Laurent River, not 2 miles from where I sit, was a fur trading post for the whole of Canada. As the supplies dwindled and the wine disappeared, and with the chance of a boat coming through still three months off, those people must have wondered what they were doing trapped in this new land between the frozen waste behind them and the frozen and impassible river ahead of them. Surviving the winter in Québec meant self-reliance and an ability to cope whilst entirely marooned; many died, from illness, cold and starvation.

Now this all happened four centuries ago. Québec is now an urbane province, plugged into the world, neatly resting between the New World and the Old. I may buy French wine in any supermarket. Short of a major meteorological catastrophe, supplies reach the province year-round.

And yet I look at the picture on my box of French plonk, bought to mull and mull over, and I have in my ears the sound of a lark high above the vineyard, of rustling grass and content hens, the taste of good French chocolate in my mouth, and the smell of mimosa flowering in February above a courtyard in Nice, old ladies in blue overalls shelling peas in the winter sunshine, and this land feels bleak and too large.

Please forgive me though- there are things happening in my life that I do not want to blog about, but that are upsetting me somewhat. I just need to get a grip and some perspective- and to go for a walk.

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