Friday, December 30, 2011

Three Good Things

Anointment Natural Skin Care

I met April Mackinnon at the Sackville farmers' market one Saturday morning.  She was breastfeeding her baby while selling handmade soap at a booth inside the Bridge Street Cafe.  Trained as a civil engineer, this multi-tasking young mother of three is the driving force behind a line of superb natural skin care products. 

Anointment Lavender Soap

I purchased a bar of Anointment lavender soap, partly because I like the name, with its biblical connotations, and partly because I hoped that it would relieve the itchy, dry skin that comes with winter in Canada.    April's soap is made with pure olive oil and contains no harsh chemicals.  It has a rich lather, not a frothy one, and releases the clean, soothing fragrance of lavender without perfume overload.  After a week of using this magic product, my skin was back to normal.  No more scrubbing with Dove in my shower - from now on, I am anointing myself with oil.   

Delightfully Delicious Sushi

823 Main St. Moncton
We happened upon this small restaurant on a Sunday afternoon spent wandering around downtown Moncton when everything else was closed and Main Street was virtually deserted.  It's now become our favourite place for enjoying Asian food.

There's a casual warmth that greets you when you enter the slate grey interior with its open kitchen and exposed wooden beams.  The menu includes items such as Japanese noodles, rolled sandwiches, maki, nigiri, inari and miso soup.

Sushi and Dumpling Special
The platter shown here includes four beef dumplings with a sweet and sour dipping sauce, and eight pieces of salmon sushi with soya sauce, ginger and wasabi.  It's the perfect combo for a light lunch.   Restaurant owner Htin Aung Htaik emigrated to Canada from Burma several years ago, and traded his management position in industry for work in the food business.  When a contract with Sobey's supermarket was cancelled last year, he knew it was time to take the plunge and open his own restaurant.  Htin greets guests and serves tables, while his wife prepares the sushi.  The atmosphere is always pleasant, the food is exceptionally good, and the prices are very reasonable. 

Vision H2O Christmas Tree Recycling

A sign posted at the municipal office in Cap-Pele indicated that Christmas trees could be dropped off at the hockey arena for recycling starting December 26th.  Thanks to a local non-profit organization concerned with addressing environmental issues, the trees are put to good use.  Once the festive season is over, discarded evergreens are distributed along the beaches to prevent the erosion of sand dunes.  Vision H2O is committed to maintaining water quality  in the region and an outline of their initiatives is included in the Cap-Pele Watershed Group website.  
 I was amazed to learn that each year approximately 450,000 evergreen trees are cut in N.B. to supply the Christmas market! 

Aboiteau beach, Cap-Pele

Friday, December 23, 2011

The gift of Gold

My sister Ruthanne emailed me a wonderful gift this year, a photo of a rare museum artifact that is connected to our family history.  Lo and behold, this extraordinary pair of spectacles had the power to bring the past into focus.

Vickris-Hyam spectacles

The Hyam family from my father's side was always a bit of a mystery to us. We had inherited a photo portrait of our great, great-grandfather Benjamin Price Hyam, an entrepreneurial man who was involved in shipbuilding, accounting, business ventures and real estate investments in Monmouth, Wales.    We had no information about his parents or grandparents, and a search through the usual parish records proved unfruitful.  In the argot of genealogy, this is called a "brick wall."

Benjamin Price Hyam (1797-1867)
A Google search for "Hyam" yielded a page from the British Optometrists Society.  A museum in London called MusEYEum, founded in 1901 by J.H. Sutcliffe of the British Optical Association, has the pure gold spectacles in its collection.   Their holdings of 16,000 artifacts includes an array of  historically significant glasses, optical testing devices, artificial eyes and works of art depicting spectacle wearers.

The exquisite gold spectacles shown above are engraved on each arm with the names Eliza Vickris, and Anne Hyam.    Details regarding provenance were sketchy until a Canadian genealogist, Sandra Adams of Ottawa, provided the museum with a clue from her family tree.  Elizabeth Vickris (nee Bishop 1655-1724) was the wife of Richard Vickris (1647-1700), a prominent writer and founding member of the early Quaker movement in Bristol, England.   The couple had 10 children, among them a daughter Anne who married Thomas Hyam, a London merchant in 1715.  

Quakers kept good records of births, marriages, divorces and deaths.  The details of life events of  non-Conformists were documented at regular Friends meetings, and those records can be searched through several genealogy websites

Through the grace of one personalized pair of spectacles preserved in a British museum, we have been able to trace the line of Thomas and Anne Hyam to connect with our Benjamin Price Hyam branch of the family tree.  It's amazing to think that those beautiful specs were worn in the 18th century by my eight times great-grandmother!  

"One secures the gold of the spirit when he finds himself."  
                                                         - Claude M. Bristol

Thursday, December 22, 2011

International Coffee

Looking back at photos from the past year, I see that my daily cup of coffee has been the subject of an international photo shoot. We have enjoyed the ritual of going out for coffee on three continents - Europe, South America and North America, and in a variety of interesting places- museums, art galleries, sidewalk cafes, restaurant terraces, markets and shopping malls.    My Dutch husband has certain stringent rules when it comes to coffee.  This beverage must be presented in a ceramic cup, it must be piping hot and it must not be served naked, that is, without a cookie or sweet nibble on the side.   Of course, the photos I took in The Netherlands show perfect examples of coffee correctness. 

Arnhem, The Netherlands

 American Hotel, Amsterdam, The Netherlands

The Hermitage Museum, Amsterdam, The Netherlands

Cafe in Plantages district, Amsterdam, The Netherlands

 South American coffee service ranks high for flavour and sophistication.  Cafe con leche or espresso is served with a refreshing glass of sparkling mineral water to clear the palate.  Note the pastries, linen and flowers that enhance the experience. 

Cakes, Montevideo, Uruguay

The Sweet House, Montevideo, Uruguay

Cafe Martinez, Montevideo, Uruguay

Bonafide, San Rafael, Argentina

Fortabat Art Collection, Puerto Madero, Buenos Aires, Argentina

I have to admit that the North American coffee scene leaves a lot to be desired.   Although fast food places and small cafes are now venturing into the exotic realm of lattes, cappuccinos and espresso shots, there's room for refinement when it comes to service and the aesthetics of presentation.   There are still many places that only serve coffee in disposable paper cups, a practice that spoils the joy.  It took some doing, but Robert now has the staff at the local Tim Hortons trained to serve our coffee in mugs. 

Suffering from jet lag, Robert reluctantly breaks the rules at the airport in Halifax, N.S.

Naked, but served in bilingual Canadian mugs at Tim Hortons, Cap-Pele N.B.


Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Harvest Child

Meet Maria, a three-year-old girl whose Bolivian parents harvested grapes on our vineyard in Mendoza, Argentina in 2008.  She was a self-assured, resourceful child, capable of entertaining herself while her parents were busy working.  

She used the posts and wires as playground equipment, climbing, swinging, bouncing and balancing herself.

Clumps of earth became bread dough, which Maria baked in a hole in the ground.

She took a bunch of grapes from her mother's basket and carefully wrapped the fat cluster in a blanket.

Now she had a doll to play with.  I heard Maria sing a sweet lullaby as she rocked the grape baby in her arms. 

The grape doll provided an afternoon of extended, focused play. Maria had a long attention span.

Maria's mother picking grapes

She watches her daughter, allowing independence

Maria's father carrying a load of grapes to the truck
I think of Maria at Christmas time, when North American children are showered with expensive gifts. Such a lavish outpouring of Playskool and Fisher-Price toys, Disney talking action figures, Barbie and Baby Alive dolls! So many buttons, batteries, bells and whistles required to engage and stimulate the young brain!  The overwhelming array of playthings on the market leaves little to the imagination and contributes loads of plastic waste to landfill sites.  Is the Bolivian girl who has mastered the art of making a vineyard her kinder gym, turning a lump of dirt into bread and transforming a bunch of grapes into a doll really the underprivileged, disadvantaged child?  

Have a look at this video featuring a two-year-old playing with an iPad.  There is a wide gap between authentic, creative play and an encounter with virtual reality.  


Monday, December 19, 2011

The trouble with Fracking

When we returned to Canada in September, a sign posted in a window in Sackville N.B. caught my eye.  The combination of a red no sign, a graphic of a water faucet and a two-word message puzzled me.  I wasn't familiar with the verb "frack" although at first glance it could easily be mistaken for another commonly used f word that needs no explanation. 

A Google search filled me in on "fracking" which is an abbreviation coined for "hydraulic fracturing" a fairly new and controversial method of retrieving natural gas from underground shale deposits.   Once I was clued-in I heard the term used everywhere; in cafe conversations, the local newspaper, radio and television reports. The province of  New Brunswick, with its rich, latent resources, is a prime site for gas exploration and development.  The public debate about fracking is a heated one. 

The Frederick Brook Shale in southern N.B. is considered to be the thickest shale gas reservoir in North America.   It is estimated to hold about 80 trillion cubic feet and new technology is considered the easiest, most efficient way to extract it.   The fracking process involves drilling wells approximately 2500 metres deep and then boring horizontally into the shale layer.  Pressurized water loaded with chemicals is injected into the rock, where it expands to create fractures. Gas released from fissures in the shale flows into the pipe and up to the surface. To see an animated diagram describing the extraction process click here

 It sounds like a simple drill and release, but fracking is not without substantial risks to the environment.

The main concerns are:
  • Water and soil contamination - The cement pipe casings at well sites frequently crack, allowing toxic chemicals to leak into the water table. 
  • Air pollution - Gas wells release naturally-occurring chemicals from the shale layer, including benzene and methane. Some of these are known carcinogens.
  • Reduction of water quantity - It takes millions of gallons of water mixed with sand and chemicals to complete the fracking process.
  • Proper disposal of waste water - Water used for fracking returns to the surface tainted with radio-activity and harmful chemicals, and must be removed from the well site. 
  • Changes in rural communities as industrial sites are developed - Problems with noise, increased traffic and decline in property value pose concerns for rural landowners. 
  • Continued use of hydrocarbon fuels is adversely affecting the global climate - Shouldn't industry be devoting time and money to the development of alternative forms of energy?
  • Possible link with earthquakes - Some scientists believe that fracking is directly related to unusual earthquakes experienced in the U.S. and the U.K.
  • Wealth produced from a Canadian resource will be distributed south of the border - The development companies are mostly U.S owned and plan to route the extracted gas from N.B. to Boston via the Maritimes & Northeast pipeline.    
Proponents of fracking are mainly government and corporate players who are primarily interested in the economic benefits of gas development.  Jobs and revenue are seen as the main benefits in a province that currently needs both.   While N.B. Premier David Alward promises strict controls on gas exploration, there have already been companies (SWN Resources and Windsor Energy) who have violated provincial rules by conducting seismic testing without community approval. 

The seismic testing phase is one that I have experienced firsthand.  When we owned 80 acres of wilderness in the province of Alberta, we were approached by an oil and gas company wanting permission for access to our land for seismic testing.  Their timing was impeccable, arriving in Lamont County just before Christmas offering farmers $5000 - $10,000.   The company representatives claimed that their practices were totally non-invasive and eco-friendly.   We were the only landowners on our concession road who said "NO!" to their offer.  

The exploration started in earnest at the beginning of January 2005 with a fleet of helicopters dropping lines and bags of equipment on sites marking a one mile grid throughout the county.  Then the bulldozers moved in, ripping wide swaths through the forest surrounding our property, destroying mature pine and aspen trees.  Teams of drillers arrived on snowmobiles, driving down the newly-created access roads to set off dynamite charges deep below the surface.   For weeks during and after this process, wildlife fleeing from the mayhem tracked across our frozen lake seeking refuge in the only undisturbed parcel of land in the region.  We witnessed the forced evacuation of moose, deer, coyotes, porcupines, skunks and birds as the gas company proceeded with their work.  Our dog, a big Bouvier-des-Flandres, threw back his head and howled in distress as repeated underground explosions were detonated. 

That was the beginning of the end of our enchantment with the "Alberta advantage."  When natural gas wells were installed on adjacent properties, we decided to sell the farm and like the wildlife, re-locate.

Our story will be played out again and again with sad consequences for the environment if fracking goes ahead.  It is interesting to note that the province of Quebec and N.Y. state have imposed a ban on hydraulic fracturing until extensive research has been done.    In October 2011, France declared a moratorium on fracking. 

There is an online petition opposing fracking in N.B.  You can add your name to the list here

Friday, December 16, 2011

The perils of being a guest

Yesterday's post entitled "Vintage" was created for "Vision and Verb" a website which features writing and photography from women (like me) who have reached a certain age.  I was the "guest blogger" scheduled for December 15th, so I submitted my copy and photo via e-mail to Marcie, the site administrator, a week in advance.   I expected that the process for uploading my words and image would be a simple, foolproof copy and paste, without any alteration or editing. 

I checked the homepage of the host website on December 15th, feeling like an honoured guest, proud to be part of a global circle of articulate, creative contributors.   My mood changed when I discovered that my story was published on the site as a dumbed-down version of itself, riddled with typos, omissions, spelling errors and changes in punctuation; an embarrassment that unfortunately carried my byline and circulated on the worldwide web to a large group of readers.  The post made me look like a semi-literate, sloppy idiot who couldn't be bothered to proofread, or was too lazy to use a basic spellchecking program.  What sort of interference had turned the original clean text into a total mess?

Administrator Marcie claimed that she had a "glitch" in the website uploading function, and consequently had re-typed the entire text for my story.  She was sorry about the glaring errors, and promptly corrected them.  There was no public apology posted, however, and the damage had already been done.  

One lesson learned the hard way:  Never submit your writing for publication on another website unless you know exactly how it will be handled by the host.  If re-typing, correction or editing of your work is required, you should certainly be informed that changes have been made and be permitted a preview of the revised version. 

I believe that guests deserve gracious treatment.  As Kahlil Gibran said, "If not for guests, all houses would be graves." 

Thursday, December 15, 2011


“Bad design is smoke, while good design is a mirror.”
- Juan-Carlos Fernandez

When I told the young hardware store clerk that I was looking for a juicer, he gave me his brightest customer service smile. “Small appliances are right over here, ma’am,” he said, leading the way to the housewares section.

Next to the giant bread machines and oversize food processors stood a row of impressive “juice extractors.” One heavy-duty, stainless steel model had a footprint big enough to cover my entire kitchen counter. The clerk showed me the “intake chute” where chunks of fruit or vegetables are inserted, the “pulp bin” where peel and seeds collect, and the “recipient vessel” where the juice ends up. 850 watts and a 1.2 horsepower motor sounded to me like overkill. The price tag for all that muscle and gleam was a whopping $159.99!

“I just want to squeeze a lemon,” I said. “Do you have any manual juicers, the kind that you don’t have to plug in?”

The salesclerk looked a little crestfallen as he escorted me to the next aisle, where the low-tech kitchen tools were displayed. From the bottom shelf he picked up a lime green plastic juicer and handed it to me. It was nothing special, just a reamer attached to the top of a pitcher, a made-in-China notion of a juicer that, quite frankly, looked ugly and felt flimsy. I was not convinced that this object would hold up under the pressure of daily use. It certainly wouldn’t be a source of visual delight or tactile pleasure.

“Don’t you have one that’s made from glass?” I asked. I described in detail the juicer of my dreams: a little round handle, an inner slotted rim designed to hold back the seeds, a dainty pouring spout. The clerk’s face went blank and he shook his head apologetically. I realized that he had absolutely no idea what I was talking about.

Two days later, I visited The Curiosity Shop in Sackville, New Brunswick, an antique store housed in one of the town’s heritage residences. In the back kitchen I found the juicer I had been looking for, exactly the kind my mother and grandmother had used years ago. “They don’t make those anymore,” the shopkeeper said, and I knew she was right. I gladly paid five dollars for the treasure.

You know that you’re getting older when the everyday things you need for your household can only be found in an antique shop. I love the vintage juicer because it’s just like me - older but still functional, understated, but elegant. It’s compact, lightweight and environmentally-friendly. In contrast to a flashy, high-maintenance, over-built hulk of a machine, the simple juicer works quietly, with grace and economy of means. It may be considered the poor cousin of newer, faster models, but don’t underestimate its effectiveness. When the power is out, I’ll be in the kitchen making lemonade.

Friday, December 9, 2011

The North and South of me

One of the side effects of an extended expat experience is a split personality.   Time spent living in a foreign country leaves its mark, altering who you are and how you think.  Along with the mementos of Argentina and Uruguay that were packed in my suitcase, I brought back a whole new persona, one that doesn't always see eye-to-eye with my Canadian self. 

Nora, my North American half, is the sensible one.  She wears jeans and a turtleneck almost year-round, and favours comfortable hiking boots for long walks in the wilderness or the shopping mall. Her down-to-earth wardrobe is entirely black, brown, grey and beige.   A sense of urgency impels her pace because Nora is time-conscious.  Her fridge has a calendar on it and she checks her watch frequently to make sure she's on time for appointments with the dentist, doctor or bank manager. 

Sara, my South American half, is fun-loving and carefree.  She wears skirts, high heels, and blouses with frills down the front. Animal prints, florals and polka dots are her favourites.  Combining accessories in creative and stylish ways, she tends to collect sunglasses, scarves, stockings, hairbands and purses, but she never wears a watch. Time isn't important to her, just the here and now and the drama of the present moment.  Outings are extended social events for Sara who kisses everyone she meets and always has time for flirtation and gossip.  Her walk is a rhythmic samba orchestrated by stiletto heels, and a desire to look ultra-feminine from every angle. 

Nora keeps track of all her expenditures and income.  She saves money and shops for bargains in thrift stores.  Long-term investments are included in her planning.  Sara calls Nora "uptight" when she plots a course for her financial future.   Sara's motto is "Que sera, sera!"  The money flies out of Sara's purse, because you never know, tomorrow could bring a military coup or an economic meltdown. 

Nora likes cleanliness in her home and on the street.  She always uses the hand sanitizer that's provided in dispensers in public washrooms, shopping malls, banks and hospitals.  Sara thinks that's a ridiculous, germ-phobic practice. She's so accustomed to dirty, garbage-strewn streets that littering, marking walls with graffiti, or failing to clean up after your dog seem like petty concerns. 

Nora's house
Nora's house is a wood and vinyl box with a conservative, bland design, but it does have plenty of features that make life comfortable; insulation, electric heating, a jacuzzi bath, a wood stove, a two car garage, central vacuum and a large modern kitchen with lots of appliances and cupboard space. The main colour inside the house is a boring builder's beige.   It sits on over an acre of land, with room for a vegetable garden, flowerbeds and a grove of mature trees.  

Sara's house

 Sara's house is full of heritage details from the 1920s: original tiles, ornate woodwork, wrought iron railings, corbels, and a stained glass skylight that actually opens.  It lacks a heating system, has only a small kitchen and no backyard.  Sara doesn't do any serious cooking and her meals are generally take-out food or heat-and-serve items.  Her old-fashioned, miniature kitchen was never intended for the lady of the house because a generation ago, everyone in the city had a maid.  Style is far more important than practicality in Sara's residence, and she decorates with flair, combining antiques with modern furniture. Bright jewel tones, textured fabrics and abstract paintings add visual impact to the interior. 
Nora and Sara are competing and arguing all the time, trying to be heard and ultimately, angling for precedence in my life decisions.  If I delegate tasks appropriately, they both feel validated.   Nora is in charge of finances, while Sara oversees decorating.   Nora keeps track of my appointments, while Sara prompts spur of the moment trips, adventures and surprises.   Nora shops for sports clothes, while Sara chooses evening wear and lingerie.   Nora cooks at home, from scratch, but Sara is an expert when it comes to choosing from a complicated restaurant menu.  

The North and South sides of me may never be true friends, but if they can be coaxed to perform well in separate spheres, life will be all the richer. 

Friday, December 2, 2011

Combing the beach

The beach at Cap-Pele has become my backyard playground, a stretch of oceanfront that's ideal for daily exercise, mind-clearing, shell-gathering, birdwatching and other creative games.  It's a healing place where wind, waves, sky and sand work together as profoundly soothing elements.  As Isak Dinesen once said, "The cure for anything is salt water - sweat, tears, or the sea."

Aboiteau beach
My husband Robert always brings a garbage bag to the beach for collecting the unwelcome flotsam that washes up with the tides. He removes the pop cans, plastic nets, ropes, sharp glass shards and other manmade junk that could be harmful to birds, fish or people.  It's a natural thing for him to be the self-appointed janitor of this beautiful beach; his Dutch background is firmly rooted in order, cleanliness and a strict adherence to community rules. He not only respects nature, but feels a sense of duty to help maintain a pristine environment where it's safe to walk barefoot.   I call him a "caretaker of wonder" a term borrowed from this Cooper Edens story, a book which was a family favourite in my household years ago.  This video version features the original text and illustrations.

When I go to the beach, I always take my camera.  The seascape is constantly changing as tides sweep in and out, wave patterns alter, sand dunes shift, storms approach, clouds scatter and colours fade or intensify.  Whether capturing a panoramic vista or a macro shot, there are dramatic views and intriguing details that make a walk on the beach a visual feast. 


Washed-up Princess Belle

You never know what gifts the tide will offer up.