In eight days I will start a journey that has been a long time in the planning. I am a little bit excited, a little bit scared and a big bit curious. I wonder what is coming to me on this famous Camino de Santiago. One thing I have already learned is how to discard things I thought were essential. There simply isn’t room. My back simply can’t carry them, so the weeklong task of packing and unpacking begins. Burn Camino, Peligrina
Yes, you read that right. There are about a million and a half people of Japanese descent in Brazil and most of them live in Sao Paulo province. We were lucky enough to be taken to the Japanese section of the city and we enjoyed the atmosphere, the food and the shopping. So, how did this special population come to live in Brazil? Well, at the turn of the 19th to 20th century slavery had already been abolished in the country and there was a great shortage of labor for the coffee and sugar farms. There was a large influx of Italian workers in the 19th century but living conditions and salaries were so poor that eventually the Italian government forbade subsidized immigration to Brazil. By this time the feudal system in Japan had collapsed and there was great poverty and unemployment. The economy was faltering and Brazil looked like a solution for many workers. Unfortunately, the plantation owners still maintained a sort of “slave/worker mentality” and the Japanese workers had a very hard time. More problems arose when Brazil declared war against Japan in 1942. As we saw in Canada during the Second World War, naturalized citizens of Japanese origin were suspected of being spies and interned in many cases.
Fortunately the second and third generation have been able to emerge from the social and economic shadows of the past. We know that many countries that present an image of tolerance still maintain racist currents. However, the vibrancy and size of the Japanese sector of Sao Paulo is a sign of the health and prosperity of the population. We enjoyed shopping at the kiosks and shops and eating a delicious lunch of traditional food. I feature a picture of an artist who was sketching work at an outdoor kitchen. We even saw him the following day in a popular park where we went for a bike ride! What were the chances of that in a city of about 20 million people?
Between Rio and Sao Paulo lies a protected coastline known as the Costa Verde. There is limited coastal roadway and the main way to visit the spectacular islands and beaches of this area is by boat. A range of mountains covered with tropical greenery rises almost from sea level. Tiny coves and beaches and islands dotted along the shoreline offer countless opportunities to swim and walk. The sea is clear and full of life. A crust of bread dropped overboard attracted hungry and curious fish who then got their treats. I was happy that they were not too attracted to my toes when we swam from the boat. It is something of a leap of faith to jump into the greenish water that is as calm and inviting as any pool. The temperature was perfect , not too cool and yet not that cloying bath tub warm I experienced once in Florida. When we wanted to explore the empty beaches we just swam to shore or paddled in the little dingy attached to the boat. I was very careful to wear a big white hat most of the time and even to swim with a white cotton shirt as I have experienced some pretty bad sunburns in the past. My days of coveting a tan are done. I just want to be comfortable. At one of the beaches we visited there were two little shacks with tables set in the shade of a vine-covered cliff. Two young boys got out of a boat carrying several silvery fish and ….in a few moments, lunch was served! Desert was watermelon just cut from a patch out back. As we ate, a boy of about six climbed up one of the massive rocks on the beach, grabbed a rope attached to a tree branch and swung out over the water. He let go and plunged down into the waves. Under the indulgent eye of his grandmother he told us his name was Kaiki and that next year he would go to school. Later we found the aquatic version of the school bus moored in our night harbor. His grandmother told us she never left home and that she had no desire to go to the city. Who could blame her? She was bone thin, had not a tooth in her head and was clothed in a faded sack of a dress. Yet she was surrounded with beauty, her family, her strange city visitors who came to bring her a little money. She smoked her pipe, tended her garden, saw the waves come and go on her pristine beach.
Later over supper that night we wondered if we could live in this paradise forever. Would we get bored? Was that perhaps the problem with the first paradise? It was enough to have seen and experienced this beauty and to know that it still exists.
Next day I refused to look through the binoculars to see the new nuclear power plant a few miles away.
This is a term that should strike terror in the hearts of all first world residents. I have the greatest respect for all tradesmen and manual workers and garbage men are practically angels in my estimation. Plumbers are the mainstay of western civilization, really! So when I returned from a wonderful vacation in Brazil with my dearheart and we found some “problems” with the water supply, my heart sank to my flip-flops. There were several problems. It seems that the little house in the country was not impressed with being left behind when we fled south of the equator during the nastiest couple of weeks of winter. The first problem was with pressure. This dear little house sits on a gentle slope of the Canadian Shield and the business end of much of the plumbing is in a crawl space. Our of curiosity I once went down there on a fine summer day. One creeps in through a low window usually formidably barricaded against marauding chipmunks. There the beautiful slope of rock is revealed as the true underpinning of the house. A heater has been installed down there complete with automatic thermostat, so that if the outside temperature plummets, the shut off valve and pipes do not freeze. It was an interesting experience, but not one I chose to repeat, particularly on a misty March day. If anything can take the shine off a tropical vacation, it’s crawling around on cold rock trying to diagnose a plumbing problem.
My role in the whole business was to stand in the kitchen and obey hollered commands to turn on or turn off the water. “Turn on” and “turn off” sound remarkably similar when a well-insulated floor sits between two slightly deaf people. A couple of misunderstandings did not help either the water flow or the mood over lunch. Eventually, however, by some mysterious process I will never pretend to understand, sufficient water pressure was restored to allow us to dream of washing some of the grubby clothes we had brought home.
No! only hot water poured into the machine. I like to be hygienic but the prospect of shrinking what I thought were some pretty nice summer clothes did not appeal and so….the washing machine was pulled out. It is unnerving to unscrew those long hoses behind the machine and quite disgusting to discover that a tiny apparatus like a thimble with holes in it is completely clogged with minerals from the well water. CLR to the rescue and the washing machine chugged merrily away.
After all this sweaty effort (working with plumbing is anxiety provoking and strenuous) we thought a nice shower would be in order. The options turned out to be ice cold from the rock or scalding to lobster red. No problem with the diagnosis there – ah, memories of my father and “the mixing box”. A respectful glance from Joe and off we went to Home Depot.
Do you know the make of your shower system? We didn’t and since it was a slow day at Home Depot, the very kind assistant let us open a few boxes of shower sets and compare mysterious looking components with what we had brought from home. No matches! Seems every company makes pieces with different specs. When the kind employee realized that we were not going home until we bought something that gave us a faint hope of a shower, he led us to another plumbing section where they sold separate components. For $43. we bought a ceramic contraption. At home, down went Joe to the rock face to turn off the water. I held the flashlight as the new piece was installed. We prayed to different water gods, goddesses, saints and nymphs. We prayed and we cursed too until we thought it was as good as it was going to get. Down again to turn the water back on. This time there was no problem hearing my whoop of joy at a functioning shower providing every temperature of water you could desire.
It was a long day after a long flight. It was scary. It was a lesson in patience, ingenuity and persistence. At one point we even called a plumber who refused to come out. Well, it was Sunday and his excuse was that he had diarrhea – a good excuse for a plumber, I thought. How we take plumbing for granted. How wonderful it is to do work that shows a concrete result. How wonderful is a hot shower.
Spring, like a well-loved old movie star is making her appearance a little too soon. Of course we adore her and welcome her with open arms, but….I get a little uneasy when I see maple syrup buckets out at the end of February. This is mid Ontario, for heaven’s sake! We are not supposed to have torrents of rain at this time of year. That was supposed to be a blizzard we could brag about to our grandchildren. I never thought I would see the day I’d be happy to see a little “correction” in the weather forecast with a low tonight of minus 20. We’ve gotten into the habit of letting the fire die down in the stove late in the evening and not putting a log on for the night. In February and March! The wonderful Spring light is encouraging, of course. This house is built on a big stretch of rock that heats up fast and already the snow melts away revealing that rather steep dark curve down to the driveway. I imagined it might be slippery considering the rain and ice storms we’ve had but no, somehow it allows our boots to grip the surface very well so that no unexpected shocks occur. That rock is like an old benign grandmother that just holds everything up and would never betray us by being slippery.
I wonder who thought of boiling maple sap to make syrup. She must have been a very persistent person. You have to boil down forty gallons of sap to make one of maple syrup and that’s a lot of fuel to expend when you’re not quite sure what the result will be. I love maple syrup and I am looking forward to trying birch syrup this spring too. That is not boiled but rather drunk right from the tree. The tree is tapped in the same way as maple trees and this is a traditional drink common in Russia, Poland and other parts of Eastern Europe. I was surprised to read (good old Wikipedia ) that it was traditionally given as a first food to newborns in Scotland. Can’t imagine that in Glasgow! I thought it was fried Mars bars up there. It says birch sap is good for the hair so I’m surprised more men who worry about such things don’t rush out to the woods to rub it into their scalps. Spare us from commercial exploitation or there won’t be one graceful birch untouched.
There is something wonderful about embracing trees in early Spring and drinking the sap from these faithful ones who have endured the bitter winter. Is it a magic idea that the strength and life affirming liquid of the trees can help us carry on too? I shouldn’t even be thinking about these things yet though. It’s a little too soon. If our sweet old dowager Spring can just hold on for a month or so I’ll be the first to roll out the green carpet.
It’s only since the advent of Jamie Oliver and the Great British Baking Show that Brits can even talk about cooking without a smirk creeping over the faces of their listeners. We know our age-old reputation and we live in a humble self-effacing welter of excuses about our ignorance on such matters as olive oil, wine and spices. Almost all my friends have an “other” background or their partners hail from some exotic corner of the world where grasshopper’s legs are a standard condiment. Their kitchen equipment is unfamiliar too. Pans that I would be happy to use for a merry downhill sleighing party are routinely hauled out for a “Sunday special”. This does not increase my confidence in my cooking ability.
It is one of the blessings of modern feminism that I am no longer required to pretend that I love cooking. Like everyone else I love eating delicious food and from time to time it is interesting to produce something different, tasty, a triumph of culinary delight but day to day I would be perfectly happy to subsist on bread and cheese with the occasional fruit thrown in. I am unable to distinguish between various coffee flavors and tisane is anathema to me. I have been known to whine plaintively in a fancy tea shop (I was dragged there by a trendy friend) that I just want a cup of tea “like your mother gave you first thing in the morning, you know what I mean?” The look of resignation and disgust on the face of the waitress told me she had detected my faulty British food gene and that although she was obliged by the god of commerce to serve me there would be no pandering to my primitive cravings.
This is not to say that my mother was a bad cook. She was an unpredictable cook. She carried the yoke of food provider uneasily but a woman of her generation had no escape. She had to put food on the table but as the youngest by far of seven children her mother had given her no cooking lessons. I was overjoyed that she took no interest in pressing me into service in the kitchen either. When I married at 19, I knew how to boil eggs, make toast and fry up a steak in a cast iron pan. My mother’s interest in any but the most elementary food involved cookery books. “If you can read, you can cook,” was a maxim of hers. I sometimes thought it was trotted out more to reassure herself than anything else.
Her everyday philosophy was to produce something hot and edible as fast as possible. Not for her the slow cooker, the simmering pot, the slowly emerging delights of lovingly blended ingredients. Her favorite heat was high and many were the burned pots that were slipped guiltily into the garbage. So, earlier this week when a suspicious smell of sweet crispiness crept downstairs to where I was reading an interesting novel (always a cardinal sin for cooks) I felt my mother’s frantic presence in the face of “something burning”
The kitchen was filling up with smoke and a nice new frying pan was crackling alarmingly with what remained of some soup I had been heating up. I know, who heats soup in a frying pan? I thought it would go faster and obviously, it did. I flung the offending pan into a handy snowbank and, as it sizzled, I thought I heard my mother chuckling behind me. Certainly I had a good laugh and consoled myself with a nice cheese sandwich. Thanks to the modern miracles of cancer-causing coated cookware, I won’t even have to throw the pan away. Now I just have to check the battery in the smoke alarm.
My garden is fragrant with rosemary, basil, lavender and the many blooms of a Jasmine plant. Summer is ending and my roses are few but this is the golden season. It seems to me that sometimes plants give out light. These brown-eyed susans and the wild golden rod in the lane are luminous. Sunflowers are not a surprise on this list….except for the brown one!
For about thirty days there was no rain in the Muskoka area. “great summer”” good boating weather!” ” good for haying” and then a little concern “for the farmers”, more frequent watering of flowers and veggies, some uneasiness, more attention to the weather forecast, grumbling about the ban on bonfires. As the hot and brilliant days followed one another, a lassitude set in. It became tiresome to go out in a wide-brimmed hat to face the ever-blazing sun hanging every day in an ever-cloudless sky. The creek dried up. The grass turned brown. The birch trees, delicate as young slender girls, began to drop yellow leaves. The house kept dark to thwart the relentless heat, seemed gloomy. Impossible to read or write, each breath a chore. Cold meals were scratched together and many showers taken in the sulphur-scented well water. Waiting, impatiently, anxiously, a little indignantly. We worried about the frogs living in an ever receding patch of mud that was all that remained of the creek and a little dark shadow of panic hung about. Perhaps it would never rain again.
Then on Friday the scent of pines was more distinct and the air ” smelled of rain”. During the night a light sleeper was awoken by the tap of drops on a metal sheet below the window. A comforted smile and a turn under the white cover. Then morning revealed a damp landscape. All day Saturday it rained a steady moderate rain – no torrents to wash everything away. It was ” just right”
isaac the Syrian wrote in he sixth century,” what is a merciful heart? It is the heart’s burning for the sake of the entire creation, for man, for birds, for animals, for demons and for every created thing; and by the recollection and sight of them the eyes of a merciful man pour forth abundant tears…….his heart is humbled and he cannot bear to hear or to see any injury or slight sorrow in creation. ”
So our care and worry about the frogs and the grass and the birch trees was well founded. It is a good and natural instinct, I think to be happy when a gentle rain comes to soothe that little corner of Muskoka that was parched. It seemed strange to hear someone in the bus say their weekend had been spoiled because it rained.
I don’t. I have no knack for remembering what has already been played. My past partners have gawked at my beginner’s luck or tutted in annoyance at my carelessness, stupidity and lack of competitive spirit. I have trouble remembering the rules of various games and when they tell me there are two types of Canasta, my heart sinks. As a girl I played a mean game of whist but I put my present inability to play any sort of card game down to my dwindling mental faculties….and a burning desire to do something else with my time whenever I see a deck. Yesterday I went to pick up a friend of mine who was playing with four friends. These are Greek ladies. Greek ladies playing cards make a lot of friendly noise. There is a wonderful casualness about a group of people who have a total grasp of what they are doing. I sat at the head of the table and watched. The scolded about who should deal and how the deal was done and what had been dealt and who put down what. They knew what was happening, they knew what was going to happen, they remembered what had happened two or three hands earlier. They drank water and coffee and ate sweets and puffed away at vapor cigarettes. Even the Greeks have abandoned real cigarettes. They listened to music from the sixties and seventies ( Greek music from that era is wonderful) and argued about who was singing and who was alive or dead and who had been imprisoned by the junta. They kept score with a wonderful grasp of mental arithmetic and when it was over they kissed me heartily and pitted my total lack of skill at cards. No one offered to teach me. Wise women.